Out of India American yogis have enthusiastically embraced all things Indian. But what do people of Indian descent think of Americans "borrowing" their culture?
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.
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 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).