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Yoga Y'all?

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September 2003
Yoga Y'all?

Her body lay limp on the stark white hospital sheets. Eyes closed, hands by her side, she appeared to be lost in some far-away place. Nothing seemed to happen for a while and then, unexpectedly, she opened her eyes. The suddenness of it made him tremble. She looked at him, rather through him, trying to search his soul. Then, as suddenly as she had opened her eyes, she closed them, as if in a hurry to get away? get away to some distant place in her mind.

That was lead actress Leonor Watling, portraying a comatose woman in the Spanish film, Talk to Her, which was nominated in the foreign film category for original screenplay and direction at this year's Academy Awards. Explaining how Watling prepared for the scene, director Pedro Almodovar had said, "To play the role of a woman in coma, it is just not sufficient to lie in bed, pretending to be asleep. The body in coma must give the impression of being alive, but also the face and closed eyes must give an impression of being in a remote place. Remote for us, but inside of them. A mysterious place? and only yoga can give you the right expression for it." He had Watling practice Iyengar yoga for a full four months so as to get the expression right.

Surprised? Don't be. This is just one of the numerous ways that yoga is finding its way into the lives of many people around the world. Especially in America, yoga, which started in the 60s as a way to get high without drugs, has today burgeoned into an over-hundred-million-dollar industry. Competitions, patent lawsuits, profit margins and product-line extensions; you name it and the Yoga industry, in true American-capitalist style, has seen it all.

Although yoga came to America decades ago, Hollywood stars have played an undeniable role in its growing popularity. Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Madonna, Jamie Lee Curtis, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mel Gibson, Woody Harreleson and Dennis Quaid. Apart from Hollywood celebrities, Latin singing sensation, Ricky Martin, musician and environmental activist, Sting and NYPD-blue detective, Rick Schroder all practice yoga in some form or the other.

In recent years, yoga has literally burst onto the American fitness scene. According to a study published in the June issue of ?Yoga Journal', more than 7 per cent of U.S. adults or 15 million people now practice yoga. The numbers show an incredible 28.5 per cent increase as compared to the previous year.

This spurt of interest has resulted in umpteen spin-offs, which are in essence modifications and adaptations of Patanjali Maharishi's classical Yoga Sutras. Want to hear about the entrees offered on the Yoga menu? For the adventurous kinds, there's Power Yoga, Yoga with free weights, Yoga & Pilates, and Bikram Yoga (also known as ?Hot' Yoga for the room temperature in which it is practiced). For the seeking souls, there's Sahaja or spontaneous yoga, Siddha yoga and Kali yoga. Then there is Ashtanga yoga, Integral yoga, Kripalu yoga and Viniyoga for those who are choosy about postures and alignment. There's also Yoga for Pregnant Women, Yoga for Kids, and hang on? Doga or yoga for dogs!

However, for millions of Indians both in India as well as America, yoga is just yoga. Smiling bemusedly in response to a question on the style of yoga she teaches, and voicing the opinion of a number of Indians, Ranjana Dhir, a yoga instructor at the YMCA in Alpharetta explains, "I trained and got certified in what is now called the Hatha yoga in America. In India, however, we grew up knowing it just as yoga."

Hari Prakash, a voluntary yoga instructor who gives lessons at the temple at Global Mall on Jimmy Carter Boulevard, thinks that yoga in America has become a marketable commodity. "In India, Yoga is divine but here it is a business," he says. "We don't want to limit ourselves to one approach," says Graham Fowler, Director of the Peachtree Yoga Center in Sandy Springs. He believes that it is not right to compartmentalize yoga, since the three major influences on Hatha yoga in America, namely Pattabhi Jois (who brought over Ashtanga), T.K.V. Desikachar (who founded Viniyoga) and B.K.S. Iyengar (who initiated the Iyengar style) had all learnt, in fact, from the same teacher, namely Sri Tirumali Krishnamacharya, the father of Desikachar.

5000 years of bending for bliss

Until recently it was thought that yoga originated around 500 BC, at the time of Gautam Buddha. However, the yogi-like depictions engraved on the soapstone seals found in the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, bear evidence to the fact that yoga must have originated on the Indian subcontinent almost 5000 years ago. The word ?Yoga' is derived from the Sanskrit root ?Yuj', which means to join. In its spiritual sense, it is the union of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul.

Though today, yoga is commonly interpreted as the asanas or physical postures, these, actually form only one of the arms identified by Patanjali. In order to attain spiritual salvation, Maharishi Patanjali defined eight parts of yoga namely, yama, niyama, asana, pranayam, prathyahara, dharana, dhyan, and samadhi. The first and the second parts are concerned with a person's lifestyle and constitute the codes of the life of a yogi. The third and the fourth parts strengthen the body through physical exercises and controlled breathing, so as to prepare it for the spiritual journey to come. The final four stages are concerned with the advancement of the individual spirit to the ultimate enlightenment or Samadhi.

The different styles of Hatha yoga, namely, Kripalu, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Integral, and Viniyoga to name a few, share a common lineage back to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and lead us to a higher path of Raja Yoga, or the path of self-control. Raja Yoga is, in fact, just one of the four paths that one can espouse to attain enlightenment, the other three being, Jnana yoga or the path of knowledge or wisdom; Bhakti yoga or the path of devotion; and Karma yoga or the path of action.

In America, however, yoga is widely thought to have arrived with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. A young Swami Vivekananda is known to have electrified the American public with his Jnana yoga at this congress. In the 1920s and 30s, Paramhansa Yogananda spread the word of yoga. His engaging Autobiography of a Yogi, written in 1946, continues to enthrall readers even today.

However, Yoga, in its current Hatha yoga version, was introduced to mainstream Americans by a Russian-born yogini, Indra Devi, who opened her Yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947. Rightly called the "First Lady of Yoga," she taught stars like Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan. But it was, undoubtedly, the embracement of yoga by the Beatles in the sixties that saw the movement gather speed.

Any discussion of yoga is incomplete without the mention of Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught the Viniyoga system of Hatha yoga. His son Desikachar, and students B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois are well-known teachers in their own right and have inspired thousands of westerners.

Atlanta slow hop onto the bandwagon

Despite Atlanta's recent emergence as an ?International' city, it nevertheless is part of the ?deep South' that has historically been less ready to embrace New Age phenomena. Coupled with that the orthodoxy of the ?Bible belt' in which Atlanta is located, it is hardly surprising that a practice such as yoga, which is often viewed (incorrectly) as a religious one, would face some resistance.

Robert, a student of the Peachtree Yoga Center, talked of how some people, associating yoga with propagation of Hinduism, think of it as "the way of the devil." Jaya Devi, founder of the Kashi Atlanta Yoga Studio on North Highland Avenue admits that people raised in the Christian faith are, at times, a little intimidated by the presence of Hindu gods and goddesses in her yoga studio. "I address their doubts by assuring them that yoga is an inter-faith practice. It is an open teaching. Apart from the Hindu gods, we have a statue of Mary and a Buddha garden. We celebrate all the religions and everybody's religious path is honored here," she says.

"However, nothing works like when people actually take a class," she continues. "Yoga is so experiential that when people take a class and generate some energy, they realize that yoga is not about religion but about creating peace and compassion."

So, as more and more Atlantans have come to see the true nature of yoga, and its emphasis on the physical and spiritual rather than the religious, its popularity is rising and fast attaining a critical mass.

A few weeks ago, unmindful of the relentless, scorching heat, Divyaraj Singh, along with Anupam Pathak and L.N. Manchi, curled and contorted their bodies in twelve different asanas before a crowd of curious onlookers. They were doing a yoga presentation at the Asian Cultural Experience (ACE), celebrating the diversity in Atlanta, held in the Atlanta Botanical Garden on July 12. One of the representatives on the Indian team, Singh, a software engineer by profession, says, "Yoga is a gift which our ancestors have given to the world." Madhuri Nagarkar, an organizing-committee member of ACE and the captain of the Indian team, seconds Singh's opinion, "When I think about our rich culture, a few things pop into my head and yoga is one of them. Yoga is, indeed, an integral part of our culture. That's why it was included in the ACE."

Sensing the yoga buzz around town, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its Living section of July 15, did a feature on some of the different styles practiced in Atlanta. While agreeing that yoga is a lot bigger in New York and LA as compared to Atlanta, Margaret Pierce, Director, Pierce Yoga Program, declared that the number of yoga students has been steadily increasing in Atlanta. "When we started the Program in 1973 we had 80 students a week. But now, depending on the season, we have from anywhere between 500 to 650," she says.

"Another difference is that here we do not see too much of the trendy kind of yoga, the one you see for instance, in LA. At least the people who come to our program do not need to have the perfect yoga clothes, a yoga back pack and the yoga bottle. I hope yoga in Atlanta never gets to be like that," she adds.

Fowler, while conceding that the level of practice is more advanced in New York and California, says, "Well, California had a 30-year head start of Atlanta. So that's quite understandable."

"In the last three years the number of yoga studios in Atlanta has tripled," says Jaya Devi of Kashi Atlanta. Observing that yoga is booming in Atlanta, she adds, "It is much more common to have it now in health clubs and gyms."

The many yields of yoga

So, while some got into yoga because Julia Roberts or Mel Gibson did it and because it was ?so hot' or ?so cool,' others began to consider it as a fitness regime in order to stay in shape. Yet others did it to hang on to their sanity in today's fast-paced world or to treat some long-term chronic illness. And then there are those like Eric Benvenue-Jennings, the director of the Bikram's Yoga College of India on Clairmont Road in Decatur, who went into yoga, "kicking and screaming," and got hooked on to it.

While there are myriad reasons why people get drawn to yoga, stress and physical ailments seem to be the primary ones. Benvenue-Jennings, who had a history of low back pain, experienced immediate relief when he started practicing Bikram or "hot" yoga, as it is more popularly known. The other pay-offs soon followed. "I started feeling stronger and more energetic. I was calmer than usual. It was and still is, the best total body-mind workout I have ever had," asserts Eric.

Dr. Robert E. Springer III, a Board certified Internist with a sub-specialty in allergy and asthma care, who had exhausted most of the allopathic medical treatments for the severe pain in his neck and shoulder muscles, shares Benvenue-Jennings' deep respect for the holistic approach of yoga. He says, "Within two months of starting yoga, the pain in my neck and shoulder disappeared? a pain which had been a part of my life for the last five years."

In February 2003, Dr. Springer opened a yoga studio in his clinic on Executive Park South and hired a qualified teacher to teach the Iyengar style to his patients. "I believe that there is something in the yoga tradition that all my patients can benefit from," he claims. According to Dr. Springer, yoga can complement allopathic medicine beautifully. "What is golden about yoga is that relaxation (of muscles, internal organs and mind) is as important as activation. Nothing in the western tradition teaches us how to relax. I think therein lies the therapeutic benefit of yoga."

Apart from the obvious benefits of asanas to patients with muscular pains and pranayam to those with asthma, Dr. Springer believes that yoga can also benefit people suffering from mental disorders, depressions, anxiety and migraines.

Shiwali Daryapurkar, a senior at Milton High School in Alpharetta, who has started the Meditation, Reiki and Laughter Club at her school, regularly practices the Bhramari Pranayam, a form of yogic breathing. According to her, it is extremely beneficial to students since it "improves concentration and memory" and positively influences mental clarity and alertness. "I was just an average student. But after yoga, my grades improved and my power of concentration increased," she says.

A similar response was observed by Jennifer Keller, a kids-yoga instructor at Kashi Atlanta. "Children are like little rubber-bands. However, making a mind-body connection with a physical posture, say, like the Vrikshasana or the Tree posture, where you try to balance, definitely increases the attention span. This is especially true for children with attention difficulties," acknowledges Keller.

Paroma Chakravarty, 9, who attends yoga classes at the Global Mall temple says, "When I come to the class in the morning, I am tired and am yawning all the time, but after my yoga class, I am not tired any more. I want to run around and play."

The subject of children brings us to the recent trend of ?Yoga for pregnant women'. Britta Kallin from downtown Atlanta, who took pre-natal yoga classes at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Sandy Springs, believes that yoga benefited her in many ways. "Not only did the breathing help me in relaxing and taking things easy, but the asanas also helped strengthen my aching back and relieve the cramps in my legs. In fact, I attribute my recovery after the delivery to yoga," admits Kallin.

Raja yoga (often described as the yoga of self-control) helped Kevin Miraglia overcome his drug addiction. He believes that yoga complemented his 12-step recovery program. "I have been doing yoga for the last two-and-a-half years and it has opened my mind to surrender the addiction," says Miraglia.

One of the contested advantages of Bikram yoga, in particular, is detoxification. "During my training, there were people who broke out in rashes. But by the end of the training program their skin would start to clear up and begin to look healthier. This makes it quite clear that there are some kinds of impurities coming out," affirms Benvenue-Jennings.

Dr. Taraknath Chakravarty, an assistant scientist working in the area of plant biotechnology at Georgia Tech, got seriously injured in an accident in November last year. The trauma caused nerve damage due to which Chakravarty had concentration lapses. When medicines stopped responding, a disheartened Chakravarty turned to yoga. "I am much more relaxed now and slowly but surely my concentration is also getting better."

The experiences of Gerry Mitchell, a ?Yoga & Pilates' instructor at Kashi Atlanta, are particularly inspiring. In the foyer of Kashi Atlanta, Mitchell shared how yoga has helped him in his battle with AIDS. "My coming into yoga has been as much to regain my physical stamina, as to attain spiritual strength. Yoga has definitely helped me cope better with AIDS not only mentally and emotionally, but also physically. In seven years, I have not had to switch my medicines. In my mind, that has a lot to do with my yoga. Apart from that, the lungs and the heart benefit immensely from just the breathing or the pranayam. The breathing also calms one's innermost fears; fears not only about the illness but also about death," he says.

Stephen Ogletree, the fitness co-coordinator at the Wellness Center of the Atlanta Medical Center talked about the yoga program they have started recently. "To help patients who have undergone a Bariatric surgery (the stomach stapling of patients who are at least 100 pounds overweight) maintain their sense of well being, we started the yoga program. Not only will the yoga help them psychologically but also aid them in weight loss, just through its movements," he says.

In addition to those that get into yoga for ?physical' reasons, there are those who seek yoga to find the true meaning of their life. Dawn Pouge, training to be a teacher at the Peachtree Yoga Center, couldn't agree more. "I got into yoga because I was looking for stress relief. But what has kept me going for the last five years is definitely the spiritual aspect. Yoga is life-changing."

Nitin Dixit, an IT consultant and a volunteer at the Isha Yoga Foundation, Atlanta, learned that pranayam and meditation, the two deeper aspects of yoga, work on your inner transformation. "I was seeking something deeper in my life. I never really focused on the physical aspect of yoga, which is why I never pursued many of the yoga centers in Atlanta," says Dixit.

Jaya Devi, the founder of Kashi Atlanta experienced a tremendous influx of people after 9/11. "Our meditation and pranayam classes were packed. People were looking for ways to feel safe in their own beings, to understand the chaos in the world, and they believed that yoga would help them find the answers," she says.

Kalinatha yoga, unique to the Kashi Atlanta studio is based on the ancient scriptures. This form of yoga uses different postures to invoke the different aspects of the God one believes in to overcome obstacles. Jaya Devi, also believes in seva-bhav or the service aspect of yoga. Towards that end, she started a ?street meal program,' which serves nearly 400-500 meals a week.

Bill Brander, of the Atlanta Sahaja Yoga Center, explains that Sahaja or spontaneous yoga is concerned with the awakening of the kundalini to achieve yoga or "union with one's self." According to him, yoga is related to the "individual's desires." "The awakening of the kundalini, which is located at the base of the spine, is a joyful and peaceful experience. This inner awakening is self realization," Brander says.

When the kundalini is awakened, it passes through the seven energy centers or chakras in our body and is felt as a shaft of cool breeze coming out of your head. "When the kundalini rises, it heals and energizes any damaged chakras. Once you have attained self realization, the pay off is that you can find out which of your chakras needs healing and cure yourself," assures Brander.

Pamela Roberts, Executive Producer at Georgia Public Broadcasting, has been practicing Siddha yoga for the last 16 years. Like in Sahaja yoga, participants receive shaktipat, or spiritual awakening of the inner kundalini energy. "Over the years my life has been tremendously transformed and I totally attribute it to yoga. Before that, I always thought that the world was wrong. But over the years, I realized that I am the creator of my own reality. Nobody else is the problem but us. I see things in a new light," says Roberts.

Nina Grome, the Atlanta coordinator of Isha Yoga Foundation, echoes Roberts' feelings when she quotes Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the founder of the Isha Yoga Foundation, "Yoga is the science of spiritual well-being. The physical well-being that comes along with it is just incidental."

Many bends, one promise: Nirvana

With an increase in the popularity of yoga, a number of different styles have been introduced. Mostly based on hatha, the postures or asanas primarily make up the physical aspect of yoga. However, there are some styles that focus mainly on the spiritual content of yoga. And there are yet others which believe in the "holistic" yoga approach.

One of the most discussed and controversial styles of yoga in current times is probably, Bikram Choudhury's Bikram or hot yoga. Recently, The New York Times reported the first ever yoga competition to be held in America by this proverbial ?bad boy' of yoga,. Choudhury has also been in the news for trademarking his name and patenting the 26-posture sequence of his class.

Criticized at times for its purely physical approach, Bikram yoga constitutes a sequence of 26 postures which are done rigorously for 90 minutes in a room heated to about 100 degrees. The analogy used by Choudhury to explain the use of heat is that of a blacksmith working with metal. "If you try to bend a cold piece of metal, it will break. But once you apply heat, you can bend it in the shape you want. Heat has a similar effect on our body. In fact, Bikram believes that the heat protects our body to get into deeper and difficult postures," reveals Benvenue-Jennings.

Defending the physical focus of the Bikram Yoga, Benvenue-Jennings explains, "In Bikram yoga you start at ground zero. This yoga series is for those who don't have the cultural background for yoga practice. It is difficult to do spiritual work unless you are physically and mentally disciplined and that is one of the main reasons why Bikram yoga is so physically challenging."

"When I teach yoga, my goal is to transform my students' lives," asserts Hari Prakash, who teaches yoga at the Global Mall temple. Prakash believes that Indian yoga teachers add a different dimension to yoga. "I make my students realize that postures alone are not enough. You are required to develop ethics, discipline and even-mindedness to a point that pain and pleasure affect you in a similar manner. That is the true wisdom which one needs to gain from yoga."

Dixit, an Isha yoga volunteer says, "Unfortunately, the general perception of yoga is that it is a physical form of exercise, meant to relieve stress. Very few people are aware that yoga is actually more about inner sight and inner experience."

Chaital Patel, a yoga teacher at the Riverdale temple says, "Yoga is about accepting where you are and who you are. Even if the practice is purely physical, it should not be looked down upon or adversely judged." And as she rightly sums it up, "The spirit of compassion and non-judgment takes one deeper into the practice of yoga."

Relax. Focus on all the muscles of your body and feel the stress and tension slip away. Be conscious of your breathing. Take a deep breath and feel the air rush into your lungs. Rid your mind of all thoughts, worries and emotions. Concentrate only on your breath. Focus on this page now. Enter the magical world of yoga. A world full of beautiful bodies, tranquil minds and restful spirits.

_____________________________________________________________

BOOKS ON YOGA

1. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha'

-Bihar Yoga School

2. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga

- Vishnu-devananda

3. Yoga ForYour Life

- Margaret Pierce and Martin Pierce

4. The Path To Holistic Health - B.K.S. Iyengar

5. The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga

- George Fuerstien

6. The Heart of Yoga

- TKV Desikachar

7. Play of Consciousness

- Muktananda

8. My Lord Loves A Tender Heart

- Guru Mayi

9. I Have Become Alive

- Muktananda

10. From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal's Guide to Spiritual India

- by Anne Cushman and Jerry Jones.

11. Structural Yoga Therapy

- Mukunda Stiles

12. Yoga: Mastering the Basics

- Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik

13. Meta Modern Era

- Shri Nirmala Devi


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