I Wasn’t Raised With The Idea That I Had To Be A Doctor Or Lawyer
She’s been called the Jane Fonda of India, although she’s spent all her life in the USA. The reason, the peppy work routine she pioneered twenty years ago in her garage, called Masala Bhangra, which is now popular in countries across the world. But for New York-based Sarina Jain, Masala Bhangra was born from her desire to get desis moving and exercising after her father passed away from an untimely early cardiac arrest. Masala Bhangra has been named one of the top five workouts in the United States today, and is practiced in over 15 countries across the world. Jain has released over ten fitness DVDs. The pioneer in bringing dance to fitness routines. A publicist by profession, apart from her passion for fitness, Jain has been featured on ABC’s The View, NBC’s Today Show and the Dr Oz Show, she’s also an entrepreneur with her own range of saris. She tells SheThePeople.TV what it takes to have a vision and follow it, and why we should encourage our girls to do the same.
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You grew up, a girl of Indian descent, in the US. What were the biases and prejudices that you had to combat growing up? Have you seen things change from the time you were a young girl?
I was born in the US to parents who had migrated to the West for a better life, for a better future for my sister and I. I was lucky enough to be raised around many Indian people in CA. So, I never felt there was a combat growing up. Only once in a while did racist remarks get thrown our way but it didn’t phase me. For the most part, I was the one trying to find myself and where I fit in this world being an Indian-American. I have seen many changes from the time I was a kid. I have a kid now and there is just more influence of Indian culture around my life.
Tell us about your growing years, was there pressure on you to excel academically? What do you feel about the Indian, or rather the Asian parenting emphasis on academic excellence?
I am all about excelling at academics. I didn’t have such strict parents but they definitely emphasised that education is important and that we had to complete college. I think giving yourself the education, finishing college is important. Pursuing onwards education is then up to the child. I think discipline should be instilled in kids enough so they themselves see the value in having an education. I also think it is important to let the kids shine in their talents. I was not raised with the idea that I had to be a doctor, lawyer, etc. I was raised with the fact that I need to find something that I am good at and pursue it.
I think giving yourself the education, finishing college is important. Pursuing onwards education is then up to the child. I think discipline should be instilled in kids enough so they themselves see the value in having an education.
How did fitness come into your life as a passion? Can you tell us your introduction to the cult of fitness and how did you decide to take it up professionally?
I was very young when a woman took me under her wing for aerobics. She taught me how to teach and I am so grateful to her today. She was patient with me and I also grew her business by teaching many classes at her small, mom and pop gym. I then pursued fitness as a side job as it was great money and it kept me in shape. It was only after my father passed away from a massive cardiac arrest that I decided to make fitness my full-time passion, my career. That is how Masala Bhangra was born.
Masala Bhangra came about as a tribute to your father who passed away very young. Could you take us through why you thought of combining bhangra and fitness, and was there any initial scepticism or resistance you faced when introducing this in the US?
I was born and raised in the US to two Indian parents that migrated to the States in the 70s. Both mom and dad wanted to make sure that we kids would grow up with the best of what the West has to offer without forgetting the East. Dad made sure to send us to India every summer to spend time with our families, our grandparents and learn to appreciate what Indian culture is all about. My father was our rock. He was this man that was our friend, yet protector. Dad would always tell us to be proud to be who you are and to respect the culture you come from and to stand on our own feet. Dad was a very proud Indian man living in the US. One day, my Mom called to say, “He is not breathing anymore.” My father passed away to a massive cardiac arrest at the age of 47. So, to honour him and his existence and everything he told us to be proud of, I created Masala Bhangra®. I wanted to tell him that not only am I proud to be an Indian woman living in the US but now I teach aspects of our culture through fitness.
My father was our rock. He was this man that was our friend, yet protector. Dad would always tell us to be proud to be who you are and to respect the culture you come from and to stand on our own feet.
Over the years, I have experienced love and hate. A lot of hate has come from my own community, which is pretty sad. I didn’t face any resistance from the American people. But definitely, I now know that what I have created is a niche program and it will always have a niche market.
Today Masala Bhangra has a following across the world, and has been named one of the top five workouts in the United States. Where do you see it going from here?
In 2020, I will be celebrating 20 years!!! This is crazy! I can’t believe it. I am really excited and can’t wait to keep Masala Bhangra moving forward. I see Masala Bhangra here to stay so with any idea, I am all ears to listen to them.
I read you faced a fair backlash from Bhangra purists, how did that affect you? Why do you think there was this resistance to an Innovative form of the Bhangra?
Yes, you read correctly. In 2009, I was on the Today Show – a very famous show around the world – and when that aired, many young Punjabi and Hindu kids born and raised in North America wanted to slash my throat so I don’t say Balle Balle anymore. In fact, Newsweek magazine quoted those kids and today, I am sure they feel embarrassed for saying such harsh comments. They thought I was ruining the name of Bhangra. They didn’t understand that I was making people who didn’t know about it especially in North America aware about Bhangra. People have heard of Bollywood, but not so much Bhangra. In order not to scare anyone off, you have to introduce something to people who will embrace it and embrace it with ease. If I was to make Bhangra so hard and almost inaccessible, no one would have ever come to my classes. Today, you see “Bhangra fitness” type classes mushrooming everywhere. I had this vision way before it became popular.
In order not to scare anyone off, you have to introduce something to people who will embrace it and embrace it with ease. If I was to make Bhangra so hard and almost inaccessible, no one would have ever come to my classes.
Women have, over the past few years, become increasingly aware about nutrition and fitness. How important do you think it is to begin inculcating good dietary habits and a fitness regimen from childhood?
I think it is key! It is key to everything in life and how you will look at life in the future. I have a 20-month-old daughter and I stretch with her almost every day or she goes with me to my classes. It is important to introduce an active lifestyle to the youth today at a young age. I think it builds confidence from the beginning!
As a woman of the Diaspora, who is called the Jane Fonda of India, were there times you had to fight additional battles to prove yourself?
Yes, of course there was. I had to stand my ground and almost fight for myself to tell the world I am here to stay and I have a program that will and has helped many people around the world. I have had to say to people – “please do not underestimate me or my Masala Bhangra program.” It blows my mind as to how far we have come in eighteen years.
“I created a program 18 years ago and I still have the passion and the drive to keep going.”
Who are the women you look up to and who inspire you with their innovations on bringing the East to the West? What are the specific lessons you’ve learnt from them?
I learned never to give up. I learned that people will come and go, but I have to stay focused otherwise, It Is easy to get side tracked and discouraged. I also have a strong mom who has been a very impactful role model to me. While she is always going to be pragmatic, she also has never let me down in pursuing my ideas. She has stood by me since the beginning and this I will never forget. Post marriage, I had some people tell me that now it’s time for me to retire and just pursue a married life with kids. I cried so hard when these people told me this. It made me feel so sad for them that their thinking is so small. Neither am I quitting, and nor am I retiring anytime soon. I wish my own community would encourage more of the positive and accept the change the world is going through versus living in the past and living in a society where they care what people say. At the end, those people won’t matter. All that will matter is if you lived the life you wanted to live. And I am so far, living the life I want to live. I created a program 18 years ago and I still have the passion and the drive to keep going. The impact that Masala Bhangra has made to different communities around the world is priceless. My heart is forever filled with love and gratitude!
You have been one of the earliest South Asian origin women entrepreneurs in the West. How do you think we encourage or discourage women in the South Asian culture to explore entrepreneurship?
I don’t know about discouraging anyone, but I definitely know about encouraging women to pursue something they are passionate about. I always ask them…what do you have to lose? What will it take for you to step out of your comfort zone and pursue something you are passionate about it? At some point, it will do very well or you may decide it is not for you anymore. But at least you took the chance to find out!
And finally, what are your plans to take Masala Bhangra further?
As of now, we are working on our 20th anniversary celebrations. Just getting Ideas of how should we celebrate this milestone. Any Ideas you have?
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV
Feature Image Credit: Sarina Jain