Yoga – From being a rigorous, introspective way of life to a multibillion dollar industry

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From being a rigorous, introspective way of life to a multibillion dollar industry that has spawned myriad cocktail versions, yoga has mutated into as many stretches and twists as the number of asanas we practice today, says Marisha Karwa, speaking to its multi-variant practitioners

It’s 7 am. About a dozen women sit cross-legged with their eyes shut in an airy, sun-filled room by a busy stretch of road in central Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area. The instructor — tall, taut and more than a few years younger than the class’ median age — instructs them to rise. The calm is interrupted, and the air fills with a sense of urgency. Anticipating the instructor’s words, the women get into position and break into action as soon as he utters the words ‘surya namaskar’. For the next three minutes, every woman in the class races through the 12-pose sun salutation, doing multiple repetitions, heaving and grunting as they aim to outdo one another as if their lives depend on it. They are, quite fittingly, in a ‘Power yoga’ class.

Thousands of kilometres away, another class, this one in Singapore, is sweating it out, quite literally so. In a studio heated to over 40 degrees Centigrade, an eclectic mix of locals and foreigners are contorting their bodies into complex postures, aided by the induced flexibility due to the oppressive heat. But who’d complain when doing a forward bend to touch the toes is easy-breezy? Welcome to ‘Hot yoga’.

These are just two forms of the ancient Indian fitness regime that dates back to the Vedas and now merits a global day to itself — the UN declared in December last year that June 21 would be International Yoga Day. Across India and the globe, there are as many centres and schools for ‘yoga’ as there are ways to cook potatoes in. Sample this: Power yoga, Yogalate or Piyo (yoga and pilates), Yin yoga, Aerial yoga, Hot yoga, Naked yoga, Rocket yoga and even Stand-up Paddle yoga (done on a board similar to a surf board).

From the leafy environs of Shivaji Park to the humid stretches of Singapore, yoga has pervaded the ‘wellness industry’, gathering die-hard followers, procuring business for yoga teachers and schools, boosting tourism and spawning merchandise ripe for retail. But what is it about the centuries-old tradition that manages to appeal to everyone from the middle-aged to the millennials?

“Yoga has been an enriching experience. I like its impact on my body and mind,” says Tanushka Mishra. “The moment I enter a yoga studio, I simply transcend into a different state. Apart from staying fit and maintaining the four packs, I like how my mind is completely silent throughout that hour of yoga.”

Nudged by a friend into trying ‘Hot Yoga’, Mishra has been a regular at the heated studio in Singapore. “The fact that one practices yoga in a heated room sounded very new and intriguing. So, I thought I should give it a shot.”

While it may be heartening that yoga, a way of life first prescribed during Vedic times, finds resonance centuries later, the fact is that the modern stretches and twists have rendered the once hallowed tradition into a hollow, peel-and-use label.

The many cocktail versions have kept interest live and transformed yoga into a money-making industry, raking in about $10 billion in the US alone. “When something spreads quantitatively, it will proportionately lose its quality. This is true in all aspects of life,” says Dr Veena Londhe, who retired from the Department of Sanskrit at Mumbai University, where she taught several courses on yoga, its history and philosophy.

Which brings us to the question: what is yoga, anyway?

The essence of yoga

Yoga is one of the six schools of thought of ancient Hindu philosophy, derived from the Vedas (the other five being samkhya, nyaya, vaisheshika, mimamsa and vedanta). “We normally identify ourselves through a body-mind-intellect complex. But yoga is a path that leads the practitioner to the ultimate reality. The goal is samadhi or transcendence,” says the 63-year-old Londhe. “The greatness of sage Patanjali, who composed the oldest known aphorisms on yoga, the Yoga Sutras, is that he gave yoga a foundation. He presented not one, but four different paths to samadhi, ashtanga or the structured eight-limbed path being one of them.”

“The Yoga Sutra does not prescribe asanas at all,” says Hansa Jayadeva, director of The Yoga Institute in Santacruz, believed to be the oldest organised yoga centre in the world. The all-too-famous surya namaskar, she adds, has been masquerading as an asana for far too long. “It (surya namaskar) is a practice observed by followers of Lord Shiva, who, it is believed, started his day with sun salutations. The Yoga Sutra does not spell out a sequence for pranayama either. It simply asks the practitioner to synchronise the inhalation and exhalation of breath with concentration.”

Commercial game

Jayadeva’s colleague Shirish Ghurye, who helps document yoga research at the 100-acre institute, says that the concept of asanas too has undergone a tremendous change. “An asana is defined as that which helps bring you closer to reality,” says Ghurye. “Yogis have said that a person can control his or her mind by controlling the body and by controlling the breath. Unfortunately, we’ve come to a stage where we are using asanas to lose weight. Yoga requires introversion, but it has been made into a commodity. It is now a commercial game.”

Elaine Barreto echoes Ghurye. The 27-year-old yoga enthusiast and Body Balance teacher perfectly encapsulates the dilemma faced by today’s generation when she says: “The teachings of the old school of yoga are more pure. It is more demanding and requires immense patience and discipline.”

Barreto would know. She started learning yoga eight years ago when she was 19 and has learnt various forms, from Iyengar and Kundalini yoga to Hot yoga and Leela yoga. “Modern day yoga is the equivalent of processed food, as opposed to the wholesome food that it was meant to be. Had it not been for this shift though, people would not have been motivated to even try yoga,” she says.

This commercial value of yoga is an easy opportunity that no entrepreneur worth his or her salt can afford to miss out on. From the mass gatherings that Baba Ramdev presides over to the enigma surrounding the sudarshan kriya technique of breathing, from practicing asanas in a hammock suspended mid-air to the coffee-sounding ‘Yogalate’, the term ‘yoga’ is an instant hook. A majority of teachers who teach at such cocktail yoga centres agree that their classes are popular because people are willing to pay to ‘lose weight’, but be seen as doing so more responsibly, that is, by being wellness-oriented as opposed to resorting to yo-yo-dieting.

“Yoga is deep and complicated. And not everyone can practice it in its purity,” says Grand Master Akshar of Bangalore’s Akshar Power Yoga Academy. “In the last 200 years, it has changed in scope and different teachers have interpreted it in different ways. But it won’t be accurate to say that yoga has been corrupted.”

Among the array of yoga courses that his academy teaches, it has trademarked Akshar Power Yoga, Glow Yoga (which is essentially Hot yoga), and Shakti Flow Yoga. “Power yoga means Shakti yoga. In the West, Power yoga is taught using gym equipment and other machines. Here, we tell people to use their own inner strength to do yoga. It is more disciplinary,” he explains.

Rashmi Ramesh, who teaches a combination of yoga and pilates at her class in south Mumbai, offers a more practical explanation. “There is a lot more to yoga, but when you run a business, you have to do what the masses want,” says Ramesh, a trained Sivananda yoga teacher. “A lot of people come to me because they want to lose weight. But the intention of yoga is not weight loss. It is far more holistic than that, but most people don’t have the patience to understand that. This is why I introduced Yogalate. It’s more fun.”

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