I was in a dark room, and Indian chants were playing in the background on a cold February morning in Asheville, North Carolina. The teacher had a pseudo-Indian name that was not really Indian to my ears (nor did it sound American, but I don’t think the other students knew the difference and perhaps assumed it lent the teacher more legitimacy). The vinyasa flow was rather fast and felt jerky. As I was slow to adapt to the poses and this foreign atmosphere, the teacher asked me if I understood English. I was flabbergasted. Not only did I understand English (I had just finished my postgraduate in English literature two summers ago), but yoga came from my country and I grew up practicing it.
The class ended with Namaste. Namaste is often translated as “I bow down to the divine within you,” and no yoga class in India that I know of ends with Namaste. It would be completely out of context, and in this class felt rather presumptuous.
When I first landed in New York City over ten years ago now, I was shocked by the commodification of my culture. I saw stores selling Indian artifacts like idols, incense, T-shirts with gods on them, and yoga accessories at high prices without any cultural context. On the same trip I looked into taking a class in the city and was disappointed to learn that it would cost me an arm and a leg: $25 for an hour-long class. That would pay for a couple months of classes back home!
Growing Up With Yoga in India
I started practicing yoga when I was six years old. I studied yoga throughout my school life, and after school I studied it at the Arya Samaj in my urban neighborhood in Mumbai, India. Yoga is such a deeply rooted part of our culture that many friends and relatives went to the Arya Samaj to practice it. Different levels of classes were offered, and it only cost Rs 500 for one month of classes in the 1990s and early 2000s. With the rate of dollar-to-rupee conversion, that was only about $8 for a whole month (with classes four days a week). Most of my teachers were trained at the Yoga Institute of Mumbai, which is the oldest organized center for yoga in the world. I took some classes at the Institute as well, and in both places the yoga rooms were simple, well-lit, and cooled by high ceiling fans. Our mats were made of straw, and the idea of doing yoga to music was unheard of. None of my teachers needed to take on Indian names because they were already from India to begin with. The classes were usually gentle, just enough to stretch and release the muscles and gently stimulate the internal organs.
Continuing My Yoga Experience in America
After that first disappointing yoga class in 2011, I wrote off yoga in this part of the world and continued to practice on my own. I would do my practice on quiet afternoons in my first house in America, missing the inspiration and camaraderie of my classes in India. I also missed the presence of a teacher. The Buddha said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” My yearning must have been sincere, because through some common friends in my community, I met Zo Newell who went on to become my mentor and a dear friend. Zo was introduced to yoga as a child; she has a degree in religious studies and specializes in Indian mythology. She has been to India several times. She is a yoga purist, and I love that. Our common interests led to a friendship and a weekly time to practice together.
Through Zo I met like-minded yogis. They were older women who seemed to have more of an understanding of yoga’s cultural background. Many of them had been to India, and they were interested in traditional yoga practices rather than trends. I took some classes alongside them at a local yoga studio that was in the home of a new yoga teacher who drew many teachers together to teach different levels of classes. Learning from all these teachers has definitely enhanced my own practice, and whenever I can, I try to continue my practice with them.
Working with Zo strengthened my personal relationship with yoga and that relationship became one of finding my own balance between yoga in the East and the West. I was able to take more classes and see them for what they were. Zo’s confidence in the purity of yoga is strong, but she makes allowances for alterations and adaptations. With her, I was able to spot things that were different in a way that was great, but was also un-Indian. The choice was mine, I could dwell on these differences or take them in stride. I chose to observe and take what worked for me and move on. Here are some of the things I have learned on my yoga journey in the West.
Yoga in the West is a melting pot.
In my experience, America is about accepting, taking things in, and making them its own. Where else would you find turmeric orange juice and sweet, crispy seaweed snacks? Fusion and adaptation are not unique to yoga—they’re the result of the melting pot of global culture. For example, the best-selling burger at McDonald’s in India is the Maharaja Mac, a chicken (not beef) burger with Indian spices. It seems everything inevitably gets appropriated.
In regard to yoga, some of this appropriation comes out of genuine interest in the science, craft, and knowledge of the practice. It may also stem from the thirst to take the practice to the next level of mastery and creativity. I have to commend serious yoga teachers and practitioners like Zo for their study of Indian scriptures, yoga texts, and mythology. Even though yoga is so commonly practiced in India, when I lived there, my fellow practitioners and I didn’t study its history in such depth, perhaps because we took it for granted as students. Having said that, the extreme appropriation I see via forms like beer yoga, goat yoga, and various other types of packaging that muddy yoga’s original purpose make a trivial joke of yoga. To me, those forms of appropriation are unacceptable. I agree with Susan Barkataki, who recently said in an interview with Rachel Brathen, “It would be a shame if yoga became Jazzercise.”
Teaching is less formal.
The teacher-student relationship in America is more informal, while in India it is stricter. When coming from the Guru Shishya Parampara (heritage), one cannot question a teacher about poses or their sequence. One is only supposed to follow the instruction and trust the teacher’s wisdom and experience.
Growing up I never questioned why my teacher chose 30 minutes of savasana to end the class or why sometimes our classes only included five poses. The teacher decided how long we held poses, and the idea of time was fluid. We were never juggling to fit a certain number of poses in a set amount of time or to reach a specific postural goal. This concept resonates with the ancient idea that, in the East we see time as circular, while the West sees it as linear.
The focus on anatomy in American yoga classes is another difference I’ve observed. Where I lived in India, the study of anatomy was limited to teacher trainings, and alignment was not taught in the classes I took there either, but I have greatly enjoyed the emphasis on it in my classes in the U.S.
Once, I accidently tucked my toes in cobra and found my teacher saying, “How does it feel to do it this way?” I thought for a moment and said, “It's a great stretch for my calves.” To which she responded: “Well, stay as long as you like,” It was an empowering and freeing notion to think I could break a yoga rule and still enjoy my practice! Breaking rules can get us more in touch with our bodies; however, you do have to know the rules thoroughly to break them without injuring yourself, which is where some knowledge of anatomy and alignment can come in handy.
Themed classes were new to me.
Focusing on, say, the hips or back or even on a concept like letting go can make classes distinct and memorable. Themed classes in restorative yoga have helped me address my many injuries. They have also helped me to get through difficult times in my life. What is also distinct about themed classes is that they lead to a unique experience.
Yoga classes back home were not about a “created experience,” because for many of us, they were just something we did as part of our heritage. Generations have done yoga and continue to do it. People do their practice and get on with their lives. These classes are hatha classes, where the asana practice is preparation for seated meditation. Whether gentle or advanced, they are usually classes for the whole body.
In my experience, unless you signed up for a themed workshop such as “Yoga for Back Pain” or “Yoga for Sciatica,” yoga classes in India generally did not focus on a theme. My teachers at Arya Samaj talked extensively of the benefits of asanas while we did them, so that if need arose to use them to address a certain condition we would know how. I still remember those recommendations and have used them for issues ranging from minor things, like a stiff neck, to major things, like surgery recovery. In both cases they helped me immensely.
Props are more common.
In my youth, my personal practice at home was a no-fluff affair. I had no props and sometimes no mat either; I practiced anywhere and everywhere. That was and still is a great skill to possess. But I learned to use props in America because of the popularity of styles like Iyengar yoga here. Yoga blocks are now my best friends—I could never have imagined the variety of downward dog experiences I could have while using blocks. When I had stiff shoulders from an injury and the traditional pose was hard to do, I placed blocks under my hands during a down dog, which helped to alleviate my discomfort. At another time when I needed to build strength in my shoulders for carrying my baby, I placed blocks under my feet to give my arms a deep stretch that also built strength and relieved tension. In many ways, the use of props has revitalized my practice.
Yoga is more often treated as a workout.
Yoga at first seemed rather athletic here in the U.S. The yoga I practiced in India was not meant to be a workout—perspiring profusely was not the goal. Some yoga teachers back home cringe at the idea of yoga being a workout. But now that my life is so full with a job, a family, and the general chores of adulthood, I have limited time to exercise. Under these circumstances I consider being able to turn yoga into whatever I’m up for on that particular day to be a great opportunity. When I have the energy, it is stimulating to do a physically challenging practice, and when I don’t have enough energy, it is quite okay to do gentle or restorative poses. This is my best taking from yoga in the West. I would never appropriate yoga to vulgarity but I have learned that in order to grow in my practice, I need to look at it with different eyes. That’s part of being a bicultural citizen—one learns and unlearns, and takes the best from both worlds.
Yoga fashion is a thing.
I have a confession: My favorite aspect of yoga in America is the clothes. In India our yoga clothes were comfortable—not too tight and not too loose. I remember not worrying about what to wear, and that made life easy. But I love fashion and am absolutely head over heels in love with yoga fashion. My yoga drawer is overflowing with outfits that originally were paired by color, but then my collection grew so much that it now looks like a teenager’s closet! At class I am inspired by fellow yoginis’ clothing and am first to check out the current styles. I have subscribed to all athletic clothing websites to keep up with changing trends and especially markdowns, because I cannot afford these brands at full price. There is absolutely nothing like yoga pants; I could literally live in them! Be it stripes, the currently popular floral prints, or the classic black or gray pants, I love them all.
Call me shallow, but it actually makes me look forward to my practice. I did take a very cool name-brand outfit back to India one time, but it was too hot and I felt like a misfit in a class that wore completely different yoga gear, so I was back to my not-too-tight, not-too-loose clothing. (When in Rome…)
Online yoga is way more popular.
The large offerings of online classes and courses has been such a gift to me. Initially I was hesitant to try online classes. I thought them impersonal, fast-paced, and unmonitored (and thus unsafe). I prefer to be under the direct guidance of a guru, as I was in India, but the reality of my life in the West does not allow that. Classes in the U.S. can be very expensive, and it’s much more affordable to practice online with teachers that you resonate with. When choosing a class, I look at the teacher’s experience and the theme of the class, and the most important thing for me is that the class is easy to follow and not too fast-paced. Some of the teachers I enjoy are Adriene Mishler, Luke Ketterhagen, Kat Heagberg, and Sandra Anderson.
In my new home of America, I deeply hope that yoga awareness continues to grow. Not in mere numbers, but in its true spirit of transformation, so that while being trendy, fashionable, and fun, we always remain aware of yoga’s power and yearn for a deeper understanding of its meaning in our lives. I believe we can gain so much from learning about the history and cultural background of yoga, and it’s never too early or late to start. I am lucky to have started so young. By introducing yoga to children in our own homes and communities, we can cultivate the seeds of a lifelong gift. I hope to always be a student, because a true student is one who never stops learning.