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International Yoga Day: Long Before World Woke Up to Yoga, Mysore Masters Took it to Kremlin and Connecticut

Mysore, the cultural capital of Karnataka and former capital of the princely state of Mysore, has been the yoga capital for over a century. In a way, yoga is as native to Mysore as its world famous sweet ‘Mysore Pak’.

D P Satish | News18dp_satish

Updated:June 21, 2018, 9:31 AM IST
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International Yoga Day: Long Before World Woke Up to Yoga, Mysore Masters Took it to Kremlin and Connecticut
Enthusiasts perform yoga asanas outside the iconic Mysore Palace to mark the 4th International Yoga Day on Thursday. (News18)
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Bengaluru: An old house in Gokulam area of Mysore has emerged as a top tourist destination in the past few decades. This is where the late K Pattabhi Jois’ ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ is taught to yoga enthusiasts from all over the globe.

When Jois died at the age of 95 in 2009, international newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and LA Times published lengthy obituaries, paying rich tributes to one of the original yoga gurus in the world.

Here’s what the NYT wrote: “Long before yoga studios sprang up in shopping centers and gyms across America and Europe, Mr. Jois began teaching yoga at the Sanskrit University of Mysore in the late 1930s, according to a biography on his website. He eventually opened his own school, the Ashtanga Yoga Institute, which has drawn students from around the world. The son of a Brahmin priest and astrologer, Mr. Jois was inculcated in ancient Hindu teachings from an early age. He was first exposed to yoga when he was 12. He learned from Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a guru who also taught another famous Indian yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar.”

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Enthusiasts perform yoga asanas outside the iconic Mysore Palace to mark the 4th International Yoga Day on Thursday. (News18)

Jois is known for taking the school of yoga known as Ashtanga to the world. Ashtanga, which translates to ‘eight limbs’, consists of fast-paced exercises that are performed with controlled breathing. Ashtanga yoga aims to make its practitioners sweat profusely, which Jois believed was necessary to “cleanse the body”.

It is a coincidence that another great yoga guru who made it internationally famous, BKS Iyengar, was also a student of the same T Krishnamacharya who taught yoga to Jois.

Both Jois and Iyengar, two Kannadigas from the pre-Independence era, took yoga to the nooks and corners of the world, especially Europe and America, much before the new age yoga gurus and their “spiritual” centers started mushrooming all over India and the world. But the name, fame and influence did not change them much. Till their death they stayed humble and never commercialised the ancient knowledge.

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Enthusiasts perform yoga asanas outside the iconic Mysore Palace to mark the 4th International Yoga Day on Thursday. (News18)

Jois’ following in the West brought him fame and influence, but people close to him say that it did not appear to have changed him much. He never altered his early morning prayer rituals and put all his students, including celebrities, through the same tough regimen.

“Everybody got the same training. There was no difference, even for me. Even his own grandson had the same training that his students had, maybe a little tougher,” Jois’ grandson Sharath Rangaswamy told NYT when the yoga guru died.

Mysore, the cultural capital of Karnataka and former capital of the princely state of Mysore, has been the yoga capital for over a century. In a way, yoga is as native to Mysore as its famous sweet ‘Mysore Pak’.

Talking about how yoga has helped Mysore’s economy and tourism industry in the recent years, Vikram Muthanna, the managing editor of English daily Star of Mysore and Kannada daily Mysore Mithra, said, “The whole of Gokhulam area looks like a foreign country when Sharath Rangaswamy, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois opens his yoga camp. Thousands of foreigners will be there every day to learn and understand yoga. These Mysoreans have been practising and teaching yoga in its purest and truest form. Yoga is both physical and spiritual. Many neo-yoga centers and gurus have made it a mere physical exercise like drill or like aerobics.”

Apart from the world-renowned Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar yoga schools, Mysore also has other famous yoga teachers like Bharath Shetty, Sheshadri et al.

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Enthusiasts perform yoga asanas outside the iconic Mysore Palace to mark the 4th International Yoga Day on Thursday. (News18)

There are several dozen small and large yoga centres in and around Mysore. According to some estimates, at least 50,000 foreigners, mainly from Europe and America, visit Mysore to learn yoga every year. “Some of them come here for a short duration course and go back in a week or two. Some spend six months to one year learning yoga and understanding it. It has immensely helped Mysore in many ways,” said Mysore-based journalist Puttappa.

Half a century before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big push for yoga and modern gurus’ promotional activities across the globe, Mysore popularised yoga across the world, including the Communist Soviet Union to far away Argentina.

Indra Devi, born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia on May 12, 1899, was the daughter of a European nobility. She introduced ancient Indian discipline of yoga from Kremlin to Connecticut in the 1950s. Even Hollywood stars like Gloria Swanson were her students.

The Indra Devi Yoga Centre in Argentinian capital Buenos Aires was founded by her more than 60 years ago.

Like Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi was also a student of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the real ‘father of Yoga’ who made Mysore its global headquarters.

In 1960, India's ambassador to Moscow arranged for her to meet top Soviet leaders, including premier Aleksei Kosygin, foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and chairman of the Supreme Soviet Anastas Mikoyan. After she spoke to them of the benefits of yoga, it was legalised in Russia, says her 2002 obituary in New York Times.

“The serious ones who believe that yoga is not a commodity and are aware of its spiritual and physical benefits come to Mysore. They don’t go to new age ‘gurus’ or ‘spiritual leaders’. The yoga gurus in Mysore don’t go after name and fame. They are not godmen. They teach it to everyone with the same dedication. For them, it is sharing of an ancient Indian discipline with the rest of the world. It is not a publicity stunt. Whatever others might say or do, Mysore has always been the final destination for yoga. It will always remain the world’s yoga capital,” said Mysorean R Bharatadri.
| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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