Video of Bellevue studio owner kicked out of yoga conference incites questions of racism

Facebook commenters believe the act was driven by racism and white privilege.

A Facebook video of a Redmond woman getting kicked out of a yoga conference in February has caused some commenters to believe the act was driven by racism and white privilege.

As of March 20, the video has generated nearly 160,000 views on one Facebook account and another 54,000 from another video, depicting the same incident, on another account.

The video shows Indian meditation master and yogi Savitri, who co-owns the Bellevue-based Alive & Shine Center with husband Aadil Palkhivala, accepting an award on her husband’s behalf at the Northwest Yoga Conference, which took place Feb. 21-25 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

But instead of getting the 10 minutes allotted to give a speech, which she said she was told beforehand, conference founder and director of the event Melissa Hagedorn, a white woman, interrupted her and told her she needed to wrap it up.

In the video, viewers can see Savitri explain she was given 10 minutes before proclaiming, “this is the yoga I’m concerned about” to the crowd.

Hagedorn responded that she needed to leave if she wouldn’t cooperate.

“Is this what you want?” Savitri asked the audience.

Hagedorn again asked her to leave the room before eventually taking the microphone and asking for “all of you” to leave with her.

The Reporter attempted to contact Hagedorn through the Northwest Yoga Conference, however, neither the organizers of the conference or Hagedorn responded.

In a phone interview, Savitri said she had met Hagedorn three times prior to the event and each encounter was friendly. On the day she was supposed to accept an award for her husband, who had been sick with bronchitis, she said Hagedorn never communicated with her about timing.

“All luminaries had 10 minutes to speak,” she said, adding that before she left for the conference, her husband reminded her “remember, you have 10 minutes to talk.”

The time limit was confirmed, Savitri said, when the person speaking before her asked if this was his 10 minutes to speak. Hagedorn allegedly said no. Savitri said that, in light of that response, she asked whether she had 10 minutes when she was called up.

“She said ‘yes’ with a smile and handed me the mic,” she said. “She didn’t hand the first fellow the mic but she handed me the mic.”

Hagedorn interrupted Savitri about five minutes into her speech.

“My nervous system was very shocked,” Savitri said. “I’ve never encountered anything like this. To me, that’s a form of bullying.”

The incident was the very opposite of what yoga is supposed to be about, which is respect, Savitri explained. Also, Savitri is a teacher and is Hagedorn’s elder and, in Indian culture especially, disrespecting elders or teachers is considered rude, at best.

“Then I thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s being disrespectful to my husband and teachers,” she said, noting that she was representing her husband. “Indian culture is based on that type of thinking.”

As Savitri and the 12-15 yoga students she knew from Alive & Shine Center were kicked out of the conference, she felt empowered and did not want to walk away feeling as though she were a victim. Because she was accepting the award on her husband’s behalf, her husband had arranged for her speech to be recorded, which she approved. Remembering this, she requested her daughter put it on Facebook.

“I got a very strong inner voice, if we don’t bring truth out now, there will be a lot of lies and gossip,” she said.

At around the same time, Savitri said her husband got a call from Hagedorn’s employee letting him know the two had been kicked out of the whole multi-day conference. They had already paid $500 for a booth and had planned to teach yoga and meditation classes throughout the weekend.

Now, they have a mediator to figure out the finances. But many in the community, as well as Savitri, are left wondering why this happened.

Savitri believes the Western cultural appropriation of yoga, which originated in northern India 5,000 years ago, has caused those who practice it to forget its origins of respect.

“The whole purpose of yoga is to have foundation of respect,” Savitri said. “Namaste — a hand gesture — means I respect you, I respect who you are. In yoga class, we do the same thing of hands in Namaste. And I feel that this whole situation is a perfect example that yoga taught in the west by Westerners has removed this respect aspect.”

Savitri said it’s instead been turned into an exercise that relieves aches and pains and promotes cute hips and a sexy body.

“Yoga is a whole system of how to live life to the fullest by acknowledging and guiding your mind, body, feelings and spirit’s role in your life,” Savitri said. “Yoga teachers today are barely taught the lifestyle component that brings the inner peace, and happiness humanity hungers for.”

Others on Facebook who commented on the video delivered similar messages about appropriation and privilege.

Rmala Aalam from Pakistan said, “I never thought appropriation was a real issue but this proves it is, and these deep-seated colonial racists can’t let go of their supremacy.”

Elizabeth Peregrina said, “What you did was deplorable, white blonde lady. People like you make my yoga community a joke.”

Kundan Chhabra said, “Yup. This is Whyte [sic] Supremacy in action!”

And Jeffrey Lynn Damon said, “Can you believe this?!?! More like colonized yoga!”

On March 11, more than 10 Northwest Yoga Conference 2018 teachers and presenters authored a letter addressing the incident. Although the letter, “A Call for Meaningful Dialogue” was posted to the conference’s website by “Melissa,” Hagedorn was not among the listed authors.

In the letter, they explained three of the authors were present during the incident with Hagedorn and Savitri and witnessed the encounter. They said the incident was unfortunate and distressing for all involved and that it could have been handled differently.

“We acknowledge there were dynamics none of us were privy to, including a disagreement before the speech regarding the time allotted for different aspects of the ceremony,” the letter reads. “We are seeking more clarity and believe it important to understand there are two sides to this story.”

Although they acknowledged Savitri was “rudely” cutoff mid-speech and that they “clearly see the complexity of a power struggle,” as well as that some see it as white privilege emerging, they ultimately declared that “to reduce the incident to a racially motivated incident is false, damaging and does not invite the nuanced conversations around race and power that are necessary for individual and systemic change.”

The authors then pointed out a boycott and aggressive confrontations by protesters that had ensued during the rest of the conference, which caused “significant harm and confusion.”

“We stand together in our integrity even as we have been attacked and threatened with public shaming,” the authors write. “We will not participate in a trial by social media, where selections of a video are shown without any context of what led to the incident or what happened after. We will not tolerate verbal abuse, social shaming nor manipulation of events and incidences through half-truths, distortions or assumptions.

“We do not support destroying the conference nor the community by a divisive culture created by spreading conflict, rumors and attacks over social media.”

What they do support, however, is conflict resolution between Savitri, Palkhivala and Hagedorn and having face-to-face conversations with students and conference participants.

“We continue our exploration of racism and discrimination in the context of Westernized yoga and we embrace the opportunity to deepen our understanding,” they wrote, noting that the incident challenged them to reflect deeply, face their shadows and determine where they stand.

While the letter had some positive feedback, one commenter claimed the 11 white people who authored the letter were “white people telling people of color, who saw this as an issue that had racial overtones, that this wasn’t about race.”

Northwest Yoga Conference responded and an online conversation developed about the definition of racism, gas lighting and other issues.

One commenter wrote, “WE are not simply reducing this to a racially motivated incident but rather asking you to look at the role race played in power dynamics and the outcome. That this is the nuance.”

Husband Aadil Palkhivala and wife Savitri in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Alive & Shine Center

Husband Aadil Palkhivala and wife Savitri in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Alive & Shine Center