An Indian-American Yogi's Journey

Being an Indian yogi in America is a uniquely, bizarre experience. 99% of the classes I have taken or taught I am the only Indian person. I began practicing yoga as a complement to my athletic pursuits -- I was a marathon runner and enjoyed the physical, or the asana element of yoga. I felt a sense of magic when I was able to connect breathe with movement in an Ashtanga class. it was my first glimpse into meditation and mindfulness. I remember thinking the statues of Indian deities and the chanting in Sanskrit was weird but little did I know how much weirder it would get when I arrived to India. 

Rishikesh, India  Photo Courtesy: Unsplash

Rishikesh, India

Photo Courtesy: Unsplash

I arrived to Rishikesh, bright eyed, looking forward to immersing myself in a traditional yoga experience, in one of the most ancient and scared cities. But to my shock & horror, I found myself face to face with yoga tourism as well as the guru & swami culture of yoga in India. As luck would have it, I came to Rishikesh the same week as “International Yoga Festival” — imagine every corner of the small city overrun by foreigners decked out in harem pants, freshly painted henna and sparkle bindis. They traveled from every part of the world overzealous with spiritual ambitions, eager to fall at the feet of their guru.

I remember asking one of the local shopkeepers -- "What do you think of all this? The tourism? The guru worshipping by Westerners?" 

He laughed and said, "Where the money flows, the guru goes. All my friends back in Dehli come visit this week, it's their holiday. So many Americans wanting to get the authentic Indian experience." he said with a smirk. 

I both laughed and cringed at this crazy yoga culture formed by the East and West. I left India confused, bewildered but steadfast in my commitment to my yoga education, learning about the philosophy as well as other limbs of yoga.  Through all of this, I've found it challenging to maintain a sense of non-judgement -- a hallmark trait of any yogi. 

Every time someone says "Namaste" to me, I want to roll my eyes. Every time I see a tattoo in Sanskrit, I want to judge. Every time a non-Indian person attempts to teach me about my own culture, I want to curse them out. Every time a person talks about their guru, I want to throw up. But it turns out, this is all part of the yoga journey. 

Through all of this, I realized I did not fit in anywhere I went and I accepted it. For me, yoga will always be a solo journey. I don’t follow a lineage, and I don’t believe in gurus. I prefer to learn by self study and the under guidance of teachers who respect their students ability to choose their own spiritual path. I ask questions, I read books and I continue to expand my understanding but cautious to never following anything blindly. The worshipping of a man, no matter how “enlightened” he or she may be, is counterproductive to a path of self-liberation. I believe that yoga is an individual journey that forces you to work through the challenges of your own mind, body, karma to gain an understanding of yourself and the world around you. Yoga makes us closer to one another, contrary to the exclusionary culture of many Western yoga studios. Yoga is simply a way to know yourself. 

My only hope is that all the yogis out there continue their exploration of themselves and that along the way they realize harem pants are a terrible choice and they become obsolete. 

Palak Patel Headshot.jpg

Palak is a mindfulness coach & organizational effectiveness consultant. For over a decade, she has helped individuals and organizations navigate through change across various challenges. Currently, she leads enterprise level technology transformations and coaches executive leaders on how manage people through change. Palak is the founder of Uncommon Coaching, which provides mindfulness based solutions to empower individuals to transform their lives.