Berkeley is a veritable mecca for yoga practitioners. Here, studios are (happily) more numerous than Starbucks, each offering its own specialty: Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini, Yin yoga, Hatha Flow, Vinyasa, “Hot Vinyasa,” restorative yoga, passive asanas, and something incredibly popular in my neighborhood called Forrest, which blends Hatha yoga with the teachings of the Oglala Lakota Sioux.
It’s commonplace to see Berkeleyites in grocery stores with multi-colored yoga mats strapped to their backs. Some have babies strapped to their fronts, too; others manage to bicycle with yoga kits perched behind them. Once, I even saw a unicyclist balance his PVC-free harmony mat on his way to “yoga for the people.” Yoga here is a way of life. Certainly, it is a key contributor to the local economy.
Yoga has never been my thing. Despite years of training in bharatanatyam, I’m not remotely flexible, and the closest I’ve come to meditation is runner’s high during a half-marathon. But in the past few months, given the occasion of my pregnancy and walking-distance proximity to a dozen studios, I have become a prenatal yoga regular. Weekly, I don the only pair of stretch pants that still fit, inexpertly roll my mat, and roll myself over to yoga class, where I join other “mamas” in queen’s pose, downward dog, the one-legged pigeon, cat and cow, and all the other animal-inspired postures you can assume with a belly the size of a four-square ball.
My yoga class, like many of them, is taught by an American woman with a Sanskrit chosen-name. She opens each of our sessions with a mindfulness meditation, at the close of which we join hands in “anjali mudra” over our hearts and chant “Om” three times, before offering an invocation to Ganapathi. We chant the “Sahana Vavatu” Shanti mantra, or what she calls the teacher-student prayer. Most of the students, non-Indians, join enthusiastically in reciting the invocations and prayers. Often, our collective “Om” resounds with power and peaceful intention.
Over the past many months, I have learned that my teacher considers herself a student of Tantra, prays to Saraswati, and listens to New Age music of the Deva Premal-variety. None of this surprises me. For decades, yoga has been embraced by legions of non-Indians in the United States, whether through the teachings of Vivekananda, the example of Madonna, or the likes of Deepak Chopra. Yoga here is veritably twice-born, of India and America. It was inevitable that the range of teachers and schools on offer would proliferate a sub-culture of musical, spiritual, and somatic identification. My teacher’s “Namaste” at the finish of class is offered sweetly with a smile and is returned joyously by most of those in attendance, and I’ve never thought to criticize or question what some might term the willful appropriation of what is perhaps only nominally Hindu practice.
Others, apparently, aren’t as content to let things be. In a suburb of San Diego, a debate has been unfolding over whether or not yoga can legally be taught as part of the physical education curriculum in public elementary schools. In December, the New York Times reported that a group of parents at Paul Ecke Central Elementary have been protesting the Encinitas Union School District’s institution of thirty-minute yoga, breathing, and relaxation classes. They are apparently unmoved by the school’s opt-out clause and are convinced that what the teachers call “gorilla pose” and “mountain pose” are part of a broader Hindu proselytizing movement.
The parents’ cries of First Amendment-violation have drawn considerable media attention in recent months. “Namaste. Now Nap Time,” articles declare. “Relaxation or religious indoctrination?” But despite the manufactured hysteria over yogic indoctrination (which seems somewhat akin to Oklahoma’s fear of Sharia Law), yoga is currently being introduced at schools all over the country as part of health and wellness programs. Others have been more creative about tempering the purported Hindu religious content. The Wall StreetJournal reports that Chabad schools in New York have their students chanting “shalom” instead of “Om.”
Does it matter what the students chant? Is yoga a secular practice?
The other day, my yoga teacher turned to me and another Indian student and asked how we felt about the prayers and chants, the references to the Hindu pantheon, and the various fusion versions of the “Gayatri Mantra” accompanying our stretching and balancing exercises. “I think,” she added, “that a lot of my Indian students don’t mind, because they tell me that my pronunciation is good.”
I winced inwardly, even as I assured her in all sincerity that I had no issue with her particular brand of yogic spirituality—that, in fact, I respected, enjoyed, and appreciated the intentions and integrity she brought to each offering of a prayer or mantra. But pronunciation? In truth, the clipped t’s in each of her “Shanti’s” had been bugging me for weeks, and Deva Premal’s “Gayatri Mantra” was beautiful when competing with the heating system, but on further scrutiny clearly evidenced the singer’s non-native t’s and d’s. I didn’t say any of this, of course. Pronunciation is such a trivial card to pull, never mind a misleading indicator of that noxious thing called “authenticity.”
Nevertheless, some Hindus chafe at the New Age-transformations American yoga practice has brought to “our” age-old meditative practice. The parents at Paul Ecke would no doubt find my yoga class rife with Hindu symbolism and threats to the established Judeo-Christian order of suburban California. Who’s to say who’s right? Who does yoga belong to? Is it yoga without “Om?” Is it yoga, if no one understands the words?
The other Indian student and I exchanged glances, as the rainbow-room of Berkeley mamas-to-be bowed their heads in earnest supplication. I’m not sure what she was thinking.
But the more I think about it, the gladder I am to have this space for baby. Already she is Indian and American, brown and white, with Hindu, Christian, and Jewish grandparents. She will be a 21st-century Berkeley baby. Twice-born yoga should be right up her alley.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.