5:24 am on June 21, 2015, when the sun’s first rays touch our holy land, scorching us for the next 13:58:04 hours—the longest duration so far in what is the NDA regime’s second year in office—Prime Minister Narendra Modi will presumably be leading our ancient civilisation in paying homage to the only ‘pratyaksha devata’, the lone god you can see with your naked eyes among the Hindu pantheon of gods, by performing surya namaskar—a set of cardiovascular exercises that warms up the body to perform the yogasanas which follow. This World Yoga Day, move over Baba Ramdev, Om Namo Narendra is here. Now imagine how proud we will feel, barring of course the few anti- nationals among us, when seconds after NaMo comes out of shirshasana (the headstand and the king of asanas), Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and what have you will be jammed with Namo-images looking at the world, bottoms up. Our chest will swell with pride from yogic inhalations to 56 inches to assert to the world yet again that we Sanatanis, the first in transplanting heads, flying pushpakavimanas and using WMDs like the Brahmastra, were also the first to view the world upside down. Neeche se world kaise dikhta hai?
There is little dispute over the broad origins of yoga; however it’s interesting to examine when yoga, as we know it today, re-entered Indian lives. Or whether the word yoga is a western standardisation (Ramdev prefers the Hindi ‘yog’). Going by Wendy Doniger’s analogy of ‘available light’ on the history of Hindus, it is difficult to say whether the Indo-European tribe that started from the Caucusus and finally settled on the plains of Punjab, to be known as the Vedic people, had found some form of yoga to be already existing here. Since the BJP and the rest of the parivar wants to reinvigorate the Hindu fire in us, let us assume it was the Vedic people who brought yogic philosophy with them, because it’s unlikely that this pure race would have allowed a native philosophy to be adopted into the fold!
Patanjali Yogasutra, the source from which all yoga masters of the mid-20th century drew upon, is ambiguous on its authorship. There is also no unanimity on the many versions of Patanjali that exist, or on what exactly the sutras specifically dealt in. For instance, the Patanjali of 400 AD talks about Mahabhasya—the rules of Sanskrit grammar. Whereas the Patanjali of 600 years later, Raja Bhoj’s era, advocates ‘the eight-limb yoga’ Ashtanga and Karma (action) yoga. It is likely that the 11th century Patanjali authorship, considered the most comprehensive of all Patanjali versions, combined previous works on yoga; likewise the 400 AD version may have just borrowed from Buddhist jhannas—a religion in the ascendant in that period. In yet another version, Patanjali sutra treats the mind through yoga and body through medicines. In the Bhagavad Gita (the final version of which is put between 300 BC to 300 AD), Krishna describes yoga to Arjuna as any form of union through knowledge, love, action etc, since these are also means of liberation and thus instruments of realisation. Though the word yog or yuj, which means to link, appears many times in the Gita, never once does Krishna advocate an asana to Arjuna.
The eight-limb aspect of yoga—the physical aspect—can be found in the temple sculptures of gods and goddesses from the medieval period onwards. Many of the yoga postures were an extension of actual physical movements (like the warrior pose is how an archer should stand). Shiva, by some account the originator of Hatha yoga, in the Nataraja mudra (as conceived by the Pallavas between 7-9 AD) depicts the cosmic dancer in a yogic mudra of beauty and grace after having performed the divine dance to annihilate a wretched universe for Brahma, the creator, to start the process again.
Without necessarily digging deep into yoga’s history, if we go just a couple of generations back, our grandparents weren’t joining laughing clubs at the neighbourhood park nor were they fashionably slinging a yoga mat on the way to a studio. Much of their lifestyle was in a way yogic, yet making no big fuss about it. For instance, the cross-legged sitting position—padmasana or the lotus position—was the way everyone sat naturally. Again vajrasana, sitting on the haunches, is how Indians performed many daily chores. All our musicians perform seated in the half padmasana or vajrasana. Paschimottanasana—bending to touch your toes to stretch and relax your hamstrings—well, Indians washed their feet besides performing many other daily activities in that position. One can go on and on. Yogis, for Indians then, were men who lived in icy caves in the Himalayas and performed superhuman feats. Astral travel et al.
From the 19th century end to all through the 20th century, Hinduism and mystical India began to attract the western world, as one seer put it, “like bees to honey”. Starting with Vivekananda, many spiritual leaders crossed the black waters to carry the message of Hinduism. Conversely, many western thinkers and artists came to experience mystic India. And almost all of them, Alain Danielou, the Beatles, Steve Jobs, Yehudi Menuhin, had a brush with yoga, which left an impression on them despite the disappointments with assorted gurus.
The three prominent gurus who made yoga a giant success in the west were Swami Sivananda (Sivananda style of yoga has the world’s largest following even today); B.K.S. Iyengar (the Iyengar style stresses on achieving perfection in the mudras); and Pattabhi Jois, founder of the hugely popular style in America, the hyper-intensive Power Yoga, a part of Ashtanga.
The word yog or yuj (to link) appears many times in the Gita, but never does Krishna suggest an asana for Arjuna.
Sivananda himself was not much of a yoga enthusiast though. He was a Hindu spiritual leader in Rishikesh with a sizeable following. Among his prominent disciples was an ex-armyman, rechristened by him as Vishnudevananda, who performed incredible yogasanas. Looking at the chela’s gracious poses, Sivananda told Vishnu, “Go to the west, they are waiting for yogasanas.” Another of Sivananda’s disciples, Satyananda, founded the Bihar School of Yoga in 1964. Both yoga masters, Vishnu and Satya, were hugely successful in spreading their easy-to-follow yoga postures to the western world, opening many centres in the Americas and the continent. The styles the two masters taught comprised of breathing exercises, pranayama and sets of asanas—stretching exercises, to attain flexibility in the body focusing mainly on the spinal chord. (According to Hatha yoga, the age of your spine is the age of your body.)
The yogic exercises found a connect with the western audience primarily due to the exoticism of the east it brought with it. Also, unlike physical exercises like aerobics or weight-training, yoga, due to its slow pace built around the rhythm of one’s breathing, gave a sense of calm to the mind. To make a generalisation: westerners, due to the weather and lifestyles, tend to have rather rigid bodies compared to people from the east. The success of yoga in the west could have been due to this reason too.
Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga, on the contrary, is extremely vigorous. It gained popularity in the ’80s among American youth seeking a well-toned, muscular body. Sting and Madonna became the best advertisement for the Ashtanga style.
All yoga masters however carried along with themselves a generous helping of Hindu religion. The yoga package would have elementary Vedantic teachings, Hindu mythology, chanting of a few Hindu mantras, introduction to vegetarian cooking, Vedic rituals like havans etc and a fixed set of yogasanas. The religion component was only to introduce to the student the yogic way of living. The yoga masters never really engaged themselves with religion in a spiritual way like, say, Jiddu Krishnamurthi or Ramana Maharshi—who also had big audiences in the west at the time—did.
The India story of yoga in the west had its share of scandals too, and right from the late ’60s. The famous trip of the Beatles to Rishikesh in the spring of 1968 to Mahesh Yogi’s ashram ended up in the biggest scandal ever to sting a Hindu guru. The celibate guru couldn’t quite hold his yogic composure vis-a-vis actress Mia Farrow, a fellow ashramite, and “followed her like a dog”. Though the Beatles spent a little over a month at the ashram and returned disgusted as ever, the song they wrote after the stint, Across the Universe, was hugely influenced by Hindu mysticism. Rishikesh, however, remained a big attraction for foreigners in search of the mystic and yoga, the two words synonymous, sharing in equal measures honour and ignominy along the way.
Of the yoga masters that followed the Big Three, some kept getting embroiled in scandals. The popularity of yoga made many join the trade. Yogasanas were meant to strength your body so that you can sit in meditation to still your mind in the search for Brahman, ‘the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world’. But yoga got competitive, and gurus started popping up from all over the globe to sex it up. For instance, Bikram Choudhary’s (another name in the scandal list) Hot Yoga (performed in a hot sauna room) gained a lot of popularity in the US and other yoga hotspots. Likewise, Vayu Yoga or Air Yoga is very popular currently in places like Hawaii (slung from the ceiling, you do yoga hanging inside a fabric sheet). There is even yoga done neck deep in water and in many other bizarre ways. Yoga is so popular the world over today that related material available on the Net is perhaps only second to porn sites.
Yoga Alliance, a US body that sort of gives a licence to teach yoga, recognises a simple 200-hour teacher’s training course certificate, offered by many yoga institutions around the world, mostly as a 30-day package deal, ranging between US $2,000-3,000. (For an Indian doing a ttc in India, it costs about Rs 28,000.) So, if you haven’t seen your yoga mate lately at the studio, she may just pop up a month from now as a certified teacher to help prepare your body for a Brahman darshan.
The yoga industry in the West has almost been wrested by the white gurus now, who run expansive studios with chain-like branches in all big cities. Some western masters like John Friend have recalibrated poses from Hatha Yoga to suit western body types, calling it ‘Anusara’. Another form, Vinyasa, the yoga style the great master Krishnamachari taught (based on Ashtanga), has also been repackaged by many latter-day western yoga teachers.
In India, yogasanas re-entered our lives in a way the modern-day masters propagated it in the west, around the beginning of the ’80s. The big three opened yoga centres in Mysore, Neyyar dam, Uttarkashi, Pune and Munger. Yet the real big push to make yoga a household practice was made by Baba Ramdev, using TV effectively as his medium. Though it is debatable whether the over-the-counter medicinal and lifestyle products Ramdev sells today brings in more profits than the yoga he teaches, there is no doubt his TV shows made yoga less elitist. (It will be interesting to find out the results of a poll on how many of us had heard of kapalbhati before Ramdev came onto the scene.) Another self-styled yoga master, Bharat Thakur, tried marketing yoga in Indian cities in a franchise-like business model in the beginning of this century, calling it Artistic Yoga. But it’s almost like a circus now. Thakur posed in padmasana for the cover of a national magazine, getting a lady to sit on his shoulder, bare legs wrapped around his neck, as if in padmasana herself. Double-decker yoga!
The yogasanas, those that originated from ancient Indian culture, travelled the world and became syncretic in nature in the 20th century. The way we do yogasanas today surely has roots in the old doctrines but these postures underwent many mutations, incorporating seamlessly in themselves ideas and practices of other cultures. Yoga doesn’t belong to one culture or religion any longer. It’s like Christmas, it belongs to all who want to celebrate it. Likewise, it’s the best deal to compensate for our modern-day sedentary lives, an easy-to-do, low-injury-risk health maintenance programme. That’s yoga.