Rediscovering Yoga

In the past, China discovered India through Buddhism. Today, however, it is through Yoga that China is, once again, rediscovering India.
by K. Nagaraj Naidu
May 15, 2013 A Taichi-Yoga show is held in the presence of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. [Reuters]

“Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion. It is the most valuable inheritance of the present. It is the essential need of today, and the culture of tomorrow.” 

CSwami Satyanand Saraswati


Can Yoga, fast growing in popularity in China, become a new bridge between the neighbours?

Yoga is the science of right living. The term is derived from the San­skrit word ‘Yuj’, which means unity. It establishes integration and harmony between thought, feeling and action. Over centuries, many branches of Yoga have developed; but there is general agreement that Yoga developed at the very beginning of human civilization, in what is known as pre-Vedic times (between 3000 and 2000 BC).

Today, the practice of Yoga is more relevant than ever before. Yoga is one of the most iconic elements of India’s spiritual heritage. Seals of the Harappan civilization have been found at Mohenjo-daro, a city that dates back to 2600 BC, depicting a figure standing on its head, and another sitting cross-legged – perhaps the earliest indications of the practice of Yoga.

Yoga, with its roots in India, has been practiced from time immemorial, and it continues to remain a part of daily life in most Indian homes. The credit for introducing Yoga and creating a special place for it in the hearts of global citizens goes to Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who penned books on all four forms of Yoga – Karma Yoga (Yoga of action), Jnana Yoga (Yoga of knowledge), Raja Yoga (Yoga of meditation), and Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of devotion).

Yoga traces its origins to the Vedas. Written in the Indian cla­ss­ical language Sanskrit, the Vedas are among the oldest literature in the world. Over the years, numerous texts have been written, born out of the experience of Yogis – the practitioners of Yoga. The physical practice of postures, or asanas, is just one of the eight traditional limbs of Yoga as outlined in the foundational text of Yoga philosophy, called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is thought to be over 2,000 years old. The other seven include yama (external discipline), niyama (internal discipline), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (control of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (total integration).


Ancient history

These limbs present a sort of eight-fold path to enlightenment, which includes turning inward, meditation, concentration and mindful breathing. Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra, defines Yoga as “the ability to direct the mind towards a chosen object and sustain the focus without any distractions”. The central message of the Yoga Sutra is to “let us take the steps to deal with the pain yet to come”. It shows a way, through Yoga, to live a healthy and happy life, and manage stress.

Other ancient Indian texts which talk about Yoga include the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which dates back to the 15th century, making it one of the oldest surviving texts of Hatha Yoga, or the Yoga of physical exercises. The text, which includes 389 verses, presents the teachings of the Hindu god Shiva on Yoga, as told to his wife, the goddess Parvati.

The Yoga Yajnavalkya is a classical treatise on Yoga traditionally attributed to the sage Yajnavalkya. It takes the form of a dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Gargi, a famed philosopher. The method of Yoga described in the Yoga Yajnavalkya is comprehensive and universally applicable, for both women and men. Other texts on Yoga have been lost over the centuries. The Yoga Rahasya (Secrets of Yoga), a text in Sanskrit written by the sage Nathamuni of south India, was believed to have been lost; but the text was subsequently revived by the renowned Yogi Tirumala Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), acclaimed, both in India and globally, as the “father of modern-day Yoga”.


Yoga revolutionary

Born in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Krishna­macharya was a great Sanskrit scholar who had formal education in the Vedas. He trekked across the Himalayas to reach the Kailash Mansarovar Lake in Tibet, a sacred lake for Hindus, and studied under Yogi Ramam­ohana Bra­hmachari. Krishnam­acharya was responsible for the modern emphasis on well-known Yoga postures or asanas, such as the Sirsasana (headstand) and Sarvangasana (shoulder-stand). He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas.

For instance, by combining pranayama (breathing exercises) and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation, instead of merely a step leading towards it. In fact, Krishnamacharya’s influence can be seen most clearly in the emphasis on asana practice that has become the signature of Yoga today. Probably no Yogi before him developed the physical practices so deliberately. Yoga’s resurgence in India owes a great deal to his countless lecture tours and demonstrations during the 1930s. And more than that, Krish­namacharya’s four most famous disciples – Indra Devi (1899-2002), K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), his brother-in-law B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014) and his son T. K. V. Desikachar (born 1938) – played a huge role in popularizing Yoga in the West.

June 21, 2013: Hundreds of practitioners learn Yoga exercises in front of the Qujiang International Convention and Exhibition Center in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, during an event held to celebrate the first “International Day of Yoga.” [CFP]


From faith to science

Until a few years ago few scientific studies on Yoga had been conducted. Most Western scientists tended to dismiss Indian Yoga. However, today, the same sc­i­entists are getting close to proving what the Indian practitioners of Yoga, or Yogis, have held to be true for centuries – that Yoga and meditation can ward off stress and disease. Today, scientists armed with technologies such as neuro-imaging and genomics have been able to better measure the physiological changes brought about through the practice of Yoga. With research funding for alternative and complementary health systems continuing to grow, studies of Yoga are not only getting more thorough, but also more scientific.

Today, research has documented the efficacy of Yoga for ailments and conditions such as back pain, multiple sclerosis, insomnia, cancer, heart disease and even tuberculosis. Studies are also increasingly documenting and exploring how Yoga actually works. Among its many beneficial effects are increases in body str­ength, flexibility, and balance; enhanced immune function; lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels; and improved psychological well­-being. For instance, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Black­burn has found that 12 minutes of daily Yoga meditation for eight weeks can increase telomerase activity by 43 per cent, which enables a slowing down of str­ess-induced aging.

Yoga has hence come to be seen as something of a panacea for the ailments of modern society – whether be it an overload of technology, social disconnect and alienation, insomnia, stress, or anxiety. And Yoga is, indeed, in many cases, the perfect antidote to the pace of modern life that has created a culture of stress and burnout. Yoga has been shown to help fight everything from problems of addiction and lower back pain to diabetes and aging, in addition to boosting overall well-being and relieving stress.


The Yoga boom

As Yoga’s health benefits became more widely known, variations in the practice of Yoga have begun to proliferate. With the practice becoming more widely accepted, a fledgling Yoga industry has started to cash in. The sudden boom of interest has led to people wanting to fill the demand by getting more teachers trained; Yoga studios have discovered that it is, in fact, more lucrative to train Yoga teachers than merely offer classes.

This has led, in many instances, to standards being compromised. The popular emphasis on only asanas, or Yoga postures, has meant that Yoga institutions have trained new instructors to teach the physical poses without necessarily educating them about the deeper philosophy of Yoga. As the renowned Yoga guru, the late B. K. S. Iyengar, said, “Asanas are not meant for physical fitness, but for co­nqueri­ng the elements, energy, and so on.”

As Iyengar explained, “How to balance the energy in the body, how to control the five elements, how to balance the various aspects of the mind without mixing them all together, and how to be able to perceive the difference between the gunas, and to experience that there is something behind them, operating in the world of man – that is what asanas are for. The process is slow and painstaking, but a steady inquiry facilitates a growing awareness.” Underlining the need to understand more than just the physical aspects of postures, the Yoga Alliance-certified, 200-hour teacher training programme today includes 20 hours of philosophy, intended to give teachers a deeper understanding of the origins of the practice.


Bringing Yoga to China

China’s introduction to Yoga perhaps began when Zhenia Labunskaia (more popularly known as Indra Devi), a student of Krishnamacharya, founded the first school of Yoga in Shanghai, where Madame Chiang Kai-shek became her student. (Famously, she even introduced Yoga to the then Soviet Union, which had banned the practice, by convincing Soviet leaders that Yoga was not a religion). In 1947, she moved to the United States. Living in Holly­wood, she became known as the “First Lady of Yoga”, attracting celebrity students like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Arden, Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. Thanks to Devi, Krishnama­charya’s Yoga went global.

Taking forward Devi’s pioneering legacy, thousands of Yoga studios have mushroomed all over China in the past decade. Young and middle-aged Chinese women and men (the latter in smaller numbers) have taken to Yoga in a major way. At the forefront of the effort of promoting Yoga in China are the Indian Embassy in Beijing and the Indian consulates in Guangzhou and Shanghai, which have been promoting the multifaceted aspects of Indian culture in China, including Yoga and Ayurveda.

June 21, 2015: An Indian instructor teaches his students Yoga in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province. With the increasing popularity of Yoga in China, many Indian teachers have opened Yoga training classes around the country. [CFP]


In June 2011, a first ever three-day “India-China Yoga Summit” was organized in Guangzhou by the Indian Consulate. The great Yoga guru, the late B.K.S. Iyengar, was able to travel to China with the support of the Health Mini­stry’s Department of AYUSH of the Indian government. The event was path-breaking: it attracted close to 1,500 avid Yoga practitioners not only from China, but from all over the world. The first edition of the “India-China Yoga Summit” unleashed a renewed interest in China in learning the practice of uniting the mind, body and spirit through asanas, pranayama and meditation, straight from the Indian Yoga masters. The three-day summit included workshops in which Chinese practitioners were also introduced to the foundations of Yoga philosophy.

Taking this initiative forward, a second edition of the “India-China Yoga Summit” was organized by the Indian Consulate in Guang­zhou in the city of Dali, in Yunnan Province, between July 7 and 12, 2014. On this occasion, the six-day summit, organized with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, and the Department of AYUSH, saw the participation of 2,000 registered Yoga participants. As many as 23 workshops were conducted by 16 Yoga gurus representing the AYUSH, S-VYASA, Iyengar, Par­marth Ashram and Sivananda institutions of Yoga.

The summit, which focused on the theme “Science of Yoga”, was, perhaps, the biggest Yoga event ever organised overseas by an Indian organization. Leading Yoga experts made presentations on themes as varied as Yoga and spinal health, Yoga for the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases, the art of teaching Yoga to children and teenagers, Yoga and Ayurveda as spiritual practices, the benefits of Yoga practice during pregnancy, scientific evidence on the efficacy of Iyengar Yoga and physiological mechanisms, and Yoga and women’s health. Apart from Yoga, the summit also organized demonstrations of Ayurvedic cooking, spa treatments and Ayurvedic medicine.


The road ahead

“Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and Nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself an avid Yoga practitioner, told the United Nations General Assembly in a speech on September 27, 2014. “It is not about exercise,” he said, “but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and Nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work toward adopting an International Yoga Day.”

In a huge global endorsement for Yoga, on December 11, 2014, 177 out of 193 members of the United Nations agreed by “acclamation” to declare June 21 as the “International Day of Yoga,” recognizing the ancient Indian science’s holistic approach to health and well-being. The success of the UN resolution is a testimony to the enthusiastic cross-cultural and universal appeal that Yoga enjoys amongst members of the UN. It also demonstrates how both the tangible and unseen benefits of Yoga appeal to people around the world.

India is, at the same time, developing a substantive case to ensure that Yoga is enshrined on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage by 2016. In that event, Yoga would become the 31st intangible cultural heritage that has been listed from India so far. To that end, the AYUSH Department of India’s Health Ministry has been asked to prepare a nomination dossier.

The documentation process is in a nascent stage. A decision will be made on which branches and streams of Yoga would be included through brainstorming sessions, focussing on the types of practice and parampara (traditions) to be included in the dossier. The inclusion of Yoga in the inscription list of UNESCO would provide better visibility for it, helping improve its significance, besides offering international assistance for its promotion and preservation. Though Yoga originated in India, it is now internationally followed. India’s efforts to protect Yoga as part of its spiritual heritage was strengthened last year when the World Health Organization designated the New Delhi-based Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga as its collaborating centre for developing research guidelines for Yoga studies.

With the UN’s declaration of June 21 as “International Day of Yoga”, the Indian Consulate in Guangzhou, which put together in China two of the largest ever Yoga events by any Indian mission overseas, organized the first edition of the “India-China (Chengdu) International Yoga Festival”, with the theme of taking Yoga back to its roots, in Dujiangyan, Sichuan Province. The event received strong support from the Chengdu municipal government as well as the Dujiangyan city government. The four-day Yoga festival, which took place between June 17 and 21, 2015, brought together Yoga gurus from the Ashtanga (Mysore), Kaivalyadhama, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Sivananda, Indea, and Isha Hatha Yoga schools – the biggest event of its kind in China. In the past, China discovered India through Buddhism. Today, however, it is through Yoga that China is, once again, rediscovering India.


The writer, K. Nagaraj Naidu, is Director (Investments) at the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. A career diplomat, he previously served as Counsellor at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, and recently completed his tenure as Consul General at the Indian Consulate in Guangzhou before moving to New Delhi to take up his current role.


Published in the ISSUE 1 of CHINA-INDIA DIALOGUE