Many years ago, I was introduced to yoga by a yoga-vangelist boss. It could have been my irascible nature that inspired him, for all I know, but what I do know is that I was bundled out of office to Kaivalyadham on Marine Drive for a life-changing experience. There, I met a doctor who took down my particulars and recommended some asanas to the teachers. Every evening, watching the sun set over Mumbai as you gently pushed and pulled and stretched was a magical experience. I have no doubt that the office rejoiced in my absence, but I didn’t really care. I walked back to office in Tardeo with my mind at peace to tackle the next tranche of work and er, whoever got in my way. Some things never change...
Every evening, watching the sun set over Mumbai as you gently pushed and pulled and stretched was a magical experience. Even the much-maligned Surya Namaskar is taught as a form of fast and effective or slow and excruciating exercise at gyms. Representation pic/Thinkstock
Geography and traffic took me away from Kaivalyadham (excuses, excuses), but yoga never left me. I stuck to the asanas that I was taught and did them as I left Mumbai, travelled around and came back. At no time in the practice of yoga did I ever worry about the theory. In fact, no one ever discussed it with me. No Patanjali sutras, no philosophical discussions and definitely no religious instruction. Yoga was taught as a form of exercise which was more than cardio-vascular repetition, PT leaps and Pilate stretches. It was control and discipline and freeing your mind from the tyranny of your muscles, in a sense.
Even the much-maligned Surya Namaskar is taught as a form of fast and effective or slow and excruciating exercise at gyms, as an all-body workout with nary an Om in sight or indeed the Sun, when you consider what gyms look like these days. Sportspersons have elements of yoga worked into their fitness routines. At a path lab in Mumbai recently, while we waited for our tests, a yoga teacher did a few relaxation asanas with a mixed religious crowd and everyone took part with enthusiasm. In fact, when I did start going to a yoga class again and the yoga teacher wanted to discuss Patanjali’s sutras, a class full of Hindus and Jains weren’t remotely interested. I was the only one who was curious — anything esoteric interests me, although I believe in no religion or religious structure.
The current controversy over yoga is both unsightly and unseemly. There is no reason for Muslim clerics and organisations to start creating false fears about how Surya Namaskar is going to turn you into a sun-worshipper. The idea is ludicrous. The word compulsory has ugly connotations, but the benefits of yoga far outweigh imaginary bogeys about a Hindu takeover of India through a few asanas taught at schools.
The last thing we need is someone like Yogi Adityanath of the BJP jumping in, either, with his needless warnings about people who don’t do Surya Namaskar need to jump into the sea or whatever. The pot has been stirred enough by the MIM and AIMPLB. Some Christian sects have also attacked yoga or have seen it as some proselytising device — which is ironic coming from a proselytising religion but not that unusual, perhaps.
But yoga is better than all of this and far more useful. It is possible to see it only as a form of exercise as much as it is to see it as something more. The requirements are as with any form of exercise — you need a good, vigilant, and trained teacher. People interested in the philosophy behind yoga can always explore it in their own time and space. I flatter myself that yoga calmed me down (I can hear people sniggering all around me) and I would definitely recommend it for all the religious hotheads all around. Especially Patanjali’s sutras about negating your chhittas...
There are plenty of schools and theories of yoga around. We must be thankful to the western world for re-popularising yoga in India — sad, but true. And as for my former boss who forced me into yoga? A Muslim, of course!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona