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The new Babalog

Yoga is an exercise. Batty gurus must stop equating it with spirituality. Amrit Dhillon writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:39 IST
Amrit Dhillon

It’s a mystery how Baba Ramdev claims the status of a spiritual leader. His credentials for leading a movement against corruption rest entirely on his yoga. By this logic, my neighbourhood pilates expert could make the same claim.

Equally mysterious is how yoga has become synonymous with spirituality, as though merely doing some asanas makes you a better human being. I’d always thought it was just a way of staying fit and healthy but, judging by the claims being made by Ramdev and people such as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, it can increase a country’s GDP, solve the Palestinian problem and cure cancer.

Ramdev’s website says yoga can cure epilepsy, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, asthma, obesity, Parkinson’s, eye diseases, arthritis, piles, hepatitis, leukoderma, kidney problems, bronchitis, cysts, sexual disorders and memory loss in the elderly. One yoga site I stumbled upon claims that hair will start sprouting from a shiny pate if the person twiddles and rubs his fingers in a certain way.

The claims are batty and preposterous but there is no stopping their inexorable march across the world, conquering nations and winning over celebrities. Hollywood actress Uma Thurman surprised fellow-passengers recently by performing yoga in the aisle on a flight, so compelling and imperious was the urge.

I cannot abide the odour of sanctity around yoga. I am sickened by the piety and puffed up smugness that surrounds it, as though doing yoga makes you a superior, more morally refined person, and can bestow moral authority on Ramdev. Maybe the meditative, reflective mood that yoga can induce in a person can raise you to

a higher level of consciousness and generate profound thoughts on the human condition, but generally it just leads to a crick in the neck. If you listen to the trite, shallow utterances of Shankar and Ramdev, it is clear that doing yoga has failed to enhance their spirituality or intellectual depth.

Besides someone like the Dalai Lama, whose most casual, throwaway comments are worth pondering over, they are pygmies. If yogis are so capable of spiritual insight, why can’t we name even one whose wise observations have come down to us through the ages?

I shudder to think of the gullible and desperate cancer victims who trek to Ramdev’s ashram in Haridwar. My 87-year-old father and the sanest of men was swayed by an imbecilic neighbour into making a long, exhausting journey by train, car and bus to the ashram three years ago in quest of a cure for his beloved son in Britain who was dying of oesophageal cancer.

He took the British doctor’s report on his son’s condition with him. I had read it a week earlier and almost fainted. The cancer was advanced and metastatic. A stent had been inserted inside his windpipe because he could not swallow. His doctor gave him only a few months to live. At the ashram, a collection of quacks told my weary and frightened father that they could cure his son and told him to arrange for him to be flown to Haridwar forthwith. Later, my father’s reasoning faculties re-surfaced and he realised he was being silly.

Had those clowns had a heart, instead of the bumptious arrogance that characterises yoga’s more ardent followers, they would have given my father a cup of tea, a few words of sympathy and urged him to brace himself for the anguish that lay ahead rather than pumping him up with false hope.

But to do that, they would have needed humility. Where is the humility of Shankar who has anointed himself as ‘His Holiness’? Where is the humility of Ramdev who craves the limelight?

Yoga is fine as it goes — a form of exercise and meditation — but no further. It is not a divine dispensation. And no amount of breathing or pretzel poses is likely to add to the sum of knowledge that the world’s religions and great thinkers have bestowed on us. So, let’s take a deep breath (through the right nostril) and treat it with a bit of levity.

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal