From being patronised by kings in Mysuru to being served with beer in Bengaluru, the evolution of yoga in the state makes for a fascinating study says Ayswarya Murthy. International Yoga day was celebrated worldwide and especially in Mysuru on June 21st.
The Wodeyars of Mysuru have been promoting yoga since the 1850s, says Ishwar V Basavaraddi, director of Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga at the Government of India’s Ministry of Ayush in Delhi. They are the true masters of yoga, he says.
From writing treatises on the subject to showcasing yoga in their raj durbar, the Mysuru royals kept the flame lit long enough for the likes for Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to arrive and ignite the revolution that is modern yoga. By the time Krishnaraja Wodeyar met Krishnamacharya in Banaras (Varanasi) in 1925, the latter was already a renowned guru — having trained in the Himalayas for seven years under Ramamohana Brahmachari, studying the “Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali as well as rare Tibetan texts of yoga like “Yoga Kuruntha”. On learning that a man from his own kingdom had mastered the art and science of this ancient practice, the Maharaja invited Krishnamacharya back to Mysuru, where he charged him with running the yogashala set up in Jaganmohan Palace. It was here that Krishnamacharya not only penned down “Yoga Makaranda”, an encyclopedia of modern yoga, but also trained illustrious students like BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Sundara Iyengar, Indra Devi, and his own son TKV Desikachar, who would all go on to redefine the ancient tradition for the new age, spreading its practice far and wide, inside India and abroad.
So Karnataka’s significance in Indian yogic history is well earned. “After Haridwar and Rishikesh, Mysuru is an established hub of yoga. In fact, there are more private schools in Mysuru than in Uttarakhand. The weather here makes it ideal for practising yoga,” says Basavaraddi. “How many people do you want me to name,” he asks when listing out yoga proponents from the state and their contributions to the tradition. “At least 3-4 important schools of yoga were born here, including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Yoga and Sri Rishi Prabhakar’s Rishi Samskruti Vidya Kendra. A dedicated college was established in Dharmasthala. People like Veerendra Heggade continue to support the yogic sciences. In 1991 itself, way ahead of the rest of India, chief minister Veerappa Moily introduced yoga in schools. Today NCERT is taking this up and starting to introduce yoga as part of the curriculum, but again Karnataka had taken the first step 25 years ago!”
And so the state has always remained on the frontline when it comes to practising and propagating yoga, he says. “There is a strong base in the state and so the system was ready to make the best use of a lot of yoga schemes rolled out by the Centre. Today, there are yoga centres in every city and taluk in the state. And the government of India is keen on promoting existing schools here by providing inputs, grants, technical support and engaging them in research projects,” says Basavaraddi.
Common Yoga Protocol
History was created in 2014 for the era of modern yoga when June 21 was officially proclaimed as International Day of Yoga by the United Nations through a resolution in order to raise awareness of its many health benefits. The Indian government used this opportunity to give yoga, which already had a massive mainstream following across the world, a more important place in its soft power arsenal. “Immediately after the UN declaration, we introduced the Common Yoga Protocol,” says Basavaraddi. “It was no small feat; it was created with consensus with many yoga masters. The 45-min sequence of yogic stances consisting of loosening exercises, yogasanas, pranayama and meditation techniques, is being popularised through booklets and DVDs so people can easily adhere to best practices for the sake of their health and well-being.”
In fact, the Common Yoga Protocol receives ringing endorsement each year when the prime minister of India leads mass demonstrations on the occasion of International Yoga Day.
Each year, about 6-8 crore people come together in different parts of the world to perform yoga, says Basavaraddi. “Over the past three years, statistics estimate that 28 crore people have practised on that day. It’s a wellness programme on a scale that has never been done by anyone else before.”
To honour its rich legacy in yoga and the thousands of guests who flock here to learn the craft, Mysuru set a Guinness World Record last year for the largest yoga lesson with 55,506 participants performing asanas on the turf of the expansive Mysuru Race Course on the foothills of Chamundi. This year, with it being among the four shortlisted cities to host the main event on June 21, the city administration is attempting an even bigger record, hoping to get more than a lakh yogis together, in addition to the prime minister. “The Prime Minister’s Office will select one city and then finalise the venue, after which the preparations will begin,” Basavaraddi says.
Don’t get your goat over doga
International Day of Yoga is not only a massive initiative, it was also a significant PR boost for the age-old tradition. Neetu Singh, co-founder of Total Yoga, remembers that when they were starting off in 2010, yoga was still very much something only our grandparents did. “At that time, there wasn’t much yoga happening beyond our homes and the young crowd didn’t think of it as something they could do. But all that changed with the UN resolution on International Day of Yoga. Now I can say the whole concept of yoga has changed and even sports brands want to relate to yoga today.”
Singh decided to set up shop in Bengaluru because there wasn’t yet a certain kind of yoga monopolising the scene, unlike the world-renowned Ashtanga centres of Mysuru. Here, they could experiment, innovate and think up fun ways to make yoga palatable to young urbanites. It began with yoga exercises especially tailored for the sporty types to that more suited to those who loved long languid lunches. “On weekends, we organise yoga plus runs where we get together and do some stretches before the run, after which we come back and work on breathing exercises that can improve time and technique. We also started doing the yogi brunch a couple of times a month where we’d take yoga to a restaurant or café and perform asanas to some live music,” she says.
With her audience always hungry for something new, Singh has no qualms repackaging yoga’s ancient wisdom into more digestible capsules. The Yogi Treks they organise regularly is an ode to the past when yoga was practised and perfected high up in the mountains.
Purists resent these spin-offs. Paddleboard yoga, hot steam yoga, noise yoga, flying yoga, naked yoga, snowga (yoga in the snow), doga (yoga with your dog) – it would seem that there is a tendency to take things too far. Last year, a beer manufacturer sponsored a beer yoga event which drummed up a lot of curiosity, in addition to 400 registrations. Beer yoga, as practised elsewhere across the world, involves balancing the bottle during yoga poses and taking small sips while settling into different postures. It was eventually cancelled because of the outcry among the city’s yoga enthusiasts who felt alcohol should not be mixed with the practice of yoga.
It ended up inspiring a local comedian to make a spoof video about Biryani Yoga, where participants balance a plate of biryani while performing yoga, letting the participants “embrace the aroma” and “be one with the biryani”.
While Singh concurs with beer yoga being inappropriate, she is enthusiastic about the idea of reinvention. “As we thought about attracting the young crowd to yoga, we had to be prepared to get out of the comfort zone and try new things. I personally think any stretching and bending that we do in yoga, animals can do better. That’s why a lot of the names and poses are inspired by animals. So what’s wrong with letting your dog join in and jump on your back during an asana,” she laughs.
(Ayswarya Murthy is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)