Yoga hails from ancient India. But does the yoga we practice in the US today still resemble its roots?
After practicing with multiple yoga masters in India and at home, I’ve seen the differences. The question is, is American yoga better than Indian yoga?
Here’s what I’ve found.
American Yoga vs. Indian Yoga: The Setting
While I’m sure that some of the yoga classes I attended in India were influenced by their Western students, all were a far cry from the yoga we practice at home, beginning with the “studio” itself.
In the US, we’re accustomed to sparse yoga studios with wood floors and clean lines. They generally feel sanitary, if not sterile. There’s often an attractive young woman or man at the front desk, checking in practitioners on an iPad. There may even be a locker room with multiple toilets, perhaps even showers.
Yoga spaces in India are a whole nother story.
In my many months spent studying with over 15 different teachers in at least 8 different locations, I never stepped foot in an American-like yoga studio. As long as the floor was clear, the space was deemed acceptable for yoga.
In India, I’ve practiced on a simple cement block with netting to keep out the mosquitos, on the roof of a restaurant with the Himalayas in the backdrop, in an old living room converted into a yoga room, in a restaurant with the tables pushed aside, and in a meeting hall in an ashram.
Cleanliness was of a different sort—the space was clear, and that was enough. While I’ve seen gorgeous photos of outdoor yoga settings in Goa, India, my experience in the rest of the country has been quite different.
A yoga space is what you make of it.
Needless to say, it’s almost guaranteed that the sounds of mantras and cows and rickshaws are wafting in the windows no matter where you go.
What Practicing Yoga in India Can Teach You
Practicing yoga in India taught me a good lesson. While we sometimes get caught up in the beauty of the studio here in the US, and may even choose where we practice because of it, it’s the teachers that make the space so wonderful. And as long as there’s room for a yoga mat, nearly anywhere can be an appropriate spot for yoga.
Another noteworthy difference? Music is not used in Indian yoga classes like it is in the West.
While I have come across teachers who play soothing soundtracks, classes are generally silent.
Yoga attire is entirely different, too—spandex isn’t appropriate and typical yoga gear is loose pants and a t-shirt or kurti (a long, blouse-like top).
American Yoga vs. Indian Yoga: The Teachers
While most yoga teachers in the US are women, most yoga teachers in India are men.
Long ago, yoga was actually a male-dominated practice. I have seen a few Indian women in various yoga classes, but this is rare, and in all my months I only came across one female teacher.
Aside from the lack of women, I’ve experienced many different kinds of teachers in India—from teenage boys who militantly lead an Ashtanga-inspired class, to a 102-year-old spiritual yogi who didn’t always show up, as he would disappear to the forest on spiritual missions. I’ve studied with sadhus dressed in saffron sarongs with long dreadlocks and white beards, and more modern 30-something men with Western-style garb and manners.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if the teacher is a woman or a man. It’s how they teach. This has proved true across both continents and seems to be the case with almost everything in life.
American Yoga vs. Indian Yoga: The Teaching Style
One of the starkest contrasts between Eastern and Western yoga is the teaching style.
American yoga focuses heavily on vinyasa and flow: quickly moving from one pose to the next in dance-like sequences.
Most of the classes are spent in standing postures or momentarily passing through downward and upward dog. The teacher often takes on the role of a guide rather than a teacher, as there may be very little emphasis on demonstration and explanation. Classes get sweaty and hot and seated postures are considered a wind-down. Savasana varies in length depending on the teacher, and breathwork and meditation are rarely incorporated.
I’ve found the opposite experience is prevalent in India. I can still remember the reaction of some of my fellow trainees at my Yoga Teacher Training Course in India during our very first class. The sun salutations were “all wrong”—there was no Surya Namaskar A or B, but something altogether different.
We went into shoulder stands “too soon”, as it was one of the first poses we practiced after sun salutations. There were no warrior or chair poses, no chaturanga, or even downward dog. The class defined yoga as my American classmates knew it.
And actually, this is typical of Indian yoga classes. There is no Sun Salutation A or B (except in Ashtanga classes). Vinyasas aren’t really practiced, because the style generally taught in Indian is hatha.
Teachers stress simplicity in poses. I’ve spent 15 minutes warming up in a simple standing twist—i.e., turning of the head and waist, followed by some gentle standing side bends and palm tree pose. Sun salutations are used as a warmup and as soon as we’ve done enough, they’re over.
There’s a definitive rest between each pose and it feels as if each pose has a beginning, middle, and end. Poses are held for a while, sometimes a long time. There’s a great amount of time spent on the floor in inverted, supine, and prone poses. Classes always include some pranayama and most often even a few minutes of meditation. Savasana is long and given great importance.
Indian Hatha Yoga and American Vinyasa Yoga
All in all, the teaching style in India is greatly different from the teaching style in the US. Although part of this is due to a difference in styles (vinyasa being the most common American practice and hatha being the most common Indian practice), there seems to be a distinct contrast in philosophy.
One feels more like a workout while the other feels more like… yoga.
In the West, we flow through poses so quickly that there’s no chance to reap the amazing benefits of each posture. There’s little to no pressure applied to the abdominal region, which is what gives yoga its digestive and menstruation-balancing effects.
Savasana can be so short that we leave feeling more exhausted than when we began. And pranayama and meditation, two of the most important components of yoga practice, are altogether skipped. While it all depends on the teacher, Indian yoga feels much more true to the practice.
American yoga is fun and fluid and it’s so demanding that there is little room for boredom. But boredom is one of the challenges that yoga is meant to help us overcome. It’s a practice meant to still the mind, not invigorate and sidetrack it.
One more thing—om chanting is never skipped in Indian yoga classes. It both opens and closes a yoga practice and reminds us that yoga is a spiritual pursuit. While some teachers in the West do the same, om is frequently and purposefully omitted so that yoga doesn’t invoke a spiritual practice.
Is Indian Yoga Better Than American Yoga?
Is it fair to say that American or Indian yoga is better than the other? Overall, it’s a matter of opinion. I’m sure that many American yogis would not at all like what’s going on in Indian yoga classes. In fact, I’ve seen it firsthand. They miss their chairs and warriors and huge backbends. It’s hard for them to take a few steps back and work on mastering the basics instead of pushing toward the advanced.
The Indian yoga practiced today may be very different from the yoga practiced in India several decades ago. It was Pattabhi Jois who reignited the yoga movement in India in the 1940s. Who knows what happened before that, as meditative postures like lotus and accomplished pose took center stage in the ancient texts.
Nonetheless, yoga in India still feels more authentic than the yoga practiced in the US. Of course, both have their benefits, but I think we’re selling yoga short in the West. It could be so much more.
More education is needed so that yoga teachers in the West can offer their students the benefits that yoga is meant to bring. Despite our cultural tendency to continually move forward, perhaps taking a few steps backward would benefit American yoga.