Many South Asian Americans turn to yoga because of the immense physical and spiritual benefits it offers. Some come to yoga with a good understanding of its history spanning thousands of years while others only have a vague sense that they share a common cultural heritage with it.
Those Times When Yoga is Not So Comfortable
Whatever the frame of reference, those of us who are South Asian American and regularly practice yoga may have experienced one of the following scenarios. 1) There you are on your mat, proud that you finally mastered a challenging asana, when your yoga teacher makes a suggestive comment about how else that asana can be used. 2) Or perhaps, your teacher begins to “explain” spiritual aspects of yoga, and you find that he is mangling both the pronunciation and the content. 3) Or perhaps, worse yet, you have a yoga teacher who declares, “I don’t believe in all that spiritual mumbo jumbo, I just teach the stretches.” Experiences like these pushed me away from practicing yoga publicly and with non-South Asian teachers.
Making a Space for South Asian Yoga Teachers and Students
On July 11 the Brecht Forum in New York City filled with a diverse crowd, who were there for a panel discussion that was part of the launch of a new initiative, South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA). SAAPYA was founded by Roopa Singh, Esq., who is both a yoga teacher and part-owner of Third Root, a Brooklyn-based health and wellness center. Singh founded SAAPYA as a “platform and network for the voices of yoga teachers and students from across the South Asian diaspora.”
But for Singh, SAAPYA is also a deeply personal endeavor. She has long viewed herself as a cultural “bridge.” But as an advocate, organizer, and yoga teacher, she became concerned by the dual trends of yoga’s growing popularity and the loss of South Asian heritage. Singh says, “while we have more spaces that feel more reflective of who we are as a diasporic presence in this country, we find that we’re being simultaneously segregated out of these much needed, patiently awaited spaces.” In creating SAAPYA, she wanted “to create a platform that strengthens the South Asian diaspora in America … that makes yoga safer and more accessible for all.”
Working to Bring South Asian Representation to Yoga
SAAPYA’s launch event revealed that in a survey review of over two years worth of yoga journals, no South Asians were featured on covers and furthermore no articles were authored by South Asians. Similarly, at a major yoga conference, out of sixty-four presenters, only seven of them were people of color and of those three were of South Asian origin and none were women.
But beyond these disappointing statistics were the concerning anecdotes shared by the panel, which was made up of six South Asian American yoga teachers: Yashna Maya Padamsee, Seema Sabnani, Sheena Sood, Malini Srinivasan, Jasmin Thana, and moderated by Singh. Each panelist shared the unique journey that brought her to not only practice yoga but to also train as a teacher. However, they also shared stories that demonstrated the growing rift between the original intentions and traditions of yoga and the highly commodified versions of yoga that are increasingly sprouting up. The panel raised the question of why there isn’t South Asian input or representation on the regulatory body that oversees yoga teacher training and certification in the U.S.
Sedlock v. Baird: Severing Yoga From its Culture
Singh also discussed a recent development in yoga in America: the verdict in the case of Sedlock v. Baird. This case involved parents who were contesting the teaching of yoga in Southern California public schools because they alleged that it promoted religion, specifically Hinduism. On July 1, a judge ruled that yoga can continue to be taught in schools because it does not endorse or inhibit religion. But in an article Singh wrote reflecting on the case, she explained why the ruling was, in fact, a mixed bag:
On one hand, I am delighted that yoga was kept in American public schools, primarily because of how needed it is in the lives of children. On the other hand, I am concerned about the need to sever yoga from all signs of coming from South Asia so as to fully integrate into American society. The successful defense team rested their argument on the assertion that yoga is now more American than it is Indian, a practice “as secular as aerobics.” Towards keeping yoga in their schools, “possibly religious” elements of the yoga offerings were stripped away by school workers, including any reference to Sanskrit.
Many questions still swirl around how to restore yoga’s South Asian heritage. It’s clear that more cross-cultural dialogue is necessary. But now through SAAPYA there is a group to steward this important dialogue. And for that I’m grateful and can let out my breath gradually, place my palms together, and say “Namaste.”
Watch unedited video of the SAAPYA panel discussion.
After 15 years developing and leading innovative programs in the social change sector, Kavita Das now serves as a nonprofit consultant and writes nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, Colorlines, Thought Catalog, DashAmerican, The Sun, and will be featured in an upcoming anthology by Telling Our Stories. Cconnect with Kavita on Twitter @kavitamix.