The vast majority of people in the United States have heard of, if not practiced, some form of yoga or meditation. They have spread like wildfire in our contemporary age, but Indian practitioners who migrated here in the early 1900’s introduced yoga and meditation to this country. With the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration act that fully restricted immigration from Asia, people started traveling to Asia to learn more about these practices. By the 1960’s, the same decade the Johnson-Reed act is repealed, yoga and meditation were preparing to become mainstream.
In the summer of 2013, I decided that I too wanted to bring yoga and meditation to more people. Even though yoga studios in New York City are now ubiquitous, I traveled to Mysore, India to do a teacher certification course with the goal of starting yoga programs in the public schools.
On one of my days off from the training, I took a 3 and a half hour bus ride to the nearest Tibetan settlement, Bylakuppe. India hosts most of the world’s Tibetan exile settlers, and my friend, Cassie, from the U.S. had made it her life’s work to start a Tibet Women’s soccer team. By a stroke of luck, Cassie was at Bylakuppe for a few weeks working with students at the children’s village in the settlement. Some of the teenage Tibetan players generously took us around, insisted on paying for our orange sodas in glass bottles and fried noodles as well as getting us into the Dalai Lama’s living space (which was vacant at the time). We spent a half hour or so meditating in a temple and then we all took photos for Facebook of each other meditating.
It was the most memorable day of my time in India and I was vividly reminded of it four years later when I started teaching yoga in a high school in Queens. Two of my most dedicated students, Pemba and Tsomo, had recently moved to the U.S. from India. Upon realizing they were Tibetan, I asked them where they were from, to which they responded, “the South.” I thought I would throw it out there and asked if they were from Bylakuppe, and they were, and they knew Cassie! I’m not sure who was more surprised. Thousands of years of history, thousands of miles traveled and thousands of choices made for us and by us, were converging with our meeting in a basement cafeteria in Queens.
At the end of that first club meeting we all fell into a meditation that seemed to capture our amazement in silence. As we continued the club, it became apparent to me that even as yoga and meditation provided them with an opportunity to connect with their experiences in India, their main motivation for joining was to increase their strength and flexibility to improve their hip hop dancing skills. They also like to ask me questions about the U.S. that they might be hesitant to ask in other situations (after talking about Thanksgiving, it wasn’t until everyone else left that they asked me what a turkey is). Cultural exchange is clearly a regular part of our club, but the traditions and ideas we share are not rooted in countries, but a reminder of how sometimes we actually live in a quite a small world after all.
Julia Mushalko, Lower East Side Tenement Museum educator