The embarrassing truth is I had never been to a yoga class until I went to the US. Thus the first yoga class I attended was taught by a blond, shirtless American man. There were Krishna posters on the wall and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. I spent most of it in terror, afraid my yoga ignorance would be exposed for all the Americans to see. I had heard enough horror stories about being the only desi person in an all-American yoga class.
A friend of mine had been told to lead the Sanskrit chants in her American yoga class just because she was brown. Another one had been asked to demonstrate squats because “Indians just know how to squat well"! Yet another one had been requested to explain the meaning of her name because Indian names have such “beautiful spiritual meanings". Her last name happened to be Sundaralingam. One friend swore by the body-positive naked yoga class in San Francisco. I didn’t quite dare try that. As a yoga newbie, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know my Ashtanga from my Iyengar from my Bikram. I felt like an imposter from the birthplace of yoga.
Back in India, I finally enrolled for a yoga class at my gym in Kolkata with a yoga ma’am and a yoga sir. Sir, your back is so stiff, the yoga instructor said despairingly. Bend back more. More. Now bend forward. Years of sitting at a desk in front of a laptop had turned me into a brick, it seems.
But I was in luck. My classmates seemed just as prone to complaining as I was. Someone had a flexible back but no lower body strength. Someone had gym-pumped muscles but squealed if they had to stretch a hamstring. Someone’s back or legs or shoulders were always hurting. If someone liked “stick yoga" class, another person only liked “wall yoga" and everyone hated Tibetan rites where you closed your eyes and twirled around slowly. “Lie down and raise your legs 30 degrees. Keep them up. I am going to make you do at least 30 Suryanamaskars if you bring your legs down before I finish counting to 10," yoga ma’am would threaten as she tried to shepherd us into core-strength exercise. It was like herding cats. But today is supposed to be moderate intensity, someone would complain, while the rest of us groaned and moaned. One man kept announcing all the back bends were boring him, could she just tell him what was next so he could jump ahead? Within 10 minutes of class, someone would be begging for the air conditioner to be turned on. “In my 8am class we did 30 rounds of the flow and you all cannot do 10," yoga ma’am would say reprovingly. “I am sure you tell your 8.30am class that ‘look, my 6pm class did 20 rounds and you all can’t do 10,’" someone would respond. “I don’t hold you up as any example to anyone," yoga-ma’am would reply, rolling her eyes. “Some days you make me forget my own asanas." Once someone said she could not come to class because her confectionery home business had a major chocolate order. She offered everyone a piece of paan-flavoured chocolate after class. Everyone, even the ladies who talked constantly about whether yoga would make them lose weight, had a piece. I think my American yoga teacher would have fainted but in Kolkata, the yoga sir came with a cheery little pot belly which never came in the way of his asanas.
It was like a fractious, cantankerous family, somewhat sloppy and slapdash but good-natured. Every day without fail someone asks, “Aaj 8am class hoga(is the 8 am class on?)" on the WhatsApp group. Yoga ma’am was routinely late and everyone cribbed but no one minded. Even the woman who fasted on Tuesdays would come to yoga class, though she would complain she felt weak and give up on her poses halfway. On Diwali, the class did rangoli on the yoga floor. On Christmas, we posed for a yoga selfie with red balloons though it was tricky to find a pose we could all hold. We settled on the tree pose. Our teacher had to coax, cajole, scold, nudge and sometimes outright bribe us to do our sets. We bargained fiercely about the number of repetitions we had to do. “At least in yoga class don’t cheat. Kucch toh kijiye," she would say as we claimed straight-facedly we had done 20 reps when we had only done 14. She would patiently fix someone’s posture and discover when she turned around that everyone else had dropped their poses and were lolling on their yoga mats.
But the great relief after America was to find a yoga class that was serious about yoga but didn’t take itself too seriously. In the US, yoga had either become wrapped in layers of faux spiritualism as the received wisdom of the East or had been stripped of all its Hindu roots and turned into gym class where the Padmasana is called criss-cross applesauce. In our Kolkata class, we chanted our Gayatri Mantra and did our Pranayam but we didn’t tie ourselves up in knots about it. Yoga was our cultural inheritance but we were not weighed down by it. It was part of our common wealth but we did not feel any need to guard it zealously or try to copyright it or dress it up for export to California and all its yogis and yoginis with their high-priced yoga mats.
Of course, it is a travesty that yoga had to go to America to acquire a cool cachet in urban middle-class India, that Madonna’s power yoga helped yoga get its groove back in India.
In the process, it has led to great yoga debates. Groups like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have led the Take Back Yoga campaign, afraid that yoga has been utterly co-opted or even worse, is in danger of being patented. Suhag Shukla of the HAF complained that the “whole purpose of the physical asanas is to prepare your body to sit still and focus. It’s not about have (having) a cute ass." The asanas, or physical poses, are just one of yoga’s eight limbs anyway. Author Devdutt Pattanaik, whose most recent book is titled Yoga Mythology, told an interviewer that it’s valid to ask “whether yoga belongs to the world or whether it is an Indian idea that spread to the West and has been reformed to a point of being unique to America". It’s not unlike many non-resident Indians (NRIs) who are born in India but return to it with an American twang straight out of Houston. But Pattanaik understands where this fight to reclaim yoga is coming from. In America, he says: “Hinduism is seen only through the lens of casteism. And they (NRIs) are fighting back through yoga I guess.That is why yoga becomes a very, very important tool to establish Indianness." And that is why Prime Minister Narendra Modi observes World Yoga Day on a Guinness Book scale. But in all that rancour, we forget that the basic idea of yoga is, as Pattanaik elegantly puts it, to “uncrumple the crumpled mind". If on the way we can get a cuter ass, all the better.
Either way, it is a relief to be doing my back bends in Kolkata away from all this acrimonious debate about who owns yoga. When yoga ma’am sighs and says, “You could bend more last week. How are you going backwards? How is this possible, sir?", I look suitably chagrined but I don’t feel like I am letting down my entire civilization.
Perhaps I have finally found my yoga happy place.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
Twitter - @sandipr