Growing up in an Indian family in England, yoga was always a familiar and comforting concept. Even though we didn’t practice on a regular basis, we had an innate reverence for yoga’s healing and spiritual benefits. Friends and family back in India often had their own teachers — wizened individuals who’d dress in all white and exude an air of spirituality that made you want to sit up straight and listen. We’d hear stories of how someone’s yoga teacher helped cure an ailment — eye infections, food allergies, even asthma.
The Indian yoga teacher is a bit of an institution: someone who bridges generations and brings the family together. Of course, it helps that yoga in this context is typically far less physically demanding than the sort of yoga that’s become en vogue in the West. The focus of these Indian practices would always be breath, mindfulness and flexibility.
After an eight year stint in India, I moved back to the UK and had my first real encounter with Western yoga. While working in London, I decided to take a yoga class at the company gym. I was sorely disappointed. Like most gym yoga, this class was uninspiring, repetitive and underwhelming. I never went back, choosing instead to throw myself into traditional cardio. I became an obsessive runner, I swam, I biked, I went to the occasional Les Mills class and began resistance training. Yoga and I were over.
In 2008, I moved to New York. and, at the behest of a colleague, gave yoga another try — this time also at our company gym. The instructor was an athletic looking guy who, in quick succession, took us through a series of lunges, squats and extensions, cleverly masked behind Sanskrit names. It was challenging but accessible and I left sweaty and energised.
Soon enough I became a yoga addict. It turned out my natural flexibility combined with years of sports made me pretty good at “Western yoga”. I also loved whatever little connection it provided to my Indian roots and would seek out teachers who incorporated meditation into their practice or used the original Sanskrit names for asanas. Ironically, I was almost always the only Indian person in class.
So what’s the difference between Indian and Western yoga? To boil it down:
1) The Indian yoga teacher is almost always male.
Unlike the West, where we tend to associate yoga with lithe, long-limbed lycra-clad beauties, yoga in India is a man’s world. Think lean, wiry, simply dressed with an often freakish degree of flexibility. The Indian yoga teacher is up there with other family gurus — he’s part fitness instructor, part spiritual coach, part moral counsellor. He is kind yet stern, demanding yet peaceful and he prefers simple white cotton clothing to Lululemon Athletica.
2) Indian yoga is rooted in spirtuality
While not a religion, Indian yoga is deeply rooted in spirituality and a certain degree of asceticism and self-sacrifice. Yoga takes a far more holistic view in India and students will often eat vegan diets, live simply and engage in extensive meditation alongside their yoga practice. It is less a form of exercise and more a way of life. While certain Western yoga teachers may draw upon meditative practice in class, it’s certainly not the norm.
3) The student-teacher relationship is different
As I mentioned above, the Indian yoga teacher is a highly revered individual. He has not only dedicated his life to the practice and principles of yoga, but commands a level of respect and obedience from his students that is uncommon in the West. The typical Indian yoga teacher will endeavour to educate his students on the history and principles of yoga and the dynamic is more formal. In the West however, the yoga teacher is more often seen as someone teaching an exercise class than a guru or spiritual leader.
4) Each has different physical demands
Indian yoga focuses obsessively on the breath. Once you have the basics down, you progress to various poses, and the emphasis becomes staying and growing in that pose. You’ll often see Indian masters holding pretzel-like poses that make you queasy.
Mainstream Western yoga on the other hand, epitomised by the ever popular vinyasa, is more about rapid transitions from one pose to the next and leans more heavily on athleticism and endurance. The idea of “yoga lunges, pushups and squats”, while popular in the West, is alien in India.
4) Western yoga has a wide variety of styles
Western yoga has spawned a whole host of “sects” — forms of physical exercise that are grounded in yoga but deviate considerably from the traditional. Bikram and hot yoga, while popular in the US, are virtually unheard of in India. I recently attended a core fusion yoga class in San Francisco where the instructor had us toting dumbbells and doing crunches and leg raises to the beats of Pitbull. Other emerging forms include anti-gravity yoga and acro-yoga and while these styles might not be for everyone, they have amassed large followings in their own rights.
June 21st is International Yoga Day. What’s your favourite kind of yoga?