On June 21, 2015, millions of people in India and around the world celebrated the first International Yoga Day. But while most yogis outside of India link yoga with fitness, ports and weight loss, yoga is more than a physical exercise to Indians. To the near 1.3 billion Indians in India and abroad, yoga is a discipline in the physical, the spiritual and the mental. It is entrenched in every part of their culture. It is a compulsory subject for school children as young as five or six and it’s practiced by those from all religions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to Jainism. For Avinash Kumar, a 21-year-old Indian health coach living in Saigon, yoga “is where I came from.”
“Yoga was a class taught in my elementary school. When I was seven, I was selected for the school yoga tournament.Since then, I have not stopped practicing yoga,” he shares. “Most people outside of India see only the physical aspect of yoga, the poses, the exercises, the health benefits and certainly that is also yoga, but that is only one among the many aspects of yoga. True yoga goes far deeper than that. Yoga is a philosophy, a way of life.”
The word “yoga” is Sanskrit meaning “to unite.” “We unite the body with the mind until each of our movements is a mindful one,” explains Avinash. “We train our bodies through the physical exercises and we train our mind through meditation. To me, to practice yoga is to become friends with oneself, to learn everything there is to learn about our own bodies and our own selves.” In Avinash’s first tournament, the competitors were scored not on how many difficult poses they could pull off but rather by the comfort with which they entered a pose, held a pose, exited a pose, as well as whether they could hold steady breath while performing. Avinash’s interpretation is not the only interpretation of what yoga really entails.
Yoga comes from five thousand years of history. Though none can pinpoint when and where exactly in India it originated, the undeniable fact is that it is an entrenched part, and a heritage of Indian culture. With such a long history, yoga has had time to develop a broad variety of schools with distinctly different practices and philosophy. Some are modern and trendy, influenced by global tastes and market, while others are ancient and deeply rooted in Indian philosophy and culture. Yet for all their differences, each of the schools is as valid as the other.
To date, an estimated 30 million people outside of India practice yoga. As for the number of practitioners inside of India, the birthplace of yoga, no surveys have ever been able to tabulate an exact figure other than ‘big’. The deepest level of yoga is a land explored only by yogis. According to Avinash, yogi is a word regularly misused by non-Indians.
“I’m just a normal person practicing yoga. I teach yoga to other people, yes. But I am not a yogi,” he claims. “Yogis are those who are committed to studying the philosophy of yoga for life. They would forsake all worldly possessions and relations and go into the woods or the top of some distant mountains to live the lifestyle of hermits. They seek to become absolutely detached from everything and everyone else. That is a yogi.”
Ever since Guru Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to the US in the 1890s, it has grown exponentially in both popularity and reach. To this day, yoga has become a multi-billion dollar global industry spanning numerous countries, from America to Europe, to Southeast Asia and even here in Vietnam where it enjoys a reputation as a trendy fitness and wellness exercise. This new popularity has in turn prompted thousands of young Indians like Avinash into leaving India and going to other countries to spread the knowledge and philosophy of yoga.
The downside to yoga’s popularity however are less desirable aspects such as overcommercialization, false marketing, even the warping of one of India’s greatest cultural heritages. A search for yoga schools and classes in Saigon would immediately turn up numerous ads featuring young, attractive models in yoga poses or newfangled, market driven yoga concepts that promise svelte, sexy figures and an overall better life. To traditional Indian yoga practitioners, this state of affairs can be an aggravating one. Within Avinash’s yoga community however, the subject of overcommercialization of yoga is almost never brought up for discussion.
“It is a complicated topic not easily defined in clear black and white terms,” he explains. “On one side, commercialized and marketed yoga can lack many of its deeper philosophies and beauty, but on the other, yoga and all of its fans benefit either directly or indirectly from the industry’s commercialization and branding of yoga.” Avinash, himself, is employed in a commercialized yoga institution where students pay top dollar to be taught by him and other Indian born and trained coaches. “Just because it comes through the gate of a big corporation does not necessarily negate its virtues. I am one of the coaches there and every day I am teaching my students yoga as I understand it – the physical, the mental and the spiritual aspects of it.”