By Punya Srivastava
On the occasion of the newly declared International Yoga Day on June 21, Punya Srivastava traces the rise and rise of yoga
It’s in your face and on top of the mind. Hollywood films, and popular soaps refer to it all the time. The recent Nike ad for women mentions it too. The Internet is choked with products derived from it. Everyone, from children to fragile elders, is doing it. Every locality in the world has a centre teaching it. Festivals celebrating it are exploding. Whole magazines exist to dwell on its every connotation. They say nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. Clearly, yoga’s time in the sun is here.
Both in India and all across the globe, the world is stretching, bending, breathing and twisting like never before. If proof is needed that the world is slowly moving on its axis from Kaliyug to Satyug, behold the explosion of interest in yoga. And the clincher to its universal appeal is the recent declaration of June 21 as International Yoga Day.
“I think the greatest impact of yoga is yet to come. Yoga can truly bring peace to the world. If we all simply adopt the basic yamas and niyamas which form the foundation of any yoga practice, and if we truly aim for an experience of union in our practice, societal ills such as violence and crime will, I believe, dissipate,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Administrative Head of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, which holds an enormously popular international yoga festival every year in March. More than a thousand participants and trainers from over 60 countries turn up at this gala fair.
Today, people recognise the powerful transformative impact of yoga in their lives and its capacity to catapult them to health, fitness, alertness and above all, peace and happiness. Yoga’s benefits seem well-nigh limitless and a stressed-out, burned-out, and extremely ill world is seeing it as the panacea for our times.
“We get around 500 people on an average per week in the Delhi Centre alone,” says Vikram Mehra, Head of the Delhi Centre of Sivananda Yoga Centre. According to him, people from diverse backgrounds like housewives, teens, young adults, and retired professionals throng to it. “More people are making yoga a part of their lives because they see others benefitting; they witness a 360-degree spin as yoga brings in discipline in their lifestyle, and also subtly takes them a step forward to their higher self,” he adds.
Moreover, the practitioners are getting ever younger. “Today, 50 per cent of those who visit our institute for health care and rejuvenation are below 40 years of age. The students seeking to adopt it as a profession have increased, since opportunities have increased. More physicians are accepting it as a complementary and alternative therapy,” says Subodh Tiwari, head of Kaivalyadham, a beautiful yoga centre in Lonavla, Maharashtra, which specialises in research on yoga’s healing power. He adds, “I am happy to see people practising in parks, or while travelling in train. This is good because yoga is not a pill which can be taken for its effect. It’s a practice which has to be sustained for one’s holistic growth.”
According to Saddhuru Jaggi Vasudev, whose organisation, Isha Yoga, ardently promotes the practice of this ancient technique, over two billion people on the planet are doing some system of yoga. “We want to see that in the next 25 years, seven billion people are doing some system of yoga. That is why we are offering simpler and simpler ways, so that everyone should have at least a spot of spiritual process,” he says.
Furthermore, the mystic yogi, a frequent invitee to the prestigious annual World Economic Forum meets at Davos, has taken yoga to top-level political and economic leaders and in his words, “made a phenomenal difference in the way they make their decisions and relate to the rest of the world.” He recently conducted a programme for the whole administration, including the Chief Minister, of Andhra Pradesh. It is probably the first time – not just in India but anywhere for that matter – that a whole administration is making an attempt to turn inward.
According to Dr Ishwar V Basavaraddi, Director Incharge of the Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy (CCRYN), the Ministry of AYUSH is geared to bring yoga into the mainstream. “We have plans to set up a Yoga Research Institute in every state of the country in the coming years, within which we’ll have a 100-bed yoga and naturopathy hospital. We have already started with this project in three places, namely Jhajjar in Haryana, outskirts of Bhubhaneshwar, and in the Mandya district of Karnataka.”
The state governments have allotted a sizeable amount of land in each place where the initial work of setting up the infrastructure has already begun. “In the last two-three years, the state governments of Rajasthan, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have also invited us to set up similar projects. Yoga, as an alternative modality, is once again being taken up seriously in our country,” he adds.
To commemorate the International Yoga Day on June 21, CCRYN plans to observe one month of yoga practice (May 20-June 20) in all the 676 districts of the country, which would culminate in a day-long yoga
workshop/seminar on June 21. “In Delhi/NCR alone, around 25,000 people are expected to attend this initiative,” he shares.
The Art of Living too is commemorating the day in a big way. It aims to reach out to millions across the globe and spread awareness about the true essence and meaning of yoga by conducting free yoga workshops – Gift of Yoga, Yogdaan in every village, town and city globally, in the months of May and June. Kaivalyadhama is celebrating the occasion with practices at 20 locations in Mumbai, like the GPO for the postal department employees, at remand homes, for bus drivers of BEST and MSRTC, for bus drivers of school buses, and for motormen of railways. A grant programme is being planned together with the University of Mumbai where around 800 students are expected to participate.
Where it all began
India has given a lot of gifts to the world. Yoga is one of them. Its influence in the Western world most prominently started with Swami Vivekananda’s iconic and pioneering address to the “sisters and brothers of America…” From Ashatanga Yoga and Hatha Yoga to Power Yoga, Hot Yoga and Bikram Yoga, it has undergone many surgical changes and is still going strong. Although yoga originated in India, its current redhot appeal has been fuelled by its extraordinary attraction for the West. “Maybe due to multiple invasions, indoctrinations and constant bashing of self-esteem, we Indians slowly lost respect for our ancient wisdom,” says Kamlesh Barwal, Global Head, Art of Living Yoga (AOL).
According to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “Yoga is the only system which has lived for over 15,000 years without any papacy or enforcement. Nowhere in the history of humanity has it happened that somebody put a sword to someone’s neck and said, ‘You must do yoga.’ It has survived and thrived because it has worked as a process of well-being like nothing else.”
Says Kamlesh, “It is the contribution of saints like Paramhansa Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who brought acceptance and respectability to yoga in the West. From being an ancient spiritual path for seekers of moksha or enlightenment, yoga has willingly been absorbed into mainstream lifestyle by people from all cultures and backgrounds the world over. Today, yoga has come out of the esoteric realms of yogis to the boardrooms of companies.”
Others who have contributed significantly to yoga’s popularity in the West include Swami Vishnudevananda, a close disciple of Swami Sivananda (of Divine Life Society, Rishikesh) and founder of Sivananda Yoga, BKS Iyengar who has founded his eponymous school of yoga, and Swami Satchitananda, another disciple of Swami Sivananda and proponent of Integral Yoga.
For India to awaken to yoga in a collective manner, we had to wait for the advent of Baba Ramdev 15 years ago. With his black overflowing beard and locks, and lean body, Baba Ramdev began teaching simplified asanas on TV, and the effect was electrifying. People took to anulom vilom and kapal bhati like a fish takes to water. Today, households all over India assemble before the TV at 5.30 am and switch on Aastha channel in order to practice yoga to his instructions. Swami Ramdev also began to hold giant yoga camps which attracted thousands despite a steep fee. Overnight, yoga and its healing effects was on every Indian’s lip.
Corroborates Delhi-based yoga guru, Suneel Singh, “People turn to yoga to resolve their physical issues like weight loss, lower back problem, and stress reduction, as they find it more holistic than any other medium. What is heartening is that people who seek yoga only for health gradually discover its spiritual side too. This makes their life much richer.”
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati agrees. Says she, “The closer one gets to true ‘yoga’ or ‘union’ which is what the word literally means, the more beauty, the more expansiveness, the more completeness there is in one’s life. Health is a bonus, a fabulous byproduct of a system which connects us to our true Self, to the Divine, and to all of Creation.”
However, Sadhguru has a slightly different perception about the way yoga is being twisted to suit the market. “The way yoga is being done right now in most places in the world, is a stillbirth. It is better not to get pregnant than to have a stillbirth, isn’t it? Yoga is not an exercise; it has other dimensions attached to it. Yoga needs to be practised in a very subtle, gentle way, not in a forceful muscle building way, because this is not about exercise. The physical body has a whole memory structure. If you are willing to read this physical body, everything – from how this cosmos evolved from nothingness to this point – is written into this body. Yoga is a way of opening up that memory and trying to restructure this life towards an ultimate possibility. It is a very subtle and scientific process,” he says.
Certainly, the ancients had conceived of it as a profound practice of union between the self and the Self.
“Yogas chitta vritti nirodah” (Yoga silences the wavering mind), says the ever popular shloka from the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, capsuling its vastness and depth in a few words. Taken from the Sanskrit root, it means, “Yoga is the process of selectively eliminating habituated thoughts, patterns, and identifications occurring within the field of all that can be perceived.”
Though popularly pronounced yoga, the word originally was ‘yog’ which meant ‘to yoke together the body-mind-soul, and bring them in alignment for the ultimate enlightenment’. Sage Patanjali, the author of Patanjali Yoga Sutra and the proponent of the philosophy of yoga, conceived of it as an eight-limbed (ashtanga) practice, which first heals and fortifies the physical body, then the mind and the thought process, and eventually makes the person fit enough to experience spiritual awakening. These eight processes are: yama which deals with ethical standards and integrity, niyama which deals with self-discipline and spiritual observances, asanas which are the postures that keep the physical body fit and supple, pranayama which is the practice of disciplining the mind through breath control, pratyahara which prepares one for sensory transcendence, dharana which teaches the body and the mind to concentrate in alignment with each other, dhyana which is the continuous flow of that concentration and samadhi which is the final stage which Patanjali described as the state of ecstasy where the self merges with the Supreme.
In ancient India, apart from Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga which is quite exhaustively described in the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, there is mention of jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, laya yoga, mantra yoga, tantra yoga, kundalini yoga and hatha yoga, in various different ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva Samahita, and Gheranda Samhita. Out of these, the most prominent one has been hatha yoga with its focus on the asanas and pranayama to keep the physical body fit through the correct flow of prana in the body. One can trace the renaissance of yoga to the beginning of the 19th century in India. From 1700 AD onwards, no literary works on yoga can be cited, which means that the focus on this subject was narrowed down. “This could be due to the colonisation and destruction of the gurukul parampara, where yoga was an essential part,” says Subodh Tiwari.
The 1900s saw the emergence of great yogis like Swami Kuvalyananda who started Kaivalyadhama in Amalner (under Bombay presidency) in the year 1917, and then established Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla, in the year 1924. He was the pioneer of scientific research in yoga and has been hailed as the architect of yoga in modern times. Soon after there came other renowned teachers too such as Shri Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and Sri Yogendra, who went on to establish their own schools of yoga.
On the foundations these giants established, the gentle power of yoga is now transforming the world. What more can we say?
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