I experienced discrimination and prejudice at a yoga studio. By yoga instructors and the studio management.
Yes, you read that right, but first let me explain.
I recently was invited to consider and write about the idea of “shatter;” I got to choose whether that meant shattering body image issues, shattering goals, shattering glass ceilings, etc. I had to really think about what that meant to me, and honestly, it was a daunting topic. It really made me think long and hard about the obstacles I have overcome and reignited this feeling of gratitude for what I have been able to achieve with my tribe. If you have looked on my Instagram at all, you’ll notice that I kind of like trail running. And Yoga. And the outdoors. Well, anything active really. (I also equally enjoy Netflixing on the couch, but that’s not why we’re here today) Each of those individual journeys began rather by accident. If I consider which journey has caused me the most internal struggle, or the biggest image to shatter, it would be my yoga journey.
Several years ago, I got invited to join my friend’s yoga class. She was in a teacher training herself, and needed people in her classes. So I thought I’d check it out. I was new to yoga at that time, and had no idea what to expect. Like many who try yoga, I felt drawn to this connection to the mind and body. I went back to that studio a few more times, and I still remember at the end of the last class I took there, the instructor had us repeat this mantra out loud:
I am beautiful. I am worth it. I deserve happiness.
I could not say those words. I couldn’t spit them out of my mouth, I couldn’t even lie to myself without tears streaming down my face.
At the time, I was struggling with depression that stemmed from a shattered self-image, a rigid idealization I made when I was 13. I had not achieved all that I thought I would; the college of my dreams ended up being a nightmare for me. I was struggling with the wrong relationships. No matter what I did, I just ended up succeeding as an epic failure. And so the thought cycle kept repeating itself. I mean, I couldn’t even say the stupid words just to say them at the end of that yoga class. How could I amount to anything or be of value as a living thing if I couldn’t even just follow directions?
Consequently, I left yoga alone for a while. The thought always simmered in the back of my head, as I went through the therapy (successfully I might add!) I so desperately needed. I found comfort and acceptance with myself through sports and through activity. Yoga came back into my life again some years later when I started noticing connections to my roots as an Indian woman. As I attended my Hindu temple weekly and paid attention to the lectures on scriptures, I began to notice this big, deeper connections to yogic concepts and Hindu concepts that I practice daily. The more yoga classes I attended, more more fascinated I was with this connection.
It’s no secret that yoga comes from India and it’s main concepts are thousands of years old. However, I had never considered this concept to be part of my own history. Growing up, I always saw women who looked amazing, wearing their matching yoga outfits, treating it like it was founded in the West. To many Indians, this is kind of annoying. In fact, most Indians come to yoga through pranayama (breathing) and dhyan (meditation) first before adopting an asana practice. I couldn’t understand why so many articles about yoga consisted of Hindu concepts, and yet the practice was so focused on looking amazing, building muscle tone, and getting a good workout. It just didn’t make sense. This is the point I decided to go through a yoga teacher training. I knew I needed to learn more and I felt a deep connection to share my knowledge of very ancient concepts.
I was so excited on my first day of teacher training. I was convinced I found the right studio for my training, I was one of 28 trainees in my 200 hour program. We were going to be together for 5 months, meeting for the entire weekend every other weekend. And I was the only Indian in that group.
That shouldn’t mean anything, but it became very apparent to me that it did. The group was very homogenous in race, and I felt out of place quickly. From the very beginning, it was highly stressed that yoga was not a religion. I will agree with that statement. However, within the first few weeks of our lessons, the instructors brought up discussions about Hindu concepts, such as the Bhagwat Gita. If you are unfamiliar, the Bhagwat Gita is a sacred, Hindu text. It narrates the conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjun, as Arjun is having a very big moment of self- doubt at the prospect of going to war against his loved ones. Lord Krishna, a highly revered Hindu deity, empowers Arjun through a conversation about knowledge, devotion, and the law of action. Regardless of how devout a Hindu is in their practice, everyone knows and respects the Bhagwat Gita. My instructors began to discuss the Gita, this Hindu scripture, but not without adding that the book with myth and it was hard to follow. For Indians around the world, the scripture is not myth and the conversation is much easier to follow if you know the context surrounding it. Furthermore, we were told that the story is unrelatable since “no one goes off to war these days.” Outside of the egregious statement against the US military and everyone who has gone to war this century, this appalling statement also made light of any internal battle we face as humans.
I corrected the class and the instructors as respectfully as I could, though my insight was not received as positively as I had hoped. I chose to let that battle go, and I hoped that the rest of my training would be better. I mean, I was still in the early stages of my 5 months of training. What else could possibly go wrong?
As time went on, small things like this kept coming up. During a lesson on chanting mantras in class, the mantra chosen was a mantra extolling the virtues of Krishna. I don’t recite that mantra in my practice because I don’t attend a Krishna Hindu temple, however I could clearly see from my knowledge of Sankrit that this mantra was definitely religious in nature. I was so offended when the meaning was explained as some connection to the universe, and light and love for all. The mantra clearly began with the word “Krishna” in it, and it continued with other names He has, and yet the meaning we were given did not mention Krishna at all. I mean, you cannot just make up a meaning to make a very clearly Hindu mantra seem not religious to your class. In fact, without my saying anything, some of my classmates noticed something was awry and came up to talk to me. They asked me how I felt that we were learning this in class and what the real meaning of the mantra was. Remember, none of my other classmates were Indian, and only 1 or 2 had a rudimentary knowledge of Hindu concepts. My Caucasian, American classmates felt weird reciting this mantra given to them in my yoga teacher training.
At this point, I definitely felt increasingly out of favor with the instructors. There there wasn’t one incident or story in particular, but I could sense an attitude change. When it came to this kind of knowledge, it didn’t matter as much what I had to say or what insights I could bring to the table. I began to talk about my concerns and frustrations with my classmates. At the time, I worked as front desk staff and blogger for the yoga studio, and my classmates would come often to take their encouraged hours of yoga classes. There were a few fellow trainees I felt closer to, so we did discuss things in the studio; in hindsight, not the most respectful decision on my part, but as a student of yoga training, a student at University of Houston, and a part time worker, I did not have a ton of extra free time to take these very emotional discussions outside of the studio. Word quickly got to the manager about my concerns, I guess through overheard conversations, and she soon asked to sit down with me.
She said that it had been brought to her attention that I had been discussing grievances publicly. While I agreed, and apologized for my unprofessionalism, I did bring up said grievances with her. Some of the anatomy we were learning was just plain wrong. FYI this is a problem with many yoga teacher trainings, so please be wary of your yoga instructor who does not have a background in healthcare, anatomy, Physical therapy, or a similar field! She asked “Why does it bother you so much that the information is wrong?” Shocked, I replied, “I would think it would matter to you the information your trainees are getting because they will be teaching classes to people with wrong information. Your studio will not be represented well.” But clearly this didn’t matter, and the conversation continued. I expressed offense at the amount of cultural appropriation that I, and others, felt during the training. The manager replied, “it’s happening to other cultures, so it should be okay, right?”
Yep. You read that right.
In the world of Western yoga, where acceptance and love are primarily advocated, I was told that it was okay that my ancestral roots were being picked apart for its “popular” components. It was okay that thousands of years of tradition and culture was misappropriated simply because others were doing it.
And I knew right then, why yoga was so important to me.
Yoga is in my blood. It is in my DNA. It is another path through which I can show devotion to something greater. Very few will understand the internal struggle I feel with seeking knowledge of yoga through scriptures, yet keeping my classes movement focused. Even fewer know the full details of my experience with my old yoga studio. It still feels raw, like a would that never heals. Every Instagram yoga post I see lacking depth and knowledge re-opens the wound of ignorance. Every new type of exercise that added “yoga” to it to make it more popular breaks my heart a little more. Every yoga post I saw of a “perfect yogi” in her bra and leggins reminds me that to the world, my love for yoga will not matter because I don’t look like that.
Of course, I could just ignore social media and do my own thing. Believe me, I do try to take social media at face value and nothing more. But I would be amiss to ignore the biggest and fastest medium we have for marketing. More importantly, I am not here to criticize social media; it definitely has a lot of power, both good and bad.
The first two sutras of Patanjali cover the hardest thing we have to do in a yoga practice, and ultimately as human beings.
Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam. (Sutras 1.2-1.3)
Yoga is the control and cessation of the fluctuations of the mind
Then the seer rests in its true nature
So why do I teach yoga? To continue to enlighten myself, and those around me, that yoga is about connecting to something bigger. It is the asana practice, but also it is realizing your true self in the process. It disconnecting yourself from yourself, so you can lend to a more unified community.
It’s taken me some time to shatter that old image I have of myself; it’s still a struggle on some days. As I type these mantras again (and say them to myself now), they still bring tears to my eyes. But for a very different reason.
So I invite you to allow yourself to accept and feel these things for yourself.
I am beautiful. I am worth it. I deserve happiness.