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The Difference Between Indian and American Gyms

July 28, 2010

I knew, of course, that in transitioning to a life in India, I would be confronted with different ways of dressing, speaking, eating, and going about my day-to-day activities.  I hadn’t considered, though, the cultural differences that I would encounter in an Indian gym.

Amrit and I began “gymming” (the noun-turned-verb meaning “to go to the gym”, and one of my favorite “Indianisms”) about a week ago.  The health club we joined is fully equipped with treadmills, ellipticals, exercise bikes, weight machines, and even a handful of personal trainers to help members spot, stretch, etc.  It seemed just like an American gym to me.  Maybe that’s why I was caught off-guard by the differences that I discovered between this Indian gym versus the American gyms that I’m used to:

I.  What to Wear… “This is a fairly ‘modern’ gym, and it’s hot these days in Delhi, so I can just wear athletic shorts and a tank top to workout, right?”, I asked Amrit as I was getting ready for my first day at the gym.  Nope; no such luck, it turned out.  The standard gym-wear for both men and women is some sort of athletic pant with a loose-fitting T-shirt.  I was a little irked by this at first.  Why would I wear pants to the gym in the summertime?  And is it really so bad to show my shoulders while I’m working out?  I heeded Amrit’s advice, anyway, and wore sweatpants and a T-shirt on the first day, just so I could check out what others were wearing.  And now I’m glad that I listened.  Two or three men were wearing shorts, and only one other woman.  And I saw absolutely no bare shoulders.  I’ve now settled into a gym uniform of either long shorts or capris with a T-shirt.  I still do occasionally miss my tank tops and spandex, though.

II.  What is that smell… I was busy pumping iron one day (not really – I was using 5-lb dumbbells), when this strange smell wafted into my nose and made me feel sick to my stomach.  “Is that…is that incense?”, I thought.  “Who burns incense in a gym??”  When I asked Amrit about it later, he explained that it was because someone on the staff must have been praying, so he had lit the incense to honor the gods.  Fair enough.  And, while I do prefer to breathe fresh air when I’m working out, I guess that incense beats the smell of body odor any day.

III.  What exactly does she mean by that… There’s one female trainer who I work with for my abs.  Some days she reminds me more of a dominatrix than a trainer.  The only words of encouragement I get from her are, “Come on.  Fast.  Stretch now.”  She gives me a good workout, though, and I always get a kind smile at the end of my ab routine, so I don’t mind working with her.  One day, though, as I was going through my set of crunches, she happened to ask me, “So, do you have a child?”.  I laughed at first and told her no.  As I continued my crunches, though, and she continued to sit there, pinching my belly fat, it dawned on me, “Wait…Does that mean that I look like I’ve had a child?!?”  After feeling offended for about ten minutes, I realized that I could do nothing but laugh the comment off.  I chalked it up to a combination of two things:  I have a broader body frame than most petite, young Indian women, but also, amongst Indians (including my dominatrix trainer, it would seem) there is a tendency to speak what’s on one’s mind, regardless of whether or not it would seem offensive, and to say things that a trainer in an American gym would never say, for fear of offending a client.  To someone coming from America – a country so concerned with political correctness – these kind of comments can seem simultaneously indelicate and refreshing.   If nothing else, I figure that my trainer’s comment about my baby-bearing belly will be my motivation to continue going to the gym – sweatpants, incense, and all.

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