Ashtanga, NY

Ashtanga, NY - A Yoga DocumentaryAs I perused netflix’s yoga offerings the other day, I noticed this little gem–Ashtanga, NY— available for streaming. If you love yoga and have 40 minutes I very much recommend it.

This short documentary was shot during Sri K Pattabhi Jois‘s visit to NYC in September 2001. (Also known as Guruji, Jois was a father of the modern yoga movement and popularized/founded the Ashtanga style of yoga.)

Every day that month, hundreds of NYC yogis woke up at dawn to practice yoga under instruction of Guruji and family. This is an Indian-style family affair, with Guruji’s daughter (Saraswati), grandson (Sharath), and various other family members serving as Guruji’s posse during his international trip.

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8 tips for beginning yogis

I taught my third group yoga class last week, and boy do I have a lot to learn about teaching. At one point a dude in class asked loudly, in frustration, “What leg should I use?” A few minutes later he said again, “I don’t understand what to do!” I guess I wasn’t providing clear enough instructions. At the same time, an older, overweight woman who was taking yoga for the first time started to walk around fanning herself and saying, “Wooh, I need to rest.”

The rest of the class proceeded without interruption, but I realized how much I take for granted as a seasoned yoga class goer, how much I better I could communicate as a teacher, and how strange the yoga world must seem to an outsider. This is the advice I’d give to a yoga newbie:

1) Find a basics or beginners class. Even if you are an athletic person, and can do demanding things with your body, you don’t know the alignment, or the sequence, or the poses. Find a class for beginners. You’ll benefit so much more, because the teacher will slow the sequence down, explain things more, and create an environment in which you’re less likely to injure yourself. You’d be cocky to go to an advanced level flute class having never played the instrument before even if you were already a maestro on the piano. You’d probably pick up the flute quickly, if you tried, but you still need to learn the basics: how to purse your lips, regulate your breath, and the physical configuration of the notes on the flute itself. Yoga asanas need time and space for learning. Basics doesn’t have to mean “easy” though. Basics classes can be physically challenging, and can even be more so than an “advanced” class–because when you hold poses for a while and with proper alignment, you are using muscles you normally don’t use. This is hard. Which brings me to my next point.

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Where are the Indians?

Totally inappropro

I am often the only ethnic Indian in the yoga classes I attend. At first I cared but not much anymore. That said, reading this post about late Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois and his sometimes creepy adjustments reminded me of one of my theories about why more of my people don’t embrace yoga as we know it in America.

Therefore I would like to visit this state of affairs and have listed below my theories why Indians don’t do yoga (suspicion of lecherous fellow countrymen is #3).

1) It feels silly to learn this ancient Indian practice from Westerners.

2) Yoga as it is taught in the West is one-sided (asansas performed by lithe men and women in luon) , nowhere resembling the practice as our parents know it (breathing, philosophy, mediation)–therefore it feels false and incomplete. When I was little my dad told me about sadhus (holy men or yogis) that could slow their heart rates down to barely beating solely with the powers of their mind. And sadhus are understood to be skinny old ascetics that live in caves, meditating. (My dad, for the record, is a orthopedic surgeon, well trained in Western medicine.)

3) We are suspicious of fellow desis* that bring Indian stuff to the West, as Indians are corrupt and cheats, out to make a buck and grope white women (see picture).  In other words, Indians know that Indians are not the philosophical sages that orientalist Westerners** hope them to be. And yoga (in America) is the child of this.

4) Indians are not health conscious.

5) Indians are cheap, and yoga studios are expensive.

6) I am wrong and Indians do attend yoga classes in proportion to their prevalence in the population. Or maybe they go to different types of classes than I do, such as the gym or the YMCA rather than to studios (due to their cheapness as described in #5). This theory is a shout out to the economists out there.

Also, I have a somewhat related question: do Americans prefer to get their yoga from Indians or non-Indians? My feeling is that it doesn’t make a big difference, with non-Indians having the edge on physical teachings, and Indians having the edge on the mystical stuff. Mystical being a catch-all term for everything that isn’t asana.


*The Urban Dictionary defines desi as “a word derived from Sanskrit. Means ‘one from our country’; a national opposed to a foreign. Usually refers to people from India, Pakistan, & Bangladesh.” For example, although I am American, I am desi.

**Hyperbole for discussion purposes.