Out of India


By Marina Budhos  |  

Not more than two blocks away from my apartment in Manhattan, up a steep
flight of stairs, past the karate school, in an old manufacturing loft, is a
center where classes in many different forms of yoga are offered: Ashtanga,
Jivamukti, and vinyasa. Years ago, when I first took yoga classes, it was
the era of aerobics and treadmills, and yoga was considered obscure, even
flaky. Indian elements were often stripped out, and Sanskrit words were
sparingly used. There was little chanting and no images of deities–as if to
make yoga more palatable to an American audience.

Today, I notice that the mirror in this large, slightly dingy room is draped
with sari cloth. The young teacher is giving a lesson about Krishna,
likening his spirit to that of a father who protected his daughter on an
Amtrak train platform. Lying on my mat, at first I cringe at her story, then
relax, concentrating on my breath. I am half Indian, born and raised in the
United States, and I have always been conflicted about the practice of yoga
here. While I have a deep respect for the rigor and intelligence of each
pose, the subtle warmth and openness that spread through my body and mind
after a session, I automatically flinch each time I hear another Westerner
rhapsodize about all things Indian.

On the other hand, I know my own reaction isn’t entirely fair. Yoga has
become–on some levels–part of the American culture. Yoga centers have sprung
up all over the country, and most health clubs now offer not just one but
several types of yoga. In Manhattan, flyers for yoga classes are tacked to
lampposts and health foodstore bulletin boards. In the playground where my
young son plays, I have heard other mothers chatting about which form of
yoga they prefer. A recent New Yorker cartoon depicts a woman at the front
desk of a yoga center asking, “Which is the yoga that the stars take?”
There’s no doubt yoga has arrived, as has India, which is suddenly chic and
popular: Women are having their hands done in the delicate scroll patterns
of mendhi, the ancient practice of decorating with henna; Madonna chants
Sanskrit on her latest album; department stores sell skirts of fuchsia sari
fabric, handbags made from beaded silk Indian cloth, pashmina shawls;
Starbucks offers all kinds of chai. People can now buy Om watches and clocks
and sparkly bindis, as well as stretchy tops with fluorescent images of
Krishna and Ganesha. And Indian writers such as Arundhati Roy, Chitra
Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Manil Suri are enjoying spectacular
popularity.

On the Outside Looking In
during this gradual embrace of Indian culture by the West, there has been a
continual influx of Indians who have immigrated to the United States. In the
last decade, the South Asian population here has doubled to 1.7 million.
This wave of immigration is the first since the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s
when a vast number of Indians, largely professional and technical workers
(approximately 20,000 Ph.D. scientists and 25,000 physicians), came to the
United States and settled in suburban towns around cities or in high-tech
areas.

The ’90s saw the arrival of yet another new generation of software engineers
and entrepreneurs, educated in elite technical schools like the Indian
Institute of Technology in Ahmadabad, who have been a major force in Silicon
Valley and the high-tech revolution. There is also now a distinctly working
class group–such as Sikh taxi drivers and construction workers, Bangladeshi
cooks and waiters–who are a large part of our urban immigrant neighborhoods.
Yet despite this stable Indian population, yoga in the United States remains
a mostly white phenomenon. In all the years I have taken yoga classes, I
have never seen another South Asian face. When I informally polled friends,
they had the same impression (though some noted that they’re just beginning
to see young South Asian women in the classes). Why is this? What do our
growing Indian-American communities make of the yoga boom, the tattoos of
Kali, the nose studs, Deepak Chopra’s popularity, power yoga? Do South
Asians have an aversion to taking yoga classes in the United States? Are
they embarrassed? Do they feel the West has appropriated their culture? Is
yoga even an important part of their lives?

“Yoga occupies a funny place,” says M.K. Srinivasan, cofounder and publisher
of Masala, an Indian-American magazine and Web site. “On the one hand,
there’s a kind of pride that yoga has been taken up, that it’s ours. But
it’s not the most important cultural thing we might practice.”

I asked David Life, cofounder of Jivamukti Yoga, if Indians come to his
fashionable yoga center in downtown New York City. “Very few,” he answered.
“Those I’ve met have a certain naïveté about their own tradition. They have
some vague idea of their roots. These kids didn’t have a traditional
upbringing, and they’ve suffered a bit of separation.”

I must confess I was taken aback by this observation. It did not jibe with
the droves of young people who show up for any Indian cultural event, who
began South Asian cultural groups in college, and who have grown up visiting
their relatives in India during the holidays. It was a remark that for me
underscored the danger of the yoga boom and the narrow lens through which
Westerners have come to regard India and Indians. For many Westerners, yoga
is India. For Indians, yoga is only part of the story.

Indeed, I often have the eerie feeling when I am talking to Westerners who
take yoga that they’re speaking of an India completely different from the
one known by my South Asian peers. To Westerners, India is a place of
spiritual salvation, quiet ashrams, meditation practice, sometimes grueling
pilgrimages to holy sites, an oasis away from the money-making materialism
of the West. It is the ancient source of spirituality, simplicity,
asceticism. The India of my South Asian friends is a raucous place of
busybody relatives and weddings, getting bellyaches from eating too many
bhel puris, watching Hindi movies and Star TV with your cousins, arguing
about Indian politics and corruption, hustling around in taxi rickshaws, and
bartering with shopkeepers. It is, above all, a place of human connection
and community.

So what does yoga mean to Indian Americans?

An Emerging Middle Class
The current popularity of yoga in America is the culmination of at least two
centuries of cross-cultural interactions between India and the West. Yet
like a long distance love affair, each side caught in the first blush of
infatuation, it is a relationship that has been characterized as much by
long-encrusted stereotypes and projections as by earnest respect. India is
often seen as the eternal source of ancient wisdom, and the West is the
golden gate to technology and prosperity.

The yoga that emerged from nineteenth century India, when the country was
under British rule, is decidedly mixed: The practice of yoga was, at best,
uneven, passed down orally, and varied according to region, caste, and
class. There were some Hindu revivalist movements which sought to
reinvigorate traditional Indian practices–the palace of Mysore was
particularly active in cultivating yoga. Yet as India moved into the
twentieth century, a new Indian middle class emerged–English speaking and
increasingly Westernized–who worked for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) or
British companies and who were looking to assimilate and succeed in
Westernized professions. To them, yoga was regarded as an ancient, backward,
even superstitious practice.

Basant Kumar Dube was part of the generation that was molded and groomed
under the British Empire. He is a spry and lively man who barely looks his
69 years and loves nothing better than to offer disquisitions on Hinduism
and yoga. “Growing up under the British Raj, anything Indian was considered
no good,” he tells me one afternoon at his son Siddharth’s apartment in New
York City’s Greenwich Village. “Some kind of stupid hocus pocus like the
famous rope trick,” says Dube.

Sanjay Nigam, a doctor and novelist, who immigrated to the United States
when he was 6 years old, says that in his upper middleclass family, many of
whom served in the ICS, “Yoga was seen as something that only young or old
people did. They worried that if someone did it, they would get off track,
drop out of school.” Tripti Bose, a former psychotherapist who came to the
United States in the 1960s, remarks, “Because of colonization we were
brainwashed that yoga was superstition, not something that you can
scientifically rely on. Anybody who talked about yoga was looked at kind of
funny. In India, if somebody did yoga, they would ask, ŒWho is this weird
person?’ ”

It would be a mistake, however, to merely characterize this perception of
yoga as Indians having “lost their roots.” Yoga–the concept of “union”–was
always embedded in the broader beliefs of Hinduism and spirituality, which
are passed down in families according to specific community rituals. Mira
Kamdar, author of Motiba’s Tattoos (Plume Books, 2001), a memoir about her
Gujarati family, says, “I never saw anyone in my family practice yoga. But
that doesn’t mean they didn’t have spiritual practices. Usually they go to
their temple, or they have a basement temple. In India or for Indians here,
everything is about being part of the community. Religion is a big part of
what defines you: what you eat, how you worship, how you dress, and the
rhythm of your day. For the Gujarati Jain community, yoga is outside of
that. If they were to do yoga, it would be an act of individual choice to
step outside their community.”

The more I talked to Indian Americans, the more I detected a very different
attitude toward yoga than the one held by most Americans: To Indian eyes, it
simply can’t be separated from a general attitude or way of life. Yoga is
often something utterly private–an inner code and approach to living that is
done quietly in the home. For someone to buy a colorful yoga mat and attend
an outside class is often seen as peculiar.

Rina Agarwala, whose family originally comes from Rajasthan, grew up largely
in suburban Maryland, though she often goes back to India. Now getting her
Ph.D. at Princeton in development studies, Rina has strong and passionate
ties to India. In the past few years, she has watched the phenomenon of the
yoga boom with some uneasiness. “I have a lack of trust about it,” she says.
“For me, yoga is wrapped up with religion. All the yoga I grew up with was
intertwined with spirituality; it is so much more about getting to the root
of one’s existence. But in the United States it’s a secular fix-it drug, a
bandage for stress.”

When I first met Rina, I was pregnant and taking prenatal yoga classes. She
asked me with some perplexity, “What is this yoga that everyone takes? Is it
a good thing?” Her confusion, in part, stemmed from having grown up with
yoga as an unremarkable feature in family life, a language and philosophy
that is passed down subtly from generation to generation–not a discipline
that one studied publicly. For instance, she remembers her father teaching
her and her sisters how to sit and breathe and learn “the art of not
thinking.”

“We were taught yoga without a label,” she says. “It was so much a part of
daily life; you can’t separate it into a class. It was part of my father’s
morning puja, or meditation in the house.

“I have a lot of respect for those who do yoga,” she adds. “But sometimes I
think it’s like taking the malai–which means, taking the skin off the milk.
You miss a lot of the nutrients.”

Reetika Vazirani, a poet and author of the forthcoming collection World
Hotel (Copper Canyon, 2002), also grew up with yoga as an unnamed practice
handed down to her by her father. The family moved to the United States when
she was 7 years old, and though they largely tried to blend into their
suburban Maryland community, every Thursday night “our house turned Indian.”
Her father lit incense in a shrine in her brother’s bedroom closet, and they
conducted their weekly puja, or worship service. “Sitting cross-legged,” she
writes in her essay, “I learn how to copy my father’s gestures as he repeats
his mantra…I am not aware I am being introduced to yoga, the art of
breathing.”

Despite this induction into yoga, however, Vazirani felt “ashamed of things
Indian. Yoga had an atmosphere of ‘ancient and back there,’ ” she notes.
“The yoga books showed men with almost elemental qualities. I didn’t have
the cultural confidence to be proud.” However, when Vazirani did turn to
yoga as an adult, hearing the Sanskrit words was strangely disorienting. “I
felt like a foreigner in my home,” she says.

Cultural Ownership
For many indian americans, taking a yoga class can be odd; one suddenly
feels like a cultural representative who has been sent from India to stand
for tradition. It can even be a little humiliating if a teacher’s zeal for
yoga and India’s ancient practices collide uncomfortably when encountering
an actual modern-day Indian.

I’ll never forget taking yoga classes in New York City, when I was convinced
that the teacher was focusing extra hard on me. I often felt as if his
expectations of me were higher, that he was pushing me to greater standards
in the postures because I was obviously the only South Asian in the room.
Another time, the teacher was earnestly giving an explanation about the
Ujjayi breath. I began to giggle; the name Ujjayi, for me, was always
associated with an uncle of mine–a ne’er-do-well and drunk.
When Sunaina Maira first arrived in the United States in the 1980s to attend
Wellesley College, she took a yoga class to fulfill her school’s physical
education requirement. Though she grew up in the same neighborhood as the
Iyengar Institute, in Pune, India, Maira knew little of yoga; her only
memory was being told as a teenager to do yoga in the sun on the roof, as it
would help with her acne. However, when she arrived in her college yoga
class, she recalls the teacher singling her out.

“She was shocked that I had not gone to the Iyengar Institute,” says Maira.
“For her, it was this big mecca, whereas for me, the institute was
unremarkable; it was just this place nearby. I find there’s this underlying
assumption from people who know about certain kinds of South Asian customs
they believe to be authentic; I felt I had somehow failed in living up to
her idea of what being Indian is.”

Maira, who is now a professor of Asian American Studies in English and
Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has conducted
extensive research on the cultural lives and identities of Indian-American
youth. She found that many second-generation Indians were baffled and at
times resentful of the sudden fashionableness of “Indo-chic.” Many had grown
up in suburbs or cities where they may have been targeted or harassed for
their “Indianness” and the choice to express themselves ethnically was often
hard-earned.

“Most of the second generation have a feeling of cultural ownership. They
remember going to school and being ashamed that their mother wore a sari and
a bindi,” says Maira. “They worked and struggled to learn about Indian
traditions; they’ve earned the right to display their bindis. It came at the
price of being made fun of. Their feeling was, ŒWe had to struggle to
present our Indianness in the face of being harassed; we had to fight to
hold on to our rituals.’ They were just getting over their shame and
discomfort, and at that moment Indo-chic took off. Now it is so easy for a
white American to take on this cultural sign. That’s what bothers them.”
For these young people, she noted, yoga was not a part of how they asserted
themselves ethnically. While they might take classes in classical Indian
dance, study Hindi, or attend bhangra dance parties to meet other South
Asians, yoga was never a part of what formed their cultural identity. “No
one spoke to me of yoga,” adds Maira. “Yoga would not be a cultural
affirmation. They were looking for something that would be a symbolic ethnic
identity, something they could display. If they do want a cultural show,
they’re not going to do yoga. It might also have something to do with the
fact that yoga is understood as a secular practice.”

Because I did not grow up with yoga, I turned to it as many Westerners do–as
a more humane, intelligent form of exercise. I loved the high I got coming
out of class but came to yoga’s philosophy and way of being almost
grudgingly. But for many Indians who grew up with yoga, the sweat-it-out
workout that is so in vogue is not only strange but an offense, a dilution
of yoga’s pure intent.

Years ago, Siddharth Dube, Basanth Kumar’s son, who grew up in India
practicing yoga, went to visit a group house in Madison, Wisconsin, whose
members were all avid practitioners. To his “horror” they had various
machines and equipment and were leaping in and out of poses like circus acrobats.
“To me, the yoga here is completely athletic, without any safeguards,
particularly around breathing,” says Dube. “Everything I was taught–not to
compete, not to focus on a perfect position, not to strain, to rest
systematically. Here it’s the importance of sweating in a gym, which to me
is the antithesis of yoga.”

As for the current yoga boom, Dube is quite dismayed. “I’m extremely
critical of the way yoga is practiced here,” he says. “People go just to
improve their bodies, to look youthful. It gets confused with exercise and
looking beautiful forever. People in India don’t have great bodies; they
don’t have great abs.”

As Vazirani ruefully writes, “The Americanization of yoga includes strain. A
higher rate of injury than yoga practiced in Asian countries. Emphasis is on
postures only. Competition. Merchandise: mats, pillows, eye bags, blankets,
blocks, ropes, tanks, shorts, T-shirts. J. Crew yoga clothes . . . . Yoga
becomes something we must own.”

Yet for all the criticisms and leeriness of yoga, I also spoke to those who
are overjoyed at its dissemination and popularity–no matter what the form.
“It’s done good,” says magazine and Web site publisher M.K. Srinivasan. “It
reflects on the growth of South Asians in this country and how we are
gaining a higher profile. We should stop having ownership over these
concepts.” Srinivasan observes that there’s also a division within the
Indian-American community. Those who have more recently emigrated from India
find the “American-style” yoga they see being practiced a bit shocking, and
they are more critical. However, those who have been here longer are able to
empathize with the way it’s done here. “They’re much more accepting that the
practices have changed and have been transferred,” Srinivasan adds.
Somini Sengupta, a reporter for The New York Times who grew up in Los
Angeles, did not see her parents or their friends practicing yoga. (The one
Indian yoga teacher they knew catered to white clients.) She began to take
classes because it helped her with stress. To her, the current popularity of
yoga has nothing to do with the sudden fashionableness of India. “It’s part
of an exercise trend,” she says, “and I treat it as my form of exercise.”
As for chanting Sanskrit and all the other “in” Indianisms, she is
nonplussed. “I know a lot of South Asians find that to be a cultural
affront,” says Sengupta. “I don’t feel that way. To me things like Sun
Salutations are just a common vernacular; they’ve become part of American
pop culture. I don’t feel territorial about it. I don’t have any problem
with a white girl in dreadlocks chanting Sanskrit. I don’t chant because I
don’t know the meaning.”

A Model Minority
Despite the misgivings and misunderstandings, there are those Indian
Americans who actually “discovered” yoga in the United States and are
grateful for its transmission to the West. Psychotherapist Tripti Bose, who
settled here nearly 40 years ago, says that during the 1970s, a time when
many Western psychotherapists began exploring other practices like
meditation, she also found herself drawn to Eastern approaches. “My interest
in yoga grew strictly from a Western point of view,” she says. “I was coming
to a point in my own professional practice where I saw the limits of
traditional psychotherapy. I saw that people’s experiences and disturbances
were retained in their bodies. I began to use meditation and the basic yoga
philosophy in my practice. When many of us have a problem, we think we can
get rid of it totally–when instead we have to learn to live with it. My
practice began to shift to help people accept things.”

I asked Bose if she felt that as an Indian, even Western-educated, she had
any special access to yoga. She laughed. “It’s true. Yoga is latent in us
Indians. At moments of distress, it comes out naturally, like using
<a href="/health/ayurveda“>Ayurvedic treatment. It’s part of our consciousness.”

Indians in the United States have come to be more integrated into American
culture–for better or worse, now they are considered the “model minority.”
But like any immigrants, they were originally at a remove, working hard to
establish themselves in a foreign country and negotiating the complex shoals
of race and culture in the United States. Self-improvement and health were
often luxuries; as reporter Somini Sengupta remarks dryly, “Given the high
rate of heart attacks among South Asian men, it would have been good for
those early immigrants to take up yoga.”

Some communities have decided to do just that and have worked at introducing
yoga to other Indians. In East Brunswick, New Jersey, an area settled with
many Indian immigrants, Vanitak Balwalli has opened the Om Therapy Center,
with her daughter. Balwalli, who immigrated from Karnataka, India, to New
Jersey 20 years ago, had always done yoga with her husband privately. More
recently, she’s helped to integrate breathing and yoga techniques into the
religious camps that are held for the young people in her community. But it
was her work as a nurse treating AIDS patients that inspired her to open her
own center. “I saw that these alternative techniques, while they cannot
cure, are very powerful for relieving pain.”

Slowly the mother-and-daughter team has begun to see an influx of Indians
coming for massage and the few yoga classes they offer. “If we start as
Indians, I think more will come because Indians relate to other Indians,”
says Bawalli. Like many Indian Americans, Bawalli is thrilled that yoga has
become so widespread, but she too is perplexed by how such a quiet,
spiritual practice has become big business. Classes in chanting particularly
puzzle her. “How can you charge for chanting?” she asks.

Years ago, when Indians such as Bawalli and Tripti Bose and others
immigrated from the East and arrived in the United States, yoga was like a
forgotten treasure: a practice in India that had partly fallen by the
wayside and was partly kept private. They may have carried some knowledge of
yoga, but it was not something they pursued openly. Then yoga was discovered
by the West.

Now, in our globalized and transnational world, the age-old dichotomies of
East and West are beginning to crumble. Here in the United States, yoga is
less rooted in Hinduism; it has become Americanized and mainstreamed for
health and self-improvement. At the same time, in cities like Delhi and
Bangalore, where satellites beam in MTV and one can buy Domino’s pizza with
masala spicing, a new, stressed-out generation of middle-class Indians are
turning to yoga in ways not unlike those of their counterparts here–for
relaxation and time away from their pressured and busy lives. Some ashrams
and yoga centers are beginning to attract not just the customary droves of
foreigners, but locals too. Savvy Indian travel agencies are advertising
their country as the “spiritual Prozac” and “the place where Westerners go
to chill.” It makes one wonder how the yoga boom in the West has changed the
perception and practice of yoga in India today–a topic that is addressed in part two of this two-part series, Culture Shock.


Writer Marina Budhos lives in New York City and is the author of several
books, including Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers (Books for
Young Readers, 1999) and The Professor of Light (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999).