Saturday, June 12, 2004

Yoga: GenNow’s power pill

YOGA is all the rage. With more and more people, especially the young, taking to it in droves, yoga is the new lifestyle trend. It is as much a must-do as the malls and multiplexes, says Aradhika Sekhon

YOGA has done for the global lifestyle what the Kamasutra did for global sex. Like Vatsayana’s famed treatise, it has survived through centuries and grown beyond its Indian origins to become a worldwide mantra. Madonna does it, so does Hema Malini. It is the secret behind Ricky Martin’s Greek-god body and JLofamous posterior. From Manhattan to Mohali, from Hollywood celebrities to the housewife next door, from 80-year old grandmas to 4-year old tots, yoga has caught the imagination of millions across the world. Some swear by its curative powers, some are lured by the promise of sculpted bodies, while others go for it for the relaxation and rejuvenation it guarantees.

Last week, all roads from Chandigarh, Mohali and Panchkula seemed to lead to Swami Ramdev's yoga camp. Combating traffic jams and blaring horns, approximately 15,000 people fmade a beeline for one of the biggest yoga camps held in the country. The participants who had come from as far as Delhi, and towns of Himachal and Haryana were all determined to get their dose of 'wellness' and serenity.

There can be no refuting the fact that this ancient practice with its 5,000 years of history has now reached new heights of popularity. Practitioners and gurus are offering it in easy-to-do packages that offer manifold benefits. It's being incorporated in the school syllabus. Neighbourhood parks have people of all ages practising yoga morning and evening. It's not unusual to see pretty young things going for their yoga class, which is being offered as part of 'complete personality development programmes.'

Why yoga?

The reasons are as varied as the people practising this ancient practice. While some want "a synthesis of body, mind and spirit," others do it merely to keep fit or to "look great and feel young". Still others are looking for natural cures to chronic ailments. Whatever the reasons, most of them claim "It works. It really works." Rajbirinder Chahal, who's had a yoga teacher put him through some basic asanas, says: "I always thought that yoga was for wimps. Guess, I'll never say that again." A big-time golfer, Rajbirinder had never realised that his body could feel so much better.

Anu Bakshi's reasons for practising yoga are pretty original. "I divide the Indian womanhood into two categories - those who do yoga and those who don't. The difference between the two becomes glaringly evident when they enter their 50s. While the women (and the men too, I suppose) who do yoga glow and are fit and energetic, those who don't aren't in the same league. There is tremendous difference in their skin and body tone. And I certainly want to be on top form when I get to that age."

"I could say that one is seeking spiritual union with the Divine when one is doing yoga asanas and pranayama. But if the boat is leaky, how can one cross the ocean?" demands Kuldip Singh, a retired bank officer. "If your body is not ready to receive the grace, the path to spiritual perfection becomes difficult. When the body is perfect, we can achieve spiritual communion more easily because there are no ailments to distract us. I have been doing yoga for the past 20 years and can sit in meditation in the vajrasana for hours on end."

And then, of course, are those who, tired of medication and doctors and injections and therapies, will go to a yoga guru for help. From a simple headache to diabetes, depression, asthma, arthritis, obesity and BP imbalance, yoga has a cure for every ailment. The problem of falling hair can be cured and greying hair can be reverted to its original colour by the help of simple yogic exercises, claim yoga practitioners. Says Babs Sharma, yoga teacher in a school: "The first day that I joined school, I casually mentioned to the teachers that rubbing fingernails together could prevent hair from falling. And now you find all the teachers doing it. It's actually quite funny."

"The beauty of yogic exercises is that they are as simple and effective as therapies. Cervical problems can be controlled with just a few simple exercises. And for gastric problems, the root of many problems, there are a whole series of asanas that are easily do-able," continues Babs.

So right from lofty aims like spiritual communion to looking good to aiming for a sound body tone to hoping to give allopath a miss, the reasons for adopting yoga vary. Perhaps the most interesting reason was given by a couple living in Delhi. "We do yoga, combined with other therapies because we party every night and that really needs some stamina. So after a late-late night, the next day we do yoga and muster up energy to again party till the wee hours."

A new status

Yoga has gained "new-age status" because it is perceived as a cure for the new-age maladies like stress, burnouts and depression. Many new-age yoga practitioners in Europe and America and even some swamis and gurus in India have adapted elements of yoga to other new-age therapies to form a body-mind-spirit healing process. And when popular gurus like Osho and Deepak Chopra talk of the "wellness" of the whole being, yoga gains the new-age stamp of approval.

In fact, in his book Secrets of Yoga, Osho explains the concept of yogic dharana (concentration, a part of samyama) by saying: "Sit with a tree and be with it. Sit with your boyfriend or girlfriend and be with him or her, and bring yourself (back to your self) again and again`85.even in love you are not focused. You miss much`85a door opens but you are not there to see it. You come back when the door closes." Thus he explains the concept of dharana by giving visible examples, thus increasing comprehension and, thereby, acceptability.

Hold your breath

Pranayama or breathing exercises have gained a great deal of popularity and are practised by themselves or as part of yoga exercises. In a recent workshop on stress management held for the directors and officers of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Dr A Malathi, coordinator at Manipal Hospital, expounded on the benefits and methods of "full yogic breathing." He said, "With ever increasing incidents of lifestyle diseases, like cardiovascular and nervous systems disorders, the time has come for us to address ourselves fair and square without external dependence." And the best way to do so would be to "reprogramme your natural breathing technique which would not only help in preventing these problems but also help in the "reversal" of several such harmful conditions."

She also suggested that for a performing manager, physical conditioning was the foundation for improving emotional, cognitive and spiritual capacity, all of which lead to improved productivity.

Kamal Goswami, a traditional yoga teacher who also conducts workshops for government officials, swears by the pranayam technique and says that the benefits are too many to enumerate. "Pranayama calms the mind and integrates the mental/physical balance, amplifies the autoimmune system by increased distribution of energy to the endocrine system, encourages proper nervous stimulus to the cardiovascular system, releases muscular tension around the heart and digestive organs, helps respiratory illnesses like asthma. These are just a few of the things pranayama does, he asserts"

For most people who do pranayama, however, it is kapaal bhati which is the most desirable. Swami Ramdev, in his popular TV programme declares that pranayama can lead to weight loss. This seems to be an easy way to shed the extra kilos. And this seems to be the most desired motive.

Remote controlled

Judging by the numbers that flock to his camp, Swami Ramdev can said to have have made yoga accessible and visible to people. He has brought yoga into every household. He promises miracles of weight loss and healing, which, apparently, have actually worked for many people. There are also a host of other yoga programmes on various TV channels. This enhanced visibility has made yoga available to all, with just the click of a remote.

However, learning yoga without proper supervision is not recommended. One really wonders at the degree of supervision and safety in yoga camps attended by thousands.

In fact, the popularity of this ancient practice has forced even health institutes in the city to incorporate a programme of yoga in their fitness regimes. "Our aim is to provide fitness to our clients. Yoga is the most traditional and scientific health therapy and since many people enquire about it, we are offering it to our members," says the proprietor of a leading fitness club in the city. "While yoga has not taken away our health club regulars, we have several new clients who have opted for it, and some old members have incorporated it in their schedules."

It is "old wine in new bottles" non-believers may say. Whatever the take, the truth remains that yoga is as effective now as it was in the times of the rishis and the munis. Let no one imagine it as easy or simple. Yoga challenges the body in ways unimaginable, but constant practice will lead to stupendous results. However if anyone is looking for a quick fix or an easy solution, they will just have to keep looking. Yoga is not for the meek. Only those who persevere can sustain.

Photo caption: Swami Ramdev holding a camp at Panchkula. Photos by Pankaj Sharma.