Most online yoga classes are triggering for me. I see white, sun-kissed women on the beach, appropriating yoga to build their following, with little regard to the culture from which it originated. I hear them mispronouncing the Sanskrit words attached to the poses. And I am reminded of how often I and other brown women like me have faded into the background.
I’ve taken quite a few classes headed up by non-Indian instructors, both online and in person. Over time, I began to notice a pattern. While I was being told to relax my mind – to inhale love and light and exhale negativity – I just kept breathing frustration, in and out, at feeling like a lone Indian. The under-representation of Indian women in an ancient field that has been ploughed by our own ancestors is ridiculous.
Where are the Indian women? One of the world’s foremost yoga apps boasts 67 instructors: 31 of them are white women. I scrolled through looking for brown, Indian women and I found one. Only one: Deepika Mehta.
Last year I watched On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace, a Netflix documentary chronicling the renowned photographer Michael O’Neill’s 10-year journey through the landscape of yoga. All of the case studies and experts featured in the one-hour-and-32-minute film are either men or white women. Apparently, a decade was not long enough to find one female Indian yoga teacher in all of India.
While I find yoga to be physically gratifying, my inability to “release any anger that clouds my mind”, due to all of the above, means that connecting with my cultural roots through yoga, while not living in India, is difficult.
So instead I’ve turned to dancing. Practising and performing Bollywood dance was a significant part of my upbringing here in Australia. My mum was my teacher. She’d practised more traditional forms of dance, namely Bharatanatyam and Kathakali, when she was growing up. But I found Bollywood dance more relatable back then, which I ended up performing at cultural festivals in Melbourne throughout the late 90s and early 2000s.
Having said that, Bollywood is a far-from-perfect industry and has its own forms of racial discrimination too. Still, for me, there is no other form of fitness that exhilarates me like dancing to a Bollywood hit, or that relaxes me as instantly as hearing a poetic Hindi ballad. And nothing makes me feel more at home in my own body than Indian music.
Lately I’ve been learning BollyFunk and BhangraFunk through online classes run by Chaya Kumar and Shivani Bhagwan of BFunk, two Indian American women who run classes in Los Angeles, and have been posting videos on YouTube for three years.
Although their choreography experiments with western styles, I still feel connected to my culture as I dance along, knowing that the two women interpret the lyrics through movement, rather than simply treating the music as a backdrop.
It brings back memories of my mum telling me to look at my hands while I danced. It reminds me to pay attention to my facial expressions. My face tells a big part of the story. I remember deciphering the words of a song with my mother – is she puzzled? Does her heart feel full? Is she accusing?
My two-year-old daughter has been joining in on my dance practice. I’m overjoyed when she asks for a specific song in Hindi and passionately thumps up and down on our floorboards as the music moves through her.
We also have a playlist of beautiful, slow Hindi songs about love, friendship and sadness that we play in the background when she accompanies me for a session of yoga.
That certainly makes it a lot more enjoyable. I do hope that learning yoga will be a more positive experience for her as she grows, if it’s something she wants to do.
But one thing is for sure – she’s bloody well going to know how to say surya namaskar and adho mukha svanasana properly.
• Ruhi Lee writes on Boon Wurrung land. You can follow her on Instagram @lee_ruhi