The Visionary Vedantin Who Bends Perspectives


Sri Louise is a yogini and an artist. A Vedantin who uses the knowledge of the Upanisads to express the vision of self. She approaches asana within the larger philosophical framework of Advaita Vedanta.

An ardent disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sri Louise was introduced to Hatha Yoga in 1993, at the Jivamukti Center in New York City, and convened The Underground Yoga Parlour for Self Knowledge and Social Justice in 2001, in her living room. She began teaching yoga in 1995 and integrated ideas and approaches conceived as a contemporary performer into the fold of her asana classes. She is deeply inspired by the Advaita philosophy, the ancient medical system of Ayurveda and the religious fervour of bhakti.

In an interaction with Pratyasha Nithin, Sri Louise talks about her workshops, her journey as a dancer, her first visit to India and the cultural and spiritual foundations of yoga. The interview has been done with inputs from Nithin Sridhar.

Tell us about your journey in yoga and Vedanta.

I started yoga seriously after a “dark” experience at the age of 25, in 1993. It was a very discouraging time and everything about my life and its relations seemed broken. But I am a seeker by disposition. I had been exposed to an Upanisadic concept that there was something to know and by knowing that, you become free. It was at this time that I committed to a serious and very devout yoga practice.

I was also anxious about death since childhood. My grandfather had passed away and I tried to make sense of that passing. It was the inquiry of a seven-year-old. Grandpa was there, and then, he wasn’t. To me, it meant that while I am here, now, at some point, I will not be, and the whole world will go on without me. It was the ultimate abandonment, but more than that, I could not answer the riddle of what happened to me after all this.

My mind, faced with its own finitude, would land in the void. It was a terrifying place to be in as a child, and it propelled my search, not just for yoga, but specifically for Vedanta, which was the only place where I found answers to my questions. I visited India in 1998 with one quest — to understand that one unbroken thing, which is God, or Self. My questions led me to Swami Dayanada Saraswati, whose grace as a guru has made all the difference.

What is a somatic approach to yoga?

The word somatics was coined by Thomas Hanna to describe practices that involve an awareness of the interior of the soma, that is, the body. Somatics is a digestion of yoga. It is the West’s way to understand its own interiority without an epistemological, which means understanding the relationship of the body, mind or sense with consciousness.

Somatics is about finding material efficiency in samsara, it is not about eradicating the ignorance at the root of samsara. In this way, somatics, as employed by the West, is not a substitute for the epistemology of yoga. Yoga’s entire history is already immersed in somatic contemplation, which renders this contribution from the West redundant. So, to say that I offer a somatic approach is really just to detail something about my own style according to the pedagogy of asana in America.

The more yoga became reduced to asana in the US, the more asana became a dissociated form of fitness for the masses. I wanted to create an environment where we could take time to explore our bodies within the design of each asana, a kind of embodied self-reflexivity, rather than just performing a superficial imitation of the form.

As a contemporary dancer, I have been exposed to the Alexander technique, Feldenkrais, Body Mind Centering and Trager and brought these ideas and approaches into the fold of my asana classes. The irony — it seems I am adding something to asana that wasn’t there. But it is not true; I see it more as a return to asanas.

Tell us about the Underground Yoga Parlour.

The Underground Yoga Parlour for Self Knowledge and Social Justice was conceived in 2001. I had been teaching at the Yoga Tree in San Francisco and was reprimanded for speaking about vegetarianism in my classes and for encouraging my students to participate in local demonstrations. The owner suggested that I change the name of my class from Hatha, which was already a way to resist the branding of Yoga, to Hatha and Dharma, as she thought I was doing more than just Hatha. I insisted that dharma was integral to yoga and that, perhaps, teachers should change the name of whatever yoga they were doing, if they were not going to include it.

I founded the parlour in my living room. I held teacher trainings dedicated to the vision of Vedanta and organised a group of yogis to take to the streets during the massive protests that erupted in the US over the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. A group of us were arrested directly from our yoga mats. It was the first time yoga had been used as a form of non-violent, direct political protest in America.

When the parlour re-manifested in 2012, in Oakland, CA, I was really challenged by my own position in terms of race, gender and class, and began to acknowledge identity politics as a way of creating space for diverse groups. I don’t think my space succeeded, in the sense that it was primarily white in a traditionally black neighbourhood, which was why I could not put a sign on my door. I couldn’t bear the cliché — a white person using a brown practice to gentrify a black community. But in the precise places, where I think as a space I failed, the space and its political inquiry and activism helped shift the discourse of yoga in America to one that was more self-reflective of the power dynamics at play.

The Parlour, as a location, hasn’t yet manifested. I am excited for its next manifestation, which would be more deeply immersed in Vedanta with a resident sannyasi, where traditional corollary studies such as Sanskrit would accompany asanas so that yoga could embrace liberation from both social and ontological perspectives.

What is the role of yoga and asana in the journey towards non-duality?

I think that yoga, especially as prescribed by Patanjali, is a very practical sadhana for a Vedantin. It is a maturation process, an accountability process, a devotional process. The first sutra of the Sadhana Pada is basically a prescription for karma yoga. What makes karma, or kriya as yoga, is Isvara. For me, asana is relative and I help students to think relatively. What does Adho Mukha Svanasana have to do with Sirsanana? What understanding of my body can I apply to both? How can I connect them both through my effort?

It is a process of thinking more inter-dependently. I also teach in a way, where students have to be critical about what they are doing. It’s a way of preparing the mind or urging the mind toward self-inquiry. In asana, one learns to be self-reflexive.

Asana, the activity of breathing into the body and cognising this animation, is a process of discovery. How does the suksma sarira interface with the stula sarira? Not as theory, but as an embodied fact. I’m not trying to get rid of or reject myself — I’m in the process of differentiating the parts to conceive my own wholeness. Yoga or asana is an ontological practice, where I discover this fact about myself. The yoga sutra never defines the drstah. As a Vedantin, I rely on the Veda, or the Upanisad for this.

I’m not using asana to generate an experience of myself.  I’m practising asana as a way of understanding the experience. Because of my study with Swami Dayananda, my own practice of asana is like dynamic Nididhyasana.

Non-duality, as an experience, is all there is. I cannot use asana to generate an experience of non-duality. If there is no second thing, as what the Sanskrit word advaita implies, then the experience I’m already having has to be that non-dual self. I can, however, use asana to loosen the pratibandhas, to help resolve the psycho-emotional obstructions, to discover the knowledge of myself as free from the limiting parts that have erroneously defined it.

I don’t believe asana does this on its own. Asana is not a means of knowledge for knowing a formless self; even meditation does not offer this epistemological access. I can use such practices to calm the mind, but a calm mind is different from a mind that understands the nature of its own being. For this understanding, I go to Vedanta. Vedanta and yoga are not interchangeable. I use them very pragmatically.

Why do most ancient knowledge systems, when associating themselves with the West, transform from a vidya to a commercial venture?

I blame colonial capitalism, which in itself is an uprooting mechanism. It is an inherently violent process for extracting resources for capital gain. In that psycho-economic climate, everything is saleable and consumable. Yoga in America has suffered deeply from the white gaze, where yoga is viewed as an exotic fetish, in which predominantly white practitioners absolve themselves from the alienation of whiteness by accessorising themselves with brown spirituality. I am also part of this cultural phenomenon, but I have sought to tread more carefully in the realm of assumption and appropriation.

I also committed myself to a guru and a tradition of teaching that makes self-knowledge possible and I have the utmost esteem for the guru-shisya relationship, the dyad in which this transmission occurs.

To uproot yoga from its cultural and spiritual foundations is to lose the vidya that makes it meaningful. I guess the problem with “modern postural yoga” is that people are not looking for meanings; they are seeking a distraction, for which any yoga will do. Concepts like rage yoga, ganja yoga, goat yoga, pig yoga, beer yoga, yoga in Costa Rico, one month teacher training in Thailand or Goa, or some other beach paradise, are big businesses for white spiritual tourism. We can see the monster effect, the gentrification of these island paradises such as Bali, or Rishikesh. Rishikesh itself has turned into a “Yoga Mall”, where one can go “guru shopping” or buy a yoga teaching credential with no prerequisites.

Is there a way to promote yoga keeping its spiritual and dharmic context intact?

I have likened yoga in America, to a Frankenstein. The market-driven forces render a return to its roots on a large scale, impossible. The monster is too big. There have always been people and ashrams in America that have promoted yoga as a spiritual and dharmic discipline, but America wants a quick fix for her troubles, she doesn’t want to listen to Gita, to sit for 700 verses; she has no value for that. This is obviously a much longer conversation on which I wrote a recent blog post — Darth YogaBecky and Hinduphobia.

How do you teach asana without removing yoga from its roots in Hinduism?

The way I keep asana’s identity intact is by acknowledging that it has one, that it is a Moksa Sadhana. Though I teach in the context of my own culture, I open and end every class with kirtana. I grant people the freedom to not sing, by admitting that repeating the names of another culture’s gods and goddesses can be awkward, but “class” is a prayerful practice with roots in Hindu, and more specifically, Vedic knowledge, so they just have to sit quietly until we finish singing.

I generally incorporate a guided meditation into Savasana, something that allows people to resolve identification with their body/mind/sense complex and find familiarity with their own differentiated experience of existence. This inquiry, for me, is specifically Upanisadic in nature. In the last few years, I have taken to prefacing classes with the acknowledgement that yoga, in the way that I understand and teach, has its roots in Hinduism and that it is these roots, with an ontological understanding based in the Veda/Upanisad that makes yoga meaningful.

At the Parlour in Oakland, we have a weekly Gita class where we read from Swami Dayananda’s Gita Home Study course. My students know that I have a deep connection with my sampradaya, and some have gone on to study with Swami Dayananda or other senior disciples in the parampara, both in India and America.

What is your opinion on Christian yoga?

The interesting thing about Christian yoga is their unapologetic approach to yoga/asana as a spiritual practice, albeit in a biblical context. They were only able to do this after the West had firmly secularised yoga. This is one of the direct consequences of uprooting yoga. That the Hindu was taken out of yoga is the extent to which Christians were able to re-appropriate it. This is part of a long history of religious colonisation by Christian forces, of absorbing, “digesting” other traditions into the fold of a Christian worldview.

Christian Yoga is an oxymoron.

Please elaborate on the presence of racism among western yoga practitioners.

Race, as a social construct, is a global problem. I think it expresses itself differently in terms of the society. Race in America has a very different history and discriminative trajectory than Sweden, but Sweden has its own racial conflicts, both with its indigenous population, the Sami people and its immigration/refugee culture. Currently, there is a global rise in extreme right-wing groups, who desire some kind of racial/ethnic/national purity — from cities like Britain and Berlin — to religious groups such as the Christian and Hindu right wings.

As a Vedantin, I have to ask, how do I reconcile my politics, or the politics of the world with my ontological understanding? Discrimination based upon the body/mind/sense complex is promoting avidya. Is my politics based on avidya? Of course, then one needs to define vidya, but dharma is understood within the framework of para and apara vidya. There is an underlying value system for people who commit themselves to yoga or Vedanta. Both the Gita and the yoga sutra outline the values an individual should aspire to. What do these values mean in terms of society? This question is what the Underground Yoga Parlour for Self-Knowledge and Social Justice was founded on.

I am challenged to contemplate ways in which yoga in America has upheld white, hetero-patriarchal hegemony, and more than that, I am urged to respond. There is a website — Decolonize Yoga. It is an American site that has no acknowledgement of settler colonialism in North America, the people who were dispossessed of their land or how those currently participating in yoga can help to wage an anti-colonial movement to restore land and other treaty rights to native populations in the United States. This website makes it seem that we are past/post colonisation, and simply dealing with the effects of previous institutionalised policies in terms of race, class and gender, but US colonialism is an on-going project.

I am curious what it means to decolonise yoga from both an Indian sub continental “post-colonial” perspective as well as from the North American colonial agenda, because I think it means dramatically divergent things. Like what is the importance of a national movement that builds an anti-colonial force and what are the dangers of a national movement in the post-colonial era? How can one be a means for liberation and the other an inverse mode of regressive oppression?

My two workshops this summer Yoga and The White Mask, take a Fanonian approach to the politics of recognition, how yoga is forced to wear a white mask in order to appeal to the colonial consumer. The other is Yoga & ANTIFA, which looks at the global rise of right wing nationalism and the racial, ethnic and religious hate at the heart of these movements. My questions — how yoga, in relation to people and studios, does; how other proponents of the practice participate in this right-wing ideology and how are they willing to “fight” against it.

You are also a trained dancer. Tell us about the journey.

I have been a dancer all my life. At 48, I decided to start Bharatanatyam studies, with my teacher Trupthi Panickor, here in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  My mother was a dancer. We had a dance studio in our basement where she would teach classes and rehearse. It was my dancer mind and body that immediately understood asana as a “physical” process for self-discovery. Dance is a very precarious profession and as a time art, it is very ephemeral. Until recently, dance lived as an archive in the body. Now we have video and other modes of technological preservation, but “advancements” only add to the expendability of the dancer. There is something of this professional insecurity, based in the finitude of the body, that I think makes a dancer the ideal adhikari. She is already sensitive to the transient intimacy of her own instrument, the body, but also intuits that something more than that animates her every move.