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What It's Like Being an Indian-American Yoga Teacher

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From being called “exotic” to hearing fellow teachers mock Sanskrit, a yoga teacher explores the hurtful things she’s experienced in the studio.

Sangeeta Vallabhan

My parents were born and raised in India, but they didn’t practice yoga, so my exposure to it wasn’t through them. They immigrated to the States with my brothers in 1965 and my sister and I were born in Lubbock, Texas. Growing up in Lubbock, we had a decent-size Indian community, but it wasn’t like growing up in a bigger city where you might have more interaction with your culture and language. I was a dancer, and I was introduced to yoga in college when one of my dance instructors recommended that I try it. I found a fantastic yoga teacher and was hooked.

See also The Importance of Mysore and Pune, India for Yoga Lineage

After college I moved to New York City and immediately started looking for places to practice yoga. I went to several studios, and I kept getting pulled back to one that incorporated chanting and philosophy. I found those elements made the practice a significantly deeper experience. Within six years, I trained as a teacher.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow teacher referred to me as “exotic” and told me it could be a boon to my career. At the time, I didn’t know what to do with her comment, although I knew I didn’t like it. Exotic means of a distant or foreign country, so apparently I have the look of a faraway place. Ironically, that place is India, which is where my parents and yoga are from! But… I’m American. She was separating the fact that I’m an American from the dominant (white) yoga culture in America. Thus, making me an “exotic” yoga teacher.

Another time I was chatting with a fellow teacher after she’d taken my class. I asked her for some feedback since she was senior to me and a teacher I respected. I used to chant a lot in my classes, and it became one of the main reasons students would come. This teacher smiled and told me that I had “one of those nasally Indian-sounding voices.” It was the closest she was coming to a compliment without it really being one. She was putting me in a category of “different” or “other.” My nasally Indian-sounding voice was not like the more accepted version of white voices singing Indian mantras.

And then there are the teachers who shy away from using Sanskrit altogether or dismiss its significance. I once was taking a class taught by a friend of mine. She was teaching a peak pose with a long Sanskrit name, perhaps Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. She was teaching with great detail to alignment, and then she said the name of the pose, and followed it with “But you don’t really need to know that.” Then she snickered under her breath. I was floored. Why did she do that? How did she think that was OK? When you aren’t willing to teach or learn the Sanskrit names of the poses, it’s as if you’re just taking what suits your yoga practice and leaving the rest. The same could be said of philosophy, pranayama, mantra, mudra, and meditation. I try to remind students that Sanskrit is simply another language. It takes time to feel confident using it, as it does when learning any new language. Sanskrit is the language of yoga, and using it is a way to show reverence for something that comes from a culture other than your own.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

I often experience a mix of feelings—loving what I do and what I’m continuing to learn about yoga and myself, but also wanting to quit teaching altogether when I read articles that discuss the many ways Westerners have stolen from India and Indian culture. There is an inherent ambiguity in being an Indian-American yoga teacher who is struggling to reconcile the impact of colonization and theft of traditions. I don’t want to participate in anything that contributes to that theft. But if I quit, that’s one less yoga teacher of Indian descent. That’s one less teacher who is a person of color. It’s not like the industry is going away if I leave.

And so I choose to stay. And to be more outspoken about the things that matter to me. I care about better representing myself and the country and culture of my family. Labeling me as exotic is not a compliment; this is a way of trying to single out my “differences,” and it moves us away from seeing the common humanity in all, which is what yoga is ultimately about. Using the Sanskrit name of a pose is not a punchline; treating it this way is mocking the culture yoga comes from. Ideally, yoga teachers should be teaching from an informed place, and all trainings should include Sanskrit, the language of yoga, to establish some baseline integrity and to ensure that new teachers feel educated enough to use it.

See also Do You Really Know the True Meaning of Yoga?

About our author

Sangeeta Vallabhan has been studying movement for more than 30 years, first through dance and then yoga. She has been teaching yoga in New York City for over 15 years. As the creator of solemarch, Sangeeta encourages students to use the practices of yoga to continually seek out their own voice and their true sense of self. Learn more at sangeetavallabhan.com.



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Balance

A 5-Minute Meditation to Release Anxiety

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Detach from anxiety and come back to the present.

Rina Deshpande shares her quick 5-minute meditation to release anxiety and let go of attachments. 

See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?



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Yoga Helped Me Face My Fears About Marriage Once and For All

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I went to Mexico to rejuvenate, detox, and practice yoga with my boyfriend. Turns out, it would also be where I faced my fears about marriage.

It was a humid sunrise on a quiet, sandy beach in Tulum, Mexico. Despite our previous late-night mezcal tasting beneath the jungle leaves, my longtime boyfriend, Anush, had dragged me out of our tiny thatched-roof cabana at first light.

I adjusted my Beyoncé t-shirt and gray cotton shorts I’d worn to bed as I scanned the horizon. When I turned back to Anush, he was kneeling in the sand, holding a typed love letter and a tourmaline engagement ring.

“Will you marry me?” He asked.

I was so incredulous, I couldn’t speak. Feelings of doubt and darkness coursed through me, even though I’d always imagined a future with him: He was the one person who made me feel seen and cared for and uplifted. Still, I was reluctant to commit.

My parents went through a dramatic and corrosive divorce when I was 13, but the fallout had lasted long after. Most of the great pain in my life has come from marriage—and its ending. Marriage is the thing that has made me most likely to run, and least likely to trust

See also This Guided Meditation Will Inspire You to Live From Your Heart

As I stared at the man I love, these past traumas lit my body from head to toe with alarm bells. How could I marry anyone? But, as I looked at him, I calmed myself down. I silently told myself something I had learned in my yoga and mindfulness practice: Be here now. With that mantra, I slowly came back to the moment. With that mantra, I reminded myself where I was, who I was with—and most importantly, who I am now.

He waited patiently. I started to cry. Finally, I said, “Yes! Yes. Yes. Of course, yes.” He put the ring on my finger, and he held me while I cried. In that moment of “yes,” my world expanded.

We drank champagne and ate fruit in front of the ocean while the Tulum sun rose, pink and hot on our skin. I could hardly believe my good fortune—engaged in Tulum at sunrise. In that moment, instead of fear, I chose gratitude.

I saw a beachfront yoga class almost immediately after—Tulum, thankfully is crawling with them—and I asked my fiance(!), if he’d like to take it together. I was still shaking from the metamorphic decision I had made: unwavering commitment in the face of fear. I hoped familiar asana would steady me. Internally, I repeated my mantra as we walked into a large triangular wood pavilion, perched on a hidden natural cliff in the jungle, overlooking the beach as if it had been there forever.

See also 17 Poses to Prep for Mindful Meditation

Our yoga teacher, a young woman from Mexico City with a sing-song voice, instructed us to let go of our fears, to open our hearts, to experience the beauty of the moment we were in.

I was exactly where I needed to be. I still had my dark corners—I may always—but I could learn to live with them and still claim the life I wanted and deserve. I could live in the present and not in the past. I could be here now, soaking in the jungle, the ocean, in a magnificent place where afterward we would eat fresh coconut and bike carefree down the beach road and hike up Mayan ruins and speak a little Spanish and accept a glorious chocolate mole cake that said “Felicidades.”

As I looked over at the joyful, patient man doing yoga next to me, the waves crashed out ahead. I took his hand for just an instant, and he smiled. And then we raised our arms together, side-by-side, to salute the sun.

See also 7 Simple Ways to Call in More Joy—and Feel Less Stressed

About our author

Gina Tomaine is a yoga teacher and magazine editor in Philadelphia. Her work has been published in Prevention, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, and other publications. Learn more at gina-tomaine.com. 



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6 Yoga Teachers Share What They Never Travel Without

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Yoga teachers weigh in on what they can’t travel without—plus, our favorite must-brings for every adventure.

Twelve items to pack for your next trip as recommended by these yoga teachers.
Women’s UA Rival Hoodie

1. Under Armour Cotton Fleece Logo Hoodie

“A sweatshirt with pockets and a big-enough hood that I can pull over my eyes and take a quick snooze or do a little yoga nidra on the plane.” —Rosie Acosta
($45, underarmour.com)

Vuori Performance Jogger

2. Vuori Performance Jogger 

($84, vuoriclothing.com)

See also 
5 Poses to Practice in a Cramped Airplane Seat

Magic Bullet Mini

3. Magic Bullet Mini

“I love having the ability to make matcha or a smoothie wherever I go. It’s a game-changer.” —Eoin Finn 

($30, amazon.com)

Primal Defense Ultra Probiotic Formula

4. Primal Defense Ultra Probiotic Formula 

($36, amazon.com)

Ujjaya Balance Bottle

5. Ujjaya Balance Bottle

($40, ujjaya.com)

See also This Energizing Matcha Lime Smoothie Will Help You Wake Up Without the Caffeine Spike

BCOZZY Chin Supporting Travel Pillow

6. BCOZZY Chin Supporting Travel Pillow

“A travel pillow that supports my neck is vital for falling asleep on the plane!” —Rina Jakubowicz

 ($30, bcozzy.com)

Mantisyoga Guru Backpack

7. Mantisyoga Guru Backpack

($150, amazon.com)

Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Headphones II

8. Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Headphones II 

($350, bose.com)

See also Yoga at the Airport: 5 Poses for a Long Layover

HITOP Classic Plaid Tartan Blanket Scarf

9. HITOP Classic Plaid Tartan Blanket Scarf 

“An oversized scarf and my essential oils: I put the oils on my neck and wrap the scarf around me so I can push out airplane germs.” —Kathryn Budig

(from $14, amazon.com)

Pangea Organics Frank-incense Essential Oil Roller

10. Pangea Organics Frank-incense Essential Oil Roller

“Frankincense helps me connect with my intuition and stay grounded while traveling—plus, it doubles as an organic insect repellent!” —Lauren Eckstrom

 ($30, pangeaorganics.com)

See also 5 Essential Oils Combos That Smell Better Than Your Favorite Candles

Yoga For Bad People Travel Mat

11. Yoga For Bad People Travel Mat

“My travel mat is great for practicing in tropical and humid climes, and it’s super yummy when thrown over a gym or hotel mat—extra cushion without the gunk!” —Heather Lilleston

($86, yogaforbadpeople.com)

Vivobarefoot Primus Lite Shoe

12. Vivobarefoot Primus Lite Shoe 

($130, vivobarefoot.com)

See also These Are the Sandals That Keep Traveling Yogis Happy



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