We know that traveling to South Asia can be overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. But a recent account by a yoga student detailing his trip to Mysore was so orientalist, detached and othering that we literally dropped everything and read along in horror.
The piece by Ty Landrum in Yoga Journal begins on a strange note right off of the bat. While the essay’s subheading explains that the yoga instructor headed to the Southern Indian city with his wife and young daughter to study Mysore yoga for a month, he begins the piece with an observational rant about the entire country.
“India is a swarming mass of revelry and confusion. The streets are filled with wild dogs, sacred cows, and crippled beggars. Motorcycles brush past you at dangerous speeds, swerving around merchants and monkeys, then shoot into traffic circles with no rules,” he wrote. “Trucks growl, women sing, and prayers rise in sudden discord, as children without shoes kick dust into the heat. You try to breathe, but your throat shrinks. The air hangs heavy with the improbable stench of death, masala tea, and burning tires.”
What? Landrum goes on to detail Mysore’s supposed filth in such graphic detail that we were genuinely taken aback. We aren’t sure what the “stench of death” smells like — we never noticed it on our trips to Mysore — but it is unlikely that it permeates the area around Mysore’s many ashrams, which have been vacation destinations for tourists around the world for decades. In fact, the New York Times travel section declared the city a must-visit destination way back in 2010.
“Yogis seeking transcontinental bliss head these days to Mysore, the City of Palaces, in southern India,” noted writer Mary Billard. “Mysore’s yoga boom now has shalas catering to every need. Off the mat, the yoga tribe hobnobs at Anu’s Bamboo Hut or the Regaalis Hotel pool, studies Sanskrit, gets an ayurveda treatment or tours the maharaja’s palace.”
It’s unclear if Yoga Journal’s Landrum did any of those typical tourist things (we’d also highly recommend visiting Chamundi Hills, Tipu Sultan’s tomb and wandering around the old Mysore neighborhoods that were so memorably fictionalized in R.K. Narayan’s stories.) It’s also surprising he never passed any of Mysore’s many tech hubs, hotels or call centers.
Instead, he seemed to devote all of his energy to worrying that his daughter would catch an infectious and perhaps deadly disease.
Again, we’re not kidding.
“In the vast majority of cases, polio, diphtheria and TB present as a common cold—a few sniffles,” Landrum writes. “But in a small percentage of cases, the consequences are severe, and unless they kill you, they stay with you for the rest of your life.”
We’re not sure if Landrum has vaccinated his child against these illnesses because he never mentions that there are vaccines available for all of them. He also did not mention that in what was perhaps the biggest public health victory of the 21st century, polio was eliminated in India in 2014.
Strikingly, Landrum never shows any compassion for those (in India and elsewhere) who don’t have access to the medicines and healthcare that he and his daughter have a ready ability to obtain.
Perhaps that lack of a bigger focus hits on why exactly Landrum’s essay became the hate read of choice for several South Asian Americans this weekend. After all, yoga practitioners heading to India and then gawking at the poverty around them is nothing new. Neither is Landrum’s detachment between Mysore style yoga and the city where K. Pattabhi Jois began developing it in the 1940s. But while Landrum goes on to say that he was grateful that his child never became sick and that the entire family returned to their home in Colorado in good health, it was disappointing to see that his concern for his own child did not translate into any concrete actions that would improve the lives of children who remain in the country that he deemed absolutely filthy.
Did he look into any NGOs that assist people who had been diagnosed with polio prior to 2014 in the Mysore area? Did he see what could be done to help the wailing women in the streets he passed every day? Does he know about the growing movement to assist women and girls with obtaining sanitary supplies? If he did, there’s no mention of it here.
That perhaps is the saddest thing about Landrum’s essay. Publications like Yoga Journal regularly publish pieces by Westerners who wax poetic about how the practice of yoga has changed their lives and worldviews. But those same publications never seem to challenge their readers to both question their discomfort while also working to improve the lives of the people living in the cities surrounding their beloved ashrams with the most powerful things they possess — their American dollars.