Wednesday, January 11, 2006

There's a new article about Patabbhi Jois and the Mysore phenomenon -- from an Indian perspective (finally!) -- in Outlook India magazine.

Photo by Saibal Das

Magazine| Jan 16, 2006


Sandalwood Simhasana

The sleepy city of Mysore is now a global yoga hub. It's a magnet for a new wave of body-wise disciples — and their dollars.

Gaga Over Yoga

Mysore's reputation as the premier yoga centre was established by its 3 great modern masters—Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar.

The city now has more than 500 yoga teachers, and a growing industry in the manufacture of yoga mats.

Some 3,000 foreigners, looking to tone their bodies through an authentic yoga experience, are drawn to Mysore's yoga institutes. Westerners increasingly see yoga as a rational alternative to power gyms and slimming centres.

Pattabhi Jois' rigorous ashtanga yoga system has attracted celebrity pupils like Madonna, Demi Moore, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The fees at Mysore's yoga centres range from Jois' initial of Rs 26,900 to Rs 700 for a single drop-in class.


Seated on a bench outside a house in Kuvempunagar here, three women from three continents are eating a snack made of beaten rice (poha) for breakfast. Finely chopped coriander is artfully strewn over it. If you think poha is just breakfast food for them, you're mistaken: it's symbolic of the very lightness of being. Each woman is also balancing a tender green coconut between her knees—a new substitute for mineral water. The weak morning sun casts a glow on their mildly perspiring skin—a glow of well-being, induced by yoga. And when Lara, Kyra and Cassandra speak, their lips round out automatically, as if every syllable is an 'Om'.

At first it seems incredible. Can poha and tender green coconut be part of a million-dollar industry with worldwide links? How did Mysore, best known for its scenic Chamundi Hills, its magnificent palace, grand Dasara and a horizontally challenged maharaja, transform itself into the world headquarters for yoga schools? When did this happen?

It actually happened rather quietly and gradually, without publicity and hype. Over four decades ago, Vidwan Pattabhi Jois' first Western student, Andre Van Lysbette, landed in Mysore from Belgium. With that visit, word began to spread that Mysore was the place to learn yoga in India. Now, it's no longer just word of mouth—there are even a couple of books and web journals that chronicle the unique Mysore yoga experience. Last year, it even inspired a 350-page travelogue called Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge, published by Random House's prestigious imprint, Ebury Press. Round the year, roughly 3,000 westerners come to learn yoga from various teachers, but chiefly from the nonagenarian Jois.

The Mysore experience is panning out to be a second wave of Understanding-the-Orient for the West. But the scene is quite unlike the Beatles hanging out at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram in Rishikesh in a chillum-induced trance, or dharma bums speeding on Enfields through the twisting lanes of Pushkar. The firangs in Mysore may have vague ideas about achieving spiritual epiphany and cosmic bliss, but for them the body is as important (or more so) as the wayward soul. Their major goal is to shed flab to the chanting of 'Om asatoma sadgamaya' (and never mind if it sounds like "Om as a roamer sad yamaha"). Yoga is clearly a rational, risk-free alternative to power gyms and slimming centres. Lucy Edge's book even speaks of unofficial body-building competitions among yoga students by the poolside of the local Southern Star hotel.

Mysore's yoga centres offer a contrast to the old 'yogashrams' where a yoga session was part of a woolly-headed mix of spiritual discourses and meditation. They are body factories where you cough up hard-earned dollars in return for a toned body and 'compassionate grace'. "Yoga is about mathematical and psychological precision," says Jayakumar Swamysree, who's taught at Moscow's Indian Embassy for four years and now runs the Pranava Yogadhama in Mysore.

The 'code of conduct' notice hanging outside the Atma Vikasa Yoga Kutira, run by Venkatesha and wife Hema, should help in understanding the prim, pragmatic Mysore mood: 'The student is expected to be sincere, hardworking and obedient'; 'please do not touch the teacher for any cause'; 'decent and dignified behaviour is demanded out of the student; loud chatting, jeering, hugging your partner/others is prohibited'; 'you cannot practice if the dress is improper'; 'money once paid will not be refunded/readjusted'; 'we are not in any way answerable to your prejudices.' "We recommend satvic food," the couple add for good measure. However, the gurus also use terms from western psychology in an effort to secularise yoga and take it beyond Patanjali's sutras (circa 150 BC). As Vidwan Jois puts it, "Yoga is universal".

So where does Mysore get its yoga connection? Well, there's always been a strong tradition of yoga being taught as a formal discipline in the regal city. In the 1930s, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar offered patronage to a Yogashala under T. Krishnamacharya. He later also ordered the opening of a yoga department at the Sanskrit College here (where Jois taught till he retired in 1973). The three great modern masters of yoga—T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois—are all students of Krishnamacharya and trained at the yogashala. Of the three, Desikachar, Krishnamacharya's son, has settled in Chennai, and Iyengar, who first went to Europe with violinist Yehudi Menuhin, is now in Pune. That leaves Jois, who rules Mysore with his daughter Saraswati and grandson Sharath. His son Manju Jois is a yoga guru in the US.

"He went with me on our first yoga tour to the US in 1975 and decided to stay back. My students did ask me to settle down there, but I find Mysore irresistible," says the elder Jois, whose star pupils include Demi Moore, Sting, Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. For Jois' 90th birthday celebrations early last year, over 800 foreign students landed up in Mysore. Iyengar also made the trip. "After I started touring the West, people were exposed to real yoga...they shifted to the ashtanga method," says Jois, beaming with pride. Ashtanga, or 'eight-limbed' yoga, is the rigorous form of yoga taught by Jois.

Jois has inspired a booming new economy in Mysore. There are many young teachers around, most of them less than half his age. Among them, Jayakumar Swamysree and Sheshadri from the Mysore Mandala, and Venkatesha attract a fair number of foreign students. As an identity marker, each has evolved his own yoga method, claiming it to be different from Jois' ashtanga. For instance, Venkatesha, a back-bending expert, calls his method 'atma vikasa'.

But none of the younger gurus can compare with Jois when it comes to demand. His students pay an initial fee of Rs 26,900 and Rs 16,900 per month thereafter. The lore is he has a currency counting machine installed, what with 99 per cent of his students being foreigners. At present, he has about 150 foreign students on the rolls whose virtues he extols: "Their guru bhakti, dedication is far greater."

Venkatesha charges about Rs 8,000 a month while Jayakumar says he's not particular about money and will accept whatever is offered. Sheshadri, the only one who offers drop-in classes, is said to charge Rs 500-700 per class. According to Hema, Mysore has more than 500 yoga teachers, professionals as well as part-timers. "Earlier, only ashtanga was popular, now other methods too are becoming popular," she claims.

Many westerners come to the top teachers for teacher training certificates so they can go back and start their own yoga classes. The fees are much higher for such training, the logic being that once trained, they go back and earn lots more.Jayakumar's teacher training programmes are registered with Yoga Alliance, a standard-setting organisation for the yoga teaching industry in the US. Mao, a jeweller from Slovakia, is currently enrolled with Jayakumar for the same. Alex Barlow, who has signed up with Venkatesha, has decided to give up his profession as a landscaping artist to teach yoga. Lara Herdman and Kyra Sudofsky, also with Venkatesha, have come back for a second stint to upgrade their skills. But there are also others like Steve Render, a rugby player, who are in Mysore just to tone their bodies.

Jois' students are in awe of their guru, a huge global yoga brand who does not need to innovate with teacher-training programmes to boost his image or income. They see him as a living example of what he teaches. Rob Zarachowicz points out that he is "very sharp for 91". Says Jill Ainsworth of New Orleans, who is with "guruji" for the third time, "It's a great feeling to be around his's very expensive to get here but it's also very compelling."

Despite his age, Jois still travels abroad, and will tour London and San Francisco in March 2006. "Across the US and in Europe, many of my students have opened ashtanga yoga centres in my name," Jois says. This has caused some to ask whether it is New York or Mysore that is the yoga capital of the world. Jois puts the debate to rest with a single line: "But I live in Mysore."

Foreign yoga students have had their impact not just on the incomes of yoga teachers, but on the local economy as well. In Gokulam, where Jois' centre is situated, house owners who let out single and double apartments are thrilled. "They lead a quiet, disciplined life, and they detest staying in hotels," says Sharada Subbiah, a landlord. You'll hear similar stories in Jayalakshmipuram and Kuvempunagar, other neighbourhoods popular with foreign students.

A vegetarian meal industry has also come up to cater to yoga students—that's where the poha breakfast came from. Shops have come up that rent out motorcycles and bicycles for short durations. And yoga mat manufacturers now boast export accounts. Some yoga students also learn traditional painting, rangoli, music and South Indian cooking in their spare time. There's a formal network of teachers in Mysore to cater to these needs too.

Thakurdas, of the Ashoka Book Centre in Devaraja market, has only words of praise for foreign yoga students. "Their presence is not loud. Their numbers have increased in the last three years. We now keep good titles, even offer discounts," he says. Big hotels here even offer special day rates to yoga students using their swimming pools.

For some yoga, may be an other-worldly experience, but in Mysore, yoga is very much about this world as well. But nobody's complaining, and why would they with the dollars flowing in? Om boom Mysore is the mantra!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:28 AM

    Some of those yoga people in that picture are too skinny, need to eat a bacon cheesebuger or something.