Global exercise

Written by Indira Kannan | Updated: Mar 9 2014, 10:13am hrs
YOGINIS AND Bhairavas strike poses next to Buddhas and Jinas at Yoga: The Art of Transformation, an exhibition that opened at San Franciscos Asian Art Museum on February 21 after its inaugural three-month run at the Smithsonian museums Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. The show, billed as the worlds first exhibition of yogas visual history and curated by Debra Diamond, puts on display centuries-old sculptures, paintings and other artefacts from across ancient India to explore the influence of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, the Mughals and Vivekananda on the practice of yoga.

On the opposite coast, in New York, students of yoga teacher Barbara Purcell are exploring the influence of pop singer Miley Cyrus and her signature twerk. North of the border, in Toronto, Rosanne McCollum is schooling her class on the influence of Canadas own superstar Justin Bieber on the discipline. Taken together, the three instances show the popularity and broad appeal of yoga in North America today. Yoga is now as American as paneer manchurian is Indian.

Over 20 million Americans practise yoga, according to the 2012 Yoga in America study released by Yoga Journal, one of the oldest and widely circulated publications on yoga in the United States. They also spend over $10 billion every year on yoga classes and equipment, the report said.

While yoga studios are ubiquitous in large cities in North America like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Toronto, they are also becoming a common sight in small towns in many states, from Montana to Texas, in the US and Manitoba to Nova Scotia in Canada. Americans who might find it difficult to pronounce the Indian prime ministers name have no trouble specifying just what kind of yoga class they want to attendvinyasa, hatha, ashtanga, kundalini and many others.

The growing demand has left plenty of room for creative interpretations of yoga. Apart from twerking yoga and YogaBiebs (a yoga class set to the music of Bieber), there is also Yoga for Foodies, where multi-course meals, including pasta, red wine and chocolate, are offered after hour-long yoga sessions; Koga, which combines kickboxing and yoga; Aqua Yoga, performed under water; Caponyasa, blending yoga with the Brazilian fight dancing discipline Capoeira; horseback yoga; and Doga, performed with pet dogs, to name just a few.

Yoga instructor Purcell, who was introduced to yoga while at college and has been teaching since 2007, mostly at the Princeton Club of New York and at private sessions across Manhattan, came up with the idea of twerking yoga as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Miley Cyrus. My main reasoning behind creating a yoga twerk-out was to, in fact, challenge some of the established notions, says Purcell. In my classes, I tend to use a lot of humour. I also dont possess a holier-than-thou yoga persona and I opt for safe sequences designed to strengthen the core, increase the range of motion and heighten awareness of breath. Everything else will fall into place, she adds.

In Toronto, McCollum has been teaching yoga for 14 years, but was more recently introduced to Bieber by her daughters, aged 10 and 14 years. Now, she calls herself a shameless Belieber. Aware that being a grown-up Bieber fan might sound as incredible as styling asanas to his music, McCollum says, It may sound silly unless you actually listen to the music and understand what I am talking about. As did a producer from MTV, among the many mediapersons who made a beeline to check out YogaBiebs. The producer from MTV took the class while they were filming it and he said he was surprised how well it fit. People cant imagine it unless they experience it, says McCollum, who picked One Life from Biebers latest album Journals as a favourite.

With yoga going mainstream in North America, there is a whole generation of fans who are not even aware of the traditions roots in India. One of the objectives of the Smithsonians yoga exhibition is to emphasise that aspect, according to its curator. One of my interns interviewed a group of students

in Washington, DC, who didnt know that yoga was Indian. My job is to disseminate appreciation of Indian art and culture. At a basic level, its really important for everyone to understand that yoga comes from India, that its a deep and profound tradition with these great roots, says Diamond.

Teachers like Purcell and McCollum agree, even as they add decidedly modern twists to their routines. Its not a breakaway from Mother India. I think all western yoga always gives credit to India, where it all began and that is never forgotten. The authenticity of the practice is very important to me, says McCollum. I think yoga most certainly is still regarded for its ancient Indian, Hindu tradition, adds Purcell. But incorporating contemporary, western trends also makes yoga more appealing to a wider audience, she says. As more and more yoga studios, styles and even marketing gimmicks emerge, theres an opportunity to sift through the many options and pick the one that ultimately fits best. Imparting these powerful techniques in a more accessible way allows people, who would otherwise shy away, give it a shot.

With all its variety, yoga is now an inescapable part of life in America. In New Yorks Times Square, the crossroads of the world, thousands of enthusiasts have gathered on the occasion of the summer solstice every year since 2002 to perform yoga in the busy intersection. North Americas largest yoga event is the annual Yoga Conference in Toronto, with over 200 exhibitors, coming up on March 27-30 this year. Vancouver-based Lululemon became a billion-dollar company selling $100-yoga pants, some of which were famously recalled last year for appearing too sheer when, as company officials noted, the wearers bent over. Other pricey yoga products include $100-mats and $75-towels from makers like the California-based Manduka.

Its not just fitness enthusiasts who are taking up yoga, the practice is also gaining acceptance in the medical field. Purcell credits yoga with improving her health some years ago. In my 20s, I suffered from serious health problems, as well as addiction issues. Yoga, more than therapy, medication, or doctors, gave me the tools to push through much of what plagued my body, brain and heart, she says. Diamond adds, In the United States, it turns out now is a pivotal moment for the medical community accepting yoga as a therapy more and more.

Swami Vivekananda is widely credited with introducing the practice of yoga to America. The Smithsonian exhibition highlights how in Raja Yoga, Vivekananda outlined two objectives of his efforts to revive yoga in India: rational spirituality and Hindu reform. Its unclear whether Bieber or Cyrus have offered their thoughts on yoga, but for the expanding community of yoga practitioners in North America, OMG is going to be as much a part of their routine as OM.

Indira Kannan is a writer based in Toronto