A young American Hindu woman says: Do not de-link Yoga from its roots

History dates the practice of yoga to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., where it developed in India as a Hindu tradition

Female yogis
Female yogis from 18th-century India , Wikimedia commons

By Gauri Rangrass

I remember the first time I wished I were white. I was four years old. Since that day in kindergarten, I have dreaded roll call. My cheeks would burn as teachers stumbled over my name on the first day of school every year. Classmates would snicker when my grandma picked me up every day. Why does she wear clothes like that? What’s that dot on her head? I wanted to erase every part of me that didn’t share a common thread with the homogenous white community that surrounded me. My Dadiji, whose wardrobe consisted only of saris, and whose makeup collection consisted solely of vermillion powder, eventually stopped picking me up from school because I told her I could just take the bus.

My brownness was harder to hide. It was something I spent fifteen years of my life trying to like, and eventually, love. My internal battle with Hinduism was even more difficult. It was not long into my childhood before I started to reject my Hindu identity. I fought with my parents when they encouraged me to go to the temple. I never bothered to learn the significance of Hindu traditions, which were often the only way my mother could make her new home in Michigan feel familiar.

The first time I picked up and read a Hindu philosophy book, I was sixteen. I learned about Dharma and how Hinduism is more of a way of life than a truly organized religion. It made sense to me. It felt intrinsic. By the time I started my freshman year at Northwestern, I had finally reclaimed Hinduism as a part of my identity.

Maybe that’s why, as I sit on a yoga mat in Studio 2 in SPAC, anger rushes through my veins when a white instructor presses her hands together, leans over, and says, “Na-mah-staaay.” I’m the only brown person in the class and it seems that I’m also the only one who feels uncomfortable returning the gesture. Not once does the instructor reference the Indian and Hindu origins of yoga. It’s alienating to see these strangers to Hinduism partaking in this religious practice with more comfort and more entitlement than I can ever imagine finding within myself.

History dates the practice of yoga to the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., where it developed in India as a Hindu tradition. Considering how popular yoga has become in America, it’s surprising that it only gained prominence here during the 1980s. It’s infuriating for me, as a second-generation Indian-American, to observe yoga becoming reduced to a Western subculture. Among the many college gyms and strip malls where Western yoga manifests itself, perhaps its most visible presence is on Instagram. Searching for “#yogaeverydamnday” yields millions of self-timer photos of white girls posing in expensive activewear, captions littered with trending hashtags, but void of any reference to Hinduism.

Girl doing yoga
source: Instagram

It seems to me that’s what Western yoga is all about, image. It’s about body image. It’s about looking hot. It’s about looking happy and looking trendy. Whether or not it’s actually genuine, these white yogis sure want to show their followers just how enlightened they are. They want to be seen in their tight-fitting yoga crop top and Lululemon leggings, with their mat slung across their back and a seven dollar green juice in hand. Many will show off their “Om” tattoos as some sort of fashion statement. They’ll quote the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, in their captions to make themselves seem complex, mystical, exotic.

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Why can’t this trendy yoga persona also include a true understanding of yoga’s Hindu origins? Why is yoga only cool when it has no ties to brown skin? How can Western yoga so liberally use Sanskrit words but feel no obligation to think critically about what they mean or where they come from? Take, for instance, the following paragraph from The Greatist about common yoga poses:

Plus, striking an impressive asana (yoga lingo for pose) looks ridiculously cool. The only problem? Sometimes it sounds like our yoga teacher is speaking in a different language, which makes it slightly difficult to follow along. With Sanskrit names like utkatasana and trikonasana, yoga poses may sound a lot more like spells you’d learn at Hogwarts than shapes you can actually get your body to make.

Yoga Asana
Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana , Wikimedia Commons

Spells you’d learn at Hogwarts? Last time I checked, J.K. Rowling published her first book in 1997. Sanskrit has been around for 3,500 years.

So, no, by going to a few yoga classes, you’re not “finding your Om.” It’s not that easy. It took me years of feeling othered, years of questioning my brownness, years of pushing away my family’s religious ideology before I found my Om. I’m no yogi, but I am a Hindu who has struggled in a white-centric society to understand and love every non-white facet of my identity. So the fact that today’s instructor feels entitled to a Hindu practice without once referencing its origins makes me mad. For her to so casually greet our class in Hindi – “Nah-mah-staaay” – without acknowledging that she is borrowing from a long-standing Hindu tradition is problematic. Twenty students will leave this SPAC studio today lacking awareness of the cultural and religious significance of yoga. That leaves me feeling unsettled.

Western yogis: For you to appreciate and enjoy yoga is fine. By no means must you become a Hindu in order to practice this tradition. However, a line is crossed when you fail to give credit to yoga’s roots or use it as a prop to gain social media attention. Yoga is much deeper than an Instagram presence. So next time you liberally use a Sanskrit phrase or think about quoting the Gita in your caption, please ask yourself: Do you genuinely know the significance of these words or are they just Harry Potter spells to you?

This article first appeared on May 2,2016 at Northbynorthwestern website. Published with due permission. Gauri’s Twitter handle @GauriRangrass