So cool, it’s hot

A couple doing yoga. Photo: Mystic lights.  

Ahead of International Yoga Day, Shonali Muthalaly makes a case for the ancient practice, physiological benefits and all.

I’ve dropped out of more yoga schools than I care to admit. But, coincidentally, I’ve also tried far more yoga classes than the average urban yogi.

I’ve grappled with sweaty spine-twisting poses in a deliberately overheated Bikram yoga class in Dubai, mostly because the trendy sauna-like studio was inexplicably relaxing after a long day of hopping between severely air-conditioned malls and bars. I’ve puffed and panted through excruciatingly-long Vinyasa classes in Rishikesh, mostly because our teacher had the inspiring physique of a Greek god. I even joined a yoga boot camp, waking up at 4 a.m. to work my way through countless suryanamaskars. Though I quietly dropped out after a terrifying ‘cleansing’ ceremony (kunjal kriya), in which the whole class had to drink two litres of warm saline water each, and then stand in a circle in the car park and — um — regurgitate it.

Which, perhaps, makes me the worst person to write this article. But, also, ironically the best: given the circumstances with which most people approach yoga today.

In a world that’s increasingly cynical, unfailingly practical and obsessed with material things, why is yoga getting increasingly popular? More and more studios, cafes and meditation centres — all dealing with different styles and aspects of yoga — are springing up from Shanghai to Stockholm.

With the world’s first International Yoga Day, which is just around the corner, mired in a mesh of discussions on the relevance of the discipline, this is as good a time as any to take another look at why yoga’s so alluring, even to cynics.

Of course, with a discipline so vast, it’s impossible to distil the physiological and psychological benefits into one article — especially if you consider the fact that asana practice is really a very small part of yoga. So I interviewed students and a wide range of talented teachers to find out what they consider the most powerful and practical benefits of yoga.

Why yoga?

1. Bend backwards, forwards, and then stand on your head:

Emotionally charged, challenging and often intimidating, backward bends take practice. However, they also come with a host of benefits, from strengthening your spine to building confidence. Forward bends, on the other hand, stretch your muscles and calm your mind.

Irrespective of how advanced or amateur your poses are, all the teachers agree that even the simplest pose offers both physical and emotional benefits.

Joshna Ramakrishnan, who teaches yoga in Guangzhou, China, started taking part in yoga competitions when she was very young, thanks to her father who was a yoga enthusiast.

She says yoga is more of a preventative discipline than a cure, but that said, has seen people overcome everything from insomnia to migraines with the help of regular yoga.

“Your body and mind heal faster when you practise yoga,” she says.

Yoga teacher Mansi Gandhi says learning to breathe right is the primary reason students see a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.

“Most people are not aware of how their breathing is shallow, too fast and ineffective,” she says, discussing how conscious breathing increases your energy, relieves stress and generally improves the way your body functions.

If they had to pick one pose? London-based yoga teacher Pria Parkash likes inversions.

“They pose a significant challenge, requiring a great deal of focus and an element of fear, but they also help you understand the inner workings of your body and how to use your core strength.”

2. Dealing with traffic, relationships and jerks:

You get an unexpected number of life lessons on the yoga mat.

Former Miss India Rani Jeyraj, who moved from modelling to advertising to yoga, is now a Singapore-based Ashtanga practitioner. Discussing the inevitable struggles with challenging postures, she says, “I hate all postures until I get good at them and then I love them. This has been a great life lesson for me.”

All the teachers and students agree that lessons learnt on the mat automatically translate to everyday life, often without you even realising it.

Ishani Appaya, who runs the Rutland Gate Yoga studio, says, she finds herself calmer, more focused and more creative on the days she does yoga. Keerthana Kumaraswamy, who leads a challenging class that blends yoga and pilates, says it comes from acceptance.

“You learn how to breathe through the discomfort of a pose without giving up, to enjoy the pose.”

It does make it easier to be patient through the day, when you realise you can’t control situations, only how you respond to them.

3. A style for everyone:

Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram… Even if you want to go the traditional way, there are plenty to pick from. If you prefer to experiment, there seem to be almost as many styles as there are poses today. Dabble in the romance of acro yoga, it’s all the rage: even Pinterest is filled with pictures of couples striking dramatic poses in front of sunsets, beaches and mountains.

Called the yoga of trust, it helps with relationships and social skills, in addition to strengthening your core.

Want something quirkier? Try Ariel yoga where you are suspended from the roof with a strong silken hammock, so you can do your poses in the air. Need to diversify? There’s Paddle board yoga that the Surfing yogis of Orissa have made especially popular.

Anoushka Kurien, a professional contemporary dancer and yogi, says that although flexibility was never a major concern, she finds that yoga helps her with focus. “It teaches you how to be aware and present,” she says, adding, “Every time you struggle, it makes you reaffirm what you think is possible.”

This is why the discipline has also been credited with helping people gain confidence — irrespective of the style they choose

4. Age no bar:

Pria trained as a yoga teacher at what she calls “the young age of 49,” after years of being addicted to the gym.

She says, “Yoga turned my life around and that inspired me to become a teacher. I did have my reservations as I was riddled with so many injuries and was relatively inflexible, as opposed to all the yoga teachers I knew.” A few years later, she inspires her students with how much her body and temperament have changed.  

Mansi explains why anyone can walk into a class. “The difficult poses may look very sexy, but the truth is you can do a simple class and get all the same benefits.”

Anoushka agrees, saying that people tend to underestimate how powerful even the slowest sequences can be. “Because it’s anaerobic, you won’t be out of breath,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean you haven’t had a powerful workout.”

That said, don’t ever underestimate the poses. Or dedicated practitioners. For this is one exercise where age is not a handicap. “I have a 65-year-old student who stands right in front of the class and goes through the sequence, with no breaks,” smiles Mansi, “Many of my younger students just can’t keep up with her.”

5. Looking good in yoga pants:

“Weight loss,” groans Mansi. “Don’t even get me started.” Ishani says about 90 per cent of her clients join the studio hoping to lose weight. “The truth is 80 per cent of weight loss depends on diet. If you are not zipping it, you are not losing it,” says Mansi. “So that should not be your aim with yoga. It should be more about prevention and management of lifestyle diseases.”

That said, there are postures that work on your thyroid and metabolism. Yoga also helps you make the right choices says Pria. “It hit me after about six months into the practice that I had no urge to pick up and finish the box of chocolates or go for a sugary snack. I ate for the right reasons and craved healthy organic vegetarian food. My body shape completely changed, much to my amazement.”

Don’t underestimate the value of a disciplined daily practice. All the teachers I met had lean, supple bodies and glowing skin.

“Even after a decade of practising Ashtanga, I am left sweating and achy after practice,” says Rani, adding that it has helped her lose weight and keep it off. “It has also made me stronger than I was in my 20s.”

She goes on to list other physical benefits. “Better digestion, which leads to you feeling lighter and helps keep off weight. Better posture, which also makes you look slimmer. Better skin from all the sweating. It’s also the best under-eye cream ever; works like a dream to get rid of the darkness and bags. I guess it’s the inversions.”

Summing it up, she states, “The practice has also made me mentally strong. There is something about the discipline and the challenge of it that makes me think — if I can do this, I can do anything.”

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 3:56:34 AM |

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