April 22, 2014

Confessions of an Indian-American Yogi. ~ Pranidhi Varshney

Flickr/ Pavel Dobrovsky

I recently found myself in a yoga class with two other Indian women and thought to myself, “Wow!” We are representing!

What a rare treat that was to practice with others with whom I share a collective history.

You see, for me (and I suspect the same is true for other practitioners of Indian descent) yoga is not the “lifestyle” it has become in the West.

I wear cotton yoga pants that I buy from places like Gap and Target, I eat cooked food, dairy and sweets, and I don’t feel the need to take and post pictures of myself while practicing asana.

I simply do my practice every morning and get on with my day. The rest of my day just happens to be teaching yoga.

I’m not claiming any moral superiority here. My ethnicity does not entitle me to any sort of ownership over this practice. Quite the opposite, it allows me to view this practice in a broader context, as part of something much greater than myself.

Yoga has existed in one form or another for millennia in India. Chanting, pranayama and gentle asana are things most people there have some familiarity with.

They may not be dedicated practitioners but they don’t see these things as exotic in any way. In fact, the Indian young adults I met last time I was there thought yoga was quite old-fashioned. They much preferred going to the gym.

Here in the West, and particularly in the U.S., we tend to idealize what we perceive as exotic. Perhaps because we lack a shared heritage, there are those who take comfort in assuming the identity of a culture outside of themselves. Intellectual debates about the dangers of this type of appropriation abound in academic circles. It also has profound implications in the world of yoga.

As teachers, we’ve experienced the benefits of a yoga practice first hand and we choose to teach because we have a driving desire to share it. What I often see in western teachers, particularly young ones, is a desire to brand their take on yoga as something new, something that they themselves created. This is what I find quite troubling and lacking in humility.

Being of Indian descent, I have a deep conviction that I don’t own any of this yoga. It’s been passed down for generations and I am simply a vessel. Discovering yoga, for me, felt like coming home to find a treasure in my own backyard.

As a teacher, I want all my students to come into my backyard, take a piece of that treasure and plant it in their own yards so that it flourishes. I’m a teacher looking for students, not followers.

In the ashtanga world, we’re blessed that our practice is still linked quite closely with its tradition. In fact, tradition is inherent in our practice. We chant every day before raising our arms, honoring our roots and the teachers who came before us.

This letting go of ego, this acknowledgment that we are part of something greater than ourselves, is what I’d encourage every yoga practitioner and teacher to take part in. Take part in a method of yoga that comes from a tradition that has been passed down from teacher to student many times over.

Ashtanga is not the only way- there are many others to choose from. These are the methods that make us confront and dissolve our egos. They’re not easy or glamorous, but they are truly transformative.

On the flip side of this ongoing conversation about the origins of yoga and how to keep it authentic, I see some of my Indian brothers and sisters claiming their own sense of ownership over the practice. It’s understandable; we don’t want yoga to turn into a circus, devoid of its spiritual heart. But let’s also give credit where credit is due.

Yoga wouldn’t have the global reach it does today without the interest and influence of the west. Western practitioners have come to India, found the treasure, and planted it around the world. Those who practice and teach with humility and devotion to the practice are lineage holders, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

I find the notion that Hinduism is somehow intrinsically linked to yoga quite flawed. Yes, yoga has roots in the Hindu tradition, as does meditation in the Buddhist tradition and Sufi music in the Islamic tradition. That does not mean that these traditions own these practices.

The practices themselves are universal. Perhaps as another consequence of idealizing the exotic, yoga practitioners tend to idealize Hinduism in a way that fails to acknowledge the reality that it is not a perfect system.

Like all religions, it comes with it’s own set of trappings. Of course there are gems contained within it, but let’s also be real about it’s weaknesses and about the fact that Hinduism is not a requirement for yoga practitioners. My teacher, Manju Jois, said once,

“The minute yoga becomes religious, I will stop teaching.”

This is one of the many reasons I love him.

Will studying the Yoga Sutras and other ancient yogic texts deepen one’s understanding of the true nature of this practice? Absolutely.

Will reading the Bhagavad Gita and other mythological stories, Hindu or not, provide us with guidance on how to live a meaningful life? Sure.

Let’s also keep in mind, though, that wisdom is held within the practice itself. Within every breath we take with an open heart and within the warmth of every touch of our teacher’s hand.

Whenever I feel myself getting frustrated with the transmission of yoga, when I perceive people as “missing the point,” whether it be my fellow Americans or my fellow Indians, I take a deep breath and remind myself of something Pattabhi Jois said to Nancy Gilgoff. She told us she was struggling with similar concerns and talked to Guruji about them. He said,

“To hear the word ‘yoga’ in a lifetime is a blessing.”

To simply hear the word ‘yoga’ in one’s lifetime is a blessing. What the student or teacher does after hearing the call is out of our hands.

All we can do is trust in the practice and have faith that the wisdom held within will be able to penetrate deeply into the hearts of those who will allow it.


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Photo:Flickr/ Pavel Dobrovsky

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