Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Jayal: It’s deeper than box breathing: On the reduced history of health and wellness practices

“Let’s squeeze those glutes!”

Not one to disobey, I follow the yoga instructor’s suit, albeit less elegantly, creating my own angular, possibly avant-garde, rendition of warrior three. I am on a string of wellness classes that I spontaneously signed up for during a post spring break burst of motivation. I have thus far braved kickboxing, spin, high-intensity interval training and pilates. After subsequently obliterating my sniveling immune system, I decided it was time to rejuvenate by returning to my Indian roots.

There I was: squeezing, stretching, extending. I realized I was one of the only people of color in a room of fifty. Yoga originated in the Indian subcontinent. Its purpose is spiritual, ritualistic. It certainly has nothing to do with squeezing one’s glutes for the sake of enhancing one’s glutes.

This phenomenon — where practices from the Global South are commodified into fitness classes — has become ubiquitous in the West.

During my sophomore year at University College London, I noticed a similar trend. Health-centric parts of London such as Soho and Notting Hill seemed saturated with wellness services that borrow pieces from other cultures without understanding, so much so that Goop, all-American wellness queen Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand, penned a piece on London’s love for bien-être, or well-being.

One quote, though, sends shivers down my spine: “The wellness industry in London has found its feet—its soft, beautiful, callus-free feet—with a host of entrepreneurial women taking the lead.” The idea that to be well is to be soft-footed and beautiful typifies the misinterpretation of the practices that the wellness industry has absorbed.

At a field trip to a SoulCycle in Chicago on Sunday, I joined the “squad” in cycling to softly glowing candles. At SoulCycle, each session is concluded by chanting “namaste” in unison. This has always intrigued me. Namaste is a Sanskrit word that means “greetings,” and is now used in Nepalese languages as well as Hindi, as “hello.”

Yet, any fitness class vaguely related to South Asia inevitably sees it used to bid the attendees farewell. I suppose the West is not as far as I had thought from the years of infatuation with “Nama-stay in bed” paraphernalia.

I cannot help but naively wonder why the Western world so blatantly exoticizes cultures that it has already looted. My friend Tierrai, a political science major at the University of Toronto and fellow SoulCycle class attendee, says this is because the world has simply become comfortable with taking, stealing and profiting off of specific groups.

And then, there’s capitalism and the glossy aesthetic of wellness and productivity that it promotes. Since we are all operating in a system that tells us we have value based on how productive we are and how good our life looks, it becomes easy to pick and choose or just to pick from, like a grapevine of cultures.

The gluttony for enhancement is so urgent that we have lost our curiosity to know the origins of what we do. Myself included: It was just recently that I learned the inventor of pilates, an exercise form I have practiced regularly for years, was invented by a German man named Joseph Pilates. He developed the exercises to stay fit and mobile during his imprisonment in World War I.
These are fast times. We are fastidiously fast in fashion, fast in speech. We burn through relationships — platonic and romantic alike — through money, jobs, lives. Fast verbs are epochal: binging, ranting, spamming. In many ways, this speed has allowed us a manner of connecting with other cultures that is, when one takes pause to think about it, incredible.
But perhaps we need to slow down to recognize what it is we are doing, what practices we are claiming to be devoted to. Whose rich heritage we erase each time we say “hello” when something has ended.

Devaki Jayal is an exchange student from University College London. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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