Many ask me why, as a yoga practitioner of ten years, I have never been to India. I have watched my peers pilgrimage there and back, reporting of Bhakti bliss. As much as I appreciate Indian scripture and its contribution to my life, I like to belief that I can experience inner wisdom right here in Westend Frankfurt, without leaving the comfort of my home.
Curious to know if I am right, I asked my Indian friend Purna to share her views on Indian spirituality and religion. She has been living in Germany for over ten years and has pursed her yoga teacher training in Frankfurt at Yoga Vidya. She now teaches yoga in town. I found it interesting that an Indian completed her yoga teacher training in Germany. In our conversation below, she shares how German and India compare.
I am from the northwestern part of India, Gujarat. There I spent most of the last years in India in the city of Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Gujarat.
Are you Hindu? Yes, I am.
How did you experience life in this faith?
I wasn’t very religious growing up. My first impression of my faith was hearing my mother singing morning and evening Arati everyday, going to the different temples of different Gods, listening to the stories of Gods told by different family members and sometimes even watching TV series about them.
We celebrate many religious festivals in Hindu faith. Almost every month there is a festival. And all these minor or major festivals are combined with specific food items, or sometimes also a specific color to wear. As a child I used to love all the fun things associated with the religious aspect of the festivals. Social gathering is another major part of it.
So, I would say, in general, it was fun growing up in this faith. Everyone is free to have his or her own interpretation of the faith. While some follow the faith with rigidity, my family saw the spiritual aspect of it rather than the ritual part, especially my father. We were always free as children to practice in our own way. While my sisters were interested in reading the holy books like the Bhagavad Gita, I never had the urge to read it and loved to read the interpretation of one of the Upanishads. That was the only religious or spiritual book I read in India. I was never forced to read or practice the faith in a certain way, and there was no judgment about it.
How and when were you exposed to yoga in India?
Hummm, do you mean Hatha-Yoga, by Yoga, or Yoga in general?
Hatha-Yoga was probably introduced to me in school during sports lesson, but just a few very simple exercises. I started practicing Hatha-Yoga more seriously during my college years. I had discovered a book, found it interesting and started doing a few poses on the bed. My aim was just to reduce weight and look good. And then I remember, I was having fun discovering all the possibilities I had to move my body, or was just amazed what I could do with it.
Later I would practice Hatha-yoga with my neighbor friend Sonal on her terrace. Her friend was a yoga teacher, so for the first time I did Hatha yoga with proper instructions. We used to get up at 5 am, during winter-time (12-25C) and go to the terrace to practice Hatha-Yoga .
And if we speak of yoga in the broader sense – Bhakti Yoga (bhajans, Arati), Karma Yoga (helping the others who need help without expecting any reward), Jnana Yoga (reading religious books) – all these were exposed to me without me even noticing when and how. It was all around me.
When you came to Germany, what surprised you about religion and spirituality compared to your upbringing?
It was different in many ways. Also because while I was growing up, I saw religion and spirituality differently than I do now. Let me also make it clear that I do not consider myself as an expert of religion and spirituality in any way. I am just reflecting the observations and experiences I have made in the two different worlds of India and Germany.
I found that in Germany, yoga aspirants practice very sincerely. They are learning something foreign, so they want to do it right. They are very devoted to the things they have learned, I do see sometimes also the heart and soul in it. Some go more further and even change the way they dress and eat, and so try their best to get the whole experience.
The desire to “get it right” however often leads to a lack of naturalness that comes from within.
On the other hand, they value the spirituality and religion much more than many Indians do. But this is also the way the human works, we tend to disregard the treasures that are given to us and look for something new. In my opinion, many Indians know the treasures of spirituality and religion given to them, but don’t practice it consciously to remember its great value.
Having said that, my observations of religion and spirituality in India are much different. Because religion and spirituality have been intertwined with Indians life for centuries, and is therefore deeply engrained their daily life, it does not seem to be something special or different. So, I started to see our faith as something special when I returned to India after living for a long time in Germany.
India is full of contrasts and it is very difficult to generalize about Indians. While some are very rigid concerning religion, others are not at all interested in religion or spirituality. Nevertheless, for the majority of Indians, the existence of God is not questioned. It’s a truth that they do not doubt.
So, even if the new generation of Indians tends to get attracted to the Western culture and lifestyle and make the impression of losing their identity, it’s still very much in them, so deeply.
While the Germans may know more theory than some Indians, most Indians embody the practice.
What do you think are the biggest misconception that German/Western Yogis have about India, Hinduism and Yoga in India?
While I was undergoing my yoga teacher training, I was confronted with the misconceptions of Western Yogis towards India in general. It was sometimes very funny for me, because many approached me asking different questions as if I were an expert on Hinduism and Yoga. The truth is that I am just a normal Indian who became interested in her own heritage on a deeper level after leaving the country. I also learned many new things along with my German classmates. The yoga teacher program activated much that I had heard in some different way while growing up.
One thing most of my friends think and believe is that All Indians practice Hatha Yoga.
There is a large group of Indians who don’t practice Hatha-Yoga, but the side effects of the modern world is showing up there too. Many have serious heath problems. That leads to them practicing Hatha-Yoga. There are also many daily Hatha-Yoga sessions on TV, and many practice yoga in front of the TV daily. I know it sounds strange, but at least that way they practice it daily. Most of the classes are held early morning, very few evening classes.
But concerning yoga in the broader sense, I would say that all Indians practice yoga, or most of them, their own choice of the way of yoga. Bhakti yoga is seen very strongly in India, the kind of devotion beyond the reach of the understanding and explaining.
It must have been true in the old days, but today the modern medicine has taken over. There are many ayurvedic clinics around, but many tend not to use that service due to many reasons. There are very few ayurvedic doctors who have the deep knowledge of it and very few patients who want to learn about it. People just go to the ayurvedic doctors and ask for the medicines without trying to change their lifestyle. Many don’t like the limitations of diet an ayurvedic doctor asks you to practice. Taking modern medicine and getting healthy quick is what many want.
Some individuals do have the knowledge, have herbs and medicines at home and include Ayurveda and yoga in their lifestyle.
The original way of Indian cooking is very healthy, many herbs have health benefits. Luckily some of the herbs like turmeric and ginger will not disappear from daily cooking in India.
Another very popular misconception about India and Indians is that all Indians can dance and we dance and sing all the time.
Thanks to Bollywood movies, everyone thinks this way. But those movies have very less similarity to the normal life. Like many old civilizations, music and dance is a major part of our culture. But we don’t always dance and sing, nor can all Indians dance and sing.
Thank you Purna for sharing!
My take-away from this conversation – without trying to generalize for 1.3 billion people, the Indian culture embodies a deeper and more natural devotion to God. They express their faith in a very sensory manner – through vivid stories and rituals, festivals, food and color. Western cultures do not offer such an intense, emotional experience of God.
Our more technical approach to yoga in the West reflects our distance from the devotional aspect of spirituality. But does importing our favorite morsels of India’s culture and worshiping their gods and goddesses satisfy us? Should we perhaps recall our local heroes yonder years like the Germanic pre-Christian pantheon with Frigg and Wöden? Can Hildegard von Bingen and Saint Francis of Assisi lead us today? Or, is it time for us to discover that we don’t need to go anywhere but to our own heart? After standing in line behind the gods, goddesses, self-help book authors and coaches – our soul will be waiting.