“You have an Indian yoga teacher?” My friend asked with surprise when I mentioned Sweta Saraogi’s name in conversation, “I’ve never met an Indian yoga teacher before.”
If you’re not into the Seattle yoga scene that statement might come as a shock given yoga’s spiritual, historical and cultural roots in India. But if you’ve practiced yoga in this city for as long as I have (almost eight years) you know what my friend is talking about. Not only are yoga teachers rarely Indian, they’re most often white.
“That’s the face of yoga,” says Saraogi, sitting in the fitness studio of her apartment building where she teaches private sessions, “A thin, white, blonde…American teacher who can do crazy pretzel moves and pass for a super model.”
Saraogi, who grew up in Mumbai and studied yoga in India, says that a lack of diversity in American yoga culture is only part of her critique. She also struggles with how exercise-oriented yoga has become in America — a “hardcore fitness” and “sweat it out” attitude that she says commercializes an inherently spiritual practice.
She trained as an instructor in the Midwest and says when she tried to include elements like chanting or philosophy into her classes she was often told it was intimidating — especially coming from an Indian woman who may be perceived as too serious or too religious in her approach.
“In Chicago, most of the time I was pushed back even if I tried to chant ‘Om [a common Hindu mantra],’” says Saraogi who is quick to add that she was raised Hindu but identifies as spiritual, not as religious, “Indirectly I was told ‘you need to back off…We don’t want to scare people with your chanting and your [skin] color.’”
It’s always complicated to practice or teach yoga as an Indian or Indian American in the United States says Gita Mehrotra, who has practiced yoga for years and recently finished a teacher training. Mehrotra feels alienated by yoga that ignores cultural and spiritual elements of the practice. But she’s also offended by the use of Hindu religious symbols and religious chanting by yoga studios full of non-Indians.
“You would never ask a room full of people to recite the Lord’s Prayer without context, or giving [people] a choice of whether or not they’d like to participate,” says Mehrotra — who was raised Hindu but doesn’t practice the religion— referencing the Sanskrit chants and prayers often incorporated into yoga classes “Especially in Seattle a lot of yoga studios take a kind of uncritical approach to using…Hinduism as part of their yoga studio and what they are selling.”
In response to this and other examples of a yoga culture that felt unwelcoming, Mehrotra helped co-found POC Yoga, an organization in Seattle that provides weekly classes and regular teacher workshops for People Of Color while also contextualizing yoga’s Indian roots.
Saraogi has forged her own path as well. Tired of fighting to fit into the existing scene, she’s started teaching private classes to clients (I’ve taken three myself). She says many of her clients feel uncomfortable in standard yoga classes — whether because of their body type, gender, race or culture — and prefer taking private lessons with her.
Yoga has long been a positive part of my life but I’ll fess up: I’ve chanted a lot of Sanskrit words I didn’t understand and have been to only a few classes taught by a Person Of Color. So how can the practice be more authentic and inclusive in a city where yoga studios are becoming almost as common as coffee shops?
Saraogi and Mehrotra both say it isn’t about excluding anyone, but instead about finding ways to include different types of people in yoga culture. Oh, and taking the time to notice that you’re engaging in an ancient practice that took a long and, sometimes strange, journey to your neighborhood studio.
“I don’t feel like it’s an easy fix and I don’t have an answer about it,” says Mehrotra, “But I think there’s something about acknowledging that it’s complicated that would go a long way.
I know it just got more complicated for me.
If you identify as a person of color and are interested in taking classes or trainings from POC Yoga please email: POCYoga@gmail.com