Almost as far back as I can remember, my father practiced yoga morning and night: in our little parquet-floored apartments in Athens, on the cool polished-stone floors in Kharagpur, and in Coolidge Corner, Brookline.
He had an ancient and well-worn yoga manual from India which he had carried with him from country to country, illustrated lavishly with fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) black-and-white photographs of men with their stomachs sucked in to their backbones. (Note: the photographs here are from a newer book that has been one of my guides over the years.)
As a child I learned a few basic asanas, but mostly accepted Dad’s daily exercises as part of the routine of everyday life in our household. As a teenager I began to take a mild interest and after taking a course on Vedanta philosophy at university, learned the surya namaskar (Salute to the Sun) series of exercises and began to perform them twelve times in the morning. (I do not say every morning, because that would by no means be true. I have never managed to be regular in my practice, which has progressed in fits and starts.)
Today yoga is ubiquitous in America, and that is a very good thing. As it does in India, it offers a bewildering array of varieties and approaches. Here in the U.S. it is tailored to practitioners of every stripe: Gentle Yoga for beginners and senior citizens, Yoga Warriors for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and that oxymoron (to my mind), Power Yoga, keeping busy professionals competitive and fighting-fit. It also seems to require the purchase of a bewildering array of accessories, from mats, blankets, blocks, and straps to fashionable, form-fitting outfits designed to enhance the buff, yoga-toned body. As a now-universal practice, yoga no longer “belongs” to Indians, even if it originated on the Subcontinent. A few years ago I was eating out at a local restaurant with a group of graduate students and young faculty members, many of them Indian American, when the conversation turned to yoga. One of us, who had just had a book published on desi (South Asian) youth in America, asked around the table mock-anxiously if she was the only one who wasn’t taking yoga classes. When it turned out that she was, that even the non-South Asians at the table were standing on their heads on a regular basis, her mock-anxiety turned visibly into real dismay.
In the early 1970s, though, yoga was nearly unknown, associated vaguely in Americans’ minds with Ravi Shankar, Transcendental Meditation, and the Indian Rope Trick. For our first several years in the United States we lived in rented apartments in the comfortably middle-class neighborhood of Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is a liberal urban suburb just west of Boston with an excellent school system, which was why my father took an apartment there when my mother, sister, and I received our green cards and were able to join him. I was more than halfway through high school when we arrived, and after I had gone off to university in nearby Cambridge, my family moved to the top floor of an owner-occupied house on staid, settled Beals Street, opposite JFK’s birthplace, which was a modest house that looked no different from the others on the street. Kupel’s bakery, famous for its bagels, was at the top of the road and Devotion School, a neighborhood primary school, on the corner just a block away.
One afternoon, on my way home from university, I was surprised to find a solitary man standing on his head in Devotion playground. It turned out to be Dad, the Yogi of Beals Street, absorbed in his practice and utterly unconcerned with his environment or the perceptions of passers-by. I don’t think I disturbed him as I walked by. Thinking back on him as he was then, an immigrant to a new country in his late forties, I marvel at his confidence and courage. Perhaps practicing yoga out in the open was Dad’s way of claiming this new neighborhood as home—or, as a conversation with my yoga teacher has suggested, a way of coming home to himself wherever he might roam.