India is a special place, and practicing yoga there has been an amazing experience. There are many things that make yoga in India unique and different from the states, but before I get into some of those differences, I want to start by saying that these practices can be cultivated within any culture, in any country you happen to find yourself. You do not need to travel halfway across the world to start practicing yoga everyday. You can do it in your own living room, on your own or with a small group of friends. When we set goals for ourselves that feel unattainable, it gives us an excuse to quit before we even get started. So don’t decide that India in the only real place to practice yoga, because it’s not! But there is a sense of ease and lineage that make yoga in India a thing all of its own.
The two places that I have practiced most of my yoga are in India, the birthplace of yoga, and the United States, the birthplace of modern yoga. With our modern twist, we’ve picked out the parts that we like and tossed a lot of other stuff aside, for reasons that I can’t exactly pin down. I want to highlight some of the things that have made my personal experience practicing yoga in India so fulfilling, and show that they can be recreated anywhere with a little motivation and the right group of people. I am going to focus on two parts of yoga that I have found profoundly different in India: the community, and the practice itself.
The community aspect of yoga in India is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else. When you walk into a class, the room is loud. People are standing and chatting vigorously around friend’s mats. It is impossible to pick out a new student from an “advanced” yogi. Here at home, most of the classes I walk into are very quiet. People are usually lying down on their mats doing some warm up stretches, while the newcomers awkwardly sit in silence until the teacher arrives. It is so quiet. The hushed, guarded tones we tend to talk in make it difficult to truly express ourselves, so we immediately put up barriers and miss out on connections which could otherwise change our lives. And isn’t that what we came to yoga for in the first place? To transform, even if just a little?
The yoga community of India extends far beyond the classroom. They eat meals together, get coffee after class, go hiking, travel, and even party together. That’s right, coffee and even a little raging are allowed when you’re a yogi! It’s not that everyone in India is inherently outgoing or extroverted, but the community fosters openness. There are certain students that act as the glue of these classes. They introduce themselves to new students and make sure that they feel comfortable and are coming back for the next class. Communities start small, and grow, but for that to happen, each person needs to be allowed to connect. And allowing students to connect means letting them talk. It’s not like teachers in the states walk into class with a bamboo cane and slap anyone who speaks. I’ve heard teachers remark on the pin drop silence. “My god, it’s so quiet in here, you know you can talk right?” So why don’t we? Before I try and answer that question, let’s talk about my other favorite part of yoga in India: the practice.
Yoga in India allows for the practice to be complete. You start and end with pranayama, always. We don’t do this as readily in the U.S, and I’m not entirely sure why, but in India this crucial part of yoga is not sacrificed. In India, the physical, or asana, part of the practice typically lasts about thirty to forty minutes of a sixty minute block. About half the time is spent strengthening and preparing the body for meditation. The sole purpose of the physical part of a yoga practice is to ensure that the core is strong enough to support the spine and ensure it stays straight through a period of meditation. Asana, this one tiny limb of the yoga body, has completely taken over the entire practice in the United States. The amount differs depending on the class, but in India, there is always time for silent sitting at the end.
So yoga is a little different in India. But why? People are people. The world over, we’re pretty much the same. Our differences are almost always cultural. Here in the U.S., our culture makes us incredibly individualistic. We think of yoga primarily as a personal journey, which it very much is, but these practices need to be cultivated in a group setting in order to practice them effectively at home. We need to be held accountable, and come back day after day, regardless of what kind of day we’re having. To do that, we need community. We have to talk to each other. Sure, people have a lot on their minds, and sometimes they don’t want to talk to anyone. They want to get their workout in and get out. There are plenty of reasons our students may not want to make eye contact, or strike up a conversation, but it is our job as teachers to shatter these barriers. We should not dread talking to the fellow student on the mat next to us, the way we do the Uber driver who just can’t stop asking questions, the whole long ride home. We need reminders that our thinking is limited. Seeing things from others’ perspectives gives us a greater sense of depth that we cannot achieve on our own. We can’t just play the culture card, hold tight to our individuality and be done with it. If we want to create a practice which is full and complete, we must allow the center point to drift between the self and group, not one or the other.
I have heard a teacher say, “If I made my students do two-hundred rounds of kapal bhati, they would never come back!” Is that the problem with our practice? Is it that we let the goals of students drive our classes? Perhaps. Student led goals are amazing, and should be celebrated, but we should have enough trust and faith in our teachers that we can allow them to lead us. We must empty ourselves out enough to admit that we have much to learn. You may not expect it, but it can be surprisingly fulfilling to let someone teach you something for the hundredth time, because it may just sound completely different than the fifty-seventh, and you may just learn something new. Trusting yoga teachers is not the easiest thing, in India or the United States, especially considering all the scandals we’ve had to hear about over the last five years. Here your judgement as a student should always be vigilant and precise. When you finally do meet a teacher who will show you the way, you will know. It is not a relationship that can be faked or forced, and it is a crucial piece to any practice, because it connects us to our tribe, our crew…our family. Don’t settle for anything less.