When playwright Dipika Guha was growing up in India, yoga was simply an exercise you did at school.
“There were no yoga mats, no blocks; you did it on the floor. It was very unceremonious,” she says over the phone from her Southern California home. “There was certainly no talking and no sense that this is your practice.”
Guha and her family moved to Russia, then England, but it wasn’t until years later that she attended a yoga class again—this time in Berkeley, California. And the difference from what she’d grown up with was a shock. There were the expensive outfits, the gear, and, most of all, the session’s overall approach.
“The emphasis was on the individual practice and who you are in terms of your practice. In India it’s sort of opposite; it’s ‘No one cares,’ ” the playwright says, breaking into laughter. “I always thought that yoga was the extinguishing of the ego, and I saw the opposite was happening in these classes.”
Guha used her experiences there as research for her new Yoga Play, a comedy-filled satire of the industry that’s grown around the practice in North America. The show is also about consumerism, our constant search for belonging, and what Guha calls “what it means to be yourself”.
In Vancouver, where the play is getting its Canadian premiere, her script might sound particularly familiar. This city is, after all, home to a certain yogawear giant whose founder blamed complaints about his company’s famous stretchy pants on the size of the women wearing them. In Guha’s script, a giant yoga-apparel company called Jojomon sees its sales nose-dive after a fat-shaming scandal caused by its CEO. Joan (well-known local actor Lois Anderson) steps in to try to save the corporation. The key might be finding a real Indian yogi—or at least, the closest South Asian that Jojomon has on hand—to endorse the label, sell enlightenment, and restore credibility to the line.
The journey from the yoga class to an apparel corporation came naturally for Guha as she delved into her subject matter. “You have to wear the right thing,” she says. “The first time I went to the class in Berkeley, I was wearing a T-shirt and leggings, and felt like I was out of 1985!
“I was also inspired by how athleisure was the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. last year. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, which amazes me,” she continues. “It’s all about looking like you’ve done exercise when you haven’t. That was really interesting to me and I started to think about what yoga pants were a proxy for.”
Behind the plot’s fun, there is plenty of social satire. The play boasts a strong local cast known for nailing comedy, including Christine Quintana (just off her lead role in East Van Panto: Wizard of Oz), Shawn Macdonald, and Chirag Naik; Jovanni Sy directs.
“I don’t feel this play is laughing at people who practise yoga,” Guha clarifies. “It’s more about longing and identity and big business, and why we think we can purchase identity outside ourselves. The complexity of that idea was very interesting to me and I hope the humour does it in a way that makes everybody welcome.
“I have a lack of cynicism about it,” she adds. But beneath the joking around, her script is ultimately, she admits, about much more than downward dogs and yoga pants. “Obviously, the politics of colonization and cultural appropriation were very much on my mind,” she allows. “Who is to say who we are, sort of authentically? It’s no surprise that people are selling that. And I feel very empathetic about it.”
Yoga Play is at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond from next Thursday (February 7) to February 16.