Like millions of Westerners out there, I too joined the yoga bandwagon about eight years ago after trying out my first Bikram class, moving on to Moksha and then settled at a hot yoga studio which practices all types of yoga in a hot space.
I too fell in love with how yoga made my body feel after a particularly tough workout.
I too fell into the pseudo-spiritual aspects of the practice.
And, finally I too got burned out by the practice, disillusioned and at times, even disgusted at the people who I thought should be setting an example to the rest of us but turns out that they are even more messed up than you realize and the yoga was just an effective cloak to hide their true nature and personalities.
For me, it was and always will be the health benefits of yoga which attracted me and still keeps me around but I also, perhaps in my naïveté, thought the people who were a part of the scene would be as sincere as they appeared to be. I had read every book out there, was thoroughly sick of the new age charlatans claiming to have psychic abilities all in the name of Mr. Dollar and selling their wares, whether it was books, weekend retreats or $1000 seminars and very disenchanted with what the so-called “good life” of a westernized professional was offering (it’s a formula, no more) . With yoga, I finally felt that I found something authentic, based on authentic teachings, plus I was feeling great afterwards. The people seemed nice; they had read and kept quoting all the great seers and sages of the centuries. Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Rumi, Hafiz and more recently, writers like Eckhart Tolle. They were into the green movement, recycling and genuinely concerned about Mother Earth. They wear Toms and donated to legitimate foundations like Unicef, Right to Play etc.
But a few nagging observations wouldn’t leave me.
1) First of all, I’m of Indian heritage. I’m brown. You look at me and you know I’m ethnic. I speak the language and still have many extended family members there and have gone back often. By and large, and I’m generalizing since it’s not always the case, but yoga in the West is increasingly becoming a trendy diversion for the affluent and bored or those who are obsessed with the body beautiful and the cult of hedonism which follows that. Now I see yoga branching out in such things like “Chocolate Yoga” or “Trance Dance Yoga”, where in short, the culture of the nightclub or rave is being super-imposed on yoga. India is still deeply conservative socially. Arranged marriages are still the norm in the villages and were also the norm in the big cities until maybe 20 years ago. Binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and drug taking, which are elements of the club culture are strongly frowned upon and considered socially unacceptable in many social circles in India but yet it is being passed off as something that is a part of yoga by North American suburban kids and marketers looking for the next big trend, when that is just not true.
2) It is extremely classist. It lacks plurality and inclusiveness. I do not see many people of blue-collar backgrounds who can afford these classes on a regular basis and many of them are precisely the ones who could probably benefit the most from yoga. Most of the studios in my city charge around $1200 for an unlimited yearly membership. That’s serious coin. I can hardly envision a stressed, single mother trying to raise her kids on social assistance being able to afford that when she probably needs the benefits of yoga more than the pampered trophy wife who just returned form her 5-star shamanistic initiation retreat in Bolivia. I walk into most of my yoga classes and I see nothing but a sea of white faces, maybe the token black and Asian. Some people may read that as a racist statement but I’m not trying to be racist and this isn’t a reverse racism argument either, it is just my observation. Yoga in North America caters to the affluent and is falling in line with the capitalist system of profit. It is increasingly distancing itself from the roots of yoga.
3) It is really annoying watching some white people try to act ethnically brown when they are not and they never will be. Intention is everything here. I can understand there is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, but when the Pussy Cat Dolls show up in saris at some premier, you have to ask yourself, what the intention here is.
Pale women with Shiva tramp-stamps do not look good in saris doing Bollywood dance moves or wearing bhindis especially if they have freckles (Like, really). For Indian women, this is part of their cultural heritage and identity, not some gimmicky hip trend to try out and pose around in until the next trend shows up.
5) Sanskrit, like Latin, is a dead language. Let it go already. The Catholic Church let go of the Latin Mass after Vatican II back in the early 1960s. Chanting in Sanskrit does not make you look cool nor does it make you an automatic Hindu. Or an authority on yoga, Vedic studies or Indology (Yes, that is a real academic subject). Nor does having a made up Sanskit-derived moniker name make you any more real either with names like Blissananda, Ganeshananda, Serenityananda etc.
6) Just because it’s exotic does not mean it’s real or more authentic. Real Indians, in India make fun of many Westerners behind their backs and are making money off of their ignorance. Do you see real, native Indians in the fancy, expensive ashrams in India? No. Do you see many native Indians “following” your Guruji? Probably not. Do you see many Indian women at these open air clothing-optional Tantric weekend couples workshops in Hawaii? Did you ever ask why not?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Many, many of these so-called gurus and God-men (and women) of India are scam artists but because their ashrams and centres bring in so much, much-needed cash and tourist dollars, the Indian government looks the other way and in fact, are in on it too. There is nothing spiritual about it. It’s a cash cow and they are milking many Western followers of yoga for all they can get. Not always, I’m generalizing. There are some authentic teachers left in India but they’re usually just minding their own business and not interested in selling anything or proselytizing people. Unfortunately, the former is happening more frequently than the latter.
(I heartily recommend anyone who is interested in this topic to watch this BBC documentary on Sai Baba called “The Secret Swami”.)
Another yogi who pretty much indirectly admits Caucasians are inferior to Indians is Bikram Chowdhury. In his 60 minutes interview he said that the intense physical aspects of Bikram yoga is more “suitable” to North Americans because they need to discipline themselves physically before they can start on the spiritual and psychic and that it’s not necessary for Indians. That somehow the physical and mental make up of Caucasians is different from Indians and therefore they need to do an additional step of rigorous physical training before attempting anything spiritual. Does anyone see the double-speak and double-standard here? ( at 1:15 and 10:10)
They are promising you Enlightenment just as long as you pay up or keep giving enforced “donations”, but it does not work that way. Why do you think celibate Buddhist monks devote their entire lives living in monasteries under vows of poverty, living off of alms trying to achieve Enlightenment? Because it’s excruciatingly hard work and it takes a lot more than a weekend retreat or two plus reading a best-seller to get there.
7) Yoga can become cultic very quickly and the levels of self-absorption and narcissism can sky-rocket easily if you don’t watch it so keep your radar tuned in. I have heard stories of certain Jivamukti yoga instructors threatening to cut off friendships with other yoga instructors from other traditions because they were not completely vegan.
Really folks? That’s all you can worry about and think about? There’s a nuclear reactor in Japan which is about to fail and spells disaster for the West coast of North America. Workers in Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal are on the frontlines fighting technocrats and bankers who are trying to rob them of their right to live in some semblance of dignity and respect. There’s a Maoist insurgency in central India and peasants are trying to keep their land from mining companies and THIS is what you have to bicker about?
8) The level of cultural awareness among some of the yoga set is pitiful at times and yet this is the same crowd that tries to come off as cultural and spiritual mouthpieces for that sub-continent. It is truly a subcontinent, with vast differences in culture, religion, diet, language, customs, and history. The only commonality you will find among Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Rajasthanis, Bengalis, Tamils, Goan, Keralese, Nepalis, Uttar Pradeshi, Kashmiri, Assamese, Ladakhs, Orissians etc is possibly the brown skin, if that. Once upon a time, all these provinces and territories were their own kingdoms and countries and were amalgamated and consolidated into one state and created into “India” by the British. Think of them as entirely different countries with their own unique identities. You wouldn’t mix up a Pole with a Russian (and if you did, they’d probably punch you), so why should you mix up a Tamil with a Punjabi?
You have no idea how annoying it is to hear some girl at the yoga studio look at you and say “Oh, I have an Indian friend and her parents made her get married to some computer engineer in San Jose and she had to get this thing signed with witnesses, what’s that about?”
Me: “Was she Sikh?”
Girl: “No, I think she’s Muslim”.
Me: “Well, I’m Sikh so I’m not really sure”
Girl: “But she’s Indian, just like you.”
Me: “Yeah, but we have many different religions in India and practise things differently…”
And it just goes downhill from there….
In the end, I began to see how vacuous the scene was becoming and has become. I still love the feeling I get after doing a session but I just can’t stand to be around the high-school popularity contest atmosphere which has permeated many of the studios these days and some of the more vapid personalities who are claiming to be instructors and taking advantage of their privileges.
I know they are not all like that, there are some genuine well-meaning people in that community and some of them are truly doing outstanding work like outreach into prisons and so forth. But for me personally, I’m questioning the profit-driven, hedonistic aspects which seems to have taken over the subculture.
Yogadork recently had an article asking if yoga needs to grow up.
In short, yes. Big time.
For anyone who needs to understand WHY issues of inclusion and plurality is not about visible minorities “getting over the whole race thing” but rather understand that this is a “white problem”, please watch this video and reflect on some of the comments here (especially from 13:00 on and 29:00 onwards)
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