One month at an Indian Yoga Centre

“When you are in India, you must follow Modi. When you are in America, you must follow Trump,” said the semi-literate Odia instructor to a batch of 70-odd students at Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA), a university which received crores from our prime minister not so long ago. 30 kms from Bangalore, its Vice-Chancellor, Dr. H. R. Nagendra (“Guruji” to his devotees), went further. “Thanks to Modi, we are now taking yoga to the world,” he said on the first day. Both the Odia speaker and Guruji told us to “have a smile on our face all the time”. Repeated so often whilst we performed our asanas, it became patently corny and destroyed any sense of feeling welcome and of enjoying a simple, one-hour class.

I was part of the one-month residential “Young Instructor’s Course”. Both foreigners and Indians immersed themselves to gain mastery over yogic practice amongst urban-dwelling, mall-hopping, Brahminical Kannadigas, yet the Indian cretins, who received plenty of admonitions for not coming to class on time, were still awarded certificates at the end. It is said that these certificates are recognised internationally.

This was yoga of a different kind. After doing asanas for 10 years, I felt it was a waste of time. We were are asked to take permission from the teacher before going to the loo; we were told every morning to wear our uniform; where we were lectured about “good Indian culture”, we could not ask questions even though Guruji told us we have to “tear our teachers apart”; and where we were acquainted with our nationalist samskruti, I was amused to discover that if you want to be nationalist, at least be good at it. I wonder why yoga (which is undoubtedly Hindu) needs to be seen as “beyond religion” and “beyond asana“. The last time I remember reading a book about Hinduism and yoga, I did not read about the absence of a god heading this universe and the presence of worldly individuals claiming to speak on behalf of Patanjali.

My experiences with the right-wing have been astoundingly bad over the years. With Swarajya magazine, I learnt that centre-right and socially liberal perspectives are a far cry from what actually goes on in the making of a political entity: that no matter what posturing and “persecutions with the pen” (à la Vivekananda) are thought through and enacted upon, the wisdom that appears extraordinary and full of modern solutions are tied to a capitalism where the poor are excluded and where minorities are sidelined. For example, Guruji had announced, “In the 19th century, there was one Narendra who brought yoga to the world, his name was Vivekananda. In the 21st century, another Narendra is revolutionising the way yoga is propagated. He is Modiji.” More applause. I could hardly believe my ears. “You must stand up for the national anthem and show respect for the national flag,” they demanded.

Yet, S-VYASA was tolerant only in that the dummies did not understand that cultural studies has rearranged the ways in which culture is understood. As I spoke to them on Mrinalini Sebastian’s essay on Understanding Culture, which provides that useful analytical framework through which culture can be problematised, the students (not teachers) asked their questions: Why don’t you go to Pakistan? I said, “Whose culture are we talking about? Are we all Hindus? If Guruji says Hinduism is not a religion, why does he cry hoarse about divinity and compare Hinduism to Christianity and Islam?”. Throughout the lectures by  this scientist with several accomplishments to his name, we were told the West is bad and the East is good and that all Westerners are white, do drugs and that Indians need to help them out of various addictions.

The Odia “yogi” who was taught us asanas throughout the 29 days and who had told us to follow him as if he were Modi, could not perform even a simple padahastasana with ease. I felt like crying, for yoga will always be the asana and no matter what the BJP may think yoga to be, true asana practitioners will know that yoga can be disembedded from its religious appeal and contemporised for a growing population tired of political rhetoric. Patanjali would agree.

Dhruv Ramnath is a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing a Master’s degree in social anthropology. He had been primarily a freelance filmmaker, photographer and journalist before he worked with two media organisations in Bangalore




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