IN­DIA’S FIRST GAY RE­SORT

The yoga re­sort in Goa will have suites, a bistro and a swim­ming pool, and ev­ery­one’s in­vited — het­ero­sex­u­als in­cluded

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - By Shikha Ku­mar Shikha.Ku­mar@hin­dus­tan­times.com Fol­low @TheCom­man­ist on Twit­ter

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.

FIND­ING TAK­ERS

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 no­brainer 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.

“Sec­tion 377 is cen­tred on un­nat­u­ral sex. We’re not do­ing any­thing cul­tur­ally or il­le­gally in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Being gay is not il­le­gal.”

BE­YOND JUDGE­MENTS

Founder Varun Sin­gal has cho­sen yoga as the theme for the re­sort be­cause "yoga doesn't judge"

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