It’s the last leg of Bikram Choudhury’s whirlwind trip to Mumbai. He spends an evening at the suburban bungalow of his old friend, music director Bappi Lahiri. At 10:30pm, the 56-year-old yoga guru from Beverly Hills waits for actor Gulshan Grover, who is actively involved in bringing his brand—Bikram’s Yoga School of India—to Mumbai.
“I am a businessman, I keep emotions out of my profession and I think the time is right to be in India,” he tells me, adjusting his wristwatch, a sparkling cluster of diamonds. His frosty turquoise shirt hugs his thin frame under a black suit. There are gold goblets on the tips of his shoes and a black hat sits snugly on his head. Guru to Madonna and Bill Clinton, Choudhury is all you’d imagine a Hollywood yogi to be. By mid-2007, when Choudhury’s studio, spread over one-and-a-half acres, opens at Juhu, Mumbai, he will be the next big force in India’s yoga boom propelled largely by Baba Ramdev, the ubiquitous face of yoga in the country.
As Choudhury says, “I thank Ramdev for taking yoga to the masses, but that doesn’t mean he’s teaching yoga the right way.” Purists may begrudge the mass popularizing tactics of Baba Ramdev and Choudhury, but the new avatar of the yoga guru—functional, driven by hard-sell and largely stripped of spirituality—is here, spurring a silent war, armed with promises of instant, painless healing. Each guru or school claims the final word on yoga, denouncing the rest as upstarts.
Choudhury, for instance, does not acknowledge any other style of yoga and is particularly harsh on Ramdev: “He uses one position to do all his asanas, which goes against the grain of yoga practice. I believe in the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. He has made yoga practice seem like recreation.”
Ramdev’s Divya Yoga is a one-man enterprise. Born in Alipur, a small town in Haryana, Ramdev has stripped yoga of its esoteric garb and made it accessible to the common man. A headline-grabber since he started appearing on the Aastha channel in 2002, his seven-day camps in cities and small towns across the country draw thousands of people. “Many other channels have invited Baba for his yoga programmes, but he has very little time left after the camps,” says Manoj Prabhakar, a spokesperson for the guru. Aastha channel’s TRP rating for Ramdev’s programme (that begins early morning on weekdays) is 9.1, which makes the guru, who is in his early 40s, the most widely-watched figure on television.
So how does a novice choose the right yoga lessons? Baba Ramdev’s cure-all pranayama or B.K.S.Iyengar’s rigorous asana sequences, tested over 70 years of practice? Or simply sweat it out with the standard 26 asanas in Choudhury’s temperature-controlled studio? One is spoilt for choices with other names such as Power Yoga, Bharat Thakur’s Artistic Yoga and Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Yoga.
A definitive answer comes from 89-year-old Iyengar, founder guru of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute at Pune. An eclectic group of people from Europe, the US, various Indian cities and locals throng his age-old premises. Most disciples from other countries stay here for months, seeking respite from chronic diseases. Seated at his office-cum-yoga library, the guru says, “Don’t look for quick, absolute cure through yoga, it cannot do what a cancer surgery can do to a third-stage cancer patient. Yoga can boost your body’s defence and prepare you to deal with your afflictions and sorrows.” Having survived two heart attacks himself, Iyengar practices for three hours every day. He is critical of most modern gurus, especially Ramdev and Choudhury—“Any asana done in artificial surroundings can give short-term benefits at best. Bikram Yoga can’t stand the test of time.”
Like Iyengar’s teachings, Ashtanga Yoga has had followers all over the world for over 50 years and continues to be an umbrella form for many modern practitioners. Most gym-going city folks are familiar with Power Yoga, a simplified version of the Ashtanga tradition, which dates back to sage Patanjali, the oldest recorded proponent of organised yoga practice in India, whose teachings were later spread by Mysore-based guru, Pattabhi Jois.
Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute attracts people from across the world, and the number is growing. Practitioners consider Ashtanga to be the most authentic tradition of yoga practice in India. It follows an eight-fold sequence prescribed by sage Patanjali, which aims to transform a person’s body, mind and soul. At the largest and oldest centre for Ashtanga Yoga in Mumbai, about 1,000 students attend classes every day—a number that has doubled in the last two years. Yogacharya Anandji, a former teacher of this institute who now runs his own school in India (in Mumbai) and Sweden, says, “The Iyengar school emphasizes physical postures, while Ashtanga is a more holistic approach.”
Choices have become far more difficult over the last two decades with individual gurus taking up the mantle. Not rooted in one particular yoga tradition, they have assimilated the best of all forms to promote new, flexible ways of doing yoga.
Unlike Sri Sri Ravishankar, who imbibed just one aspect of yoga—variations of breath control techniques—to craft his Art of Living classes, the gurus after him have promoted hybrid forms tailor-made to address specific issues of the body and mind. Says Thakur, who started Artistic Yoga in the late 1990s, “I trained in different schools of yoga before starting on my own and through it all, I met people who had been doing yoga for over 15 years but still had pot bellies. That’s why I decided to improvise on traditional asanas with sports training techniques.”
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Yoga is based on Patanjali’s teachings, the source of all forms of organised yoga, but in its emphasis on mysticism and spirituality, Isha Yoga is akin to Swami Sivananda’s Bihar School of Yoga. Vasudev seems at ease wearing a loincloth or a pair of blue jeans walking barefoot through the Himalayas, or straddling a BMW motorcycle on the expressway. His ashram at Coimbatore is a hub of corporate executives from all over the world. “As societies reach a level of affluence they realize that economic well-being is a myth. Ultimately spirituality is the only thing that will maintain sanity in the world,” says Vasudev. One of his oldest followers is Chennai-based L.K.Narayan, CFO of Infrastructure Development Finance Company. Narayan is a seasoned yoga practitioner who trained in others schools before starting afresh with Vasudev’s teachings. “Five years ago, when I was introduced to Isha Yoga, I was seeking an inner path for myself. I was drawn to Isha Yoga because it’s based on the true life experiences of a man, not on theory,” he says.
But again, trainers like Deepika Mehta and Leena Mogre, who were among the first in India to incorporate yoga into fitness regimes in gyms, don’t believe that the highest goal of yoga is spirituality. Mehta considers herself “a modern day yogini”, aiming only to make yoga functional.
Perhaps just by laying down separate goals and getting more Indians to aspire for them, the new bearers of this 5,000-year-old discipline, have revitalized what was, until about a decade ago, one of India’s best exports to the West. There’s something for everyone out there; it’s about making the right choices.
Before Choudhury leaves to take his flight back to Los Angeles, he relates an anecdote in his trademark childlike-glee-meets-rockstar-swagger style: “Gulshan threw a party for me on the same evening that a major film awards ceremony was on in the city. Nobody landed up at the after-awards party. Everybody came to meet the yoga guru from Hollywood. Either people love me or yoga is hot right now.”