By Maria Wirth
Swami Ramdev has a dream and that is to make yoga with its potential for perfect physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health accessible to all. A report on an international conference on Yoga for Health and Social Transformation held by Ramdev`s Patanjali University at Haridwar recently.
|Missionary of yoga: The phenomenal Swami Ramdev addresses lakhs during a yoga event.It was a grand event.|
The reception area of Patanjali Yogpeet near Hardwar was as busy and crowded as Mumbai`s Churchgate station on the cold, misty first Sunday of the year. Two thousand delegates had arrived for the first international conference on ‘Yoga for Health and Social Transformation’ organised by the Patanjali University – far more than expected. The organisers had run out of the conference manual introducing the speakers, as only a thousand had been printed. There was, however, no lack of accommodation on the campus. Over a thousand clean and comfortable apartments could house around 8,000 people. I had visited the area five years ago when it was under construction and was truly stunned at the amazing transformation that had happened in those few years. Evidently, Swami Ramdev does not think big, he thinks huge. Little wonder that his goal, as expressed in the inaugural session of the conference, was humungous. “Everyone should practise yoga – in India and in the whole world.”
What is yoga?
By yoga, Ramdev means much more than the asanas and pranayamas he is known for. To be a yogi means living in such a way that one is not only healthy, happy, peaceful, enthusiastic and prosperous but also on the road to self-realisation. Yoga means joining – joining the real Self, joining the whole world. “You are atman, and atman is Brahman,” Swami Ramdev quoted from the Vedas and added, “Everything is inside you. The whole universe is inside you. Atman is inside you. God is inside you.”
Yoga is for the ‘small’ concerns in life, such as curing obesity or diabetes, as well as for the big picture – how to know the Truth about oneself and the universe.
“We all know that yoga works,” a foreign speaker told me, “but we have to prove it scientifically. Science is the highest authority in our world today.”
“And what is science?” I asked. Though he was a professor, he was at a loss for words. I wondered whether science is overvalued. It is concerned only with what can be observed, what can be measured ‘objectively’. If hemoglobin increases during pranayama, it is scientific, if the person claims that he feels much better, it is unscientific. Science is a work in progress. Swami Ramdev is aware of this. He said, “Western medical science has been around only for some 200 years. Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years and has helped people without side-effects. In western medicine, researchers find a new drug today and after two years it is banned, because it turns out to be harmful.” But he made it clear that he was not against western medicine. “It definitely can save lives,” he said. What he objects to is spending money on drugs for ailments that yoga and ayurveda can cure with little or no expense.
Sixty five per cent of Indians and a big percentage in the rest of the world cannot afford Western medicine. I don’t want anybody to die because he is poor,” said Ramdev rather poignantly. To achieve this goal, Patanjali Yogpeeth has embarked on a challenging mission. “We are committed to getting yoga accepted internationally as a medical science,” Acharya Balkrishna, an expert in ayurveda and Swami Ramdev’s gurubhai, stated. To achieve this, these two disciples (a speaker called them ‘jewels’) of guru Acharya Praduman plan to present scientific evidence through rigorous clinical trials with the help of state-of-the- art technology.
The duo has established Yoga Research Foundation at Patanjali University having the facilities of a modern lab and a scientist called Dr Shirley Telles as its director. Dr Telles started her work with investigating the physiological and mental effects of kapalabhati, one Ramdev’s favourite pranayamas. The results were encouraging. Motor skills, perception and attention improve after kapalabhati.
It was she who organised the present conference to which some 25 scientists had responded, representing prestigious institutes like Harvard Medical School, Oxford University, and University of Texas and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which entered into collaboration with Patanjali University. Two things impressed me most. One, yoga cures even ailments that one would not expect it to, and two, yoga is on an amazing upswing worldwide.
Terrance Ryan, professor of dermatology from Oxford University, who has been working together with Dr SR Narhari of the Institute of Applied Dermatology (IAD) in Kerala, showed that yoga is highly successful in treating elephantiasis. (Profiled in the April 2009 issue of Life Positive). He illustrated his talk by juxtaposing two slides: one showed hugely swollen, unshapely legs, painful to look at, and the other, the same legs reduced to a fraction in size just after a few months or a year. He has treated a thousand patients, taught them pranayama (anulom vilom),
|Sixty five per cent of Indians and a big percentage in the rest of the world cannot afford Western medicine. I don’t want anybody to die because he is poor. -Swami Ramdev|
how to massage the leg and how to move the ankles. It is a cheap, brief training for the patient and his family members, yet wonderfully effective. The reason is, Dr Ryan explained, that all lymphatic systems drain into the upper chest and as the drainage system of the skin is very close under the skin, it is sensitive to movement and massage. There are 20 million people suffering from elephantiasis in India. Unnecessary suffering when there is such simple cure.
A global icon
Sat Bir S Kalsa, an American Sikh from Harvard Medical School, brought to our notice what amazing acceptance yoga has gained in the West. “Yoga Nation” was how Life magazine dubbed the US in a cover story. Time magazine followed with a model in yoga pose on the cover. The number of Hollywood stars who practice and praise yoga is continuously increasing. On the lawns of the White House in Washington, yogasanas were demonstrated during Easter celebration. “And you know that yoga has finally arrived, when McDonald uses it for ads,” laughed Kalsa. “Yoga is now part of the US culture but is practiced mainly by the upper class and women. It is not universally practiced,” he rued and suggested two avenues to reach the whole society. “In the US, everyone visits his doctor and everyone goes through school. If a doctor would advise yoga to his patients, and if we could train every child in school, yoga would be fully accepted as a daily routine, as universal as brushing teeth. Yet both healthcare and education need evidence that yoga is worthwhile and therefore we need research.”
The inaugural lamp was lit by (from left) yogacharya BKS Iyengar, Acharya Balkrishna, Swami Veda Bharati, Swami Ramdev and Acharya Pradyuman, the guru of Acharya Balkrishna and Swami Ramdev
There are already many projects underway. For example, the mayor of New York supports an initiative to teach yoga in 73 public schools. In Germany, yoga classes in elementary schools have provenly reduced aggression among children. “Yoga has the image of physical exercise in the West and maybe this is actually a positive for us,” Sat Bir Kalsa said. “It scores over meditation, as youngsters have a lot of energy.”
It was obvious at the conference that most of the Western speakers considered yoga a wonderful ‘tool’ to work with, divorced, however, from its philosophy. Some Indian delegates considered this a drawback or distortion.
“Don’t you feel that by including yama and niyama (the virtues of external and internal purity) into yoga, the benefits would be greater?” an Indian delegate asked John Kepner, one of the founders of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), who had just narrated that an US army officer had called him up asking for a qualified yoga teacher for the armed forces. “I don’t think the army is interested in the traditional ways,” Kepner replied with a tinge of haughtiness. He may be right, yet the lack of ethical grounding which yamas and niyamas would inculcate, could be behind the legion of present-day yoga teachers for whom it is only a lucrative profession. IAYT is now developing education standards for yoga therapists to follow. Hopefully, those who develop those standards would at least be grounded in yama and niyama
After John Kepner finished his talk, Swami Ramdev spontaneously declared, “We will found an ‘Association for Yoga Therapists’ in India, as well.”
“It is okay to take up yoga as a profession, but it is a crime to patent it,” stated he added, thereby touching a sore point between India and the west. “Our ancient rishis have given this wonderful knowledge free to everyone to become peaceful, energetic, successful and balanced. Now in the West, they talk of ‘power yoga’, ‘sex yoga’, etc.” None of the Western speakers commented on the issue of patents. Some 130 patents on yoga have been taken out in the US alone. When I asked one of them regarding this issue, she went on the defensive. “Some people claim that Hinduism owns yoga. We resist that.”
“You in India have yoga gurus with a long tradition behind them. We don’t have that,” argued Leigh Blashki from the Australian Association of Yoga Therapists.
The Indian revival
It is true, though, that yoga has become only recently popular in India too. “In the 1930s, yoga was not respected,” BKS Iyengar narrated. “I feel that only after yoga had taken roots in the West, have Indians opened up to it.”
Unarguably, Swami Ramdev is largely responsible for yoga’s popularity in India. Swami Chidananda of Parmarth Ashram in Rishikesh remembered that in 1995, he sent a reporter to Swami Ramdev who was teaching yoga to a group in a small hall in Haridwar. “The reporter came back saying that it was not newsworthy. Today, Swami Ramdev is THE news!” he exclaimed.
It is natural that Swami Ramdev has his share of detractors as well. Many feel that his claim that yoga can cure 99 per cent of all diseases is preposterous. Swami Ramdev counters, “The Rg Veda considers oxygen to be the ultimate medicine. It is not only the ultimate medicine. It is fire and fire is a synonym for knowledge, brightness, and light. Pran Tatva is almighty, it is energy, it is the life force, it is God! Disease will enter if the life force is weak. Make yoga your life partner and there won’t be lifestyle diseases.”
Swami Ramdev’s life partner is certainly yoga. Even his critics won’t deny his yoga expertise. He is the proverbial yogi, fully in control of his body and mind. Early morning, at a temperature of 5 degree Celsius, he was teaching yoga in the imposing 250,000 sq feet huge Yog Bhavan to the delegates with only a cotton cloth wrapped around his hips, while I was packed in several layers of woolens and still felt cold. “Whatever I have achieved has been given to me by kapalabhati and anulom vilom pranayam,” he claims. “Partially, I have been able to attain that extraordinary power and that extraordinary knowledge that is within each one of us. I have felt what is eternal and real. Sages before me, too, have felt it. And I don’t say this to praise myself, but to give you an example.”
|Thinking big: The sprawling campus of Patanjali Yogpeeth|
“There are four types of lives: miserable, ordinary, successful and ideal. Most of you have a successful life. Become a yogi and make it an ideal life,” he exhorts.
The conference teemed with those who had followed his advice. Rohini from South Africa had fibroids in the uterus two years ago and was asked to undergo a surgery. She refused and came to Patanjali Yogpeeth instead. At first, she had great difficulty in practicing yoga, but through persistence she reached a stage where back in South Africa, she woke regularly at 3 am to practice for full three hours. After six weeks, the fibroids disappeared. Now she is back in Haridwar to become a yoga teacher.
Will Swami Ramdev succeed in disseminating yoga across the world? Judging by his track record, why not? What he has achieved in only 15 years is mind-boggling. Extraordinary power and knowledge are at work through this slender frame whose parents were illiterate farmers and who attended school only till Std VIII.
|Two things impressed me most. One, yoga cures even ailments that one would not expect it to, and two, yoga is on an amazing upswing worldwide.|
He has become a modern rishi who, in tune with the times, spreads his knowledge through satellite TV and reaches millions all over the world. Tremendous adoration and love flow to him. One wonders if he will succeed in staying balanced.
The chances are he will. When he was asked whether Patanjali in his sutras had claimed that a yogi can fly in the sky and become very small or very big at will, he replied. “I have flown in the sky, but in an airplane. I have become very big because of good deeds and I have become very small because of my humility.”
If he can stay humble and allow that what is true and eternal to flow through him, he will surely continue to be a boon for India and the world.
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