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Asanas abroad

Veenu Sandhu  |  New Delhi 

are opening in unlikely places like Tunisia, Cyprus, Yemen and Guyana, and all of them want authentic Veenu Sandhu looks at what is turning into one of India’s biggest exports.

Five years ago when 26-year-old moved to China from Madurai, people would greet each other the way they do in any other place, with a “Hello, how are you?” Today, when people in China meet each other, they say, “How are you? Do you practise yoga?” Speaking from Nanjing, the yogacharya who married a Chinese yoga teacher, Yu Xim Mei, about three years ago and now has a year-old son, says China has emerged as one of the biggest destinations for yoga, and is thus a great source of demand for yoga teachers from India. Sivanandam himself teaches yoga at the with his Chinese wife who now also has an Indian name, Lakshmi.

Back in Madurai, Sivanandam’s father, N Ramalingam, who is the founder of the Swamy Sivananda Yogasana Research Centre, says he gets several requests from China, Malaysia and Singapore for qualified yoga teachers (mainly men) from India. “are famous worldwide,” says Ramalingam who adds with a laugh, “I am a grandfather through collaboration between India and China because of yoga. Yoga is building bridges between the countries like nothing else.”

Yoga has gained popularity abroad because of its ability to keep the body supple and youthful. Its emphasis on meditation is seen a stress buster. And it fits in well with the new-found virtues of organic and fat-free food. Yoga is thus emerging as one of India’s biggest exports to the world. And that includes the shipping of yoga teachers to the most unexpected destinations. BKS Iyengar Yoga, for example, has centres in 70 countries across the globe, including Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Romania, Lithuania, Cyprus, New Celedonia and Yemen. Its centres in Israel alone have 75 teachers, while Poland has nearly 30. While most of these teachers are locals from the country, many are trained in India. The stamp of having studied in India from Indian yoga gurus makes all the difference.

The demand is immense and growing. “The moment a centre is set up, one of the first requests that we get is for a yoga teacher from India,” says Suresh K Goel, director general, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) which has about 35 centres across the world and eight more coming up. At the moment, ICCR has 22 yoga teachers based at its centres abroad and another 10 are waiting to go. On May 25, 2011, when the Indian Cultural Centre was inaugurated at Sao Paulo, yoga classes were announced even before Hindi, classical dance and music. The yoga centre at Kabul is already up and running with 30 students currently enrolled and so are classes at Cairo and Georgetown, Guyana, which was among the first centres to be set up in 1972. Moscow, followed by Tashkent, takes the lead in the number of students coming to learn traditional Indian yoga from authentic teachers flown in straight from India.

“Till some years ago, practising yoga was a fashion statement with celebrities like Madonna turning to it. Part of this was related to the Indian myth; it was an unknown, mystical thing,” says Goel. “This was a bit of a tragedy for yoga as all sorts of contortions emerged. But now people are gravitating towards authentic yoga and want to learn from teachers from India.”

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So, ICCR has a panel of experts which selects the yoga teachers to be posted abroad after an interview. The teachers, whose average age is 35, ought to have done a diploma course or a certificate course in yoga from a recognised institute or university such as Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute (Lonavla), Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga (New Delhi), Bihar School of Yoga (Munger), or Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation (Bangalore). The tenure is for two years, extendible by one more year and the teacher gets a salary of up to Rs 100,000 per month including foreign allowance plus other facilities like free accommodation, medical facilities and airfare. “All forms of yoga are taught — Iyengar, Patanjali and therapy yoga, which is in great demand,” says Goel.

Yoga master Vidyanand, the founder of Yoga Alliance International that certifies yoga centres, says private organisations and individuals also pay the teachers about that much and hire them on a one- or two-year extendible contract. In the West, however, they earn more, he adds. Back in India, most yoga instructors make a living by teaching individuals in their homes and offices. Delhi alone has 2,000 private yoga teachers, says Vidyanand, adding that they are more like personal trainers and though they earn about Rs 300-400 per session, the money and respect they get outside the country is much more. “Go anywhere in the world and you will find yoga classes run by Indian teachers packed with learners. The class by the local teacher won’t have even half the number,” he adds.

There is a huge clamour for Indian yoga instructors in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, Vidyanand says, adding that in China every other beauty parlour is also opening a yoga centre. “You know how much money the Chinese spend on their hair. Every other street has a beauty parlour. Now they are tossing in a yoga centre with it. You don’t need much space for it. Even gyms are holding yoga classes,” says Vidyanand. To tide over the language problem, an interpreter is also hired. It doesn’t cost much and with every other Chinese practising yoga, the centre makes good money. “I have seen plenty of examples of the yoga teacher and the Chinese interpreter marrying,” says Vidyanand. Sivanandam of says that while he has no problem explaining the asanas to his foreign students, he turns to his Chinese wife for help in translating the philosophy. “I am also learning to speak Mandarin now,” he says adding that in China, as in most other countries, people focus more on the physical aspect of yoga, like the pranayamas, than on the bhakti side of it.

Vidyanand puts the number of yoga teachers going outside the country at 300 to 400 a year. From Rishikesh alone every month 10 to 20 yoga teachers are finding jobs in China, adds Roshan Singh, the president of yoga school Rishikesh Yog Peeth. Called the “yoga capital of the world”, Rishikesh has children practising yoga from a tender age; some of them even land a job with foreigners when they are as young as 18, says Vidyanand. Roshan Singh, whose institute holds six courses in a year with 30 to 40 students in each batch, says such is the demand for training to be a yoga teacher in India that he’s totally booked till December next year. When he started Rishikesh Yog Peeth in 2005, he had only five to ten people per batch. Each course lasting about a month and ten days costs $1,150.

“Yoga,” says the manager of Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, another Rishikesh-based school that provides yoga teacher-training programmes, “originated in India. It’s about the exchange of Indian culture.” And the world over, the Indian yoga guru seems to be the key to it.

First Published: Sat, December 17 2011. 00:42 IST