Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

© Jorge Royan

Jama Masjid, Delhi, India

The Quiet Indian

American Yoga, India, and the New Orientalism

Wednesday, December 25, 2013
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Sometimes I think we are all turning Indian.

Jennifer, Aluna, and a girl from Iowa who calls herself Indra, as well as myself, are getting ready for a yoga class. We tend to hunt enlightenment in packs, as if it were dangerous to meditate alone. The women are fussing over their hair and makeup. Jennifer looks stunning in bright-red Agni bracelets from Lulu Dharma, a silky looking sports bra by Jala, a mala necklace by One-O-Eight Malas, an off-shoulder blouse (strategically exposing her tantra tattoo) by Be UP, with matching pants by SoLo — all worth a few bills. Her two sister yoginis are similarly feathered and preened. As we all pile into the SUV, the girls begin quibbling about the flavor of the devotional atmosphere: Jen wants to put on Deva Premal, while Aluna insists on a chanted version of the Bhagavad Gita, often called India’s bible. Indra takes advantage of the standoff to dial in her selection: devotional songs by Krishna Das, and soon all three of these American yoginis have joined in vociferously.

My friend Sandhya, visiting from India, is tagging along. Silent all the while, she is dressed in a pair of faded boxer-style gym trunks from her Gitanjali High days in Bangalore and a frayed Pink Floyd T-shirt. She is so attired because she has never swum in the ocean and wants to take the plunge immediately after yoga. Also, she does not own a swimsuit. As the threesome launches into the devotional songs, she looks on — wide-eyed.

During class, the American yoginis and I slip into poses that have become second nature to us, while Sandhya strains, pants, and puffs. After class, the yoginis kiss Sandhya good-bye and thank her for all the bliss that Mother India has brought them. Sandhya, all smiles, but with a kink in her neck, thanks them for their kindness.

As we drive to the beach, Sandhya, a bright young woman from a devout Brahmin family, confides that she was not really able to recognize, in all the Indo-centric activity of the yoga class, much of her day-to-day life and concerns in India. She adds that she is skeptical of the Bhagavad Gita because of its emphasis on doing one’s allotted duty unquestioningly, even if it means, as a soldier, killing.

At the beach, I introduce her to the waves. She wades in hesitantly, but then up to her neck — goose bumps mushrooming on her skin. As she bobs up and down in the swells for the first time in her life, her gym shorts and T-shirt ballooning out, a smile spreads across her face, and her eyes fill with the light of a thousand suns.

At home, we cook up a curry for lunch, and then she sits down at the computer. And this is when I learn why Sandhya knows almost nothing of hatha yoga. As a graduate student in Bangalore, she has had little time. She has been too busy studying, having placed 27th academically, in a field of 150,000 scholars. And she is too busy helping her countrymen. Once in a blue moon she will take a 30-minute vacation, which she feels are the most beautiful moments of her life — riding on her bike through the garbage-littered streets of Bangalore to take in what in her eyes is a supremely enrapturing scene: a massive flock of pigeons alighting from the dome of a mosque into an orange-red-blue sunset.

Association for India's Development
Click to enlarge photo

Association for India’s Development

In her day-to-day life, Sandhya spends any extra minutes she has volunteering for AID (Association for India’s Development), a grassroots organization devoted to disaster relief, education, women’s rights, the battle against GMOs, and many more chronic issues. Usually serene or bubbling with joy, when she speaks of the indignities those in her Motherland have suffered — Bhopal, the floods, Monsanto’s GMO schemes on Indian farmers, the endless indignities Indian women face daily — her eyes flash and her midnight of hair builds like a storm cloud into a flying mass of turbulent energy.

As she sits at the computer, she brings up images of immense suffering in the wake of the recent floods: the worst in India’s history: over 100,000 dead; thousands missing; massive erosion; landslides destroying entire towns, shattering families, and annihilating their means of livelihood in entire regions. I cannot hold back my tears.

At the beach, she had been impressed that, off the top of my head, I knew the Sanskrit word for ocean: samudra. I should. I was arduously schooled in Sanskrit and Indian religious systems at UCSB, which houses one of the finest Religious Studies departments in the world. But seeing these images of India’s suffering and Sandhya’s one-pointed devotion to solving it, I feel that my yogini friends and I, with all our fascination for Mother India, are somehow missing the point: We can chant devotional songs for days, we can recite verses from the great poem that forms India’s greatest scripture, we can all perform Downward Facing Dog and a host of other pretzel-like poses, but can we perform Outward Facing Human — or merely Human Facing Fellow Humans’ Needs?

Sandhya confides that she sees little in our behavior that pertains to the unavoidable existential urgencies of her life and those of her countrymen. As I view the images of devastation, I feel that in the presence of my diminutive friend, whose smile veils a deep seriousness, that I am in the presence of something like an Indic Walt Whitman: “Have you felt proud to get at the meaning of a poem?” the bard asked.

There is a reason why, in all our fascination with India, we remain somewhat blind. After all, as Edward Said pointed out in his groundbreaking book Orientalism, the West has long been in the business of producing images of the East that tend to serve the West’s own interests and needs. Meanwhile, we remain blithely ignorant of its current microcultures and peoples.

Many have journeyed East, whether to the hills of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, or the ashrams of Rishikesh, where the gaze of Western yogis seeking instruction has called forth a commercialized bazaar of yoga and meditation classes. Talking with Westerners in Varanasi on the banks of the holy Ganges River, anthropologist Mary Korpela found that most thought themselves more spiritual and less material than other Westerners and Indians alike. In her interviews, Korpela found that the self, and not India or Indians, was at the center of these seekers’ quests. Like Jennifer, Aluna, Indra, and myself, these lifestyle migrants failed to really connect with the land that gave them the spirituality they traveled there to find.

We all want to be good human beings. However, whereas many Americans in “turning Indian” have embraced the mysticism of the East, I was struck by how Sandhya and her countrymen have quietly embraced a humanism and humanitarianism formerly associated with the West.

Some 20 million Americans practice hatha yoga. If each of us pitched in just one dollar a month, three cents a day, we could make a huge dent in many of India’s problems.

Chennai, India
Click to enlarge photo


Chennai, India

How to Get Involved

There are two ways to become involved in serving those in India: nonreligious organizations and religious ones.

One of the most effective nonreligious organizations — the Association for India’s Development — is made up largely of Indian professionals living in the U.S. who donate their time and other resources to structuring, implementing, and volunteering for programs in India. AID promotes sustainable, equitable, and just development; supports grassroots organizations in India; and initiates efforts in interconnected spheres such as agriculture, energy, education, health, livelihoods, natural resources (including land and water), women’s empowerment, and social justice.

In many ways, life in India seems defined by struggle: the struggle to own arable land, to keep seeds when Monsanto dominates farming, to get mental and physical health care, to avoid sexual violence, to obtain an education, to have reliable electricity, to recover from natural disasters. The statistics are dismaying. For instance, most families in rural India are landless, and a majority of these sustain themselves by laboring on other people’s farms. Workers are paid a pittance ($1–$1.50 a day for men and about 50-75 percent of that for women) and find jobs about 100 days of the year. For women, the literacy rate is 20 percent lower than men’s, a rape occurs every 34 minutes, and crimes against women went up 150 percent between 1993-2000.

AID is dedicated to partnering with people and groups to understand these myriad problems, come up with solutions, and support training, workers, and organizing in these fields. And the group has been effective. Since 1997, AID’s Eureka Child initiative has focused on innovative teaching techniques for science, math, and reading based on extensive work with school children and field experimentation. When the government of Tamil Nadu requested AID training for its teachers in 2006, after an amazing response from children and teachers that reached 450,000, reading skills improved by 30 percent.

Nandini Goel, a child prodigy at computers, has begun a small-scale, grassroots project in Delhi, India — a computer school for girls from impoverished families. Nandini volunteers all her spare time to meditation and to instructing girls less fortunate then her. See Educate My Girl here.

Many spiritual leaders see selfless service as a spiritual path.

Mata Amritanandamayi, popularly known as Amma, supports charitable work to alleviate the burden of the world’s poor by meeting their five basic needs — food, shelter, education, health care, and livelihood — wherever and whenever possible.

The late saint Sai Baba’s organization performs Annadan (feed the hungry) service in India on the last Thursday of the month. also partners with Food Banks across the U.S. in their mutual fight against hunger.

Vanessa Stone’s Amala Foundation, in partnership with the Bhatti Mines School in New Delhi, India, has offered 200 children an alternative to child labor, a way out of extreme poverty, hope for the future, and the freedom to thrive.

Meher Baba saw selfless service as the spiritual path. As a college youth walking home from school, he chanced upon an aged Muslim saint living beside the road under a neem tree. She beckoned the boy over, and when he leaned down, she kissed him on the forehead. Immediately, he became absorbed in transcendental bliss, losing all awareness of mind and body for months. His parents consulted with various doctors and spiritual teachers, none of whom was able to help him, until they dragged him to the abode of Neem Karoli Baba. When the saint witnessed the boy approaching, he picked up a nearby stone and hurled it at the young man’s forehead. With that blow, Meher Baba regained awareness of mind and body. Eschewing meditation and other spiritual practices, he would advise his students simply to compassionately serve those in need.

Perhaps upon awakening spiritually, it is natural to become an Outward Facing Human.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

thoughtful and persuasive article, Jim, thank you. I also know plenty of India-philes who pile into the healthy and positive hatha yoga classes offered all over our town, and I try to keep up with my asanas as well.
Sure, with hot yoga and all that garbage, the essence of this great spiritual tradition is pretty tarnished in USA and here in SB. At the same time, can't fully agree with your comment, "Sandhya, a bright young woman from a devout Brahmin family, confides that she was not really able recognize, in all the Indo-centric activity of the yoga class, much of her day-to-day life and concerns in India." Yoga -- NOT pilates -- is a centering activity, both physical and spiritual, and certainly need not be connected to "concerns in India". What about thinking globally but working locally: plenty of poverty and needs to be met right here in SB.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 25, 2013 at 6:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Good for Sandhya being skeptical of the Bhagavad Gita.

The poverty in India is sickening. The hindu belief system that created the caste system is at the root of their poverty.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
December 25, 2013 at 10:21 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I think it is much more complex than you imply, Georgy. The varnas came in with the pre-Hindu so-called Aryans, and cannot be completely attached to Hinduism. Gandhi hated the caste system and did much to alleviate the situation for dalits. Yes, "the poverty in India is sickening", but it's quite a stretch to then blame the caste system as "at the root of their poverty" -- too simplistic, & I suspect you know that. A textbook I use with students emphasizes how rotten the caste system is today, but also indicates some reasons it came about in the first perhaps 1500 BCE. It is possible it originated as a less awful class + system, but ossified and became much worse under the British.Try:

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 26, 2013 at 10:46 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Very enjoyable read.

One of my recently from India co-workers had a beach experience similar to Sandhya's when we took him for his first ocean kayaking session. I suspect he'd never been in the ocean before. When he showed up, he had on all cotton clothes. During the beach launch, he got completely soaked and stayed that way the entire time. Still, he was a trooper and we all had a great time.

More to the heart of the matter, I recently watched Rick Steve's fascinating lecture on the making of his Iran documentary:

and recall Steve's comparative observation that here in America, consumerism is almost a religion (e.g. all the expensive Yoga coutures the author mentions).

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
December 26, 2013 at 12:50 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Good article.

vijay (anonymous profile)
December 26, 2013 at 3:50 p.m. (Suggest removal)

agree with you, EB, when stating "consumerism is almost a religion" -- and the term "yoga" has been debased and it's mostly become yet another business, not much different from pilates. William J. Broad's recent book on yoga blew the whistle on this capitalized-debased manipulation of an ancient and honorable stretching/preparation for sitting [asana] system of physical postures (hatha yoga). The Bikram "hot yoga" BS is an example, and their anti-yoga World Series of yoga. Competition is anathema in real yoga.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 26, 2013 at 4:55 p.m. (Suggest removal)

There is no question that many of us share the unhappiness that is reflected in Sandhya's comments about the unfortunate conditions of millions of Indians. However, we are totally persuaded that "yes, we can make a significant difference" if enough of us come forth and not only provide help to those who are less fortunate than us but also make every effort to get the elites in India to appreciate that their life styles are possible only because of the incredible labor of those who end up getting none of the advantages of so-called development.

DrMBA (anonymous profile)
December 27, 2013 at 3:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Links between contemporary American-style postural yoga and India and other developing nations are more numerous than meet the eye. After all, most commonly worn "yoga outfits" at yoga classes in the United States are made by lululemon, a company that has manufactured their apparel in sweatshops in developing nations where there have been allegations of forced child labor and appalling working conditions. Some Americans will spend $15,000 on such apparel in a year.

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
December 28, 2013 at 2:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Beautiful article. Thank you so much for appreciating the work of Association for India's Development (AID). I volunteer for the organization, but it's the wonderful people like Sandhya that keep me encouraged to contribute my tiny bit.

shilpasingla83 (anonymous profile)
December 28, 2013 at 11:49 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This is a beautiful article! Very Thoughtful and here is my opinion today.
Yoga and meditation is one attempt of a yogi to connect with life beyond himself.
I have always felt connected while meditating and performing yoga, to something which is outside my body.
It has always provided me a thread connection with someone else outside my body.
Here I see Educated and Enlightened People getting influenced by Yoga and Meditation (and They enjoy life with no boundaries to their happiness):
When I see someone fascinated by Meditation/Yoga. I tell myself isn't it the same way when I get fascinated by beautiful fragrance of a flower, I get fascinated by its color, its texture(its feel) And someday I want to name my loved one by the name of that flower which fascinated me. I can do that as I can understand the fragrance and beauty of that flower.

Many Indians cannot practice Yoga as they fascinated/involved other means to earn their living, and so Yoga and Meditation are shifting their base to more educated and enlightened society.
For a Hindu, it is difficult to be a yogi today.

I asked my father for the reason and he told me a story, by which he could easily explain me the reason. (Well I know it was a story that he cooked at the very moment.) His story starts with a family of 5 brothers who lived happily in the old city of Haridwar.

This was a beautiful Hindu family, having its roots and belief in the logic of Vedas. They lived a humble but a peaceful life. All 5 brothers got married and had kids. They all worked hard in the field.

The life was hard but again peaceful. One day the youngest brother met a trader who was involved in trading of some items. Slowly, he started working with him and made more and quick money than what the entire family made while working in the field.

As he became rich, he started criticizing and influencing other brothers and slowly other three brothers followed him. But the eldest didnot leave the holy path and his practice. But the children and wife of the eldest brother didn't approve it. He was still firm and didn't leave the path

Well when he died his son joined his Uncle's path.

Now in the age of lust and greed it is very difficult to live a life of a good yogi. Where one desires and his provider finds it incapable of providing him.

So somewhere we need to help this unfortunate person(and in my opinion this is what this article is all about), who couldn't resist to his temptations and kept ignoring the blissful life existing around him.

We who believe in Yoga/Meditation finds our duty in helping these ignorant souls that all these things were possible with the high conscience state of mind.

It is very true and as said over the period of time: One can only be a true yogi and enjoy the path of meditation once he is no more a voluptuous.

(Rest in Next)

NandiniGoel (anonymous profile)
December 28, 2013 at 11:58 p.m. (Suggest removal)

(Starting from Where I left )( Owing to word limitation)

Maybe, this is my way of promoting a healthy way of human living by providing what one can desire and which can result in his losing the path of true happiness(Road not taken by Robert Frost)

I have more to say about this beautiful article but maybe some other time.

I love you, Mr. James Powell for this thoughtful article.

NandiniGoel (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at midnight (Suggest removal)

DrDan: A good read is "India, a history" by John Keay.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at 12:18 a.m. (Suggest removal)

thanx BC, I'll try it, and Jeffrey Paine's FATHER INDIA is also excellent. @NandiniGoel, wonderful comments, yet I differ from you because I don't think "Yoga and Meditation" in the West should be a religion, but rather, these are quite simply and profoundly PRACTICES. That is all.
When you write, "We who believe in Yoga/Meditation finds [sic] our duty in helping these ignorant souls" I respectfully note that this feels highly religious and superior to me. How is this different from a certain sort of so-called Christian who reaches down to help others who s/he believes isn't yet saved, and in fact NEEDS to be saved. Keep up your important and helping-others sadhana.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at 8:04 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dear Dr Dan (Sir) I agree that all religion teaches the same. I no way meant that Yoga/Meditation are some religion. Definitely they are only Practices and no one should ever confuse them with religion. Practice of Yoga and Meditation can always be incorporated with practice of every religion.

Sir ~ Yoga /Meditation are lifestyle and if you will see in the story that I mentioned in my opinion , clearly states that the brother opted for a different lifestyle and influenced the other brother.

**Sir we will loose direction if we( the people who believe in Yoga & Meditation) ever relate it to some religion. (Period)**

Ignorant Souls only refer to people who ( are only running for their greed & Desire in the name of success) it can never be religious.

I only want people to think that when people relate Yoga & Meditation & India ,they say that even in India they don't find Indians practicing it so than I try to explain the reason( which is for first the fact is that Yoga & meditation is perceived with some religion but than i try to explain that it is just a practice and today it is practiced by the people who are more educated and enlightened (((especially people in America from all religions))) than the people whose society((( here I am referring to Hindus which is a general perception among people who don't know much about Yoga/meditation)))is considered to be related to ( yoga/meditation).

Sir (with my due regards) one thing I would like to share that I like Mr James Powell's point where he refers about Indian Poverty , I believe it is always good to help people we see in Need. If we see people in need in America or Japan we should help them.
Let us also start working for people in need in America simultaneously, I would request you that I am standing with you to help my brothers and sisters in Need in America.
Let you and all of us start a new initiative which will Help people in need in America. I request you to head this program and I will assist you in my full capacity that I can do with my honest Heart, this is my promise to you today.

So now we can have two programs, one for India and other for America. By Gods Grace we will be able to help more people in need.

NandiniGoel (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at 11:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I am not sure what purpose it serves to bat around terms in conversations wherein the terms are not defined and agreed on. If you take all the Religious Studies professors in the world and place them in an hermetically sealed compartment for eternity, they will never be able to agree on any one definition of the word "religion." So, unless those engaged in a conversation agree precisely on what a religion is, conversations of whether x, y, or z, is a religion serve no productive purpose. Some of those professors of Religious Studies argue that any religion worthy of the name must entail a relationship with a "higher being" or beings. If that is the case, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, does include the word Ishvara (Lord, God), so on that basis, said professors might agree among themselves that yoga is religious. This is especially true if the professors happen to be, for instance, sympathetic to fundamentalist Christian fears of yoga "corrupting the minds of our youth." If such professors were asked to offer a their opinions in a legal proceeding, for example, where fundamentalist Christians were attempting to bar yoga from being taught in public schools, they might, depending on the intelligence and theological persuasions of the court, prevail.

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at 1:18 p.m. (Suggest removal)

And, Nandini, keep focused on your compassionate service, by whatever name.

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
December 29, 2013 at 2:13 p.m. (Suggest removal)

yes, in Escondido public schools "yoga" (hatha) has been accepted as part of physical activities and satisfies a requirement. Is this good? Then it is simply like pilates? a mere way to get fit?
moonsadhu, we read about Christian yoga, Jewish yoga, Buddhist yoga, etc., ... it seems that some of the "religious leaders" in wanting to be trendy associate the hatha asanas practice with THEIR religion... this still doesn't make yoga "religious", and the association of Isvara with yoga in Patanjali's early book [2nd century CE] doesn't make yoga necessarily "Hindu". Patanjali's book in the Sw. Prabhavananda/Isherwood translation is nicely called "Mind Control".

DrDan (anonymous profile)
January 1, 2014 at 6:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

tsune yori mo
kyô no kasumi zo
aware naru
takigi tsukinishi
keburi to omoeba

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
January 2, 2014 at 10:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)


Thanks for sharing these observations and thoughts. Your reflections are interesting and valuable.

It was also nice to note your reference to Meher Baba in the article's concluding passage, giving a thumbnail sketch of his experience of God-Realization (at the hands of Hazrat Babajan, the Sufi Perfect Master in Pune [then called Poona]) and subsequent experiences, work, and teachings.

Here now an extended footnote, if I may, pointing out (FYI) one factual correction. The great Hindu Sadguru who threw a stone at Meher Baba (which, Meher Baba later explained, helped him to re-connect with physical consciousness, since at the time he was still absorbed in God-consciousness and barely aware of the physical body) was actually not Neem Karoli Baba (who was I believe a younger contemporary of Meher Baba's, and who died in 1973). I know Neem Karoli Baba was aware of Meher Baba and I understand he respected Meher Baba; but I don't really know if these two figures had any direct contact. (Of course, Ram Dass [aka Richard Alpert] was a kind of link between the two, since Ram Dass had corresponded with Meher Baba and was also a student of Neem Karoli Baba's.)

The Sadguru with whom Merwan S. Irani (late called Meher Baba) met in 1914 -- initially with that legendary but very real throw of a stone -- and at whose ashram young Merwan subsequently lived for several years (till 1921), was actually Sadguru Upasni Maharaj (also sometimes called Upasni Baba).

Upasni Maharaj (1870-1941) was senior to Meher Baba (1894-1969). Upasni Maharaj was also a very close disciple of the famous Sai Baba of Shirdi (whom Meher Baba also met, just prior to going to meet Sai's disciple Upasni Maharaj; Sai Baba of Shirdi passed away in 1918).

So in short, it was Upasni Maharaj, rather than Neem Karoli Baba, who hurled the stone at Meher Baba, and who subsequently served as Meher Baba's own guru for a period of about six years. Although Meher Baba was already God-Realized when he encountered Upasni Maharaj, Meher Baba has explained that Upasni (a Perfect Master of that era) served a crucial role in helping young Merwan to integrate the elevated state of God-consciousness with normal human consciousness and awareness of his physical body and the physical world once again. In Meher Baba's teachings, this further integration (subsequent to God-Realization) comprises the state of "Perfection" -- for he can then not only experience the infinity of God, but can also be of service to those in the world.

Congratulations again on the good article, and thanks for the useful pointers to good charitable organizations doing valuable work in contemporary India.


ps: There is a good Wikipedia entry about Upasni Maharaj --

And the Wikipedia entry Meher Babas is also rather good --

DavidRaphaelIsrael (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 2:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sie haben in ein anderen Sprache geschrieben, moonsadhu, how rude of you.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 2:39 p.m. (Suggest removal) _einer_ anderen Sprache, nicht wahr?
Looks like a poem in classical Japanese, but it's been way too many years for that one. Would be nice to see the translation and/or the kanji.

zappa (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 5:01 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Musik is die echte weltsprache.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 7:46 p.m. (Suggest removal)

it hurts
that what I mistook
for today’s spring mist
is just the smoke of wood
that has been
consumed by the fire
—Former Preceptor Keisen

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 8:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

ah, indeed, music is the true world-language, and I wrote "you've written in another language" to moonsadhu, but perhaps s/he translates it above...

DrDan (anonymous profile)
January 3, 2014 at 9:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Pigeons, Bangalore, Deutschland

moonsadhu (anonymous profile)
January 18, 2014 at 10:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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