“I was so angry because I had just put all my laundry in the washing machine. And when I came back in an hour I realized I had forgot to start the machine! It ruined my whole day! I really had to turn within and talk myself off the ledge.”
Funny how examples like these never came up when I was in Hindu class at the temple growing up. But at a trendy yoga class? Yup.
I’ve been hearing the term “cultural appropriation” a lot lately. Mostly it seems to revolve around white people co-opting black culture (though not always) without understanding its roots or give it due credit. As a Hindu-raised Indian-American it didn’t bother me when I noticed girls wearing bindis at Coachella. Or when I see the legions of women wearing weaves collected from hair left at Hindu temples. Hair which people leave as an offering to God as a thank you (with no remuneration) for saving a loved one’s life. Or as a plea to save them for financial ruin. And I wasn’t pissed when Willow Smith dressed up like Hindu goddess Kali for a Harper’s Bazaar shoot.
Personally if someone wants to emulate part of my culture I say go for it. The way I see it, it’s a compliment. Well maybe not the weave part.
But you know what bugs the hell out of me? The adoption of yoga in the West.
People approach yoga like a 12-year-old poseur approaches punk rock. Just because you shop at Hot Topic doesn’t mean you know anything about the Misfits. Yoga in the West has been reduced to nothing more than a series of poses, sweating out toxins in overheated rooms, and sanctimonious teachers trying to sound wiser than their 6-month yoga training would belie. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get to chant “aum” at the end of class.
Back to Cassandra. Later in the class, she came over to me and asked me if I wanted a mat. I elected not to pay the $2 for a rental mat and was practicing on the hard wood floor.
Yoga mats were only invented in the 80s and yoga is older than Jesus. Therefore a mat is not necessary. So I figured I’d save myself the $2.
“No, I’m OK. Thanks.”
I saw Cassandra’s face contort with irritation. “You have to have one.”
“Really? Why is that?” I asked, curious to know what she could possibly say. It wasn’t the first time I got strange looks from an instructor because I didn’t have a mat. But they had always let it go when I said I didn’t need one.
“Because it’s better for your practice,” she responded tersely.
“That’s funny because I was raised Hindu and I don’t remember yoga mats being a requirement.” When I took yoga as a kid at Hindu camp, we got towels if we took yoga outside. Indoors we often didn’t have mats. I smiled at her and went back into downward dog.
You may not guess it by the hordes of women (and some men) sporting Lululemon and toting designer yoga mats, but yoga is a 5000 + year Hindu practice that is just part of a larger system of beliefs (jnana, bhakti, and karma yoga) that includes an adherence to nonviolence, meditation, chanting, devotional love to God, and selfless action.
In other words, it is not just a physical discipline but a spiritual one a well. Yoga is not just about spouting off some really cool quotes (“live authentically”) or realizing you managed to stay calm when your dog took a dump in your shoe.
The Hindu pujaris and yoga teachers I met growing up didn’t just spout off platitudes about daily life but about universal consciousness, attaining “moksha” (heaven or nirvana) and detachment from earthly life. Even your very family. The ultimate goal of yoga is union with the God and liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Bet you didn’t learn that in yoga class!
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that so many people in the West have discovered yoga. Yoga is an amazing spiritual practice that can calm your mind, ease stress, and get you into shape. And if you really dig deeper past the platitudes and the superficiality of the “fast-food” nature of yoga studios you can use it as a tool to open the door to spiritual awareness.
Yet somehow in the proliferation and spread of yoga studios, yoga has become watered down, simplified, and in many cases whitewashed.
People on Yelp whine about too much “chanting” or a class not being enough exercise, not understanding the true roots and meaning of this Hindu practice. When I heard “The View” co-host Paula Faris say that she does yoga but “if there’s a class and there’s a little statue of Buddha or I face east or we start chanting I don’t go,” I wanted to pull my hair out. Her deliberate desire to appropriate yoga and strip it of its religious and cultural roots is infuriating and ignorant and sadly indicative of how many people feel.
Ultimately the physical or asana part of yoga was designed to prepare the body for long hours of meditation. It’s not meant to sweat out the toxins (which is a make-believe concept anyway, that’s why you have a liver folks). It’s not meant to make you a size 2, though if it does get you into shape good for you. Yoga is not about spending a lot of money on accoutrements so you look cute in class. Yoga is about getting closer to your spiritual nature.
I once told an acquaintance I didn’t like hot yoga. Besides the aforementioned illogicalness of sweating so excessively, Bikram is seen by many Hindus as a fraud. As a man who exploited yoga for his own financial gain like a televangelist who encourages poverty but counts his fat paycheck at home. Before I could finish explaining why, he called me “weak.”
It’s not that I’m a religious person. I consider myself spiritual but the dogmatic and sexist nature of organized religion (not to mention the arbitrary rituals) do not appeal to me. I do appreciate the philosophies of Hinduism and the beliefs in karma, selfless action reincarnation, and meditation as well the writings of yogis such as Paramahansa Yogananda. But people’s demonstrated ignorance towards my cultural heritage they either tout to know all about or are utterly clueless about (all while blathering on about toning their arms) is infuriating at best.
I’d love to see a yoga studio that is all-encompassing. One that taught the spiritual practices along with the physical. One where karma yoga and chanting is encouraged.
But I realize that’s probably never going to happen outside of an ashram. I’m not saying I want people to abandon their yoga practice. On the contrary, learn more about it. Go deeper. Learn where yoga comes from. What it’s really about. What you can get out of it. Get past the superficial nature of a 1 hour yoga class. Understand that yoga is part of religion and a rich cultural heritage that doesn’t deserve to be watered down for the sake of Western comfortability and/or understanding.
And last but not least, please shut the fuck up about “sweating out the toxins.”