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Chai tea, turmeric latte & ‘scientific’ pranayam: Indians rage at America’s disrespect

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Pranayam is a yogic practice that involves controlled breathing to calm one’s mind. A US science magazine says the same of a technique called ‘cardiac-coherence breathing’.

New Delhi: Is pranayam the new ‘Turmeric Latte’? Indians on Twitter believe it well might be.

Much like haldi doodh, a staple of the Indian kitchen for generations, was repackaged and sold to the west with a fancy name, a popular American science magazine has been accused of appropriating the centuries-old yogic practice of pranayam and peddling it as a technique called “cardiac-coherence breathing”.

Pranayam is a practice where people are encouraged to breathe in a controlled manner in order to calm the mind. There are different types, including one where you inhale for a few seconds and then exhale for the same amount of time.

An article, titled ‘Proper Breathing Brings Better Health’, published 15 January in Scientific American offers a similar definition for cardiac-coherence breathing.

Talking about breathing techniques, writer Christophe André takes “a close look at one popular technique — cardiac coherence” which “offers more detail about the ways that breathing exercises promote relaxation”.

A typical cardiac-coherence exercise is described as involving “inhaling for five seconds, then exhaling for the same amount of time”, while some forms also focus on exhaling for longer than one inhales.

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Scientific American tweeted the article with a featured image that showed a Caucasian man holding one nostril closed while breathing deeply. His hand is folded in the way typical of another pranayam practice, alternate breathing, while the accompanying snippet extols cardiac-coherence breathing.

Incensed Indians soon took to social media, slamming the journal for “shamelessly appropriating yoga in the name of science”.

Scientific American, however, justified the article. In a written response to
ThePrint, the journal said the article “attributes the ancient practice of controlled breathing exercises at the beginning of the story”.

It does indeed. At the very start, the article mentions the emphasis on controlled breathing in ancient cultures, like Chinese, Indian and even Greek, and goes on to state that “pranayama (breath retention) yoga was the first doctrine to build a theory around respiratory control”.

However, it wasn’t a lack of attribution that had Indians seething. It was the fact that the technique described as cardiac-coherence breathing seemed to be exactly the same as pranayam.

Among the sea of criticism for the article was a tweet by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who said the magazine had “dressed up” the “2500-year-old Indian technique of pranayama… in 21st c. scientific language”.

Speaking to ThePrint, yoga instructor Priyanka Gupta said cardiac coherence and pranayam “are absolutely the same thing”.

“I think the West gave it a name that is a little more digestible than pranayam,” she added. “This seems to be semantics, as the western culture is more comfortable with scientific terminology, whereas the word pranayam or yoga tends to have mystical associations that make the western world uncomfortable.”

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‘Chai Tea’, Turmeric Lattes, Beer yoga

The question of cultural appropriation, however, is not a new one. Celebrities like Beyoncé and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as many high-profile chefs and food influencers in the West, stumbled upon the health benefits of turmeric (what Indians know as haldi) as recently as 2015.

Google searches for turmeric doubled in November that year, making it “one of the top trending foods on the internet”, Today reports.

A beverage known as ‘Turmeric Latte’, basically, haldi doodh, soon went viral, and is sold in cafes across the world — San Franciso, Sydney, Berlin and London — for as much as $4.5 (close to Rs 300 at the 2015 exchange rate) a glass.

Similarly, American Brook Eddy made a reported $35 million dollar selling ‘Bhakti‘ tea a few years after she visited India in 2002. When Inc. profiled the entrepreneur, they tweeted a link to the article with the caption: “On a whim, this hippie founder packed her bags for India. Now, she’s made $35 million selling chai tea (sic).”

Indians weren’t pleased then either.

Superna Chopra, a yoga teacher, told ThePrint that in terms of cultural appropriation “the sanctity of yoga cultures and traditions has been repeatedly compromised and corrupted a lot in the west”.

“They do anything to market it and make it look more exotic, but a lot of it is very superficial,” she added.

“Beer yoga, for example, is cultural appropriation,” Gupta added, referring to a form of yoga where practitioners are encouraged to drink beer while performing the asanas.

“The moment we disrespect yoga and add elements that take away from its essence, such as the stillness and the spiritual aspect of ahimsa etc which are part of the eight limbs, then we are in danger of appropriating it.”

However, for Chopra, the Scientific American article is “not lifting, because their approach is attempting to be more scientific”.

“It’s pretty logical what they’re saying in terms of the link between breathing and the nervous system,” she added.

(With inputs from Simrin Sirur)

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  1. Let them do what they like as our ancient system would stand strong and don’t bring BJP or any other political party into this. Much before BJP or Modi it waswell known less publicity seeking Yoga like late BKSIyengar and others have spread yoga and pranayama internationally.

  2. Why the outrage? This is what happens when you don’t respect your own heritage! If by chance the BJP Govt had made yoga and pranayam compulsory at schools, the entire secular establishment including many at your paper would be up in arms. Respect your heritage, your culture, your ethos otherwise the others will appropriate it and give you nothing in return.

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