ayurveda
south asian
yoga

Ayurveda and the Subversion of Brahmanism with Navi Gill

SA
I’m so glad our timelines could finally align for this, Navi. Where are you located right now and can you describe how your spirit is feeling in a few words?

N
Me too! I am speaking to you from Vancouver BC, specifically Surrey BC which is the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh people. And my spirit has been feeling beautiful today, light, clear and connected to the source.

SA
Lovely. It’s a real joy knowing that you are feeling clarity, especially as we approach the end of the year. 

I discovered your practice earlier this month, when you were circulating your ‘No Farmers’ graphics around Instagram. What prompted the presentation of this information, and can you perhaps speak more to how the wellness industry is complicit in the oppression of farmers throughout India and the world?

N
I am so glad that so many people found that graphic resonant, whenever I create something it’s like a very strong message from spirit and there’s this need to speak it out in some way. I never had any idea it would blow up or that people would even care but I looked at the industry that I happen to work in which is growing so quickly, every single day, and everyone is coming in at different levels and sometimes I forget to simplify things. In this case I just thought about what it is that people will connect to to relay the greater message. The wellness industry is no different than any other industry where white supremacy exists and where capitalism and corporations exist. I had said that the wellness industry is not exempt from creating harm just because there is good intentions. There are many ways but starting with the extraction and appropriation of deeply spiritual practices from other cultures, people and traditions and the gatekeeping of them. White people being self-proclaimed experts and the rest of the world going along with it, allowing them to create the opportunities, profits, the industry standards, the rules, minimizing the value of many practices where people from those places were persecuted, killed, silenced and unable to practice these medicines, these practices. There was/is no acknowledgement of the colonization of wellness until now where BIPOC are finally just taking up space and reclaiming, we don’t need certifications and external validation (especially from White folks) to prove/tell us about the wisdom we carry in our bones, in our cells, in our breath, in our DNA that comes from our lineages and land. 

SA
I am nodding my head ecstatically in agreement – yes to all of this! I really admired the way you were able to articulate the above appropriation and responsibility folks have to the ancestral lands of their practices. It’s still really striking to me that the ongoing farming protests have received such minimal media coverage, and that wellness spaces are carrying on as usual – particularly white dominated yoga and ayurvedic spaces. There’s such a disconnection and dissociation that exists there which really emphasizes how individualistic and spiritually void some of these spaces can be – which is antithetical to the indigenous roots of the practice.

How did you get into ayurveda and being a practitioner?

N
Ahh it’s kind of a long-ish story but I will give you a summary. TBH it was a remembering for me of something I have known my whole life or looked for my whole life but I didn’t have the language for. Most of my life something felt missing, like everyone had a purpose except me and I was constantly trying to find an example of someone doing what I wanted to do and didn’t have that. When I was 23, my Nana Ji suddenly passed away and that was when everything broke open for me and I think I saw the fragility or… impermanence of life so clearly and nothing I was trying to fit into or follow from the outside world mattered. In my grief I had permission to say fuck it, and I went deep into that grief and like all the grief and anger I held my whole life, but didn’t feel, I had permission to feel or express: it came out in a big way. I went to India at the end of that year for my Nanas last rites and I was in Kerala on a very impromptu trip with some of my family and I saw people practicing Ayurveda, I saw, felt, smelled, touched, tasted the plants and herbs and I remember the exact moment where my spirit just felt electrified and this… whoosh when I realized this was it, what I was looking for. Since then I have been studying Ayurveda, I became a practitioner of Ayurveda bodywork, Yoga, i even threw “life coaching” in there because at the time there was no space or place to practice or learn Ayurveda that was accessible and people didn’t really know wtf it was so I was like maybe coaching will be a way to have a practice that would serve as an umbrella (but again that was me trying to fit into a mould of playing small created by whiteness).

The last three years have been pivotal in just claiming that space and acknowledging that the knowledge and wisdom I carry is a blessing from my ancestors and I can choose how I want to heal, how I want to work, how I want this work to look and it’s very clear that it’s for my people, it’s for BIPOC and it is ever evolving but without being apologetic or feeling like I don’t know enough or what I do know isnt of value. Rediscovering Ayurveda and this ancestral work is a blessing from my Nana, a gift he gave me from the ancestral plane. 

SA
Mm what a beautiful journey – not one that’s been easy with the passing of your Nana, yet one that is inherently yours and transcendentally passed onto you. 

I only recently found my way to Ayurveda. While bits and pieces of the system have been scattered throughout my upbringing, as Tamil Christians, my family always strayed away from getting too heavily involved in anything considered too ‘traditional’ as it was also considered sacrilegious. Since being on my own healing journey though, Ayurveda has proved to be the most holistic, most sense making therapy for me. Although, I have been a little bit conflicted about practicing lately since learning about caste based violence that is inherent in systems of Ayurveda and Yoga. Mainly thinking about how purity laws have been used by upper caste Brahmins to further marginalize lower caste communities, how dharma and karma teachings have become misinterpreted to label Dalit communities as ritualistic impure based off past lives etc. And then looking at how the BJP and fascism in general in the subcontinent is on the rise – it makes practicing these traditions a little bit sticky and uncomfortable for me. 

How do you, if at all, think about moving around and through these violences? How do we reclaim our indigenous practices in ways that aren’t erasing lower caste histories? 

N
Well, I think what makes it easier for me is being a Panjabi Sikh womxn in this space, I already know that the purist think I shouldn’t be practicing this and that used to play a big part in me feeling insecure about putting my work out there. I didn’t grow up with any inkling of this knowledge being practiced around me and I didn’t discover a lot of yoga, pranayam, sadhana practices until I came into the Art of Living. I needed that community to learn and experience those things because I had no other way of accessing the knowledge. Eventually my relationship changed because I started to become acutely aware that in those spaces, I stood out. I was not represented. I was not seen in many ways because my identity was different from most others who happened to be hindu or from backgrounds where they were ok adopting those traditions and practices. I feel there’s so many layers to this question so I’m going to do my best to articulate. 

What fuels me to learn, practice and share is that my identity allows me to bring this knowledge to the people who its been kept away from. I believe it is our birthright to be well and my ancestors and Gurus put me here to be that bridge because I am so deeply connected to my own heritage, my own spiritual path that I can’t simply just fall into this structure created by Brahminism. My wellness and purpose expands and lives for my people. I think also because it is something that has always been innate, to want equity for all people it’s hard for me to explain, my brain and spirit says why the fuck not? Why would all people not be able to have this, to experience wellness, to be liberated, to have sovereignty. I think that probably pisses a lot of people off who have put themselves on these pillars and here’s the thing about decolonizing this work- first we deal with the white supremacy and get into our own people, and there we have the other beast which is Brahmin patriarchy. That second part is where we are collectively at now and working on dismantling. I truly feel like it’s the perfect time and I have been preparing for it for the last decade because now there’s space to speak about these things, everyone else who doesn’t fall into that group is done with being oppressed and we are coming together, finally.  Oh and to answer the last part, I ensure I am informed, I am advocating for marginalized communities and people and through my privilege I create connections, resources, give this knowledge to communities that need it and will always prioritize that and no one can tell me shit really.

SA
This makes so much sense. I think it’s such a fugitive, subversive act to be a South Asian who has historically been excluded to then come and take up a space that primarily focuses on transformative action. It’s so powerful, Navi, and I can really feel your passion and your fire as we have this conversation. 

N
Haha well I am literally burning up as I write this so I’m glad it’s coming through.

SA
What advice might you have for South Asians who are similarly unsure about their place when it comes to our Indigenous practices. Do you have any tips for folks like me, who understand the profoundly healing tenets of Yoga and Ayurveda, but are hesitant to engage in order to avoid complicity?

N
Forge your own path, I am a believer that a lineage is important to have and trusted teachers but don’t let anyone keep you in the box or dependant on them. A true teacher leads you to where you step into your own unique purpose and create what you came here to create. The old paradigm of groupthink and someone else deciding what is right for the collective is gone. I have never fit into most groups and even in my spiritual community I always shook shit up because I asked questions, I used critical thinking and also listened to my spirit to know what was right for me and what was fed to me. It takes time, everything comes at its own time but as long as we remember that we are sovereign, we are worthy of being well and having access to tools to bring us greater health, wealth and wellbeing then we will get there. And be authentic, don’t try to do things that are not you especially if you want to teach or be a wisdom carrier, and that requires a lot of self work, a lot of healing, a lot of discernment, just work period. I find because spirituality is suddenly cool, everyone wants to bypass the work and be a healer but it doesn’t work that way. Embodiment is key and the blessings of your ancestors.

SA
Thank you, Navi. It’s so important to remember that we all have nuanced needs and desires that can really only be actualized through contemplation and interrogation. It’s exciting to think about the future of what our practices might look like, and so comforting knowing that folks like you are leading this new wave. 

As we come to the end of this discussion, and to the end of the year (!!) what are a few things that you’ve come back to this year to help you stay grounded? 

N
This question always makes me emotional because I can think of all the moments where I experienced being more grounded and nourished and for me it’s a few things- ritual, my sadhana- breathwork/pranayam, some form of movement and meditation, praying- prayed my ass off this year, writing, physical acts of self care like abhyanga, oiling my hair, massaging my face every night, sleeping more,music, crying, tea and a good pastry or cookie always helps, going into the forest or getting sun whenever I could but I would love to do more, and listening to my inner voice, and giving myself permission to honour its needs. 

Navdeep (Navi) Gill is an Ayurvedic practitioner, therapist  and educator specializing in lifestyle consulting, Marma Chikitsa therapy, foundational Panchakarma bodywork. 

She helps clients and community experience holistic wellness and gain autonomy over their well being through her ancestral medicine practices.  She has been learning and practicing Ayurveda and yoga since 2011, her work focuses on decolonizing, reclaiming and connecting BIPOC to ancestral wisdom and ritual as a form of self care.