This weekend at the Northwest Yoga Conference, it’s safe to say, things didn’t go as planned. Not for the conference leader, Melissa Hagedorn and certainly not for widely-esteemed meditation master Savitri of Bellevue’s Alive & Shine, one of the first and sustaining yoga studios in the state.
For any student of the practice and overall decent human being, it was painful watching in simultaneous horror and confusion, just about everything that is currently plaguing westernized yoga manifesting in one five-minute viral video:
During the conference last week, Savitri was accepting a yoga luminary award on behalf of her husband Aadil, speaking a message of love and light, when she was interrupted and asked to leave (along with her staff and students). The conference leader even called up her husband and two women to escort Savitri out of the building. For what?
Savitri spoke past a five-minute timeslot which she believed was going to be ten.
Even more flummoxing was the conference leader’s long-time standing relationship with Aadil and Savitri as participants and teachers at the event; such actions seemed excessive, so unnecessary and offensive. These teachers are lineage bearers of yoga from India, the birthplace of yoga. To add to the heartbreak was that Savitri was talking about raising up empowered women, “a feminine power that has been suppressed for so long” only to have another woman take her microphone away, kicking her out of the conference. It made no sense.
In speaking with Savitri, we took a step back and unpacked some of the grievances that this event has ignited amongst the community with the intent to help us all become more aware, learn the truth, and find a solution. Cultural appropriation was the primary issue she had because “respect is the essence of yoga. In India, you always respect other people. You revere your teachers, elders and spiritual masters. It is how we are raised. To be treated this way while accepting a yoga luminary award showed no respect to me, my husband, nor our lineage. Yoga is the union of mind, body and soul. Together this creates flow unobstructed as love and light. Without respect, there is no yoga.”
I shared that when my teacher comes into town, my students are guided to never put their feet forward, and to pay their respects. Savitri adds, “We show reverence for teachers in our culture; we do not teacher hop, even if we move away from our teacher, we recognize and bow to all of our teachers and know that they still remain a part of our lives.” The fact that respect and reverence for spiritual masters is broadly disregarded across western yoga circles is the reason why yoga can become “too much of a business and too mental. Yoga is all about transforming the mind into something that connects with the larger picture.”
Hagedorn on some level, created an escalation by her silence. As people took to posting inquiries on her Facebook event page, reports came back that they were being promptly deleted.
Pulling Savitri off the stage was like pouring gasoline on her conference; censorship of people’s comments was like striking a match.
When people implored to hear her side of the story, the rare few that showed restraint in judgment before lashing out, she chose silence. For this article, Hagedorn was invited to participate (I have interviewed her before). She never replied back. Eventually when she did post a blog on her site, it fueled more ire amongst the yoga community due to it lacking the one thing people expected the most, including Savitri and Aadil: an apology.
“I felt that Melissa misused her leadership power in that moment.” In a published statement as well as in talking to Savitri’s daughter, Zenia, there was no knowledge of any grievances Melissa may have held for them. In fact, the two had embraced at the beginning of the conference.
I asked if Savitri would like a chance now to share what she was planning on saying that day, and below is my best effort to capture and share her wisdom. Ironically, it was entirely a message of gratitude to Hagedorn and her team:
“The intent of my talk was to acknowledge and express gratitude to Melissa for bringing the true message of yoga to the yoga conference over the past two years, with themes like Be the Light. What hurt me was she chose the words but was not living them. Love and light are powerful messages and have been the foundation of my teaching for the past thirty-five years.”
Savitri then continued to expound on the definition of love and light within the practice of yoga, “My talk on the light was something I wanted to briefly share as part of my teaching on the subject. It is the essence of the soul, a particle of energy. This “God Particle” is in everything, our soul is made up of a certain voltage; it is so powerful that the body alone cannot control it, so the soul sends a ray of its light through the crown, activating all the chakras but places itself like a ball in the heart chakra. It does this so the heart can beat, the lungs breathe and the immune system can kick in. This allows your heart to activate this light in every cell in your body until you have a body halo cocoon, brightening your auric field. I loved the idea of Be the Light as a theme because that is the truth of what we are.”
Savitri and Aadil have issued a public response and as of Wednesday morning, received a response back from Melissa with the invitation to meet with a mediator. The first thing they would like is simply an apology, not just to them but to those who were impacted by the event, including their students and staff. Alive and Shine had their paid booth shut down and their classes at the conferences promptly cancelled, and as such, they are seeking monetary compensation for their losses.
Many in the community have recognized that now is not the time to be silent. Others disagreed, spurning a whole other dimension of derision. Savitri commented that the only criticism she received (and by just a few people) was a request to just let things pass. We both discussed how important it is, in a healthy and productive way, to use what influence they have to advocate for what’s right: mutual love and respect for all. It seems we all have our work cut out for us in this area. Most of her students published messages more in the line with the following:
“As jarring as the interruption is, especially to the quietude of a yogic soul, I’m so warmed by the fact the Savitri didn’t just smile and accept this. She spoke up and in doing so stood up not just for women (her topic at the time) but also Aadil, herself, and the yoga which they both graciously hold.” – G. K. (Student of Aadil and Savitri)
It’s been days since the event and righteous indignation has the potential to denigrate a potential teaching moment into a …
“huite privilege” mud-slinging marathon. I have never personally seen such vitriol exchanged between teachers, yoga studios owners, and leaders in our yogic community. If our response was fueled by a desire to lovingly advocate for Savitri and equality and respect for all people, many of us went about this in a non-constructive way. Excoriating Melissa, challenging and attacking other people who continued to teach is simply unacceptable, and certainly not the spirit of yoga that Savitri was planning to speak to on Friday,
“There is always room for feelings, but those feelings need to be interpreted and acted on properly,” she wisely says.
When asked about how many have reacted, she was very warmed by the support from the community. The profanity and negativity, she can do without,
“There is no hate or anger towards Melissa or the yoga conference. But there is a time for love in action. What happened was a big shock to the nervous system; but if we use this experience wisely, then we can have profound healing for our community.”
Now the opportunity lies to take (responsible) and (loving) action to address some of the challenges that ail us. It actually pains me that the first five hundred words of this article is focused on everything that went wrong. It is my sincere hope that the second half of the article focused properly on the possibility of what’s next—for all of us– to make things right, for everyone.
Thank you to Savitri and her family for taking time to talk to me and for Seattle Yoga News for publishing this article. Look for updates on this article as the story progresses and the community begins to earnestly assess where we can all bring about profound change, in peaceful yogic ways.
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