India Invented Yoga—America Saved It

I am a Hindu who grew up in India, but my yoga journey didn’t start until I came to the States in 2002. As I prepare to celebrate International Yoga Day, I realized I would never have found yoga had I stayed in my own country. India invented yoga, but America saved it—we should be honoring both countries. Let me explain....

I spent my first 28 years in and around Chennai, India, and never practiced yoga because it was not mainstream. Even though I've lived in major metropolitan centers like Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai, it was hard to find a gym in those places. Yes, yoga was practiced, but it was for an elite group in a few cities around our huge country.

I worked at top IT companies in India and my exposure to yoga was during corporate retreats. It was optional and very few people attended. The classes primarily focused on pranayama, not the asanas. My family, friends, and colleagues never talked about yoga. I figured that like many of the old cultural practices such as Kathak and Kabaddi, yoga was an obscure practice confined to very few folks who understood and appreciated it. There were no attempts to popularize it.

When I moved to San Francisco, 12 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find all sorts of people talking about yoga. My job at an Indian software company required that I visit India with American colleagues and customers. Given their interest in yoga, I arranged for a teacher to give us a class. It was interesting to hear the teacher say “We usually focus a lot more on breathing, and since we have some ‘American friends’ taking class, we will do a little more physical practice today.” Everyone chuckled.

I moved to the east coast and did a lot more yoga and realized what the teacher in India meant: A lot of studios, and especially gyms—oh boy can I hear some yoga gurus stir in their graves in India!—focused on asana. In many ways, it was taught as alternative exercise, rather than one of the eight limbs of yoga.

This issue has led to interesting debates about the commercialization of yoga—the transition from cotton or bamboo mats and simple loose cotton clothes, to designer yoga wear, special rubber mats, as well as the invention of new styles of yoga, such as aerial yoga, acro yoga, paddleboard yoga, etc. Where did the good old bhakti, karma, and jnana yogas go?

As my fellow yoga teacher Reshma Patel says, “Yes, there are parts of the teachings that are lost in translation or out of context. And some students follow the postures and breathings without immersing in the culture of all eight limbs. But they use [asana and pranayama] just as much off the mat as on it.” She thinks that approach works, too.

There is lots—and lots—of yoga being practiced in the States, and some people absolutely appreciate the practice beyond the 3rd limb. While Americans do revere the more "traditional" yoga styles, such as Iyengar and Ashtanga, they are also adopting evening classes and other popular yoga trends. There is a lot of debate, both in India and the U.S., about how the Western world is destroying the essence of yoga, and who really owns it.

To me, these are welcome signs. Yes, there are folks who, after a yoga class, walk into a nearby restaurant and have wine and steak, which would shock the serious Indian yogi. But I have also seen friends of mine take up yoga, turn vegan, and transform their lives.

I went to India in December of 2014, during the holidays, to attend a college reunion. I met up with 120 of my old friends who were surprised that I was doing yoga in the States—and even becoming a yoga teacher. There were some good-humored jokes and laughs, and they even sent me a video of how Mahatma Gandhi would react to the way yoga is being taught and practiced in States.

I encourage my friends to do yoga and, at the same time, to contemplate this question: Why am I usually the only Indian in class? (Most of the time, I'm the only male in the class!​​)

As my practice evolves and now that I have become a certified teacher, I recognize my gratefulness. Gratefulness for the opportunity to have learned from many wonderful teachers here in the States, and gratefulness for the fact that yoga has become so mainstream here, rescued from obscurity—thanks to the freedom and commercialization of the West. ​

Yes, India is a country with a 5,000-year history of rich culture and traditions: dance (Bharatnatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, etc.), cave paintings, woven silk, pottery, sculptures. It also has amazing intellectuals who gave the world manuscripts like the Vedas, religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and the beautiful language of Sanskrit. American history is more recent, and yes, the culture is different, but if the States were not intrigued by yoga and adopted it to their liking, would yoga be globally popular? I seriously doubt it.

(But on a side note: Why are the Indian dances not popular, like salsa, around the world? And why are Indian martial arts, like Kusti or Kalaripayattu, not popular, like the $1 billlion boxing industry?)

So, if you are in the City on June 21st, let’s celebrate International Yoga Day in two ways. First, come join me in Central Park, at 10am, as I lead a yoga class to benefit women through CORD NY, an organization that helps rural development in India. (This event will specifically help women in Sri Lanka who have been affected by the civil war.) Then, we'll head over to Times Square and enjoy more yoga with instructors from Bikram, Equinox, and Urban Zen. And we won't worry about East and West "crossing paths"—they are cross-pollinating.

—Rajesh Desingu

Desingu teaches at the Community Education Center, in Mill Stone, NJ, and One Yoga Center, East Windsor, NJ.

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