By Tushar Kanade
Amidst today’s information overload and attention chaos, we have witnessed the emergence of a number of meditative practices and art forms. Yet, none match the allure, popularity, and widespread acclaim of yoga. More than any other institution of its kind, The Yoga Institute, the world’s oldest organized centre of yoga, has preached this ancient way of living for exactly a century, having been founded in 1918! More than 55000 teachers have now been trained by The Yoga Institute over its entire existence, a number so baffling that it may give even established global university alumni networks a run for their money!
Today, more than 2000 people visit The Yoga Institute every day! While its original philosophy was pure and centralized on a single centre of practice (in Santacruz East, Mumbai), with time The Yoga Institute has expanded its physical and geographical reach to around ten branches, with a prominent presence in Goa, Delhi, and even Hong Kong! Despite its expansion, the original centre in Santacruz, Mumbai remains the bastion of all learners, with individuals from more than 40 international countries taking tutelage under the gurus through a host of training programs!
Its significance is underscored by the stupendous scale of its centennial celebrations this week, as the ‘Harmony Fest’ – a two-day celebration of The Yoga Institute’s 100th foundational anniversary – is simultaneously India’s biggest wellness festival! From being inaugurated by the Hon. President of India, to being attended by the Hon. Governor and the Hon. Chief Minister of Maharashtra, among other dignitaries, this festival is one of the largest of its kind in the entire world!
Yet, while the Yoga Institute has a rich heritage, how did it all begin?
In a candid interaction with The Yoga Institute’s Director,
“Shri Yogendraji, our founder, preached the first ever yoga lessons conducted by The Yoga Institute, at Versova beach on December 25th, 1918, before leaving for the USA for education”, says Dr. Hansaji Yogendra, Director, The Yoga Institute, sitting through a candid interaction in the midst of an otherwise packed day.
“He interpreted this as a scientific endeavour and would pointedly ask specific questions that elucidate the scientific method in its rawest form – ‘…when you meditate, what happens to your brain? What about your bodily organs and what about the effects of exercise on any or all of your biological systems?…’ – questions that were unheard of in similar fields by other practitioners,” she quipped.
The primary question that drove the narrative early on was indeed to determine the needs of the modern man.
The conclusion? “We need a focused yoga for the householders, and for everyday use without major cumbersome procedures or specially designed environments,” said Dr. Hansaji Yogendra.
Yoga amidst distraction – the householder’s philosophy
This philosophy of not tweaking the practice of yoga basis the environment was on full display when you examine the historical account of the life of Shri Yogendraji and his persistence on setting up the institute and continuing its operations under challenging circumstances. He shifted base from Versova to Bulsar, in Gujarat just ten years after having founded The Yoga Institute at the revered Dadabhai Naraoji’s residence. Just after the conclusion of the Second World War, he was already looking to shift base back to Mumbai, yet the plan only came to fruition in 1948, when he bought a plot in Santacruz, the current residence and base of operations of The Yoga Institute.
Back then, a lot of lush greenery and foliage surrounded the suburban areas of Santacruz and the adjacent Vile Parle, and yoga could not have been practiced in a better environment than the one found here. The only airport operations of the city were at Pawan Hans, in Vile Parle-Santacruz on the western side. Yet, just a decade after its newfound base in Santacruz, the domestic airport in Santacruz suddenly represented a lot of commotion for the peace-loving folks indulging in yoga in its nascent stages.
“Shri Yogendraji truly believed that the brand of yoga – a focus on Classical Yoga – the institute preaches is aimed at householders who represent everyday professions and do not necessarily have silent environments. He, therefore, stuck to the premises in Santacruz despite the newfound commotion and noise, and these roots have not been uprooted till today!”
A focus on research has been the cornerstone of The Yoga Institute
Smt. Hansaji Yogendra, Director, The Yoga Institute
“This institute was the first one to do research on yoga in a scientific capacity, and has done so since inception,” remarked Dr. Hansaji Yogendra.
In today’s commercially-driven fitness mania, some people have taken the physical portions of yoga and commercialized those to the benefit of their respective organizations, but to the detriment of the distorted perception around the wholesomeness of yoga.
Especially chronic in these commercial aggrandizements were the ignorance of both the psychological and the philosophical elements within yoga. While vastly ignored by virtually all other yoga centres in India and beyond, these, along with the other wholesome aspects of yoga, have remained the focus of The Yoga Institute in its bid to imbibe the most complete form of yoga training.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the institute’s four books were selected for preservation in the 1940s by Oglethorpe University, which, after having scavenged for similar pieces of literature across the subcontinent, accredited immense significance to The Yoga Institute’s publications over other prominent ideologues’ written work. This was no ordinary feat. The preservation was specifically towards the ‘Crypt of Civilization’, a first-of-its-kind repository whose contents will only be opened approximately 6000 years later,
The transformative vision of The Yoga Institute transcends generations
What was the vision of Shri Yogendraji and what elements of his vision were possibly executed during his lifetime? Which elements still resonate with The Yoga Institute of today as it embarks on global awareness on an unprecedented scale?
“It was difficult for him to found this institution during the British Era,” quips Dr. Hansaji Yogendra. “Only essential buildings were allowed to be constructed, and it also resulted in a tiff between the Founder and the local Municipality Commissioner, who eventually did bow down to the stern stance adopted by Shri Yogendraji. All plants in the institute were planted by Shri Yogendraji, signifying his centennial presence even today.
“He named it ‘The Yoga Institute’ to deprive it of any personal branding as an institutional symbol withstands far longer than any personal scripture embedded within such symbolisms,” she added.
Keeping Shri Yogendraji’s unique contributions in mind beckons another question. Transforming the vision of The Yoga Institute, what were some of the greatest contributions by Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra ji in advancing the ideals of The Yoga Institute?
“He was a Yogi personified – no passion or desires; he was responsible for courses in children, as well as special courses for women. In fact, he thought about the various biological stages of a woman through the course of her life – young girl, puberty, marriage, pre natal care, post-natal care, menopause, old age – the different eras of a woman did beckon a different approach to yoga in order to facilitate a seamless adoption of mental and physical wellbeing. Even an approach towards introducing ‘couple’s classes’ was Dr Jayadeva’s vision, and so were the immensely popular ‘Teacher Training Classes’.”
Governmental push for Yoga in an institutional manner has been quite disruptive
The Government plays a widespread role in advancing a widespread health and well-being movement across the country and beyond. The present Government and the Ministry of AYUSH has fared quite well in exactly the same principles that are important in increasing subscription and adoption – from viral promotional campaigns to the creation of an International Yoga Day (first held in June 2015 in the presence of the Hon. Prime Minister, with Dr. Hansaji Yogendra on-stage), this governmental machinery has indeed multiplied the significance of yoga. The International Yoga Day in particular, under the tutelage of Hon. Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi ji, has attracted widespread acclaim.
In her role as the Chairperson of the Yoga Certifications Committee at the Quality Council of India, Dr. Hansaji Yogendra’s scope covers introducing a standardized metric to regulate the entire field.
“Standardization of yoga is a priority indeed, as lots of institutes and individuals have sprung up in recent times without regard for the actual teachings of yoga,” she said.
The next generation of yoga is no longer averse to millennials – but welcomes them
Millennials have an outsized role in shaping the discourse over the next ten to twenty years. With the cultural depth and therapeutic history of yoga, does The Yoga Institute witness a widespread adoption of the yogic way of living in the years to come?
“Yoga is the classical version as being pronounced and promoted by The Yoga Institute. Asanas is 1/8th of what yoga is as per Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. Yamas (restraint, the 1st ‘limb’) and Niyamas (discipline, the 2nd ‘limb’), Dhyana (meditation, the 7th ‘limb’) and Dharana (concentration, the 6th ‘limb’) are completely ignored as compared to Asanas in popular discourse elsewhere in the world,” as per Shri Hrishi Jayadeva Yogendra, Assistant Director, The Yoga Institute.
This is the primary concern of The Yoga Institute. “The classical approach itself needs to reach out to masses,” he quips.
“We are changing our own mindsets and expanding beyond this single centre and have started extending, more than merely expanding, our approach and our reach. Yoga is a preventive science rather than the therapeutic science – the essence of yoga is always that it preached for a way of living that encourages prevention of vices.”
The plan ahead? Amend a bit of the communication strategy employed by The Yoga Institute.
“If I just keep a bhavas workshop for instance, people tend to ignore the messaging – but if I transform the messaging into much more interactive modes, the engagement is much higher.”
The Harmony fest is a furtherance of Classical Yoga’s appeal maximization
“We aim to create an environment that will be conducive and welcoming – but it aims to deliver what we actually want to deliver – which are the Misconceptions of Yoga.”
“The basic theories and principles behind the traditional texts and sources in India – on food, for instance – are the basis for some of our initiatives. We have a workshop at the fest on modern food habits in comparison to traditional healthier alternatives – so we do not reject the narrative of pizzas entering modern eating habits but encourage ingredients such as ragi or other organic alternatives.”
Another example is of medicine – how is it possible to integrate modern medicine with traditional medicine? That is another fusion tactic on the platter – since The Yoga Institute has tied up with some of the most prominent hospitals in Mumbai, from Hinduja Hospital to the Asian Heart Institute to S.L. Raheja Hospital. “We have, in fact, given a soothing session to patients before critical surgeries – to reduce stress and tension and increase calmness – increasing success rates of surgeries by simply having a relaxed body and mind.”
Indeed, with so many initiatives, amidst a backdrop of the rich cultural heritage of this ancient practice as well as the transcendental personalities of its founders and caretakers, The Yoga Institute is poised to change lives well into the next century!