Towards an "engaged" yoga? Ananda and Magali, a transmission of yoga in service of emancipation

This interview is the first in a series of articles about yoga and engagement. Today, numerous initiatives are emerging to promote teachings and representations of yoga that differ from those propagated by the yoga and wellness industry. From this shared vocation arises a diversity of approaches that emphasize various issues: body inclusivity in classes, the alliance between activism and practice, active efforts to reach out to marginalized populations, and emancipatory pedagogies, among others. Through these interviews, Citta Vritti aims to give a voice to those who are working to envision alternative ways of transmitting yoga that are connected to societal challenges.

This series of interviews begins with Ananda Ceballos and Magali Darier. Ananda is a Ph.D. in philosophy, a yoga teacher, and a trainer. Magali is the director of Satya Yoga, a yoga teacher trainer, and a specialized movement studies practitioner. I met Magali when I was starting out as a teacher, and our encounter had a profound impact on me. Following our meeting, I joined the teaching team at her yoga studio in Paris. Magali's approach to her yoga school, teaching, and relationship with practitioners stood out in the Parisian yoga scene that I knew. She aimed to promote a neighborhood yoga, free from frills, consumerism, and extravagance. She was committed to making Satya Yoga a place of simplicity and warmth for practice. Her respectful yet clear-eyed perspective on yoga and the yoga industry struck me at a time when I was grappling with cognitive dissonance regarding this new world I was diving into. Magali created a yoga teacher training program and turned to Ananda Ceballos, a yoga trainer since 2004 at the French School of Yoga in Paris and other schools affiliated with the National Federation of Yoga Teachers, as a specialist in the history of yoga and its foundational texts. According to them, this training (in which I will occasionally participate) was born out of both pedagogical and political necessity. They further explain, "We want to work together towards the emergence of a yoga practice and transmission that meets the challenges and complexities of our time." 

It is both the explicitly engaged dimension of their training and the unique way in which it is realized that inspired me to share their vision with you.

You offer a yoga training with a pronounced engaged dimension. How would you define "engaged yoga"?

Magali : For me, it's not yoga itself that is engaged; the combination of the two doesn't resonate with me. It's the people who transmit it who are engaged. It is us who are engaged and who build a training based on our civic values, with the intention of having an impact in society. What is engaged is also the form we give to our training, with a pedagogy inspired by popular education, active learning methods, and somatic education approaches. It is a yoga training taught by committed individuals.

Ananda : Yes, for me it's important to separate the two terms. And I would add a reflection to that. The act of talking about "engaged yoga," "citizen yoga," or even "political yoga," and inventing yet another epithet to qualify yoga, runs the risk of creating yet another type of yoga and confining ourselves within it. For me, the question is simpler: to be engaged is to be called by a deep conviction, to be called by life itself. I believe it is impossible to exist in the world without being engaged, regardless of the domain. As soon as we are involved in creation, and we all are to some degree, we cannot help but be engaged. 

"I believe that engagement needs to be reinvented today."

The question then is, how do we engage? When I look at the world, I see a collective disengagement. But rather than simply observing or lamenting it, we must take this disengagement very seriously and try to understand it. It comes after a century of horrors, fascist barbarism, unfulfilled revolutionary promises... It seems challenging to engage today using the classical modalities of political struggle and activism, and that is almost good news. I believe that engagement needs to be reinvented today. The great challenge is to invent an engagement without a master, without a guru, without a party, without a predetermined path towards a utopian dream... If yoga allows itself to be imbued with engagement through women and men, we must also accept that there will be a multitude of visions, projects of solidarity, and that these different ways of conceiving engagement, even if they conflict with each other, are necessary. They all have a necessity since they exist; they all mobilize a power, a desire to live. In concrete terms, coming back to yoga, we have all walked out of a yoga session with a reserve of vitality, our bodies rejuvenated, and a very organic joy that we experience individually. It would be a mistake to think that this does not contribute to strengthening the social fabric. Human beings are not islands within islands. To live is to be engaged, and yoga can be a catalyst for vitality.

CV. So, would yoga transform individuals and thus society?

Magali : The practice of yoga can evolve or change our perception, which in turn alters our way of being and acting, potentially having an impact on society!

"Questioning who we are, who is acting when we act, in short, contemplating the subject of agency, isn't this precisely one of the functions of yoga and its corollary, meditation?

Ananda : We continue to think in terms of duality, as if there were two separate things! This brings us back to the old debate between those who believe that to change the individual, one must first change society (through political struggle and seizing power), and those who believe that to change society, one must first change individuals (through personal self-work). These two extreme positions are actually trapped in the same trap, that of dualistic thinking. Classical activism still reflects in terms of the opposition between "society/individual," just as classical ecology continues to think in terms of the opposition between "nature/culture"... It seems to me that at the root of the powerlessness we feel when we want to mobilize to "change things" lies a difficulty that is actually philosophical in nature: "we do not know what we are made of," as Bruno Latour so aptly put it. This difficulty lies in believing that the human being exists independently of the plurality of situations they encounter. Well, questioning who we are, who acts when we act, in short, contemplating the subject of action, isn't this precisely one of the functions of yoga and its corollary, meditation? We must question and even deconstruct these dichotomies that have caused so much harm: "the individual in the world," "the human being and their surroundings," "me and society"...

I believe that yoga, insofar as it is a discipline that helps us deconstruct the modern idea of the isolated individual and challenges the myth of the all-powerful reason, can indeed contribute, among other forms of engagement, to a project of (psycho)social transformation. This is also where yoga helps us: physically, there is a co-emergence between "me and the posture," between "me and the world." I believe that yoga can allow us to step out of our usual framework: there are moments when we take small steps to the side, when yoga allows us to see things from a radically different perspective, and we must consciously seize those moments. For me, this is already a form of engagement. Rather than simply saying, "it feels good," we should ask ourselves, "why does it feel good?" Because it has allowed us to think outside the box, to open up our imagination, to emerge in a new way...

Magali  : Yoga enables us to grasp things through our senses, to realize that we are part of what we perceive, and what we perceive is part of us. Perhaps this movement, this circulation, is somewhat damaged today, and it is perhaps on this aspect that yoga can help us.

Ananda : There is a Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who talks about the "body-perspective": the body is inseparable from the point of view in which it is situated, and the mode of existence of each being is given by their body. As long as we have not overcome this philosophical difficulty, and that requires a somatic experience, it will prevent us from imagining new forms of political engagement. That is why the body holds a central place in our training and in our engagement.

"Yoga allows us to grasp things through our senses, to realize that we are part of what we perceive, and what we perceive is part of us." 

CV. Does your training draw on premodern yoga texts to convey certain values? Do you believe that these texts carry emancipatory or subversive values?

Magali : No, we do not espouse a discourse on yoga. Our position is reflected in our choices, in the way we approach things: a long-term training (two years), a non-vertical teaching approach, a step aside from the cult of the body and physical performance. 

Ananda : I do not believe that yoga has a subversive or emancipatory essence. First of all, because there is not, in my opinion, an "essence" of yoga. Searching for "universal" or "authentic" values of yoga seems illusory to me. We could also fall into the trap of projecting our own ideas onto "liberation," a theme discussed for centuries by different philosophical schools in India. Instead, I consider that when certain foundational yoga texts are read and analyzed from a historical and deorientalizing(that is, without romanticizing them or trying to find in them what we want them to say), and when we allow ourselves to step out of our own thought categories and dare to use our own intelligence, it already carries a seed of subversion. I am not trying to make bridges or transpositions between engagement and the texts. I do not derive my legitimacy from the past, from an approach to yoga that would be more "true." I derive my legitimacy from being closest to the academic research on yoga, updated and accessible to everyone. Furthermore, I also acknowledge that I introduce new elements into my teaching that are not found in any yoga tradition, such as the reflection on the body developed in the 20th century within the framework of philosophy (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and anthropology (Philippe Descola). These elements give us, as yoga practitioners and teachers, access to absolutely fascinating approaches to embodiment and the living, capable of opening us to other possible ways of inhabiting the world.

"I do not believe that yoga has a subversive or emancipatory essence."

To summarize, my goal is to support those who wish to question and move beyond a consumerist approach to yoga... but it would be presumptuous of me to dictate what people should or should not do afterwards. That is entirely up to them!

CV. You emphasize the emancipatory dimension of your training, particularly in your methods of transmission. Can you tell us more about this topic?

Ananda : Since the beginning, Magali and I share the conviction that every educational act, the act of teaching, is a political act. But for teaching to truly serve emancipation, a certain attitude is required from the teacher. In this sense, I am personally inspired by the experience of an astonishing figure, Joseph Jacotot, who saw education as a means of emancipating individuals as long as the teacher succeeds in putting their students in a position to learn by themselves. Hence our interest in active pedagogies and our desire for the teachers trained at Satya Yoga to emerge from this training not only with the necessary technical skills in their profession, but also with a solid culture of debate and a form of critical distance towards their practice. I hope to bring my experience to Satya Yoga to help create a conducive space for developing a particular attention and sensitivity to the body, not a place where one comes to seek definitive knowledge. Co-creating with the students a space of circulation between practice and theory where new perspectives on yoga, new working methods, could emerge. 

Magali : What we wanted to do within our training and what is dear to us is to consider the learner at the heart of their own learning. To offer a training that allows emancipation from certain barriers, to free oneself from moments where one hesitates to do things because they don't feel capable, to encourage them to seek within themselves the resources and tools they have already used in their social, family, and professional spheres... We have all been in a situation of transmission, whether it's with a newcomer in the professional field or teaching someone a recipe. That's for the pedagogical aspect, but it's the same for anatomy. To understand the body, we can rely on the fact that we have all experienced movement: we move, we walk, we live! We want to highlight what the learners bring with them in terms of lived experiences, life experiences, relationships, and transmission, in order to give them confidence and perhaps liberate them from the fear and doubt of not knowing. I believe this is truly a civic and engaged act. The more we instill confidence in people in their ability to be, to act, and to understand, the more we emphasize their intelligence, their way of acting and conceiving things, the more society can change for the better. It may be somewhat utopian, but I believe it is with utopians that we move the world forward!

CV. In the name of what do you believe it is important to offer a civic training today?

Ananda et Magali : I couldn't do anything else!

Magali : It is a way for me to be true to my role as a teacher: to offer a different approach to embodied and creative practice, to move away from the dissonance towards the yoga industry, and to step out of a teaching style that replicates the academic model with lectures and assignments. Instead, I aim to create space for all forms of intelligence and diverse modes of expression, allowing for the embrace of differences. A learner, even if they are not comfortable with writing or essay writing, as in the example of a thesis, is no less interesting and certainly has other ways to share their thoughts. This approach allows us to be closer to the diversity of people that make up our society.

"It is a way for me to be authentic in my role as a teacher: by offering a unique embodied and creative practice, I can step away from the dissonance that exists within the yoga industry."

Ananda : My parents were yoga teachers during the Franco dictatorship in Spain. At that time, there were very few available resources on yoga, and those that circulated did so clandestinely. I share this to illustrate how yoga was culturally associated with the struggle for freedom and social transformation. Of course, we are fortunately not living under a dictatorship, and I don't believe it's about returning to the era of hippies and counterculture! Since I started teaching yoga, I have noticed profound transformations within the yoga world that have raised questions for me and made me feel disconnected. I realized that the immense diversity of yogic traditions allowed them to be used to serve a wide range of socio-cultural norms and political agendas, including the most fierce capitalist and neoliberal market logics, as well as the instrumentalization of yoga by the Hindu far-right. So, I asked myself, how can I remain true to myself in transmitting yoga and reconnect with a more engaged dimension of yoga? Training yoga teachers who are capable of questioning the role they would like to play as citizens in society, who can reflect on how they can contribute to strengthening the social fabric and building social bonds, became my way of engaging. Of course, one doesn't leave Satya Yoga with a magic wand or a "recipe," and that's a good thing! But one may leave with a greater political awareness, in the noblest sense of the term, meaning far from any partisan divide and quest for power. It's not power that interests me, but rather empowerment, restoring confidence in each individual's "power to act," to borrow a beautiful expression from Spinoza. This, I believe, resonated with Magali's request. And I think she turned to me because I embody this commitment in my approach to the practice and teaching of yoga. So, we found each other!

CV: Do you think that yoga can change the world?

Magali : No, but could the men and women who practice yoga have an impact that could potentially change something in this world? Maybe yes, I don't know!

Ananda : I agree, it's a beautiful conclusion, Magali!

To learn more about the training offered by Satya Yoga, visit here:

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