Five differences between Indian and Western yoga

Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo
Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo

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.

Yogananda Parmahansa's Autobiography of a Yogi was a popular book in our household
Yogananda Parmahansa’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” was a popular book in our household

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?

Aerial yoga in San Diego
Aerial yoga in San Diego

Reforming my ways

As anyone who knows me can attest, I get restless after a few days sans workout. Living in New York has made me a total gym rat but I’ve always loved running outdoors so when we moved here, I kept myself happy by running the Opera House loop. As glorious as this was, I was hankering for some HIIT or resistance training.  Fortunately there was a giant Fitness First across the street so I popped over to sign up for a trial.

Fitness First

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I’d never encountered a Fitness First before this, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Unfortunately the salesperson who delivered my tour was as enthusiastic as a vegetarian at a steak house. The space itself was huge and even though it was slightly casino-like and underground (no natural sunlight boo!) the facilities seemed functional: a couple studios, a large weight zone, plenty of cardio machines and a huge mat area with 10 or so dangling TRX straps.

I’ve been training on the TRX for just over a year.  I love it.  Aside from the gains in core strength, stability and muscle tone (and the fact that there isn’t a dull moment) one of my favourite things about TRX is that the recovery time is short and sweet(er than a circuit).  You can throw in a 30 minute TRX circuit before or after some cardio and wake up the next day hungry for more.  Because it engages the core and spreads the work across a lot of smaller, often unused muscles, it doesn’t leave you sore and weary in the way that reps with weights or on weight machines might.

Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto
Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto

Anyway, back to Fitness First…

The “club”, as they like to call it, I’d walked into turned out to be one of Fitness First’s platinum locations, meaning higher prices, fewer people and the option to upgrade to black label membership — which gets you entry to a subterranean locker room with a mechanical massage table, a makeup area, a permanent locker and free laundry service.  Wait…what?

I used the first of my two free passes on the elliptical and TRX.  Meh.  The TRX bands were so hard to adjust that they were almost not worth it and the cardio area smelled funky.  The unnatural lighting somehow hampered any possible endorphin rush.

Despite the signs, I came back the next day to give their yoga a try and I have to say that it may have been the most unpleasant yoga class I’ve been too :/.  For starters, the yoga mats were half the size they usually are. When a mat can’t contain my 5’4″ downward dog, you know it’s small.  And when you can’t fit both your hands and feet on a mat, you know you’re just waiting for a slip injury. Second, the instructor for some reason had decided to use a mic. drill sergeant orders some how don’t jibe well with the zen of yoga. If that weren’t enough, every five minutes there would be a loud THUMP on the roof of the yoga studio that would reverberate across the floor.  Ahhhhh!

Next stop: Virgin Active


After abandoning Fitness First, I decided to check out Virgin Active.  I’d heard good things and several colleagues had mentioned going there.  They only have the one club but it’s conveniently located on the top floor of a mall in the CBD, a short walk from work.  I headed over one evening and was given a tour of the brand spanking new facilities, including a pool, a climbing wall (big win) and a room containing “sleep pods” (very cool!).  My tour guide was nice enough until I asked whether they’d waive activation fees for my partner (fairly standard practice in NYC for families or referrals): he then decided to give me an awkward analogy about buying beef at a quality butcher shop vs. 7/11. Uhhh.

Ready to use my trial pass, I found that the club and locker room were packed but civilised.  I walked in to a Hatha yoga class with medium hopes.  I’m not a huge fan of Hatha but at this point, I was willing to do anything for a yoga fix.  The instructor was perched on a platform in a zen-like state.  He welcomed us in with a warm, soothing voice and, as we began our practice, I actually felt a glimmer of hope.  Unfortunately, the class turned out to be a little rudimentary for my taste but the real deal-breaker was when he made us do back-bends and inversions with the lights ON.  If you’ve ever tried to get yourself from a bridge to a wheel with a fluorescent light in your face, you’ll know what yoga nausea feels like.

Elixr: third time’s a charm


I gave up on Virgin Active and decided to ignore their aggressive salesperson’s calls and voicemails in favour of a trial at Elixr.  The yoga-savvy wife of a colleague had  steered me towards Elixr, a high-end yoga and pilates gym with clubs in Bondi Junction as well as the city.  After a quick glance at their website and their packed agenda of classes, I was excited but cautious.  I headed to their Bondi location and as I stepped out of the lifts, I felt like I’d been whisked away to a luxury spa.  I was given a friendly, un-pushy (finally!) tour of their softly-lit, zen-like facilities, during which a member interrupted the tour to tell me how amazing her experience had been and how I wouldn’t regret the decision to join.

Elixr’s Bondi location comprises two dedicated Pilates reformer studios, a yoga studio and a fourth studio for dance fusion, boxing and other cardio classes.  There is also a massive pool, a large cardio area, a small section with machines and another small mat area with free weights, exercise balls and kettlebells. With its heavy focus on yoga and Pilates and its small weights area, Elixr’s client base looks unsurprisingly to be 80-90% women.  During my free trial, I attended the best yoga class I’d been to in months.  I was sold.  But Elixr was so nice that they extended my free trial so that my husband could come in and check out the gym as well.  I then attended a reformer class and liked it so much that I had to harass them to sign me up.

Elixr's Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl
Elixr’s Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl

It was my first time in a group reformer class.  I’ve done plenty of mat pilates at Equinox, my old New York gym, and experimented on the small reformer that you have to book private sessions at, but I’d never come across an all-you-can-eat group reformer class. I don’t think they’re as big in the States.

Anyway, nearly three months later, I’m going to group reformer classes (or “GRC” as Elixr likes to call it) twice or thrice a week.  I can feel the gains in my core and arm strength, not to mention in other activities including tennis.  Even better, the classes are packed into an intense 45 minutes so I can squeeze in the occasional GRC during lunch or combine it with a bit of cardio before / after.  Unlike yoga, GRC is easy on the wrists and unlike running, it doesn’t strain the knee or ankle joints.  The sky’s the limit.

Have you worked out on a Pilates reformer or found a group reformer class?  I’d love to hear what you thought!