Ashtanga Yoga feeds spiritual hunger in West, but few Indian followers

The legions of Americans taking their winter workouts inside to the warm sanctuary of yoga classes are part of a global trend taking to the Indian physical-spiritual practice.

A love of yoga took one Ashtanga instructor from Abu Dhabi to Finland, pushed her physical limits and brought her in to a whole new community. But another renowned instructor says the study of yoga has actually separated her from her fellow Indians.

HELSINKI, Finland — The thing that caught my attention as I walked in my first Ashtanga yoga class was the sound.

Or the lack of it. No one was talking. There was just the faint whisper of people breathing, deeply, audibly, and smoothly.

Bodies moved gracefully in and out of poses that looked like it required the strength and flexibility of a Cirque du Soleil act.

But even though the physical feats were captivating, it was that sound of breathing that held my attention.

A steady, rocking, hypnotic sound, lulling one further away from the rational part of the brain which we need in order to function on a daily basis, and leading me towards the quieter, intuitive side of myself.

Njuguna moved from Abu Dhabi to Helsinki to study under a renowned Ashtanga yoga instructor and become one herself. (Photo by Justyna Jaworska)

Ashtanga yoga had a hold on me, and in an unforeseen twist, I was compelled to leave an English teaching position in Abu Dhabi and headed north to Finland, where I eventually became an instructor at one of the most prominent Ashtanga yoga schools in the world.

That journey, like Ashtanga yoga itself, was not for those who want fast results and instant gratification.

Especially with the added challenge of navigating a well-encrypted language and a reticent and reserved Finnish culture. The process required all of my faith, long-sightedness and tenacity.

But once people got to know and trust me, which I think happened quicker because I made the effort to blunder my way through the Finnish language, I found Finns to be earnest students, applying themselves to any task with quiet determination.

And just what exactly is this task at hand?

Njuguna leads a beginner’s yoga class at the Multicultural Women’s Center in Helsinki, Finland. The students begin with a classic pose, called the padmasarna or lotus pose, used for breathing exercises. (Photo by Anna Pickering)

Ashtanga yoga requires strict demands on your body, where twisting yourself into wild, pretzel-type contortions happens six days a week. Ideally at dawn. Or earlier.

This seems like a tall order, especially for someone like me with sleeping patterns that resemble hibernation, and not just during long, dark Scandinavian winters.

Oftentimes pitched as a dynamic form of yoga for the sexy and the stylish, Ashtanga yoga saw its rise in popularity in the 1990’s, when celebrities like Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and even Willem Dafoe sought out the teachings of this ancient practice.

The yoga teacher responsible for bringing this form of yoga to the West was Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, a man who hailed from Mysore in southern India and began learning Ashtanga yoga at age 12.

Since his passing in 2009, his grandson, Sharath Jois, took over his school, where hundreds of students from all (moneyed) parts of the globe flock each year.

Taran Bhattal, a 27 year-old teacher at my same Ashtanga yoga school in Helsinki, was one of Jois’ students.

Taran Bhattal, an Ashtanga yoga teacher, is one of a few Indian women who instruct. Even though the practice hails from her home country, Bhattal says yoga is actually not all that popular among her friends. (Photo by Nicki Twang)

She was the youngest Indian, and still one of only three Indian women in the world, authorized as a teacher of Ashtanga.

I was curious to find out what it felt like for Bhattal to be the minority in a practice that hails from her own country.

While most of her friends and age-mates are settling down into arranged marriages, Bhattal says she refuses to follow that path.

“I don’t see myself in that world,” Bhattal said.

Although it is common in the U.S. for friends to try yoga classes together, Bhattal’s interest is fairly unique among most of her social circles in India.

“It’s not common,” she said. “Even though they all respect me for what I do, it doesn’t mean they are going to cross over and try.”

She says that the comfort of modern life for the privileged classes in India is at odds with Ashtanga, and keeps her friends from getting involved.

“They’ve grown up to be this way, to have it too easy, and when you get it too easy, there’s no hunger at all,” she said.

And it requires a certain hunger to take up the practice of Ashtanga yoga.

It is oftentimes a solitary practice. Even in a room with other practitioners and a teacher guiding the students, it is really up to your own will and self-effort to see you through the practice, morning after morning, day after day.

Bhattal sees a contrast between the Western and Indian practice of Ashtanga.

Bhattal, who was already mastering flexibility as a 5-year-old gymnast, said that the spiritual side of yoga also came naturally as a core element of Indian culture. (Photo by Nicki Twang)

While Westerners have a strong sense of discipline in their approach to yoga, bhakti, the spiritual side of yoga, it’s not something that can be attained through effort and will power alone.

“People can work towards being devotional, but this is something that it naturally within Indians,” Bhattal said. She identifies this sense of devotional and selfless giving as an inherent part of her culture that transcends social and economic barriers.

So while some Indian counterparts might slack off on the physical side of yoga, when it comes to this blissful feeling of connection to a higher realm, it just flows out, effortlessly, or as Bhattal said, “It’s in them, whether they have nothing, or a lot, to give, it’s in them.”


    1. Hi Ivan,

      With Ashtanga yoga, it’s best to start with a teacher. Once you have the basics down and are comfortable with the sequence, you can do self-practice at home for as long as you want. I always suggest to go on a retreat or take some workshops once in awhile, so you can make sure you are on the right track and get some inspiration as well!

  1. Interesting article. I feel it’s important to understand the difference between yoga and asana. Yoga comprises of a number of different aspects, of which asana, or poses is a very small part. It’s true the asana component is not widely practised by Indians, but Yoga in its true form IS practised by 100s of millions of Indians, in India and around the world, everyday.

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