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studying yoga in india

Studying yoga in India is different from the West. Hoo boy is it different.

I wrote about practicing yoga at a Indian ashram  and I got my 200 hour yoga teacher training certification in India. Doing yoga training in India was not only different culturally or environmentally but it opened an enitrely new way of seeing, understanding and practicing yoga!

Studying yoga in India… why go?

On the top of every bucket list of many yoga enthusiasts, there is one pilgrimage dream: studying yoga in India.

India is the birthplace of yoga, the source of OM, a word of powerful vibration and all-encompassing meaning. Many of us see India as a cradle nation, birthing guru upon guru, who in turn, spreads seeds of spiritual knowledge. Practicing yoga in India, is more than just learning yoga from a guru burning incense and chanting Sanskrit mantras, while leading you through down-dogs and sun salutations. Here’s 10 things to know before studying yoga in India.

Cultural Immersion in Indian Culture

Studying in India is not always about experiencing ‘juicy’ asanas… You’ll learn yoga the moment you land in India.  From the environment, daily lifestyle of Indians, traditions in puja rituals and chanting, to the food and the way you eat it… your learning of yoga will be ingested by your surroundings and everything you come into contact with. Everything informs your awakening to what yoga really is.

Temples, statues of gods, devotional music streaming from temples at dawn,  incense smudging over the scent of urine,  the country is steeped in daily devotion to its deities. Watching Hindu worshippers praying on the riverbanks of the Ganges at sunrise, you’ll understand the premise of a Sun Salutation.

Say you drink bad water and catch a bout of Delhi Belly? You’ll be working through the painful reality of physical roadblocks in your body awareness… that’s a guru too.  Everything in India enriches your learning and the education you’ll get from India is invaluable.

The second reason to study yoga in India is…

Read: Indian Etiquette

Learn the Real Tradition of Yoga in India

Most western yoga practitioners see studying yoga in India, as a quest to learn the truth from the original creators. Yes, there’s also those who consider it a hip, trendy and cool bucket list experience, even if they have a sincerity to learn the traditions of practice. Reasons for studying yoga in India are all mixed. Honestly, I was a little of all. I wanted to learn the western version of yoga I was learning in New York of Bikram, Hatha, Ashtanga. I wanted to do a little of learning, meditation, twisting my body to see how far I could take myself and merging my body with my mind and spirit.  I wanted to elevate my practice. I also wanted to be cool and say I practiced yoga in India.

But the reality of practicing yoga of India was much different from what I expected.

Ultimate Guide to Studying Yoga in India

What you Need to Know about Studying Yoga in India

Yoga in India is vastly different from yoga in the West.  Western culture puts a commercial spin on things, building yoga up into a 1 1/2 hour gym membership workout, where we can practice our flexibility, torch our calories and get your OM on so we can think we’ve become a deeply enlightened being in one syllable.

But here’s a few things that I learned there and that you might want to know.

1.  What is yoga?… And what it is not.

Looking at Wikipedia’s definition of What is Yoga? ,you’ll wonder why you don’t see asanas in each paragraph. Instead, you’ll see traditional and scholastic words like : Sanskrit, Hindu philosophy, Bhagvad Gita, Patanjali Yoga Sutras…   Where is the “yoga” that you’ve learned in your yoga studio back home?

Going through my yoga teacher training in Dharamsala, my teacher Lalit, told us the real practice of yoga is not about twisting the body into a pretzel, the asana (aka postures) or stretching.   For rishis and yogis in India, the focus of yoga is spiritual attainment and not physical performance. The goal of yoga is to transcend the body through practicing meditation, studying spiritual texts, chanting kirtan and satsang, etc..  Asana practice is one of the limbs of yoga, but not the entire tree!

 In a way, the real body of yoga works occurs from the neck up…  following a spiritual path.  Thus, asana practice is used not to discipline the body, but tame the mind. The physical sport that many of us believe is yoga asana, is considered as a kind of “stretching” to yogis. Asanas originally evolved as a form of exercise for yogis so that the body wouldn’t go limp or the muscles atrophy from all the sitting they do. Asana is used not to discipline the body, but to tame the mind.  

Did I just kill the yoga Santa Claus for  you?

2.  Meditation

You will meditate and chant… a lot. I’m not kidding! Sometimes it can feel like more than half your practice.

If you’ve never practiced these things for long stretches… then you will get tired of a daily practice of it. But mastery comes with discipline and time. Although I had a regular meditation practice for years (via Brahma Kummaris Meditation Centers in the U.S.), I was horrible at meditating in the wee mornings of 6AM …and for anything longer than 20 minutes. 

Be prepared to sit for long periods in meditation practice anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Your legs may occasionally go into spasms or cramping.   Using a cushion helps, because your butt muscles will begin to hurt, from the sitting.

Meditation hall at Sivananda

3. Chanting in Yoga

There were times I both, loved and hated chanting. At Sivananda, chanting sessions were anywhere from 1-2 hours daily. Generally, there is a book for beginners or you’ll learn by jumping in and listening to the words practitioners sing. The leader or a musician will play a harmonium and the chants and hymnals are often Sanskrit words , which you will learn the meaning. The types of chanting are:

Kirtan

Kirtan is a call and response type of chanting. While playing an instrument like a harmonium, the guru will chant one line and you will chant the response with the group.

Sanskrit mantras

Usually you’re given a book of sankrit mantras to sing. 

Satsang
Satsang is chanting in the group. Often these can be lovely hymnals where you’re chanting to a Hindu deity is to become One with it. It’s a devotional prayer and you’re invoking and inviting that deity to aid your practice, focus and discipline.  Some words (like OM, So-ham, etc.. ) have tonal/vibrational powers, which help activate your chakra energies. If you pay attention, you can feel it.

 

The main hall in Sivananda. During Satsang, giant Shiva/Nataraj statue on stage, walls are dressed with mural portraits of well-known Hindu gods.

 

4.  Eastern vs Western beliefs on the teacher vs student relationship

What? You disagree with what your guru’s said?

Well, if you have all or any of the answers, then why do you need a teacher?

That’s thinking in India, when it comes to the teacher-student roles. In India, your teacher instructs and you ‘do’ without question. As a student in India, be prepared to respect the tradition. Don’t challenge and if you do, understand you can’t fight an age-old history and you’ll receive irritable responses for your questions.

Being a student in India is again, not like the west. In the western approach to learning, students to to allowed question ideas … challenge them, but this would be offensive to teachers in India. I noticed my teacher’s frustration when he was tested by students who wanted to challenge his information or reasoning.

5. Yoga is very spiritual (and religious)

Yoga is the practice of spirituality as if it were a religion. In the west, many studios take great care to avoid offending non-religious practitioners. OM-ing or chanting is kept light and cosmetic (if at all) and some teachers avoid talk about chakras, opting to speak only of the physical benefits. Keep it watery and make it available to all.

Yoga in India has a strong spiritual focus and goal. Yoga is based out of Hindu philosophy. Personally, I appreciated this aspect , but studying spirituality is not for everyone. If you feel you will be deeply offended by learning and practicing aspects of Hindu philosophy or feel queasy about chanting devotional songs to Hindu deities when you’re a devout Christian,… then you may reconsider studying in India.  Statues of Hindu deities may surround you and you’ll be chanting to them, burning incense and paying respect to them in unison. When you chant the Hare Krishna song… there are times you may even feel you’ve just joined the Hare Krishnas!

Advice: If you’re a newbie to this kind of environment, invite the freedom of learning a new perspective. If you’re not religious, go with an open mind or reconsider.

yoga in India, yoga schools in india, studying yoga in india

What is yoga

Shiva Statue  Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons

Lord Ganesha at Ganesha Chaturthi Photo by Vijay Bandari of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

6. Following the schedule is compulsory

Whoever you choose as your teacher or guru, know that your practice is compulsory despite your beliefs. You cannot opt out of event practices simply because it goes against your western/religious beliefs or because you don’t feel like it. I mean, you can if you’re sick or rude foreigner, but generally everything about yoga is to practice respect, dutiful compassion, discipline. 

Read my experience of staying at an indian ashram

7. Ayurvedic Principles in Yoga & India

Ayurveda is often seen as an alternative medicine but it’s been practiced in India for over 5,000 years and is considered the Mother of all Healing. Your school or shala is likely to employ an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner/teacher so you can experience Ayurvedic healing through massage, diet, learning, etc… It is an interesting science of balancing five elements into three basic types of energy and principles (Vatta, Kappa, Pitta)  that are in everything.

8. The yoga diet is vegetarian

Yogic diets are often vegetarian and the meals are delicious. The food is light, and prepared with Ayurvedic principles to balance the energies in your body to help yogis with their daily rituals of meditation, studies, asanas, so they can reach the enlightenment they strive for. Being Ayurvedic, the food is not spicy so to balance all elements of the body without creating imbalance (i.e. spice has a fiery attribute that is not good for meditation and keeping calm, too much air can lead to too much gas, too much earth can keep one slow and sluggish, etc…).

Read How to Understand Indian Food

sivananda ashram campus, ashrams in india

EAting with hands in the dining hall

9. Studying Scriptures

Foreigners may not experience this side of yoga unless they are enrolled in a yoga teacher training program, but yogis study scriptures like Patanjali Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita  which are a bit like a Bible. These are to help  prepare and cleanse the mind as well as offer spiritual guidance as to how to live.

10. Yogic Breathing and Using a Neti Pot

Breathing or more specifically, pranayama (aka yogic breathing) is a deep relaxing breath which opens the channels of your body for healthy flow and meditation.

Thus, the science of using a neti pot to clear nasal passages to aid pranayama breathing is an age old yoga tradition in India. Neti pots are for nasal irrigation or clearing the mucus from the nose. Saline water from the pot is poured through one nostril and comes out of the other. If you do it correctly, it will pass through easily.  If you do it wrong, it will be a little uncomfortable-  like inhaling a tiny bit of water and getting a brain freeze.  More advanced training might show you how to use a string (aka sutra neti), which was originally used.  The benefits are that you’re able to breathe better, have an improved sense of smell and food tastes better (so they say).

Famous Ashrams and Best Yoga Schools in India

If you’re into meditation, there’s  famous spots such as Ammaritapuri ashram (home of Amma, “the hugging saint”) in Kerala, Osho ashram in Pune, Sathya Sai Baba ashram in Bangalore or there’s less known organizations like one that I used to belong to, Brahma Kummaris. If it’s a more physical yoga you’re looking for, then take your pick of the many yoga ashrams in Rishikesh or follow your favorite influence: Sivananda , Bihar, Ashtanga Institute, BKS Iyengar.

Read My packing tips for India & Southeast Asia

 

Recommended Essentials for India .
 

Autobiography of a yogi

Autobiography of a Yogi
(Required reading YTTC)

 

Best Travel Insurance for Yoga in India

My yoga school made travel insurance compulsory. For good reason. Yoga enthusiasts get hurt and the training program is like training for a mini yoga olympics. The worst case in our program was that one of the students broke her toe and had to go to the hospital. But several others were getting anything from pulled muscles, back spasms, … I got sick, we were all dropping like flies.

Although there are good doctors and hospitals in the big cities, you might not always have access to them. Also, traveling in India has its obvious risks–  standards and regulations are different from the U.S., so safety precautions and measures aren’t always perfect. I went with World Nomads to cover my entire trip and it was the cheapest I found.

What would you add to this guide to practising and studying Yoga in India?  Follow along for more India travel tips!

 

studying yoga in india

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40 Comments. Leave new

We take a few yoga classes in Varanasi every year. This year, we’re going to a few different ashrams across Uttaranchal province during our Char Dham pilgrimage. Doing yoga in India gives you such a wonderful perspective on the cultural and spiritual aspect of the practice!

Reply

Yes, I went on a yoga tour of sorts, studying at ashrams throughout the country. Needless to say, the Himalayas had the best air quality!

Reply

    @Jenna: Awesome, girl! I was way down south at an ashram on a reserve and then up in Dharamsala, so my air quality was actually really good. Feel free to post a couple of your ashram experiences here. Would love readers to have additional references!

    Reply

India is a fascinating country to travel, no matter what your purpose, but I have a feeling studying yoga would make your stay even more meaningful.

Reply

Not reallllllly a Yoga person myself. But what you write here brings up many valid points.

Have you read “are you experienced” yet? Lot’s Yogi mentions in there. But on the humor side 😉

Reply

Hi Christine, you did a great job here with a big subject. I agree with everything you write. One other tip I would add is to consider the air quality of the place you’ll study. I never thought about it before I went, but if you’re doing lots of deep breath work in the big cities (especially someplace like Varanasi), it can be painful for Western lungs.

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