Elephants and feet

I’m increasingly realising what it means to ground oneself, in āsana practice, in life. How standing tall is a deliberate and powerful act of engagement with the world, even if its power is subtle enough to have eluded me until maybe now-ish. I find myself instructing my students to stand ‘as though they really mean it’ when they come into Taḍāsana, but I can’t convey what this means to me, how significant Taḍāsana feels to me now.

feet in the streetI’m increasingly aware of feet in āsana practice, of the position of them and the subtle muscular actions that vibrate right up through the body. If āsana can be interpreted more liberally as ‘one’s connection with the earth’ then the feet are often the conduit for this connection. I couldn’t resist giving mine some literal connection with the earth after class recently. I wandered home through the town centre, weaving through the summer tourists and evening party-goers in their high-heels and frocks. I got a few odd looks. I couldn’t have cared less!

But in other respects my feet are causing me some anxiety. Ever since I was mildly rebuked by a teacher earlier in the year for not tucking my feet away while I was sitting opposite her, I’m more aware of the ‘language of feet’ in more traditional teachings. And if I’m trying to tread more carefully in my practice both literally and symbolically, I’m also stressing out about where to put my feet on my mat towel. Not the usual bother of how to step neatly so I don’t ruck it up, but by the fact that it has a Ganesha symbol at the top of it. It’s the symbol used by the local studio in their marketing and products, and I bought it one very hot day when I needed something to give me a dry surface for practice. Is it just the irregular shape that distracts me? Is it that I’m sure there’s some cultural concern about not trampling on the image of any deity? So I turn the towel round so Ganesha is less distracting (and actually less under my feet) at the bottom end of the mat. I’ve side-stepped the problem, give or take 90 degrees! 🙂

As if this wasn’t giving me enough to angst about, Hubby sent me news of yet another yoga leggings company being forced to withdraw stock that featured Ganesha in the design print. I remember a pretty high profile case some time ago; this article mentions two more examples in Australia. So where does one draw the line with the use of religious iconography? Is my mat towel offensive to some? Should I as a non-Hindu wear a Ganesha pendant even? And is it OK to lay it down on the corner of my mat during practice, avoiding putting it on the floor at least! Is it any better that I do this knowingly than my fellow student who seems innocently proud of her rear-end Ganesha tattoo?

And of course this isn’t just about Ganesha and Indian attitudes to feet. There’s the larger question about the transmission of practices between cultures. How does a yoga practitioner in the west tread sensitively through a potential religious and cultural minefield? How far is ignorance an excuse or good intentions a refuge?

4 thoughts on “Elephants and feet

  1. I tend to think that education is the solution. We need to engage devout Hindus in this regard and listen to what they have say. It’s like the Indigenous peoples here (in Canada) making public statements about how they feel if someone “dresses up like an Indian” on Hallowe’en. It just is NOT acceptable anymore. We need to learn what is culturally sensitive in our enthusiastic embracing of yoga in the West. Thanks for introducing the topic here, babycrow!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In Indian tradition, deities are revered and never worn as part of clothing. We idolise our idols😊
    Pun apart, it’s part of honouring the entire symbolism of the deities. If we replace the image of Ganesha with Jesus or the Bible, imagine the furore! Books too get the same reverential treatment.
    As for the leg, in more orthodox traditions, it would be considered insulting to sit with ones’s legs spread out in front of you. They would always be out of sight. If one’s leg touched another person, it would be customary to touch the other person. I believe it has to do with completing an energy circuit. Younger people would rise if an older person entered the room and so on. At the same time, it was a practice to touch the feet of elders.
    Most of these customs have been greatly relaxed and almost forgotten especially in urban areas but they used to be part of everyday, not too long ago. As a culture, everything was revered and the approach was one of celebratory worship.
    I’m not an authority on all these but most of it was part of my growing up…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Sonia. This is so interesting and helpful. I wondered why the yoga leggings received such bad press, given the number of Ganesha printed t-shirts etc. Is it the lower part of the body that’s also relevant, ie worse than anything above the waist?
      I also wondered about reverence for books. Is it just books (all books?not just holy books?) or all material objects? At my studio we’re encouraged to use all props with respect and in teacher training we were told to look after our books with care, reverence almost.
      I love the idea of approaching everything with a sense of ‘celebratory worship’. The opposite of how I grew up where everything seemed ephemeral and replaceable…

      Like

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