On June 21st 2015 in the centre of New Delhi, what is to date the world’s largest ever yoga workout took place. Over 35,000 people bent, twisted, swivelled and did the downward dog together, and while some could wrap themselves up like a pretzel, others were definitely not so supple. It was a remarkable sight, a mixture of Busby Berkeley and Veda Vyasa. But what was most remarkable about the whole thing was that right there at the front leading the crowd was not some orange-robed swami, or even the country’s favourite hatha yogi Baba Ram Dev, but Narendra Modi, India’s new Prime Minister.
Mr. Modi is very keen to promote the discipline. In a recent revamp of his saffron-coloured government he appointed a minister with responsibility for promoting India’s traditional medicines and healing practices: Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Unani Siddha (i.e. traditional Muslim medicine) and homeopathy. These are to be officially known under the collective acronym of AYUSH. There is a nice historical irony behind this policy. Both yoga and Ayurveda, the indigenous system of medicine followed by many practitioners of yoga, was one of the traditional aspects of Indian culture revived by European scholarly interest towards the end of the nineteenth century. Following the lead of these foreigners, Indian promoters of what is called the Hindu Renaissance, the cultural movement that accompanied the growing urge for independence, began to reclaim their cultural heritage. Not the least of them was the very symbol of independent India, Mahatma Gandhi himself. To this day his day his most read book is A Guide to Health, which is heavily influenced by Ayurvedic principles.
Modi will not be unaware of the Gandhi connection. A vegetarian who practises yoga and meditation daily as part of his simple and hard-working lifestyle, he recently asked the United Nations to earmark June 21st as International Yoga Day. They agreed, and the third of these annual yoga-fests is approaching. He also announced a strategy to provide daily yoga lessons to three million Indian civil servants and their families, as well as promotion of classes throughout the nation’s schools and colleges.
The history of what we call yoga is long, complex and by no means one-dimensional, but one name associated with it in recent Indian history is that of the man who is much less well known than those so-called ‘yogis’ who have grabbed the Hollywood headlines or been involved in assorted lurid scandals. His mission was to take the practice out of the ashram and into the gyms and clinics of the new century as a form of remedial medicine and his name was Shri Yogendra. It was in 1918 as war clouds were looming over Europe, that Yogendra founded his Yoga Institute on the outskirts of Bombay in the beachside estate of a prominent Mumbaiker citizen, Dadabhai Naoroji. This was a happy choice of patron in several ways. Naoroji, popularly known as the ‘Grand Old Man of India’, was a Parsi intellectual, author and wealthy business man, one of that extraordinary community of Zoroastrian refugees from Persia who, along with the Iraqi Jews, laid the civic foundations of Bombay as a great trading metropolis. He was also a socialist actively engaged in the Independence movement, working with the English Theosophists A.O. Hume and Annie Besant and others to found the Indian National Congress. In conformity with Naoroji’s egalitarian ideals, the Institute was the first yoga center to offer courses for free to men, women and children of any caste or creed.
The next year Yogendra set sail for distant lands. He founded The Yoga Institute of America in upstate New York, and for the next eight years he toured the world, teaching yoga, treating patients and gathering manuscripts on Hatha yoga wherever he could. In time, there would be branches of the Institute in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, South America, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and the UK. The Institute’s first journal, ‘YOGA’ was published in 1933 and is still going strong today. Indeed, the day that our planet is finally colonised by extra-terrestrials, Shri Yogendra’s angle on yoga as a non-philosophical remedy for physical ills may well be the one interpretation of the ancient doctrine they come across. In 1940 publications of the Institute were microfilmed and preserved in the Crypt of Civilization, a time-capsule held at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, USA, not due to be opened for another 6,000 years!
The Yoga Institute found a permanent base in the Bombay suburb of Santacruz in 1948, and since then has in many ways continued to be the public face of therapeutic yoga in its homeland. In 1951 the Government of India prepared its first cultural documentary film on yoga there, and six years later requested the Institute to conduct a survey throughout India. The following year, the Institute finally gained official recognition, and government funding for scholarships for yoga teacher-training and placement in schools across the subcontinent was made available. The following decades would see much research and publication, culminating in 1970 with the launch of the Medical Research Unit for research on psychosomatic and psychiatric diseases. This is now part of the Ministry of AYUSH, and in a way history has come full circle. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century surge of nationalism that saw yoga as a means to revive and vitalise an Indian sense of national identity, is once again being evoked and enjoyed by the nationalistic government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Another important player in the genesis of modern postural yoga was T.M. Krishnamacharya, whose influence was due to his connection with Krishnaraja Wodeyar 4th, the Maharaja of Mysore. As a very advanced and benign ruler, Wodeyar was perhaps the first native prince to recognise that India could benefit by more contact with the Western science. Accordingly, he joined with the Parsi industrialist J.S. Tata to set up the Indian Institute of Science, which is still the premier facility of its type in India. He also valued Western medicine; when he fell ill in 1936, he travelled to Europe for treatment he felt his native land could not provide. Yet alongside his openness to innovation, the Maharaja was also a great believer in Indian cultural and religious traditions. He patronized music, dance and the visual arts as well as maintaining and archiving ancient Sanskrit texts. Mahatma Gandhi, who was not known for throwing compliments around, addressed him as Raj Rishi, a Sanskrit term that is the rough equivalent of Plato’s ‘philosopher king’.
One of Wodeyar’s passions was physical education and under his energetic patronage Mysore became the hub of a physical culture revival. European gymnastic experts came and taught their techniques in a gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace that was well-equipped with all the latest wall-bars, hanging ropes and other props familiar to the Western gym and body-building cultures. The Maharajah also hired T. M. Krishnamacharya, an expert yoga teacher who was also a scholar and a Sanskritist of high reputation. The Master’s main job was to teach the young princes of the royal family, but before long a group of students gathered around them, developing and practicing a form of posture work that was a mixture of ancient yoga and modern gymnastics. Crucially, amongst these pupils were two young men who were destined to become the two most legendary proponents of body-yoga in the West: B.K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois. While Iyengar spent much of his time teaching in the UK, Jois went to America to spread the gospel of yoga there. Both teachers emphasised the importance of physical postures and paid little or no attention to the inner, meditative side of yoga. The influence of this hybrid school is very clear on many of the numerous types of yoga that are now taught all over the world.
Today yoga is everywhere and there are almost as many brands as there are teachers. Most of them have little to do with anything resembling classical yoga as it has been taught in the forest retreats and sadhu arkadas of India for millennia. Yoga is promoted as a physical discipline that helps one to feel more relaxed, be more flexible, improve posture, breathe deeply and get rid of stress, and every month more scientific research comes in to show the quantifiable benefits of the practice. According to the 2016 Yoga in America Study, about 35 million people in the US alone - including many ‘celebrities’ - now practice yoga and the associated market of accessories – dvd’s, cd’s, books, clothes, apps, mats and props – is worth billions a year. Yoga is also taught in schools, hospitals and prisons around the world; it has become a vital part of 21st century culture, a balm for our unquiet times.
The Heart of Yoga
Here at The Hermitage we follow a more traditional outlook that sees the physical as the ground and preparation for the mental and the spiritual. After all, the word yoga means ‘union’, so all aspects of the individual should be nourished by the practice, not just the muscles. Thus just as yoga is not merely an oriental type of calisthenics; postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama) are not just ends in themselves. The classical authority for our approach is Maharshi Patanjali, who lived in the third century AD, and his classic text the Yoga Sutras (1). He describes the ‘eight limbs’ (ashtanga) of yoga, and having dealt with morality and physical exercise moves on to the meditation aspect which he calls:
‘the heart of yoga, more intimate than the preceding limbs’ (Yoga sutra 3.7).
Under the direction of Shri Anil Kumar, we follow this prescription in our daily group and one-to-one classes. Anil has been teaching for fifteen years and is well-qualified, holding a Post Graduate Diploma in Yoga Therapy (PGDYT) from SVYASA Yoga University Bangalore, a Diploma in Yogic Science & Indigenous Health Care(DYS), from Kannur University, a diploma from the Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy, Rishikesh and a Diploma in Yogic Science & Naturopathy (DNYS), from New Delhi University.
Anil’s emphasis is always on ease and naturalness, so that the body is gently cultured and all systems in the body are effortlessly refined and revitalized. From this stable platform techniques of relaxation and inner meditation are taught.