Yoga teacher Arundhati Baitmangalkar on reclaiming South Asian health practices

Yoga teacher Arundhati Baitmangalkar on reclaiming South Asian health practices

March 24, 2021

Envisioning an inclusive, BIPOC-led future for yoga in America.

By Tanashya Batra, Contributor 

I’ve loved doing yoga since I was 10 years old. My parents have always done yoga together, and I was taught at a young age to channel my anxious energy into yoga. The breath work helps calm me down, while the asanas are great as a workout if you go fast enough. Yoga is also super versatile — you can go fast or slow and even add weights. Over the last decade though, 

I’ve seen yoga turn from my personal haven to the world’s new obsession. 

There’s a yoga studio on every corner of affluent neighborhoods and cities in the US. Yoga originates from South Asia, yet I never see BIPOC or South Asian yoga teachers on Youtube or in a studio. Over quarantine, my mom and I constantly ridiculed all the yoga workouts we found online because it was almost always white teachers and their mispronunciations of asanas and sprinkling of Namaste in every few lines. 

I did some digging over the internet and came across Aham Yoga, run by Arundhati Baitmangalkar. Arundhati is an Indian immigrant yoga teacher, host of the Let’s Talk Yoga podcast, yoga studio business owner, blogger, and ex-Bollywood dancer. With over 14 years of teaching experience, Arundhati was named as one of the top 20 People of Color yoga teachers to watch out for in 2020. She strives to lead the way for fellow South Asian yoga teachers and works toward making yoga accessible for all.

Q1. When did you start doing yoga? 

A: I grew up in India and actually never did yoga until I was 24 years old. I look back and realize that the philosophy of yoga was definitely a part of my life. I was a dancer with Shiamak Davar Dance Academy for about six years and was very passionate about movement and fitness. As my personal definition of fitness evolved, I realized I loved teaching and didn’t know what came after dance. A fellow dancer suggested going to a yoga class, and I haven’t looked back since. 

Arundhati Baitmangalkar stretching
photo credit: Lauren Mitchell Photos

Q2. What are your views on teaching yoga?

A: I’ve never been a very religious person and consider myself more spiritual than religious. I consider teaching to be my spirituality. 

No matter what is going on in my life, I am always at peace when I’m teaching. 

It’s something I look forward to and where I feel most at home. I see it this way: There are yoga teachers who teach yoga, because they’re passionate about yoga — and then there’s yoga teachers who teach, because they’re passionate about teaching. I fall into the latter category. 

Arundhati Baitmangalkar teaching yoga
photo credit: Aham Yoga

Q3: What is your perspective of how yoga is marketed in America? 

A: I don’t think it represents the people living in the country, they only show white people, mostly white women who are relatively affluent and wearing Lululemon pants and have perfect bodies and poses. They often use gymnasts and dancers in ad campaigns to make sure they’re nailing the poses, It sends the wrong message to anyone looking at the ads, it leaves the BIPOC community completely out of the pictures. We need to move past the smoothie drinking white women they advertise. To give you an example, Lulu Lemon’s slogan “This is Yoga,” so according to them, yoga is spending hundreds of dollars on yoga pants and trying to achieve a perfect twist and body which doesn’t exist. 

Q4: What are the demographics of your yoga classes?

A: My classes tend to be a lot more diverse than most yoga studios, since I’m the only Desi-owned yoga studio in the area. My studio is in a heavily South Asian suburb and a lot of these South Asian people feel a lot more comfortable around a South Asian instructor. A lot of South Asians feel more comfortable doing yoga with me since they don’t need to learn the philosophy since a lot of them grew up with the philosophy of yoga but need strong asana practice which I can provide. 

Q5. How does it feel to be a South Asian yoga teacher especially when so many yoga instructors are white? How do you find community? 

A: I didn’t find a community for the longest time, I tried going to a few yoga studios in the area but I never felt like I resonated with the instructor or the attendees so I eventually stopped going and kept practicing on my own. I think one of the reasons I invested so heavily in Aham Yoga is because 

I was looking to create community and make meaningful connections. 

I now host teacher training workshops at Aham Yoga and help other teachers start their yoga journeys. On the other hand, in the last year since my podcast launched, I have met a lot more South Asian and BIPOC yoga teachers and found an amazing community online through Instagram. 

Arundhati Baitmangalkar teaching yoga
photo credit: Aham Yoga

Q6. What do you wish people knew about South Asia and South Asian health practices? 

A: I personally think South Asian health practices are essential in everyone’s life. Practices like yoga and Ayurveda would not have been around for centuries if they didn’t work. I think teachers play a very important role in communicating the correct facts about South Asian health practices. I believe they need to be transparent and focus on long term health practices as opposed to what’s trendy right now.

Arundhati Baitmangalkar teaching yoga
photo credit: Aham Yoga

The teacher is also the one who needs to effectively communicate the message in these practices and make it relevant to the time we live in; so, it requires understanding where the practice is from and its significance, and making it respectfully relevant to how we are living today. Playing Britney Spears while doing yoga in Lululemon yoga pants is not respecting the practice and the culture. Teachers need to honor the breath work and science behind yoga more. 

Q7: What does representation in the field of yoga mean to you? 

A: I am hopeful for the future of representation in yoga, because I think a lot about my goal through Aham Yoga, and it is to bring more people to the practice. 

Yoga has changed my life, and I want others to have the same experience. 

I strive to create a space where someone will see more South Asian and BIPOC teachers on the schedule and feel more confident and sign up for that class. I don’t want yoga to be diverse in one way but in all ways: to have more BIPOC teachers, to be more body positive, and for everyone to be comfortable no matter where they are in their yoga journey.  

Arundhati Baitmangalkar practicing yoga
photo credit: Lauren Mitchell Photos


Cover photo credit: Lauren Mitchell Photos

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