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Yoga is quite the hip, new-age thing to do now. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Yoga is quite the hip, new-age thing to do now. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Letter from... a camp

The results of yoga are tangible, but you can't compare Baba Ramdev's upper body with Tiger Shroff's

Sit cross legged (in padmasana). Bend over backwards till your upper body is flat on the floor (while your legs are still wrapped around each other like a serpent). Stay for a few seconds. Then, raise your neck and torso in such a way that you balance with your head on the floor (matsyasana or fish pose). Now, close your eyes and focus on your breathing.

That’s what our very patient and genial instructors said. I focused more on my neck at that point, petrified that it’s going to snap like a twig even as my lower and upper back sent unhappy messages to my brain.

I was at a yoga camp, a month-long daily ritual in May, encouraged by a former colleague who was also volunteering as one of the three instructors. Every evening, on the roof of a college building in Mumbai, over 20 of us in all ages and shapes, willed our bodies to do something they were not accustomed to.

Not surprisingly, my body became more bendy as the days progressed—others admitted to feeling the same—but more than once I questioned the wisdom of attempting something like this at my age. Particularly when struggling through a preliminary version of the head stand (bhushirasana).

So what brought upon this self-inflicted pain?

Several years ago, after suffering for a long time from a crunching backache—the pain still reminds me of sandpaper for some reason—I went through the drill of MRIs and doctor visits. The young, amiable doctor, also a marathon runner, told me that the disc at the bottom of my spine was worn out. In effect, something on the lines of the lubricant drying out from between moving metallic parts, which were now scratching against each other.

He had two suggestions: surgery, which will give immediate results—sweet anesthesia, quick cut, open, fix, and out in days—so I can start playing rugby immediately. Or, a life-long drill of physiotherapy—slow and gentle build of muscle strength and stretching the back.

The fast, easy route vs the lengthy, lifetime drone of possible suffering through backward bends. Easy choice, I thought, as I walked out of the hospital with the telephone number of a physiotherapist and a niggling suspicion of having made a mistake.

That was over a decade ago. Since then, I have gone through physiotherapy sessions at home and in rehabilitation centres, attempted yoga at home and in camps, watched Shilpa Shetty’s DVDs and Spiderman movies—all in an attempt to find inspiration and how to increase flexibility, my own version of Bend it like Back.

Once the physio-at-home arrangement became unaffordable—the physio head at the centre got embroiled in some scandal and the yoga instructor started falling asleep on the couch while I was in chaitanyasana or shavasana (the rejuvenating pose, a universal favourite)—I have been constantly looking for some new form of punishment for my spine. My poor self-discipline has meant that I have been irregular in practicing what I have learnt so far—so the yoga camp in Worli was well-timed.

Yoga is quite the hip, new-age thing to do now. The Indian prime minister is a big endorser—every other day in Mumbai, newspapers carry advertisements of “Yoga by the bay" with the BJP MP Shaina N.C. prominently on the cover. Last week, 21 June was the third International Yoga Day—the Internet was filled with pictures of people holding their noses.

It’s also not uncommon to find people walking around neighbourhoods with their yoga mat swaying casually off their toned shoulders, headed to some class or the other. There are different versions of it too for variety—including the one you do with your pet, hot and cold ones, ones where you dangle precariously off ropes and the versions that give the nearly 60-year-old Madonna her six-packs and keep Shilpa Shetty looking like the way she does.

There are, of course, disbelievers: a former colleague found it unpalatable because the results, he said, were not tangible. Another friend finds it “boring". There are just too many “instructors" whose credibility is difficult to ascertain. There are arguments that yoga is not enough to achieve your goals of fitness—it needs to be combined with something else.

Since I am not expert and not even a regular or accomplished practitioner of the art, I am hardly qualified to pass judgments, but do have an opinion based on experience. Mine, however, is a practice that combines lessons from the physio, yoga instructor and an old Doordarshan programme on fitness featuring a smiling Sikh man.

I can still touch my toes without bending my knees. I do not wake up every morning with a creaking back. I can sit cross-legged on the floor and get up without using my hands for support. I have not needed surgery for over a decade—though I am uncertain what will happen in the future. I am not supple or lean like Baba Ramdev, but am on most days pain-free. I believe many of these asanas have made it possible. It’s the reason I went to the camp—to learn more and get better at the practice.

The results, my friend, are tangible, but you can’t compare Ramdev’s upper body with Tiger Shroff’s.

On one of the evenings at the camp, as we rested our bodies on the terrace of that building after twisting around some more (with sulabha dhanurasana and vakrasana), I looked at the clear skies, felt the gentle sea breeze and sensed calm under the shadow of some giant trees.

I remembered my orthopedic doctor’s words that it’s okay to feel a click or a crack in your joints at times. The back, now peacefully resting on the mat, finally sent a message of relief to the brain. I felt joyous and hopeful.

I haven’t practiced a single asana since that day. But I am still hopeful and slightly less flexible than I was in May.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

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