Is yoga really for everyone?

An Indian man practices yoga at dawn near Bangalore. Spiritual yoga is more popular in India. (Photo by Vinoth Chandar)
‘Hey, where’s his lululemons?’ An Indian man practices yoga at dawn near Bangalore. (Photo by Vinoth Chandar)

Yoga is a universal language. It has no color or religion.

So why is the face of yoga in the U.S. always a thin flexible white American woman?

Is it that people of color and men don’t practice yoga? Or do they practice but don’t want to talk about it?

I was born and raised in India, where it’s common for two to three generations to live together under one roof.

Most kids grow up watching their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles practicing meditation, breath work or chanting first thing in the morning. They also burn incense and light oil lamps to clear out negative energies from the night and welcome the new day (known as “Bhakti Yoga”). Many elders will visit the temple on their way to work each day, and feed the homeless sitting outside the temple (known as “Karma Yoga”). As the day progresses, the elders of the family spend time with the kids, narrating yogic mythological stories meant to be inspiring, soul-stirring, and rich with multiple layers of meaning (known as “Jnana Yoga”).

The physical practice of yoga (known as “Asana Yoga”) is similar to what we see in American yoga classes. Asana is traditionally performed mostly by men, with women participating more in group satsang (meditating on scriptures) and chanting — so it’s not surprising that most celebrated Indian yoga gurus are males.

For most Indians, yoga is not an exercise or something you do in a class. It is an entire lifestyle — a practice that is tied into many aspects of one’s daily routine.

“I’d stumbled into a multi-million dollar industry with no resemblance to the traditional yoga that I knew.”

When I moved to Chicago in 2004, my first experience of American yoga was overwhelming — in a good way.

When I inquired about yoga in the U.S. the first question was ‘well, what type of yoga you are looking for.’

I’d stumbled into a multi-million dollar industry with no resemblance to the traditional yoga that I knew.

The hot power studio I tried resembled a spa with fully equipped showers and supplies. The reception area had refreshments, comfy couches and Zen music. The yoga room had dim lights, with incense burning, an American singer named Krishna Das singing Indian Vedic chants on Pandora for a class full of beautiful women, wearing sleek yoga clothes which could easily pass off as club wear.

I was in awe. Here was this entire world of yoga that I didn’t even know existed. It was beyond fascinating and I was in love with every aspect of it.

In my first year of practice at multiple studios across the city, I must have taken over 200 group yoga classes. After a few months, I started noticing a few small things all these classes had in common, regardless of location, time, or style of studio. Ninety percent of the time I was the only person of color. I also noticed that barely five percent of the participants were male.

A priest in Varanasi leads women in a class on Hindu scripture — the spiritual yoga. (Photo by Jorge Royan)
A priest in Varanasi leads women in a class on Hindu scripture. Traditionally in India women do more meditation and chanting, while the physical aspects of yoga are reserved for men. (Photo by Jorge Royan)

But maybe the most surprising difference was that the yoga practice was predominantly physical. It started with childs pose and ended with savasana.

I loved how physically demanding the hour was, but I missed the philosophical aspects of yoga. Somehow it felt incomplete. When there were small bits of chanting in Sanskrit introduced, I wondered whether the students or the teachers really understood what the chants meant or why they were doing them.

After a year of dedicated practice, I joined a 200 hour level 1 certification at a local studio in Chicago. The training was a life-changing experience for me at many levels.

The more I learned about yoga, the more I realized that how many things that I had experienced growing up in India were a part of it — I just hadn’t know that it was called yoga.

I looked forward to the asana training days. I enjoyed learning about the anatomy and benefits. But the sessions on Sanskrit, history of yoga and philosophy were very disappointing. The teachers were not experts in this aspect of yoga, and most of what they taught seemed to be fresh from a google search.

Worse yet, as the training progressed, I learned that even though I considered myself an American now, I wasn’t perceived as one. Anytime I raised a question about something I didn’t think was being presented correctly, or if I wanted to assist the class to provide a correct pronunciation of Sanskrit chants or words, it was treated as an unwelcome interruption.

For example; during one of the yoga philosophy sessions, the teacher summed up the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu equivalent to the Bible) in one sentence “Arjuna killed his brothers to follow his Dharma (which means duty in Sanskrit)”.

When I raised my concern that this was a vast oversimplification and that the students deserved more context, I was immediately shut down for the lack of time.

Some fellow students caught me after class and reassured me that they appreciated my contribution and a few of us met after training hours and talked in detail about the content and context of the Hindu scriptures.

This incident upset me at some level, but the love for yoga and affection of other students kept me in the program.

Spiritual yoga at a temple in India
The author, Sweta Saraogi, in Vriksasana, or tree pose, at a temple in Hyderabad, India. (Courtesy photo)

But the problems continued. Toward the end of my two months of training my mentor told me that if I wanted to be a teacher, I needed to change my intensity towards yoga. She suggested I should be more causal and peppy (sort of a cheerleader when leading a group class). When I didn’t understand what she was trying to say, she put it more bluntly:

“Sweta, when you walk in a yoga studio, people perceive you as an authority on yoga. You need to focus more on making the physical asanas fun, and less on the philosophy.”

It was the first time someone had reminded me that, as a person of color teaching yoga, I was going to be perceived differently.

I tried not to take it to heart. Overall, the training had connected me to my roots and I had found my purpose. All I wanted to do was to share the gifts of yoga.

So I started teaching at studios, and over the course of one year I had built up an amazing following of students which included a few men and people of color.

My classes were tailored to provide a holistic yoga experience. It included yoga philosophy in the form of storytelling and the asanas that stemmed from that philosophy. It included details on why the physical yoga positions are named what they are, and how we are meant to connect with them to improve our physical and mental well-being.

It was not a religious practice. I just wanted to share the knowledge and provide an avenue for students interested in the broader aspects of yoga. Some of the students said that when they came to my classes to practice yoga, they felt immediately transported to India, even if they’d never left the U.S.

But the management of the yoga studios were not really happy with my approach. I often got feedback from them that I should focus more on the asanas and the physical aspects.

This conflict got me thinking what yoga truly is.

The questions took me back to Northern India, where I travelled for months, living the ashram life, learning more about traditional yoga and working to understanding yoga philosophy.

Yoga diversity in Seattle looks different than in India
An early morning yoga class on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, India. (Photo by Nakatani Yoshifumi)

When I came back to the U.S., I decided to approach some of the more “authentic studios” with the idea of teaching classes geared more toward yoga philosophy.

Some of them balked, warning me that it would sound like I was preaching Hinduism. I’d already been to several authentic yoga studios and have seen them talk philosophy and bring the holistic aspects of yoga to the class. So why was I shut down? Was it my color that made the yoga studios react the way they did? Or are Americans really only interested in the physical asana practice?

When I moved to Seattle earlier this year, I had similar interactions. Even though Seattle has a much larger yoga community, I noticed the same type of demographics in the yoga studios. And the majority of studios were still only interested in the physical aspects of yoga.

So, inspired by the start-up culture in Seattle, I decided to launch a private practice that catered to individuals who want to learn and practice the broader aspects of yoga. This is my way of raising a broader awareness of yoga, and of creating a safe space where everyone feels welcome, irrespective of color, background, age or physical fitness level.

My students now include men and women of all shapes and sizes from all over the world. Most of them are people who prefer not to practice at a regular yoga studio because they feel intimidated in the environment of super flexible and highly athletic yogis, or don’t enjoy the practice just because of its intensity of physical postures.

“America has done a great job of bringing yoga alive. No other country, including India, has embraced it to this extent.

Someone asked me the other day as to why don’t I focus on teaching yoga to the Indian-Americans in Seattle. Wouldn’t they appreciate it more?

My answer was, why should I limit myself? From my experiences, I have learned something important: that yoga is a universal language. Anyone who is dedicated to yoga and has a consistent practice will reap the benefits, which have nothing to do with color, age or gender.

America has done a great job of bringing yoga alive. No other country, including India, has embraced yoga to this extent.

But why is American yoga mainly limited to the physical asanas? Why is the discussion of yoga philosophy limited to a small number of studios? Why is the face of yoga always thin white American women doing the craziest yoga poses? Why don’t we ever see pictures of men, women of color, and students enjoying mediation or breath work?

Are we creating an environment where others don’t feel welcome or feel intimidated?

Yoga should not be limited to individuals who were born flexible. Quite the opposite! Those who find the physical aspects of yoga the hardest are the ones who benefit from it most. What can we do to make them feel more welcome?

In my opinion, by sharing the broader aspects of yoga like Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga, we can transform the image of yoga from what it is today — a competitive sport — to a holistic path of self-realization, and thus open the door to people of varied demographics to practice yoga.

34 Comments

  1. Dear Sweta, a quick comment – I appreciate your knowledge and willingness to contribute to the classes you attended. That said, I wonder if telling a teacher in front of the other students he/she is over simplifying, missing a point or not pronouncing something correctly is a compassionate/yogic act. It can feel as a demeaning and disrespectful act to the teacher. How do you think he/she felt? Maybe its better to reserve such comments for after class in person.

    May your path lead you to what you seek.

    1. Dear Erez,

      I appreciate your concern. First of all, the situations that I have mentioned in the article were part of yoga teacher training and not regular classes. I would never stop a class to ask a personal question. The purpose of the yoga teacher training should be sharing and learning. Second, before taking on yoga as a full time profession, I have worked for 10 years in Corporate America as a Finance Consultant for Fortune 500 companies and I have tackled some though clients. Trust me, I did raise my questions/concerns in the most tactful and respectful way.

  2. Erez, actually I disagree. It sounds like Sweta had a pretty valid point and that she expressed herself respectfully. I would be really interested in taking a class with a more philosophical approach. I like stretching and building my flexibility, but I do often feel a disconnect and wonder about the roots of the practice. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Dear Sweta I like your comments on Yoga. I like your view point and appreciate. Yoga is a complete package for overall growth and evolution and not only for physical flexibility. Keep it up in your practice and keep teaching true yoga.

  4. Dear Sweta,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. I was really surprised by the first reply from Erez, she seems to have very few confidence in your behaviour.

    I don’t live in America and therefore I was blessed to learn yoga with teachers who think that the philosophical aspect is very important, even if they are white people, one from America (she was bor there, she lives in Australia now) and the other one from Australia, living in New-Zealad. Both have spent several years in India.

    In their classes they always try to introduce people to each and every aspect of yoga. Some people don’t like it or don’t understand, but most of them are very interested in the spiritual aspect, they need it – I think nowadays we all need more spirituality in our lives -. So, thank you again, and be sure that in this world, in some places (ot only in India, I have never been there and I have been teaching yoga for a little more than one year), yoga is not reduced to asanas.
    I wish I could assist to one of your classes, I like “storytelling” very much,
    Thank you again,

    Carole

    1. Thank you for sharing Carole! Where do you live and teach?

      I am so glad to know that yoga teachers outside America are embracing and teaching the broader aspects of yoga:) I believe their travels to India have given them that perspective. Through this article I have received tons of personal emails from yoga teachers all across the globe, asking me ways to learn and introduce the philosophy of yoga in classes. My understanding from this is, that yoga teachers and yogis are interested in knowing and learning more than just asanas. They just dont know what it is and where to get started.
      It our responsibility to share what we know!!!

  5. Thank you for your in-sight Sweta!

    We assist retreat leaders who host their retreat in Bali. When we first started, we had shifted from coordinating events for Pharmaceutical companies, Banker, Automobile Manufacturers, etc since we desired to align with people who embodied the principles of yoga and spirituality.

    It’s been 4 years now, that we have encountered so-called yogis from all over the world. And very much to our dismay….we have learned that just because they call themselves yoga teachers, does not mean that they do embody the qualities of what a true yogi may be.

    We have witnessed teachers who even act out totally opposite of what the teach. Our most recent experience even lead us to our greatest disappointment of them all…..when we helped a Canadian Yoga Teacher avoid going to jail or being deported from the country by lending him the money needed to avoid this happening.
    Now, not only does he not pay us back…(when we extended our hand to him while he cried in his moment of deepest fear while in a foreign country), but he now has simply ignores our e-mails.

    Ironically enough….he also wrote a book to guide others towards where they want to arrive in life, within transparency, truth & integrity.

    At the end of it all…..assisting yogis, is almost the equivalent to assisting those big companies who focus only on their financial needs with the exception that they do not profess what they are not & are probably more transparent than the fake prophets that we encounter.

  6. Thanks so much for the depth you are bringing. I have been doing yoga for close to 40 years in the US and I have seen it become more and more like an exercise competition and losing more and more of its connection to the spiritual source. Where are you teaching and do you have a class for seniors?!

    1. Thank you Susan! I cannot imagine what it was like to practice yoga 40 years ago.
      My philosophy is that yoga is not one size fits all and it is very important that yoga meets the student where they are today in their journey and take them forward! So, I run a private yoga practice in the Greater Seattle Area. You can read more about my work at http://www.RaisingYogaAwareness.com

  7. Thanks for sharing your concerns Sweta. In the UK in various classes for over 30 years I too found the emphasis was on the physical aspects of spiritual yoga. As yoga means yoke, union, the uniting of mind, body and soul I now practise a yoga that focuses more on this, starting with the stillness that we all have within us. From this stillness very simple gentle moves are made, keeping the mind aligned to feeling the body at all times – a work still in progress. After some initial resistance I now love this form of yoga. It feels more true to the original roots of yoga to me.

    1. Thank you Sue for sharing! I love that you use the word resistance. As humans we are so wired for doing that stillness is impossible. I am glad that you were persistent. Our generation does not have that kind of patience. So I use storytelling along the yoga practice. It keeps the mind concentrated and focused on just one task.

  8. Dear Sweta,

    A great article indeed! It was shared with me by a fellow yoga teacher trainee. We just finished our training and are starting to teach on our own. Our teacher made very sure to teach us the philosophy, even having us write a paper on the Yamas & Niyamas! So it surprises me other teacher trainings don’t cover the origins of what they’re teaching… If I ever make it back to Seattle I hope to take one of your classes!

    1. Dear Josh, I am glad you learnt about the Yamas & Niyamas! But it is just scratching the surface of yoga philosophy. Please continue the learning as you teach.
      you can find me through my website -www.RaisingYogaAwareness.com

  9. Thankyou so much for sharing your beautiful (and divinely guided) journey.
    Unfortunately it’s much the case too here in Australia, mostly focused on asanas and becoming very competitive and egotistical in nature. Missing the point of yoga entirely. I love yoga philosophy and universal spiritual teachings and I’m so glad you’ve followed your intuition and kept your integrity amongst your yoga teaching.
    We need more teachers like you in the world.

    1. Thank you Melinda! I love that you used the word “intuition”. We all have it in us, but how many of us truly listen to it. Yoga has taught me to pay attention to my inner calling:)

  10. That yoga truly is, is a matter of one’s opinion. I am a white male and have been practicing yoga since age 12. I loved the philosophy and the asanas. There is no need to be concerned about the demographics of those that practice yoga. Anyone can practice yoga just like anyone can be a CEO in America. Even though most CEOs in America are white males.

    The demographics in America is more about the history of America. Like at one time no women or blacks could vote. Then black males got the right to vote. Then women got the right to vote. When Hillary Clinton went to yoga classes, her husband Bill Clinton went with her. There are over a billion Christians in the world and no 2 would agree on everything, except for one thing– that they are the true Christian.

    Also regardless of your color, teachers do not like anyone to disagree with them. It is a known fact about the ego. The ego loves to praised and hates to be criticized.

    It is easy to look up Arjuna’s brothers on Wikipedia and click on “death” for each of them and see that Arjuna did not kill any of his brothers. The article says “the teacher summed up the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu equivalent to the Bible) in one sentence ‘Arjuna killed his brothers to follow his Dharma (which means duty in Sanskrit)’. When I raised my concern that this was a vast oversimplification….”

    1. Dear Sweta
      Have you written a book on the story telling aspect of your teaching method. I would be interested in exploring further. George

  11. Dear Sweta
    I enjoyed reading your article. In Bhumi’s Yoga Teacher Trainings we do have a holistic and global approach. I have seen the changes in USA yoga in the past 30 years, which for me began with 8 years in a US ashram. I will forward your link to the current graduating class of Bhumi’s Yoga Teacher Training. And, I will also send it to one of our yoga teachers who has just moved to Seattle, in the hope that you will connect. Spread your wings! Be your authentic self and teach the way you feel. Jai Bhagwan! Bhumi

  12. Sweta-
    Thank you for sharing your experience. Having spent nearly half a year in India, I can understand how yoga’s expression here in the U.S. was surprising.
    India’s gift has come to us, and like many things here, the substance can get lost in superficialities.
    In time, with more people opining as you have, I think a philosophical and holistic practice will grow and more people will come to see yoga as the entire mind/body practice it was. The deep yearning for liberation might never take hold in America, but a level of spiritual awareness is something we can all applaud.

    1. Well said Gregory! I too believe that there is a deep desire for spiritual awareness. All we need is to start a conversation and discuss what can be done at an individual level to bring it.

  13. Hi Sweta,

    I am so happy I ran across your article. I live in the Minneapolis area and am searching for a studio where they focus on yoga philosophies as well as the asanas. I have found it very difficult to find that type of experience. There is something inside me that is yearning for a more spiritual practice. Do you have any suggestions..or know of any studios in my area that may provide something along these lines?

    Thank you!

    1. Thank you so much for reaching out! The more you learn about yoga, the more you want to know. Unfortunately, I am not aware of the yoga scene in Minneapolis. You can follow my fb page – Raising Yoga Awareness and please connect with me if you ever make it to Seattle:)

      Good Luck!
      Namaste

  14. Hi Sweta,

    I'm so glad I stumbled upon your website. I've been having problems with losing weight and a friend of mine recommended a yoga class in our area. I was skeptical, at first, because all I knew is that yoga is about meditation and I didn't know how it is related to solving my weight problems. So, out of curiosity, I tried to find more information online and voila! I came across your blog. This article alone already cleared up most of my questions about yoga and its roots. I doubt that my friend even knows that there are other forms of yoga aside from asana. I can't wait to share your blog with her!

    1. Hi Vidivir,

      I understand your concerns about loosing weight and believe me there are no shortcuts. I have personally tried all fads from running a marathon to bootcamp to crossfit to even boxing. And then one day I had an injury in a boxing ring which connected me back to yoga, a full circle. Yoga is not a fad, yoga is a lifestyle. True yoga connects you to your body, mind and spirit and thus brings health, life and nourishment, which is here to stay.

      Feel free to reach me at Sweta@RaisingYogaAwareness.com with questions.

      Stay blessed!

  15. iam the real yoga master whom you have to meet in this world. i advise you to contact me. do not hesitate i shall be happy to receive you inside my inbox…………………………..

    universe is under your feet!!!!

  16. I truly wish that I lived closer to you, because I would love to take your class. I hate how competitive yoga is in America and always wondered about the non-physical aspect of it. Thanks for sharing this!

  17. I am so happy I found this article. I have practiced yoga for over a year and love it. I am a plus sized over weight woman and I honestly feel that Yoga has helped me develop a sense of discipline that has helped me over come my mental issues with losing weight. I have no desire to be competitive and so many sports and athletic events focus on the competitive and at least Yoga gives me a sense of doing things at my own speed and my own pace. I would love to know more about why the poses are given the names they are given. I recognize a spiritual level that goes with them and even though I am happy in my own personal spiritual path, I would like to know what fits in the in between all the mat work and asanas.

    I have been recently going to a Yoga studio where most of the people are pretty bendy, slight etc. I ignore them, I focus on what I can do and sometimes surprise myself. I had a instructor one time try to bend my poor plus sized body in a pose that I couldn’t do. I wasn’t happy about that , I literally groaned and she suddenly backed off realizing my body could only go so far. Seriously, I am not in this to be competitive and I am not like the other students that can bend a little more. I am a very patient individual, it takes a LOT to get me upset, particularly when I am focused on breathing and concentrating on a pose, I said nothing to the instructor because I think after I groaned she realized my body just wouldn’t go where she wanted it to go. This is the first time I ever had a instructor try to do that to me, most do very gentle corrections.

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