The Indigeneity of Trauma Focused Yoga with Lakshmi Nair

SA
Lakshmi, Thank you so much for making time and space this afternoon to speak with me. How are you feeling? Can you describe your energy today in 5 words?

L
That’s a tough question, but I’ll try.  Lazy but productive, nostalgic, and devotional.  That’s my day today.

SA
I hope that you’ve been able to feel rested despite being productive amidst the laziness. Where are you located right now?

L
I am in (Denver, Colorado) Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute lands. 

SA
Amazing. I first read about you and your work as I became aware of the Satya Yoga Co-Op, the US’s first yoga co-op by and for people of color that is run out of Denver. What an amazing space you have fostered and nourished. What was your journey into yoga like and how did you become involved with Satya?

L
So my journey with yoga started from childhood in the sense I think of yoga first and foremost as a spiritual connection and I think as a child it was through stories and songs and visiting temples on our visits to India and such that I would feel that connection. When I was a teenager, my dad used to wake me up early to do asana practice and meditation. We had gotten initiated into transcendental meditation. I hated it. Because he would wake me up at 4:30 am.  And then when I went to college, my roommate my freshman year was a born-again Christian and complained to the RA about my altar…said that it made her uncomfortable.  So I stopped connecting in that way at that age.  Around the time of my Saturn return, I found myself in a really bad space.  I was in an abusive marriage.  Very disassociated.  And just in a really dark place. I didn’t really see any future for myself.  And then a friend of mine started taking me to a yoga class with her.  That was in San Francisco.  That class… just brought me back to what I was familiar with already from my childhood. It brought me back in touch with my body and I think just the reminder that it gave me brought me back to prayer and connecting to Spirit.  And that really saved me.  Everything changed after that.  I felt as though a hand reached out to lift me out of this deep dark hole that I was in. I left that relationship and it took me a couple of years to get through all the legalities of that but then I decided to go to India to study yoga.  

I was there for 3 years and then started teaching here in Denver when I came back.  I came back to Denver because I grew up here and my family was here. 

I actually spent about 10 years trying to teach yoga in the Denver yoga scene and never really felt like I fit in.  Also I was experiencing microaggressions, was weary of the cultural appropriation, and the whiteness, and I saw a lot of overt systemic racism in the yoga world also and so finally after a sort of last straw type incident, I decided to leave that world and for a while I really didn’t know what to do, but then eventually I decided to try and address the lack of diversity in the yoga world by starting a teacher training for people of color.  And that was when I felt like everything clicked for me.  I finally found a space where I felt I could teach in a way that felt authentic and purposeful for me and I have been doing that ever since.  I named my teacher training Satya after my maternal grandmother. I am named after my paternal grandmother.  And also because Satya means truth and that was really what I was looking for in yoga.  After 4 years, some of my students and I formed a co-op.  I wanted to be able to help my students with their careers after they finished my training, but I always felt like after I taught them what I know and feel about yoga, I was throwing them into a pool of sharks sort of… into a world that wasn’t anything like what I was teaching them about.  So we formed the co-op to be able to help each other and to try to create different kinds of opportunities for each other. 

SA
What a moving journey you’ve had, Lakshmi. I want to hold this space to really honor + uplift you for the work you are doing alongside the community to really transform and aid liberation through holistic connection. You speak so poignantly about the commodification and appropriation that happens in the yoga industry that as people of color, particularly South Asian practitioners, feel often sidelined by. It’s rife and it can be so overwhelming and off putting and really stunt one’s healing journey. Lately at Studio Ānanda, we’ve been thinking through not only the western appropriation of yoga but also how within the structures of yoga itself there lies inherent casteism and discrimination against South Asian communities labeled undignified for the practice. When I began reading more into this double edged sword, I myself had to pause and really contemplate who I was learning from, their intentions and agendas, how caste was being reenacted within the practice itself. But the one thing that keeps drawing me back to my practice, and you mention this briefly above, is how monumental a yoga practice can be in reconnecting those of us who are disassociated. Can you speak a little about what a trauma focused yoga practice is? Why is a practice of yoga so effective when healing from PTSD and other trauma conditions?

L
Yes, I really feel what you said about casteism and needing to question and interrogate the tradition too when it is tied up with so many cultural oppressions like casteism and patriarchy. Brahminical patriarchy to be specific.  And (sorry…I know I’m veering off topic but I will come back to the trauma-informed bit).  It’s hard to separate what has been truly helpful and healing for me personally from all of these cultural oppressions that I absolutely don’t believe in or want to support.  A big part of my healing was also to understand how did I end up in a an abusive relationship and how did I accept so many unacceptable behaviors and treatment…and so I had to interrogate my upbringing and the patriarchy that conditioned me to accept all that and that created the conditions for that kind of abuse.  Even if yoga came from my culture and helped me to heal and gave me strength, it was still the patriarchy of my culture that stole my strength.  So both of those things exist in our culture.  There is tremendous oppression in South Asian cultures but I feel that spirituality…true Indigenous spirituality is always healing… it is what enables people to survive.  So I have come to believe that what is truly life affirming about yoga is indigenous wisdom that has been co-opted and twisted by Brahmanical patriarchy.  I believe Brahmanical patriarchy is a colonizing force within South Asian culture just like white supremacy is here.  So back to trauma-informed yoga….I think that “trauma informed” is just a new terminology, but that indigenous healing practices are inherently trauma informed.   It means meeting everyone where they are…being exceedingly gentle with ourselves, understanding that we have been through so much in this world that beats us down for all kinds of reasons…for being indigenous, for being women, for being queer, for being Black, for being poor, etc.  It’s about acknowledging and understanding those oppressions that harm our bodies, minds, and spirits.  I also think in terms of physical practice…it is about slowing down, connecting to our breath which is the bridge to Spirit, and slowing down our breath to be able to tap into the frequency of nature/God/Spirit…whatever you want to call it.  But that frequency is the indigenous frequency…that is the slow/relaxed pace of life that indigenous peoples have always been in tune with except when they aren’t allowed to be in that frequency because of colonization.  I feel like I’m blabbing! Hope I’m making sense.  Just kind of going with the stream of consciousness. 

SA
You’re making so much sense, and actually really helping me synthesize a lot of the things I have been thinking about but haven’t found the words for. Firstly, the naming of Brahminacal patriarchy is so crucial and I absolutely agree with you that where white supremacy is the pioneering oppression in the west, in South Asia – what we are dealing with is Brahmin fascism. 

Secondly – yes!!! By way of living in the imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchal + colonized ‘modern’ world, we are all living with varying levels of trauma. Non white people experience the brunt of this trauma in the way that we carry it in our bodies intergenerationally. When I first began attending yoga sessions in spaces that were white dominated, as someone who lived with childhood sexual abuse, I didn’t realize that I was being triggered when doing some poses and positions. The fast pace and focus on flexibility was something that I really struggled with as someone who was so dissociated from my own body. I actually had to stop attending in studio sessions altogether and began finding practitioners of color online who prioritized what I understood as a trauma sensitive approach to yoga, which – yes, you’re so right, is just an inherently Indigenous approach to healing. 

Do you think that the mainstream approach to yoga as one that overlooks the burdens each body carries is necessary for the replication of status quo to continue in the westernization of the practice? Why is it that a trauma sensitive approach to yoga is not as popular, is this just another symptom of the devaluing and disregard of Indigenous knowledge?

L
I think so, yes. I definitely feel like the overemphasis on yoga for fitness and getting a “yoga body” is colonized yoga.  The emphasis in yogasana should be self-awareness and opening up and clearing energy channels.  It’s not that physically demanding rigorous yoga is not authentic yoga.  Certainly there is that type of traditional practice.  I have heard some people say that they need movement and to work hard to be able to focus their minds and slow down their minds.  And I think that is probably true for some people.  I have actually had folks feel really uncomfortable sometimes with the really slow pace of the trauma sensitive classes that I teach.  It brings up a restlessness that they are not able to sit with.  And I don’t want to devalue anyone’s experience.  I am not sure if rigorous asana classes are a distraction or whether they could possibly be a way of providing focus and concentration for some people.   I think it could be both and it probably depends on how it is taught.  I think physically demanding classes, if taught with awareness and focus could still be therapeutic for some people.  But that said, that is the predominant style and I don’t think it suits everyone…maybe not even most people.  Especially people who have been traumatized in ways where they don’t feel in control of their own bodies, as you shared, and which is the case for most women, femmes, queer, and BIPOC peoples.  I think for a lot of us, we really need to feel like we can be in control and make choices about how long we want to stay in a pose.  And exercise-oriented yoga doesn’t offer a lot of space for individual agency within the class.  That is how formal Trauma-Sensitive Yoga is different from mainstream yoga classes.   I think about Ayurveda…how there are different constitutions and what suits one may not suit another…but that too is part of our indigenous wisdom is that we do have a variety of practices for all the different needs.  And that it is really about allowing people to tap into what their body needs.  I think what is colonizing about the way Western yoga is usually taught is that it treats all human bodies as if they were the same or based on some idealized human body.  Western medicine is like that too.  That is generally the colonized approach.  I think the indigenous approach respects the vast diversity of creation while maintaining a grounding in the underlying Unity.  The colonized viewpoint is kind of the opposite.  It doesn’t respect diversity and treats us all according to some “norm” and “others” us if we don’t fit that norm. 

SA
The one size fits all model of healing truly needs to be eradicated. Thank you for sharing, Lakshmi. Before we end – what are a few things that are helping you feel grounded during this time? Whether it be a routine, a ritual, a meal or something you’re reading?

L
Just being at home more has actually been very grounding for me… I’m slowly getting to organizing my house, I’m cooking more, I’m getting more rest, and am able to take care of myself more… I am oiling my hair once a week, taking some classes that I’ve always wanted to take… am taking a kalaripayittu class from Australia through zoom and also am taking an astrology course.  And all this because the pace of life has slowed down so much…before I was so busy and always running around but never had time for myself. It’s that slow more indigenous pace of life that creates so much spaciousness.  I’m really trying to take advantage of it.  So that all the other hard things… the sad things don’t get me down.  

Lakshmi Nair is a proud member-owner and co-founder of Satya Yoga Co-op, the first BIPOC owned and operated yoga co-op in the country. She is a yoga educator of South Asian descent, engaged in reclaiming the resilience and resistance of her ancestral tradition of yoga and creating spaces for herself and others to authentically engage with the practices of yoga for self and collective healing and liberation.

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. 

Quarantine Queries and the Complexities of South Asianness

SA
Hi Fabliha!

F
Hey! I just finished up dinner. 

SA
What was for dinner?

F
Fish head curry and rice- typical of me as a Bangladeshi but fish is delicious. Can anyone really blame me for wanting to have seafood everyday? 

SA
MM I’m drooling. Do you cook a lot?

F
Before quarantine, the only “dish” I could make was instant ramen with some chopped veggies (I know it’s considered a “struggle meal”, the concept itself inherently being classist and elitist, but to be completely honest, I find myself craving it sometimes! Instant ramen is delicious when it’s done right!) but now that I’ve been home all day, I found myself wanting to learn how to cook. My mother and I have spent so much time together in the kitchen recently and it’s one of my most beautiful memories I have from this past year. Together, we made shingaras from scratch and so many other delicious Bangladeshi dishes. I never wanted to learn how to make Bengali food because of how stressful it was. So many steps and spices, it all seemed so intimidating. But there’s such a beautiful ritual that comes with it. Cooking now is such a joyful act of nourishing oneself — physically and mentally.  

SA
This is so lovely to hear. You write a lot about your relationship or your dynamic with your mother, so to know that you’ve spent the last few months connecting through food, a shared act of care is so moving. What was it like initially being in quarantine with family, and how do you feel about it now? I just moved back to Sydney but I was in Brooklyn till September – I moved back home with my parents for two months and there were so many moments of joy and frustration that I’m still moving through. How are you feeling about it all at this present moment?

F
I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life for quarantine. Throughout my life, I didn’t have many friends. I was always considered a loner and made my first friend group when I was 18. I remembered spending all of my summers throughout my youth indoors, scrolling away on Tumblr, binge watching angsty coming of age films, and watching my peers in envy as they relished themselves in adventurous girlhood which I desperately craved. So from middle school to early college, the majority of my life was always spent indoors. When quarantine first began, I watched my friends struggle and felt suffocated. But to me, it all felt so familiar. I adapted quickly because it was all I’ve ever known. 

When it comes to my parents, my relationship with them became strengthened but also strained. I believe it’s because this past year, I have transformed into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I wondered why I was able to drastically change, but I think it’s because I have allowed myself to be confident as I am away from the public eye. I am no longer subjected to the public’s perception or conditioning. But that also comes with extreme anxiety, as the person I’ve dreamt of being, is not the daughter my parents have always hoped for. In my time in quarantine, I came to terms with my gender, my dreams, and what I want from the world — all of which are things my parents are most fearful of. 

When quarantine first happened, my desires for the world, my gender identity, and so much more had started to piece together — all of which are things my parents fear the most. At first this realization had made me become distant from them as a way to survive and protect myself. However, months later, the sadness, frustration and the grudge I held against them dissolved. For the very first time in my life, the difference in our opinions of how I should live my life made me look at my mother and father as humans, not my parents. Like me, they too have desires. When desires are not met, it is extremely painful and bitter. All of which I am dealing with as well. I have been able to recognize that we’re not so different after all, a realization that is beautiful but gut-wrenching all at the same time.  

In this present moment, I’m still processing how much I’ve changed this past year.. A part of me, like my parents, is a bit fearful of how much I transformed. However, I feel so incredibly invigorated as well.

SA
The confidence you move with, be it through your writing or the way you’re able to organize various community initiatives, is so inspiring – Fabliha. I remember coming across your work years ago, even before I moved to New York and thinking, wow, it’s cool to see this mirror being held up through Fabliha’s work and presence online. And now to see your evolution, it really gives me so much hope and comfort knowing that other queer South Asian folks have blueprints they can hold on to. 

It’s always so jarring how the anxiety we feel as we become more fully ourselves is one that arises as a protection mechanism – protecting our parents from, as you said, what they are fearful of. But in the background of understanding and coming into yourself, you’re not only nourishing your own journey but also the journey of others – and here I’m thinking particularly of your work with the South Asian Queer Trans Collective (SAQTC). Can you tell me a little about this organization and how it has evolved? And what does your family think about your organizing work?

F
Thank you so much! It means so much coming from you. I mainly use social media to just speak into the void, so sometimes I forget that real people actually view what I post online and that they’re not pixels or Sims living in my phone!

As for SAQTC, the creation of the collective begins with the journey of coming out. I came out when I was 18 to my closest friends and basically the whole world online. I am still currently not out to my parents so the Internet became a way for me to express myself and find community. 

To celebrate this identity that I finally came to terms with, I decided to start getting out of my comfort zone and go to South Asian queer artsy events in New York City. For me, this was a huge step and was a way to not only find community but also hopefully find more of myself. But instead, I was met with extreme judgement. This experience was also around the time that my mother became sick and my family had become the poorest we have ever been and we were being flooded with medical bills. I had just taken a gap year from college as I had to step up to take care of my mother. As a result, I became the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life and my skin was filled with large pores and acne. My physical appearance was a reflection of the stress and turmoil my life was overwhelmed with. 

However, I never knew that this would act as a barrier from love from the community I yearned for the most. Time and time again, at every event I would go to in hopes of making friends and finding comfort, I would find myself isolated from other South Asian queers. I vividly remember them looking at me up and down, judgement lingering in their eyes as they stared at my acne, stomach, and stains on my sweater, their lips pursed in disgust. I had realized that their respect and kindness was only reserved for those that fit into their agenda or aesthetic. When I came out, I had imagined that I would be celebrated and have queer folks accept me with open arms. But purely based on how I looked, I was rejected, yet again. 

Months later, I had started to become closer with another Bengali girl that I had met in a summer program in high school. We had become each other’s first queer Bengali friend and it transformed our lives forever. I finally found someone that had understood me and for the first time, I wasn’t alone. Our friendship made me yearn for more, but I was unsure how to, as going to community events was no longer an option for me.

Since then, I have heard numerous stories from people that have faced the same judgement and isolation that I experienced and I realized this was a recurring pattern. The rejections and my first queer friendship inspired me to organize the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective , a space where everyone could feel like they belonged. Through SAQTC  I wish to spread tenderness, unconditional love and warmth, something that my closest queer friends have taught me. As for my parents, they have no clue what I do! Whenever I have a virtual meeting or am hosting an event, I just tell them I’m hanging out with friends — which isn’t exactly a lie!

SA
Wow ok. So much of what you’ve just shared is heartbreaking and exhilarating because of how resonant it is — and, I am so sorry you had to deal with such vile behaviour. It’s so strange how intergenerational the gatekeeping goes within the South Asian community. In the same way that we are surveilled by aunties, we are surveilled by our peers who we assume are on our side and moving towards collective liberation.

I’m so glad to hear you have a close group of friends who have been able to sustain and nourish you. I guess with the case of South Asia, we have so many layers of oppression to deal with. Which of course does not make any of the current behaviour exempt – but we’re talking about folks in the community who have been raised in families marked by caste, class, gender and racial trauma. What do you think it’s going to take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping, to become cognizant of the repeating patterns within our social circles? 

F
I think about collective liberation all the time and wonder if the revolution will ever truly happen in our lifetime. It’s so easy for us to talk and have discussions about our steps towards liberation, but it’s another to practice the steps to make it happen. It’s so painful to look inward and escape the gatekeeping or systems placed onto us when it has been engraved deep into our spirit since birth. I don’t feel anger towards those that have projected their conditioning onto me, because I honestly feel like they can’t help it. It’s what we’ve been taught and the systems we live in continue to uphold it. What does it mean to break it? What does liberation even look like for all? Am I like the people that have hurt me too? I ask myself this everyday. 

I can’t help but feel so fucking frustrated. I think as a marginalized community living in the West, the Western society has placed us in a box and subdued our identities. The reality is, our communities have historically savagely murdered and enslaved each other. Even right in this moment. So while knowing all of these things, what does community truly mean when there’s so much pain and loss involved? What does healing even look like living in the diaspora while I am in community with other South Asian identities whose family members are the reason for my pain? I’m still grappling with all of these things. I think what it will take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping and move forward is to acknowledge where their behavior stems from and take accountability for the histories they were involved in. 

SA
This makes so much sense. How are we expected to move forward together when we can’t look back with responsibility at all the chaos caused by our own communities against each other? I think even lumping ‘South Asian’ into a whole can be so flattening at times when there isn’t room for nuanced explanation. It’s so sticky because we are humans searching for meaning, searching for community and belonging and I think for me personally, my journey through spirituality has really been a reckoning with understanding our ancestry for all of it’s good and bad – and seeing how we can learn from the failures and successes with the next generation. These are some really huge realizations to be having and facing daily, what are a couple of things you’ve been turning to, whether it be a book, a meal, a ritual, that have helped you stay grounded amidst moving through these reckonings?

F
So true! Our South Asian identity is so complex and painful. I’ve had these realizations this past year, which I guess happens when you’re home all day and no longer have distractions from your deepest thoughts. To be frank, the journey of these realizations had resulted in a lot of messy feelings — mostly anger. But I have come to understand that anger is one of the most pivotal and powerful factors in healing. Anger has such a vital role towards individual and even collective healing. It’s frightening but exhilarating as well.  

To ground myself from this inner reckoning, I’ve been turning to journaling and writing. I’ve been journaling since I was 13 years old. I think this became a habit of mine out of loneliness but I stopped journaling last year when I started to make a close group of friends. This year in quarantine, I started writing again and remembered why I loved it so much. It allows me to purge and cleanse my spirit. The ritual in writing my thoughts away is so satisfying because I know that I could write whatever I want without the public’s perception. I could be as messy, unfiltered, embarrassing and pathetic I want. It’s such a cathartic feeling that I will never get over. It helps me express my anger and sadness without ever having to wonder if it’s too much for people to handle, which is something I always fear. Being unhinged in private is such a grounding experience for me. 

I have also been playing around with clay art! There’s something so magical about forming something with your very own hands. It’s wonderful to make something that was originally a blob of clay transform into something magnificent! I usually watch a movie in the background and make a wonky creation. Tonight, I’m making a dalmatian print clay pot while watching Perks of Being a Wallflower for the millionth time 🙂 

Fabliha Anbar (she/them) is a 21-year-old writer and community organizer based in New York City. They are the youth coordinator for Arts & Democracy where their main focus is cultivating a safe environment for immigrant youth to creatively express themselves through art and culture. Fabliha is also the founder of the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective, a grassroots collective for the South Asian and Indo- Caribbean lgbtq+ diaspora. They have been featured in multiple publications such as Teen Vogue, Vice, NBC News, Rookie, and more. Fabliha utilizes the many facets of their identity in their writing and believes storytelling is a powerful tool to heal souls.

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The Politics of Therapy with Priti Doshi

SA
Hi Priti! Can you describe how you’re feeling right now in five words?

P
I’m feeling excited, I’m feeling grateful, I’m feeling honoured, a little nervous and curious.

SA
I’m happy you’re excited, I’m excited as well. I was talking to my mother about this interview this morning and I was saying it’s going to be so interesting because I’m doing all the questioning today. Our roles are reversed!

I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be in therapy and receiving therapy that is culturally relative and sensitive and how significant it can be in someone’s journey and even though there are so many layers to seeking therapy itself, I personally have seen the benefits of digging deeper when it comes to finding a therapist who I feel like can relate to. I really felt like I found that when I started working with you.

How did you get into mental health? Was it something that was widely spoken about in your family?

P
Mental health was not widely spoken about in my family as I think a lot of people who grow up in non white cultures, I guess I’ll speak specifically to Indian culture, it is often considered shameful or inappropriate to share your life or your dirty laundry with someone else. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who is a medical doctor, and because of her profession she had some acceptance of it. It wasn’t something that was spoken about openly in my family and there was definitely some shame around it, especially from my dad. I’m trying to think back to when I even felt that mental health was important. Probably in high school and around adolescence because I was having a very hard time integrating. I was born and raised in the US and it was very difficult to assimilate, even though I was born here. There were two different languages being spoken in the house. High school was really hard because my friends were dating and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I didn’t feel like my parents understood the dating culture. I didn’t feel as attractive as the other girls around me, I didn’t have white skin or blue eyes or blonde hair. That’s when I started to struggle, as a teenager. I was suffering from depression, suffering from anxiety, suffering from feelings of not belonging. I didn’t have all the words for that at the time, only as I reflect back. 

I saw my first therapist in college. That’s when it felt safe enough to go speak to someone without any criticism. I did see some counsellors in college, I don’t really remember the impact they had on me but it was a relief. I was sort of in and out of therapy in my twenties and then I had a pretty terrible break up in my late twenties and that really put me on the journey of therapy. I was living in Boston at the time and I saw a therapist, then I went to Law school and I didn’t stay with her. I then moved to New York and it was another time that I was struggling and I was seeing a coach. It became apparent between the two of us that I needed to see a therapist and I actually met my therapist who I stayed with for thirteen years. It was really meeting her and forming a very safe, comfortable bond with her. As I was trying to figure out what it was like to be a lawyer, I was really loving what I was learning about myself in therapy. I loved that I was changing and I loved the person I was becoming. I got more involved in the therapy process and became more curious about some of the psychological and human developmental concepts she would talk about, like attachment theory. I would just write pages and pages as I was trying to understand my younger self and older self. We would email, she was a very, very generous therapist. She really took me in. Through that I realized I wanted to do this work. I knew this was powerful and transformative and life changing. It felt like a gift to have a person like this on my side who became almost like a mother figure and took a lot of care to understand me.

I will say, interestingly enough, she’s white and she’s Jewish. We really didn’t talk about race until the last few years together – she recently retired. Now I’m thinking back to that and I haven’t put it all together but I think race wasn’t being talked about back then in the ways that we talk about it today. My journey went from being with her and then really getting into mental health. Then I made a transition, I went back to school to be trained as a psychotherapist/psychoanalyst. I wanted to be trained as a psychoanalyst in particular because I really loved the model of the mind and the unconscious, and the power of the patterns that are laid down through intergenerational experiences and attachments. And now psychoanalysis is so comprehensive, it’s not just Freudian thinking, it’s much bigger and it goes much deeper into the unconscious. That was really powerful when we started to work on things that I had been pushing down for many many years. Through us talking childhood came up, being Indian came up, having immigrant parents came up, the challenges came up, but we really didn’t get into the race piece as much until the later part of my journey with her. It was really her being so invested in me that helped me see that was the direction I wanted to go in. 

To be honest with you, I think, ever since I was a young kid, I was always writing and journaling and wondering and interested in other people, why they were upset or suffering. And interested in my own suffering. Within me there was always a curiosity about psychology even though I didn’t study it formally until later on. 

SA
She sounds like an amazing person. 

P
She is, I miss her greatly. That was also a huge learning opportunity of saying bye to somebody without it being traumatic. 

SA
I’m thinking about the way we ended our sessions as something that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve never had a therapist who was so thoughtful about concluding a relationship and I feel really grateful that I had that with you. 

What you’re speaking to with your previous therapist is the safety and the security that she ensured you, and I know so many people who don’t feel safe with their therapists. Whenever I hear friends talk about uncomfortable therapy experiences I feel truly pained because I’ve never had to feel like I’m walking on eggshells when I’m speaking to my therapist. A friend of mine recently, who is of East Asian background, ended her relationship with her white therapist because she had to explain a lot of things to her and had to do a lot of work to make her therapist understand that they had different experiences. 

So I think therapy is something that is intensely political. Especially if you are low income, if you’re racialized, if you’re queer, if you’re disabled, it can be very difficult to find a good therapist who is also effective at what they do. My first therapist in CBT was a white woman and I didn’t feel like I could relate to her when it came to race or my personal experience, but it was so beneficial in helping me understand the cognitive and scientific psychological aspect of my experience. After that, I realized that I personally needed to work with someone who could empathize more easily with my experience which is why I spent hours scouring the internet looking for you, and prior to you, looking for my previous therapist who was a Bangladeshi American woman. But that was only allowed because I have access to education, time and financial resources that allow me the space to spend time doing that work.

How beneficial do you think having a culturally relative therapist is? You’ve been working with someone from an entirely different culture and yet you yourself had so much to learn.

P
That’s a really interesting question. I continue to think about this deeply. I think I’m mixed on it. I think as a therapist it’s really important to honour and be respectful and meet the person where they’re at. I understand the cultural piece in many ways today seems to be much more important for clients who are seeking out therapy. I think again, if we’re thinking about the unconscious, there is something different about sitting in the room with someone who has the same skin color or has a skin color that is starkly different from the one that has been the oppressor or the one who has been unsafe. In a way, I think there is something really meaningful about it. I’ve thought about this through what I feel in my body when I enter spaces that are largely white versus a space that is mixed and I can feel my body change drastically. My shoulders are not as high, my heart is not pacing when I’m in a room full of people where the races are mixed. I’ve kind of learned over the last couple of years that the way I carry myself feels very different when the bodies are of different colors. I even think if a majority is not my background, say it is more of a Black or Latinx group of people, there’s still a safety that I feel with that group of people than when it’s primarily white. When I think of it from that model, I think color, ethnicity and race can make a difference because there’s something happening between the two people where there can be an immediate sense of “I know you, you know me, I don’t have to explain myself in a certain way.” I think that language can be clearly communicated when I work with patients that are not white. There’s just this natural communication of “I understand that you’re first generation so even though you’re Black or of a different culture than I am, we’ve had similar experiences.” There is something very profound about having a therapist that may understand your culture or have a journey around something that’s very similar between the two people.

At the same time, I think that, at the end of the day, the therapist who can make one feel the safest and can understand and empathize and take a lot of time to give the person that they’re working with a sense that they’re really trying to understand their history, who they are, their experiences, regardless of the skin color, that has to happen. Even your journey and my journey and someone elses journey is not the same. I understood many of the things that you were saying with some familiarity based on some cultural foundations, although, even you and I have a lot of differences. You grew up in Australia, I grew up in the US, your family comes from Sri Lanka, I come from another part of India. So there are so many layers and so many different parts that the therapist can’t assume. That’s what I think is the hazard. I think it’s a hazard that both the therapist and the patient can enter into if you’re culturally similar or if your ancestors come from the same country. As a therapist, even if you identify or understand ethnically and culturally a patient’s journey, you have to stay curious and separate your stuff from their stuff. You have to make sure that you’re asking detailed questions about life so that you’re not making assumptions because you can fall into that trap very easily. 

SA
I’m just thinking about friendship groups in general. I have a few really good white friends who are like sisters and we really connect because we’ve done the work to get to know each other. And I think the same can be said when it comes to therapy. It’s not always about having similar cultural backgrounds but knowing how to excavate and hold space in a way that is thoughtful and mindful. 

You brought something up just now about how you can feel it in your body when you are in spaces that are predominantly white as opposed to spaces that are predominantly non white. I was looking over a paper recently by the APA that came out in 2015 on diversity in the psychology industry and it says that in 2015 86% of the industry was white which, in America, is less diverse than the US population. What was it like for you to go into that workforce, other than being able to feel a stark difference in your body. Was it frustrating, was it challenging or exciting to be in that space – how was that for you?

P
That’s a good question. I was a lawyer before I ended up being a therapist and in law school, it was primarily white. I’ve lived in white spaces most of my life. Growing up in the time that I was growing up. I was in Jersey, and it’s not that Jersey wasn’t diverse. I actually was identifying this the other day – I ended up going to Catholic high school and it wasn’t religious based, it’s just that my parents thought the education was better than in public schools. So I actually had a diverse group of people around me and then I went to high school and it was primarily white. So my journey in white spaces started there. College was diverse but I ended up gravitating towards white spaces. I guess, to answer your question, fast forward to transitioning into a profession that is particularly, and I say this about psychoanalysis, that it is very white and Jewish. It was started by a white Jewish man, but Jews back then were considered the Othered race, so it’s an interesting history there. Freud was very much an outsider in the Austrian culture. He was a Jewish man who was born into a primarily Roman Catholic cultural environment.  At that time Jews were considered lower class and he often felt ostracized in the medical community in which he was involved.  

I went through training very disassociated. It would pop out. I often felt very angry in classes, I felt misunderstood, I felt as if I had to work harder than everybody else to prove myself. I also felt that being an Indian woman, I needed to fit the stereotype of quiet, hard working without posing any issues. And I did play that role throughout training and felt very jealous of my largely white class. There were only 12 of us but they were all white. Often I felt jealous that they could push back on the professors and they would speak up and get into arguments with administration because they felt things were unfair. I just kept quiet. It was dissociated on many levels because I didn’t know what was going on as to why I was feeling the ways that I was feeling. Now looking back, until I started talking about it therapy, and with a supervisor who was honing in on race with me and my experiences with work with my patients, did I start opening my mind to realize that I was holding on to a lot more than I even knew. That’s when I began to realize that, oh my body feels different. It was really one conference that I went to that was the first time that I was in a largely, predominantly mixed and heavily Black and Brown space, that I felt freedom. I was so excited, I was like, I look like these people and they speak my language. Something shifted. That’s when I realized that I had been hiding, and caving in and feeling small because I was terrified of just holding myself up and feeling like I had presence in a room full of white people. There was a sense of freedom and excitement, knowing and belonging. Belonging became the word that I kept using. I felt like I belonged, and I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself to belong. I’m actually starting to get a little emotional thinking about that, because that feeling of not belonging is just such a horrible thing to anyone to have to live through over and over again. I don’t want to make any assumptions but I do think that a lot of people who grow up in spaces where the people are predominantly white, or the culture is predominantly white, that sense of not belonging goes so deep. When you finally enter into a space where you fit, it feels magical. A sense of walking around like, I am allowed to be here and I don’t have to do anything different. That was a really powerful moment for me. 

SA
It’s like the missing puzzle piece that you didn’t realize was missing and when you find it, everything falls together and makes sense.

P
Exactly. All of a sudden, those last few, critical pieces that were missing reminded me that I was a whole person here. That I didn’t have to be parts of myself.

SA
Right yeah. And being seen is so crucial to the ways that we belong. As I’m learning about somatics and the ways that we do physically cave in and make ourselves smaller when we feel invisible and also hyper visible. That is another scary thing that happens when we’re in unfamiliar spaces.

P
That’s a really good point – not just not being seen it’s also being hyper visible. I’ve often felt my body react to danger. Something in my body telling me this is dangerous when I’ve been hypervisible. Because then it feels as if you’re getting attention that doesn’t feel safe. 

SA
Wow. Do you think that there needs to be more resources for people who are not part of the dominant culture when it comes to mental health? 

P
I definitely think there needs to be not only resources but also accessibility – and oftentimes that is monetary for people who are underserved or marginalized. I don’t want to just make assumptions, but oftentimes it is money that becomes the problem or the issue when it comes to accessibility. I think that’s a complicated one. I don’t know if it’s talked about enough in the larger cultural contexts, but therapists often are trying to make a living and they’re not necessarily in a corporate structure. It’s such a mixed bag because the idea is to help and that mental health should be accessible and that people should be able to access therapists and that it should be affordable. But when you put insurance into the mix, and you put capitalism into the mix, and you put systems into the mix that we currently live in, it all ends up making it much harder for many of us to offer our services at a reduced rate. If you’re in insurance you barely get paid and you’re working very hard, those of us who really take our jobs seriously end up burning out. We are working all day long with people, and many of us work with trauma. It’s this balance that many of us are trying to offer. We want to do sliding scale and be reasonable but some of us live in very expensive cities and have families and have to contribute to family structures. It all really becomes a challenge in terms of figuring this all out. The simple answer is yes, and the obvious answer is definitely. 

I think accessibility needs to be thought about in terms of how to structure mental health services so those of us who want to provide services in a much more accessible way are also being valued and we can survive monetarily and financially in the industry. 

SA
I often think about how exhausting it must sometimes be to be a therapist. Just to be working with people who go through a whole range of different trauma and then have to consider the work that you have to do personally and independently. I do think that there needs to be more of a reciprocal structure. I really appreciated the way that we worked together where you were constantly checking in with me and asking, is this too much, how do you feel about paying this right now. There was so much flexibility and openness there that I feel can be so beneficial if it was widely integrated into the structure.

P
Yeah and you know, from time to time I was conflicted if I was charging too much, I knew you weren’t working and what your situation was. I can’t speak for all therapists but I can speak for my colleagues and friends and the people that I turn to, a lot of us think very deeply about this and care for the people that we work with to try and meet them the best we can. But it does get to a place where you need to make a decision, and I felt that you and I were at a comfortable enough space to have a conversation about it. It’s a fine line because you want to offer your services at reduced costs or for free but I think that can also end up becoming an issue, if the fee isn’t structured into the relationship. As I would sometimes tell you that I wanted you to value your work and yourself, I would tell you that you should get paid for your art and the work that you put in and the amount of effort – I think you got that, that it matters to be valued financially, to feel worthy. And to feel like you can use your money to not only pay your bills but to have time to enjoy things you want to enjoy. So that part of the treatment is so important and I think it does need to be set at a place where both people might need to stretch a little bit. The understanding is that therapy is supposed to be a place that helps you develop and grow into more of yourself so you can live the life you want to live. And money is part of that.

SA
I remember once when I was feeling financially insecure you were reminding me that the goal of therapy is to work together to release those insecurities, and the only way I can do that is to be consistent with the treatment. And I was like, oh yeah that makes sense, I shouldn’t feel guilty about spending x amount of money because it’s helping me. So thank you for that.

Before we come to an end, what are some things that are helping you feel grounded lately?

P
Self care is one of the things I have the hardest time doing, I’m still figuring it out. I love to cook, these days I’ve been gravitating back to some of the things my grandmother used to make for me as a child. I’ve recently asked my mom to help me with a samosa recipe.

Reading. I used to be an avid fiction reader. And these days, this kind of tells me how much I love what I do, I do often read for work. It’s still a sense of relaxation because it allows me to expand my mind and I’m always looking to grow, to understand my patients and new things I’m venturing into with them.


And walks. I really like taking walks and getting outside and being part of nature. It’s kind of challenging in New York City from time to time. 

I miss travel, and being able to take myself away to different lands and cultures. But those are the things that I’ve been recently enjoying. 

Priti Doshi’s mission as a therapist is to help people facilitate change in a direction that betters their lives by making it richer and fuller, and more open to possibilities that were once unavailable. 

In her private practice, she provides psychodynamic psychotherapy that helps her clients examine conscious and unconscious patterns in life and styles of interacting with the world, while developing new insights into one’s self,working to change things that have become painful or stagnant.

A Journey Through the Akash with Aditi Ohri

SA
Hi dearest Aditi, how are you?

A
Hello my love! I am well! How are you?

SA
Oh my… I’m! A lot of things. Week after sitting with grandmother Ayahuasca, and now the Full Moon in Cancer, it’s been a lot of ~moving through it~ so there’s that. It’s not been an easy last couple of weeks, but I’m finally emerging. 

I’m so excited to talk to you though! This has been a long time coming and I’m truly honored because you and I have done so much deep work together. So, I wanted to start kind of at your genesis… How did you start all this? 

A
I am unsure where to start, because I always go back to the womb and maybe that feels too far back. But, for as long as I have been incarnate on the 3d physical plane, I have been surrounded by spirit and religion. I am super fortunate to have a relatively uncomplicated relationship to spirituality, because my grandmother was so fluidly religious and spiritual. I grew up watching her pray, read and write scripture, sit for meditation twice daily, and she just made it seem easy and feel good. My mother was and still is active in a Buddhist community called the SGI (Soka Gakkai International) since I was a kid, and it was really normal for people from different backgrounds to be in my home, praying and chanting together. I rejected Buddhism and Hinduism as a teen who desperately wanted to be white, but ironically reading Tarot cards as a teen was an important part of my spiritual practice and led me back to my roots in my twenties. Does any of this make sense?

SA
This makes so much sense! I didn’t put all of this together, though I kind of knew the relative story of your awakening. Was there a moment for you that felt like that? When everything just clicked for you?

A
Mmmm. The first time I sat to meditate I knew I was doing something really special. I was in my twenties when I started meditating seriously, but I remember sitting with my grandmother when I was four or so, and it felt so nice. So safe. When I was 23, I sat my first Vipassana course and that’s when it all came together in terms of my spiritual commitments. I could put Tarot and meditation together in a new way after that experience.

SA
Yeah I feel like I was there to witness that. I mean we first started to really become friends as we started working with each other in these spiritual dimensions… and, I think you know this, but the reason I first came to Montreal was to do Vipassana on 12/12/12 and I didn’t end up sitting, LOL, like literally I cancelled the day before because I was like there’s no way “I’m going to survive ten days of sitting in silence.” Like the horror of not being able to write or read. God I’m still uncomfortable thinking about it. I maybe felt a bit of pressure to “find myself,” back then. I’d just ended a 3 year relationship and I couldn’t afford to live in New York (and wasn’t allowed to legally) anymore. So I was coming back to myself. Anyway I’m glad I trusted my gut on Vipassana. I’ve always admired your voracity for spirit, to attain spiritual knowledge. I think in that sense, we kinda grew ourselves together (not sure if that feels accurate for you, too) but I’ve definitely felt that having someone that’s felt like a spiritual comrade has made me put words to so many lost and inexplicable feelings about being on this path. So thank you. Tell me how you started to merge meditation and tarot… and how that led to where you are today. 

A
Ah, babe! 1000%! I am so fortunate to have you in my heart and on my spiritual team. I love that Vipassana anecdote, and as an aside, definitely interested in exploring the timing of that astrologically LOL, but yes another time. So, there’s an important piece that bridges meditation and Tarot and honestly I have some shame around it… it’s weed!!!!!!!!! I remember when I first came back from my first Vipassana, I vowed never to consume cannabis again ( L O L ) and of course that backfired. I went through this dark night of the soul style shame spiral after a day of overconsuming weed, and Tarot helped me come back to a stable place. I pulled cards to reassure myself of my connection to Source (though I probably didn’t think of it like that then), and eventually I pulled myself out of my shame spiral to sit and meditate, even if I had consumed weed recently. Sometimes when I smoke weed, all I want to do is meditate. It is a very nurturing plant in my life. When I started reading Tarot for others, my relationship to cannabis changed too because it was OK for me to be stoned during a reading!!! Maybe that sounds crazy, but it all felt normal and good and like I didn’t have to force myself to be perfect or pure. There are three pillars to my spiritual praxis: meditation, spiritual study (which includes Tarot) and … weed bahaha. Moreso the way that weed helps me get in touch with my curiosity and joy. It helps me love myself and not be so hard on myself! This feels totally crazy, but I trust there is some sense in it. 

SA
I actually want to talk about the shame spiral… Last year, I called myself a stoner to Jyoti (my ayahuasca teacher) and she basically slapped me with her eyes. I was so embarrassed (and have since learned a lot about why some schools/spiritual lineages don’t like a cross-contamination of medicines, while others like the Santo Daime for example, do…) anyway… I carried that shame for a while. Maybe all of 2020, lol. But it also helped me examine my relationship to Santa Maria (which is what I’ve decided to call it all the time now) and made me understand that I have spiritual agency and autonomy. You get to choose how you want to practice as long as you’re being intentional, self-aware and respectful. 

Actually, just this retreat, I was talking to one of my ayahuasca siblings about Santa Maria, and she was the first person that really inspired me to think more deeply about how we interact with the medicine… She smokes everyday, and has found a deep reverence for it, as (another sibling pointed out, shout out to adélàjá) it’s actually the Divine Feminine… and potentially the reason why we have this relationship to the medicine is because it has been misused (much like the plight of the feminine) and abused. (Of course gender isn’t a binary, but I like the way that nature understands gender dimensions and what is read masc versus femme). So smoking Santa Maria, and praying with her, is actually to have a deeper communion with the sacred feminine. One way to think of weed liberation is to also think of the liberation of the matriarchy, and the values of matrilineal societies. I found that so moving and it’s been a life-changing (though preliminary) shift for me. I think for a while I’ve been trying to really think about what feels good and to not force myself to be what I’m not. Studio Ānanda is a synthesis of this as well, to talk to folks about how we can heal and be well collectively, without this puritanical (white) gaze that forces us to all subscribe to one point of being… when we are so fucking complex! I don’t want to be small anymore.

A
MMMMMMMMM! Yes, I have chills! I love that connection. I have been cultivating a prayer practice to the Divine Feminine this year, and I have never made that connection explicit before, between Santa Maria (<3) and the Divine Feminine, but it feels deeply resonant. When I consume cannabis in prayer and as medicine, I feel so supported and held. Of course, there is the potential to indulge in it in a way that is harmful, but I appreciate this reminder to frame my relationship in terms of harm reduction, because our collective relationship to the Earth, our Mother is so challenged right now. I think the beauty of praying to Divine Mother is that you don’t have to lie – you can tell her I am feeling like shit, my life sucks, I hate x y z, and weed definitely helps with the practice of being honest with myself. Lately I’ve been having a recurring dream where I am shown a cave floor and I hear a voice telling me “this is who you are” (LOL, I know) — and this conversation feels like a key to decoding that message for me. Santa Maria helps me to receive all of life’s abundance, to slow down and luxuriate in my humanity, as does prayer and meditation, and it has been possible for me to hold so much more space for others as a consequence. I vacillate between thinking of myself as a stoner and the reincarnation of a Himalayan hermit with a beautiful ganja crop. I feel like it’s an open secret in many spiritual communities that people smoke, but there is such a generational divide, I feel in the way that we relate to it… like, I could never really talk to my parents about my relationship to the plant, but I’m sure my ancestors were down. How many generations back, I wonder!!

SA
Yeah I really like this idea of thinking back to our ancestors and how they interacted with this plant, or plants in general. I’ve actually been trying to really get closer to my indigeneity recently, and as you’ve known me over many years, you’ve seen my struggle with family and culture. In some ways, I kind of wish I had more of a classical upbringing, but I think being raised with/ in abuse and also being raised by a Marxist with Sufi tendencies my understanding of faith was so complicated. My mother through the years has become more and more religious, in a way she never was. I think this really traces back to how Bangladesh has completely changed, and been ever-changing since the Liberation War, so her awareness of who she is so convoluted. Now there’s a rise of Wahhabism throughout the country, which makes sense when so many displaced people, who haven’t even begun to uncover the layers of trauma they’ve experienced from post-colonial British India, let alone Partition, then the devastating war in 1971—it’s a lot. I feel so much for my people, but also feel so dislocated by it all. The overwhelm gets to me too, where do we even begin to understand where we’re from? How have you done that yourself, as another South Asian person?

A
I am in admiration of your commitment to looking at your roots and how your peoples’ history informs who you are. Honestly, I have a very compartmentalized relationship to any sense of indigeneity I might tap into, partially because the way it gets discussed in my family is through the lens of Hindu Nationalism, and I find it very distressing. It pains me to think that the cultural identity of my ancestors, in the generations during and after British Colonial India, is laced with shame and power politics. Currently, I’m doing my best to have compassion for family members who exhibit some really frightening political views while holding space for my own guilt around the relative privileges I experience. I hesitate to take up space with that guilt because, I mean… it feels like something to process outside of public discourse, but lately, it has felt more urgent to have those conversations with people in my family, and I think there is a space in which others who are feeling this way can come together and process that guilt without centering it… it’s just… in process/progress right now… 

SA
Yes, I absolutely understand. It’s such a complicated thing but thank you for your honesty about it. This is definitely something I’ve been trying to think about more, how to appropriately decolonize, and also how to have compassion for folks that are adently stuck in their trauma, without necessarily thinking how they perpetuate that trauma on everybody else. I know a lot of Indian friends recently have talked to me in secret about their families descent into Hindu Nationalism/ Fascism, and I wonder if you have any advice for folks that are having a hard time adjusting or doing the due diligence with their families to heal. 

A
It’s so interesting to listen behind the political claims and hear the trauma. I think it takes a lot of time cultivating calm within yourself to be able to hear someone else saying something hateful and not react. Sometimes, when I hear certain family members pushing an agenda on me, I bring in the breath and mindfulness practice first. If I’m honest with myself and I’m also triggered, I don’t respond right away. Usually, it’s my dad sending me a video of some angry Indian dudes and uncles on YouTube, which I cannot get through without wanting to throw the phone across the room. I usually don’t respond to the actual video content, but instead ask him questions about our culture that feel important to me, because I think, underneath some of his political rage, is a worry that his kids don’t want to be Indian and that we have internalized the dominant narrative in so-called North America about Hinduism as Other. When I ask him questions about stuff I genuinely want to know about, we are able to have conversations that feel a little more loving. I know I can’t change him or any of my family members’ beliefs, and I feel like arguing with him will only be more painful for both of us. It’s so different for everyone, and it’s taken me a lot of inner work to get to a place where I have a relationship with my father enough that I can do this, and it’s still a challenge honestly.

SA
Yes, it’s truly powerful, thank you for doing this work for your lineage. In Native American traditions there’s this concept of seven generations, which is “usually attributed to an Iroquois law outlining the responsibility for the sustainability of future generations. It instructs that when important decisions are being made, one should consider their impact on seven generations into the future,” as well as the past. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, how it’s imperative I heal for my family. That’s why this work is so deep, it’s immense, and watching you try and heal with your father over the years has moved me a lot. Just recently, I’ve started really reframing how I think about my mother, and how I talk about her. It’s complicated, but we owe them compassion when we have all of these resources, when we know so much about how to heal. 

How has this awareness about your lineage evolved into your Akashic and Astrology work as well?

A
Oh, I love the concept of seven generations! It is so inspiring, thank you for the reminder. The piece you brought up around resources is so key for me, because so many of the resources I have access to are spiritual. And I feel this unspoken continuity in my spiritual practices that I am so grateful for, and it’s something that has survived the wretches of colonialism. As I write this, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the spiritual work my ancestors have done and the material work my elders have done to offer me this life! Ah, it’s so beautiful. Just reveling for a second. I feel so blessed with the power to reimagine tradition going forward, and spiritual study – which includes my current work with Astrology and the Akash – is an important part of that.

The Akashic and Astrology work feels like a re-remembering. When I first started studying astrology it felt like I had encountered astrology before in some dusty cobweb of my consciousness and it made so much sense, it was inexplicable. When I studied my chart, I learned that many of my placements indicate a love for astrology, LOL, which is so typical of astrology – telling you things you already know about yourself in a fresh way. I got into sun-sign astrology in my early twenties, and when Chani Nicholas became more popular I started following her work and taking her classes. Her approach is rooted in Hellenistic Astrology, which has a lot of overlap with the Vedic tradition. I started studying Hellenistic and I can’t stop, I’m obsessed. There is historical evidence, too, of Indian and Greek astrologers influencing each other in the first century AD, through a book called the Yavanajataka, and I feel there is something in my spiritual lineage of having studied astrology in multiple past lives. 

I recently came across Maryam Hassnaa’s New Earth Mystery School at the start of the pandemic and the way she talked about the Akash felt surprising to me, because she was describing internal experiences that I was already having, but I never thought of it as the Akash, I was just into my imagination. When I added a little more structure to my visualization and daydreaming practices (if you can really call them practices… though I guess you can), I realized I was accessing the Akash! And I think it’s something we all do in different moments when we connect to our Higher Self or our inner child or our spirit guide team. 

I started talking to my mom about the Akashic realms — she’s really into Sadhguru, so she sent me some videos with him discussing the Akash, and I realized there must be a connection in my lineage to accessing this ethereal space. There are many Sanskrit chants that talk about receiving blessings from different parts of the universe, and Hinduism, at least as I understand it, is endlessly psychedelic. I think there is something really empowering too about feeling the embrace of the universe, and that’s what my Akashic practices help me feel — that wherever the original Source of all creation resides, it’s with me as I’m on this earth, permeating every piece of my being. I think as a child of diaspora, it’s a practice that connects me back to the land of my ancestors, knowing that they saw the same sky and connected to the same Source.

SA
It’s kind of wild because in Bangla “akash” means sky. So this feels fitting, the portal you’re entering is literally Grandfather Sky… and how beautiful that it’s also bringing more attunement with your relationship to your mother! This makes me so happy. I think ultimately, what’s been so liberating about our individual and collective spiritual experiences—and this mapping that we’re doing—is that each time we find a new medium that resonates it brings us closer to ourselves, but also that we are beginning to unveil so much about our past through it. I’m learning and piecing together my ancestry through this work, to shine a light on them and to also release them. The first ceremony I sat this year was just so epic and painful and I was essentially told to channel the vibrating energetic trapped in my body (that was activated after I took the medicine) right into the center of the Earth. It was so wild, it felt like a literal shamanic excorcism. And so extraordinary. And so painful. But I gained such an awareness of myself through this experience, through this sacred medicine of Ayahuasca, inside of a tipi from the Arapaho Nation, on the soil of unceded Miwok land, where I can gain a better understanding of familial and physical trauma from Bangladesh. Fucking wild. 
Thanks for this conversation. There’s so much more to say, but we’re coming to an end. I I have one last question, what are a few things you have been doing recently (reading, routines, anything) that’ve been really healing for you? 

A
Thank you for these questions, babe. Really important ponderings and I am going to marinate on this conversation for many days to come.

Lately, I have been doing my best to keep things simple. I have a long list of things that nourish me, and I try to do one every day. A few favorites include singing loudly — sometimes just scales, but it feels so good to exercise my voice and let it be heard. I go for walks and try to find a slightly different route in my neighborhood each time. I pray to Divine Mother, especially when I am feeling at my wit’s end, just lying on my soft carpeted floor, letting my body be held by the bones of my home. Drinking tea, esp nettle and tulsi, is a forever ally. <3

Aditi Ohri is a student of life, lover of mysteries and total weirdo. She spends her days coding, studying astrology and chatting with the Pecan trees around her house. She currently lives with her partner and a grumpy but good-natured cat in so-called Austin, Texas, on the land of the Tonkawa people.

The Colorwheel of Neurodivergency with Vivek Bald

V
How are you?

SA
I’m OK. I am a multiverse of things, I am…excited about the world, there seems to be this buzzing feeling. If you locate it, it can feel like anxiety, so I don’t want to just sugarcoat it or wear rose colored glasses, but I definitely feel like I’m sublimating this sensation into something that feels more harnessed and more controlled.

V
Mm hmm. 

SA
And it’s not even into work or a project. It’s just harnessing that energy to make sure it’s not going all over the place… Meanwhile, I’ve also been feeling a lot of complicated feelings around identity and the abstraction of identity, and how the colonial project plays into my own identity. Then, I’ve been thinking about the distance between my father and death—and also my own distance between my father, like a geographical one. He’s in Abu Dhabi, I’m in New York. I mourn not having him close and am sad I felt like I had to flee my life to find freedom. Just generally feeling a lot of dislocation on top of already being, and feeling, so dislocated. How about you?

V
I’ve been thinking a lot about ancestors as well. I’ve spent this year in a situation where my mother, who’s now 85, and who is really the origin of our family’s diaspora out of the subcontinent, has been having a series of health challenges. She lives on her own on the West Coast and we haven’t been able to see each other over this last year when we’ve been losing so many people of her generation. 

So I’ve been thinking about my matrilineal line. I think I’ve talked about this before with you, I’ve been learning a little bit more about my great grandmother through my mom. She was born in the late 19th century into a Hindu family in Lahore, and then as a young woman  became involved in anti-caste activities, anti-colonial activism, and also became a big proponent of girl’s education. And she wanted my grandmother, her daughter, to be educated. 

My grandmother was very bright and went farther in her education than a lot of girls of her time, in the sense that she went through the equivalent of what we call high school. But then the male elders in her family overruled my great-grandmother’s wishes and insisted that my grandmother not be allowed to sit for her final exams. Her formal education came to an end before she could officially complete high school. So when my grandmother herself had daughters, including my mother, she insisted that they have as much education as they themselves wanted. And my mother is the one daughter out of her generation who took that the farthest – first of all completing college and getting a master’s degree in Delhi after Partition and then getting a scholarship to come here to do a Ph.D. in the late 50s and ultimately becoming a professor of International, Postcolonial, and Women’s Studies. 

In coming here to the U.S., that’s also how she met my father, who was an immigrant from Australia, So there’s this way that my existence – as is the case for so many others —  rests upon this kind of chance meeting of my two parents. But at the same time, that meeting was predicated upon these three generations of South Asian women defying what was expected of them. So I guess I’ve been feeling the significance and the weight of that more and more as I’ve gotten older, and as I now have a child, a daughter, myself. What are the legacies of struggle, of political vision, of visions for better futures that we carry? And how do we honor them, sustain them, and pass them forward?

It’s interesting that, a year ago, or a little more than a year ago, as 2019 was ending, I remember just everyone I knew was talking about how 2019 was such a bad, difficult year, and everyone was hoping for a better year in 2020.  I found myself thinking, and heard a lot of people saying: “may the next year bring you 20:20 vision.” And on one level, that now, in hindsight, sounds naive. If we only knew, right?  But I do think there was a lot of clarifying this past year, perhaps especially for those who are part of what you might call the “liberal center” in the United States. How could liberal-minded straight, non-BIPOC folks not see the depth and persistence and ongoing violences of white supremacy this past year, right? This year when, after four years of pain and trauma, corruption and deception, almost half of the country still voted for a homicidal megalomaniac because the alternative (the Democratic party!?) would somehow put the structures and privileges of white supremacy at risk? How could people not recognize after all this, right, the need for a deep reckoning with the United States’ past, a questioning of its sustaining myths, the need for unsettling, the need for systemic change. I’d like to think that more people have come to that place over the last four years and especially the  past year – have begun to engage with ideas of prison abolition, reparations, with the idea of the U.S. as a non-exceptional, as a settler colonial nation, etc. These are conversations rooted in years of BIPOC, feminist, and queer activism, analysis and critique that feel like they are happening at a larger scale than a decade ago.  

But there’s always the danger that once there’s a more comfortable administration for folks in the liberal middle, that the urgency of everything that we saw unfolding so clearly over the last four years, culminating on January 6, will begin to fade. Because it’s more comfortable for some people not to feel that urgency. And so many people are protected from the urgency of this situation on a day to day level. 

Regarding “clarity” on a more personal level, one of the things that you and I have talked about, that I haven’t talked about that much publicly is that in the middle of  this year of lockdown, I discovered, at age 54, that I am on the autism spectrum. I had had certain suspicions about this for a while, around just the way I am in the world, with other people, how I process things — and those got me to a point where I decided to do a fairly extensive assessment and was assessed with Aspergers. That — and then beginning to engage more deeply with the existing writing about and activism around  neurodiversity/neurodivergence — that’s  been very clarifying for me, both at a kind of a personal level and a broader political level. 

So, for example, on the personal level, my whole life I’ve lived with this image of a future version of myself that would be better able to do certain kinds of things, in a way that’s more broadly accepted — like just being able to to be in social situations in an effortless way, or meetings without a constant underlying social anxiety — that’s just one example. But, really my whole life I’ve been operating in this kind of deficit model, that there’s a me in the future that I have never quite reached — that is going to be better at this, and better at that, and more comfortable with this, and more comfortable with that. Right. And there’s a lot of energy that goes into that and it comes with an inherent and constant devaluing of who you are in the present moment against an imagined version of a neurotypical you that is completely a social construct.

At a very, really personal level, what I’m still going through right now is gradually learning to stop putting all of my energy into this, because there is also a violence in it, an internalized social violence. And I’m recognizing the strengths that are rooted in my neurodivergence that have been really integral to my work. I am someone who will get a specific, intense focus on something particular that I want to figure out and just keep on pushing — maybe to the detriment of everything else that I’m supposed to be doing — but this pays off in tangible ways. The research that went into the Bengali Harlem book was like this. You know, so much of the research was just me pushing the limits of various different digital archives between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. in the morning, without looking up from my screen, like night after night after night, you know, kind of unrelentingly determined to find every single possible document in which a South Asian migrant is mentioned between 1890 and 1940 – this period during which it was thought South Asian immigration to the U.S. gradually came to a halt because of the Asian Exclusion laws. 

And then, you know, the other thing that I discovered in this process is that one of the arenas in which I function at a higher than “normal” level is in pattern recognition. 

That was another thing that was really crucial to doing that archival work is, because once I had amassed hundreds of archival documents and started seeing names in different documents at different times and places that might have been the same person, or not, but also certain kind of patterns related to different times of year when people were moving, or where migrants were moving to, tracking these hundreds of migrants who were otherwise sort of under the radar, just blips on different documents in different archives. That kind of pattern recognition was actually really, really central to doing that work – to figuring out from, say, 200 different archival documents that each represent a specific moment and place over the course of a 30 year period to find the patterns that would show me the length and breadth and functioning of a global network of silk peddlers, for example. 

So part of this clarity around neurodivergence, or my particular neurotype, has been understanding those strengths and, in some way, realizing that I’ve had the privilege of finding a space – in creative and academic work – in which those strengths are recognized and appreciated and can have an outlet. That space is not perfect by any means, but a lot of people don’t even have that. 

On the larger level, the larger social or political level, the various kinds of work that people in disability studies and queer studies, in Third World and womxn of color  feminism and critical race studies, et cetera, do around the idea of normativity, there’s a way in which that was all, you know, part of the scholarship that I’ve been reading for a while but which sunk in even further. There’s something pervasive about the violence of normalization and normativity, the violence that comes with the definition of certain characteristics as “normal,” that I think really hit at a deeper level this year for me as I  delved more deeply into an understanding of neurodivergence as a critical framing of the world, especially reading what younger autistic and ND folks have been writing and talking about in arenas outside the academy — on social media, for example. 

To go back to the idea of patterns, there is a kind of this meta-or repeating pattern in Western modernity and the modern nation state, the liberal-democratic capitalist nation-state – in which a norm is defined at the center, borders constructed around it, and multiple forms of difference, divergence, placed outside those borders. The borders then, not only become sites of policing and violence, but the policing and violence are also internalized, within those of us outside, as conditions we must put ourselves through in order to cross the border inwards. Does that make sense? I feel others articulate this better than I.

SA
Yes, it makes sense!

V
Whether we’re talking about the nation as a constructed sovereign territory with claimed borders that are policed through violence, or we’re talking about citizenship as the main form of being in the modern nation – of accessing rights – in which the borders of citizenship – who gets to be and who doesn’t get to be a citizen – are policed and surveilled and enforced through violence … down to the way that those of us who are immigrants, or children of immigrants, or grandchildren of immigrants are brought into the nation through a desire for belonging or inclusion – this is also predicated upon behaving in a certain way, right, as a good immigrant, as a model minority, who puts their head down and doesn’t question too much but also always backed by the threat of violence once we are perceived not to be acting in that way, when we become the “ungrateful”, or the “culturally unassimilable,” or the “terrorist threat.” So, you know, I see the model minority as this form of normalization in which we are encouraged to strive and rewarded for striving for national inclusion, but on the terms of the nation as it is, with all its existing violences, exclusions, injustices, and inequalities.

I think that even those of us who have a critique of the model minority myth, there’s still been, at least with my generation, a kind of push for some kind of a recognition – you know: “we are also here – we are also part of this place.” And, you know, these are our experiences. These are our voices. That has been crucial on a cultural and political level. And it has definitely driven my own work. But this can also very easily slip into being simply a quest for national acceptance, rather than social transformation. When there’s one segment of the South Asian community that gains national acceptance it’s never been the case that there haven’t also been segments of the South Asian community that are denied the possibility of that acceptance – who remain subjected to the nation’s violences and exclusions – because they’re undocumented, because they’re queer, because they’re working class, because they simply display outwardly the signs of their faith. And this is not even beginning to talk about what national acceptance without social transformation means For South Asians in relation to other communities of color – how it short-circuits our alignment with those who have been fighting here, for generations before us, for justice, self-determination, and systemic change.

SA
This is also so much of what I wanted to talk to you about. I finished reading your essay you sent me. It’s fascinating that today you began by talking about ancestry, and immigration, and while you were talking about your great grandmother and your grandmother and this lineage women, I wondered if this lineage is a metaphor for education. I find that even in my own lineage, women were always the ones (for better or worse) doing the deeper thinking, or the more even investigative work. Auntie network type shit, I used to say my mum was a C.I.A agent, she was so deft at finding things. I know this is kind of broad, but I wonder if these women are working through to ask you to go deeper to understand what exists inside of you, all these intricacies that make you who you are. I have a mother who has suffered through extreme mental illness, and I think of patterns and mirrors as well, and up until twenty-five I wondered if I would get diagnosed for schizophrenia, the cut off they say is 25. Unrelated but related, my dad was just telling me about how his father lost one of his front teeth when he was seventy-five, and for the last couple of years, my dad’s front tooth has been wobbling and he knows it’s going to fall out just like his dad. We are just these replicas of our parents, our ancestors. 

What I gained from your essay is this deeper understanding about how you interact with yourself as both within a nation state, and also as your own nation state, in the body you occupy, and how they all play into one another, especially when you’re talking about illness or disease. So at eighteen, you experience this moment of state violence and ricochets into the rest of your life. And you are now in your 50s trying to understand why you are the way that you are. I think it’s actually phenomenal. It’s quite big. 

V
For me, it was really necessary to engage in a deeper questioning of the desire for national inclusion. I think this is what I’m saying in the essay that you read. My experience in L.A. at 18, in which I was mistaken for someone who was being pursued by the police, was arrested, jailed, interrogated, tried and then ultimately acquitted – because, as a light-skinned, middle-class, mixed person, I could be de-racialized or re-racialized in court – has become a metaphor for a lot of other things over the course of the almost four decades since then. That’s what I’m gesturing toward at the end of that essay. To bring it back to what we were talking about at the beginning of our conversation – those of us who have grandparents and great grandparents who fought for the end of colonialism on the subcontinent, for self-determination, freedom from the British. Did they do that so that our generation could come here and gain “success” as part of a settler-colonial society that continues to be structured by deep and violent racial inequalities? Is that what they were fighting for – our inclusion and acceptance in that society? Maybe in some cases the answer is yes. I don’t know. But…

SA
I don’t think so for our ancestors. 

V
Yeah, is that the end point that they were imagining when they were fighting for freedom against the British? Or is there a different endpoint, a different horizon we should be looking toward now that we’re here? 

SA
I’m glad you brought in what we owe to the ancestors of this land. But also, what we owe to our own indigeneity, and that returning to the land is very much tied into liberation on all fronts — a liberation from capitalism, mostly, and an acceptance that our minds and resources were colonized, and so were the means to cure and aid ourselves. The colonial project is so vast and they really thought of a complete and holistic way to ruin us for centuries. Our grandparents didn’t want this conclusion, now we’re here on stolen land. And all of our cultural knowledge has been taken.

V
Yeah, I mean, but the thing is that that knowledge is not gone. Generations have fought for its survival. 

SA
Yes, but there was still much that was taken. I was reading about five hundred thousand books being burned in Al-Andalus. They had the biggest library in the world, European libraries had a thousand to five thousand books maximum. When I think of the way the colonial project has harmed Islam it really upsets me. It’s a long, protracted assault, but it’s interesting that post 9/11, the impact of being a Muslim body and the isolation of being a Muslim person has intensified. Looking at my people and the sadness that we feel, how we are so disconnected from ourselves and our faith… that was the entire fucking plan, they wanted us depleted, disconnected, in-fighting and waging war on each other. This is what the Catholic Church wanted when it captured Granada.

I’m going to make a jump to something you said about reckoning with your neurodivergence and accepting these parts of yourself that you potentially never looked at. It’s this pattern recognition. Reading your work, it also comes out as an earnestness. That’s why when you first told me about your diagnosis, I wondered about it for myself — it kind of opened up a portal in myself to question how I am the world. I am so high functioning and I also have extreme trauma, so I’m constantly grappling or oscillating between these two parts of myself.

That’s why I smoke a lot of weed, because I actually have to numb this part of myself that is just so emotional and so tapped in and feeling everything all the time. I’ve done so many things throughout the years just to deal with myself, but only by keeping myself boxed in. Now I’m actually coming to terms with the idea that this is just who I am and that’s beautiful. What if life is just coming to terms with all the things that you are in this complicated moment? Anyway, when you told me about your neurodivergence I felt like I finally had words for something abstract in myself.

V
Well, that’s what’s really powerful about the work that neurodivergent activists have been doing – the unsettling and reframing that constitute neurodiversity as an idea, a starting-point. I’m still just catching up – this is the beginning of my journey. But, you know, I think that what’s powerful about the work of ND activists is that it goes beyond and even against clinical diagnosis. To understand the vast differences in the way that each of us processes information, understands the world, and interacts with one another. 

Some of the work I’ve been reading – and encountering through Instagram channels et cetera – talks about the idea of the “spectrum” not as a linear spectrum, but as a color spectrum, like a color wheel, where there is not an inherent hierarchy. People land on different points in that color wheel. What we know about trauma is also that especially with early childhood trauma, but with all trauma in one way or another, it has very significant effects on how we as survivors process, you know, how our brains function. And you and I were talking about in another conversation, about the classic book, The Body Keeps Score, but there’s, you know, a lot of other writing about this. Again, you know, I’m not an expert. I’m someone who is just at the beginning of this journey in so many ways. But, as someone who both deals with PTSD and who is now understanding the way that I experience the world through the lens of neurodiversity – it demands an understanding simultaneously of material, structural inequalities and of the multiplicity in how people experience the world, exist in the world, think, act and create in the world, strive, struggle, and relate with one another. This is part of what I was referring to in talking about the violences inherent in the definition, bounding, and policing of the “normal.”

SA
Which is why even though I know that this is a preliminary stage you’re at, and I just barely have the right articulation myself, knowing more about neurodivergence—through you, and these ongoing conversations—has really helped me better understand myself. Just because it helps put words to an explicable experience, or something that is more fragmented. I think it’s powerful for me to have this conversation happening in my life because I want to see more people exploring and being vulnerable and open about the exploration. It helps to see folks at different parts of their journey. Because we’re all just figuring it out all the time. 

What Vivek is reading: 

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha 

Shy Radicals: The Anti-Systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert by Hamja Ahsan

Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka

Who Vivek is following on IG:

@the.autisticats

@theautisticlife