When I moved to Los Angeles 17 years ago, a friend invited me to a Krishna Das concert. I didn’t know anything about him, so I was expecting perhaps an Indian classical singer with a sitar. Instead, I walked into a room of about 200 Western yogis—mostly Caucasian—sitting on the floor in front of a low-rise stage that held Krishna Das and about nine other musicians and singers. I took a seat in a sea of Caucasians singing and chanting Sanskrit mantras—with more than a few mispronunciations of the language. I remember feeling really confused and thinking, “What is happening? Where am I?” It felt very strange to be in this environment, as the only time I had experienced musicians sitting on the ground with a harmonium (an Indian keyboard instrument) and a tabla (an Indian drum) was at Gurdwara (Sikh temple) on Sundays.
Although I was born in Toronto, Canada, my parents are both from Punjab, India, and they kept our traditions alive and strong. Back then I thought we were weird because of the way we dressed, did our hair, wore bindis, and sang our prayers. Growing up, I wanted to fit in so badly that I even wished to be white, blond, and blue-eyed during a teenage moment in which I refused to answer unless my family called me “Jenny.” Today, I feel sad for that girl who yearned to be someone other than her beautiful, unique self.
I never would have believed it back then if you told me that Western culture would want to be . . . well, us.
Here I was being led in kirtan (devotional chant) by a Jewish man (by birth) who was teaching and sharing the names of the Vedic deities. At first all I could focus on was the way people around me were mispronouncing the words. Then I closed my eyes and let go into the vibe of the music. My heart opened wide and tears rolled down my face, dripping off my jawline to my kurta (long shirt). The judgmental thoughts of “this is right” or “this is wrong” dropped. I allowed myself to receive what was here for me, for us all: the high vibrations of the music. I realized that bhakti (devotion) comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and lineages. I felt there was truth to what Krishna Das was sharing with his heart that can benefit us all.
Now the Western world has drunk the delicious mango lassi Kool-Aid and thousands, if not millions, of people want to pursue the path of being a yoga instructor, guru, and kirtan walla (a devoted singer who travels temple to temple—or, in the modern Western equivalent now, from festival to yoga studio to retreat).
But this rise in popularity of yoga in the West isn’t always something to celebrate. I didn’t even know what cultural appropriation meant until a couple of years ago, when a few of the more traditional yogis (those steeped in the Raja Yoga path) brought me into a conversation about the Western “conscious event” organizers choosing to exclude Indians who have a lineage of teachers or singers in their families. Instead, they were inviting Westerners with big Instagram followings who had just learned yogasana a few years ago. It’s become a business, and as with any business, the goal is to bring in more income and serve more people, so if those people happen to be teaching “yoga”—in a form that mostly focuses on postures—should we accept that it isn’t fully representing the lifestyle of being a yogi?
My teacher of yoga philosophy is Jeffrey Armstrong, a Vedic scholar who happens to be white-skinned and is deeply immersed in the traditions of yoga. I don’t have a problem with Westerners teaching yoga, but what I do find daunting is when teachers lead you through poses for an hour and call it yoga. Call this asana, call this exercise, but don’t call it yoga—that’s not what it is. Yoga is a whole system that includes breathwork, sound vibration, devotion, and meditation.
I believe there needs to be a balance of honoring tradition and allowing for modernization. We can greatly benefit from celebrating and learning from Indian singers and Vedic teachers who are beautifully steeped in tradition. We also benefit by making room for modern approaches to the yogic and devotional path. Let’s chant, share, and grow together to raise the vibration of the planet.
About our author
Hemalayaa Behl is a leader, mentor, and author of the Embody Oracle Card Deck. She empowers women through movement with her Bollywood Dance Fitness videos and live-streaming of dance parties. Learn more at Hemalayaa.com.