I was forced to learn yoga as a child in school. We were tested on yoga principles and health benefits for PE class. But it never took. Just like many other things that people tried to teach me then. If you were a square peg in a round hole for a long time, you assume nothing that fits everyone will ever fit you. And you carry that belief sometimes, well into adulthood. For example, I didn’t read Harry Potter until my son was old enough to demand it. Despite living a few hours from Niagara Falls for many years, I never went to see it because I had seen too many Patel (Indian tourist) pictures with the Niagara in the background. However, when my parents visited me, we did a full-length Patel tour of the country including the Niagara! Similar to my irrational opposition to Harry Potter and Niagara, the growing popularity of yoga all around me meant I did not take it up. Sentiments such as ‘It’s mine, you aspiring pretenders,’ ‘I can take it up whenever I want and I would be a natural at it,’ and “you are exploiting my rich tradition without giving anything back,” would run through my mind when I saw women with yoga mats in their toned arms and self-satisfied looks on their faces.
Mine was not an unreasonable position to take. Most western yoga practice separate the asanas (i.e. Postures) from the spiritual or the contemplative aspect of yoga. An extreme example is a program called Yoga for Regular Guys offered by Diamond Dallas Page. You might have seen the almost magical transformation of Arthur in his viral video on youtube. DDP’s instructions include ‘look at the yoga babe in front of you’ and a guarantee that there is no chanting involved. But to his credit, he focuses on breath although he doesn’t call it Pranayama. He calls it Ignition. He runs a yoga empire with chat rooms and support groups. So, separating yoga from its spiritual roots is a dizzying, dis-embedding process but one with very successful commercial implications. It is a $27 billion industry and is continuing to grow steadily and more than other forms of exercise.
Blame it on the vanishing hormones that pushed me into and past middle age before I could even blink; I have become more interested in yoga. I had no idea that yoga was such a contested territory (except in my head). It was a surprise to learn about the growing movement to decolonize yoga. Yoga teachers, magazines, and studios are asked to find ways to make yoga more inclusive of fat, black, and other forms of diverse populations. As a post-colonial scholar myself, I laughed. Here are two or three groups in the west that have co-opted a practice that doesn’t really belong to them. If anyone could complain about the colonization of yoga, it should be people of South Asian origin. People like me. Or so I thought. Having studied the ethical issues in the commercialization of indigenous and traditional knowledge, I strongly support boundary setting and tribal-centric behaviors for indigenous groups and activists when dealing with commercial interests and firms. So, when yoga is stripped of its context and sold as a form of exercise, I argued (in my mind), it became doubly exploited and a tool of oppression.
But my ongoing practice has revealed to me that yoga is color blind. My ethnic heritage does not give me a free pass. My Adho Mukha Shvanasana (downward facing dog) is not any easier or more delicious than yours. My heels still do not touch the ground. I need to bend my knees when I do the Utanasana (forward fold). Some day, I hope to get my sit bones rest on my heels in Balasana (child pose). There is no way I will even attempt Bakasana for a long time to come. But growing up in a sit-down for everything culture definitely makes my Malasana (yogic squat) absolutely kick-ass. For the squat, I don’t need a yoga block and my heels rest comfortably on the floor. I bet people from other cultures who sit on the floor will also find the same. Other than that, yoga is truly color-blind. It doesn’t care whether you are white or black or brown or yellow. Or fat or thin or tall or short. Yes, different bodies need different types of adjustments. If you do it right, you sleep better. If you don’t, you might end up in the emergency room. That is the same for everyone.
To my good fortune, I found an inspiring teacher in Adriene. She is spontaneous, humorous, spot on with her teaching, and has helped me cultivate self-forgiveness and self-compassion in my practice. It is liberating to hear her say, ‘bend your knees generously.’ She makes yoga yummy and your friend. And above all, she is extraordinarily generous. She has hours of free video starting from foundations of yoga to full-length ones on her website. Right now she is offering a 30 Day Yoga series for free. Which you can download for a donation if you like. I am yet to pay her a single cent. She makes her expertise available and accessible to all. If that is not honoring the roots of a traditional knowledge system, I don’t know what is. If you are like Adriene, a white girl from Texas who embodies the spirit of yoga, as an Indian, I tell you, go ahead, it is yours! You don’t need to give it back to us.
PS1: After exposure, I am a complete Potterhead. My son and I even went to Harry Potter world a couple of years ago.
PS2: I think visiting Niagara was close to a mystical experience for me.
PS3: I actually like DDP’s program. He broke down Tadasana perfectly for me. For which I will always be grateful.
PS4: I am not paid by Adriene or DDP for this post. No commissions involved.