On the mat

Let us propagate and celebrate yoga in the correct spirit


He was on the mat, flat on his back, and then he sat up like a conjurer taking something out of his hat, and the world gave this fat cat a pat on the back.

Sorry if the rhymes of this muse confuse you (there I go again)! I was just referring to Namo and his Yoga. In the month of June he stole a March over his political rivals in the August presence of the world that May have raised some hackles. (Oh dear Yoga does seem to have had a side or snide effect on me).

Let’s now cut to the more prosaic.

We have just witnessed the great spectacle of the International Yoga Day (IYD), with PM Namo leading from the front (row). Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him, especially when he chooses to be on center stage. On the up side we must graciously concede that Namo has pulled off a remarkable feat that has riveted the world’s attention on India. Congrats.

Earlier India moved beyond the realm of elephants, rajahs and snake charmers; to the world of software giants and world-class manufacturing. Now we have our very own soft wear to peddle, and all the accessories that go along with it. Never mind if the mats were made in China. That is a minor hiccup that can be easily overcome with deep breathing.

The jury is still out on whether this was just a one-off well-orchestrated tamasha, like the Swatch Bharat (clean India) campaign, that has since sunk without a trace. I too would not like to judge the IYD prematurely. Future events will unfold the truth.

For now I must make a confession. Whenever I have a slight cold, cough or headache, my darling wife will immediately reprimand me and say, “Do deep breathing”. She considers it a panacea for all ills.

In fact over the last two weeks I had some chest congestion and was supposed to see my homeopathic doctor today (the day after the IYD). She was not available, so I obliged my wife and did some deep breathing. Viola! I am feeling much better, so I really must thank Namobhai.

I have no hesitation in saying that deep breathing is an excellent way of calming one’s self, and controlling one’s metabolism. Though I’m not sure if Yoga can claim a patent on deep rhythmic breathing.

The same goes for the various asanas, some of which look a lot like the PT drills that we did in school. Even today I do some of those free arm exercises, including one that my wife calls the monkey scratch. Should I patent it as the bandarasana?

I have also studied the various prayer postures that Muslims follow during their namaaz – Takbir-i Tahrima, Qiyam, Ruku, Tasmi, Sijda, Jaisa, Salam and Munajat. I again find some of them strikingly similar to yogic postures.

I am not saying this to deride Yoga, but rather to look at it dispassionately; minus the hyperbole. At the other extreme I have a good friend, a senior Govt officer, who cynically states that the Yoga stretches are no different from the way a dog stretches after it awakens! Some stretch of the imagination that!

Writing in the Hindustan Times on IYD itself Riddhi Joshi says, “Like most pre-historic traditions, the practice of Yoga was handed down orally from generation to generation”. The word Yoga “first appears in the Rig Veda (circa 1500 BC)”, and “around 400 BC a yogic named Patanjali systematized this traditional knowledge”.

However, modern Hatha Yoga, as we now see it practiced, was popularized in the last century by T Krisnamacharya, under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore; and further popularized by his brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar, who passed away in Pune last year. I wonder if today’s most popular Yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, or even Namo himself, has given any credit to these great southern yogis?

What really is Yoga? I will write a detailed piece later though I am far from an expert. I find it to be essentially a form of spiritual exercise (to borrow an Ignatian term), to draw one closer to God or even be unified in Him.

The various forms of breathing (pranayam) and postures (asanas) are not an end or achievement in themselves. They are merely means to attaining a higher end – unity or synchrony with the Godhead. It is here that I find that modern day Yoga and its gurus have veered off the track. They have been deflected from their path by the demands of the Western world for instant nirvana.

In the West many took to drugs and free sex, without the desired result. The next best thing was Yoga, as it had no side effects and little recurring expense. So we had a plethora of new age gurus jet setting to the “decadent” West to teach it the “ancient wisdom” of the East. But the West had its own ideas. All it wanted was relief from a stress filled life.

There is no denying that rhythmic breathing and controlled exercise, together with the correct ambience (music or incense), would render relief and relaxation and possibly some peace of mind.

Ramnath Jha, professor of Yoga at the JNU, Delhi says, “In a country where stress and lifestyle diseases are a huge concern, there is no harm in urging people to take up Yoga”. Jha has touched a raw nerve. Stress and life style diseases – hurray. Unfortunately they are not a disease, but symptoms of a far deeper malaise.

Who are more stressed – the urban population. Those in rural areas and living closer to nature are not so stressed. We don’t find farmers and forest dwellers rushing to Yoga classes. What is the urban population stressed about – noise, filth, traffic jams, inadequate housing water and electricity, marital discord, no private space, an obdurate bureaucracy, a corrupt system, religious intolerance, caste discrimination, the rat race for careers etc.

Can Yoga solve these problems? Is it just a temporary salve, far from salvation? Would it not have been better to address the root causes, rather than the external symptoms? It is on this count that Namo’s enthusiasm for the IYD fails to pass muster. It adds credence to the growing feeling that the IYD was just a stage-managed tamasha.

As an amateur psychologist I like to study peoples’ body language. I was observing Namo’s face during the Yoga session. He looked highly stressed, far from relaxed. In the Padamasan (lotus position), he was unable to bring up both his feet, and his arms were limp, not straight as they should have been in this asana. So with Russian President Vladimir Putin, I too must put in a question, “Does Namo himself actually practice Yoga?”

As a person earlier involved in counseling and inner healing, I can aver that most diseases (other than infection or injury) are pneuma-psycho-somatic (derived from three Greek words for soul, mind and body).

When we lose our sense of morality and disconnect with the divine, we have a pneuma problem. This in turn may also affect the psyche (thoughts and feelings), resulting in negative emotions like anger, hatred, vengeance, despair. They in turn act on the soma (the body).

Anger and hatred affect the head, neck, shoulders and lungs. Fear affects the stomach and insecurity the legs. These are just examples to illustrate the point. So Yoga is one way that could address the symptoms but will not give a lasting cure unless the root causes are addressed.

There are two other claims that over enthusiastic proponents for Yoga make that I would like to address – the primordial sound – OM, and rhythmic chanting. It is often stated that the word OM is the primordial sound that encompasses all others. There is a hint of superiority in this claim, that this sound transcends all words. Referring to the prayer of Jesus himself the Bible says that he prayed “with loud cries” (Heb 5:7), implying that this was beyond words.

Similarly we read that “the Spirit pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26). Both these texts refer to wordless expression. Let me give two simple real life expressions. When we see a cute baby we may say something like “Kuchoo buchoo” which means nothing, yet the baby understands. So too if a couple is having sex, they would express themselves with oohs and ahs that are not words. So wordless expression is no doubt very expressive, but in no way limited to Yoga. It is not even limited to humans. I recall when a wild elephant charged our vehicle in the Corbett Park. Our forest guide pressed his arms against his abdomen and let out a deep guttural sound. The wild elephant was tamed.

Rhythmic chanting is also not the monopoly of Yoga. Buddhist chants resonate, and the poetic expression of the Sikh Granthi or the Islamic Mouazin’s azan is soul uplifting. In the European Christian tradition we have the Gregorian Chant. So while endorsing Yogic chanting let us not become supremacist or exclusivist. In fact one of the first lessons that Yoga should teach us is humility and detachment, which is what the bhagwa colour symbolizes. The foregoing is not a critique, but an attempt to have a more rational approach to Yoga.

Now let me touch upon something incidental to the IYD and not Yoga per se. The saddest part was the attempt to malign Vice President Hamid Ansari, for not attending the program just because he was a Muslim. Though officially termed “voluntary” there was sufficient evidence of compulsion used to make IYD a rip-roaring success.

It was not proper to force school children on holiday to come. If army men on the border posts are lulled into doing Yoga, how will they fight ?If Muslims are observing their Ramzan fast, and Christians are going to Sunday morning service they cannot be considered less Indian for not participating in the IYD. As a panelist on a TV show said “Nationalism should not be equated with participation in the IYD”.

Most scathing was the allegation made by Rita Bahuguna Joshi of the Congress, that the Modi Government has actually cut down on grants to the health sector and even the AYUSH Ministry that organized the IYD. So how can this Government preach health and wellness to the world?

Shouldn’t we doing our own cleaning up act first? And for all those who would seek to communalize Yoga, let us remember that the man who broke the world record on IYD for a 61 minute Sheeshasan (head stand) was a guy called Ivan Stanley in Dubai.

So let us celebrate and propagate Yoga in the correct spirit, without getting carried away by hats or mats. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, let us set an example to the world; of an India living in peace and harmony, free from stress and disease. To that let us all say from deep down in our hearts – OM shanti Om.\

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