On his first visit to China, renowned yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar discovers a passionate response in a country where he has more than 30,000 followers. China, he says, “could overtake India in yoga”.
When B.K.S. Iyengar arrived in China last week on his first visit here, he did not know what to expect.
He had vaguely heard of Chinese interest in yoga, and expected, at most, mild curiosity about his work when he reached the far-away southern industrial city of Guangzhou, where the 93-year-old yoga guru was billed as the star attraction in China’s first ever “Yoga Summit”.
Mr. Iyengar, instead, arrived here to a passionate reception, and was left stunned by the wide interest in his teachings in a nation where he can now count more than 30,000 people as followers of his yoga philosophy.
“The response here,” Mr. Iyengar said, “has been unbelievable. I only came to realise after I came to China that even all my books have been translated and widely read.”
Yoga schools inspired by Mr. Iyengar’s famous writings on the discipline have sprouted up across 57 Chinese cities in 17 provinces, from Beijing and Shanghai to Harbin in the north and Chengdu in western Sichuan.
Last week, Mr. Iyengar lectured an audience of more than a thousand yoga practitioners in Guangzhou, where the Indian and Chinese governments organised the first-ever joint yoga summit.
“There were 1,300 students who listened with one ear,” Mr. Iyengar said. “It was a great success. They performed honestly, sincerely and with dedication.”
“I will not be surprised,” he added, “if China even overtakes India in yoga.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Iyengar's students performed demonstrations of yoga asanas before a crowd of more than 700 in Beijing, while he engaged them in a two-hour interaction that covered philosophy and even the mechanics of breathing.
Questions from the Chinese audience ranged from the technical — “Can yoga help fight against schizophrenia?” asked one doctor — to the practical — “Why do I get dizziness when I meditate?”
One yoga student complained: “I’ve been practising for seven years, but feel I can’t improve.” Mr. Iyengar had little comfort for her.
“I’ve been practising yoga for 76 years,” he said. “And I’m still learning.”
Among the crowd was Liu Yuan (22), a student who “got hooked” on yoga after coming across a Chinese translation of Mr. Iyengar’s widely-read book “Light on Yoga”.
The popularity of yoga in China, she said, was, in part, because it was “fashionable” among young Chinese. “But once I started learning seriously,” she said, “I began to enjoy it, and felt there were benefits both spiritually and physically.”
In Beijing, Mr. Iyengar found that a student of his had even set up a thriving yoga business. YogiYoga, a school founded by Manmohan Singh Bhandari, who had studied under one of Mr. Iyengar’s students in Rishikesh, teaches his yoga philosophy in 57 centres across China.
“There is tremendous following here for Guruji,” Mr. Bhandari said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Iyengar was presented with a commemorative stamp issued in his honour by the Beijing branch of China Post – an honour, he noted, that he hadn’t even been given back in India.
“What an honor for me that my country has not recognised me [in this way], but this country has. I express my gratitude of treating me as an icon of China, and I will cherish this throughout my life,” he told his Beijing audience.
Yoga, he said, could bring the two countries together by creating a common bond and changing perceptions. “I have created friendship through yoga,” he said. “If you practise yoga, your way of thinking becomes different. If you stand on your feet, you see the world one way. But if you are standing on your head, and are topsy-turvy, the world will look a whole lot different.”