Urban yoga is booming as never before. Shonali Muthalaly tracks the twists and turns of 136.1, the country’s first integrated yoga chain

As far as yoga goes, we're the centre of the world.

Yet, it's America that packaged and marketed the discipline, inspiring a huge and growing number of enthusiasts and made it lucrative. In the U.S. alone there are reportedly more than 130 yoga-related patents, 150 copyrights and 2,300 trademarks. With the current maelstrom about India setting up a team of yoga gurus and scientists to identify traditional yoga positions thus preventing “patent pirates,” one thing is clear. Urban yoga is booming.

136.1, India's first chain of integrated yoga studios was among the first to recognise, and seize this opportunity. This month they open their third studio in Thiruvanmiyur, after which they plan to open one on the East Coast Road. Then comes their first Bangalore studio. “There's a market out there. And it's huge,” says Yashwant Saran, managing director of 136.1. “Yoga is a 225 billion dollar industry, out of which only 15 billion comes from subscriptions. The rest is teachers' training, retreats, merchandise, publishing...”

With an active Facebook page, jazzy 136.1 branded t-shirts and a line of specially designed health food, 136.1 is unapologetically commercial. It categorically moves away from the traditional Indian style of imparting collective knowledge: teaching in parks, beaches and terraces, often free of cost to maximise reach. Ironically, this clear-sighted business-like approach is what has made the chain so successful. As it turns out, young urban India doesn't want to get sweaty in ascetic spaces. They want comfort, and a cardiovascular workout. “We've re-imported yoga — with a pronounced fitness component,” says Yashwant.

A self-proclaimed “corporate penguin” for 12 years, Yashwant found himself in the fitness industry by accident, working for Precor. “After that I spent three years with Fitness One. Travelling abroad on work, I began noticing that the West was getting obsessed with yoga. Meanwhile in India the craze was western fitness. I realised there was an unmet need emerging.”

“People who were practising yoga were doing it on rooftops, terraces, in someone's home. In fragmented spaces,” adds Sheila Vishwanat, who founded 136.1 along with Karti Sekar, Maitri Shah and Yashwant.

Of course, traditional Indian yoga schools still draw disciples from all over the world. Tamil Nadu alone is home to two yoga legends Krishnamacharya and Sivananda. “That's why we chose to begin here,” says Yashwant. “We borrowed the essence of the purity of ashram living and married it to the retail consumer scenario. We offer easy location access, convenience and good service.”

All the partners practise yoga, and Yashwant says that's the reason why they're in the right ‘mind space' to run the studio. “I was going through a difficult time in my life, and yoga gave me what I was seeking. I went to every institute in the country. Sivananda, Kaivalyadham, Ashtanga Institute in Mysore… I spent 45 days in Rishikesh visiting all the ashrams. I finally zeroed in on the Bihar School because I related to the philosophy. Yoga has to be integral. It must be mental, physical, physiological, emotional and spiritual.”

He insists that slicker spaces and hipper classes don't mean there's any dilution in the various yoga styles being taught at the 136.1 studios. “We are not reinventing yoga. It's a 5000 year old science. The object was to package and present it better. To work on infrastructure and create a fusion of tradition and modernity without diluting the science,” he says. “We wanted people to experience yoga in a form that works for them.”

Their main battles were stereotypes, “Yoga was perceived as something for older people. The men said it's girly. Youngsters said it's too spiritual, too slow. We wanted to offer yoga for them. But also for the purists and classical followers.”

The answer was an open school format, offering everything from Power yoga to Ashtanga and Iyengar to Hatha. “We let people connect. Most of them come in for a workout, for weight loss. But we also offer the esoteric part — peace.” Clients are given the flexibility to try different styles of yoga till they find a combination of classes and teachers that work for them. “Eighty per cent of our clients start at the physical level. But very soon, we find they want a mind-body connect,” says Yashwant. Sheila adds, “Often they're so tired, they fall asleep during the last five minutes of yoga Nidra.”

Their greatest investment, they say, is their teachers, each of whom is aligned to a different school of yoga. “Yoga has crossed all boundaries. It's become democratic. Now, we get teachers from Spain, Argentina and the United States.” It helps that the profession pays better now than ever before.

Yashwant expects yoga to burgeon over the next few years. It helps that their target audience is “Anyone who can breathe.” About 65 per cent of their clients, however, are between the age of 25 and 40.

They plan to open 100 studios in all. “Maybe even 136,” smiles Sheila, adding that the name is inspired by the fact that 136.1 Hz is the decibel frequency of ‘Om'. “It's not been easy,” says Yashwant. “We've had painful moments — when we thought we had no option but to close. But we always pulled through. It's made us fearless.”