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Fast food for the soul

Fast food for the soul

Author: Justine Hardy
Publication: India Today
Date: December 4, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=73513&secid=30


It is a staggering irony that we are now in the age of gigabyte gurus. The way of the Gurukul, the long pupillage of a child with a guru to establish if the child was even a worthy vessel of Vedic learning, has now been usurped by the Coca Cola factor. Years of preparing and honing a mind to the subtleties of the scriptures have been replaced by our impatience to get it all in one easy download, our need for instant gratification, and for not wanting to put in the earnest and ascetic legwork of decades of study and practice.

There is an apocryphal story about how Coke got its bottle. Sales were a bit slow after its invention in the late 19th century in Georgia, USA, as it was being sold from kegs by the glass. The solution came with two words of advice: 'bottle it', and so the legend began. The same idea has been applied to Indian philosophy. It was exported to the west and beyond, where it has been sprayed in Lycra and slick business ethos, branded, now sent right back here with a New Age spin, and all the bells and whistles of the media age. Whether it is the television yoga hit, Baba Ramdev, telling his vast audience to stop drinking Coca Cola and start standing on their heads, or one of the big designers launching a new range of yoga wear, there has been a seismic change in the whole spiritual scene over the past decade.

The new generation of gurus come in all shapes, sizes and from different schools. Their answers to life's eternal question range from: 'try adding a little more haldi to your food' via 'change your job, your house, your car, your wife,' to 'go and sit in Vipassana mediation for 10 days'. Cynics view this shift in the spiritual appetite as yet another example of the decline of the human condition to a state where only immediate results are acceptable. The hopeful see it as a collective hunger to reconnect with the core, the soul, the spirit, the silence, whichever term they prefer to use. The corporates see it as yet another marketing bandwagon to hitch themselves to, and there is a raft of teachers out there who are happy to be hitched. The headcount on yoga millionaires is increasing exponentially. As the number of 'corporate yogis' grows, some of the original teachers, those labelled as the ones who 'took yoga to the West', laugh sadly.

One of them, a highly respected teacher now in his 90s, was sitting in a sea of white cushions at his India-based institute, talking of his journey with yoga. He folded in, left over right, Yin over Yang, symmetrical, balanced, bent into a flower, a lotus. He looked up, his hands in the lap of his padmasana. "Now I find myself wondering if it was such a good idea to carry yoga to the West as I and others did at that time," he said. "Now it is so much about it being a fashion." A hand lifted out of his lap and he opened his fingers, feeling for a simile. "Like a shoe, now it fits, this week, this month, maybe this year, maybe next year too, it fits, but then? I see people practising, practising all over the West. They practise hard you know, makes us Indians look so lazy," he laughed. "You know there is even a thing now called 'rock yoga' with all the boom, boom like you have on the beaches in Goa?" He closed his eyes. "Very clever you know, and they are doing amazing things." He stopped for a moment before nodding his head. "Yes, very clever, but it is not yoga."

In the US, Bikram Choudhury, the man behind Bikram yoga, a practice done at 105ºF (40.5ºC), otherwise known as hot yoga, has not only copyrighted the 27 postures that he claims are his alone, but he and his wife Rajashree are encouraging yoga competitions in the US, with the ultimate aim of having yoga included as an Olympic sport. Choudhury's Yoga College of India in the US has churned out thousands of Bikram teachers. The eightweek course that costs $10,000 and offers ashram-life, Bikram-style, is very different from the life of satsang and aarti in those that line the river Ganga in Rishikesh. The next teacher training starts in April 2010 and will be held at the Las Vegas Hilton. Those who giggle about the methods adopted by the international corporate yoga super-league are told that this is simply an adaptation of the ancient system to the modern world. The Las Vegas brigade will say that the sniggering purists are being judgemental, and that is surely a sign that they are not yoga practitioners. It is a game, one school slagging off another, each claiming their superiority as the one true method.

Here in India Sri Sri Ravi Shankar launched The Art of Living in 1981 as a stress elimination programme. This man, who is referred to by his followers as His Holiness, bases his workshops around what he calls his breathing method, the sudarshan kriya, dubbed as 'a powerful revitalising breathing technique gifted to the world by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar after spending 10 days in deep contemplation, and silence'. The kernel of this breathing and cleansing method is the idea that every emotion has a matching breath, and that the specific rhythm of the sudarshan kriya allows both the body and mind to release stress, and so come into the present moment. He has launched a conflict resolution project, and one for disaster relief. As with those whose path he follows, most particularly Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Sri is rooted in the belief that love and wisdom will prevail over hatred and distress. While his followers claim that he has reached 300 million people worldwide with his teaching and methods, his critics claim that The Art of Living is a programme that targets the more affluent middle class, particularly middle-aged women who are trying to come to terms with a stage in their lives when their youth is over, and their children are leaving home.

Baba Ramdev, the sleek and apparently ageless television yogi and proponent of Ayurveda, implores people to practise pranayama and asana, and to take his particular brand of Ayurvedic treatments. His mass television audience of metromatriarchs studiously follows his lithe routines on early morning spots that are shown daily on Aastha Channel, Sahara, India TV and Star News. If 5.30 a.m. is too early for them, they can turn to his wide selection of multi-media offerings, or go to one of his large-venue yoga camps. He claims that his methods will rid his audience of 'all ailments including obesity (overweight), spondylitis, high blood pressure, arthritis and chronic stomach ailment'. He claims also to have affidavits from those he has helped to cure cancer, and shrugged off a controversy when Indian papers said he claimed he could cure AIDS. He had been misquoted, he said, with a soft smile, and that he only claimed to alleviate the suffering of AIDS patients. And the comfortably-girthed and chronically diabetic drink it in, promising themselves that they will try and avoid Babaji's evil twins of fast food and fizzy drinks.

But is it yoga, and do these methods really bring people closer to a sense of the ultimate truth? What seems to be happening is a synthesis that recognises the intense pressures of the modern world, and the need to counter this in some way to create a human balance. In Gurgaon, the recently opened management leadership school, School of Inspired Leadership, SOIL, has made yoga asana and philosophy a major part of its curriculum for training advanced management students to be inspiring leaders. Around the country, yoga centres are opening all the time, teaching in both the more traditional way, and the often more physical Western version. It could be argued that the movement now generically dubbed as Spirituality Inc. is simply an evolution that shows the versatility of the path and the practice. It can also be argued that the changes reflect the spoilt laziness of a modern culture that wants all its ailments and worries resolved right here right now. But as one teacher I studied under many years ago put it, "It doesn't matter why you come to the practise, whether it's because you want a bettershaped bottom, or some peace of mind, it's going to get you in the end because it is simply bigger than you are."

- Justine Hardy is an author and teacher of yoga philosophy in both India and the UK.

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