Yoga Hijacked by Saffron
As the sky turns a tawny orange with the setting sun, a few youth move with fluidity to match day easing into dusk. This is the time for a few brisk moves of yoga; an interplay of body, mind and consciousness at the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samasthana, Svasya University for yogic sciences at Jigni on the outskirts of Bangalore.
With almost all television channels plugging for an alternative lifestyle and large multinationals egging their employees to adopt new age health mantras to counter rising stress, the yoga Kendra has a steady stream of visitors from across the country, a large chunk from the south Indian states.
Chants at daybreak and the soiree of devotional songs with jingoistic messages make it clear that good health is, however, cloaked in rightwing conservatism.
Yoga practice has started at 5;30 am here with devotional songs and readings from Hindu epics. Devotion is the motif of wellness drawing from the Vedic tradition. The only prayers are Hindu and tone is fiercely nationalistic. The panacea for all the ills we have brought on ourselves is total surrender to a God, preferably Hindu God; the wellspring of all knowledge. The Bhagvad Gita is the cornerstone of spirituality imparted here leaving no pretext of being multicultural let alone secular or it turns out even historically accurate.
Historian of Science, Meera Nanda, in an article in The Open Magazine salvages the yogic tradition from its supposed ancient past and points out that Yogic asanas were never Vedic to begin with. Modern yoga was born in the late 19th and early 20th century . The Hindu nationalists and reformers including Swami Vivekananda had separated the asanas from its spiritual underpinnings to counter the image of the supposedly effete Indians. In this process the Hata yoga that of postures incorporated Western elements of gymnastics and body building. Nanda points out that Western contribution to modern yoga is not acknowledged.
“It is a child of Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism in which western ideas about eugenics, science, evolution and physical fitness played a role,’’ according to Nanda. And the practice at Svasya mirrors this practice of yoga. Yoga is being traced back to 2000 year old yoga sutras and 5000 year old Vedas while in fact its hybridization with western and even Indian gymnastics and Eastern breathing practices is an unacknowledged facet of modern yoga.
The spiritual aspects of yoga were rationalized with the US based Theosophical Society in India and this was worked on by Swami Vivekananda who is seen as yoga’s renaissance man in India. The physical aspects of yoga was modified by techniques borrowed from Swedes, Denmark, England and other Western countries. These innovations were crafted on the yoga sutras referred to by an Austrian mystic as, “the yoga cannon of those who have accepted Bhramin theology.’’
Many throng the University, an almost pilgrimage site for rejuvenation and cure for ailments that range from arthritis and spinal disorders to gastrointestinal problems, psychiatry and even cancer. There has been a positive co relation in their research between yoga and a variety of ailments including cancer, arthritis and diabetes.
“Yoga is not just exercise but mindful exercise so it gets better results than physiotherapy,’’ Ragavendra Rao who was instrumental in cancer research in the SVASYA Institute and is currently with Bangalore Institute of Oncology.
The institute’s primary work has been on yoga for cancer patients. In 1998 it partnered with the Bangalore Institute of Oncology for work on cancer. Patients receiving chemotherapy were divided into two groups one was taught yoga and the other just counseling. It was found that yoga reduced toxicity from medication, improves anti- tumor immune responses and helps reduce inflammatory cytokines that aid cancer.
The institute also did research on asthma patients who benefitted from yoga. Its findings were published in the British Medical Journal in 1985.
Not without reason the modern age with its lifestyle disorders gets the whiplash from the practitioners of the yogic art form. They hark back to a glorious past of prosperity and richness. Gadgets might have simplified our lives from the drudgery of crushing, pounding and grinding from dawn to dusk but it is not seen so at the yoga retreat that prefers hark back to a golden period even if it is entirely in their imagination. ‘The women were in excellent shape in the past as they ground grains sitting on the floor, they added twigs to the stove, got up to serve and sat down again to refill the serving bowls,’’ said N V Raghuram one of their senior members.
The yoga retreat coincided with the decennial celebration of Svasya inaugurated by RSS pracharaks from Gujarat who sang songs in Kannada to turn on the nationalistic mood. They spoke of starting a Child University in Gujarat where a new generation would be raised with the values of ancient Indian scriptures. Also in a startling reminder of eugenics one the university’s mandates was to get pregnant women would get to listen appropriate ragas in the different months of pregnancy. One of the building blocks at Svasya University was opened by Narendra Modi and the other by Murli Manohar JoshI. Modi has visited Svasya at least two or three times, said one of the founders proudly. His principal secretary has done a PhD from the yoga Institute.
While those like spiritual guru Deepak Chopra go with the belief that yoga existed in consciousness alone and cannot be a pure Hindu system, Western philosophy was summarily dismissed in the morning scripture readings at Svasya, “Freud said emotions have to be given vent to while the Hindu scriptures speaks of sublimating emotions and that is what leads to the de attached path,’’ said H R Nagendra ignoring western branches of philosophy that dwell on manifestation of consciousness.
“We ensure the central nervous system is given complete rest for two weeks and then it is up to the individual on how they work on their body and mind,’’ said R Nagaratna founder and consulting physician pragmatically.
During her medical training in England, Deepak Chopra’s mind body medicine was gaining in popularity. Back home through the 70’s and 80’s the BJP was growing in strength in different states and its cultural arm was only too eager to establish itself with India’s authentic mind body traditions. “I travelled the country meeting yogis. In Varanasi, the Benares Hindu University Medical College already had a Ayurveda center. Learning from all this we devised modules for practice at Svasya,’’ she said. The institute was supported infrastructurally by the Karnataka state government. Its ongoing projects are supported by the center’s Ayush Department and a large chunk from corporate donations. The ONGC is one of their primary sponsors.
She too echoes the rightwing view that yoga is a “part of Sanskrit philosophy but it has been accepted worldwide as a health and fitness practice.”
But the practice itself is not without its own joi de verve. “More than the technique it is the attitude that makes the difference. A positive attitude is the first step to healing. Ayurveda health starts with a sense of wellness of mind,’’ said Nitya a yoga instructor who lead the trataka or eye exercises for inducing sleep. A book discovered in the Mysore palace that contributed to the cultural and physical revival of yoga shows that it incorporated many Indian rope tricks and push-ups devised in Indian gymnasiums or akharas.
Internationally Yoga is being championed to enter the Olympics as a competitive sport and yet others feel due to its meditative nature it should be steered away from the harsh lights and remain a solo non-competitive endeavor.
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