Any practice of yoga that isn’t spiritual isn’t really yoga

It’s not just about yoga pants and stretches.
It’s not just about yoga pants and stretches.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Like many Americans, I turned to yoga because of the tremendous physical and spiritual benefits it promised. But as a South Asian, my experience with yoga was at once confirming and unsettling due to the cultural heritage I share with it.

I took my first yoga lesson more than 15 years ago with a basic understanding of yoga’s roots. Still, it was new to me because no one in my family was a practitioner. So I went to my first yoga class with some trepidation. Would I be expected to be able to do a headstand on my first day? Would the teacher be a New Age type who exotified my culture?

As it turned out, my first yoga teacher was a young white woman in her twenties with a strong knowledge of yoga and its roots as well as a wonderful teaching style. This enabled her to accommodate people of all levels of flexibility in a beginner class, from lithe dancers to middle-aged students with joint issues (I was somewhere in between). She knew how to expertly loosen up our minds and our bodies. We didn’t attempt any asanas (positions) without her first grounding us in the spiritual aspects, which often draw from Hindu philosophy, as well as the physical aspects, which include attention to body and breath. She was encouraging but not pushy, cultivating a safe and positive space. I left each lesson knowing a bit more about yoga and about what I was capable of. In fact, after a few months and with her coaching and encouragement, I did manage to do the dreaded headstand.

Soon after, my yoga teacher announced that she was leaving. Our new teacher, another young white woman, had given herself a Hindu name: Lakshmi. She spoke in a high-pitch whisper, which I suppose was meant to evoke a mystical aura. But beyond her voice, it was what she said that was most unsettling. On our first day, she told me she loved my coloring. To which I replied, “Thank you?”

The instructor peppered the lesson liberally with exotic tidbits about chakras (which she mispronounced shaakras). Then she began citing Hindu mythology and being a practicing Hindu, I noted that some of what she mentioned was patently wrong. I didn’t return to her class the next week.

As yoga’s popularity has grown over the last decade and a half, so too did my disillusionment. I’ve had mostly white female teachers and few have had the spiritual and cultural knowledge about yoga’s roots that my first teacher had. Even more disconcerting, some of them did not feel like they needed it: “I don’t believe in all that spiritual mumbo jumbo. I’m just here to teach stretches.” I’ve watched with a strange combination of bemusement and sadness the rise of yogaerobics and sexy yoga classes; even elementary schools are adding yoga to their curricula, but feel the need to assure parents of its secular nature. For me, these developments confirm that, in many places, the soul of yoga has been lost.

A poignant moment in my yoga journey came several years ago when I visited my in-laws in Bangalore, India. They had been receiving treatment for physical ailments from a yoga therapist and suggested I meet with him one morning. Imagine my surprise to meet a middle-age Indian gentleman dressed as if he was on his way to the office. I couldn’t shake a feeling of suspicion. After our meeting, he called my husband aside and spoke with him. Later my husband told me, “He said he can’t help you if you don’t believe in it, if you don’t want it.”

I was shocked. And then I had to acknowledge that over the years I had been programmed to believe only in certain extreme images of yoga. To me, a yogi was either an ascetic Indian man, clad in saffron robes, with a long beard. Or a fit person, showing off a nubile body in form-fitting yoga pants. Over the last few years, I’ve practiced yoga sporadically in my cramped apartment in New York City’s Union Square, noting the irony of being surrounded by countless yoga studios within a three-block radius.

Recently, I attended a panel discussion to launch the South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), a new initiative that seeks to restore yoga’s South Asian heritage. Specifically, the group was founded to provide a “platform and network for the voices of yoga teachers and students from across the South Asian diaspora.” Among its findings: a survey of more than two years worth of yoga journals yielded no South Asians on covers or articles authored by South Asians. Similarly, at a major yoga conference, out of 64 presenters, only seven of them were people of color. Of them, three were of South Asian origin; none was a woman.

On a personal level, SAAPYA rekindled my interest in taking yoga classes. But this time around, I’m curious about how a South Asian teacher might enhance my experience, perhaps deepening rather than circumventing the cultural ties I share with yoga.

Many believe yoga’s heritage is a non-issue. They see its growing popularity as just another example of the US as a bastion of multiculturalism. To them, I leave these questions and answers, rooted in my own lived experiences. Do I believe that yoga is for everyone? Absolutely. Do I believe that yoga can be taught effectively by non-South Asians? Definitely. Do I believe yoga can be imparted without being grounded in its cultural and spiritual heritage? No. Whatever that is, it isn’t yoga. Namaste.