Opinion | Yoga: Teachers, Tough Love, And The Twinning Of Mind And Body

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My yoga class is a microcosm of modern society. A group of individuals coming together in a spatio-temporal context to achieve different goals. It is also a study in efficiency or its lack; efficiency of not just the body, trying to twist and turn, but also of the belief system. 

It is difficult to adopt any ancient art, craft, belief system or even word without navigating a landmine of sensibilities. For example, it is not easy to assert that hatha yoga or the physical practice of postures (asanas), is not the pure form of yoga. Even though it is seen as the most central yogic practice, this is probably not how yoga originated. And I'm not even referring to the pop styles of yoga practices that have emerged across the world purely thanks to laissez-faire.

Understanding The Yoga Practice

These days, a good deal of breath is wasted, quite literally, on decoding whether yoga practice is geared toward an "inward-oriented detachment from material outcomes and desires", or if it's merely another fitness routine. If it's just the latter, why do some yoga teachers insist on following a puritanical pedagogical system of surrendering one's self? 

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The large-scale export of yoga from the Indian subcontinent to the world began in the early twentieth century when different Indian yogis were evangelising about this Indian knowledge system taking different routes. Swami Vivekananda, for example, may be seen as largely dismissive of yoga's bodily practices and presented it as more of a spiritual system. Ramana Maharshi saw yoga as facilitating a state called self-realisation: "simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything". Sivananda Saraswati and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya focused on the corporeality of the yoga practice, saw it as a physical fitness regime and even developed new postural systems. Krishnamacharya's student BKS Iyengar went a step ahead and insisted on absolute precision and bodily alignment.

Starting from Vivekananda, all these yogis relied selectively on texts like Patanjali's Yogasutras and the Bhagavad Gita. While some sought to link their postural systems to these spiritual texts, others saw them as merely guiding lights. A practice session of Iyengar Yoga, for example, begins with an invocation to Patanjali. However, Iyengar is not known to have ever compelled his students to adopt any form of Hindu set of beliefs. 

Yoga And Pride

Now, what is a modern yogi or yogini ought to look for before even embarking on this journey? As a regular practitioner now, all I can say is the possibility of annihilation of ego is a good goal to begin with. Once you are on the yoga mat, all your accomplishments and the underlying pride ought to leave the room. If that does not happen after practising for a while, maybe yoga is not for you. Pride, and prejudice, block our path to recovery and healing. It is helpful to think of the practice of yoga as psychotherapy.

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I have many vices, but pride is not one of them. So what have I gained on the yoga mat? Looking back at my brief journey, I can confirm that yoga has given me the patience to deal with other people's pride. I have learnt to remove myself from situations and contexts where pride overran. I also realised that relying on your innate virtues is not very helpful in any situation: intent must be followed by action, or it is pointless. Yoga practice has also made me more fearless in terms of expressing myself. The reason is simple. Once you are on the mat, you are aware of every tissue of your body. What it is capable of and what must wait. Hypocrisy on the yoga mat is the gateway to a hospital bed.

I may not be the fittest person around, thanks to my Covid-ravaged body, but yoga has encouraged me to look out for myself. It has allowed me to differentiate between vacuous, gentle words and harsh, painful instructions. While my heart may crave the former, I understand the importance of the bitter verbal pill.

Improving The Body - And Mind

I've stuck to my yoga teacher for a while now, despite her not-so-affable demeanour, because it's clear to me what her pedagogy is. Tough love. Most people use "tough love" to mask their cruelty and lack of empathy. It is a much-maligned phrase today with its history of hiding abuse. To some, my teacher's words may come across as abuse (they surely are not gentle!). I have seen many of them deregistering from the programmes. 

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Lest this essay be seen as an apology for my teacher's pedagogy, let me iterate, that we are not close in personal life. Our interactions are strictly in the space and context of the yoga practice. I am not striving to be either the best or a favourite student. What defines this relationship, however, is her doggedness to make my body - and therefore, mind - the best that it can be and my often frustrated attempts to do the same. Neither is giving up. 

(Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based author and academic.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author