Yoga in America and India

Jacqueline is a rising junior Sociology and Communications Studies majors in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communications.  Her project is being funded by the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research, creating opportunities to explore independent research projects.

The Countdown Is On…

Roughly a month ago, I found myself in an Uber on my way into Chicago. I settled in and waited for the perfunctory “who are you and what are you going into the city for” questions that accompany every one of these car rides. Sure enough, five minutes into the ride, I was telling the driver that I was on my way to the Indian consulate for yet another meeting about my visa for the summer. The old man’s name was Sadegh. He had a thick Iranian accent and an intense interest in my plans to study yoga in India this summer. When I tried to explain as quickly and curtly as I could that I was planning to look into the role of religion in contemporary yoga, a very serious look came over his face. He asked me if I believed in God. When I said I did, he asked me if my God was separate from me but active, separate but detached, or if God is everything—including me. He said he had spent three years studying yoga in India when he was young and that the first thing he had to introduce to his western counterparts was this idea that everything, including yourself, is God.

This was my first experience with someone who was willing to outright support a religiously centered view of yoga. This trend holds true of nearly every book and article written about modern yoga. Religion is clearly a touchy subject in the modern yoga community. Some deny that modern yoga truly has anything to do with religion. Some even go so far as to talk about yoga as a religion unto itself!

I found my love for yoga in my freshman year at Northwestern. It began as a simple attempt to deal with the stress of my first college exams. Fast forward two years and I now have been awarded an opportunity I never thought I would. In a little under two weeks I will be starting my research into the religiosity of modern yoga. The best part? I have the opportunity to compare Indian and American expressions of the Ashtanga yoga practice.

In what way is yoga an example of cultural diffusion vs. cultural appropriation? What does religious transmission look like? Moreover, where does the line between spirituality and ritual lie in yoga? Undeniably, ancient Indian yoga has been transferred to America, but in what ways has modern Indian yoga been influenced by the rise of western practices and ideas of yoga?  These are just a few of the questions I have been thinking and reading about since January, when I first decided to apply for this grant.

Yes. I am going to India, y’all.

Two weeks. The countdown is on. In two weeks’ time I will be on a 30 hour flight to Mysore, India, the birthplace and home of Ashtanga yoga. I will be alone. I will be terrified. I am already the most excited I have been in my life.

The countdown is on, and I am ready.