A number of people I follow online, in both the healing arts and in entrepreneurship, have gone through substantial cycles of personal growth where they have been called to question everything. Where they have wondered, “What the f*** am I doing with my life?!” and they have shared their process publicly as they went through it.
When they share their unfolding process with some grace and with personal responsibility - which is admittedly, not always easy or even doable, in the moment - it is a precious thing, a thing of great value, for those who are reading their blogs, instagram posts, listening to their interview, etc.
It can seem like other people have it all together in a way that you don’t - because you know your own messy bullshit - and you probably don’t know their messy bullshit much, if at all. So when people share vulnerably about their process, especially while it is still in process, it shatters that illusion. It rips off the veil. And we see our own humanness in them, and that we are all in this thing together.
So...without further ado, let me share my recent messy bullshit with you, hopefully with some grace and personal responsibility:
To cut to the chase, Ayurveda is not what I thought it was. And if I knew then what I knew now, I would never, ever (ever) have gone to school to study it or shared it with others in the way that I have.
In a nutshell, I was under the impression that Ayurveda was a traditional healing system with universal application, which was shared in unbroken lineage from antiquity, and that it is and was being actively shared by the Indian people who stewarded that lineage and was some sort of ‘gift to humanity’. And that by studying and practicing it, I would be spreading the love and the light, I would be in integrity.
These things are not true.
The truth, as I understand it now, is that Ayurveda was an indigenous, pluralistic medicine from India which has a history about as long and convoluted as India itself, deeply tied up with the land and the people, deeply affected by British colonization and now, globalization and spiritual / medical tourism. Ayurveda became popular in the West (Europe, Australia, the US, Costa Rica, Brazil, and also Indonesia) among yoga aficionados and those seeking holistic health care that treats the whole person, seeking medicine which feels spiritual, seeking answers.
It’s a long story. One I don’t fully know but which I’m trying to learn. The upshot though, as I can see it, is that the Ayurveda being taught here in the West is the result of an attempt to turn an indigenous, land-based, pluralistic medicine into a system that can be picked up and placed anywhere on the Earth - and made to fit in with the beliefs and lifestyles of modern, new age-y white people like myself.
Scholars I am reading call it “Western New Age Ayurveda”, and it is really not much a part of that unbroken lineage in India, which actually does exist. I am learning that the lineage-holding Ayurvedic doctors in India receive little to no benefit from the global popularity of Ayurveda, and this “Western New Age Ayurveda” has been re-imported and sold to Indian people as their own medicine. So, to describe this situation, you could use that turn of phrase which I hear a lot these days: Ayurveda, as we know it, is pure cultural appropriation.
Its proponents claim to be a part of a lineage which they really aren’t a part of. They took a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of Ayurveda, and created their own thing - which is fine, I think, really - if they said that openly. But they don’t say that openly. They claim to be a part of a lineage they are not really in.
I’m going to write and speak about this more - I’m offering a free online class / conversation on Thursday, to start with - but I need to take a detour first and tell you why I came to Ayurveda, because none of this really makes sense until you know that piece:
I leapt whole-heartedly into Ayurveda to escape my own cultural wounding and lack of connection to a healing lineage.
It was a ten year detour in some ways. It didn’t work, could never work, because Ayurveda (and anything else from India) wasn’t mine. It wasn’t the thing which was missing. This wonderful medicine from India has graciously helped me with my digestion, my skin, my sleep, lots of things, and I feel quite grateful for all of that. BUT because it was not of my own culture, it never quite fit, and I came to know that more and more as I went deeper into its study and practice. Ayurveda could not heal the gaping wound in my heart from the loss of my own indigeneity. It could not help me recover from the very real loss of my own deep, land-based culture.
As a woman living on the land we now call America (on Otoe territory specifically, for much of my life), with ancestry primarily from Scotland and the surrounding island countries, my ancestors lives for a long time, back to the Roman Empire at least, were stories of forced migrations off of ancestral lands and out of tribal and village life, stories of the loss of our own medicine traditions, of language, of ceremony, of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth, and assimilation into capitalism and whiteness, of shifting identities of oppressed and oppressor.
My land and my culture gets stolen from me, so I steal your land and do what I want with your culture. A kill-or-be-killed land grab. Intergenerational trauma which has left us absolutely ravaged, to the point that I have heard people say, “But I don’t have a culture...I’m just white.”
That statement is so sad and weird and makes no sense at all, but I so get it. I have felt that lost and empty too. I write this knowing that some people reading this know a lot of this European and American history already. Many of the people closest to me always have been people of color, and since I have been having these conversations with you lately, you’ve been like, “Yes. Thank you for your awareness. I love you.” I am very humbled by this, by the knowledge that others close to me knew things about me which I did not know about myself, and you loved me anyway.
I realized why I had fallen in love with Ayurveda, and that it could never do for me what I wanted and needed, last Christmas. (So, 10 months ago as of this writing.) I realized it as I was sleeplessly writing one night, a lot on my heart and mind.
That night, I felt my heart break open. I let it happen. I felt like I split down the middle - like the pain of death, the pain of birth, or maybe the sensation of a sprout breaking through what was, a few days earlier, a dry bean.
With the heartbreak came the crystal clarity that I needed to put my energies into connecting with the land where I live, with her medicine plants and her waters (and stop importing herbs from India) and also beginning to learn my own ancestral medicine, history, and culture. So I have been. There are lots of resources for this actually. Many other people are doing this work, and I haven’t been alone at all. It hasn’t been all heaviness and sadness. Some of this has been a joyful reconnection and rebirth.
Until a couple months ago though, I still had the mistaken belief that Ayurveda was not appropriative and not systemically unjust. The way I learned I was mistaken was through my administrative assistant Alla.
Alla is a medical anthropology student and activist who knew all this all along. She tried to get me to read books on the history of Ayurveda, on modern and global Ayurveda, but the truth is, they looked kinda boring. I do not consider myself a scholar. I barely got through school in many ways. She didn’t tell me, “These books are really important and if you care at all about social justice and truth-telling, they will change your whole life and your business.” (It’s not her job to say that, I know, but if she would have done so, I would have read the books earlier!) Well anyway, I trust the timing of the Universe.
After two years of her working for me, I finally asked her for more information, and she told me. She was perhaps tired and worn-out from school and working several jobs, and she didn’t sugarcoat anything, she just gave it to me straight-up. Which is how I usually take my medicine anyway.
So I let my heart break open again. I did not push away any of the pain, shame, guilt, sorrow, or rage which I felt. I made myself a channel and I felt it all, again. And what I found inside this time was compassion for myself and others who, in our confusion and our wounding, steal from others in an attempt to make ourselves whole. From the most egregious examples of this, such as white people wearing Native American headdresses at festivals, to more nuanced or confusing situations such as the state of Ayurveda (and Chinese Medicine) in the West, which really are so complex and so filled with lies, that’s it’s hard to even know what is going on, this is a really pervasive, widespread issue.
I also found a rage I hadn’t felt in awhile, a rage that pushes me to action. In my life, I have tended more towards incapacitating sorrow, but not now. Now all I feel is this mix of compassion and rage.
I do not have all the answers. I’m willing to make mistakes.
I do not know what I am doing. I’m willing to do it anyway.
I want to change the narrative about Ayurveda in this country. I feel that, as someone in the profession, I am in a unique and actually rather powerful position to get people talking and thinking about this. This is what I’m planning:
First, a Free Class & Conversation: Decolonizing Ayurveda & Ourselves This Thursday, October 19 2:00 - 3:30 pmcentral / 12:00 - 1:30 pacific. (Click the link to register.) I will tell more of the history of Ayurveda as I understand it now (knowing my understanding is a work in progress) and then open it up for a facilitated discussion. I will likely share this as a recording later, but it depends on the content of what people bring forward and the way the conversation evolves. If you want to be a part of this conversation live, this week, please come. Everyone is welcome, and I think it will be really valuable for people in the healing arts and who are Ayurveda aficionados.
A Class. Alla and I are going to collaborate and create a class on the above topic, with a thoroughly-researched curriculum we can stand behind. You can imagine this is a bigger project, so that’s why I want to simply share what I am learning and begin the conversation this week. It will help us in creating the class too, to know where folks are at, what comes up for you and what you want to learn.
A Zine. A dear friend and I are collaborating to create a zine which will be a collection of personal essays from people about their cultural wounding, reconnecting with their culture and the Earth. We are in the beginning phases of this, and you’ll hear more when there is more to share. We are thinking of doing a crowd-sourced funding campaign to fund the initial costs and pay contributors. I will also send out a call for contributions when we are ready!
Writing. I’m working on a piece about some of this deeper history of Ayurveda relating to colonization, globalization, and where we are now, where I actually, you know, cite my sources and stuff.
Perhaps most importantly, I want to connect with, and help expand the platform for, Indian people who are doing decolonization work themselves and/or who are Ayurvedic lineage holders. Who are not pandering to tourists, and doing the deep medicine work they do. I want to do my part to help amplify their voices here in the West. This is inherently collaborative, so I do not know what this will look like. (This is the most important piece, because otherwise I am actually not doing anything different. I'd be simply continuing white supremacy culture in a slightly modified way.)
The final piece, which is vague and blurry still, is essentially to build on the work we are wanting to do with the zine, the work of cultural re-membering. I am reading and taking classes to educate myself on my own history. I’ve been doing this for 10 months now. I don’t know what will come of it, because as yet I feel I still know almost nothing! I feel 18 again in some ways. But things WILL come of it, whatever they are, and I know I’ll be sharing them all and inviting others into it, because that’s what I do.
If you made it this far, wow! Thank you. I appreciate it.
If you want to reach out to me about any of this, please feel free. My email is email@example.com. I know this is an emotionally heated topic, so I do invite you to write whatever you want, let it flow, but then if it feels really raw or you are pissed off at me for any reason, don’t send it right away. Let your writing sit until you feel more settled, then re-read and edit accordingly, then send, so that we can be in deeper dialogue. I am willing to offend or upset people, no way around it, AND I have experienced a lot of verbal abuse in my life, and it feels really bad, so I do invite you to modulate your response and meet me with the compassion you would like to be met with.
Share this with anyone and everyone you think might be interested, and once again, if you would like to join me in conversation and learn more, please sign up for the online class here.