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International Yoga Day: June 21 - Uniting cultures through Yoga

In a book titled “The Last Queen of Kashmir”, the protagonist faces her final exam after rigorous years of studying ancient scriptures and yoga. She is asked to observe the first ray of sunlight illuminating a dewdrop on a leaf and articulate her understanding of its significance. Her answer sends raptures of joy among her teachers. She is then proclaimed to have passed the final test to face all eventualities that life will bring to her as an Empress.

The practice of Yoga and meditation was thus, in ancient India, a part of the inner learning process to equip its practitioners with necessary life skills to face the harsh realities of life. The practitioners of Yoga would have barely imagined that Yoga would spread across the length and breadth of this planet and become the refuge to which millions would flock to escape the “stressful lives” of this century.

United Nations recognized Yoga as a form of intangible heritage and this year, on June 21, 2019 International Yoga Day will be observed in its fifth year world-wide. Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the Maharaja of Mysore, is credited to have revived Yoga, when he heard about the very talented yoga guru Krishnamacharya. The rulers of the Wadiyar dynasty, especially Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV promoted and supported Krishnamacharya to establish an independent yoga institution in 1933. Under his tutelage, some of the finest practitioners such as Indra Devi (who took Yoga to the west), B K S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois studied in Mysuru and took Yoga to the global stage. The books written by them are good sources of authentic information on this practice and its benefits. 

For me, growing up in Mysuru- a culturally rich and historical city in southern India, my tryst with Yoga began at the age of 16. Later when I become a journalist, I interacted and wrote many articles about the heavy influx of students from across the world coming to learn Yoga from Pattabhi Jois, a disciple of the Krishnamacharya. “We have made the journey to Mysuru eleven times to practice with our Guru Pattabhi Jois, and on his passing, his son Sharath Jois. During the past six visits our children have also accompanied us. We feel that Mysuru is a second home. I am a researcher and own a Yoga school where we teach in the Guru Shishya tradition, sharing what we learnt from our Gurus ,” says Jean Byrne. I got his address from a textile shop in the city called Rashinkars. The shop resembles a Post office, with its neatly packaged parcels and addresses that depict the more than 150 countries to where these are being shipped. Every day, they dispatch 5-10 parcels containing Yoga merchandise to countries across the world.  The shop is more than 110 years old and when 20 years ago, Mysuru became a yoga hub, attracting tourists and yoga enthusiasts from every nook and corner of the world, Rashinkar’s business took a truly global turn.

Today he customizes the yoga mats that he produces at his weaving center with embroidered logos of the Yoga school names and ships the packages to every nook and corner. What costs him $13 for a mat, is probably sold for $45-50 eventually. Each parcel ships 20 mats. Apart from mats, he ships t-shirts, yoga pants and cotton bags to his clients.

It was a yoga student from Thailand who introduced him to the idea of exclusively creating mats for yoga students. She gave him the measurement and specific requirements. Since then, he started his own production facility, which specializes in unique colour patterns and weaves for these mats.

How did they discover his shop which is situated in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw away from the famous palace, but tucked away in a narrow dusty road in the old market area? He says these students came looking for clothes and they did a lot of research, came holding a small note book, compared prices in all the other textile shops in the vicinity, and started bargaining with the cloth merchants. Most of the cloth business works on bargaining skills, but in his shop, this was different bargaining was strictly not allowed. Foreign yoga students gradually were intrigued, that here was a shop no different from the hundreds of shops in this area, yet he did not seem eager to bring down his prices when he saw them. They soon discovered that his prices matched the quality of his merchandise and since then there has been no turning back.

“My love for yoga led me to India in 2010 where I spent a month intensively undertaking a Yoga Teacher Training course where I studied asana, pranayama, yoga nidra and chanting in addition to teaching methods and Indian philosophy. The following year I enrolled in in a  two year Hatha Vinyasa Teacher Training course. Yoga is now an essential part of my daily life, enabling me to be more connected to myself, others and the world around me,” says Belinda Hine.

I have been fortunate to learn yoga at the two epicenters in India where the two disciples of Krishnamacharya established their centers- one in Mysuru and the other in Pune. My teacher in Pune, Amar is a globe-trotter and conducts marathon sessions, often sleeping for a mere 2-3 hours at night. He shows us the yoga asana, that helps one who has hardly slept like him, to recharge and face the day energetically. Life does come a full circle. Now in California, the hotbed of Yoga, I take a week’s course at one of the Yoga studios. The heated 100 degree Fahrenheit ambience, the English versions of each asana, interspersed with the actual names and interlaced with Justin Beiber on the sound system do not distract me or the ardent students. The instructors take their practice seriously and diligently follow-up with precise instructions directing our attention to every core muscle and movement that is incorporated. Many of the instructors I interacted with bring their own perspective and methodology, most of them are aware of the “Westernization” of Yoga but are trying to make it much more accessible and affordable especially to those in need of it.

The spirit of Yoga is best exemplified through a simple technique the “mountain pose” or “Thadasana” and the inverted pose of “Shirshasana”-if you look at both they are essentially the same, the heart of the matter is to have a strong core, balance in mind and body and focus of the gaze-from within to without.

 

The writer is a visiting scholar at UC San Diego, a former award-winning journalist, who doesn’t think she is qualified to be called a ‘Yogi’

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