My first introduction to Yoga was in America when I was visiting Mountain View in 2011. Before my initiation, my idea of Yoga was a bunch of freestyle arm twirling that my mother did at home and insisted that it worked miracles on her carpal tunnel syndrome.
My mother was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome when I was in 9th grade. She was terrified that she was going to be at the mercy of doctors, whom she hated with such vehemence and thus resorted to do Yoga. A year later, the recurrences decreased and she became a Yoga evangelist and preached the miracles to everyone who would listen to her. She did Yoga everyday at home. However, the original poses that were taught to her disappeared and she swung her arms and legs in a weird PT teacher way. It was a mixture of aerobics, kick-boxing and Bhagyaraj dance moves. She demonstrated this to anyone who visited my house with such passion and claimed that this was the way to a life full of happiness.
The other kind of Yoga I knew was about sitting in a quiet room and being calm. None of the words in the previous sentence resonates with my persona. I was not new to meditation. I had been forced to meditate before my Math tests all through my life to somehow empower me with the elusive gift of concentration and it never worked. People gave up and decided I was not going to be an IITian after all which was the whole point of doing Math anyway.
So, when I first visited a Yoga class in America, I saw a bunch of very fit people doing incredible things. Three minutes into the class, I was yelping with the imminent fear of some body part breaking. However, my arms and legs ached for the next two days, so much so that a year later, I was doing Yoga on a daily basis at the office back in India. My mother was overjoyed that I was finally listening to her.
I had two Yoga teachers in India. The first one was a traditional Yoga guy who was pretty old school. His idea was Yoga was sun salutations and doing breathing exercises through the throat. He focused on lifestyle changes. For example, he asked me to fast and consume only liquids once every week. He didn't quite expect the amount of different liquids I can scour around in the cornucopia that my office was. I brightly went to him on the eve of my first fast and recited my meals for the day - 3 milk shakes, 3 juices, 1 coconut water, a bunch of coffees and masala chai. He was gaping at me and I hadn't even included the pani puri that I had eaten, which counted as liquid food in my head.
My second Yoga teacher was fantastic. She was quite young and came from one of those new age yoga places. This is the kind that is taught under different brand names in America. It was strenuous and a lot of people believed that it was power Yoga when it was not. It just felt like power yoga because anything feels like power yoga for people like me.
As a kid, I had been rejected for the role of a snake in the "snake dance" owing to my lack of grace and also because I couldn't really bend in any direction without yelling in pain. My mother insisted because "snake-dance" was all the rage. The post-traumatic stress of trying to be a snake led to my assuming the male roles in dances. One such example is "Singa" that just required nodding and tapping my feet occasionally to give the illusion of dancing . Singa was a roadside gypsy who had a wife Singi and they went around preaching the morals of a good life not unlike my mother talking about Yoga. You see how the nodding plays into this? Given this background in flexibility, I performed a perfect Chakrasana before the amazed audience that my family was after a year of Yoga. My mother quickly took credit that it had been my years of training in Bharatanatyam that was finally helping me with my flexibility. To the true spirit of a trained Singa, I nodded my head.
Then, I came to the US for doing a PhD, which is when all of my fitness initiatives went to hell. I decide to take charge every now and then and attempt to do Yoga in this country, which leads to these reflections.
1) I have never known these many kinds of Yoga in India. Really, hot Yoga in Madurai will be something akin to setting the place in flames and doing a snake dance in it. There is a whole breed of hot Yoga centres here in Pittsburgh. I heard they crank up the heat and it helps in stretching the muscles. By that logic everyone in India should be really flexible. I should have been a killer snake girl, for it was never less than 100 degree F in Madurai. Maybe the American muscles react differently to change in temperature. There is Hatha, Vinayasa, Iyengar, Bikram and Anusara. Honestly, the only school of Yoga I knew all my life was Yoga Meenakshi school of Yoga whose notable alumnus was my very own arm-twirling mother. Jillian Michaels Power Yoga is one of my favorites. She yells at you from the video "that booty isn't going to burn on its own" as I pant and wheeze. I call it the booty-burning school of Yoga.
2) The fitness regimens I have seen while growing up was just seeing my parents taking walks or my mother doing her calisthenics. After I started working there were always a bunch of middle-aged men and women walking around my apartment's jogging track for I was never a part of the hip group that went to gyms. So all the people I have seen exercising were really the people who needed the exercise and amidst them, I looked positively aglow with good health and youth.
However, in America, whenever I walk into a Yoga class, ridiculously sculpted model like people surround me. One of the things I hear about this Hot Yoga places expounded in the paragraph above, is that women wear only tank-tops and shorts while men just wear shorts. I am wondering if this will cause a self-selection issue. So fat people who don't want to strip to the bare basics wouldn't really turn up to such classes and therefore everyone who does Yoga might seem healthier? Maybe the famous obese demographic of America, which I am yet to encounter, is staying indoors and doing all the booty burning at home.
3) Yoga is perhaps the most commercialized Indian thing in America, with Naan finishing second. Anything that comes with the Yoga prefix is almost always much more expensive than its non-Yogic counterpart. For example, I saw this ordinary jute bag at Target that costs $30 because it was a "Yoga bag". I am doubtful if that price is justified even if the bag does Yoga. This is not even the type that holds Yoga mats, which is rented out in Yoga classes if you don’t bring them.
You have Yoga towels. Do they wick Yogic sweat? Or maybe they are heavy duty if one does hot Yoga. Then there are the Yoga pants, which for the uninitiated are loose fitting pants. You may wonder, like I did, about the non-Yoga pants, for all the pants I have owned all my life can be classified as Yoga pants by this definition. These athletic pants turned out to be viselike spandex shorts that chic women in gyms wear with matching headbands and sweat bands.
To enter into an American gym dressed like I do is to completely internalize the dork-pride and be happy at the silver lining that I was at least more likely to eat my food with lesser guilt than the rest of the people there. Americans dress very appropriately for each sport, so much so that there are separate sections, specialty shops and the corresponding luxury version. Tell this to the neighborhood uncle in Madurai who strides nonchalantly around race course with his belly bouncing and attired in those stylish Lungis. The gleaming white Nike shoes that he wears is the only anachronism to the 1975 setting that Madurai is stuck at. Exhibit 2 is my own mother who walks 7 KMs a day wearing Rs.50 Liberty slippers glowing in the fluorescent yellow salwar and a deeply mismatched bright orange bottoms which she claims antagonizes the canine population on the roads.
Then there are Yoga accessories. There are blocks, yoga straps, and “toeless" Yoga socks - some of these terms that I cannot recognize despite being an Indian. The next stage in this game would be for fancy people in India is to introduce this stuff in the Yoga classes because the Americans use them and legitimize these Yoga modifications as a truly Indian practice. It is a vicious cycle, I tell you. There are also these luxury yoga items - lululemon thingamies. When I filter by lowest price on their website I get $48 which paints the picture. There are different Yoga wear for different types of Yoga. I wonder what it is for the booty-burning kind. The other accessories are incredibly expensive. For example, this "compassion" beads cost just $98 while the strength one costs only $108. One would think that it might be cheaper to be actually compassionate, but what do I know.
4) Yoga teachers are always in terrific shape and radiate mysticism. In my head, I always hear sitar music when I talk to them. They chant out the instructions - cow pose, dog pose, cat pose, camel, dolphin, pigeon and cobra. But they always, you can notice it next time, if you haven't already, say "Chatturangaasana" correctly. I wonder why Chaturangasana retains its Sanskrit roots more than any other pose.
5) One pose that Americans always struggle with so much is the deep squat. Even the strongest and the fittest tremble with strain that makes the instructor cry out "don't bite your lips". The Indians plop down with ease and look around wondering at their sudden finesse in performing Yoga. If you don't know what I am talking about you should see this pose and you can immediately understand why Indians rock this pose like a boss. Muscle memory, my friends, is an extraordinary thing.
In all, Yoga in this country is almost nothing like Yoga back at home. I don't even think Indians like Yoga that much because, you know, it is not American. But it is refreshing to see that Americans are not disappointing my mother's vision of an optimized life. It makes me think that doing Yoga in America is like wearing a suit in India. It is foreign, everyone does it, it is expensive, stylish, has a Facebookable value to it and you feel very hot.