I didn’t really get to know my father until I was 22. My parents divorced when I was just a baby, and growing up, I didn’t see much of my dad. He was an alcoholic, and his addiction consumed him. I hated him for a long time. Still, when he asked me to accompany him on a three-month trip to his Indian hometown in 2013, I jumped at the opportunity. I was 22, had recently graduated college, and was trying to figure out my life’s next steps.
Dad was born and raised in Jaipur, a small town just southwest of New Delhi. Known as “The Pink City,” it boasts a tiny airport and dusty rose-colored buildings. One of them belongs to my grandmother, and that’s where my father and I stayed. Built in the early 1900’s, it has colorful marble floors, true to Indian style.
In Indian culture, it isn’t uncommon for the extended family to live together. My father’s brother and two sisters, as well as their spouses, all lived with my grandmother. It was a full house, and one also filled with love. We ate our meals together, cleaned together, cooked together, and prayed together.
Every morning, when the servants would awake us for breakfast, my father would go downstairs to meditate and practice yoga before eating. I’d never in my wildest dreams envisioned my dad as a yogi. But from upstairs, I could hear him huffing and puffing.
“Kapalabhati,” he told me, referring to the practice referred to as ‘breath of fire’ in the West, “wakes me up and energizes me for the day.” I watched as he contorted his body into shapes I’d only seen in Cirque du Soleil performances on cruise ships.
One morning, I asked my father to take me to a local ashram to attend a yoga class. When I arrived, I rang a bell and walked barefoot into a spacious room. The class was unlike any I had taken in the states. Instead of using the breath as a vehicle to settle more deeply into a pose, we spent 45 minutes learning to slow down the breath and then sit in stillness. The only posture we took was Half-bound Lotus, and that’s where we stayed. We closed our practice with “Aum” and a prayer to the Indian god Hanuman. I had never indulged in anything so simple that felt so good.
In the American yoga classes I was used to, I watched everyone else in the mirror practice alongside me. I’d doubt my own abilities because I wasn’t as flexible as some of the other yogis. Sitting in this room in Jaipur, though, there was no element of competition. My focus was on how the quality of my breath affected my state of mind, and nothing else.
After a few more times attending this class, I began to ponder taking my practice off the mat. I pondered: What did it look and feel like to live like a “yogi?” Focusing on my breath helped me understand myself better, and the better I understood myself, the better I was able to understand those around me, including my father and his dedication toward healing himself.
One afternoon while sitting together on my grandmother’s rooftop in The Pink City, Dad explained that yoga gave him the self-awareness to realize that he was flawed (aren’t we all?) and an outlet whenever he felt like he needed a drink. His struggle with addiction made me wonder if I had any work to do on myself.
When I returned home, I moved back in with my mom in Austin, Texas. I was just another millennial trying to figure out life. Life was unpredictably inconsistent—the job market was tough for a journalism major like me. But I began to take comfort in yoga.
Just like my father had done in Jaipur, I developed a daily yoga ritual. I rolled out of bed in the mornings and open up YouTube, eager to practice with a new teacher. I’d do a 30-minute vinyasa class, and end with a 10-minute meditation focusing on breathing.
Five years later, Dad’s complicated-yet-human relationship with yoga inspired me to become a yoga teacher (RYT-200). I began teaching at a local studio. My goal was to connect people to the true meaning of yoga that I discovered in India, because yoga is culturally appropriated all the time in Austin. Though my studio is one of the more inclusive studios around town, shirts with slogans like “Na-ma-STAY In Bed” sold by thin white women in studio lobbies ruled this town and drove me crazy. (It’s not Na-ma-STAY, it’s actually Na-MAS-thé”).
My offerings focus more on the spirituality of yoga than the physicality, because only focusing on asana—and the “impressive” ones, at that—is appropriation. Teaching only handstands in power-based classes, for example, heavily influences the demographic of students that walk through the studio doors, and idealizes Western yoga over Eastern yoga. Not everyone can hold a handstand, but everyone can breathe.
To appreciate is to offer texts in Yoga Teacher Trainings written by the founding fathers of Indian yoga—like Krishnamacharya and Iyengar—as mandatory reading, so students learn the history of the names of the asanas, and the incredible stories behind their names.
To appropriate is to make colorful, skintight, matching yoga sets the “norm” to practice in. The abundance of this Instagram-friendly aesthetic makes it seem like there’s only one body type “right” for yoga: slim and toned with a six-pack. To appreciate is to understand that yoga can be done by bodies of all shapes and sizes, in any clothing.
To appreciate is to create a Diversity & Inclusion team for each and every yoga studio in America, private or corporate. I currently serve on the D&I team at my studio, and am instrumental in recruiting more teachers of color and teachers of all shapes and sizes.
At the end of the day, yoga holds a different meaning for each practitioner. But by hiring teachers that each have unique stories to tell, we practice the true meaning of yoga.
After a few years, I transitioned into a Spiritual Dating Coach. I help people find love by first finding love within themselves through yoga and meditation.
Many of my clients are a little confused when I tell them yoga is mandatory on their journey to finding love.
“What does yoga have to do with finding a partner?” they’ll ask.
“Yoga is the way,” I say.
It isn’t until they begin to practice it themselves that they realize the lesson Dad helped me learn: Daily yoga helps the practitioner connect breath to intuition, and, over time, ultimately make more aligned, mindful decisions when it comes to matters of the heart.
My father and I don’t talk anymore, but we will always be connected through yoga. There isn’t a day I don’t step on my mat and think of my grandmother’s house, where it all began.
Yoga is a gift—and I carry the gift my father gave with me wherever I go.
Sheena Sharma is a Spiritual Dating Coach based in Austin, Texas. When she isn’t helping people find love, you can find her teaching yoga, hiking with her dog, and watching romantic dramas on Netflix. Follow her on Instagram: @thatdatingcoach