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How to teach yoga when you're the only Indian in the room

When Janika Oza became a yoga teacher in Toronto she realized that she had to make a choice: stay true to way she learned yoga growing up in a South Asian family or change to fit North American standards?

Janika Oza had to choose whether to teach yoga she learned as a child, or change it to fit Western standards

When Janika Oza became a yoga teacher in Toronto she realized that the yoga she grew practising at home was too cultural to be mass-marketed. She had to make a choice: stay true to way she learned yoga or change to fit North American standards? (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

Janika Oza remembers feeling out of place in her first North American yoga class. All the other students were mostly young, thin, well-dressed white women. And there she was, a brown girl clad in leggings and T-shirt.

What she had walked into was very different from the yoga she grew up practicing as the child of South Asian immigrants.

"It made me question the yoga that I had grown up practicing. It made me question whether that was really yoga," she said.

"The deeper I got into it the more I realized that these classes ... are something different, because this is yoga as a business."

She'd noticed that cultural symbols, like the Om symbol, were taken out of context in the studio, hung backwards and pointing in the wrong direction.

Something had been changed or repackaged in this yoga.-  Janika   Oza

The Om symbol is a Sanskrit word tied to Hinduism and other religions in India. It's considered a sacred mantra.

"It's a symbol that hangs on the wall in my family home," she said. "That was the first clue that there was something different here. Something had been changed or repackaged in this yoga."

Growing up yoga always felt like a safe, comfortable space for Janika Oza. (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

It was a stark contrast from the yoga she grew up with, which she fondly remembers as feeling comfortable and safe.

"We'd all be there cramped up beside the table, on the ground, and usually it was one aunty who'd come over leading us through the sessions and bringing a cassette tape," she said of her childhood family yoga sessions.

"It was all of us together. It was very much about being together. It felt very healing," she explained.

It felt like something I could always come back to even if it wasn't with my family. It was still part of who I was- Janika   Oza

Years later at university in Connecticut, feeling lonely from being away from family, she sought yoga out again.  

Unravelling her mat on a small strip of floor between her closet and the wall in her tiny dorm room, she realized that the comforting, healing feeling of yoga was ingrained in her.

"It felt like something I could always come back to even if it wasn't with my family. It was still part of who I was," she said.

It was comparatively jarring to see things done so differently in North American yoga studios.

Teaching yoga

"I didn't feel comfortable. I would feel self-conscious being there," she said of one studio in Toronto where she used to work.

Often she was the only person of colour in the room. The focus on physical activity over meditation didn't sit well with her, either.

Once, Oza chose to not end her class with saying "namaste." She couldn't understand why so many yoga classes ended with the greeting. According to Oza, it's a formal way of saying hello.

"At the end of a yoga class to have a teacher put their hands together, saying namaste and bowing, and all of the students recite it back and bow back … is a really strange experience."

Some of her students complained.

"For the most part some people don't know what that means and I don't think they know why they're saying it. And that is a re-colonization — feeling like an outsider in your own space," she explained.

Janika works at a different studio now where she doesn't feel as conflicted anymore. "I was in this culture of yoga that was exclusive and elitist." (Arman Aghbali/CBC)

"There were times when it was actually really draining to teach that class. To feel like I wasn't really being true to myself or to what I really wanted to be teaching."

Today, she works at a physician-led wellness clinic.

"One thing about the classes here is that they are accessible," she said.

Several of the practitioners at her current studio have a chronic illness or suffer from mental health issues, which a more fitness-focused studio, like the ones she was previously at, might not be able to accommodate. 

When Janika Oza became a yoga teacher in Toronto she realized that she had to make a choice: stay true to way she learned yoga growing up in a South Asian family or change to fit North American standards? 7:50

Her classes are slower, and focused on practiced movements and breathing.

She tells her students to go as far as they can, assuring them that it's okay if they can't do the full stretch today — there's always the next session.

"I was in this culture of yoga that was exclusive and elitist and not always willing to do the work to think about where this practice had come from in a way that was respectful.

All of those feelings of frustration and confusion was really valid."

Written by Bria John. This segment was produced by Arman Aghbali.​

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