Who we are
We are the yoga students who attended the Northwest Yoga Conference (NWYC) and were asked to leave the opening ceremony along with our Heartfull ™ Meditation teacher, Savitri. Many of us stood outside the conference all weekend long. We bore witness to a deep violation of respect, one that continues to be unresolved by the NWYC leadership to date. Over the last three months, we have watched the yoga community respond to this incident and have had powerful conversations within our community and outside it. After reflection, meditation, and integration, we are choosing to speak now.
Most of us are yoga and meditation teachers; we are all women, who range in age from 33 to 72. We have consciously avoided using Sanskrit or yoga jargon in this article to make it as accessible, respectful, and as universal as possible. We are white, Indian, South American; we are mothers, professionals in real estate and tech, art teachers, web designers, producers, managers. Between the 11 of us, there are over 175 years of devoted yoga practice. Yoga is not a hobby for any of us; it is a lifestyle and central principle around which our lives are built. Each of us chose individually to attend the opening ceremony of the Northwest Yoga Conference to honor and celebrate our beloved teachers. Aadil Palkhivala, the yoga asana master and our teacher, was voted as a “Luminary” by the yoga community at large. His wife, a master of meditation and our teacher, Savitri, was accepting this honor on his behalf.
Why we’re speaking
Yoga is a practice of constant evolution towards greater levels of awareness. To just “get over it” and stay silent about misconduct is completely counter to the message of Yoga; it ensures that nothing will change, and it keeps people in power who do not deserve to be in power. This is happening all over the world, but this is a local example that we are committed to healing.
Are there two sides to every story? We believe that there is just one story, but there are thousands of lenses through which people choose to see the story. We recently came together to share our experiences, first with each other to understand our own lenses, and now with you. We were physically the closest to the stage; we could hear every interaction that was inaudible on film. We saw Melissa and Savitri interact before the ceremony, hugging and saying hello. We were the ones behind the cameras, we walked out with Savitri, and we were on the sidewalk all weekend long. We’ve also witnessed the impact this has had on our teachers and community in daily ways.
We meditated together before writing this with a prayer of seeing and expressing truth, removing any veils that keep us from seeing clearly. Our intention here is to speak, as honestly as we can, to the heart of the matter.
This is about respect
Respect is the foundation of yoga, of the word namaste, of social justice, and of basic morality. The lack of respect shown to Savitri on stage, to all of us as her students, and to our entire community following the event is not acceptable. There is no nuanced complexity here, unless it is in your self-interest to obscure the issue. No matter how narrowly or widely you contextualize this incident, what showed up in that room was disrespect.
What would respect have looked like? Here is a video of Bob Smith (another Luminary) giving his 10-minute speech after Savitri was kicked out. Notice that he exceeds the time limit without interruptions or mic-grabs. He is afforded time to share his message; that is what respect would have looked like.
It would have been enormously edifying to have a simple, sincere apology afterwards. Instead, what we witnessed following the event (and now, three months later) is a lack of acknowledgement by Melissa Phillips-Hagedorn and the NWYC that this was deeply disrespectful – not just at the ceremony, but all the actions following. Accountability is the first crucial step in resolution. Respect breeds more respect, and unrepentant disrespect breeds more disrespect.
The many manifestations of disrespect in our world – war, poverty, sexism, sizeism, racism, etc. – can overwhelm us to a point of numbness. But this is our home – the beautiful, alive Northwest – and this is an opportunity for us to act differently and hold those in positions of power accountable. We advocate for respectful, compassionate resolution and reparation. And we will not rest until this issue is resolved.
This is about Truth
Nothing can heal without truth. We believe that bringing awareness to situations that are wrong is not “creating division;” it is the only way to heal division. It was clear that the conference leadership wanted to erase all evidence of wrongdoing – our teachers were kicked out, our studio’s booth was taken down, and they deleted any comments about the incident on social media. This is anti-truth and anti-yoga. We shared our very amateur iPhone videos and our voices because this incident needed to be seen; the videos were not edited or clipped at all (half of us barely know how to use our phones.) We thought we’d be filming an inspiring speech to share with Aadil and Savitri’s students and, well, it didn’t turn out that way.
This situation brought to the surface the many ways we distort the truth with our own biases. Bob Smith’s distorted version of the events, for example, was shocking to all of us who were in the room. It would be irresponsible and dishonest not to clear up some of this misleading information from the first article (link to article by Natalie Cielle) and respond to his second article (link to article by Arti Kumar). We also want to transparently share our knowledge of any “backstory” (link to article by Sandra Storwick).
On the sidewalk that weekend, we were not there to boycott the conference. We were not there to encourage other people to boycott either. We were there to share truth, ask for accountability, and engage with our diverse community; this was some of the most important yoga that was happening that weekend. We handed out a letter from Aadil explaining to any of his students the reason he was not teaching. Many students thanked us and said they had been told “he was sick.”
We had fascinating, loving conversations with people who have worked for the conference for many years – ambassadors, marketing volunteers, vendors, participants. Many shared their discomfort with the direction the conference was going, that it felt very elitist and non-inclusive. These are conversations that we need to have. Are we, as a yoga community, being honest about our own biases? Can we listen to other perspectives in order to widen our own? What voice within us is trustworthy and honest? Do we listen to truth when it speaks, or suppress it?
This is about empowerment
A woman who speaks from a place of strength and clarity, who feels that she belongs in the room and deserves to be heard, is an empowered woman. This was a major message of Savitri’s speech, and she was not just saying the words, but embodying the message. That is the mark of a master teacher. Unfortunately, empowered women are seen as “aggressive,” “angry,” or “bullying” by the bias-ridden mind. The power Savitri held in that room wasn’t power over anyone else; it was empowerment. She spent two hours prior to the ceremony praying to be an instrument of truth. She spent the 30 years prior to this day devoting her life to “being the light” (the theme, as it happens, of the conference)! The energy in the room as she spoke was palpable; we felt the whole environment enlivened, felt the beautiful potential of the yoga conference coming together, and then – the other kind of power showed up and grabbed the mic: power OVER another.
We are deeply grateful that Melissa and Savitri were willing to play this out for us all to witness and reflect: where am I holding authentic power and where am I just pretending? Which part of me gets the mic? Who deserves power? What kind of power do I want? It has been rich fodder for our own spiritual growth.
This is about Yoga
Yoga evolved embedded in Indian culture, the birthplace of both Savitri and Aadil. It has been both offensive and ironic to see the words, stories, and concepts of Indian culture used to defend the disrespect of their family and lineage. In the words of Aadil, “In order for it to be called true yoga, its essence must be embodied.” You may be able to recite the entire Mahabharata by heart, but if you can’t respect the person in front you, you’re not embodying yoga.
In the process of making yoga more palatable to the west, it has come dangerously close to losing its soul. We can’t afford to lose the gift of true yoga – which, to be clear, is multifaceted and owned by no single lineage – to its misappropriated commercial version. This is an opportunity for all of us practicing yoga to look deep into our hearts: how do we reclaim its essence? Who and what are we supporting with our money, devotion, and time? How can we bring the vibration of respect back into our own lives, our interactions with others, and our planet?
This is about Love
Ultimately, we were there because we love our teachers. Savitri and Aadil have supported us through serious illnesses, helped us raise our children, and guided us again and again back to our own inner wisdom; they have devoted their lives to sharing the powerful teachings of Yoga with us, and many others, for decades. Love and respect are necessary for an authentic transmission and expression of Yoga; without that, it is empty.
We also love this sacred practice of Yoga, the purpose of the conference, and deeply respect those throughout the ages who have lived its message and trusted the next generation to hold it, live it, and share it. The ceremony we attended was intended to be one of honoring the lives and gifts of our senior most teachers. To witness the exact opposite was enormously disturbing for us all. To see our teachers denied the right to teach or participate in the conference was inexcusable, and speaking up about this has been an act of love.
Love is not pitying or making excuses for people; that is enabling. Love holds people accountable, it has boundaries, and it says: “That was out of line. You are better than that, and you can make this right.” We also hold love for Melissa and those surrounding her; we are all one large dysfunctional family called humanity. We need to love each other enough to not look away, dehumanize one another, or give up on each other. We believe this can be made right, and we believe that part of making this right is us, as a community, saying: “I am still paying attention. This matters, and we care.”
As highlighted in the petition to support yogic values following the incident, these are the actions we are requesting from the conference leadership:
- Establish clear and direct communication with Aadil and Savitri to extend an apology for Melissa Phillips-Hagedorn’s disrespectful behavior towards Savitri and to their students who were asked to vacate the room along with Savitri.
- Apologize to the many presenters, vendors, teachers and students who were disappointed on many fronts via your facebook page and social media – from losing money, to not being able to take classes with Aadil and Savitri, to feeling violated by your unyogic behavior that did not respect even common courtesy, leave alone basic yogic prinicipes of non-violence, truth, kindness, respect or sister/brotherhood.
- Apologize to Aadil and his students many of whom had come from far away, who were lied to that he had canceled his classes.
- Make monetary compensation to Aadil and Savitri for the loss of their booth which was dismantled and loss of students who would have attended workshops and classes at their studio after the conference.
- Apologize via your facebook page to the yoga community for censoring and deleting the many comments that came in from all over the world on the northwest conference facebook page. You promise not to censor or block any comments in the future or at any future conference.
- Promise to make the NWYC a truly inclusive yoga conference by picking POC (people of color) as well to teach at future conferences.
We are committed to hearing and answering any questions for further clarity. Thank you for reading our words, and for being a part of this healing.