Origins of Yoga: And 10 Great Places in India to learn it

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On International Yoga Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY touch upon the origins of the life-transforming practice and list out some of the best yoga training centres across India

Om Beach Gokarna

Yoga (derived from yuj, Sanskrit for ‘addition’ or ‘harnessing’) is an ancient physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. A person who practices this discipline is called a yogi. Its origins shrouded in mystery, Yoga is an offshoot of asceticism predating Vedic traditions. As per yogic belief, Lord Shiva is considered ‘Adiyogi’, the first ascetic who sat unmoving in padmasana (lotus position) in the lap of the Himalayas until he discovered the eternal truth of the mind, body and soul.

On a full moon day on the banks of Kanti Sarovar, a glacial lake 4km above Kedarnath, Shiva shared his knowledge with the Saptarishi or seven sages. This south-facing manifestation of Shiva as the guru is called Dakshinamurthy and the day is celebrated as Guru Purnima. Over time, these mechanics of life were transmitted from the sages to mankind. Besides Hinduism, the meditative practice also permeated Buddhism and Jainism; Buddha and Mahavira are often shown seated in padmasana or vajrasana while Jain arihants like Bahubali are depicted in kayotsarga or standing meditative repose. Twenty-one of the twenty-four tirthankaras attained moksha in the standing position.

IMG_8761 Melamalai Ayyanar shrine at Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

Another legend recounts how Lord Shiva imparted the knowledge of Hatha Yoga to Parvati in secret on a lonely island, assuming no one else could hear him. However, a matsya (fish) overheard the entire discourse and was reborn later as a siddha (one accomplished in physical and spiritual enlightenment) called Matsyendranath or Macchendranath. He taught the series of asanas for the purification and balancing of nadis (subtle channels) to his disciple Gorakhnath.

Though the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and other sacred texts mention yoga, the earliest complete treatise on it is Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dating to the first half of the first millennia. It outlines the ‘eight limbs’ of Raja Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga. Much of these traditions have passed from guru to shishya over centuries, after proper initiation though many have been forgotten and rediscovered.

112 Swami Vivekananda

One such Himalayan master who sought to reintroduce the lost practice of Kriya Yoga or union with the infinite through kriya (action), a series of pranayama was Mahavatar Babaji. In 1861, he taught it to his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya, who imparted his learning to Yukteshwar Giri. Subsequently, it was handed down to Paramahansa Yogananda. Building upon the success of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Paramahansa moved to the US in 1920, popularized Yoga in the west and authored the bestseller ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.

Kriya Yoga captured the world’s imagination in such a way that Mahavatar Babaji featured on the cover of The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while rock band Supertramp even composed an ode to him called Babaji. The west’s love affair with yoga which started in the early 70s continues to this day, spawning an entire industry from yoga mats, yoga pants and home videos to diverse styles from Hatha Yoga to Hot Yoga (Bikram Choudhury’s version performed at high temperature), Bharat Thakur’s Artistic Yoga to Power Yoga and Forrest Yoga that recreates a native Indian sweat lodge. Often, they are more boot camp than ashram.

IMG_7994 Swami Sundaranandji at Gangotri

In India, Yoga was first popularized by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, whose most noteworthy students were BKS Iyengar and Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who later taught yoga to Madonna. Another key figure was Sivananda Saraswati, founder of Divine Life Society, who had many famous disciples. Swami Chinmayananda started Chinmaya Mission, Satyananda Saraswati founded Satyananda Yoga in Bihar while Satchidananda Saraswati opened Integral Yoga Institutes worldwide.

However, the architect of India’s modern day yoga revolution is Baba Ramdev. Thanks to him, anulom-vilom and kapalbhati became household words and yoga turned into a mass movement. While his Patanjali Yogpeeth and Yoga Samiti focus on health and medicine, other gurus like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev help people achieve self-realization through Isha Yoga’s Inner Engineering programs. With Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s mantra of Sudarshan Kriya, The Art of Living became a neighbourhood franchise.

Hampi yoga IMG_3829

Some believe that yoga is the solution for all the ills in the world. Despite facile attempts by various practitioners to patent different styles, yoga is like an open source program that cannot be trademarked. To cater to foreign travellers, many yoga schools have mushroomed in tourist haunts like Gokarna, Hampi, Varkala, Varanasi, Rishikesh and Goa. Here are Top 10 places across India to learn yoga from the masters.

1. Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune

If becoming a member of a prestigious club is difficult, landing a spot in India’s premiere yoga school is even tougher. Run by the family of renowned yoga guru BKS Iyengar, the institute offers classes in Iyengar Yoga, a form of Hatha Yoga. The downside – prior experience in Iyengar Yoga and a two-year wait period!

Duration: 1 month Cost: $450 Ph 020-25656134 www.bksiyengar.com

2. Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore
Run by yoga exponent Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois’s daughter Saraswati and grandson Sharath, the institute offers intensive classes of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, fast-paced synchronization of breath and movement. The classes are for serious students. Apply at least two months in advance.

Duration: 1-6 months. Cost: $650 (1st month), $415 (each extra month). Ph 0821-2516756 www.kpjayi.org

3. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai
The ashram is run by TKV Desikachar, son of T Krishnamacharya, hailed as the grandfather of modern yoga who taught yoga to both BKS Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois. The ashram teaches Viniyoga, which utilizes postures and breath to suit different needs. Teacher training courses are open only to Indian students though non-residential Pilgrimage of Sound Vedic Chanting, Heart of Yoga and Pranayama courses are offered to international students twice a year.

Duration: 2-4 weeks. Cost: Rs.9500 for Indians, $1,500 for foreigners. Ph 044-24937998 www.kym.org

4. Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh
Swami Chidanand Saraswati’s eight-acre ashram on the banks of the Ganga is located in the Himalayan foothills of Rishikesh. Set up in 1977 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, the ashram offers structured yoga vacations with holistic programs of beginner yoga, spirituality and teacher training courses. The highlight is the Ganga aarti every evening and the week-long international Yoga Festival in March.

Duration: 2-5-weeks. Cost: Rooms Rs.600-1200 per night. Ph 0135-2440088 www.parmarth.org

5. Bihar School of Yoga, Munger
Founded in 1964 by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the ashram has a residential course in Yogic Studies from October to January that teaches a full yogic lifestyle with emphasis on seva (service) and meditation. Those interested in a regular yoga course may enroll at the offshoot Bihar Yoga Bharati institute.

Duration: 4-months Cost: $1,500, all inclusive. Ph 06344-222430 www.biharyoga.net

6. Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Trivandrum
Set up in 1977 by Swami Vishnudevananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda, the ashram offers structured yoga vacations at its campuses in Rishikesh and Trivandrum. Situated in the quiet environs of Neyyar dam and forest in Kerala, it prescribes real Indian ashram lifestyle with an integral approach to Hatha Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, focusing on postures, breathing, relaxation, meditation and diet. Besides residential Yoga Vacations and Teacher Training programs, one can opt for drop-in classes or holistic courses in yoga and meditation.

Duration: 2-4 weeks. Cost: Rs.1,500 for beginner’s course, Rs.350 per night Yoga vacations. Ph 0471-2451398 www.sivananda.org.in

7. Yoga Institute, Mumbai
Founded in 1918 by Shri Yogendraji, the Yoga Institute is the oldest organized yoga center in the world. Started in Dadabhai Naoroji’s beachside bungalow The Sands in Versova, it moved to its present location in Santa Cruz 1947. Besides yoga courses and workshops, their therapeutic health camps help people overcome heart and respiratory ailments, diabetes and stress related issues.

Duration: 2-21 days Cost: Rs.800-2,500 Ph 022-26110506 www.theyogainstitute.org

8. Isha Yoga Centre, Velliangiri
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev founded the Isha Yoga Centre over 30 years ago at the foothills of Velliangiri near Coimbatore. The 150-acre ashram and its branches offer an introductory Inner Engineering course, advanced programs like Bhava Spandana and residential Hatha Yoga teacher training programs that train one in sadhana, yogic practice, meditation, anatomy, physiology and Siddha sciences.

Duration: 3-21 days Cost: Variable www.ishayoga.org

9. Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, Rishikesh
Founded by Swami Veda Bharati, disciple of Swami Rama, author of ‘Living with the Himalayan Masters’, the ashram teaches Raja Yoga with meditation and yoga classes for visitors, silent retreats and a Yoga and Meditation Teacher Training Course. Swami Rama’s ashram Sadhana Mandir Trust, on the banks of the Ganga is a short walk away. Besides meditation retreats and self-transformation programs, it is ideal for meditation or yogic practice in peaceful seclusion. Also Swami Dayananda Ashram, founded by Vedanta teacher Swami Dayananda Saraswati, in Rishikesh is a great place for those interested in the Upanishads.

Ph 0135-2450093 www.sadhakagrama.org

10. Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar
Free Yoga classes are conducted at Patanjali Yogpeeth by trained Yoga Instructors at hourly intervals. Besides yoga science camps, thousands of free yoga classes are held everyday across multiple locations in India and abroad under Patanjali Yog Samiti.

Cost: Yoga & Ayurveda consultation free, Rooms Rs.400-800 Ph 01334-244107 www.divyayoga.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 June 2015 (International Yoga Day) in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

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