I recently made my first trip to India. As every dedicated yogi knows, this is where it all began, over 5,000 years ago. I was very excited to be going to the source and hoped to get a taste of an “authentic” yoga experience. While the quality of teaching was faultless, it became clear to me that yoga in India is really quite different from yoga in the West.
Asana (the physical postures that we do in a yoga class) is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. The other limbs – yama (controls), niyama (observances), pranayama (breath control), pratyahra (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment) – are more concerned with the ethical, mental and spiriual side of yoga. Asana is one of the foundations, helping to purify and prepare the body for the practice of meditation. In the West however, we tend to associate yoga with the physical poses, often using the words asana and yoga interchangeably. Have we Westerners misunderstood the whole purpose of yoga?
What I discovered in India is that the dynamic Ashtanga classes that I coveted were led and attended by Europeans and Americans. Where were all the Indian yoga teachers and students? Determined to go to a yoga class led by an Indian teacher, I found a little studio tucked away down a quiet gravel road, which offered small classes on the roof of the teacher’s house. The class was slow and gentle, with a focus on pranayama. The teacher began and ended the class with some beautiful chanting. The poses were all familiar, but were practised in a different way. While the class didn’t give me the physical “high” that I was used to, it certainly got the prana flowing and quietened my mind.
Returning from the yoga studio, I questioned the taxi driver about his views on yoga. “Only Westerners do yoga!” he laughed. “But yoga originates from India,” I protested. “Indians don’t do yoga like you,” he replied.
So if yoga originates from India, why has it evolved in a different way in the West, with such a strong focus on the physical? Have we simply picked the ‘best’ bits and ignored the rest? Or does all the jumping around and focus on physical postures tell you something about our culture and the emphasis we place on the physical body, and the competitive, fast paced environment that we have become used to?
Yoga has become so popular in the West it has spread into gyms and fitness centres, in many cases completely losing any sense of the spiritual element and becoming simply another way to keep fit. If yoga is ultimately an internal practice, by focusing on the physical side only have we contorted it so much it has lost its original shape?
Of course, not all yoga classes in the West focus solely on developing flexibility and toning muscles. Many of the yoga schools will incorporate meditation, pranayama, chanting and philosophy into their classes. And conversely, other classes are more about taking an hour out of your day to escape from the busyness of life. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me “enjoy relaxing” when I’m heading off to an hour and a half of sweating through an Ashtanga practice!
Which leads to another thought – how much of this practice is driven by our ego, competing against ourselves and each other and striving to attain perfection? Our culture rewards discipline, ambition and hard work. We push ourselves to the max. I only need to look at the students in the Ashtanga studio that I go to to realise that high achievers and Type A personalities are attracted to this dynamic form of yoga. They are used to outperforming in all aspects of life, so why would their yoga practice be any different?
I have read several interviews with Western students of Sri K Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga affectionately referred to as Guruji. It seems that the original Indian students who practised Ashtanga in Mysore were less concerned about perfection and more “relaxed” with their practice. When the first Westerners came to Mysore to practice with Guruji, they had gone to considerable effort to be there, and were serious about learning. So perhaps it is the attitude that we take to our practice that is more important than which of the eight limbs of yoga we choose to focus on. We need to be consistent and rigrourous in our practice, but we also need to keep our ego out of it, paying heed to one of Guruji’s favourite expressions: “Don’t think, just practice”.
But it’s not just the asana classes that are different. My boyfriend and I share a love of kirtan (devotional singing/chanting). He, being a Hindu, has introduced me to kirtan the Indian way. Instead of repeating the same mantras over and over again like the kirtans at the yoga studios in Sydney, in India the bhajans (devotional music) are more akin to a song.
Another notable difference is the way that yoga is traditionally taught versus the way it is taught in the West. In India, if you want to learn yoga you seek out a guru. You spend the first few months scrubbing toilets and running errands to prove to your guru that you are serious and worthy of their time. Once accepted, the student treats their guru with the utmost respect and maintains a lifelong relationship with them. This scenario is unimaginable in our Western society. We take it as our right to attend any yoga class, chopping and changing teachers as it suits our schedule.
Do all these differences really matter? Is the original Indian yoga better than the Western adaptation of yoga? Or are they just different? When you delve deeper, Hatha is just one of the many yoga paths. The other paths of bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge/wisdom) and karma (action) no doubt have their own variations and differences, depending on what works for the lifestyle and cultural background of the student.
Importantly, no path is better than another. And sooner or later everyone will find their own path – whether it’s the physical side of yoga, devotional chanting or a combination. With experience and a little bit of trial and error, we will eventually gravitate towards what works for us to achieve the same ultimate goals of health, happiness and enlightenment.
And so what if Westerners take their first step into the world of yoga at a gym? At least they get to experience it and hopefully it is the beginning of a long and rewarding love affair, surrendering to and transforming with the power of yoga. After all, as Guruji said, “Do your practice and all is coming.”
What do you think – are Westerners too obsessed with the physical side of yoga? Is it possible to achieve the benefits of yoga through asana alone? What is your experience of yoga in India?