Yoga: A Positively Un-Indian Experience

Yoga, which comes from the Hindu tradition, now has roughly 15 million followers in the U.S.

Yoga, which comes from the Hindu tradition, now has roughly 15 million followers in the U.S. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Commentator Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media.

True confession: I am an Indian who doesn't do yoga. I wouldn't know a downward dog if it bit me. But because I'm Indian, people don't even ask if I know yoga. They ask, "What kind of yoga did you grow up with? Iyengar? Ashtanga? Bikram?"

Actually, most Indians I know don't do yoga, either. My friend Rajasvini Bhansali is an exception. And she's often the only Indian in class. She recalled one class in particular:

"The instructor pointed to me and said Indians are better oriented towards squats. And I realized he was holding me up as an example of how we primitive people are better squatters and have looser hips," she laughed.

I always thought I wasn't thick-skinned enough to survive yoga class. Then I heard the Hindu American Foundation had launched a campaign to Take Back Yoga and reclaim its Hindu roots. I was alarmed. What if they really took it back? And I wasn't ready. I decided to fix my Yoga Deficit Disorder.

So I show up at my first yoga class in San Francisco. It's steamy hot. There are over 100 people — and sure enough, my friends and I are the only four Indians.

The instructor is from Tennessee. Blond, shirtless, and a bit of a yoga rock star. There are disco balls on the ceiling and huge posters of Krishna on the wall.

I am just amazed at all the ... stuff. Yoga tops, bottoms, blankets, mats. My vision of a yogi was a guy in the forest, sitting on a piece of tree bark — or in the deluxe version, a deerskin. He didn't have a yoga mat carrier!

I survive the yoga class without embarrassing 5,000 years of Indian culture. It doesn't feel very Indian. My friend Naveen Chandra calls it bionic disco yoga. But he thinks Yoga's Hindu roots are still there.

Sandip Roy

Sandip Roy is the host of New America Now on KALW in San Francisco. Bishan Samaddar/Courtesy of Sandip Roy hide caption

itoggle caption Bishan Samaddar/Courtesy of Sandip Roy

"The vast majority of yoga teachers have studied more Hinduism than I have or my parents have," says Chandra. "I am learning more about the meanings of the shlokas and the intention of Hinduism than I ever knew as a kid growing up, being taught from my community."

Even back in India, yoga has not been such a big deal.

Kate Churchill, director of the documentary Enlighten Up, interviewed yoga pioneer Pattabhi Jois at his school in south India.

"And we might as well have been in the Puck building in New York. There were over 100 Westerners, not a single Indian. I was looking around and saying, 'Well, where are the Indians?' "

But things are starting to change. The Indian government is filming hundreds of yoga poses so no one tries to patent them. People are practicing yoga at call centers and other workplaces.

"We saw in large cities like Mumbai, power yoga studios cropping up, because Madonna does yoga," says Churchill. "It has nothing to do with India. Whereas if you go to a power yoga studio in the U.S., they will say it's a 5,000-year-old tradition."

I hear they come to your homes now in India to teach you yoga. Private lessons. And it's the real thing. They learned it from American DVDs.

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