Social Justice and Yoga: Tejal Patel Talks About The Need for Diversity in the Wellness Space

portrait of tejal patel doing yoga stretches for lunch lady magazine

Tejal Patel is a much-loved yoga and mindfulness teacher, podcast host and passionate advocate for making sure there is diverse representation for all people of colour in the wellness space. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I’m the daughter of immigrants from India. I'm the youngest of three sisters, and the proudest Masi (maternal aunt) to the two most intelligent and awe-inspiring little people.

I offer yoga through a holistic, social-justice lens. The aim is to educate and empower individuals and communities. In addition to running an online yoga space, I am co-host of the Yoga Is Dead podcast. I'm also the creator of the abcdyogi network, where South Asian teachers reclaim the yoga and mindfulness space.

How did you get involved in yoga? What drew you to it? 

Yoga has been a part of my life from before I was born; it was passed down to me from the ancestors. My parents practise Hinduism and were taught asan and pranayam back in grade school. Their spiritual practice through prayer and bhakti yoga runs deep and it was always around me, growing up. It wasn’t until much later in life, when I lived in NYC, that I decided to dive into teacher training and experienced yoga studio culture. 

I highlight practising yoga as different from attending classes at a yoga studio because, as a South Asian American, participating in yoga studio culture often felt disconcerting and was completely different from what was familiar growing up. To overcome the discomfort of this Westernisation of yoga, I challenged myself to offer an eight-limbed yoga practice, grounding myself in the fundamentals of ashtanga yoga. 

You’re passionate about social justice. How does your yoga intersect with social justice?

I’ll quote the Bhagavad Gita here: “Although man embodies the highest spiritual principle, he is, nonetheless, embodied. This fact automatically involves the individual in relations with others."

‘Social justice’ means equality of services and systems for all people. It means an equal access to wealth, opportunities and privileges within a society. I think society has a long way to go to treat people as equals. And the practice of yoga is fully aligned with pursuing equality for all people.

My yoga offerings have always included education around political moments, yoga philosophy and questions around a person’s responsibility to self, others and the environment. 

I often quote the great writer Arundhati Roy when people try to argue that yoga is not political. She says, “The moment the breath enters the body, it is political.” To shy away from conversations around social injustices is to do a disservice to yoga and its true purpose to pursue equality for all beings.

Tell us how you became involved in mindfulness.

I think of yoga practice as a practice in mindfulness. I became more formally educated in mindfulness practices through training with the Lineage Project in NYC. It's an organisation that teaches trauma-sensitive mindfulness to young people, ages eleven to twenty-four, who are navigating serious challenges. It also supports the adults who work with them as a way to develop stress management and resilience-building skills, and build community.

What is mindfulness and how does it benefit you?

My definition of mindfulness comes from the Lineage Project as a practice of kind awareness. I use this as a practice of noticing thoughts, feelings, emotions and abilities, without judgement or expectation to change what I experience. It’s a challenging practice that I benefit from daily because it allows me to observe where I may be speaking negatively to myself or pushing harder than my mind, body or spirit can handle at the moment. It teaches me humility and grace and, through the difficulty of self-regulating, I’m able to learn compassion for others.

Tell us your experience teaching yoga and mindfulness to kids?

In my culture and family, we’re very tight-knit. We know that it takes a village to raise grounded little people, and I’m proud to be actively involved in raising my nieces. I love that they are interested in Masi’s yoga movement and meditation classes. 

I’ll also share a story of when I was contracted by the City of New York to offer mindfulness and yoga practices to youth at a 24-hour care centre. The youth who stayed there were rarely long-term residents, so I wasn’t able to connect with the same kids from week to week. That in and of itself was challenging in terms of building relationships. I cherished my time there because I learnt so much about trauma and mindfulness and was able to guide people through meaningful practices.

But there was one time that I was offering a breath practice to both a youth and a staff member in a particular dorm for ten-year-old boys. The practice was to take five breaths and simply observe the breath, feeling for changes in the breath while placing hands on the belly. In the third breath, the staff member had fallen asleep! That’s when I realised that it’s not only kids who need mindfulness practices, it’s the adults too. Not only to use mindfulness in noticing the breath, but to notice when the body is exhausted
and needs rest!

Tell us about your yoga podcast.

Yoga Is Dead is a revolutionary podcast that explores power, privilege, fair pay, harassment, race, cultural appropriation, the Westernised yoga training model, and capitalism in the yoga and wellness worlds. 

Why is this conversation important to you and what particular issues are really important for people to understand?

Having a critical conversation about yoga is of urgent importance! I couldn’t feel more strongly about it. Every day more people than ever are sold an idea of yoga that is completely divorced from the roots of yoga. These ideas are typically driven by capitalism, strip away any cultural history, remove any elements of spirituality, and ignore the philosophy and justice-focused traditions of the many lineages of yoga. This feels like a huge conflict to me as a South Asian woman, with a rich, relevant, cultural background closely connected to yoga.  

I recognise that honouring and upholding yoga’s roots are the most credible ways to practise yoga. I think of yoga as a practice that makes everyone’s lives better. That's because it is about union and finding balance, not just physically but also emotionally, mentally and spiritually. If your practice doesn’t sustain those ideas, if your yoga is a practice exclusively reserved for time on the mat or in seated meditation and doesn’t come anywhere with you outside of the studio, then my request is to start thinking more about where your practice of yoga comes from and where you can add the missing elements of yoga into your life.

For a white woman who practises yoga, what should they be considering from now on?

There’s a lot I can say about this! Here are a few major considerations:

  • Is your yoga practice ignoring or even denying the South Asian roots of yoga?
  • Seek out South Asian teachers and teachers that speak critically about the white-washing of yoga.
  • Start your own critical conversations about changes you wish to see in the yoga and wellness world.
  • Research what educational opportunities exist to learn more about the intersection of yoga, culture and social justice.
  • Are you treating yoga as a fitness class or novelty activity rather than a spiritual practice?
  • Notice the harm and exclusion a spiritually bypassing yoga class does to South Asian teachers and students.
  • Choose classes that teach the principles of yoga and not only the poses of yoga.
  • Reject the gimmicks that are now associated with yoga, such as beer and goat yoga.

I offer a tonne of education in these areas. I’d love to invite all the readers to check out my work with the Tejal Yoga space, the abcdyogi community, and the Yoga is Dead podcast. 


This interview with Tejal Patel was originally published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 21. Photography by Robert Alcantar.

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Tejal also wrote our yoga for kids and mindfulness for kids practices.