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Culture Shock

How yoga's popularity in the West is changing the way Indians approach a practice created in their country thousands of years ago.

By Marina Budhos

One afternoon in 1993, I was sitting in a restaurant on a gorgeous beach in Trivandrum, in the state of Kerala, India, with my friend Ed Rothfarb and several people he had recently met at the Sivananda Ashram, when one of the American women dreamily observed: "The people in India are so happy. Even the poor people; they all look so content. Don't you think so?"

I had just come from Calcutta, having lived through particularly troubling times: Riots had broken out throughout India when Hindu fundamentalists stormed the Ayodhya Mosque. It was a painful time for the country; we spent weeks under curfew, locked in our houses and listening to reports of burning and looting in the poorer Muslim quarters. Although I gave the woman quite a tongue-lashing, her ignorance was not really her fault. After all, she had only been here a few weeks, sequestered in an ashram and unaware of the terrible violence that had swept through the country.

Through the years, though, I learned that this somewhat filtered perspective of India appears to be firmly established in the West--especially when it comes to the practice of yoga. For instance, I recently attended a party where a woman asked about my background. When I told her I was half Indian (via the Caribbean, no less), she said, "I know India well. I go there every year to study yoga."

As an Indian American, I regularly encounter such misguided comments about India and find them both confusing and intriguing. On the one hand, the India this woman spoke of--an ashram in Rajasthan--had nothing to do with the India I have come to know and love. For me, India is a sense of connection: It is endless socializing, home-cooked food, and conversation among those who look like me and have a certain outlook that I don't find in the States; it is the streets and the pungent smells and the movie posters splotched in color; and it is the shopping. India, to me, is not spiritual; it is a raucous, exhausting, intense, and yes, at times, violent experience.

Yet I was also curious about the particular form of yoga she was studying, a layer of India with which I am not familiar. I had never met an Indian who went to an ashram; most I knew thought of it as a white person's paradise that cost too much, or it just hadn't crossed their minds to go. At the same time, I knew that yoga was practiced in India, but in subtler, less obvious ways.

It made me wonder whether other Indians share my feelings. What do Indians make of the droves of foreign travelers who arrive in their country, rubbery mats tucked under their arms, ready for hard-core study and spiritual contentment? Has the West changed how India approaches the practice it created thousands of years ago, or is the influence much more subtle? The answers are as varied as India.

The Lost Generation
I began my inquiry with Basant Kumar Dube. Dube, who has been practicing hatha yoga for 40 years, was part of the Indian generation groomed to look to the West for guidance rather than to its own heritage. When I called Dube at his son's Greenwich Village apartment, where he was visiting, he told me firmly that yoga could not be spoken of over the phone and insisted I come over for tea. I was pleased at the gesture; it reminded me of exactly what I love about India--the social graciousness, the sense that someone is always waiting with tea and sweets.

When I arrived, Dube had just finished his morning asanas and was sitting on a pillow by the window absorbing the sun's rays. It was hard to believe that Dube was almost 70; he looked agile and youthful and was eager to talk about his passion for yoga.

Dube grew up when India was under the rule of the British Raj. He attended an exclusive Eton-style boarding school and worked for an English firm in Calcutta. "We were either fighting the British or working for them," he remarks wryly. Like many in his generation, he disdained yoga, seeing it as backward or "some kind of hocus pocus."

"It's part of our inheritance," explains Dube. "But there was no actual passing down of specific yoga knowledge. One tried to mold one's life to the concept of Hinduism. When one read the Gita as a child, one understood that one had to rise above pain and joy. But we were not trained to try and inculcate those thoughts and feelings. We didn't have the instruments to practice it."

And then a funny thing happened--he was introduced to yoga via an Englishman. Dube's eldest son, Pratap, had fallen ill with polio, and his right foot and leg remained partially paralyzed. Since the boy was unable to participate in school sports, the British headmaster at Dube's alma mater handed him a book on yoga. It was written by Sir Paul Duke, a spy for the Royal Secret Service, who had traveled throughout the region and spoken at length with various seers and gurus in the Himalayas. One day Dube came home from work and found, to his astonishment, his son trying to stand on his head. He took one look at the book his son showed him and from then on, he says, "I was hooked," and proclaims to have never missed a day of yoga since. His evening headstands "are like the glass of scotch I still like to have at the end of the day."

The Dube family began to practice yoga regularly--all three sons--and soon Dube's wife, Savitri, went to study at the Calcutta branches of the Bihar School of Yoga and the Yogashakti Ashram. Savitri eventually became an accomplished teacher, giving free private classes to young women. Says Siddarth, Dube's son: "When we were kids, if people dropped by on the weekend, they might find the whole family in their underwear doing poses." Even though the Dubes were passionately embracing a part of their heritage, they were very much in the minority. It was unusual among affluent or middle-class Indians to practice yoga so fervently and openly. If anything, yoga was seen as a practice to be followed by only the most devoted: sanyasis and sadhus, those who took the path of renunciation, or by an older person, who traditionally in Indian culture turns away from his or her material obligations and goes inward to practice non-attachment (vanprasthashrama). Yet yoga was not altogether lost or forgotten; rather it was latent in the culture, sometimes woven into daily and religious life. Yoga, to an Indian, might mean meditation and breathing as part of a morning puja, a practice done quietly at home and without a name. Nearly everyone I spoke with told me the same thing: Yoga was something unremarkable.

Coming to America
To fully understand yoga in India today, you first have to look at the practice after the 1947 independence from Great Britain, when the major hatha yoga pioneers struggled to keep up their schools for the more serious study of yoga, particularly as government patronage had ended.

Krishnamacharya, regarded as the father of modern-day yoga, had in the decades before built up a broad following in Mysore under the patronage of the maharaja but was forced to close his school in 1950. However, he was encouraged by several prominent people in Madras (now Chennai) to bring his particular form of yoga to their city. There, he once again formed a local following, and his son, T. K. V. Desikachar, would soon follow in his footsteps, as would two of his other prized students, B. K. S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

But it wasn't until this trio traveled to America in the 1960s and early 1970s that their impact on yoga was truly felt. Here, they found small but dedicated groups of yogis who proceeded to follow them back to India to further develop and deepen their individual practices. It was an audience they lacked in their homeland.

Mary Dunn, an Iyengar teacher now based in New York, was a member of this early entourage and went to India at the "cusp" moment when yoga was just opening to the West. What I first noticed about Dunn is her no-nonsense way of talking about India. And it became clear to me that while she loves India, it is yoga that draws her again and again to the country--a yoga training she can't get anywhere else in the world.

Dunn was originally introduced to yoga via her mother, Mary Palmer, who helped to bring B. K. S. Iyengar to the United States in the 1970s. Iyengar's arrival was electric--he struck a chord among a whole new generation that was longing for this kind of experience. Dunn remembers vividly the first time she heard him speak in California: "Halfway through class, I realized this was the most exciting learning experience I have ever had. The way he taught, which was to command such concentration and demand such breadth of application, was unbelievable--the physical sensitivity and the concentration of the mind."

Dunn, then in her early 20s, was inspired to travel to India in 1974 to study full time with Iyengar. The Iyengar Institute in Pune was brand new at the time; Westerners were rare and a special three-week intensive with extended classes and special events had been set up for foreigners. As a result, there was little mixing with local Indians who took the general classes and went home. Still, Western yogis found what they were looking for.

"You can do the immersion in other places, but there is something about that particular immersion," says Dunn. "Part of it is that Iyengar has been working on this for 65 years. He has a commitment to his practice that is without parallel." It was this level of intensity and concentration that kept drawing students and teachers like Dunn and others back to India. Because of those early interactions, more in-depth knowledge of yoga began to spread to America.

As a result, from the late 1960s onward, India had become a spiritual oasis in the Western imagination. Some came for serious yoga study, others to drop out of society for a while. But was it really India these American yogis sought, or rather an image of India? Was India serving as an outlet for their own frustrations and personal odysseys rather than as a place unto itself? For many Indians the distinction is clear.

Sunaina Maira, an assistant professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts who has written about second-generation Indians in the United States, grew up in Pune near the Iyengar Institute. For Maira, one of the problems of Westerners looking to India as a land of simplified living is romanticizing the hardships and privations that most Indians live with. "What troubles me is that people who come to India on a pilgrimage don't have a sense of the constraints we live under," she says. "We are not unmaterialistic by choice. It isn't something Indian in nature. People always valued commodities and hoarded cans of sausages; brand names were important. My sense is [Westerners] were getting a particular slice of India and ignoring the rest."

For the most part, this mind-set has remained throughout yoga's growing influence in America, even though yoga is no longer viewed as an esoteric practice of a devoted few. Foreigners are now arriving in India in droves, often staying on to teach and become part of the fabric of ashram life. Ed Rothfarb, who went to study at the Sivananda Ashram in 1993, found half the students and teachers were foreigners--the swami who taught Hinduism was Italian, and Rothfarb's hatha yoga teacher was "a really tough" Israeli, who treated the class "like boot camp." Rothfarb noticed that many had come to the ashram at a time of personal crisis. Because the ashram was so crowded, Rothfarb wound up in the simpler dormitory for Indians, which gave him a unique perspective on the milieu of the ashram. The Indians he met came from all walks of life, though most were well-educated and some were very interested in teaching yoga as a career. The Westerners, he found, were a decidedly mixed lot: "While there were some who were pretty serious, there were a lot of young Europeans who were totally not into it; it was like a vacation their parents had paid for."

Finding Middle Ground
While Westerners traveled to India in greater numbers and filled the ashrams, what of the locals? Has the Indian middle class--the largest in the world--also turned to yoga with the same fervor?

Recently, an old friend of my father's, E. R. Desikan, was visiting from India. Though Desi, as he's known, loves nothing better than to have a good scotch at the Gymkhana Club, he is also a fairly observant Brahmin; he is a vegetarian and wears the sacred yellow thread looped around his chest. When he greeted me, he glowed with energy. "I'm doing yoga," he said proudly. Desi used to work out regularly at the gym and thought of yoga as something purely contemplative and spiritual. Two years ago, after a hernia operation, his doctor advised hatha yoga. Now 80-years-old, Desikan does a series of 15 asanas every morning along with meditation in the evening.

Desi, as it turns out, is part of a growing trend of Indians who have turned to yoga in the wake of the Western yoga boom. Desi attends Krishnamacharya Yogi Mandiram (KYM), the school founded by Krishnamacharya's son, Desikachar, and now run by his grandson, Kausthub. When I asked Kausthub if he thought Indians were influenced by the West, he remarked ruefully, "The wind blows from the West." But then he added, "Today it is mostly the educated or upper middle class who are doing yoga. The center of gravity of yoga has shifted to urban homes."

Ramanand Patel, an Iyengar teacher who was born in India, raised in South Africa, and has taught around the world, definitely believes Indians have been affected by the Western interest in yoga--but in a positive light. "India is able to appreciate its values better because outsiders respect them," he says. "The same medical friends who laughed at me some years ago are now interested in what I have to share."

Daniel Ghosal, an Indian American analyst and trader with Bear & Stearns in New York City, has a unique perspective on what has been occurring in India in the past decade. He grew up both in India and in the United States. After graduating from college in 1991, he went to study yoga with a medical doctor in Madras (Chennai) who practiced alternative approaches. Ghosal was largely motivated by medical concerns--he suffered from asthma, among other ailments--but yoga itself was not an alien practice to him: His sister is a devoted Iyengar teacher, and his family in Calcutta had always been involved in gymnastics and body building.

At that time, Ghosal noticed that many Indians didn't like to take classes at the large institutes with Westerners. "Frankly, they'd prefer to do it in an in Indian setting," he says. "They were very judgmental of the Americans whom they saw as kind of 'cracked.' They have an aversion to the hippie, cult thing." Instead, they preferred small classes or private tutorials, where yoga was geared to their individual needs. The concept of yoga being a large, social trend is foreign to most Indians, as is the American fixation on a particular school or lineage. "They're not as discriminating as Americans, who come to yoga with a specific purpose and want something cultural, the lighting of the candles and all that," says Ghosal. "To Indians, it's just yoga."

However, when Ghosal returned to live in India with his wife in the 1990s, he noticed that more young Indians were beginning to show an interest in hatha yoga. Some of this was simply that exercise had taken hold among India's young professionals, and yoga was seen, as it is sometimes portrayed in the mass media in America, as another way to stay in shape. Still, in his mind, yoga is not nearly as mainstreamed in India as it is in the West. He noticed that it was mostly women and "progressive or alternative health types" who took classes. "The equivalent of corporate executives in India would generally not take yoga--they go more for golf or tennis," he says. As for the serious yogis who flock from the West, he sees a distinct difference from their 1960s counterparts. "This is not the rebellious crowd," he says. "Westerners are becoming involved in a more permanent way. It's a deeper connection."

Homefield Advantage
Yet hatha yoga probably will never have the same profound effect on Indians as it does on Westerners, simply because it's homegrown. Indians can study with some of the most renowned teachers without ever leaving home, and it is often a practice they weave into their daily life, rather than going for an intensive retreat. For instance, Krishnamacharya Yogi Mandiram, which is a nonresidential school, hosts 80 percent Indian students. At the Iyengar Institute, Mary Dunn reports there is now more mixing between Indians and Westerners, but many Indians have told me they think of yoga has being done in separate tracks--one for Indians, one for Westerners. As well, most of the Indians I spoke with prefer to attend a yoga school or work with a teacher for several months, develop a specific and personal routine that addresses their needs, and then practice on their own time.

In a sense, this is the way it's always been in India; the only difference now is that more people are doing it. Nilanjana Roy, a Delhi-based journalist and editor told me, "For me, yoga was always very much part of the family fitness routine in a completely unexceptional way. My mother did yoga for her back, as did my uncle. It was never an issue; most of the Indians I know who practice yoga are somewhat bemused by the fuss that some Americans seem to make over the system."

All along, yoga in India has been quietly growing in places far removed from the ashrams filled with Westerners. The Bihar School of Yoga (BSY) in Munger, Bihar, was founded in 1963 by Paramahamsa Satyananda and is based on the notion of karma yoga--yoga as a lifestyle. It is less well-known in the "ashram circuit" precisely because it has chosen to serve the needs of Indians in the country.

"It is our intention to work for the development of Indian society," says Swami Niranjanananda, who took over the helm of the institute in the late 1980s. "We have not migrated to another country like thousands of others. This is our karma bhoomi [vocational arena]." Interestingly, BSY's aim was to draw on the knowledge of the West and make the study of yoga more "scientific" in order to draw skeptical Indians and serve as a thorough research institute covering all aspects of yoga. In 1994, Niranjanananda founded the Bihar Yoga Bharati, the first institution for higher yogic studies, which is affiliated with Bhagalpur University in Bihar and offers graduate degrees in yoga.

Because BSY has made it a point to do outreach to corporations and schools, many in India are familiar with Bihari Yoga, which has been described as a cross between Iyengar and Ashtanga. Ghosal's wife, Mallika Dutt, learned Bihari Yoga at daily classes given at the Ford Foundation in Delhi, where she was a program officer for several years. Even the Indian Army has been touched by yoga.

For years, the Army has been conducting experiments with yoga to ascertain how it may help soldiers withstand extreme climates. In 1995, through teachers affiliated with the Bihar school, the Army added yoga to its training, and there are plans to introduce it in the Navy and Air Force as well. Many of the other schools, concerned that yoga has become an elite phenomenon, are also reaching out to other parts of Indian society. For instance, KYM has launched several projects in which teachers from the center visit communities to teach yoga to destitute women and children. There's also another significant difference between yoga in India and in the West: the very nature of the classes. Those who have studied in India often remark that many Western classes, with their rounds of energetic Sun Salutations, are quite removed from Indian classes, which are longer and devote more time to mindful breathing and meditation. Srivatsa Ramaswami, a yoga teacher who has taught both in India and the West, notes: "My impression is that the number of people who take to bhakti yoga through chanting, meditation, worship, and study are increasing much faster than those who take to physical yoga alone. I see the same trend among Americans of Indian origin in the United States."

Nonetheless, some of the more athletic aspects of Western yoga have crept into classical Indian yoga, and most teachers do not necessarily see this as a bad thing. "In general, Indians respect and teach more depth but ignore the benefits of a vast expanse of other knowledge," says Iyengar instructor Ramanand Patel. "In mixing and modifying yoga in light of other cultures, the West enriches and expands yoga." Adds Srivatsa Ramaswami: "This physical yoga has also become inventive. Many postures and procedures imported from other physical systems like gymnastics, martial arts, and calisthenics are slowly creeping into yoga instruction, pushing out more conventional yoga procedures."

The problem he sees--and it's by far the most significant-- is its effect of countering hatha yoga's aim: The heart rate and breath rate are actually increased rather than reduced. All of the teachers I spoke with were concerned about the Westerners misunderstanding yoga. Geeta Iyengar, B. K. S.'s daughter, states bluntly, "Popularity becomes a curse. Popularity introduces dilution. To maintain the purity of the original science and art of yoga is a difficult task. The careful balance between orthodoxy and modernity has to be maintained. However, dilution for the sake of convenience and popularity is not pardonable." Adds Ramanand Patel: "The objection is when these Western influences completely disregard what yoga has to say."

Lurking beneath these comments, though, is a sensitive and thorny issue: Is the money going to the right people? Indian yoga masters like Iyengar, Jois, and Desikachar have made their fortunes bringing yoga to America, but what about those not in the spotlight? This question reminded me of when I was living in Calcutta (now Kolkotta) years ago. Three mornings a week, a woman came to my house for yoga instruction and massage. A refugee from East Bengal, she was completely self-taught and had built a small business, tutoring middle class Indians and the occasional foreigner. Though the yoga instruction was hardly rigorous, I was struck with the woman's ingenuity: her ability to seize a knowledge that was dormant around her and turn it into a business that transformed her from a homeless refugee into a successful immigrant with her own house. Yoga, she understood, was not something static and ancient but a practice that had flowed through her and could be passed on to a stranger living in India for the time being. Everyone I spoke with agrees that while yoga in the West may be diluted, it is at its purest in India: Indians and Westerners alike come there for the depth of knowledge one can find in no other place in the world, nurtured by generations of gurus. This is the image of yoga in India I am left with: continuity and flux, tradition and change--just like the country itself.


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David Branch

Nice article. It's not Kolkotta though... it's Kolkata (pronounced "KOL-ka-taa").

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