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.

IMG_4313.jpg

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?

1e34e419ba440679d0e4240100d0d015.jpg

As my fellow yoga teacher Reshma Patel says, “Yes, there are parts of the teachings that