it is weird for me, as a secular hindu of purely indian origin, to do yoga in america. on the one hand, i am practicing an ancient religious tradition handed down through my people for generations. on the other hand, everyone around me is wearing t-shirts from their college dance marathon. on the other hand, so am i.
yoga gets a lot of flack for being a religious practice its practitioners don’t understand. practitioners get accused of being cultural tourists, reciting the sanskrit names of various poses and gently murmuring “namaste” while not respecting the deeply spiritual significance of what they are doing. then there are the people who take its spiritualism extremely seriously, wanting to ban it from public schools since it is, in essence, a religious practice.
though i’m not religious, my cultural relationship with hinduism is very important to me. i am often deeply offended when people whose ancestors or cultural kin colonized india and most of what is now condescendingly known as the “developing world” use images of hindu gods or hindu cultural signifiers in their home decor. at the same time, i recognize that we are all doing this constantly. i don’t know much about the intricate moroccan patterns on some coasters i recently bought as a gift for a friend, and i definitely don’t know much about the real lives of the rappers whose music i consume and enjoy. with greatest of deference to africaisacountry, i often buy earrings made in african countries and think they look cool, even though their intricate symbols surely have some broader cultural significance. the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation is exceedingly fine.
what do you have to do to earn the right to like something? do i have the right to like yoga? as someone who was raised in a profoundly secular family, i often find myself less informed than my caucasian friends about yogic philosophy. in fact, i would venture to guess that in the same way that almost no catholics understand the latin their priests are saying while walking down the aisle of a cathedral with a censer, even less hindus have any idea about the seven sheaths of a human soul and their role in the yogic practice. even saying this in my head without a sarcastic tone is difficult. have i earned the right to like yoga, to speak for yoga, to defend it against appropriators because of my background, even though i know as little about it as anyone else? has anyone? who decides how much you have to know or do before you get to stretch it out in downward facing dog?
i don’t practice yoga as a spiritual element. because to me, the spiritual aspects of yoga are scary as shit.
i grew up on a steady diet of hindu mythology, popularized through childrens’ comic books called amar chitra katha. they remain my favorite things to read in the bathroom and in my grandparents’ apartment in bombay. in these books, yogis meditated for thousands of years in order to force the gods to grant them boons or special powers that allowed them to take over the world. in one story, a yogi meditated so hard and for so long (in tree pose, as i would later learn!) that his penance threatened to destroy the heavens and the earth.
in a more modern context, the mysticism of yoga remains an integral part of the way it is practiced in india. my grandfather did yoga in shivaji park all the time when large classes were held there, and my grandmother claims he eventually got so good at it that he was able to levitate slightly off the ground.
for me, yoga is exercise, plain and simple. i get annoyed when overeager teachers ring bells at the beginning of class to awaken my consciousness and say “om shanti shanti shanti” to close a practice. lets be real, none of us are levitating off the ground today. we are all here because we want to look good and feel good, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, if we can be honest about it. if it’s mysticism you crave, get fucking ready because real yogis to this day believe that they can reverse the flow of their blood and transcend consciousness. this doesn’t mean meditation, breathing and a non-violent lifestyle can’t lend peace and calm to anyone’s life. but you guys, you are not hindus. let’s be clear about that. because you don’t have to do any of the shit that being hindu entails, like feeling guilty about whether or not you should eat beef or dealing with parents who hate your muslim boyfriend. let’s just use english words for poses, feel the stretch, and not say namaste (which always weirds me out, because while i realize its sanskrit etymology is often translated as “the light in me bows to the light in you,” to me, it would be like closing your yoga practice by bowing your head and solemnly uttering, “hello.”