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  • Manju Sadarangani

I Hate Yoga (And Other Stories I Tell Myself)

Updated: Feb 7

The first time I walked into a yoga studio in the United States, it was in the early 2000s. On a week night, wearing what one would wear to yoga in the land of its birth - loose fitting clothes in natural fiber – I walked into a beginner yoga class. I was a little bit confused by the gym attire, but shrug. This is Manhattan. I get that hippie dippy loose clothing is not really our aesthetic.

As I walk in, I am asked if I have my own mat, or if I would like to rent one. Excuse me, my own what now? This is a legitimate question for someone who grew up doing yoga in India. Please indulge me for a second. I immigrated to the United States. I grew up with yoga in India. My mother, a serious yogini, trained as a teacher at the oldest formal yoga school In India. Thanks to my mother’s insistence, I have some deeply traumatic memories of being sent to summer yoga camp as a child.

(Side note to parents -Yoga camp is not exactly an amazing venue for an exuberant intensely talkative dramatic young child who is extremely fond of chocolate. Yoga camp in India for Indian kids was serious – watched by intense strict teachers with no apparent sense of humor, you did your asanas and pranayama in silence, lay immobile in savasana, and ate things without refined flour refined sugar added salt – basically any child’s nightmare.) (Note to self: As I type this, I totally understand why my mother sent me to yoga camp. Well played mother, well played.) Back to the Upper West Side yoga studio. You know what we didn’t have at yoga camp? Yoga mats. We did yoga on the floor. Hard stone cool floor. This idea of a sticky mat is, how can I put it kindly, adorable. It has as much to do with yoga as chocolate eggs with Easter in Jerusalem. Don’t get it twisted, serious yogis had rolled up animal skins that they would take with them when they went up to the Himalayas to meditate in caves, but for us peasant householder types, we just did yoga on the floor. In fact, that was the whole point of yoga. It was free of props and ritual, it was about simplicity, it was about getting in touch with your inner voice, it was about silencing the monkey mind, and could be done anywhere. The idea that you would need a yoga mat and props and pay exorbitant class fees, well it was novel to me. Once I decode the mat etiquette, class begins, and a very good-looking, tall, svelte, well-meaning white lady in Lululemon is butchering my language and mis-translating the meaning of many, many words. I am getting looks that tell me very clearly this isn’t my milieu, and I am relegated to the back of the class. I am the only person of color in the room (which is saying a lot for New York). I am also the only voluptuous woman in the class. The longer class went on, the more furious I became. I walked my irritation and burning shame down Broadway for a good two hours before going home. A few years later, another well-meaning friend drags me to yet another yoga class. Because you know I am brown and how could I not do yoga given my mother’s background – am I that self-hating? This time, I have figured out that I need to be wearing Lululemon in order to fit in. So, I show up in the one pair of Lululemon that I can afford on my nonprofit 20-something-living -in-Manhattan wages. I look around at the students lingering outside the studio making small talk and I’m a little confused, because now I seem a tad overdressed. People are basically wearing bathing attire. I ask my friend about the dearth of layers, and my friend hisses to remind me that we are going to a hot yoga class. Isn’t all yoga hot? I just figured we were doing yoga in a non-climate-controlled room to mimic the tropical temperatures I grew up with? No?

Then, my big mouth friend decides to tell people that not only am I brown, I am blessed with a yogini mother. Then begins the type of conversation I dread - Have I visited India? Yup, born there. Oh, continues the conversation, but you’re so articulate, that is why you look so exotic, you are so lucky, India is such a peaceful, quiet calm place. Indians are so spiritual, so rustic, so gentle.

I take a deep breath, debating whether this is a moment to launch into my India is not a monolith speech. What I want to say through gritted teeth is, as delighted as I am that you had a lovely experience in India, the India you had the privilege to inhabit was the sanitized version of India we present to white people. My India is many, many things, but quiet? There’s a reason yoga was invented in India. It takes bloody practice to focus on our inner thoughts - we are a cacophonous people.

Once the class starts, I realize ooohhhh hot yoga, like yoga in a sauna?! Oh haha America! What will you think of next!! People start to wear less and less as we go along, and the instructor is touching people in a way that I find deeply, deeply creepy. Without going into detail, as soon as I can find my way out of the steamy room, I high-tail it out of there.

This cycle of being deeply irritated by yoga, and then coming back to it sheepishly continues every few years. The last straw is when I am in India, at a very Tony exclusive yoga class in South Bombay (SoBo-ites do not call it Mumbai), and everybody walks in wearing designer gym gear, toting yoga mats. That is it. I am done. I am out. Forever. Cut to December 31, 2019 - I now live in Washington DC. My mother’s birthday was December 30, and on December 31st (right after making it to age 66, and thus outliving my father to make a point) she exited this world. My mother had always insisted that we ought to celebrate her passing with a chaat party. Nevertheless, I have a difficult time celebrating New Year’s Eve, mostly because I have none of my mother’s joie de vivre and cannot stay up past 11 PM. Even when I try, with the best intentions, to honor her with chaat and cheesecake, I always end up being in a real MOOD.

As we turn the page on a new decade, I decide that I am going to attend a meditation. This is more a page out of my religious culty father’s playbook, but still. It seems DC is not exactly a mecca for meditation. The idea of ringing in the new year while meditating turns out to be elusive. What I do find is a bikram yoga class (oh helllllll no). And a two hour yoga/meditation session. I am deeply torn, and email the studio to ask how much meditation exactly? What would you say is the yoga to meditation ratio? Any gongs? I equivocate and in the end, I decide I will attend. Fuck it. If I end up furious and unhappy, I can leave. Which isn’t a surprise, because ya know, I hate yoga.

I walk into a packed room candlelit room, our instructor is a lady dressed all in white. In the middle of the large classroom, she set up a little altar. And, there are other people of color in the room! And not everyone is a svelte tall Norse god. I tell myself I can do this, spread a borrowed a yoga mat on the floor, and brace myself.

We start off with some pranayama and meditation, and then we journal. Coolcoolcool. And then we start doing surya namaskars. I hate surya namaskars. I start looking longingly at the exit, trying to figure out how I will be able to hop over all these lovely surya namaskaris. Right as I’m gritting my teeth, she changes what we are doing and asks us to keep an open mind toward the rest of the practice.

What begins is frankly, absurd. We are asked to sit on the floor, hit the ground with our open palms while chanting “har” in unison. Oh what fresh American yoga hell is this… I start to giggle, soon the giggling become audible. Because this is just hilarious. And then something flips. There is something deeply cathartic about pounding the floor like this, with all of these people around me chanting in unison.

We then move on to other exercises, things that seem simple enough, albeit quirky, that last a ridiculously long time - like a deeply humbling yoga marathon. Unlike the Sanskrit mantras I am used to chanting, these mantras mostly come from the Sikh tradition. And then! The coup de grace, the nice teacher lady puts on music. An ethereal voice begins to waft through the air.

You can see this plot twist coming, right? Let’s just fast forward to me in utter bliss, tears streaming down my face. At the end of the class, face wet from crying, I walk up to the teacher touch her feet (which I am sure freaks her out – Sorry Anna!) I ask her what yoga this is, because all my life, all my live long four-decade life, I have never had a yoga session like this. She tells me that what we did was Kundalini yoga and gives me the name of a studio (hey! close to where I live) which specializes in Kundalini yoga. I look up a class and I go. My walls are back up, way up. Despite the cosmic experience with the amazing Anna Franklin, I am firmly wrapped in my cozy cloak of skepticism. Because I am a New Yorker, I am a Scorpio, and frankly, I have trust issues.

When I was a little girl, Kundalini yoga, with all of its tantric associations, was always posited to me as the most “dangerous” type of yoga. If you are of a certain age, I know you think tantric, you think Sting. Tantric, in my south Asian world can have more sinister associations. Add to that the history of my eccentric, and deeply absentee father joining a cult in his late 30s, and you can see where this fear of dangerous brainwashing comes from, right? Kundalini yoga is also a very male-dominated tradition in India. I walk in expecting to find some mean, shaming creepy man. (See earlier para about trust issues. And prior mention of predator gurus). Instead, my teacher is a woman. The owner of the studio is a woman. A majority of the people in the class with me are women. And more interestingly, they are women of various ages, various shapes, and holy CRAP there is more than one person of color in the room. This is all extremely revolutionary.

Another tangent - When I was a little girl, I used to tell anyone who would listen that I couldn’t wait to be old, because all I would wear flowing white robes, have silver moon hair, and wear diamonds and pearls. White is the color of widowhood in India, it is the color of renunciation, the color of asceticism. My mother with her bright floral prints must have found me so charming, na? Honestly, I don’t know how my mother dealt with me. Anyway, most of the people in class are wearing all white.

Maybe it is all the white flowing yoga attire, maybe it’s the company of all those women, maybe it’s the re-arrangement of chemicals in my brain, whatever it is, I have yet another amazingly strange, cosmic, and safe yoga experience. When I get home, I text my dearest friend in India – Guess what. Went to Kundalini. Amazing. AND. They all wear white. She responds – Ha! Destiny! I think you have found your white kurta people.

As an ancient practice, Kundalini was reserved for men, ascetic men, high-caste men, elite men, it was not a practice to be shared with everyone. It was not meant for someone who couldn’t handle it (You know, us non-male presenting feeble minded types) I find this idea of women teachers, teaching Kundalini, deliciously subversive. There is something so syncretic about this Kundalini, suffused with Sikhism and Patanjali, with music that can feel drum n’ base on some days. How very American. This place doesn’t seem like an exclusive white space, and at no point has someone try to upsell me $100 yoga mat. How not American.

Thus begins my journey back to yoga. All my adult life, no I take that back, all my life ever since yoga camp I have said out loud to anyone who would listen that I hate yoga. Every time I have taken a class, whether it’s the cultural appropriation, whether it’s the commercialism, whether it’s the creepy dynamic, the story of my deep hatred of yoga has planted itself firmly into my idea of myself. There she goes, the Brown girl who hates yoga. And yet, here I am.

I realize it is time to break this news gently to my friends. They see me a certain way, I tell myself, eye-rolling, rebellious. I compose mental explanations, trying to justify that the yoga I am doing is not trendy. It turns out, my friends don’t give a shit. Everyone is stoked I am enjoying myself. And then, there is this magical relationship between yoga, and my return to painting after almost 25 years away from it, which seems to thrill my inner circle. So really, the only person that defined me by the story I told myself about a deep-seated hatred of yoga, was me.

Hm. Maybe I don’t hate yoga? Maybe what I hate is cultural appropriation? Sexual predators preying on people in search of spiritual enlightenment? The commercialization of a practice that was meant to be unencumbered? The idea of a “yoga body” and studios being exclusively white spaces? America trying to up-sell me pieces of my heritage? Someone fetishizing my otherness? Perhaps that is what I hate. Yoga though? It turns out I love yoga.

(Updated in 2022: Oh but yaar, but what comes up, must come down. My complicated relationship with yoga, and its cultish tendencies continues.

This “Kundalini” yoga turned out to be created by a wicked man, who did truly terrible, violent, criminal things to people who trusted him. The white flowing robes I loved turned out to be instruments of cult conformity, and control. My desire to examine the made-up masala mantras and kriyas were met with exactly the kind of post-colonial spiritual bypassing and white washing I am used to encountering in white spaces. Very quickly, I was excluded from my personal cultural practices, now appropriated to swindle and hurt.

This time though, I am just not having it. I am not giving up pieces of my cultural heritage to keep the peace. I am learning to tell inconvenient truths in public, and heal in private.

Yoga and I remain homies. Me and cult leaders still not vibing. I stand with survivors.)

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