LOS ANGELES—To many Americans, the thought of yoga invokes images of a group of people performing stretches in unison in the cardio room of a gym. This is exactly the idea Gita Desai set to dispel when she produced the documentary “Yoga Unveiled.”
Desai spoke to dozens of employees at the district headquarters in downtown Los Angeles May 7 as part of the district’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month activities. Desai shared some clips from her film and answered several questions from the audience.
“Deep within each individual lies a reservoir of tranquility. All and one can lay claim to this unchanging eternal bliss that is our true nature,” said the film’s narrator, Ajay Mehta, during its opening sequence. “To most practitioners in the West, yoga is merely a series of postures that offer physical benefits. This view confines the yoga experience to only what occurs on the mat.”
Yoga, which means “to join together,” is a system comprised of physical poses, meditation, and controlled breathing meant to attune the practitioner’s mind, body, and spirit. The practice is believed by scholars to predate written history and archaeological evidence discovered in the Indus Valley suggests that yoga has been in existence for as many as 5,000 years.
Yoga has been widely practiced in numerous Asian cultures for centuries. Yoga was brought to the United States in the late 1800s, and the practice became more widespread in the 1960s when it was associated with the hippie and environmentalist cultures. Yoga has since become commonplace in gymnasiums across the country, but Desai asserts that Westerners are only reaping a fraction of the true benefits yoga provides.
“The western view of yoga is physical—to do the asanas or postures and to become strong and healthy—but that is just a stepping stone in the whole vision and prescription of yoga that the sages and ancient figures left us,” Desai said. “It’s not even the half of it. It’s very necessary to work through the body because you have to become very limber and strong and devoid of toxins and impurities. But the goal is meditation because the highest goal of yoga is to realize that in each one of us is this very peaceful inner-self.”
Desai, who was born in Uganda to East Indian parents, became enthralled with yoga at the age of 40 after her father, whom she described as a “great proponent of yoga,” died. Like many others, she went to a yoga studio to get started. It wasn’t long before she felt that something was missing, and she decided to embark on the two-year journey to make the documentary. In the film, she interviews world renown yogis and medical experts and details the extensive history of yoga during its three hour run time.
Since the film was released in 2005, Desai has been invited to speak all over the world, including China and the Arctic. For Desai, making the film, which was funded by her husband and written by her son, was a labor of love. A labor of love meant to highlight the rich and lasting contributions of India to the rest of the world.
“The sages of India made it their one pointed work to research, work on themselves, and went into the caves and experimented on themselves,” Desai explained. “This is thousands of years it took to evolve. It’s universal and applicable everywhere and it is the way to find the inner-peace that will last forever. This is the gift of India because they have given something that is timeless.”
This observation is exactly what made this presentation to district employees important, said Lt. Col. Alex Deraney, the district’s deputy commander, during the presentation’s opening.
“Assimilation into American communities is an extremely powerful force and it has a way of causing us to quickly lose our family’s cultural traditions,” Deraney said. “I think these events are important because they allow us to reflect on the people we share this beautiful world with. America has an incredible geographic isolation and it causes us to lose touch with anything that isn’t ‘American.’”
In 1978, Congress passed a resolution to observe Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Week the first week of May. In 1990, Congress voted to expand the commemoration from one week to the entire month of May. In 1992, May was permanently designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.