Reflections on Bikram Yoga Teacher Training: Top 5 Things I Learned About Indian Culture from Watching Bollywood Movies

3 a.m.
LaLa and I squeezed ourselves into the cramped elevator.  I no longer had the patience to wait another 5 minutes.  We stood like statues shoulder to shoulder in the tiny confined space, silent because of exhaustion but grateful for sleep to come soon.  We exited and slowly dragged our bodies back to our room as if moving through molasses.  It took every ounce of strength to stay up the additional few minutes to brush my teeth when all I wanted to do was collapse on top of the bed.

Bikram’s evening lecture ended at midnight and when staff readjusted his chair to face a screen lowering from the ceiling we knew it was going to be a Bollywood night.  I shoved earplugs into my ears as fellow trainees settled into their uncomfortable chairs.

Prior to teacher training, I never watched a Bollywood movie even though I grew up with many South Asian friends.  The first thing I learned about these films?  They are never short.  Averaging 3 hours in length, the plot usually revolves around three interrelated themes:  falling in love, class and caste struggles, and family drama.  Actors also break out into elaborate duets and choreographed dancing, stretching out the movie even longer.  Sometimes, the dance sequence is so over the top that it involves several costume and location changes.  Think of Bollywood movies as two-thirds Spanish telenovela and one-third Broadway musical. Here is a great example from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol go from India to the Egyptian pyramids to a lake area to a private residence.

The curriculum includes memorizing dialogue, studying anatomy, and learning the philosophy of yoga.  Fundamental to understanding the history of yoga is understanding the culture that created it.  The culture of India may be very foreign for the majority of trainees who were raised in the West and movies may serve as the fastest and easiest introduction to a culture.  I think of my father who grew up in the Philippines and watched American movies such as:  Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Seven Year Itch, Rebel without a Cause, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Godfather I and II.   Movies visually dramatize important cultural values and traditions.  They give us an impression about a place, or a group of people.  In Bollywood, Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation, for example, play out in the plot.

Bikram introduced our first film Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai by saying, “In the West, people think they can get away with things especially when they think no one is watching.  In India, people know that God is always watching.  If they cheat others and cheat themselves, they will eventually have to settle the debt one day.  When that day comes, they will pay that debt back with interest.”

In Jodhaa Akbhar, when the Muslim emperor offers the Hindu princess he just married the Islamic custom of khulla, the dissolution of the marriage bond, in response to her coldness on their wedding night, she denies his offer by saying, “For us, marriage binds us for seven lifetimes.”  Whaaaaat?!  SEVEN?!

We also watched episodes of the Indian television series, Mahabharat, based on the Mahabharata, an epic Sanskrit tale of ancient India.  Filmed in the late 1980s, the series of 94 episodes educates viewers on Hindu philosophy.  If you can get past the awful special effects, the message is useful.

After watching 20 hours of Bollywood,
here are my top 5 impressions of Indian culture:

  1. Modesty is held in high esteem.  You will never rarely see a man and woman kiss on the lips.  They’ll lean very closely into each other with lips inches apart, chests heaving, and eyes furtively seeking. But never will they kiss.  Instead, they passionately hug or the man will kiss the woman on the neck.  Sometimes, you’ll hear a frustrated Western trainee hiss loudly, “Kiss already! Kiss. KISS!”  And forget about watchig a sex scene.  There are no boobs and no butts; it is a G-rated film.
  2. Receiving favor is important.  Children wish to receive their parents’ blessing on all matters ranging from educational decisions, business deals, and most importantly, future spouses.  The major conflict of Bollywood usually involves falling in love with the “wrong” person.
  3. Deference is valued.  As a sign of respect, a person would reach down and touch another person’s foot considered to be the dirtiest part of the body since it is closest to the ground.  Young people observe this tradition with their elders and even wives with their husbands.
  4. The Divine exists not just in deities but also in humans.  A person holds a circular tray containing flowers, ghee or clarified butter, food, and a small lit lamp and waves it in a circuluar motion in front of another human being or a statue of a god.  This physical act recognizes and pays respect to the divine.
  5. Hrithik Roshan is simply the hottest person on earth.  No disrespect to my husband who I love dearly but seriously, what did Roshan do in his past lifetimes to be blessed with beautiful genes?  Tall and lean with an athletic body, his caramel skin and green eyes made many female andmale trainees…swoon at the sight of him on screen.  He could read the phonebook in Hindi for all I care.  He’s just that gorgeous.

    Photo Courtesy of BollyCurry.com

Photo courtesy of Katty Chaichian Bateman who owns a Jodhaa Akbar pillow!

My favorite Bollywood film that we watched at training is Jodha Akbhar starring Roshan and Aishwarya Rai.  The film has a compelling storyline without the gratuitous musical sequences as well as beautiful cinematography.  It dramatizes the story of the Mughal emperor seeking to unite the various kingdoms of Rajasthan in the 16th century.   The entire film is available on YouTube in 10 minute intervals; below is the first installment.  If you have three hours, sit back and enjoy the movie.  I promise you won’t be sorry.Even though I enjoyed watching Bollywood movies during teacher training, these three-hour films contributed to our sleep deprivation.  There were definitely times when I wished for sleep instead of a film.  Only once did I get my wish.

Photo Courtesy of Axry Bernal

I recognize that Bollywood movies reflect a certain section of culture in India.  In fact, the country has regional differences evident in the local dialect, food, and religious faiths.  However, I am thrilled that I’ve been exposed to the country’s largest producer of films.  As I walk around the “Little India” section of Jackson Heights, Queens, I can at least now recognize Bollywood actors such as Shah Rukh Khan who is considered to be the “King of Bollywood”.