Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Changing Shape Of Yoga

Some stray thoughts on the changing 'yoga scene' within and outside the country -

As with many ancient Indian systems of study, yoga was not formally put down in writing until thousands of years after it began.  Information was passed on from teacher to student and the system diversified as multiple schools arose.  This imparted a certain flexibility to the system; each school emphasized specific aspects and developed them over time.

In the last few years, however, the changes have been more drastic and driven by market forces rather than real reasons for change.  I have been thinking about this for some time now as each time I drive out to the main road, I see large hoardings proclaiming how you can lose 3 kgs. in 15 days by attending a certain yoga class.  These classes are apparently packed, mostly with younger people.  These, and other classes, now offer yoga that is practiced in tune to different kinds of music, somewhat akin to aerobic workouts.  To me, the postures demonstrated don't look perfect, but apparently that's not what people are looking for.  Stretching in silence is boring.

There have always been some teachers who have taught while continuously giving directions and verbally correcting students.  One aim of this exercise is to try and keep the students' minds "on the job".  I feel fortunate to have attended a class where the practice was carried out mostly in silence.  My yoga teacher often corrected me, initially by physical adjustments, and subsequently just by signs indicating which part I had to readjust.  The emphasis was on focussing inwards.  When one attempts this, the mind settles down and you attain a certain peace and inner equilibrium.  This internal focussing brings a kind of transformation that nothing from the outside can ever achieve.  But often I suppose people don't trust themselves (or their students) to this silence and to listening to oneself from within.

My yoga classes are long over as my teacher moved to another town, to teach.  I was glad to be able to meet him over Diwali, when he was visiting Bangalore.  Some of our conversation revolved around the numerous classes and advertisments for yoga that are flooding the cities.  He told me that his current classes were very poorly attended.  I was amazed, for I believe he is a very good teacher - compassionate and experienced with knowledge of some old, classical styles.  I asked what the reason was, as many other yoga centres seem to be doing very well.  He shrugged and said that people found the class too intense and wanted it simplified.  This sounded strange because one important aspect of his class has always been that each person goes at his or her own pace.  He claimed that people didn't want to put in the effort on a regular basis.

Of course, many other factors might also play a role.  His traditional (and fixed) hours may not be convenient for all; many yoga studios offer walk in classes through the day with different teachers and different styles of yoga.  It's hard to compete with that but all these are led-classes (where everyone in the group follows one format); very little personal attention can be given especially if the numbers are large.

There are also apparently certain times of the year when yoga classes are more frequented.  In the 'yoga hotspots' which have emerged in different parts of India, teaching yoga is often a '6 month business' that coincides with the travel and holiday season.  The rest of the time, the schools shut down or slow down and the better teachers go elsewhere to teach.  This makes it difficult to sustain a serious school in one of these areas.

Over-secularisation is another hazard to the teaching of yoga.  Several people have asked me about the religious overtones of yoga.  The answer is, of course, that there are none.  Well, not absolutely, because, as with most ancient systems of philosophy, yoga is based on certain assumptions about what comprises an individual and how a person is linked to a higher source of energy.  This is what the philosophy of yoga has in common with several other Indian systems of philosophy and spirituality.  The religion and rituals of Hinduism have also developed in this milieu and there is naturally a social and cultural overlap in the way some of the thoughts are expressed.  But that is a very tiny aspect and is not relevant when it comes to the practice of yoga.  The aim (rather definition) of yoga (as mentioned in the earliest known text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) is to alleviate fluctuations in the mind, intellect and conscious self.  Nothing more (and nothing less)!

Many schools outside India have stopped reciting the prayers that are typically chanted at the beginning of the class so as to make people of various (or no) leanings comfortable.  I have no cause to complain about this all-inclusive approach.  The prayers were always in Sanskrit (for obvious reasons), a language not everyone is comfortable with and one that most people are not familiar with.  However I continue to say the prayer I have been taught; I find the sound very soothing and helpful in focussing my mind.  This is a prayer to the teachers of yoga, beginning with Patanjali, asking them to help us remember the objectives of yoga in our practice.  I always find it a good reminder and a nice way to express my gratitude to those who have helped me learn.

Certain semantic aspects of new approaches to yoga have taken me completely by surprise.  Recently a friend told me that in some Indian Universities, teaching of Surya Namaskar (the Sun Salutation) has been banned because of its religious connotation.  She attended a class where the instructor refused to teach this set of movements.  Surya Namaskar is the beginning (the warm up exercise) of yogasanas (yogic postures).  It is traditionally done facing the east.  In some schools of yoga, a prayer to the sun is chanted first.  We don't say any prayers because we follow a style where the movements are uninterrupted and repeated at least for five or ten rounds (about half an hour), leaving no extra breath for anything!  This is a particularly beautiful set of movements that warms each part of the body without causing any pulls or strains (by 'warm' I mean that in summer one is dripping with sweat at the end of this practice!) and expels mucous that may be blocking the nose or throat, clearing the respiratory passage.  These are a small subset of the regular yoga postures that have been linked together in a dynamic fashion.  Often when one has no time for a complete practice, one just does Surya Namaskar to get the circulation going.  To eliminate them without understanding anything about their purpose, just because they happen to be called Sun Salutations, seems to me a tremendous pity.

These, of course, are some of the stranger trends I have come across.  I'm sure there are successful schools which rise above populist sentiments and focus on the depth and vast range of possibilities that yoga offers.  But they are few and getting harder to find.

No comments:

#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }