Karnataka: The man clad in a white dhoti and shirt is unprepossessing as he walks towards the stage. The audience in the vast auditorium barely notices him as he walks barefoot and ascends to the podium. Then he begins talking. In fluent engineer’s English mixed with choice Sanskrit words, the man explains esoteric concepts from the Vedas: he talks about spirituality, karma yoga, about being detached and experiencing the silence within. “Anandamaya kosha,” he calls it and it is blissful, he says.
The fidgeting audience—primarily students from India and abroad—sits up and takes notice. Something in the man’s confident tone and the seeming ease with which he makes abstract concepts accessible is compelling. “He sounds like he knows what he is talking about,” says one dreadlocked student from Germany sitting amid a group of young Japanese women clad in salwar-kameezes.
Religion is a touchy subject in India. The continent is home to most of the world’s great religions, yet veers from religious tolerance to intolerance with every swing of the pendulum. For every Gandhi, there is a Godhra; for every Abdul Kalam there is a Abdul Wahid Kashmiri; for every secular Hindu, there is an RSS fundamentalist. To focus on India’s spiritual heritage without getting enmeshed in its religious skin is a tough balancing act but the man on stage does it deftly.
Finally, a monk clad in orange robes introduces the man. He is H.R. Nagendra, vice-chancellor of Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (Svyasa) University.
In spite of its long unwieldy name, this university is engaged in cutting-edge research on yoga and how it affects the human body. In collaboration with Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical School and other top institutions, Svyasa is engaged in clinical trials on how yoga can be used to deal with modern-day ailments such as asthma, allergies, cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Svyasa offers masters and PhD degrees which link yoga to the physical sciences, management studies, life sciences, humanities and yes, spirituality. This marriage of science and yoga makes sense, given Nagendra’s background. After getting his ME and PhD in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, he worked at the University of British Columbia, Nasa Marshall Space Flight Centre and the Harvard University Engineering Sciences Laboratory where he was consultant for three years before returning to India via Imperial College, London.
Even though he is steeped in science and thinks with the dispassionate rigour of an engineer, Nagendra says he was always attracted to mysticism.
“It seemed to me that every scientist I admired—ranging from Einstein to Newton—turned to mysticism later in life,” he said. “There are many things that science cannot explain.”
Still Nagendra had no desire to be a religious quack. When he established Prashanti Kuteeram, the sprawling campus of the university in the early 1980s, about a two-hour drive from Bangalore, he was very clear about his goal. “Then as now, my goal is to make yoga relevant to today’s world.”
Yoga has become a global juggernaut, attracting everyone from supermodels to super-yogis who seek their share of the pie. Christy Turlington, who once walked the ramp, now makes a living through yoga. Her line of yoga products includes mats, clothes and even a skincare line named Sundari based on Ayurveda. Other gurus have branched off into their own version of yoga, ranging from the new-age but chic Jivamukhti Yoga Centre in downtown Manhattan to the sweat-inducing Bikram Yoga to aerobic Power Yoga to Baba Ramdev’s yoga.
A recent trend is Christian yoga, which seeks to subsume the physical benefits of yoga into the religious umbrella of Christianity. Purists argue that yoga’s popularity has taken it further and further away from the ancient truths that were its foundation.
Nagendra is both purist and not. On the one hand, he studied Sanskrit for five years just so he could read Patanjali and other Vedic texts in their original form. When asked what his favorite text is, he says, “The Upanishads… for their wisdom.” Yet, he is remarkably tolerant with respect to how people adapt yoga to suit their lives. “He is a visionary,” says Shamanthakamani Narendran, a pediatrician who also has a PhD in yoga sciences from Bangalore University. “He has got this vision that yoga is the science of the future and he is working hard to make that happen.”
Right from the beginning, Nagendra viewed yoga as a “tool” that people could use to cope with the stresses of modern life. Rather than simply pay lip service to this idea, he sought to establish yoga’s benefits through rigorous controlled scientific trials.
Asthma, for instance, is one area that his institution has had particular success with partly because of its location. Bangalore’s high altitude and high levels of pollen through the Parthenium weed have made its citizens prone to allergies and asthma. At Prashanti Kuteeram, asthmatics are taught breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation and yoga asanas. They are monitored against a control group, which doesn’t practice yoga, and the results analyzed. Over the years, says Nagendra, tens of thousands of people have been subjected to such clinical trials and through them the clear benefits of yoga in the control of asthma has been established.
Svyasa (www.svyasa.org) publishes papers about this in scientific journals. It has also developed modules that can help the average person cope with an asthma attack without nebulizers, inhalers and medication.
Another module that Svyasa has developed with great success is to use yoga to reduce stress among executives. Busy corporate executives require two things from any project they undertake: they want to see results in the shortest time possible, says Nagendra with a rueful smile. To that end, his university has developed weekend workshops which teach relaxation and concentration techniques in simple user-friendly modules.
They aren’t short cuts, he stresses. They are more like the synopsis of a research paper. The one-minute relaxation technique borrows heavily from the savasana (corpse pose). Similarly, pranayama (breathing techniques) help executives relax before an important presentation. Many of India’s large companies, including the TVS group and ONGC, have sent their senior executives for training. “Earlier, I used to have a lot of anger and argue with my colleagues and juniors,” said one. “After taking the programme, I find that I am able to control my anger.”
While Nagendra relishes the practical benefits that yoga confers on companies and other practitioners, his own and interest veers much deeper. He comes into his own when he talks of Indian mystics—people like Adi Shankara who were “masters of their mind,” as he says. They were fully in control, lived extremely creative and useful lives and accomplished great things. Similarly Swami Vivekananda is his other role model with respect to making Indian philosophy accessible to the West. “We have to use the best of the East and the West,” says Nagendra often. “Western systems combined with Eastern philosophy.”
Another branch of Svyasa is Aroghyadhama which treats numerous ailments through holistic techniques. It is run by Nagendra’s sister, R. Nagarathna, a physician trained in the UK.
What next for Nagendra? More studies, more clinical trials, he says. More collaborations with universities and hospitals abroad to use yoga for the greater good. This incremental approach seems to suit him. He is, after all, an engineer by training even if he is a mystic at heart.
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we are running through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org)