5:40 am and it’s dark outside. But just like a hint of smile on someone’s face, there’s a hint of sunlight signaling the arrival of another glorious day. As I drive up to the place, I’m directed to park precisely in line with the previous car. As I enter the main gate of the ashram, I immediately feel a sense of calm and quiet. I find out later that that is not just a feeling but a reality made possible by the numerous ashram guidelines.
As I walk toward the shala, on one side are signs set in stone of the 8 limbs of yoga – Yam, Niyam, Asan, Pranayam, Pratyahar, Dharana, Dhyaan and Samadhi. On reaching Samadhi – not literally, of course – there’s another person directing me to remove my footwear and place it precisely next to the previous person’s footwear. A sign above reads “Please leave your footwear and your worries here.” Cheesy, but when has that stopped my fellow Indians and it’s a good reminder, nonetheless. At the end of the class when getting our footwear, we are even instructed not to drop the footwear from a height but to bend down and place it gently in order to avoid the “splat” sound. The yoga shala is a large, sparsely decorated, almost drab hall with two noticeable items – a human-sized idol of the late founder of the ashram – Sri Janardhan Swami – at the head of the room, sitting in Gomukhasan and a digital wall clock with large red letters at the back of the room.
The silence in the room is palpable on account of the guideline of not talking once inside the main gate, unless absolutely necessary. The other guideline is, of course, no sounds from electronic devices, not even “vibrate” mode. There are long carpets laid out on the floor and we are instructed to lay down our mats – which are essentially just bedsheets folded to the size of a yoga mat. Regular yoga mats are not allowed. Not only the placement of the mat, but the number of folds, the distance between the mats, the procedure to lay down the mat – single motion with a small drag in the end to get it right – are all expected to be precise and same for everyone, everyday.
All these rules may sound excessive but their effects, both tangible and intangible, were clear to me after doing this just for a few days. Once laid out, I never had to worry about moving my mat if more people showed up. People coming in late knew exactly what to do without disturbing the class. The peace and quiet without the distractions of talking, phones, photos etc., made it much easier to leave the stress out, as the sign said, and simply practice yoga. The comforting predictability of this routine became a joy in itself and I looked forward to it everyday.
At 5:55 am, a chant called Ishwarpranidhan starts. The woman leading it, a gifted singer, leads these melodic chants – one for each day of the week – in call and response style, the response to be sung in a loud, open voice. The melodic chants and the loud repeating has a transformative effect on the psyche. One of the common side effects for me (and most other students) was spontaneously bursting out into these chants at random times throughout the day.
At 6 am, something called Avayavdyaan (literally – body organ focus) and Gurustavan starts. This involves standing in a prayer pose and the teacher instructs us to focus and relax every body part/organ one by one from head to toe. Even organs like heart, kidneys are included (Is that possible?). After relaxing completely, we are asked to visualize the image of Sri Janardhan Swami and chant the guru mantra –
GururBrahma GururVishnu GururDevo Maheshwaraha
Guru Saakshaat ParaBrahma Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha
[Addition by Swami Janardhan]
Krishnaya Vasudevaya, Haraye Paramatmane
Pranatakleshanashaya Govindaya Namo Namah
After this, the asana practice starts. Most teachers have taught for over ten years (and done yoga for much longer) and it clearly shows in the teaching. The instructions have become second nature and focus has long ago shifted from “How am I doing (or sounding, or looking)?” to the caring and cultivation of the students’ practice. It shows in the corrections and adjustments, the complete absence of the word “I” or “me” for the entire class (neither to brag nor to show the shortcomings), the complete absence of stories or jokes in the class, only pure and simple yoga instructions all throughout. Most of them probably don’t have a Facebook profile, or if they do, the students never hear about it, let alone any other channels of promotion or any photos or videos of them in yoga poses.
After one hour of asan practice, everyone is expected to do ashram service – cleaning, gardening etc. for 10 minutes (more on this later). For the last 15 minutes, we are given a copy of the Bhagvadgita in Sanskrit. We first recite a few shlokas from it and then the teacher – another one who specializes in the understanding and teaching of the Gita – picks a verse and explains its meaning. The whole of Gita is usually completed this way in two years and then he starts again. This teacher is so well versed in the Gita, he can recite the entire Gita from memory in Sanskrit. Sometimes, instead of the Gita, we practice Pranayam for the last 15 minutes and the class concludes exactly at 7:30 am.
The ashram is called Yogabyasi Mandal and is located in my hometown of Nagpur. It was founded around 1954 by Sri Janardhan Swami who dedicated his life to spreading the knowledge of yoga once he realized it’s physical and spiritual benefits. To this end, he traveled from place to place and tried teaching anyone who would listen. He composed many of the chants and mantras, modified many of the asanas and sequences (including the sun salutations) and tried to make yoga accessible to everyone irrespective of caste, gender, money or language – the first two being notoriously big barriers to yoga at that time.
Here’s something amazing – the classes, as well as the yearly teacher training in May are completely free of charge. There are no copyrights, trademarks or certification from alliances. Anyway, I think asking teachers from here (and many other traditional yoga schools in India) to get certified from the US based Yoga Alliance would be like asking Tupak and Biggie (when they were alive) to get certified from an India based Hip Hop Alliance before they can create their music. The classes happen every single day (yes, all 365 or 366 days) and teachers teach the same class every single day for years on end. There are about 200-300 students studying everyday. Even though the type of yoga here is called Ashtanga, it clearly has it’s own lineage and is different from the lineage of K. Pattabhi Jois.
There are three levels of classes – the month long “Beginner” level class for the new comers who can then move on to the very aptly named “Practice” level. You can stay here for as long as you want – both my parents started about 4 years ago, at the age of 63 and 67 and go to this class every day (Yes, they rock!) – or you can move on to the “Expert” level class after a few years and a teacher training. People in this level are usually not only good at asanas but are experts in Pranayam as well as kriyas like agnisar, neti, nauli, dhoti – the last one, in case you don’t know, involves shoving a long piece of cloth down your throat till it reaches your stomach, churning your stomach so the cloth can clean up the gunk and then removing the cloth back from your mouth.
In return for providing top-class yoga for free, students are expected to do ashram service according to their level. All are expected to do basic duties like cleaning, gardening etc. People from the expert level are expected to go to schools and other places to teach yoga – schools in Nagpur and around India are always eager to have these people to teach. Also, if you have gone through their teacher training you are expected to teach yoga completely free of charge – not even charge for facilities or maintenance.
So how do they sustain? Firstly, every single person working there – from the teachers, administrators to the helpers, cleaners etc. work for free. Secondly, people who’ve practiced there for some time can’t help but notice the benefits of the practice and donate as much as they like as well as promote it between friends and family. So while many Yoga schools in India have started taking their cue from the commercial brand of yoga practiced in the West, here’s a modest yoga school defying both the capitalist and socialist model of human organizations and providing physical, mental and spiritual benefits to countless people.
Disclaimer: While everyone in the world is encouraged to and can attend the classes, before you pack your bags for Nagpur, please note that the medium of instruction is Hindi with some instructions sometimes being repeated in English.