POST TIME: 24 June, 2019 00:00 00 AM
Is yoga really that great?
Most great people were and are passionate– their minds full of turmoil and revolutionary ideas. Guess what would have happened if they had chosen to sit in the lotus pose for hours on end striving to empty their brains
Syed Mehdi Momin

Is yoga really that great?

The International Day of Yoga was observed in various parts of the globe last Friday. There are millions of yoga practicioners who believe in the spiritual, mental and physical benefits of the practice. I do not belong to those followers. I did my share of yoga, mainly sun salutation or surya namaskars but soon got tired of it.

As a matter of fact yoga is one of the few four-lettered words that I am not greatly fond of. One of the reasons is of course I am far from a flexible person but more importantly sitting in a lotus pose followed by a corpse pose (the name itself gives me the creeps) is about as far from my idea of a workout as you can get. For me exercising equates vigorous movements, not a series of difficult to perform postures done with an impossibly fake blissful face. I mean how can one keep their expressions serene while contorting their bodies like pretzels?   

Also most yoga teachers and practitioners are impossibly snobbish. And they make tall claims with little basis on reality. Sometime back I was talking to a yogini (that’s the correct term I hope) and she was gushing on and on about how the great hot yoga or Bikram Yoga was. Bikram’s is a sort of yoga where the room is heated up and you go through as many as progressively more difficult to perform 26 postures. I asked her the reason behind the heat. “Well it makes the body flexible and the sweat helps the body get rid of toxins.”

Now I will be the first to admit that a sweat-glistened body of a woman is quite attractive but the getting ‘rid of toxins’ bit is plainly wrong. Anyone who had biology in their HSC syllabus knows, or at least once knew, that the body has two organs specifically designated to flush out toxins–the liver and the kidney. Sweat is the body’s way of cooling itself down and preventing it from getting hypothermia.

Many yoga practitioners claim that yoga is a great stress buster. May be. For them it is. However I think lifting some weights, cranking a few dozen pushups, logging a couple of fast miles on your treadmill will give you the same benefits in far lesser time.

Even better hang a punching bag in your room and go a few minutes swinging at it as hard as you can. Your stress will be well and truly busted.

‘For the time being’, I hear you say. Sure. But sitting in Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and gazing at your navel will also provide a temporary solution. In the contemporary time, with life being what it is, no amount of yoga, meditation, pills and exercises will help you get rid of stress. In life there will be stress and you’ve got to bite the bullet and move on.

Yoga is relaxing after a hard day at the workplace. So the saying goes. However instead of yogic postures, perhaps the best pose for tired people is to slouch on a couch in front of the television sipping some a cup or tea or something stronger if you are that way inclined.

The telly is very important here. They say yogic meditation makes your mind empty of troubling thoughts. While that very idea is troubling enough but really what could be more brain-emptying than mindless soaps, sitcoms and those often-idiotic reality shows.

Just apply your common sense. The poses can actually harm body. It was one thing for all those sages hundreds of years ago who sat under trees for years in the cross-legged posture; it’s quite another for us, caught in the urban rat-race and office-bound for most of our adult lives, to attempt the same. After a tough day of work, stretching and twisting your body in complex ways can’t but be uncomfortable, to say the least. It can be potentially harmful.

There are many yoga masters who stress on the fact doing yoga properly and regularly will help you lose weight. Now that is appealing to the thousands of lean women who want to get leaner. Certain types of yoga are practiced in a heated room, and you end up sweating buckets. Weigh yourself after one of these intense classes, and after sweating so much, you indeed have lost a kilo or even two. However there is a catch. It is only water weight and will quickly be "gained" back as soon as you rehydrate. While any type of exercise will help with weight loss, yoga is not the ideal one for burning calories. If it is pounds you're trying to drop cardios are a safer and infinitely more efficient bet.

Actually for a word that means “union,” yoga can be incredibly complex. An oft repeated saying is “Yoga, this 5,000-year-old practice.' Well that’s simply misleading. There is yoga that's a few thousand years old, but it has absolutely no traits in common with the current yoga. When the great sage Swami Vivekanananda was emphasising on the benefits of yoga he was talking about ‘Raja Yoga’ and “Karma Yoga” not the intensely physical Hatha version. Patanjali’s yoga sutras were everything to do with attaining enlightenment and had little to do with physical movement. Modern yoga, which involves a combination of stretching, breathing and spirituality, didn't develop until the 1930s in India. There is a school of thought that actually speculates that some yoga poses were taken from British military exercises.

Even as a form of exercise yoga is not really ideal. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise, yoga isn't exactly the expressway to fitness. The study showed practitioners didn't improve cardiovascular health, and that a typical 50-minute class of hatha yoga burned the same number of calories as a very slow, 50-minute walk. Power yoga didn't burn as many calories as callisthenics.

Yoga and meditation are not my cups of tea. It may be yours and I don’t have a problem with that. What I oppose is the way some gurus and practitioners claim these to be panaceas they are evidently not. For argument’s sake let us accept that practicing yoga or one of the myriad forms of meditation gives you a peaceful and tranquil mind. Well, in my experience it is only the mad and the really bad, that have achieved those elusive goals. All great people were and are passionate– their minds full of turmoil and revolutionary ideas. Guess what would have happened if they had chosen to sit in the lotus pose for hours on end and striving to empty their brains of all worldly thoughts!

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent