Yoga for the urban soul
Are urban Indians reluctant to adopt yoga? Ahead of International Day of Yoga, we find out
Mumbai: The smiling face that greets you at the reception desk at The Yoga Institute, established in 1918, is that of Manohar Bhatia. He is calm, soft-spoken and sits upright, too upright for a 65-year-old, you might think.
It wasn’t always so. When Bhatia, as a 29-year-old in 1979, walked into The Yoga Institute in Santacruz East, a busy suburb of Mumbai, he was a “short-tempered, indisciplined and disturbed individual”, he recalls. He was working in a pharmaceutical company in a mid-managerial role where he constantly had to play mediator between the management and the workers’ union.
“I used to be stressed; smoked a lot. It’s not that I stopped smoking because I was doing yoga, but it just came naturally. Yoga teaches you to calm your mind, be aware of your breath, of your movements. More importantly, it trains your mind to accept things for what they are rather than fighting them.”
Bhatia, who retired in 2011 after working for almost 40 years, practises yoga regularly at home. He drops in at the Institute once a week and sometimes even conducts classes.
Stress at the workplace in urban India is multi-fold compared with his day. Long working hours, sitting at the desk in front of the computer, irregular eating and sleeping habits and even the commuting are fraying our nerves.
And yet, it is only recently that urban India has started looking at yoga, a stream of knowledge that originated in India more than 2,000 years ago, for solutions to the stress.
“Most people come here because of health problems. There’s stress, hypertension, headaches due to lack of sleep, back aches and also more severe lifestyle-related problems like heart attacks and diabetes,” says Hansaji Yogendra, the director of The Yoga Institute.
Yoga has somehow taken a long detour, via the West, to become relevant in urban India again.
“Sometimes you do not realize the values of things that are already familiar and accessible,” says Maud Chuffart, a French woman who established The Yoga House in Mumbai and Bengaluru in 2011. Chuffart was introduced to yoga in New York in 1998 and came to India “to get closer to yoga in its traditional aspect”.
“For the longest time, most (urban-bred) Indians have associated yoga to be a practice related to meditation,” says Lamya Arsiwala, who runs the Yoga House in Mumbai along with Chuffart. “Westerners on the other hand have recognized the totality of the practice and that’s what led yoga to gain popularity there. In my experience, yoga gaining popularity in the West has certainly led more Indians to it.”
Yogendra stresses that a spiritual goal, rather than a material one, is essential in practising yoga. But even now, yoga is mainly being looked at as a measure more to save the body than the mind.
“The problem is, with different fitness options cropping up and with all this emphasis on how one looks becoming so predominant, most people new to yoga always question if yoga will help them lose weight and get into shape,” says Arsiwala.
The true essence of the practice—which is the breath and the intention to nurture one’s mind and spirit (along with the body) is lost.
“It is true that westerners are more interested in the holistic approach of yoga,” says Atin Dasgupta, founder of wellintra.com, a Mumbai-based fitness consultancy that links up trainers with clients. “They go deep into the science, I don’t think most urban Indians are that keen on exploring it. I don’t know why exactly that is, but maybe we just don’t have the time to think.”
Making the right choice
Urban Indians, becoming more conscious about their fitness, are increasingly taking up various forms of cardio exercise, including training for marathons, and weight training. The perception of yoga as more of a physical fitness regimen puts it in direct competition with these other activities. And that’s a fast-growing and varied market in itself.
“Most of the physical activities are purely mechanical,” says Arpita Ranadive, owner of the Step Up Dance Academy in Mumbai. Ranadive is a yoga practitioner herself. Her academy offers yoga classes every day of the week. “When people lift weights or do aerobics, they are working on the muscular structure. In yoga, you are engaging the neurological system. That in turn fires up your digestive system, your circulatory system and even your muscles. By making yourself aware of the breath patterns, you are constantly forced to stay in the moment with your body.”
“It is true that people used to think that they could easily do without yoga,” says Anshuka Parwani, founder-owner of Anshuka Yoga, who has travelled with celebrities such as actor Kareena Kapoor as their personal yoga trainer. “They thought they would rather invest that money in the gym. But I think that gap is slowly bridging. More and more people are coming to yoga, looking at it as a wholesome experience.”
Parwani adds that while people usually take gym memberships for six months or a year, yoga is still taken on an experimental monthly basis.
Perhaps it’s because people know that yoga is a long-term pursuit, and difficult to master. It needs better form and a lot more awareness than sticking your headphones in and going for a run on the treadmill or the road.
Gender bias no more
Once seen as belonging to the cult of dreadlocked hippies, yoga is finding many more takers in cities now.
While Dasgupta says that “nine out of the 10 calls” he gets are from women in their late 20s or early 30s looking for yoga instructors, the demographics are changing. Owing to growing stress in the workplace and the knock-on effect it has on personal lives, men are also turning towards yoga. “Hypertension and lifestyle diseases related to alcohol consumption and smoking”, Ranadive says, are the prime reasons why men are joining yoga.
Besides, doctors’ recommendations as well as a voluntary decision for better living are also urging men to take up yoga. However, Ranadive says she has to tell her clients that yoga is preventive care and not a cure.
The other type of men who have started practising yoga are fitness enthusiasts.
“Guys who work out with weights,” says Parwani. “They now understand that only building muscle is not important. Stretching and yoga provide greater flexibility and muscle endurance.” Lean muscle rather than beach biceps, that’s the dimensional change yoga brings.
Vece Paes, an Olympic bronze medallist in hockey who is now a sports doctor, says that recreational sportspersons and fitness enthusiasts also look at yoga for stress relieving benefits.
“Almost 40% of people who train regularly are at a risk of developing joint pain and osteoporosis. Regular training puts a lot of stress on their weight-bearing joints and most physios would advise to stretch and do yoga to relieve that. The breathing rituals of yoga, which help in pumping more blood into the muscles, also go a long way in recovery,” says Paes, who has played in key role in the tennis career of his son Leander, going strong at 42.
Matter of choice
Modern-day yoga as we know it, with its various hybrids, can get confusing.
“Confusion, yes, but it is also giving options and broadening the offer,” says Chuffart. “It can help students find what they need as different styles are focusing on different aspects. For example, Iyengar yoga can be very therapeutic.”
Saying yoga is multi-faceted and addresses lots of problems is one thing. Seeing them chalked out in a list is quite another.
The types of courses and workshops and camps The Yoga Institute in Mumbai offers looks like an à la carte menu for the urban jungle.
There are courses for stress management, cardiac problems, diabetes, pre-natal, post-natal, workshops for corporate executives, kids and couples. Yoga for couples, really! And the director says that very often it even involves some level of counselling.
While that might still be a nascent area, yoga for corporate executives is catching on in cities as well.
“These are the people who are working for 12-14 hours every day,” says Neetu Singh of Total Yoga, Bengaluru, which has companies such as Accenture and Hewlett-Packard on its roster. Rather than asking people to take time out from their busy schedules and spending time commuting, Total Yoga teachers go to their work place, in a practice that Singh calls ‘desktop yoga’. “What we do is go to their workplace and teach them how to exercise their eyes, back core and spine. Show them the right way to sit. Some companies have also started taking regular classes.”
Singh adds that yoga is shedding its image as meant for “oldies”.
“The awareness about yoga is definitely growing,” she says. “There are lots of yoga schools coming in Bengaluru itself and they attract the younger crowd too. We have even 18-year-olds coming for yoga now.”
Counting the cost
All things and benefits considered, yoga is hardly a costly affair. It’s not just a pursuit accessible and affordable for affluent people with lots of time on their hands.
In most Indian urban centres, you can practice yoga starting from Rs.1,000 per month in a group class to as much as Rs.2,000 per class with a personal trainer. Non-profit organizations like The Yoga Institute offer free camps weekly and have group classes starting at just Rs.700 per month.
Dasgupta, whose venture wellintra.com is essentially a mediator between trainers and clients, says that taking up yoga can be much cheaper than joining a Zumba or Crossfit class, because they are trademarked and the gyms and trainers have to pay the requisite affiliate fee.
The cost may not even be a factor now that yoga has a cool quotient.
So take a deep breath. Proceed.
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