Does this Body make me look fat?

“Anime” and “Manga” are words in English. “Anime” is a style of animation that originated in Japan with full-fledged young adult/adult level story lines, very distinctive from Saturday morning cartoons of yore. Manga refers to the graphic novels or comics drawn in this particular style. Americans I know who enjoy anime and manga consider them Japanese “loan-words.” “Anime” and “manga” are also words in Japanese, with subtly, slightly different definitions than their American cousins.

Japanese consider their words American-loan words (!). Anime refers to animation. The concept of a dynamic visual medium produced from static drawings had no word in original Japanese. Manga, a Japanization of “magazine” refers to graphic novels without any self-conscious, self-referencing. I mean manga in Japanese need not refer solely to Japanese graphic novels, but in English it mos def does. Not every graphic novel is a “manga” to an American aficionado of the sub-culture.

Some of the confusion regarding “yoga” evolves around the same problem with loan words. I’m tempted to believe yoga in English means the same as it does in Sanskrit. Yet the newly minted Webster definition of “yoga” may be completely unrecognizable to a practicing “yogin.” In my classes I prefer to refer to people by their names, describing them as “students” or practitioners or even clients. While I playfully used the words “yogi” and “yogini” in my earlier website and hence in some of the earliest blogs on this one – I didn’t mean that literally. I was talking about yoga as a loan-word, like “anime” or “manga.”

I’m not going to make apologies for teaching American yoga. I am American, despite the color of my skin, I can hardly do anything else. To affect a Hindi accent, as my brother suggested, capitalizing on my Singhalese name – feels disingenuous. Irony is fun, but to build a yoga business on lying is more irony than I can digest. For the Americans who steadfastly refuse to believe there is such a thing as “American” yoga, I suggest they read yoga books written prior to 1900 in the original language and then come back for conversation with me. Just sayin’. But Kumari, you may complain, even people in India don’t practice yoga on tiger skins any more.

That’s true. That’s true but, in an interesting self-referencing loop I suggest that modern Indian yoga has been influenced by modern Western yoga. What’s wrong with that? I never have and never meant to suggest there is anything wrong with being different. Perhaps my attitude stems from all the years I lived in the South Pacific. In Hawai’i we celebrate diversity, we don’t merely tolerate it. We certainly don’t strive to ignore it. Color blind would have no meaning in a society where the majority of denizens are ethnically, culturally and racially mixed.

An Indian guru once took me to task for describing what I teach as “American” yoga. He explained “American” yoga is “not” yoga. I think he would have preferred I call what I teach yogalates, or calisthenics, or exercise – but not yoga. Isolated as it is from the multi-layered cultural history of Indian yoga. I mean I could teach hula on the mainland too, but I couldn’t place my students actually in Hawai’i, and they would never know the feeling of learning the hula in Hawai’i, where  hula is woven into the fabric of everyday assumptions. Yoga stripped of its rich literary heritage is hard to penetrate.

At this point you may be bristling with indignation, especially if you read the sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita for your 200 hour teacher training. Keep yer pants on. I’m not suggesting that reading is without merit. Reading is the most magical invention known to human kind. Through reading primary sources I time travel back to Jane Austen’s front door or explore the Russian steppes. What I am saying, if y’all will just bear with me, is that reading a few books or even visiting India does not an Indian make. It is good for me to be culturally sensitive, to attempt to see things from another view – quite another thing is it to decide I intuitively understand all the nuance and flavor and assumptions of people who are not myself.

I typically see the world as a non-raced person because there is no tribe of half-Japanese/half-Singhalese people. There are no musical genres or fabrics or tea ceremonies created by my particular blend. I’m the human equivalent of a cock-a-poo dog. Breeding one cock-a-poo to another does not a new cock-a-poo make. One must begin with a purebred poodle and a purebred cocker spaniel. While other people may say to me, “I totally understand where you are coming from Kumari, I’m half English half French myself.” I suppose they don’t. They do not totally absolutely understand where I am coming from. I have more in common with the person who replies, “I was fat all my life, I know what it is to be left out. To not have a group.”

Now do you know what I mean?

From my non-raced stand point I have no built-in allegiance to ancient original yoga. No interest in teaching siddhis to curious American students for $10 an hour. For the record, IMHO in its original language a better translation of “yoga” would be discipline. There is a yoga (i.e. discipline) of devotion in India that few Americans would recognize as “yoga,” a yoga of action (karma), a yoga of study and intellect, one of spirituality and renunciation and others. This has little to do – but not all that much – with what has sprung up in the West. What I teach helps people have better lives. That is the root from which all yoga springs. That is the origination point worth celebrating.

As Western yoga continues to reach backwards to include more meditation, more pranayama, more kirtan, more silence, there’s a seduction to confuse the two yogas. Once I’m in the thick of it, it’s harder to see the yoga for the Ashtanga. After all, once we’ve got all 8 limbs (plenty of Western practitioners are vegan, celibate, studious, etc) what’s the difference? I still say, the difference is in perspective. Please don’t interpret that as bad. There is nothing inherently bad in having a different perspective.

Let us say you and I meet a man who is 5’10”. I relate to him as “tall,” because he is much larger than me. You, at 6’4″, contend he is average male height. There’s nothing incorrect about either of our assessments. Here is a more subtle analogy. I take my 2 year old friend to an 40 minute yoga class. “It’s sooo long!” he whines, unable to stay focused. He’s bored, angry, resentful. We both spent the same amount of minutes, that is indisputable by both analog and digital clocks. But the 40 minutes for him in relation to his total life span is a terribly high percentage compared to 40 minutes in my 55 year old life.

Yoga has been in the West since the 20th century – and in India since when?

At some point the two yogas split, having parallel lives, and at another point they reintegrate. Western teachers are invited to teach in India. Indian teachers move to America. We must not get too self conscious about it, while we must be conscious of self. Does this body make me look fat? This body is an illusion – the ancient texts suggest, a compendium of subatomic particles made of the same stuff as stars, comets, trees and brooks. But if I remain aware on that level I’m going to miss my traffic light.

Now y’all play nice

Sat Nam