Whose yoga is it anyway?


 By Shipra Mathur | July 24th, 2018

In 2017 I went to Maui to relax, rejuvenate and be one with myself. So when I heard that the resort was offering a “yoga on the beach” class, I was all for it. The next day, I arrived early and saw a room full of almost all white women in their 20’s-40’s and few white men. I was the only brown person there!

After checking in and getting situated on the beach, we were instructed on the “proper way to breathe.” At this point, the perky women next to me exclaimed - "this is awesome isn't it?" I acknowledged in agreement. She then proceeded to ask me "do you know Bikram yoga? You know what it means?" To which I politely replied- "Yes, I’m Indian, I know what it means."

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However, after this brief interaction I started to think about why she asked me if I knew what Bikram yoga was. Was it because, I was Indian and she assumed that I would have a deep understanding or was it because I was the only brown person in the room and and she wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. Perhaps, I was overthinking it all and it was really just small talk. Nonetheless, the conversation left me wanting to explore the origins of yoga and how it seemed to be more widely embraced by Western culture then the Eastern culture that invented it.

Yoga was invented by the Indus civilization about 5000 years ago. Swami Vivekanand was the pioneer who introduced Yoga to the Western civilization. The new school yoga are the Western adaptations.

Today, if you go to a yoga studio in North America, you will often notice a lack of brown people in the room. Why is that? Why is it that so many of us are choosing not to practice  yoga despite growing up in a culture that invented it?

Maybe, it's because we associate it with the cultural norms and stereotypes. As minorities, we often just want to find ways to fit into the larger American culture and sticking to zumba classes versus yoga classes helps us break away from the unspoken stereotypical expectations placed on us.  It might also be that we don't want to seem less knowledgeable than the non Indian practicioners. I know I have had moments, where I have been expected to be a lot more knowledgeable about the subject and felt embarrassed that as an Indian, I don't know a lot about yoga other then the basics. The truth is that American who have embraced this art with so much conviction are far more knowledgeable than most Indian people I know. 

Perhaps, Indian don't embrace yoga is because in America, Yoga is a privilege and classes are expensive and considered a luxury by many Indians. I know in my experience, my friends and acquaintances consider it to be a bit self indulgent and feel like they will be judged as being "pretentious" or "self absorbed". I vividly remember a conversation I had with in my mother in law about this very issue. One morning I informed her that I was going to drop off the kids early and then go to yoga afterwards. To which, I was told, "you know, it's so easy to do yoga at home, you don't need instructors and they are only there to make money." I politely disagreed and went to class anyways, it did bother me that so many Indian women, especially of an older generation, consider any form of self-care to be indulgent and ostentatious. They strongly believe that a role of an Indian women should not extend beyond caring for the family and a 90 minute $25 hot yoga class is far too liberal of a concept. 

It turns out 80% of indians living in america do not know or practice yoga. If asked, they would also not be able to tell you the difference between bikram yoga and vipassana. Their is also a stark difference between the yoga practices of India vs. America. 

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I read this great article about different styles of instructors and this is what it had to say - Most yoga teachers in India limit their teachings to the alignment, breathing patterns, focus of the mind, and other guidelines around the asana and its benefits. The language used is plain and simple. In contract, in America, I’ve noticed how the yoga teachers often talk about healing, relationships, opening your heart, pain, sorrow, joy, trauma and so much more. The yoga practice is about connecting emotionally and physically to one self. The first few times I attended a yoga class in America, this was very alien to me. It would be considered an unnecessary distraction back home. However, I have come to really appreciate how the western culture is modernising the practice of yoga and embracing the idea that different things work for different people.

Like the Bhagavad Gita says, "there are as many yogas as there are people".