Indian or American? Fight Over Yoga in US Can Tie Us Up in Knots

Criss-cross applesauce?

That’s what a school in Encinitas, California, calls the padmasana or lotus position in its effort to make yoga sound more all-American.

It worked. A three-judge panel of the 4th district court of appeal has upheld a lower court ruling that the Encinitas school district could continue to offer yoga programmes to its students.

It’s being hailed as great victory for yoga which it is. The court has basically told a group of paranoid parents that the yoga mat is not some red carpet laid out to usher Hinduism into American schools. And just because they learn to sit in a lotus position, these school children were not being indoctrinated into some exotic Eastern religion.

The courts reassured the parents that not only was the programme “secular” and not about “advancing or inhibiting religion” but it was also now “a distinctly American cultural phenomenon” despite its Indian roots. The school superintendent hailed the original decision calling yoga “21st century P.E.” with “amazing” health benefits as if it was not thousands of years old.

What would Shripad Naik, India’s cabinet minister for yoga make of that?

Narendra Modi has made it quite clear that he’s putting the Indian back in yoga. He went to the UN and asked for an International Yoga Day. He set up a cabinet post. He told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria how he tells everyone to practice yoga. He is a bona fide yoga evangelist. And the Make in India PM wants there to be no question that yoga was Made in India not born out of immaculate conception in a Manhattan studio.

And therein lies the problem of ownership. Could India claim yoga the way a region in France claims champagne and protects it from fizzy fascimiles elsewhere? For that to happen, writes Tanaya Basu in The Atlantic, Modi would need to secure a “geographical indication” which is a formal acknowledgement of a “location’s importance to a specific product”. But yoga, Basu writes “unlike champagne – which is made from grapes grown in a particular region with distinct weather conditions and soil content – yoga can’t be held in your hand.”

While yoga indisputably comes from India, a headstand in Pune is not that different from a headstand in San Francisco. And that says Sonia Katyal, law professor at Fordham University, “makes it a little harder to explain how its Indian origins are always essential to the practice or characteristics of yoga today.” Replace India with Hinduism in this discussion and the “geographic indication” becomes even trickier.
The Hindu American Foundation started the Take Yoga Back campaign after they noticed the Yoga Journal never linked yoga to Hinduism because it told them, “Hinduism has a lot of baggage”.

The “Taking Back” idea sparked quite war of words between HAF’s Aseem Shukla and Deepak Chopra in Washington Post and then HAF’s Swaminathan Venkataraman and Meera Nanda in Open Magazine. Nanda argued that it was ludicrous to “draw an unbroken line connecting 21st century yogic postures with the nearly 2,000 year-old Yoga Sutras, and tie both to the supposedly 5,000 year-old Vedas”. HAF responded that “requiring everything Hindu be traceable back to Vedic times is ludicrous” and a driver behind the campaign was not just a Yoga Journal not mentioning the H-word but an attempt by some Christians to create a “Christian Yoga”. HAF’s Sheetal Shah also told The Atlantic that despite the name, it was not about taking yoga ‘back’ from anyone. It was about acknowledging yoga’s Hindu roots instead of burying them under a sticky mat.

HAF has had to think this through more thoroughly than some of the more gung ho Made in India acolytes who want to have it both ways. They want their yoga to be Hindu-branded AND they are up in arms if a school is prevented from offering it. In a statement it issued about yoga in public schools, HAF carefully threads the needle.

“Under the First Amendment, public schools may offer yoga-based programs, such as asana-only programs, as part of their curriculum because asana alone is not yoga. Public schools should not offer programs that go beyond the instruction of asana and other physical components of yoga. As such, community groups are free to offer more comprehensive yoga programs during non-school hours using school facilities on the same basis as other community groups sponsoring religious and secular programs for youth.”

The problem is the asana has been conflated with the larger concept of yoga and now it’s difficult to separate the part from the whole. That’s why a court has to step in. But neither is it easy to maintain that divide. Sharanjit Sandhu, a yoga instructor in San Francisco, told me that she realizes the value of chanting Om to get into the ride side of the brain during yoga class but also understands that it would be problematic to do that in a school gymnasium in California.

What in a way is perhaps more concerning than Yoga Journal’s H-avoidance is an Indian American who confesses he learned more about shlokas in his yoga class led by a blonde instructor than from his immigrant parents. Middle and upper middle-class India has only recently rediscovered yoga and that rediscovery isn’t unlinked to its booming commercial popularity in the West. Meanwhile a Catholic priest in Mumbai, Father Joseph Pereira teaches yoga around the world and calls its Christian opponents “God addicts”. “Yoga is not just a work out, it’s a work-in,” he tells

Now, the Encinitas school district calls our Lotus position criss-cross applesauce. And while the purist in me bristles at that appropriation, another part of me wonders why that’s so different from Bhavesh becoming Bob in California in order to make it in America.

In that sense yoga too has become the classic immigrant story – born in India and remade in America.

Sandip Roy is author of “Don’t Let Him Know,” and an editor at where the above essay orginally appeared. 

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