Mood lighting, floor to ceiling mirrors, temperature control and soothing ambient music—it’s not a fine dining restaurant or a decadent spa we are talking about but your typical modern yoga studio in urban India. The yoga teacher leads the health conscious men and women wearing ‘yoga’ pants and dry-fit shirts to their yoga mats and then through various asanas in English. The session usually ends with a ‘healthy’ green smoothie.
Yoga is being sold as a trend and a wellness fad in India today just as it is in the West, says Namrata Nagpal, a yoga practitioner from Bengaluru. She feels the western versions of yoga are “compelling” but watered down and a form of cultural appropriation. “Yoga is inherently spiritual,” Nagpal says.
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Even as the world marks International Day of Yoga today, Nagpal’s complaint is echoed by other purists. They contend that the predominant variety of yoga on offer at most yoga chains and fitness studios in India is too westernised. Several instructors counter this complaint by saying that it’s a sweeping generalization. And anyway, they point out, yoga is more popular in India than ever before.
The fact that yoga in the big cities is done in studios by people wearing what is interpreted as “western” fashion such as yoga pants, tracks, shorts and smart tops gives people the perception that it become too westernised, says Manish Pole, a yoga teacher and founder of 21st Century Yoga in Bengaluru. “However, the studio is not a western concept but a result of urbanisation,” he says.
“If what you call ‘westernisation’ of yoga is helping more people take to the mat, it’s working out very well and very good for the growth of yoga,” says Rinku Suri, a yoga instructor and founder of Yoga 101 in Mumbai’s Versova suburb. “Yoga has become like a sport that people enjoy and it is absolutely fine because anyone who continues to practice it would benefit both physically and mentally in these tough times. Whether I wear a sari or yoga pants, I will still be Rinku Suri. Yoga, too, is just yoga no matter the packaging,” she adds.
The demand for Dynamic Yoga
People these days want their yoga to be a workout and prefer the more dynamic and fast paced forms to classical and traditional yoga techniques, say yoga instructors. That is a direct result of the westernisation of yoga, says celebrity yoga trainer and author of Fitness On The Go, Abhishek Sharma. “Yoga started becoming popular in India when it made a re-entry into our metro cities and popular culture from the West. The western influence on yoga is most notable in our big cities. Yoga had to be adapted to suit the western lifestyles and needs. It had to fit into the busy lives of people with little time or patience. Traditional yoga is slow, needs a lot of patience and concentration. So, yoga adapted in the west is becoming more dynamic and introducing new elements to make it interesting,” says Sharma. Today, the kind of yoga offered in most studios is dynamic or interesting in nature. Just think Bikram yoga, hot yoga and power yoga and you get the picture. “The ‘westernised’ forms of yoga still employ traditional postures and asanas but it is faster. That explains the current popularity of the suryanamaskaras.”
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Bengaluru-based co-founder of the PR agency Scoop Communications, Nasreen Patel, returned to yoga during the pandemic a year ago and sticks to the “traditional” Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa flow. “I cannot see myself doing anything like power or hot yoga,” says Patel. “I like the traditional forms the best.” However, she does enjoy the dynamic Vinyasa flow more than Hatha yoga, which is slower and requires one to hold the postures for a longer period of time.
If faster forms of yoga are getting the young and restless to take to yoga, it is a good thing, says Sharma. “Young people who stick to yoga for a longer period of time tend to move towards the classical and traditional forms later on,” he adds from experience with his students.
The rising costs of yoga
When yoga studios shut down in Bengaluru earlier this year due to the pandemic, Patel had contacted a yoga teacher to train two people at home. “The teacher wanted ₹18,000 per month per person for three sessions a week. And for two people I was offered a discounted rate of ₹30,000 per month. I was flabbergasted. I found another teacher for us,” she recalls. She currently practices at Samsara Yoga Studio where she pays ₹3,500 a month for three sessions a week.
“Yoga in its current form has become exclusionary. In order to practice yoga ‘correctly,’ one has to pay exorbitant fees,” says Nagpal.
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If you go to fancy studios or demand private sessions it could get expensive, says Sharma. “But if you do your research and go to a good studio, yoga is not expensive. But private sessions can be steep, anything between ₹1,000 to ₹5,000 per session.”
Yoga is the sole source of livelihood for some and a source of revenue for studio owners, contends Suri. “The standards and cost of living has steadily gone north. Why shouldn’t good yoga teachers and studios earn proper money whether it is through social media, Zoom, private or studio sessions. It is fair to cash in on the demand as even they need to pay their bills,” she says.
In its simplest form yoga can be practiced anywhere, says Nagpal. “All that is required is the connection of body, mind and earth.” However, if you still need an instructor, there are plenty of free and affordable options. Traditional institutes such as Mumbai’s Santa Cruz Yoga Institute and Bhavan’s Yoga Bharati might lack the “cool” quotient of studios but their lessons are excellent, says Sharma.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.