Yoga Living Project is proud to offer a story from first time guest author (and current yoga teacher in training) Deepa Patel. In this installment, Deepa shares her journey from India to the United States and equally her journey into the truth of her yoga practice. This week's work is definitely food for thought as it touches on some important discussions in the yoga community such as appropriation vs. appreciation, decisions to study yoga deeper, and the all-important sangha.
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Finding My Roots Through Yoga
“Maybe you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.”
I still remember the blazing summer day in my hometown of Ahmedabad, India, when I first experienced yoga. My uncle woke me up before sunrise to go to a class with him. As any 13-year-old would, I grumbled and rolled out of bed, not wanting to disappoint him. We sat on the cement floor of a veranda with about 20 other people, and even thought it was still dawn, the heat permeated my clothes and skin. I struggled to find wakefulness. To this day, I don’t remember any of the postures that we did. But what I do remember is how I felt. My first initiation into the practice that would become a lifelong journey was both calming and exhilarating.
I had moved to America in 1990 when I was six years old. That trip to India in 1997 was the first time I had been back since my family left our roots behind and forged a new path in an unknown country. In the 1990s, I grew up in a small town in southern Virginia. We were the only Indian family, and I had very little access to my own culture and practices. I was starting to forget my native language of Gujarati while struggling to learn English. Then, in 1996, my parents moved us to Atlanta, where we started attending a Hindu temple every Sunday. We became more exposed to Indian grocery stores, movies and restaurants. I relearned Gujarati, and taught myself to read and understand Hindi. I became immersed in my culture and religion, and developed a greater understanding of where I come from. And in college, I finally revisited the practice of yoga that I had shared with my uncle on that scorching morning almost four years before. For the past 20 years, I have stayed connected in some way, no matter how small, to yoga.
As time went on, yoga started to become more mainstream. It was the age of “Eat, Pray, Love” and “Namastay in Bed” shirts. Once, a friend posted an image of the Hindu god Ganesha as a decorative toilet seat cover. People started wearing malas as jewelry pieces, and buying socks with pictures of Hindu deities. Understandably, my friends were incensed, and so was I. The practice of yoga had become fully appropriated. Yoga studios were filled with predominantly white women practitioners. I remember reeling when I stepped into a yoga studio in a large city because I was the only Indian student there. I felt a sense of otherness that I had not expected in a practice that originated in my home country within the auspices of my religion.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Colorado Springs that I had my first experience with practitioners who were truly authentic in their desire to uphold the traditional values of yoga while still adapting it to their own life situation. At Cambio Yoga, I met teachers who had traveled to India to learn the history, and spent countless hours ensuring that they were giving yoga the proper appreciation. They were using malas appropriately to help with their meditation. They were reading scriptures like the Bhagawad Gita and the Upanishads, and many of them were delving into Sanskrit to better understand the philosophy. They were reminding us not to point the bottoms of our feet to our teachers or the images of deities. They exemplified cultural appreciation through their genuine desire to teach the practice correctly, while simultaneously making sure that classes were accessible to every person.
It was love at first sight.
Today, as I go through the 200-hour teacher training at Cambio, I can only find gratitude for the sangha that has helped me reconnect to my roots. I have been given the opportunity to speak to a captive audience about the differences between appropriation and appreciation, and in turn, they have given me their most genuine efforts to understand. My fellow trainees are warm, kind, and studious. They are generous and inquisitive. And my teachers have granted me a wide berth to grow into my own practice. Along with studying the asanas, though, I have also begun to read (or in some cases, reread) Hindu scriptures to understand them better. I’ve reverted to confidently wearing my Indian tops and shawls without being nervous about standing out. I finally fit in with a community where I can be both Indian and American – my complete self – without judgement. More importantly, I finally have a safe space where I can grow physically, emotionally and spiritually.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes,
“When you’re inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all of your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations; your consciousness expands in every direction; and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties, and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
Today, yoga is an oasis in a vast desert that I have been traveling for over 30 years. On the mat, I can simply be who I am. I can grow, teach, love and be still. With yoga, I am finally home.