Om Alone In India A day of yoga in the US. A yoga war in India. A court case in California and why the Indian government is watching it. A story about the poses that bind us. (Tell us about yourself. Fill out our survey: npr.org/roughtranslationsurvey)
NPR logo

Om Alone In India

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551738065/551738558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Om Alone In India

Om Alone In India

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551738065/551738558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

Before we start the show, we have a short, anonymous survey. Help us out by telling us what you like about the show, what you think we can improve, where you want us to go next, all those kinds of questions. That survey is at npr.org/roughtranslationsurvey. It's all one word. It takes maybe 10 minutes. You'll do us a huge favor filling it out. That's npr.org/roughtranslationsurvey. Thanks. Here's the show.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Welcome to the 15th Annual Solstice in Times Square: Mind Over Madness Yoga presented by Aerie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: So we are in Times Square on summer solstice. It's International Yoga Day.

STACEY VANEK-SMITH, BYLINE: We are, like, staring at all the giant, moving billboards. There's Fiji Water. There's Dunkin' Donuts. There's Budweiser Beer.

WARNER: And just below all of those ads, there are 400 or 500 people.

SMITH: On aquamarine mats in...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Breathing in...

SMITH: ...Downward-facing dog.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Breathing out. Remember; that deep breath is what makes yoga yoga.

JANAE FRAZIER: Oh, my God, this is so cool. I saw it on TV and ran just to see it.

WARNER: That's Janae Frazier (ph). She just happened to be passing by.

FRAZIER: We're looking at different shapes. We're looking at different sizes. We're looking at different ages. We're looking at different colors. And there's a lot of butts.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Downward facing dog...

FRAZIER: It's, like, big butts, little butts, wide butts, fat butts. I want to go change my clothes and go in the back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: There is something about this scene that feels very international in the kind of peace-and-love sense of the word.

SMITH: Yes. On this same day, there is yoga on the Champs-Elysees, on the Great Wall of China. There are warrior one poses happening in Rome and tadasanas happening in New Zealand, New Mexico, even Antarctica.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's the longest day of the year on the summer solstice.

WARNER: Antarctica on the summer solstice - a dark day of yoga.

SMITH: Oh, my gosh, look. They're all linking arms and leaning over. There's, like, a human yoga chain.

WARNER: A human yoga chain...

SMITH: But there is actually something going on here, specifically here.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Exhale fold. Let it go.

SMITH: For some people, looking out at this international sea of butts in the air - it's terrifying. And it's not because of the whole Times Square spectacle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I know I work for the brand, and so I'm kind of biased.

SMITH: It's not the Budweiser Beer ads or the commercialization of this practice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Aerie yoga clothes are bomb. They're awesome.

SMITH: I am just back from India, the birthplace of yoga. And to some people in India, International Yoga Day is a weapon.

TASLEEM REHMANI: It is promoting a culture, a particular kind of a culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner, here with Stacey Vanek Smith.

SMITH: Hi, Greg.

WARNER: We're a show looking at how a conversation we are having in the United States is playing out somewhere else in the world. Today we are going to follow Stacey on a journey to understand how this seemingly innocuous U.N. holiday became so weirdly controversial in India.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Full high pushup now

WARNER: And we're going to ask a question that until Stacey reported all this, I did not think to ask. Why do some people in India get very worried for their own safety when they see the world doing yoga poses?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You rock. Namaste.

WARNER: And are they right to be?

SMITH: You will never hear om the same way again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: So Stacey, you're going to take us to India. Where do we begin the story?

SMITH: Hello.

Let's start the story at the home of Atiya Zaidi.

ATIYA ZAIDI: Hi.

SMITH: Hi, how are you?

She lives in New Delhi in an upscale neighborhood.

I like your house. It's beautiful. I love all the plants.

She is 61, not more than 5 feet tall. But she has this very strong presence - very warm with these sparkling eyes.

What does your shirt say?

ZAIDI: Strike a pose for yoga.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Atiya is this very well-known yoga tweeter. Her Twitter handle - @atiyaz.

ZAIDI: I have about 20,000 followers - like, 19.3 or something - something like that. I have not - I haven't even checked.

SMITH: There aren't a lot of Muslim yoga tweeters in India. Atiya is Muslim. And in India, yoga is very associated with the Hindu religion. And these days, there's a lot of tension between Hindus and Muslims. And on Atiya's Twitter feed, she will get angry tweets from other Muslims.

ZAIDI: What kind of a Muslim are you? You're a blot on Islam.

SMITH: She's a blot on Islam.

ZAIDI: You are a this. You are that. Are you trying to suck up to the Hindus?

There she is.

SMITH: I met Atiya's current yoga teacher...

ZAIDI: She got a little late today.

SMITH: ...Salma Khan (ph). She's also Muslim.

ZAIDI: Salma, this is Stacey.

SALMA KHAN: Hi. Hello.

SMITH: Salma got into yoga for her health. But when her family saw that she was doing yoga...

KHAN: Six month (speaking foreign language).

SMITH: Your mom didn't talk to you for six months.

KHAN: Yes.

SMITH: Really?

ZAIDI: And you still follow Islam.

KHAN: Yes, of course.

SMITH: Atiya's first yoga teacher was Hindu. And when she realized Atiya was Muslim, she got really concerned.

ZAIDI: She said, we start with the om. Would you mind saying om?

SMITH: Om is the Hindu word for God. Would Atiya say it?

ZAIDI: Om is kind of like that sound which starts in the base of your stomach. So its kind of cleanses you.

SMITH: Atiya thought about it. She did not see a conflict between saying om and her Muslim faith.

ZAIDI: If you are a true believer, was God there first, or was language invented first?

SMITH: So the teacher says, well, OK then you will do om. But...

ZAIDI: She said, will you do the Sun Salutation? Some people object, so I thought I'll ask you.

WARNER: This is the one where you - what? - that you lift up your hands together.

SMITH: Yes, so you stand in mountain pose, which is basically just standing. And then you put your hands above your head. And then - let's see. Bend over, and you touch the ground. And then you jump back into downward facing. Wait. No, you jump back into a plank position. Wait.

WARNER: Short YouTube consultation break.

SMITH: Yes. Anyway, you step or leap forward...

This set of poses called Surya Namaskar - we translate it into Sun Salutation, but those words can also be translated to mean Sun Worship. It's like those poses are part of worshipping the sun god.

WARNER: And Islam forbids worshipping any god that isn't Allah.

SMITH: Right. And so Atiya had to decide, was she going to do this set of movements that many Muslims in India object to? And to understand how she made her decision, I should say that Atiya turned to yoga at a really difficult time in her life. She was having a health crisis. She was 40 years old. She had just had her gallbladder removed. She had asthma and a bunch of health problems. And so she went out to dinner with her family. And they went to her favorite restaurant, this kebab restaurant.

ZAIDI: I think they're the best kababs in the world. Are you vegetarian?

SMITH: No.

ZAIDI: OK.

SMITH: Muslims eat beef. Hindus see the cow as sacred. So Atiya is really careful to check with me before she starts raving about these little beef patties that she loves so much.

ZAIDI: Famous tunde kebabs in Lucknow.

SMITH: Tunde kebabs.

ZAIDI: They are melt in the mouth...

SMITH: Melt in the mouth kebabs. But anyway, on this evening 20 years ago, with her family, Atiya starts to eat her favorite kebabs.

ZAIDI: And I couldn't have more than half of it because if I had more than half, then I would start feeling ill.

SMITH: She was feeling sick. She could not enjoy these kebabs she loved. And she had read about the health benefits of yoga.

ZAIDI: And I was quite impressed with that.

SMITH: So when this yoga teacher asked her if she should omit the Sun Salutation because of religion, Atiya said...

ZAIDI: Where's the harm in doing the Sun Salutation?

SMITH: What's the big deal?

ZAIDI: The Sun Salutation is a complete exercise.

SMITH: But when she took that idea to Twitter...

ZAIDI: I put out a tweet.

SMITH: The idea that Sun Salutation is just good exercise for everybody...

ZAIDI: ...It's the best exercise for your body. Do it. Do it. Yoga for all.

SMITH: She says some people in the Hindu right wing...

ZAIDI: They got after me.

SMITH: They tweeted back.

ZAIDI: Why are you trying to take away yoga from the Hindus? It is very much a part of Hinduism.

SMITH: They called her a closet jihadi.

ZAIDI: You're a closet jihadi - is one of their favorite terms. You are trying to appropriate yoga.

SMITH: You got that for just saying, like, Sun Salutation is great exercise?

ZAIDI: Yeah. It hurts.

SMITH: So as a Muslim doing yoga, Atiya gets flak from extremists on both sides. On the one hand, she's a blot on Islam. On the other hand, she's desecrating yoga.

ZAIDI: You get hit from both sides.

SMITH: Recently though, Atiya's personal campaign to get everybody to do yoga got an unlikely ally - India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, elected in 2014 - unlikely because Modi is really popular among Hindu nationalists. Those are people who think India should be a Hindu state. Obviously, those are not Atiya's people, but...

ZAIDI: But on this yoga thing...

SMITH: Modi loves yoga. He's a big yoga evangelist. And Atiya really likes this about him.

ZAIDI: He's so fit because of yoga. He sleeps four hours in a day. And he can go without food for five days. So he keeps fit because he does yoga.

SMITH: When Modi was first elected in 2014, one of his very first acts as official prime minister of India is to fly to New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I have great pleasure in welcoming the prime minister of the Republic of India.

SMITH: And give a speech to the United Nations about yoga.

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Through interpreter) Yoga is a invaluable contribution of our country, of our tradition.

SMITH: He says yoga is something that India gave to the world. And this is a statement that's come under fire lately from some academics who have been questioning how Indian yoga really is. Some people claim that it's actually Swedish or even American. But anyway, the new prime minister wants everyone to know that yoga is Indian.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MODI: (Through interpreter) India's ancient wisdom sees the world as one family.

SMITH: And so he proposes that the U.N. create this new day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MODI: (Through interpreter) Let's come together and work towards International Yoga Day.

SMITH: International Yoga Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Big diplomatic win for PM Modi, as just three months after he proposed the idea...

SMITH: This resolution goes through the U.N. uncharacteristically fast. It goes through like lightning. And basically everyone is signing on to it, including many Islamic countries.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...Declaring 21 June as International Yoga Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MODI: Namaste.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: So that is how the speech sounded in New York. Here is how it felt in India.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Namaskar. Welcome, everyone, to the Third International Yoga Day. Let us begin the yoga sadina with a prayer.

SMITH: This is a video of this year's International Yoga Day in India. So the same time as we were seeing all these New Yorkers with their butts in the air in Times Square...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

SMITH: Here is International Yoga Day 2017. You can see there are just - there are thousands of people in the audience. It's this big fancy stadium.

WARNER: A lot of them are holding their mats sort of in a U-shape over their heads.

SMITH: Yes, it was raining really, really hard that day, so people were kind of improvising yoga-mat umbrellas. And here comes Prime Minister Modi. He is, like, walking through the crowd like a boxer.

WARNER: Yeah, he's got a swagger.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

YOGI ADITYANATH: (Speaking Hindi).

SMITH: Tens of thousands of Indians are gathered in the stadium to do yoga together, with the prime minister. And remember, Modi came into office on this wave of Hindu nationalism. But the other side of the Hindu Nationalist Movement is it tends to be very anti-Muslim. Modi has a lot of support from Hindu extremists. And so up on the stage with Modi is one of the most polarizing figures. His name is Yogi Adityanath.

And this guy is not only a government official; he is also a Hindu priest. He is wearing the saffron robes of a Hindu priest. And Yogi Adityanath gets up on stage to speak, to introduce Modi. And in his speech, he reminds people that the prime minister got yoga the U.N. stamp of approval.

ADITYANATH: (Speaking Hindi).

SMITH: He says two hundred countries are swaying together in India's ancient art.

ADITYANATH: (Speaking Hindi).

SMITH: And he says yoga is about health and the art of living and togetherness and a bunch of other things like that. And this, he says, is why everyone should do yoga. Except, here's the thing. This same Hindu priest, Yogi Adityanath, said some really different things a couple of years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yogi Adityanath has has once again sparked a controversy, saying that those who cannot do the Surya Namaskar - they have to live in a dark room. They have no right to live on Indian soil. Those who oppose the sunlight - they never get the light from the sun.

SMITH: Yogi also said that anyone who objected to Sun Salutation should drown themselves in the sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Questions being asked, once again...

SMITH: So if you are an Indian person who is, say, a Muslim and you are sitting at home watching this whole International Yoga Day ceremony on TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Close your eyes.

SMITH: ...And you were hearing this Hindu priest slash government minister say that yoga is all about togetherness, you might very understandably be thinking...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Let's chant Om three times...

SMITH: ...Wait a minute, togetherness? Togetherness for whom?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Chanting) Om...

REHMANI: They are trying to overpower to the minds of our children and the whole country to follow, by hook or crook, their own culture.

SMITH: This is Tasleem Rehmani, public intellectual and Muslim activist.

REHMANI: When you call Om, it is the Hindu word...

SMITH: ...For God, right?

REHMANI: Yes. So all these things are the religious practices, religious performances.

SMITH: Have you ever done yoga?

REHMANI: Me, never.

SMITH: Never?

REHMANI: Never.

SMITH: He tells me he has no problem with yoga.

REHMANI: If it is a matter of just exercising, there's no problem in Islam.

SMITH: He's not one of the extremists writing to Atiya telling her that she is a blot on Islam.

REHMANI: Hardly matters.

SMITH: In fact, Tasleem says he didn't even worry about yoga until the introduction of this International Yoga Day. That is when a group of Muslim lawyers put out a statement saying Yoga is un-Islamic. When it comes to International Yoga Day, Tasleem says, the Indian government is using that U.N. thumbs up to try to push yoga onto the entire Indian population.

REHMANI: In India, nationalism has been chained to the Hindu nationalism.

SMITH: He points out that Prime Minister Modi created this new ministry, the ministry of yoga and aryurvedic medicine. And that ministry started making plans to put yoga in police academies and government offices and training more yoga teachers. And what was alarming to Tasleem when all this started happening is that the government was saying yoga is for everyone. It's exercise. Come on, just relax.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Keep your head and back straight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Hindi).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: This asana is beneficial for digestive system.

SMITH: So if you don't mind explaining - like, I think, especially for an American audience, yoga does not seem like a particularly religious thing...

I told Tasleem, in the U.S. at least, we do not really think of yoga as Hindu.

There have been complaints that the U.S. has just commercialized yoga and made it into, like, McDonald's, basically.

REHMANI: What is McDonald's? McDonald's is not, certainly, a religious entity, but it is promoting a culture. Our kids, they see that there is some McDonald's and they are giving so many of incentives for the kids. And they want to go.

SMITH: Tasleem has a son. He has been dragged to McDonald's many times.

REHMANI: You have to take them to the McDonald's. So this has become a social compulsion - the same way this yoga practice is going on. They are making it a social symbol.

SMITH: So in the same way that little kids, ten years ago, were like, you have to take me to McDonald's. You have to take me to McDonald's. There's a free toy in the Happy Meal. I want to go to McDonald's. Now you're worried it's going to be like, I want to take yoga. I took yoga in school. Everybody's doing yoga. We have to do yoga.

REHMANI: Yes, the same way. And if you pressurize the kids, our small kids, that means you want to change the whole generation.

SMITH: His theory is that yoga is sort of India's great export in a way that is sort of like a Trojan horse. And inside the Trojan horse is the Hindu religion. And it's about to jump out and take over.

WARNER: And is there any aspect to that argument that you found yourself believing?

ZAIDI: Well when he first said it, I thought it sounded paranoid. But then, while I was in India reporting the story, something happened that made me kind of sit up and think, maybe Tasleem Rehmani is onto something. And I sent you an email.

WARNER: So - yeah, so you sent us this email. And it just had this subject heading, boom.

SMITH: We will get to boom right after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. So Stacey, while you were in India, you emailed us a link to an article in the Hindustan Times. This was fresh news that the education minister in the really populous region called Uttar Pradesh had said that every schoolchild would now have to do yoga.

SMITH: And Uttar Pradesh has a really big Muslim population. Twenty percent of the population of Uttar Pradesh is Muslim. That is 30 million people. And to clarify, there is already some yoga in schools in India. But it is not an official part of the state curriculum. It is not something that every child has to do. So when I saw this headline, I bought a ticket to Uttar Pradesh because I wanted to talk to Muslim students and parents in Uttar Pradesh about how they felt about this.

Do you mind if I get your name?

SAMAT: Samat.

SMITH: Samat.

Samat is 10 years old. He is a skinny little guy with lots of black hair and big brown eyes. He loves cricket.

Do you do yoga in your school?

SAMAT: (Through interpreter) I do yoga.

SMITH: You do yoga. Do you like it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He says yes, I like it.

SMITH: Samat's favorite pose is Tadasana. That is where you stand up straight. He says he likes it because it makes him taller.

SAMAT: Om.

SMITH: Oh, did you say Om?

SAMAT: Om.

SMITH: You can imagine Tasleem Rehmani, the Muslim leader and intellectual we talked to, just wincing at this scene - this Muslim boy happily chanting the Hindu word for God.

How do you feel about International Yoga Day?

SANYA SHAHID: International Yoga Day.

NAMRA SHAHID: We feel proud.

S. SHAHID: We feel proud, obviously.

N. SHAHID: We feel proud. This belongs to our country after all. We feel very proud.

SMITH: Sanya and Namra Shahid are both university students. Sanya is studying medicine. And they tell me they love yoga.

N. SHAHID: Yoga is being practiced all over the world. And it is originated from our country. So we feel proud.

SMITH: So as Indians, you're proud. And as Muslims you're...

N. SHAHID: As Muslims and as Indians, we are proud at the same time, for the same thing. We are full supporters of yoga. And everyone should practice it in their daily life.

SMITH: Namra says they both learned yoga in school. It wasn't mandatory. It was a class she looked forward to. When it came time to say Om, she would just opt out.

So you just wouldn't say Om.

N. SHAHID: No, I will not say Om.

SMITH: Did you pretend like you were saying it?

N. SHAHID: No, no. I was like, (laughter) I'm not saying it.

SMITH: Some people I interviewed told me that when it got time to say Om, they would just stay home instead.

WARNER: Home.

SMITH: Home.

WARNER: Well, it's like an American kid kind of doing the Pledge of Allegiance but sort of mumbling the under God part.

WARNER: Right, and for Namra, this was not a big deal.

N. SHAHID: Apart from Om, I liked everything about yoga. It's very good for humans. Everybody needs to do this. But at the same time, making it compulsory, that's what making us feel terrible about it.

SMITH: Making yoga mandatory is making her feel terrible.

N. SHAHID: They say it openly that they want to establish a Hindu Raj.

SMITH: A Hindu Raj - that is a government controlled by the Hindu religion. And this city, Lucknow, it has become like a testing ground for the Hindu Raj. The Hindu nationalist movement has been very bold here, all of the beef slaughterhouses shut down by order of the government. Some of them were burned down by angry crowds. And to a lot of people this felt like Hindus and the Hindu priest governor, Yogi Adityanath, making Hindu dietary restrictions the law of the land. I saw this firsthand when I did what I promised Atiya I would do in Lucknow.

What kind of kebabs are the best?

Visit her favorite kebab joint, the famous Tunde Kebabs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No beef kebabs.

SMITH: No beef kebabs?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No beef because beef has - slaughterhouses have been banned.

SMITH: So many Muslims I met in Lucknow told me they were starting to feel like they were not wanted. And it was not just because of the beef bans. There are also these government-sanctioned morality squads that have been roving around the city...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The horrific incident - a Muslim man was brutally beaten to death by vigilantes.

SMITH: ...Reportedly harassing Muslim women and mixed Muslim-Hindu couples.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Uttar Pradesh's anti-Romeo squads are exposed in India Today's...

SMITH: And so for a lot of people, yoga now has gone from something that they really loved to something that feels like part of this larger assault.

Does it feel like it's against the Muslim people and your religion?

N. SHAHID: These days I've started feeling like that, not earlier. But things have started happening that way, that I have started feeling that. I think that things are going to happen against us. Like, the beginning has started. It has just begun.

WARNER: While Stacey was reporting this story in India, we started wondering, can this happen? Can India actually require public schoolkids to do yoga? We reached out to the federal government, also to officials in Uttar Pradesh. There was no response. The Constitution of India specifically prohibits any religious instruction in schools. So if that pledge to make it mandatory, which hasn't been formally implemented yet, if it goes forward, then courts will have to decide whether doing yoga in schools is like performing a religious practice. Or is it just doing phys ed? And as we were digging into this, we heard that recently, lawyers in India have been pushing Indian courts to approve a new national curriculum that would include yoga. And in their arguments, they've been citing another court case, though it's not a case in India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: All rise.

WARNER: It's a case in Southern California.

DEAN BROYLES: May it please the court, My name is Dean Broyles. I'm the counsel for petitioners and appellants Sedlock family.

WARNER: This was a case in Encinitas, Calif., a few years ago. Elementary schoolkids were doing yoga. And some Christian parents objected. They sued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROYLES: Yoga, including Ashtanga yoga, is religious and involves formal Hindu ritual exercises.

WARNER: This is the lawyer for the parents. And he's making an argument much like the one we heard from that Muslim activist in India, that you cannot take the Hinduism out of yoga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROYLES: Yoga's physical exercises are religious exercises.

WARNER: He talks about the Sun Salutation...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROYLES: And they also bow down, and they raise their hands to the Hindu sun god, Surya.

WARNER: Meanwhile, the lawyer on the other side is making the same argument that the Indian government makes, that yoga is healthy practice. It's not about religious conversion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL CARELLI: And I urge the court to reject the appellants' conspiracy theory that there is a sinister agenda at work here trying to inculcate or indoctrinate schoolchildren. There are things such as paddleboard yoga, hip-hop yoga, yoga booty ballet. To suggest that any of these are inherently religious would be to defy logic.

WARNER: And then the lawyer for the parents comes back. He says, no, you've been duped. Actually, yoga is religion masquerading as exercise - the Trojan horse idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROYLES: And many Americans who start practicing yoga for the physical exercise aspect of it - OK? - they think - they believe their is purely physical, over time, their intent changes.

WARNER: The judge in this case wrote in his decision that this is one of the hardest calls he'd ever had to make. But finally, he decided that yoga in the public schools in Encinitas, Calif., was OK. He said yes, yoga is ambiguous. It can be a religious practice sometimes. But here, the school curriculum had carefully stripped any iota of religion from the teachings. There is no saying om. There is no namaste. The kids would not sit in Lotus position. They would sit in something called criss-cross applesauce. When they put their thumbs and forefingers together, it wasn't called mudra. It was called brain highway. So it was yoga, but purged of any potential traces of God. And this lawsuit, it came and it went like thousands of lawsuits in California. But in India, this case was closely watched. And then people in India actually used it to make the case for yoga in Indian public schools.

CHRISTIAN NOVETZKE: They're citing California...

WARNER: I called up Christian Novetzke. He's a professor of religion at the University of Washington. He studied this case.

That's crazy.

I could not contain my own reaction about it. That just seems amazing to see California court judgments cited in a debate about yoga in India.

NOVETSKE: Yeah, one thing it reveals is that the epicenter of yoga is the U.S. This is really the place where yoga - this is the heart of modern yoga.

WARNER: When Prime Minister Modi flew to New York to give that speech to the U.N. about International Yoga Day, that was all about claiming yoga as authentically Indian. But Christian says the Americanization of yoga, that helps Modi too because the idea that yoga is secular, it helps him defend a push for yoga in India.

NOVETSKE: The only way to teach yoga is to make sure everyone agrees that it is not religious instruction. And that's why citing the California case, it helps to establish the secular credentials of yoga.

WARNER: Yoga than can be seen as both things at once - just healthy exercise and a product of Hindu culture.

NOVETSKE: So there's this feedback loop going from India to the U.S. and back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Let your hips fall forward. Close your eyes.

WARNER: That feedback loop is what I was thinking about when we were in Times Square...

FRAZIER: Yoga is butts.

WARNER: ...Back with Janae, looking at all those New Yorkers with their butts in the air.

FRAZIER: See, happiness and butts.

WARNER: Because it's safe to say that most people who do yoga in the United States are not thinking about Hinduism. When they do the Sun Salutation, it's not a big deal.

FRAZIER: A religious background to yoga? Come on, man, I just want to do a stretch.

WARNER: But when you think about yoga as part of this feedback loop between the U.S. and India, then the choices we make do seem to matter. The question is, though, should that change how we do yoga?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Breathe into that heart. Think about something that you can let go of right here, a story you tell yourself that you want to be true so bad, but you know it's not true. You are beautiful. You are strong. You are perfect exactly the way you are.

SMITH: I called back Atiya, the Muslim yoga tweeter I met in India. I asked her, with everything going on around yoga in India, are you still going to push this yoga-for-all idea, even though yoga for all has a really different ring to it in India now?

This is - things are getting more divided.

ZAIDI: More and more, yeah. It hurts. It disturbs - these things are bubbling under the surface. They were the fringe elements. So now they're empowered.

SMITH: The fringe elements are now empowered. But...

ZAIDI: They are not my country.

SMITH: Those politicians are not India.

ZAIDI: Nor is Modi India.

SMITH: Prime Minister Modi is not India.

ZAIDI: I mean, you get scared of haters, and you'll give up something you love.

SMITH: Atiya gives this a very yogic long view. Yoga, it's bigger than all of us. Everyone should do the yoga that's right for them. And with that, she's got to run. She's got a yoga class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Om chanting.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Om.

WARNER: Coming up after the break, a personal note. When I moved back to America, after years living overseas, one of the things that people asked me most often was whether I had culture shock coming home. I didn't. But my 5-year-old son, he definitely did. More about that after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Before I was hosting this podcast, I was the East Africa correspondent for NPR. And I spent four great years in Nairobi with my wife, Sana Krasikov, and our two kids. And when we came back, Sana and I realized that our son had learned things in Kenya that he had to unlearn or relearn in order to fit himself into an American kindergarten.

SANA KRASIKOV: We were watching this dinosaur movie, "The Good Dinosaur," and there was this little line in there. And it says, don't pop my bubble. Don't pop my personal bubble. And Joe looked at Elliot (ph), and he's like, what's a personal bubble? And Elliot's like, you know, a personal bubble. It's your personal bubble. It's your space. And, like, Joseph was looking at him as if he had no idea what he was talking about.

WARNER: More of that conversation with Hillary Frank on her podcast, "The Longest Shortest Time." The episode is called "Bubble Boy." And we'll put a link on our Facebook page.

WARNER: Today's ROUGH TRANSLATION was produced by Jess Jiang and edited by Marianne McCune. Thank you to Chhavi Sachdev, Ashish Awasthi (ph), Hong-gui Sak (ph) and Gita Yangar (ph). Thank you to Professor Sunila Kali and Christian Lee Novetzke, partners in life and work at the University of Washington. Thank you to the staff at the California appellate court, who stayed late on a Friday to get us court audio. Thank you to the Planet Money team for helping edit this episode and for letting us borrow Stacey Vanek-Smith. Our ROUGH TRANSLATION advisory team includes Alex Goldmark, Anya Grundmann, Mathilde Piard and Neal Carruth. Brin Winterbottom and Mary Glendinning fact-checked this episode. Mastering by Jay Sizz.

We would love to hear from you what you thought of the episode. Tell us your own travel story. And you can find us on Twitter @Roughly or on Facebook. And you can find previous episodes at npr.org/roughtranslation. You can give us a review or a rating on Apple podcasts. It always helps people find the show. Theme music for ROUGH TRANSLATION is by John Ellis. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with another ROUGH TRANSLATION.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.