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Is Yoga an Indian thing?

| Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Over Thanksgiving break, like most students, I finally got to catch up with folks from back home. My friend, a fellow Indian-American, was telling me how one of her college buddies had asked — with genuine surprise — “Is yoga really an Indian thing? I thought it was an American city workout studio thing.” We both laughed at the notion of yoga being anything but an Indian art, having both grown up with it in capacities beyond just a workout routine. My friend went ahead and did her part — not only did she explain to her friend what yoga meant to her, but he was soon practicing it with her on weekends, with Sanskrit words and all, just like our grandmothers taught us. At a friend’s holiday party this weekend, someone asked me the same question — “Yoga’s Indian?” with the exact tone of genuine surprise. While I gave the same explanation my friend had given her buddy three weeks ago on a different college campus, I began thinking — where is this misconception coming from?

For those curious, yoga’s roots came from India, more than 2000 years ago, during the era of the Indus Valley Civilization. But if you Google the word, or see magazine covers and advertisements, you don’t see a brown person in a pose of tranquility, you see a white female in an intricate pose, dressed in expensive pants at a chic location or beach. It wasn’t difficult to see where the misconceptions were coming from. Yoga is an art — who practices it is indeed independent of race, ethnicity and gender. But the more I explored how yoga is marketed to people, the more I realized it was farther from the art I knew and began feeling more like a case of mistaken identity.

Yoga isn’t just a trendy workout practice, it is a philosophy that guides how we live our lives. It is something that families pass down through lectures combined with practice and is seen in the subtleties of the way we live our lives. Asanas (poses) are glorified by the fitness industry, while the seven other limbs, or branches, of yoga are ignored. People walk into yoga studios expecting a workout, usually accompanied by music — and while this isn’t wrong, it just isn’t yoga anymore. True yoga is much more about ancient Indian spirituality and mental strength as it is about physical stability.

So, has my little dive into Google and the American experience of yoga led me to believe that the fitness industry has culturally appropriated yoga? If cultural appropriation is borrowing aspects of another culture because it is considered trendy without understanding its history and significance in another culture, then yes, it has. However, I believe it does this not through the practice of asanas — whose health benefits should indeed be explored by all. It is more through the use of statues of Indian deities outside of studios, something that is sacred, used as props or on t-shirt designs; through sprinkling glitter at the end of a practice to resemble akshatha, or a spiritual blessing that is given in Hinduism; and a subtle nonchalance and rudeness for words and their significance in another culture. So is yoga an Indian practice? Yes, it very much is. But to some extent, our friends were right — the yoga you and I practice in studios, undoubtedly is something else.

Vaishali Nayak is an absent-minded neuroscience major junior at Notre Dame. She dabbles in things that matter to her — equality, medicine, Harry Potter — not necessarily in that order.

The Diversity Council of Notre Dame advocates for awareness, understanding and acceptance on issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and other intersectional identities in the Notre Dame community. The viewpoints expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Diversity Council, but are the individual opinions of the author. You can contact Diversity Council at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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