A few years ago when I was in India, I had the funniest experience in a yoga class. I was sitting there in a hot room (not because it was “hot” yoga–just because it was extremely hot in India) and the instructor, dressed in everyday clothes–not her “yoga attire” was teaching us how to do Mrigi Mudra (a cleansing breathe exercise).
In the middle of practice, her cell phone rang (loudly). She picked up while all of us had our eyes closed and said in a rich Indian accent, “Hello? I’m teaching yoga right now. I’ll call you back.”
A wide grin crept across my face and I squinted through one eye. I looked around the room to see if anyone else found this to be odd or disruptive and not a single person had flinched. They carried on, eyes closed, doing their breathing exercises.
If that happened in America, I imagine that people would have lost their shit. How dare anyone disrupt the zen-like silence I have worked so hard to create! I’m doing self-care and this is a stress-free, noise-free place! Or the room would have erupted in laughter (which doesn’t seem like a terrible response). Often times, it feels as if there a deep seriousness that comes with the “business” of yoga in America.
A few years back South Asian artist Chiraag Bhakta developed a thought-provoking campaign called “White People Doing Yoga” which was a compilation of various images of people doing splits in front of a temple (often scantily clad) to highlight the dismissive attitude Western yoga practitioners can have towards yoga’s Eastern roots.
While I thought this campaign was brilliant, I also observed that my South Asian counterparts weren’t much better. Most of my second generation Indian Americans (myself included) friends still attend and participate in “Western” yoga, stretchy tight black pants and all (followed up with a well-deserved vanilla soy latte). Pulling from my deep dataset of the one time I practiced yoga in India, to when I have practiced yoga here in America (more often), there were a few differences that really stood out (to me).
For starters, disruptions don’t seem to be a big deal as witnessed by the phone call. India can be a noisy place in general and there doesn’t seem to be as much of a ‘noise sensitivity’ as there is in America. Whether it’s the ongoing honking from street traffic or someone calling mid-yoga class, a little bit of unexpected noise doesn’t seem to throw people off kilter.
Secondly, it doesn’t seem that people in India step in and out of yoga and spirituality. In true American form, I went to my yoga class in India in my stretchy pants and oversized t-shirt, but I was surrounded by folks who were still in their daily wear, such as tunic tops or kurta. Indian clothing does offer a bit more free motion than what someone might wear to an America workplace, but I noticed that yoga isn’t something that you necessarily step in and out of (both physically and emotionally). It feels more like something that is carried with you, even when you’re out of your Lululemon attire.
Also, in India, it felt that yoga was more for recreation and maybe even somewhat of a social gathering, whereas in American there is a stronger emphasis on exercise and physical appearance.
Lastly, the identity of doing yoga or being a yoga teacher didn’t seem to matter much. I probably won’t encounter a post of my teacher in India doing yoga in a bikini while scrolling through my Instagram feed (to artist Chiraag’s point). Her attitude of being a yoga teacher didn’t really seem to play too strongly into her identity. She was just a generally chill, kind, human who wanted to orchestrate a few neighbors to get together, breathe a little bit better, have less stress, and get some blood flowing. Being a yoga instructor seemed to be a subtler part of her identity than what I have seen from yoga teachers in the West (not all, but several that I’ve encountered).
But the best part of yoga in India? There was nobody wearing a “Nama-stay in Bed” t-shirt.