Lost in Translation: A Comparison of Western and Traditional Yoga

Author: Emesline Man

Emesline Man

In recent years, a yoga mania has swept across many western countries. In Toronto Canada, for instance, every neighborhood would have several yoga studios. Fitness centers often incorporate regular yoga classes in their group fitness programming. When this was unheard of a few years ago. This paper examines how the west has assimilated the ancient science of yoga into popular culture. It explores how the western idea and practice of yoga differs from yoga as described in Pantanjali's Yoga Sutras, written over 2500 years ago. 

When asked, people in the west would define yoga as a form of stretching or relaxation exercise. Many would also describe the primary characteristic of a yogi as "bendy" or flexible. While this could well be true of practitioners of traditional yoga, a yogi is actually defined as one who has reached the state of union. The word "yoga" originated from the word "Yuj" meaning to join. Yoga is the union between body and mind (Yoga Sophan, pg 3) and between the individual and supreme consciousness (Types of Yoga, p 3). An important discipline in yoga is “chitta mitti nerodgaha" or the control and modifying of the mind(Types of Yoga, p 19). IN the west, there is tremendous focus on the physical aspect of yoga, namely the performing of postures or asanas where as there are types of traditional yoga, such as Bhakti and Kundalini, that do not involve asanas at all. In other types of yoga, for instance Astanga, asanas are part of the practice but the focus of the practice is on the development of social and self discipline and the building of concentration to achieve a union with the universal consciousness or Samadhi. 

A typical western yoga class would be one to one and a half hour in duration. It equally starts and ends with about five minutes of relaxation or meditation involving either breathing or visualization exercises and the chanting of Om once. The rest of the class would be devoted to asanas. Traditional yoga spends more time on non physical practice and may include the recitation of Sanskrit prayers, repeated chanting of Om, meditation, pranayama and perhaps shat karmas or cleansing techniques. Asanas are practiced as a compliment rather than th main focus. 

In terms of asanas, western style yoga would hold poses usually about 5 breaths or approximately 20 seconds. The class is fast paced, moving from one asana to the next. Those offered at fitness centers may even be set to dance music with a speedy rhythm. Students in these classes may get a cardiovascular workout, experiencing perspiration and increased heart rates. According to Pantanjali, asanas should be "Sthira Sukham Asana" or steady and comfortable (Astanga Yoga, p 39). In traditional yoga, poses are generally held for longer periods and sometimes up to three hours (Hatha Yoga, p 5). This yoga is non-strenuous and heart rates will actually decrease as one relaxes into asanas. 

Prayers, Omkar chanting and meditation are important in traditional yoga as they are considered effective tools for calming the mind. Pantnjali's Yoga Sutras deemed Omkar chanting as one of the seven paths to achieve Samadhi. IN addition in I:27 of the Sutras, it states "fasya vadakah pranavah", indicating that Om sound should be continuously and repeatedly recited to help mold the mind (Pantanjali Yoga Sutras, p 75). While Om is chanted in the most western classes, they are usually recited once to three times at most if at all. 

While deep breathing is used for relaxation in western yoga classes, other pranayama or breath control techniques are seldom practiced. Pranyama is an important element of traditional yoga. According to Patanjali's yoga sutras I:34, "Prachardama Vidharama Va Prana"(Patanjalini Yoga Surtas, p 103) meaning one can control the mind body complex through exhalation and retention of prana. 

Another vital and powerful component of traditional yoga is shatharamas, used for the cleanings of body and mind. These practices can balance and purify the body and percent illnesses. Kapallhati and agrusar dhouti are two cleansing techniques that utilize the breath and can be practiced in a class setting. Kapallhati increase long efficiency, purifies the respiratory system, strengthens the nervous system and brings clarity to the mind. Agnisar strengthens and improves the digestive system and the abdomen and increases prana or energy in the body (Hatha Yoga, p 45 - 46). These techniques are relatively unknown and are hardly taught in a western yoga class. 

It should now be evident that there are indeed differences between tradition yoga and yoga practiced in the west. This is attributed to the fact that in the west, yoga classes are primarily designed for increasing fitness and flexibility, weight loss and stress relief. A fast paced Asanas focused class is therefore believed to be the best way to achieving these goals, much like an aerobics fitness class. 

When asanas are performed quickly and are held for short duration, they become exercises for the heart and lungs. To increase fitness and flexibility, it would be more fruitful to maintain a pose for a longer period. This way, one can gradually increase interring the stretching of muscles during the asana increasing flexibility as well as building endurance. 

While asanas alone are great for weight loss, coupling them with pranayama practices such as suryabhedan, right nostril breathing and Bastrika, bellows breath are effective in increasing metabolism and the body's demand for calories. The addition of these breathing practices can accelerate weight loss when practiced with asanas and cleansing techniques such as agnisar and kapalbhati. 

Due to the high speed and stressful lifestyle of many who live in western cities, yoga classes have become a means for destressing and escaping from busy lives. In this case, a strenuous asana class may not be the best choice as it will increase blood pressure and heart rate and will do little to clean and focus the mind. A steady, relaxed asana class with cooling pranayama and deep breathing along with ample (Omkar chanting will help relax the body and mind, allowing anxiety and tension to melt away. 

Lastly, it is important that traditional yoga is a personal practice. While it is useful and inspiring to attend group yoga classes, especially for beginners, western teaches should provide the basis and the encouragement for their students to practice at home. While this may not be the best business model for the yoga studios, an individual practice will help students work at their own levels, remain self motivated, relinquish their egos, focus their minds and make yoga a part of their daily routine. 

It is wonderful that yoga has been adopted by much of the western world. However, it seems that some elements of traditional yoga have been lost in translation from east to west. These neglected practices such as Omkar chanting, pranayama and shatkarams would be beneficial to a yoga class focused on fitness and relaxation. More than that, students may be inspired by the "side effects", when they find themselves closer to the true goal of yoga, the union between body and mind. 


  1. Ashtanga Yoga, Shir Vishwas Mandlik 
  2. Hatha Yoga, Yoga Vidya Gurukel 
  3. Pantanjali Yoga Sutras, Dr. P.V. Karambelkar 
  4. Types of Yoga, Gandhar Mandlik 
  5. Yoga Sopan, Yogacharya Vishwas Mandlik 

“The views above are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with all statements.”

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