I started practicing yoga with old people. I was 25 and I hated exercising, but I hated my job more, and my mother told me yoga helped with stress. In my first few classes, I was bad at everything: I’d lift my left leg when the teacher said to move my right, and then I’d end up facing the opposite direction from everyone else. I sweated so much my hands wouldn’t stick to the mat, and I’d panic, afraid I’d collapse in a heap.
The people in the front row, lit up by the sun through the studio windows, were all in their 60s or 70s, wispy-haired men in tank tops and women with softly draping skin. Some were bony, and others were fat. They all knew each other, because they’d been coming to class together three or four times a week for years.
The teacher would call on them by name, give them personalized modifications based on their lower-back pain or overextended hamstrings, and chat with them about their grandchildren. None of them jumped back to chaturanga or did handstands in the middle of their vinyasas, because we didn’t do vinyasas; we just held poses for a long time.
I was amazed that standing in a shape warmed me up so much, and even more amazed that the old people were so skilled at it. Unlike me, they seemed to know what the teacher meant when she asked them to lift the arches of their feet in Warrior II. They could move themselves comfortably into pigeon. None of them ran screaming out of the room when we held goddess pose for ten breaths, as I wanted to, my thighs trembling as I tried to sink my hips toward the floor. They just kept breathing those long Darth Vader inhales and exhales, loud enough for the rest of us to hear. There were no mirrors, no one wore expensive tight pants, and all of our bodies looked different from each other’s.
I felt high after class from endorphins, and the exercise made me sleep better, so I kept showing up. I admired the old people’s smooth movements and dedication to their practice, and I hoped one day to be like them.
I was lucky to start there. I moved away, earnestly expecting the same crowd at the studio in my new town. Instead, blow-dried moms made eye contact with themselves in the mirror and left before savasana, too busy for the nap at the end. They spent more money on their leggings than I spent on jeans or boots, and they wore shirts printed with Indian-inspired elephants or Buddhas. And all of them seemed to love to chant in Sanskrit, rocking side to side with their eyes closed while a teacher played a droning music box.
In class with the old people, my teacher had told us about chakras, and I’d noticed the connection between my body’s energetic centers and my emotional life for the first time. I liked how moving meditation calmed me down. But I hadn’t come to yoga looking for a new religion.
It turns out that the almost entirely white North American yoga world loves to fight about itself. No one can define what yoga is, so everyone tries to make money from their own variety, one-upping each other with shinier studios or more enlightened workshops, the better to get those rich moms to open their wallets. Studios pay rent from teacher-training tuition, marketed toward people who want to “deepen their practice,” and churn out a glut of teachers, who must compete for a limited number of low-paying gigs after graduation. The result is a mess, far from my experience at that first studio. I saved up for a teacher training, thinking I’d earn side cash leading thoughtful and fun classes, but what I saw in my first year leading classes made me rethink the yoga universe entirely.
Absurd things happen when yoga teachers believe they’re leading a spiritual practice in addition to an exercise class. In one class, a baby-faced teacher urged us to imagine that “angels” had settled on our shoulders during savasana, an image that I’m pretty sure came from the Bible. One studio in my town is owned by a Trump supporter, which I know because he posts all about it on Facebook. I don’t want to take spiritual guidance from that guy. The freedom to spout religion also seems to encourage wild pseudoscientific health claims in class, like when a teacher told us, with complete confidence, that a pose “reversed” the aging process. After enough vinyasas, we’d all be literal teenagers again, and in a few years we’d have to crawl to the studio like babies, Benjamin Button style!
Racism dominates these spiritual teachings as well, as white teachers compete for the title of “Most Indian” to build a following, making money from a colonized people’s culture. I cringed in class as a white teacher in his early 20s affected an Indian accent. He referenced his experience as a waiter in an Indian restaurant multiple times, I guess so we’d respect his authority?
A white woman who’d taken a Sanskrit name chastised the students in my teacher training for mispronouncing it, demanding that we repeat it with her until we got it right. The way to avoid cultural appropriation in yoga, she said, was to make sure you learned as much as you could about Hindu traditions so that you could replicate them with as much accuracy as possible. In other words, the way to avoid cultural appropriation was to get really good at it.
Among a lot of yoga teachers, the idea is that unless you want a specific spiritual practice with your yogic exercise, you are disrespecting an ancient Indian tradition. If you are interested in meditation without chanting, or you teach only English names for poses, or you do yoga at a gym, then you are diluting the original practice, disgracing its originators. It’s an elitist perspective, but it benefits yoga teachers, who make more money when students seek spiritual guidance from them instead of doing sun salutations at home for free. Never mind that modern postural yoga came to the Western Hemisphere via colonization, or that no one agrees on standards for classes or even whether the Yoga Alliance, the organization that’s supposed to be setting those standards, should exist.
As a holistic form of exercise, yoga is really good for you. Besides individual sports like running or swimming, it’s the only physical activity I’ve found that includes a warm-up and a cool-down, doesn’t involve competition, and encourages kindness to yourself. The old people I first practiced with were there to get strong, maybe, and to feel better, but no one talked about burning calories or kept a scale in the studio hallway, like I saw in one studio where I taught. We were there because it felt good to move our bodies, to learn about their limits and watch them change through every practice, to work through our frustrations and the emotions that showed up when we tried a new pose.
In yoga, after years of gym teachers yelling at me and guilt over unused gym memberships, I looked forward to exercising for the first time. If I’m careful and avoid repetitive stress injuries, I can practice yoga for the rest of my life. Maybe that’s why women have flocked to yoga. It encourages them to take up space instead of trying to make their bodies disappear, a near-omnipresent risk in other group exercise classes.
It’s okay if yoga is just exercise and meditation. In fact, it would be better for us to practice it that way, shedding its religious overtones and making it more accessible to people who already have a separate spiritual life — including many black and Latinx folks, who are less likely to do yoga than white people. Maybe it’s possible to pay our respects to yoga’s Indian roots and move on, acknowledging that modern postural yoga is not a religious experience. Then we can recognize the practice for what it is right now: a great way to connect your mind with your body, build strength and flexibility, and learn to breathe. It does not have to be more than that.