Fuelled by news channels looking for cheap TRPs, yoga was sucked into becoming a religious conflict last week. Several people representing what they believed was a ‘Muslim’ or minorities’ viewpoint came and railed on camera with arguments that ranged from the bizarre to the asinine.
There can be some reservations about Yoga Day being imposed on institutions on June 21, which is a Sunday. Enforced agendas tend to ignite suspicion and controversy but I would argue that yoga is made compulsory in schools, just as physical education is, so huge are the benefits.
But to sully yoga as something that promotes only a particular faith, rather than a way of life, betrays not just lack of knowledge, research and understanding, but a pre-determined, dangerous need to steer an issue towards religious dissonance.
When a system is as old as yoga, which goes back several centuries, it will manifest some aspects of the fusion between religious and cultural practices of the milieus through which it has travelled. But that does not necessarily make it religion bound.
Those who want to see Surya Namaskar as worship of the sun are free to do so. Some can see it as just exercise; perhaps the best in the world for physical well-being. Likewise, a religious chant before and after practice is expendable by those who don’t want it.
The argument that yoga promotes Hinduism is as myopic and puerile as that which says that fasting is only for Muslims. There are certain things where religious, social, caste, class – all kinds of differences – dissolve. Yoga is one of them.
My own experience with yoga has been one of great personal benefit and has never been tainted with any demand to conform. To rituals yes, but of asanas, not religion.
More than three decades back, I enrolled in Kaivalyadham at Marine Drive after a sudden bout of blood pressure and cholesterol levels rising like a skyscraper on the Mumbai skyline. Nobody asked me about my faith, or imposed theirs on mine. The only insistence was on regular attendance and practice.
Some years later, in early 1994 if I remember correctly, I was introduced to Yogacharya BKS Iyengar’s school. Suffering from a sudden bout of vertigo, I was advised steroids by some doctors, rest in a sanatorium by others and even giving up a ‘stressful job of a journalist’ by one.
Having done a story on Guruji Iyengar for the paper I was editing, I took a chance by enrolling in the class run by his teachers at the Piramal Institute in Parel. My first session included being hung upside down from a window supported by a rope!
Groggy and unsteady, I thought this was sheer madness and I would get a seizure. Something told me to persist. To cut a long story short, after a fortnight of hanging from the window and other asanas, I was back on the squash court, playing hard to win.
In the period since, there has never been a single instance where religion has been a factor, where yoga is concerned. Not even once. The conduct of teachers, students, staff – everybody concerned – has been entirely non-discriminatory. Indeed, I’ve had teachers who were Hindu, Zoroastrian, Christians (including a priest) and even Muslim.
Meeting Yogacharya Iyengar in person was to become one of the major events of my life. He was a stickler for perfection, could be acerbic and use his tongue like a whiplash. But he was also warm and forgiving. Moreover, he was a cricket lover, which perhaps was the reason I got some more time with him.
Yogacharya Iyengar is among the tallest personalities in India’s history for his contribution to the subject of yoga. As in every sphere of life there have been charlatans and self-seekers in yoga too. Some chase pelf, some political power. Iyengar chose only to help the human race. He was charismatic and unique: in my opinion a physician, surgeon, psychiatrist and philosopher rolled into one.