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The relevance of ‘political’ Yoga

Can Yoga increase one's creativity/productivity? The spiritual claims of Yoga are based on extremely dubious assumptions which can hardly be subjected to evidence-based research as the PM desires

PM Modi doing Yoga
PM Modi doing Yoga

Arun Sharma

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week waded into the controversy on merits of Yoga versus medical science by appealing to doctors to study the ancient practice and promote it worldwide through ‘evidence-based studies’.

Speaking at a virtual programme organised by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), he claimed that many people from the medical fraternity were coming forward to spread awareness about Yoga. As old habits die hard, Modi also faulted Nehru for not giving adequate importance to Yoga. ‘What should have been done after independence to spread awareness about Yoga is being done now’, he declared loftily.

It is an altogether different matter that Nehru had too many important things to do after independence to be thinking about promoting Yoga. Construction of the Bhakhra Nangal Dam, setting up of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, commissioning India’s first planned cities of Bhubaneswar (built 1948) and Chandigarh (1953) besides dousing the communal fires ignited by hard-line groups and negotiating a no war pact with Pakistan would have taken precedence over Yoga.

It is well known that Panditji himself did some Yogic exercises, including Shirshasana as a matter of routine. But it is doubtful if he believed that Yoga as an exercise was better than horse-riding or trekking in the Himalayas which he equally loved. He would certainly have scoffed at claims that Yoga has the potential to cure pathological conditions and, as Modi has claimed, that ‘Yoga and Pranayam can protect people from Covid-19’.

But should the Prime Minister be promoting Yoga and risk the lives of countless people? More pertinently, should he and his government be giving a free hand to Ramdev for peddling preposterous claims about the ability of Yoga and Ayurveda to cure heart conditions and cancer?

Yoga as a discipline has two parts: the physical part consisting of asanas and the spiritual or mental part consisting of techniques of meditation. The second stage is supposed to lead the practitioner to the third stage, in which, he can control his senses and attain samadhi-the state of super-conscious stillness during which he has communion with the Divine.

Performing asanas and pranayam, as any other exercise like running or swimming or karate, can help tone up one’s body and increase one’s stamina or a general sense of well-being. They might, though this is not certain, even lower blood pressure. But replacing anti-hypertensive drugs with Yoga therapy can indeed be dangerous.

Certain practices mentioned in Yogic literature are also downright unscientific. Books on Hatha Yoga, for example, routinely claim that conservation of one’s semen could lead one to a super state of consciousness. Books also recommend sucking up water through one’s member to attain that state. If a person could do that, using milk instead of water, these books suggest, he would not lose a single drop of semen. It is not clear how many teenagers have tried doing this. But what is clear is that it is rubbish.

Similarly, the spiritual claims of Yoga are based on extremely dubious assumptions. These can be hardly subjected to evidence-based research as the Prime Minister desires them to be studied.

According to Hatha Yoga, a Kundalini (she-serpent) lies at the base of the spine in a state of slumber. She can be aroused from her slumber by assiduous Yogic practice whereby she climbs upwards along the spine and passes through six chakras located at definite points until she reaches the seventh and last chakra located at the apex of the skull, where she unites with Shiva. The arousal of Kundalini is supposed to give spiritual powers to the practitioner. If there is scientific evidence, the Prime Minister is yet to disclose it.

As masters in the art of obfuscation, we often deny that Yoga has anything to do with religion; and we have also successfully lobbied within the UN to have the international body designate 21st June as International Yoga Day. Nevertheless, certain practices in Yoga do have strong connections to Hinduism.They might not be acceptable to or considered worth aspiring for by Christians, Muslims, Jews or even Sikhs. The insistence on pronouncing of the word ‘Om’ while doing pranayam, considered sacred by Hindus, may not be acceptable to other religionists.

To say it has no connection with religion is to be in denial. The attainment of samadhi and union with the Divine, which is the ultimate aim of Yoga is again not a goal which Christians, Muslims, Jews or even Sikhs might like to attain.

Moreover, in Hatha Yoga, the practitioner is enjoined to become like the gods, urdhvaretas, one in whom the semen flows upwards. The semen is regarded as a life substance and must never be dissipated. This implies that only a celibate can rouse the Kundalini. Christians, Muslims and Jews do not believe in such notions. Sexual union is considered a natural human activity in Islam. As a matter of fact, the Prophet of Islam recommends timely marriage. Celibacy is not considered desirable in either Islam or in Judaism. How then could Yoga become acceptable worldwide as the Prime Minister desires?

The inimitable Khushwant Singh had penned in the 1970s an article titled ‘Going Gaga Over Yoga’ for the Illustrated Weekly of India, of which he was then the editor. In that piece, Singh recalled a conversation he had at Benaras Hindu University with one Dr Udupa (who was then doing research on Yoga) and the Vice Chancellor K.L. Shrimali, an ardent believer in Yoga.

Khushwant Singh recalled saying, “…I cannot comprehend why a healthy man with a healthy mind should waste his time concentrating on some point between his eyes and his navel.” Shrimali gave a guarded reply; “It is said to make a healthy mind more creative. Everything anyone does he can do better after a course of meditation.”

“There is no evidence of increased creativity following meditation. Give me one example of a creative Yogi,” Singh retorted. Once again, Prof Shrimali replied. “Sri Aurobindo”.

“Can you name any other? After all, the number of meditating Yogis run into hundreds of thousands,” Khushwant Singh added.

There was complete silence, allowing Khushwant Singh to have a last fling. “Anything worthwhile is created by restless minds. All the world’s great artists, musicians, scientists, writers, poets had tortured minds. Your mental equipoise only produces mental equipoise. Nothing else.”

(Views are personal)

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