Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Yoga: An Indian-American Perspective

By Rina Deshpande

After receiving a call from a dear person in my life – also an Indian American – I’m seeing this as an opportunity to turn in the direction of explaining the experience of “yoga” – or at least what many think yoga is – from a cultural perspective.

Often, it is easier to illustrate by starting with a brief and true personal story.  So instead of making this harder for myself than it is, here goes:

I sat in the yoga room, signed up for a Sanskrit class with a group of fellow female strangers. As always, I was eager and excited to be in school.  And as pretty much always in academics and in yoga alike, I was the sole Indian in the room.

The class began, and the Sanskrit instructor – a kind white American woman in a woolen sweater who was so clearly invested in the power that is Sanskrit that she spent most her life studying it and speaking it – had us move through each of the areas of our mouths creating sound, projecting from our throats and next our bellies, and noticing the differences in how it feels in our bodies.  This, she explained, is the hidden, profound base of Sanskrit. Her explanation of the different sounds of the
letter “D” in Sanskrit made by placing the tongue slightly differently behind the teeth finally put into words the explanation I had been seeking for so long: why my last name of Deshpande, is pronounced more like “They-shpon-day” than “Desh-pan-day.”

Sounds foreign to American ears, the two women behind me with shiny hair began pronouncing the Indian sounds and bursting into fits of laughter.  There I sat, nearly twenty-five years out of elementary school, and I felt myself slump back into my seat the way I used to on a school bus when two white American boys (whose names I fully remember in spite of trying to shed them) would belt Indian accents and laugh into my face.  In this yoga classroom as an adult, my heart started racing. My shoulders sank. My head was hot. I worked hard in the moment to “channel my yoga” to observe myself in the situation, and my insides told me that this was unjust and unkind.

Heavy with upset through the rest of class, I did what I often do in such circumstances and decided to over-appreciate someone doing the right thing (a classic teacher-tactic).  I thanked the teacher who offered unabashed value and respect for one of the most ancient languages- if not the most ancient language – to exist. She was wonderful. And I let her know.

But now, it is a chance to speak to the other side.  Because after receiving a call from my friend who was off-put from a yoga class experience, I realize that speaking is not just for me. It’s for many.

In so many ways, it is a gift as a yoga practitioner of South Indian background to hear familiar words and mantras in yoga class in my adult life that so for so long I was ashamed to accept – being singled out for your skin color and hair and your father’s Indian accent has a longstanding effect.  For this reason, this is not meant to wave any fingers to anyone who accepts the Indian teachings known as Yoga.  It’s really to share my perspective and feelings as an Indian American practicing yoga.

Gifts are many in yoga, but it is exceptionally hard when you Google “yoga” and find people who are not Indian as the first images and stories to come up.  They are almost always white.  “Leaders” of yoga are frequently white men. “Practitioners,” “teachers,” and models are very often picture-perfect white women.

It is hard when a picture of a Ganesha is printed on a t-shirt.  As a different dear friend hadforwarded me in a beautiful piece on awareness of appropriation – we as human beings would ideally not print deities of others’ cultures or place them on our bodies as tattoos without recognizing truly and deeply what they mean.  If you see pictures or statues of such deities, it is lovely to accept them and learn about them. Please do. But there is something odd about mass productions as fun décor or sprinkling glitter as akshatha at the end of a class (experienced in yoga by yet another dear Indian friend) in a yoga class – mimicking a sacred ceremony in which sprinkling colored rice is an offering and blessing in India.

When I see a Ganesha or Lakshmi photo or statue at the front of a yoga room or on the side of a studio, I am both warmed to see my culture so vividly accepted, and yet also unfortunately off-put as I engage in yoga practice. In my family and as widespread practice in India, we do not place our feet on or toward anything we should show respect, including people. Foot-based adjustments in yoga from instructors send a discomforting feeling through my body not because I choose to feel that way or feel like the teacher is trying to offend me – my body just instantly feels that way.

Yoga is not the same as Hinduism. Similarly, not all Indians are Hindus, just as how all Indians do not practice yoga. If you are a yoga teacher as I am, please know that if we say things like, “In India, they…,” however you choose to end the statement, it is a pretty large attribute to assign to over a billion people who within the subcontinent share many likes and differences.  As an Indian American
child who was both battling with and learning about who I was alongside my sister in a sea of many who neither looked like us nor shared our culture, I made the same mass-assumptions about India and Indians as well.  India was far away. Understandably it was easy to generalize from little bits I came to hear about or see in media.  We are all capable of unintentional generalizations.  As an adult, I learn more and more each day and fill gaps and redirect myself. As humans, I’d say that is the best we can do: Educate ourselves to inform our practice of being individually and connected to others.

Mantras from Vedic texts were designed, as astutely pointed out by another dear Indian friend, with a rhythm and pronunciation system (among other things). They are by no means required for use in yoga, but many times, mantras might resonate or take you to a place of stillness or deep connection.  Where the connection might break is when Sanskrit words are strongly mispronounced or syllabic emphasis ignored, not due to mal-intent, but simply due to lack of awareness.  For others, disconnection from hearing a mantra may come from an association with religious practice that may or may not have been a welcoming or freeing experience. 

Predicting the experience of every practitioner upon hearing a mantra might not be possible, but what if we deeply study and truly “live” the Sanskrit mantras or chants if we do choose to use them – including developing as aligned pronunciation as possible? Imagine the spaciousness and welcome we might offer.  Imagine clearing away the misconception that yoga is “trendy,” rather than deeper than anything we can ever explain or understand with feeble minds.

This piece is not a cry to say “leave yoga only for Indians” or “stop teaching yoga wrong.” There is much being done right.  And yoga, I truly “know” in my heart, body, and soul is a way of being for everyone. It transforms my life in every moment. Mis-steps are suddenly opportunities for growth, and a blemish on my resume is suddenly revealed to me as my greatest teacher that shifted my course to feel an inner freedom I have never known before.

The benefits yoga that yoga can offer are therefore not solely stretching muscles in a colorful lycra wardrobe (though I like those things, too).  In my study and practice of yoga and in science research, it’s becoming clear that concepts like “samskaras” - energetic patterning and habits we create by living in autopilot that we can change with yoga practice – are similar to if not the same idea as the idea of neuroplasticity. The connections between the old world and new world, East and West, are inspiring and profound. They are yoga in and of themselves.

There is a beauty in watching the Yoga Sutras (Sutras = “threads”; don’t feel bad if you mistook this to be a negatively-lit “Kama Sutra” which has been incorrectly skewed to be a weird Indian sex book. It’s all about learning, right?) endure the test of time longer than any electronic device or fashion trend. I cannot remember where I first read it -maybe The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari? - but to call ancient yoga a “new age” trend is, well, anything but. :)

My dear friend and I hung up the phone after our conversation today, wondering what we can do to share our feelings on the matter without coming across as accusatory or whiny- the risks of speaking on a sensitive subject that you love and care about.

It was clear.  Start small, and don’t wait.  So here is my first post.

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