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Yoga battles

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By Competition is hotting up in the international yoga industry — and each prominent yoga school has come up with a unique selling point to make a pitch for its own route to wellness, finds Shuma Raha
  • Published 14.06.09

It’s 7 in the morning. The hall in the Iyengar Yoga school in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area reverberates to the primordial sound of ‘Om’. Students sit cross-legged, their hands folded, their eyes closed, and their breath comes out in a long, slow exhalation of that mystic sound. It is the sacred overture before the act of yoga begins. Forty-odd students — from nimble 20-somethings to portly housewives to grey-haired septuagenarians —have gathered here today to practise yoga. And they are among millions of people all over the world who look to yoga to attain fitness or nirvana — or both.

Indeed, whether they are celebs or plebs, whether they are in Beverley Hills or Malabar Hills, for countless men and women yoga is the lifestyle choice du jour. But the hottest Indian cultural export after curry did not achieve its cult status in a day. If yoga has become ubiquitous across the world, it’s been due largely to the efforts of venerable gurus and yoga meisters who have set up schools and taught the ancient Indian art of mind and body wellness to thousands of students over the years.

And today, there’s a veritable feast of yoga variants to choose from. Enunciated by sage Patanjali millennia ago, yoga has become an international industry — an industry so huge that it’s worth making a serious, nuanced, bid for it. So each has developed its unique selling point, each has come up with a trademark style, as it were, to set itself apart in the crowded global marketplace of yoga. There’s wellness to be had, and perhaps epiphany too — and there are different yoga idioms and gurus out there who promise to lead you to that state of grace.

One such illustrious guru, K. Pattabhi Jois, passed away in Mysore last month at the age of 93. Founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, Jois powered his way to the yoga hall of fame after he initiated thousands of men and women — including stars like Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow — into his method of yoga practice. Running away from home at the age of 14 with Rs 2 in his pocket, he learnt yoga from Guru T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore, began to teach yoga from 1937, and eventually became synonymous with Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbs of yoga) in the West.

“Ashtanga yoga is a very traditional form of yoga that focuses heavily on breathing techniques and asanas,” says Saraswathy Rangaswamy, Jois’s daughter who, along with her son, now runs the Mysore school. “But we cater mostly to foreign students,” she admits.

Jois was not alone in taking the yoga mantra to the West. B.K.S. Iyengar, 90, is the other giant in the field who has been teaching yoga in Pune since 1938. A contemporary of Jois — and a fellow disciple of Guru T. Krishnamacharya — Iyengar set up the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune in 1975. The only form of yoga that uses props such as ropes, chairs, bricks and belts, the Iyengar school focuses on the proper alignment of the body and a sequential practice of asanas to attain a stillness of the consciousness. With teaching centres all over the world, and students — foreign and Indian — thronging the Pune campus to learn from the guru himself, Iyengar Yoga has now become one of the most popular and widely practised models of yoga.

If Iyengar Yoga emphasises the importance of props and body alignment, the Bihar School of Yoga in Munger, another internationally known centre to which yoga enthusiasts gravitate from all over the world, stresses a “holistic” approach where the focus is on moulding the mind and the body in an ancient gurukul-like ambience. At its sprawling, fortress-like campus in Munger that overlooks the river Ganga, students in white and yellow robes practise hatha yoga (asanas), bhakti yoga (meditation), jnana yoga (self realisation through various techniques), and so on, in the course of their training. “Some put emphasis on asanas, some on pranayama, but the Bihar School puts emphasis on our life, our attitudes, our behaviour,” says Gopa Sen, a Bihar school teacher in Calcutta.

Then there’s Bikram Yoga, a system developed by the Los Angeles-based Bikram Choudhury, the enfant terrible of the yoga world. It’s a system where 26 asanas and two breathing exercises are practised in a particular sequence in a room heated to 40 degrees Celsius or thereabouts. The hot atmosphere is supposed to increase flexibility and reduce the chances of injury. Choudhury, 65, who counts Hollywood A-listers like George Clooney and Charlie Sheen among his followers, has dared to go where no yoga guru has gone before. To drive home his otherness and originality, he has taken out a patent on his yoga practice so as to make sure that no one copies his methods without paying for it.

So clearly, whether it is Ashtanga Yoga or Bikram Yoga, whether it is the Bihar school or the Iyengar school, each has come up with a particular idiom of yoga practice to distinguish itself from the rest. Each has labelled or branded itself to subtly compete with the other. But ask practitioners of these various styles of yoga if they are competing with one another to woo students and the answer is a firm “no.”

Swami Suryaprakash, president of the Bihar School of Yoga, flatly denies that there is any competition among the various schools. Birjoo Mehta, a senior teacher at Mumbai’s Iyengar Yogashraya in Lower Parel, agrees. “I don’t think there is any sense of competition. Each one has its own space. People know what they want. They go to whoever they want to,” he says.

For the last hour and a half Mehta, a lithe 51-year-old who has a day job at Tata Communications, has been teaching his students, guiding them through different asanas such as the Adho Mukha Shwanasana or the Sarvangasana. “Feel the sensation in your armpits, feel the stretching in the sternum,” he cries, as his students arch themselves into a sort of an inverted V of the Adho Mukha Shwanasana. “It’s important to be aware of what’s happening to your body,” he says. Those who can’t stretch all the way are urged to harness themselves to the ropes strung along the walls and arch their bodies in the right way.

“The ropes and other props are critical in the Iyengar system because they help those who lack flexibility to get the body alignment right. And body alignment is important because of its effect on the mind — because proper alignment helps you attain a stillness of the consciousness, a state where you begin to distance yourself from outward disturbances and achieve a sense of calm,” explains Mehta.


Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore

Founded by: The late K. Pattabhi Jois

Focuses on: The Ashtanga or the eight-limb approach of traditional yoga practice performed in a sequence of six series of asanas

Students: Mostly foreign

Fees: Not disclosed

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune

Founded by: B.K.S. Iyengar

Focuses on: Proper body alignment through asanas and pranayama performed in a particular sequence.The only yoga system to use props Students: Indian and foreign in roughly equal numbers

Fees: The Mumbai centres charge Rs 250 a month for one class a week.

Bihar School of Yoga, Munger

Founded by: Swami Satyananda

Focuses on: Holistic moulding of mind and body in a gurukul-like atmosphere

Students: Mostly foreign

Fees: Rs 4,000 for a four-month course for Indians. Euro 1,200 for the same course for foreigners

Bikram Yoga College of India, Los Angeles

Founded by: Bikram Choudhury

Focuses on: A sequence of 26 asanas performed in a heated room

Students: Mostly foreign

Fees: Membership fee for the first Bikram Yoga outlet in Mumbai begins from Rs 50,000 per annum

So many roads to nirvana

HAVEN OF PEACE:The Bihar School of Yoga in Munger. Photo:V. Kumara Swamy (Below) A student of Iyengar Yoga practises an asana. Photo: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Though that transformational sense of calm — or chittavritti nirodha, as Patanjali called it — is the ultimate aim of yoga, teachers and experts admit that many are trying to portray their style of yoga as unique in some way. Take Ashtanga Yoga, for instance. Though it has come to be identified with the late Pattabhi Jois in popular perception, Ashtanga Yoga is really intrinsic to the very idea of yoga as set down in the Patanjali Sutras.

“Ashtanga are the eight limbs of yoga — yama (abstentions), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (oneness with the object of meditation). If yoga has to take place, all eight have to run concurrently,” explains Jawahar Bangera, a senior teacher and chairman of the Light on Yoga Trust that runs the Iyengar Yoga schools in Mumbai.

“People have just adopted these terminologies to create a brand for themselves,” says Mehta. “At some point, yoga has become like a merchandise, it has become commercial,” he says, hastening to add, though, that the Iyengar school has steered clear of branding. As Ratna Kaji, another teacher at the centre, avers, “Guruji (B.K.S. Iyengar) never called his yoga ‘Iyengar Yoga.’ It’s his students who gave it that name after they started parctising it.”

The Bihar School of Yoga also denies that it has sought to brand itself in any way. While maintaining that its holistic mind and body approach is utterly unique, Swami Suryaparakash points out that though some yogic forms were discovered and popularised by Swami Satyananda, the founder of the Bihar school, there has never been any effort to “brand” them.

“Yoga Nidra is very well known all over the world now. The credit for its popularity goes to Swami Satyananda, but we have never branded it as ours,” says Swami Suryaprakash.

Of course, no school of yoga brands itself quite as unabashedly as that started by Bikram Choudhury in Los Angeles in 1973. Other yoga practitioners are outraged that he has patented his system of yoga. “How can anybody patent something that has been in existence for thousands of years,” asks Swami Shankarananda, chief director of the Bihar Yoga Bharati, an affiliate of the Bihar school. “And neither do you need a special condition (a heated room) to perform yoga.”

“It’s nothing but a gimmick,” asserts Mehta.

Not so, say the votaries of Bikram Yoga. Rowena Ooi, an Australian Bikram Yoga teacher at the newly opened True Fitness Centre in Andheri, Mumbai — which, incidentally, is the first Bikram Yoga outlet in India — feels that commercialism has nothing to do with the Bikram Yoga patent. “Bikram is very traditional in the practice of asanas. And it is to protect and preserve that traditional lineage that he has patented his form of yoga practice. He is very passionate. He is not commercial at all,” says Ooi.

The True Fitness Centre in Andheri, is a swank 60,000-square foot outlet that clubs Bikram Yoga with a spa, a gym, a café and a hair salon. “The response has been amazing so far,” gushes Ooi. With membership fees that are upwards of Rs 50,000 a year, Bikram Yoga in India is clearly not quite for the common man as yet. But there are plans to open another centre in Mumbai by the end of the year, and then to take Bikram Yoga to other Indian cities too, reveals Nicholas Kraal, business development manager, True Fitness Centre.

That may hot up the competition in the Indian yoga scene as well. For though “competition” seems to be a dirty word among Indian yoga gurus and teachers, the sheer number of yoga centres across the world today makes it fairly obvious that there is a degree of rivalry among them to corner students. Bikram Yoga has as many as 600 centres the world over; the Iyengar school has more than 200 in 45 countries; the Bihar School of Yoga has centres not just in Europe and North America but even in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Aruba in the Caribbean, and the late Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga Yoga is taught in schools across the US, Japan and Australia. With so many players crowding the field, it is but natural that the laws of the marketplace will kick in.

However, it is difficult to put a monetary value to the international yoga pie. No figures are available and nearly all the prominent yoga schools maintain that there is little or no financial arrangement between them and their respective international centres. In most cases, they say, the centres are run by teachers who have been trained at a particular yoga school, and received their certification from there. The parent body exerts no influence on them other than sending their teachers there from time to time and keeping an eye on whether or not the core principles of the particular yoga school are being followed. Speaking for the Iyengar school, Mehta clarifies, “The knowledge is centralised, the administration is completely decentralised.”

The Iyengar school is also the only one that admits to charging its international centres a small fee. Others — be it the Ashtanga Yoga Institute or the Bihar School of Yoga or even Bikram Yoga centres — claim that that there is no financial arrangement whatsoever between the mother school and its manifold international centres.

But whether or not a profit motive operates at some level, and whether or not each is trying to outdo the other to attract the largest share of students, there is no denying the fact that all these schools and their presiding gurus have popularised the practice of yoga and helped spread its healing touch.

At Iyengar Yogashraya in Lower Parel, an elderly man from Navi Mumbai has come to consult the teacher about his painful back problem. He underwent surgery for a constriction in his spinal cord three years ago. But the pain hasn’t gone away and he wants to know if yoga can help. Mehta guides him into a couple of poses and advises him to follow the routine at home.

Will he be cured? Maybe, maybe not. But the wonder of yoga is that at its simplest level it promises you true wellness — of the body, mind and spirit. Some achieve it, and some don’t. And no matter which school or system you opt for, the medium always bears that ancient, magical message.