From Paris with ‘Aum’ – an Indian discovering yoga in the West

After 3 years in Paris, one is generally expected to be dripping with the smugness that comes from being able to correctly pronounce ‘Champs Elysees’, to rattle off a dozen cheese names without a pause, to wear simple dark t-shirts costing a small fortune and if one has lived sincerely, to even smell of macarons or similar at all times.

So it was quite queer for me to return from my Parisian stint instead with a deep appreciation for yoga and spirituality, especially as I was returning to the motherland of these things — India. Leaving for France with a love of ‘haute couture’, escargot and Edit Piaf, I came back with a collection of yoga pants, a vegetarian lifestyle and vedic chants on my phone. This phenomenon should not be mistaken for someone ‘returning to their roots’ because my previous life in India incorporated none of these new-found interests nor even hinted at their future emergence.

I’m willing to consider the theory that having grown up in India, this culture was always in my sub-conscious and only took its own time to surface. However, even if I accept this, I’m not willing to let the modern day Indian culture off so easy. Scarcely anyone in my circle of family and friends in India practices yoga or meditation. For most of the young urban Indian elite, the good life appears to consist of eating good food, dressing up, going out and diligently making sure it is all recorded on social media. Of course this behaviour is in no way restricted to Indian youth, but one would hope that in the country that gave the world yoga, there would be a bit more appreciation of this great heritage (author’s note: I apologise for my ignorance if there is some type of social media ‘sadhana’ or spiritual practice, that has not made its way to my ears).

Being first generation Indian myself, I learned ‘third’ generation yoga in Paris — i.e. yoga gone from India to the US and then to Europe. You see, the first globally mobile modern Indian spiritual teachers taught yoga first to the Americans, noting of course the amazing power of America to inspire, if it so wanted, the whole world to wear torn blue trousers made from thick, coarse cloth and to drink carbonated water while feeling really chuffed about it. Sure enough, no sooner did they spot New Yorkers running to the gym with yoga mats slung over their shoulders, that Parisians and Berliners sprung into asanas themselves.

This spiritual enthusiasm has been so great that there are now new styles of yoga invented in America itself. When I asked my Jivamukti teacher in Paris where she studied the yoga form, I was hoping she would point me to some good school or teachers in India but her answer was — New York. Visiting the Whole Foods store in California recently, I was amazed to find an aisle-worth of fancy turmeric (a very basic and common spice in India) supplements and scented candles for the different ‘chakras’, with detailed descriptions of their spiritual significance. At times though, this spiritual enthusiasm does get a bit carried away on the back of pop culture, resulting in absurd things like shoes named after yoga asanas, body oil that claims to remind you of your yoga practice through the day and I kid you not, ‘kundalini’ gowns.

And so it was that I learned to chant my first mantras from a French teacher, my amusement at the incorrect pronunciation of familiar words marred by my slight embarrassment at listening to 20 French people confidently chant Sanskrit shlokas that I did not know. Laying in ‘shavasana’ at the end of the class, listening to the Ganesh and Shakti devotional songs played by the teacher, I silently thought how sad it was that this would not be easy to come across in India, a country struggling to revive its ancient traditions amid constant protests that it is foisting Hinduism on one and all or being just plain backward or unprogressive.

But perhaps it’s not that strange after all that I learnt my first asanas close to the Eiffel Tower despite living in India for over twenty years. And perhaps it’s not that sad that the book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, a treasure of the Indian yogic tradition, was recommended to me by a French jazz musician on a plane from San Francisco to Paris. Perhaps it’s also OK that it was at a dinner party in Paris that I first heard of Gandhi’s study of the bible. One feature of the globalised world is the ability of ancient traditions to carry on on foreign soils. And yoga may well be the one truly global philosophy/practice, serving to bind the world together not along potentially divisive ideological, political, economic or religious, but along basic existential lines.

So in the end, it doesn’t really bother me to learn it first as ‘chien tête en bas’ or ‘downward facing dog’; after all, an asana by any other name…