Maria Wirth is a German and came to India for a holiday after finishing her psychology studies at Hamburg University. She visited the Ardha Kumbha Mela in Haridwar in April 1980 where she met Sri Anandamayi Ma and Devaraha Baba, two renowned saints. With their blessing she continued to live in India and dived into India’s spiritual tradition, sharing her insights with German readers through articles and books. For long, she was convinced that every Indian knows and treasures his great heritage. However, when in recent years, she noticed that there seemed to be a concerted effort to prevent Indians (and the world) from knowing how valuable this ancient Indian heritage is, she started to point out the unique value of Indian tradition.
For the first time, an International Yoga Day will be celebrated on 21st of June this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had suggested this honour for yoga and his suggestion got overwhelming support from 177 countries. Yoga has indeed become popular all over the world. Many millions practice it – from schoolchildren to senior citizens – and courses are held down to the village level in many countries of the west. But strangely, in its home country India, yoga was not valued even till a few decades ago. The reason was that under British colonial rule, Indian tradition was projected as worthless and Britain as the perfect role model.
The credit for the revival of Yoga in India goes mainly to Swami Ramdev. He established at the outskirts of Haridwar the biggest centre for Yoga and Ayurveda worldwide, called Patanjali Yogpeeth. Its size is stunning. It includes a Yoga University, an Ayurvedic hospital, a yoga hall of 25.000 sqm, thousand apartments for guests, conference halls, cafeterias, and several apartment blocks for permanent residents. Ramdev trained numerous yoga teachers there. He also travelled tirelessly through the country for several years teaching yoga and explaining its benefits to millions. Singlehandedly, he changed the negative image of yoga in India.
Further, he connected Patanjali Yogpeeth with the world. An international conference on ‘Yoga for Health and Social Transformation’ was organized by Patanjali Yogpeeth in January 2011 and again in 2013. I attended the first conference and will give some glimpses of it:
Two thousand delegates had come, who were comfortably accommodated on the huge campus. Over a thousand apartments provide place for around 8000 people. Swami Ramdev does not think big, he thinks huge. Huge is also his goal that he formulated at the inauguration with the venerable 93-year-old yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, who meanwhile passed away, by his side. “Everyone should practice yoga – in India and in the whole world.”
Why should everyone practice yoga?
Because yoga makes you healthy, happy, peaceful, enthusiastic and prosperous and leads to Self- knowledge or Self- realisation. Yoga is not only asanas and pranayama. It is a complete lifestyle. Sri Krishna exhorted Arjuna to be a yogi thousands of years ago. Yoga means joining, union – joining the real Self, joining the whole world. “You are Atman, and Atman is Brahman”, Swami Ramdev quoted from the Vedas and added, “Everything is inside you. The whole universe is inside you. Atman is inside you. God is inside you.”
Yoga is for the ‘small’ concerns in life, for example how to cure obesity or diabetes, and how to be physically and mentally fit. But it is also for the big picture – how to know the Truth about oneself and the universe. Yoga is the practical side of Indian philosophy. Philosophy says that ultimately all is one. Yoga helps to remove the veil that makes us think we are small, separate persons and allows us to realize that we are one with the Whole, like the wave is one with the ocean.
“We all know that yoga works”, a foreign speaker, who has practiced yoga for many years, told me, “but we have to prove it scientifically. Science is the highest authority in our world today.” “And what is science?” I asked. Though a professor, he was at a loss for words. I wondered whether science is overvalued. It is concerned only with what can be measured ‘objectively’. If hemoglobin increases during pranayama, it is scientific. If the person claims that she feels much better, it is unscientific.
Science is a work in progress. Swami Ramdev is aware of this. “Western medical science has been around only for some 200 years. Ayurveda has been around for many thousands of years and has helped people without side effects. In western medicine, researchers find a new drug today and after two years it is banned, because it turns out to be harmful.” But he made it clear that he is not against western medicine. He is however against spending so much money on drugs for ailments, which yoga and Ayurveda can cure with no or little expenses.
“65 percent of Indians and a big percentage in the rest of the world cannot afford western medicine. I don’t want anybody to die because he is poor”, Ramdev said. To achieve this goal, Patanjali Yogpeeth has embarked on a challenging mission. “We are committed to get yoga accepted internationally as a medical science,” Acharya Balkrishna, an Ayurveda expert, who studied with Swami Ramdev in the same gurukul, declared. To achieve this, they have to present scientific evidence through clinical trials with the help of state of art technology.
Both certainly do not lack in enthusiasm and energy. “Enjoying inner peace does not mean you sit around doing nothing. Be fearless. Whenever a good thought enters your mind, follow it immediately,” Ramdev apparently summed up his own approach.
They established a Yoga Research Foundation at Patanjali University with a modern lab. Its work started with investigating the physiological and mental effects of Kapalabhati, one of the favorite pranayamas of Swami Ramdev. The results were encouraging. Motor skills, perception and attention had significantly improved after Kapalabhati.
At the conference, some 25 scientists shared their research on yoga. Prestigious institutes were represented, like Harvard Medical School, Oxford University, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which entered into collaboration with Patanjali University, and several more.
Two things impressed me most. One, yoga cures even ailments that I had not expected it could cure, and two, yoga is on an amazing upswing worldwide.
Terrance Ryan, professor of dermatology from Oxford University, who has been working together with Dr. S.R. Narhari of the Institute of Applied Dermatology (IAD) in Kerala, showed that yoga is highly successful in treating elephantiasis. He illustrated his talk by juxtaposing two slides: one showed hugely swollen, unshapely legs, painful to look at, and the other, the same legs reduced to a fraction in size just after a few months or a year. He has treated a thousand patients, taught them pranayama (Anulom Vilom), how to massage the leg and how to move the ankles. It is a cheap, brief training for the patient and his family members, yet wonderfully effective. The reason is, Dr. Ryan explained, that all lymphatic systems drain into the upper chest and as the drainage system is very close under the skin, it is sensitive to movement and massage. There are 20 million people suffering from elephantiasis in India. Unnecessary suffering when there is such simple cure.
Sat Bir S. Kalsa, an American Sikh from Harvard Medical School, brought to our notice what amazing acceptance yoga has gained in the west. “Yoga Nation” was the title on the cover of Life magazine, referring to USA. Times magazine followed suit with a cover story. The number of Hollywood stars who practice and praise yoga is continuously increasing. On the lawns of the White House in Washington, yogasanas were demonstrated. “And you know that yoga has finally arrived, when Mc Donald uses it for ads”, laughed Kalsa.
“Yoga is now part of the US culture but is practiced mainly by the upper class and women”, he rued and suggested two avenues to reach the whole society. “In the US, everyone visits his doctor and everyone goes through school. If the doctor would advise yoga to his patients and if we could train every child in school, yoga would be fully accepted as a daily routine, as is brushing teeth. Yet both, healthcare and education, need evidence that yoga is worthwhile and therefore we need research.”
Kalsa painted a grim picture of the state of teenagers in the US – violence, problems with social skills, bullying, attention deficit, binge drinking and suicide attempts are wide spread. “They require assistance”, he claimed. Yoga in schools is the solution, Kalsa felt.
Will India wait for foreigners to take the lead in putting yoga into the school curriculum?
It was obvious that most western speakers considered yoga a wonderful ‘tool’ to work with – divorced, however, from its philosophy and yoga’s ultimate goal – to merge the small, temporary wave consciously into the big, eternal ocean. Some Indian delegates considered this a drawback or distortion.
“Don’t you feel that by including yama and niyama (the virtues of external and internal purity) into yoga, the benefits would be greater?” an Indian delegate asked John Kepner, one of the founders of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), who had just narrated that an US army officer had called him up, asking for qualified yoga teachers for the Armed Forces. “I don’t think the US army is interested in the traditional ways”, Kepner replied with a tinge of haughtiness.
The lack of ethical grounding may be the reason behind the legion of yoga teachers for whom yoga is mainly a lucrative profession. IAYT has developed education standards for Yoga therapists to follow. Yet IAYT, too, may not have the right motivation: they demand a costly affiliation from yoga centres if their students want to have the chance to become “certified” Yoga Therapists.
Swami Ramdev was stern when he said, “It is okay to earn a living by teaching yoga, but it is a crime to patent it”. He touched a sore point between India and the west. “Our ancient Rishis have given this wonderful knowledge free to everyone. Now in the west, they patent it and talk of ‘power yoga’, ‘sex yoga’, etc. Through yoga, the sex drive decreases, but the love between husband and wife increases”, he said to clapping from the audience. “From lust, you cannot produce a healthy baby. If the sex drive decreases, it does not mean one becomes impotent. See, my hand is functioning”, and he stretched out his arm. “It can slap, but it does not slap.”
None of the western speakers touched on the issue of patents. Some 130 patents on yoga have been taken out in the US alone. When I asked one of the founders of IAYT regarding this issue, she stiffened and went on the defensive. “Some people claim that Hinduism owns yoga. We resist that.”
So far, the west had a free run to appropriate Indian knowledge as India did not lay claim to it. In fact, India did not value it. “In the 1930s, under the British, yoga was not respected”, B.K.S. Iyengar narrated. “I feel that only after yoga took roots in the west, Indians also opened up it,” he added.
No doubt, Swami Ramdev is largely responsible for giving a tremendous boost to yoga in India. Swami Chidananda of Parmarth Ashram in Rishikesh remembered that in 1995, he sent a reporter to Swami Ramdev who at that time was teaching yoga in a small hall in Haridwar. “The reporter came back saying, that this was not newsworthy. Today, Swami Ramdev is THE news!” Swami Chidananda exclaimed.
Swami Ramdev has his share of detractors as well. Many feel that his claim that yoga can cure 99 percent of all diseases is preposterous. “Big educated persons say, ‘Baba Ramdev is bad for people. He is misleading them.’ But what I say is the truth. I know it. I don’t tell lies. Those people are intelligent, but their mind is fixed.” Swami Ramdev looked like a small boy who is at a loss to understand how intelligent people are so confident in pronouncing judgment on something they have not experimented upon.
“In the Rig Veda is written that oxygen is the ultimate medicine”, he says. “It is not only the ultimate medicine, it is fire and fire is a synonym for knowledge, brightness, and light. Pran Tatva is almighty, it is energy, it is the life force, it is God!” and he added, “disease will enter if the life force is weak. Make yoga your life partner and there won’t be life style diseases.” With amazing ease he quoted numerous Sanskrit shlokas to support whatever he claimed in his talks.
Swami Ramdev has made yoga his life partner. He is an expert. Even his critics won’t deny this. Early in the morning, at a temperature of 5 degree Celsius, he taught yoga in the imposing 250.000 sq feet Yog Bhavan to the delegates with only a cotton cloth wrapped around his hips. I was packed in several layers of woolens and still felt cold.
“Whatever I have achieved has been given to me by Kapalabhati and Anulom Vilom pranayam”, he claimed. “Partially, I have been able to attain that extraordinary power and that extraordinary knowledge that is within each one of us. I have felt what is eternal and real. Sages before me, too, have felt it. And I don’t say this to praise myself, but to give you an example.
“There are four types of lives”, he continued. “1. miserable life, 2. ordinary life, 3. successful life and 4. ideal life. You here all have a successful life. Become a yogi and make it an ideal life.”
What Swami Ramdev has achieved in only 15 years – not only regarding yoga but also regarding a wide range of healthy swadeshi products – is mind-boggling. No doubt, extraordinary power and knowledge are at work through his person whose parents were illiterate farmers and who attended western type education only till 8th grade. In tune with the times, he spreads his knowledge through satellite TV and reaches millions all over the world.
He never forgets to remind his audience that there is more to yoga than asanas and pranayama. Devotion and surrender to that great power within us (bhakti yog) are most important for a yogic life. Devotion is the greatest unifier and the goal of yoga is union with that all-pervading divine Presence. Yet to be able to feel devotion one needs to learn and reflect on that great Presence (jnana yog) and dedicate one’s actions to it (karma yog). This combination of knowledge, love and action is the yoga that Sri Krishna taught Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita 5000 years ago. Asanas and pranayama are helpful to purify and fine-tune the body and mind to become more transparent for the inner light.
The west tends to ignore jnana, bhakti and karma yoga and focuses on becoming physically and mentally fit. This means, it may miss out on the great potential of yoga: to realize what we truly are.
Swami Ramdev set the lively discussion on the flawed western view of yoga at rest: ‘even if you do only asanas and pranayama, you will slowly become a better human being’, he felt.
Still, the motivation behind any activity has undoubtedly great influence on the outcome. If someone does yoga only to become fitter and more attractive to have a better chance to fulfill his egoistic desires, it would be an insult to the Indian rishis. And it would not deserve the name “yoga” or “yog” as Swami Ramdev calls it.
by Maria Wirth