The brave new world of yoga


The Yoga Institute at suburban Santa Cruz in Mumbai, a 100-year-old organisation, has been at the forefront of the global renaissance of an ancient discipline. Vithal C Nadkarni meets Hansaji Yogendra, the dynamic director of TSI, to explore its brave new future.

As you cross the tree-shaded avenue next to the Santa Cruz railway station to enter The Yoga Institute (TYI), an aeroplane flies overhead. One wonders if the roar of the metal bird is a portent or an omen. For those used to the hurly-burly pace of Mumbai, the Urbs Prima of India, the sound of the aircraft adds just another element in the constant cacophony that envelops the city, which supposedly never sleeps. “But we beg to differ,” says Hansaji Yogendra, the director of the century-old Yoga Institute, with a radiant smile. “In our holistic conception of yoga, sleep is one of the greatest restoratives to have ever evolved in the universe.”

Indeed, our first meeting with the charismatic Hansaji does bring to mind the paradigm of the ‘Timeless Mind in an Ageless Body’: Of course, there’s silver in her hair, but it seems to exist only to suggest that age is just a number. In her case, over four glorious decades spent in a pioneering Yoga Institute, that became 100 years young on the Christmas day in 2018. Three days later, the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind himself flew down from Delhi to grace the birthday bash, in a moving ceremony held on Bandra Kurla grounds in Mumbai.

The real meaning of yoga

“When people say they are going for a yoga class, they generally mean an asana class,” says Hansa Yogendra. “In its global profile also, yoga has largely become synonymous with asana. Asana literally means seat or throne. It is indeed the most athletic or physical aspect of the discipline,” she adds.

“Traditionally, however, asana has always been regarded as just one of the eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga. The totality of this eight-limbed marvel called yoga is one comprehensive complex, including the body, breath, mind, intellect and spirit,” Hansaji explains.

It is the psyche or the mind (versus soma or the body), which occurs in the celebrated definition of yoga found in Patanjali’s classic treatise, Yoga Sutra. In his very first verse, the sage defines yoga as the restraint or controlling of the tendencies of the mind (Yogaschitta-vritti nirodhah). But to say that, is not to downgrade the body at all. As defined by Vachaspati Mishra, who was one of the early proponents of the Samkhya Yoga philosophy, asana is “the manner of sitting or the seat whereon one deports oneself”.

“But the more mystical definition of asana is to be found in the Kamadhenu Tantra,” Hansaji explains, “where `a’ stands for self-actualisation or atma-siddhi (this could be seen as the transcendent or ultimate goal, which is also posited by the noted American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs); the next letters `sa’ stand for sarva-roga-pratibandha (or prevention of all diseases) and, finally, the letters `na’ represent siddhiprapti or attainment of mastery of mystical powers.

We should bear in mind, however, that yogis do not subscribe to a mind-body dualism. In the West, the 17th century French mathematician-philosopher, Rene Descartes, was the most renowned champion of this schizoid or bi-compartmentalised scheme of things, which pits the body against the mind.

The genesis of TYI

As mentioned, the centennial TYI was founded on December 25th, 1918, by Sri Yogendra (who was born as Mani Haribhai Desai in Gujarat). Through a chance meeting he found his Yoga guru, the Bengal-born Paramahamsa Madhavdasji Maharaj, who himself is said to have lived for more than 125 years! With the blessings of his beloved guru, Yogendraji went forth to bring the nectar of yoga to the masses, to manifestly improve their lives. Initially he founded his Yoga Institute at “Sands”, the sea-side residence of the Grand Old Man of India, Dadabhoy Naoroji at Versova, in Bombay.
Yogendraji’s pioneering initiative yielded bountiful results, helping many people to recover from various ailments through diligent practice of yoga that was zealously supervised by the young Master. Thereafter, Yogendraji travelled to the United States of America, where he founded ‘The Yoga Institute’ in Harriman, New York, in 1920. Here the Founder-Master undertook enlightened research with the help of trained scientists and doctors on the subtle physiological and psychological effects that yoga had in turning a work-out (sadhana) into wellness (swasthya).

When at last he returned to India, Yogendraji acceded to his father’s wishes and became a householder, and married! He went on to write many treatises on yoga and some of his manuscripts were even preserved in the ‘Crypt of Civilisation for Posterity’. Along with his wife, Sitadevi, Yogendraji continued to showcase the wonders of yoga, and spread its holistic healing benefits around the world through his institute, until his passing away in 1989.
Thereafter, the Founder’s son (and Hansaji’s spouse), Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra, became President of TYI. A yogi renowned for his spartan life-style and a spiritual bent of mind, Dr. Yogendraji nurtured his father’s legacy with great sincerity and aplomb. He was also the editor of the Institute’s monthly journal, which has been in print ever since 1933. Jayadevaji was also a noted scholar who had specialised in the Samkhya School of philosophy.
Samkhya, which liternally means number or counting, is one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy, founded by the legendary Red Sage (Kapil Muni). “As taught at our Institute, the philosophical principles of Samkhya and the techniques of yoga form a cohesive united entity. This also offers a practical guide to life, living and liberation,” Hansaji asserts.”

Today’s wannabe yogis also need to bear in mind that at any stage in life, all individuals possess certain qualities called ‘bhavas’, which may or may not necessarily be conducive to self-actualisation, Hansaji emphasises. Thus, at TSY, aspirants are taught the art and science of discouraging the negative propensities and promoting the positive bhavas such as dharma (morality), jnana (knowledge), vairagya (detachment), and aishwarya (prosperity).
“The effects of any practice of yoga, when undertaken in such a systematic manner, extends to the physical, emotional, ethical, spiritual and sensual faculties,” Hansaji avers. “Our mission is to guide aspirants from and through the external realm (bahiranga) progressively to an inner world (antaranga), to ultimately liberate the seeker from parochial boundaries.”

Vithal C Nadkarni

The writer is a senior consulting editor and columnist with the Times of India Group of Publications. He is also a fellow of the London-based 21st Century Trust and a recipient of the US-based Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.