Over a decade ago, Varun Singal left his home town in Chandigarh to start a new life in Melbourne. Growing up gay in a conservative household and society, he admits that he was fortunate to get away. “I was lucky. Australia became my escape,” he says. Now 31, and based in Goa, he wants to ensure that nobody from the LGBTQ community in India feels the way he did all those years ago, consumed by a need to ‘escape’.
And he’s already taking the first steps by setting up India’s first LGBTQ-friendly retreat, Simply Yoga, in Goa this year. Why yoga? “Because yoga doesn’t judge. It will be a place where everyone can come, learn and be themselves,” adds Singal. But there’s a bigger reason behind his proclivity for yoga – the practice helped him find himself when he was uncertain about what he wanted from life.
In search of the self
Jaded with a dull, monotonous life, working with the Attorney General in Melbourne, Singal took a year-long sabbatical and travelled the world, including to the States, Canada and Europe. “I wanted to work with the Syrian refugees in Europe, but they didn’t want a foreign national, so I moved to Nepal,” he says. There, in Pokhara, he did an intensive 200-hour training course in ashtanga and hatha yoga, becoming a Yoga Alliance International-certified teacher. In April 2015, the earthquake struck and he had to leave.
It was a big turning point in Singal’s life. He had lost a very close friend and his family was concerned about what he wanted to do next. That was when the idea of starting a LGBTQ-friendly yoga retreat struck him.
“I feel India has lost a lot of its spirituality and what better way to give back than with a discipline that originated in the country?” he asks. His friends in India had often lamented the lack of ‘safe spaces’ where the LGBTQ community could hang out without fear of being judged and he knew his retreat had to transcend those limitations. “People with alternate sexualities have been persecuted all their life. This is a way to empower them, make them feel like they’re part of something.”
By then, Singal’s own relationship with his parents had become more comfortable. His coming out process, though, took nearly five years. “They were educated enough, but because of the society we are a part of, they lived in fear of being shunned. I had to explain to them that this was not my choice or in my control... we discussed things, I answered questions,” he says, adding that they were instantly on board when he told them about Simply Yoga. They even accompanied him when he was location scouting in Goa. “It’s like they’re the producers and I’m the cameraman. I have to account for every dollar that I’m spending,” he says, laughing.
Once word got out, Singal was surprised at the magnitude of response and positivity that poured in from across the country, including from the straight community. Model and actor Sushant Divgikar, who represented India at an international gay pageant in 2014, extended his support. Singal recounts the story of a Bangalore-based yoga teacher who wrote to him. “He had not come out to his family, and after a violent sexual experience, had become infected with HIV. He wanted to know if I would hire him and I said, ‘why would I discriminate if you’re capable of doing a good job.’” An activist from the UK, whom he met in Goa, wanted to join hands too.
Deciding on Goa as the location was almost a no-brainer as he wanted a place that was relatively more progressive. In Assagao, he stumbled upon an old, 1,000-square-metre villa that was a perfect fit. The house’s Portuguese owners were living in Canada and after much convincing, Singal struck a deal. He then went about acquiring permissions from the town planner, the panchayat, the health department and even the forest department, since the space was an agricultural land. With homosexuality still a criminal offence in the country, he sought legal advice too, but he didn’t have much to worry about. “Section 377 is centred on unnatural sex. We’re not doing anything culturally or illegally inappropriate. Being gay is not illegal,” he says.
No discrimination here
His plan for the self-funded project is quite straightforward – it’ll be a place where everyone, heterosexuals included, can relax, learn yoga, eat some good food and take part in fun activities like movie nights. The retreat will have around 14 suites, a bistro, a swimming pool, an office and a garden where he plans to grow fruits and veggies.
“At the same time, I don’t want it to be a place where we put restrictions, that you can only eat vegetarian food or have to sit on bamboo mats. It’ll be true to the yoga philosophy – do everything in moderation.”
And unlike most new-age studios in the state, which cater to Westerners, this one isn’t elitist. “When I was travelling, I noticed a big push towards studio yoga, which is focused around capitalism. I want Simply Yoga to be a place where even the locals can come and learn. There’ll be charity-based teaching too,” he says.
Once it’s set up, Singal plans to replicate the model in other cities too. As the construction moves forward full swing, he hopes Simply Yoga comes to stand for true equality and hospitality. “It will be a place where people of any sexuality, from all walks of life, can come and share a bed without being judged. If your family or society shuns you, you can come here and feel safe,” he says.
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From HT Brunch, January 8, 2016
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