Friday, August 04, 2006

Confessions Of An Aspiring Yogi

Eight years of living in Delhi had deprived this rice-eater of rice so much that when I came to Chennai and set up a kitchen for myself, I decided to pull out all the stops. Almost every dinner would be rice and boiled potatoes — steaming hot — with a spoonful of ghee, accompanied with some dal and boiled eggs. I hesitate to mention that the dinner was preceded by the sub-standard rum you get in Tamil Nadu.

Life went on like this for two whole years and then one morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror, I found Vijaykanth, the actor, staring back at me. I looked again: this time it was Mohan Lal’s face in the mirror. Many people — my mother included — would have seen it as a healthy sign, literally. But I alone knew how unhealthy I was.

Every morning I would wake up with pain in the heels and the knees. Very frequently I would have ‘heart attacks’ and rush to the doctor, who would send me home saying it was nothing but acid reflux. I never trusted the doctors: I thought they were hiding something. I suffered in silence. But I was not willing to suffer the bloated look, come what may. I checked my weight.

Eighty kilos! In Delhi I never exceeded 67. What was I to do? There were many things I could have done: I could have joined a gym, gone on brisk walks, bought a bicycle, and so on. But I chose yoga, and that’s because I believe that you push yourself hard enough only when you are in a class: an instructor has to breathe down your neck and you should also feel a sense of shame when the man or the woman in front of you is doing far better.

Today I weigh 71 and am nearly as flexible as when I was 20. And that is why I am writing this, even though I am not a yoga expert or teacher. A teacher can only write out a prescription like a doctor, whereas I am the patient who is recording the success of a medicine. The medicine, in this case, is thousands of years old.

Yoga: the very mention of the word is likely to throw up the image of a serene beauty, her eyes peacefully shut, sitting amid mountains in the lotus pose and meditating. It could be some other image as well, depending upon the degree of your familiarity (or non-familiarity) with yoga. But at any rate, the image won’t be that of sweat and speed and stamina — the kind you would associate with a gym, where one man is panting on the treadmill, a woman with earphones is cycling away, a bloke is pumping iron and is admiring his triceps every second minute.

Yoga — I am sorry to disappoint gym enthusiasts — not only packs in the power of a gym but much more. All you need to do is go to and look at the dozens of pictures of 90-year-old Mysore-based Pattabhi Jois, the Ashtanga Yoga guru, directing his devoted students. Each of the students has a chiselled body that you would die for; and why not, because yoga is not just about sitting on your backside and breathing. In fact, it can be a pain in the backside. “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber for the next 90 minutes” is how Bikram Choudhury, the Calcutta-bred yoga guru who found riches in Beverly Hills, welcomes his new students.

It is just that yoga is taken lightly because it is highly flexible by nature: there is no definition to it. If you sit and focus on your breath, it is yoga. If you lie down like a corpse, that is also yoga. If you do the headstand or the handstand, that is also yoga. It all depends on how you use yoga to achieve what you are looking for. And here we are looking for some vigorous stuff — stuff that will make you lose weight like crazy and sculpt your body and also make you flexible. Yoga can’t make you an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Salman Khan, but you can certainly aspire to acquire the body of Brad Pitt or Akshay Kumar. The choice is yours. And women, won’t you want to look like Angelina Jolie?

The key to achieving the dream body is not hidden away in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. It is, in fact, the very basis of every school of hatha yoga: surya namaskara or sun salutation. The sun salutation is supposed to be only a warm-up sequence that prepares you for other postures, but in itself, it gives you the collective benefit of all the equipment in a gym. When done slowly, it stretches and tones your body and increases you awareness. When done fast, it builds your muscles and also becomes as an excellent cardio-vascular exercise.

The traditional sun salutation is a combination of 12 postures (check or other yoga sites), which work every part of your body. But wait, these 12 postures involve only one leg, and therefore constitute only half a round of surya namaskara. For one full round, you will have to repeat the same 12 postures with the other leg. And yoga gurus usually recommend a minimum of 12 rounds for a healthy person.

By the end of five rounds, beads of sweat will surface on your eyebrows, and at the end of twelve rounds — if you are easily able to achieve it, that is — the yoga mat will turn into a river of sweat. But professional yogis think nothing about doing 20 rounds, and there are contests (in the West, of course; because yoga is still not the ‘macho’ thing in India) where one is required to perform 108 rounds! You need to be Superman to do that.

Whatever it is, surya namaskara is the surefire way to lose weight along with strengthening your heart and your muscles. Ah, but that’s only the traditional surya namaskara, which is relatively kind on its practitioners. The Ashtanga version of sun salutation, as taught by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, is ruthless: even one round can require the strength of Superman. And mind you, the Ashtanga school prescribes two versions of it: Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. Check them out on the internet! — and you will find a lot of pages because Ashtanga is very hot in the West, where they also call it Power Yoga.

A hardcore yoga practitioner will wish that he or she didn’t have to do the surya namaskaras at all, but those not into yoga at all will find the postures simple. And that’s because they are merely looking at the postures and not doing them. But then, for the ignorant, everything is deceptively simple. All they need to lose weight and sculpt their bodies is a yoga mat and an empty space, not even 10 ft by 10 ft. Yet they spend Rs 10,000 to sign up in a posh gym, only to stare at an empty wall while running on the treadmill or pumping iron even though their muscles are not strong enough to lift even their girlfriends. Sad.

But they will take to yoga one day — the day Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves sign up for a class. But I can tell you that these stars are already into yoga, courtesy Men’s Health magazine, and last year I saw Jude Law doing the headstand in Vanity Fair. Maybe our blokes are waiting for the Indian media to report their fascination with yoga. Well, you have now read this article, haven’t you?


Blogger Syed Asif said...

Sign me up. Right now. I am going Yoga. I am +6 Kilos and I am gonna make it -10. Thanks for the inspiration. :D

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have a question. can i learn yoga from the net instead of shelling money and going to a place where it is taught?

3:51 AM  
Blogger Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thats it, i am starting again from tomorrow morning. i was quite into yoga myself but once in hostel, i always came up with reasons to not do yoga.
with the kind of life i am leading now, it is time i started again. thanks, for reminding how wonderful it is.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Bishwanath Ghosh said...

Asif, Deepa: Yes, you must :)

Anon: No, it is not at all advisable to learn from the net or books. And you don't have to 'shell' money: yoga is very cheap in most places.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Karishma VP said...

I've been into yoga since I was a teenager, but it's been the classic off-on, on-off relationship. I restarted it just 2 days back, hoping it would be an everlasting bond this time :-) Your article in the Indian Express this morning was just the inspiration I needed to keep going!

And yes, the first paragraph was so funny, it had me cracking up...enough of a warmup before I started my 12 rounds of suryanamaskar...thank you :-P

11:20 PM  
Blogger dazedandconfused said...

well i guess its horses for courses. I hit the gym about 3 times a week for an hour and run 9 kms. every saturday. Been doing this for almost 18 months now and feel good about the way I look, feel and weigh.

I guess that's more important.

3:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yoga will certainly make you look like Salman Khan!! Know why? That bloke is more flexible than a freshly made out cane. he can bend any way he wants. an you know why? he spent nearly 8 years mastering the the Himalayas. How do I know this? I have seen it all before my eyes!! He was in Dubai last year for the opening of a Yoga Club set up by his Guru. I have seen him in action. That is when the secret of his healthy, flexible and much dsired body was revealed.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Bishwanath

enlightened after reading ur article on yoga. can i also gain weight with this. any particular asana for that or surya namaskara is sufficient.

6:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

where can I learn ashtanga yoga in chennai? I could find classes all over the world not one to mention in chennai! Its a shame!!

1:06 PM  

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