Jason Burke in Delhi
The Guardian, Tuesday 8 June 2010
Delhi-based body adopts rigid posture on yoga’s origins
Government wants to lay down rules on practices
Are you power, nude, laughing, Christian or contemporary? Or perhaps you are pure ashtanga vinyasa? If your preferred yoga style is among the former you could find yourself on the wrong side of an effort to define what constitutes the millennia-old physical and mental discipline.
An Indian government body tasked with protecting the country’s rich heritage of medicinal and medical philosophy and practice has started filming hundreds of asanas – yoga poses – in an attempt to make a rigid system out of this most flexible of meditative practices.
The “videographs” are intended to provide irrefutable evidence for anyone hoping to patent a new style of yoga that the Indians got there first. A previous effort to define yoga, based simply on translations of ancient texts circulated to the relevant authorities, had mixed results, so now they are trying again.
“It’s like soccer and Britain,” said Suneel Singh, one of India’s leading yoga gurus. “You have given it to the world which is wonderful and generous. But imagine that people started saying they had invented the sport. That would be annoying.”
Dr Vinod Kumar Gupta, who heads the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, a Delhi-based government organisation set up jointly by the ministries of health and science, told the Guardian: “Simple text isn’t adequate. People are claiming they are doing something different from the original yoga when they are not.”
“Yoga originated in India. People cannot claim to invent a new yoga when they have not.”
The campaign to safeguard India’s rich heritage of medicinal art, craft and practice has already scored major victories, forcing European companies to reverse patents on the use of extract of melon, ginger, cumin, turmeric and onions for a range of health products. In each case Indian government officials were able to comb the new digital library to submit carefully translated excerpts from texts ranging from 19th century medical text books to 5th century manuals of traditional ayurvedic medicine to support their claims.
But stopping yoga being “misappropriated” is different from defending Indian plants against “bio-prospecting” of natural remedies by companies abroad. There are tens – if not hundreds – of millions of practitioners and hundreds of different schools ranging from naked yoga through to Christian yoga, developed in faith schools and churches in America.
“There is no intention to stop people practising yoga but nobody should misappropriate yoga and start charging franchise money,” said Gupta, who, like many Delhi residents, practises the ancient art in a park near his home. “As for hot yoga, power yoga, or whatever I have no views to comment. Our job is to provide the evidence and let others decide.”
The campaign to preserve yoga as Indian has its roots in a bid several years ago by Bikram Choudhury, the self-proclaimed Hollywood “yoga teacher to the stars”, to get his Bikram yoga style patented in the US.
“They are creating brands,” said Guru Singh, who has himself invented what he calls “Urban Yoga”. “Anyway, clapping, laughter, all these kinds, they all existed before. They just now get a new name in English.”
Even within India, yogi and yogini (the feminine variant) are divided.
Conservatives say only yoga as described in texts such as hatha yoga pradipika , the manual compiled by a 15th century sage, is true to tradition.
But a new generation wants something else. Guru Mohan, 31, runs courses for young Indian professionals working in technology companies in the vast satellite town of Noida outside Delhi.
“The lifestyle was different 2,000 years ago. There were different needs.
“Then, they practised yoga in jungles and rivers. According to the texts you use cow dung to clean the place where you will practice. That’s clearly not appropriate any more, not even in India,” Mohan, who uses one name professionally, said.
According to Mohan, who has pioneered what he calls “Call Centre Yoga” with special asanas for those spending hours on end answering phones, some things, however, are eternal.
“Yoga is there for all humanity. It is for serving people,” the guru said.
“It is traditional wisdom and its reach should never be limited”.