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What It’s Like Being an Indian-American Yoga Teacher

From being called “exotic” to hearing fellow teachers mock Sanskrit, a yoga teacher explores the hurtful things she’s experienced in the studio.

Sangeeta Vallabhan

My parents were born and raised in India, but they didn’t practice yoga, so my exposure to it wasn’t through them. They immigrated to the States with my brothers in 1965 and my sister and I were born in Lubbock, Texas. Growing up in Lubbock, we had a decent-size Indian community, but it wasn’t like growing up in a bigger city where you might have more interaction with your culture and language. I was a dancer, and I was introduced to yoga in college when one of my dance instructors recommended that I try it. I found a fantastic yoga teacher and was hooked.

See also The Importance of Mysore and Pune, India for Yoga Lineage

After college I moved to New York City and immediately started looking for places to practice yoga. I went to several studios, and I kept getting pulled back to one that incorporated chanting and philosophy. I found those elements made the practice a significantly deeper experience. Within six years, I trained as a teacher.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow teacher referred to me as “exotic” and told me it could be a boon to my career. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with her comment, although I knew I didn’t like it. Exotic means of a distant or foreign country, so apparently I have the look of a faraway place. Ironically, that place is India, which is where my parents and yoga are from! But… I’m American. She was separating the fact that I’m an American from the dominant (white) yoga culture in America. Thus, making me an “exotic” yoga teacher.

Another time I was chatting with a fellow teacher after she’d taken my class. I asked her for some feedback since she was senior to me and a teacher I respected. I used to chant a lot in my classes, and it became one of the main reasons students would come. This teacher smiled and told me that I had “one of those nasally Indian-sounding voices.” It was the closest she was coming to a compliment without it really being one. She was putting me in a category of “different” or “other.” My nasally Indian-sounding voice was not like the more accepted version of white voices singing Indian mantras.

And then there are the teachers who shy away from using Sanskrit altogether or dismiss its significance. I once was taking a class taught by a friend of mine. She was teaching a peak pose with a long Sanskrit name, perhaps Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. She was teaching with great detail to alignment, and then she said the name of the pose, and followed it with “But you don’t really need to know that.” Then she snickered under her breath. I was floored. Why did she do that? How did she think that was OK? When you aren’t willing to teach or learn the Sanskrit names of the poses, it’s as if you’re just taking what suits your yoga practice and leaving the rest. The same could be said of philosophy, pranayama, mantra, mudra, and meditation. I try to remind students that Sanskrit is simply another language. It takes time to feel confident using it, as it does when learning any new language. Sanskrit is the language of yoga, and using it is a way to show reverence for something that comes from a culture other than your own.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

I often experience a mix of feelings—loving what I do and what I’m continuing to learn about yoga and myself, but also wanting to quit teaching altogether when I read articles that discuss the many ways Westerners have stolen from India and Indian culture. There is an inherent ambiguity in being an Indian-American yoga teacher who is struggling to reconcile the impact of colonization and theft of traditions. I don’t want to participate in anything that contributes to that theft. But if I quit, that’s one less yoga teacher of Indian descent. That’s one less teacher who is a person of color. It’s not like the industry is going away if I leave.

And so I choose to stay. And to be more outspoken about the things that matter to me. I care about better representing myself and the country and culture of my family. Labeling me as exotic is not a compliment; this is a way of trying to single out my “differences,” and it moves us away from seeing the common humanity in all, which is what yoga is ultimately about. Using the Sanskrit name of a pose is not a punchline; treating it this way is mocking the culture yoga comes from. Ideally, yoga teachers should be teaching from an informed place, and all trainings should include Sanskrit, the language of yoga, to establish some baseline integrity and to ensure that new teachers feel educated enough to use it.

See also Do You Really Know the True Meaning of Yoga?

About our author

Sangeeta Vallabhan has been studying movement for more than 30 years, first through dance and then yoga. She has been teaching yoga in New York City for over 15 years. As the creator of solemarch, Sangeeta encourages students to use the practices of yoga to continually seek out their own voice and their true sense of self. Learn more at sangeetavallabhan.com.

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