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When yoga dawned in Mysore

History has a way of burying artefacts, scriptures, even civilisations. It can take years of digging to unearth lost stories, practices and cultures. And yet, certain ancient traditions–like yoga–find a way to stand the test of time. Yoga has long been an established tradition in the Hindu culture, dating all the way back to the 4th century AD, if not earlier, with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. After all, archaeologists place the practice as far back as the pre-Vedic period (2700 BC)!

We can only be grateful that this tradition has managed to stay through the ages. Even the Persian, Arabic, and Turkish invaders in the Indian sub-continent let it be, no matter what else they chose to destroy. But when the British colonised India, the tradition of yoga was threatened. They associated yoga practitioners with black magic. Eventually, most of the yoga schools were shut down.

In the 18th and 19th century, when it seemed like yoga might fade off the pages of the Indian history, many kingdoms strived diligently to preserve it. Mysore was one among them. This International Yoga Day, Soulveda delves into the story of yoga’s survival in the Indian sub-continent, revival in Mysore, and its eventual veneration across the world.

The Mysore royals were perhaps the most instrumental keepers of the yoga tradition. Says P V Nanjaraje Urs, a history enthusiast and retired professor from Mysore University, “The British may have initially dismissed yoga as madmen’s antics. However, the royal family of Mysore Wodeyars, dispelled their misconceptions. The royals patronised yoga practitioners to keep the tradition alive.”

It doesn’t matter that various invaders plundered India. It doesn’t matter that western philosophies heavily influenced the land of yogis. Yoga has managed to hold its ground and spread its wings across the world.

Indeed, the Wodeyars took tremendous interest in preserving music, art and culture. When the tradition of yoga was threatened by western prejudice about the Hindu culture, Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the then Maharaja of Mysore set up a yoga school in 1930. Yoga expert N E Sjoman writes in his book The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace that Tirumalai Krishnamacharya–considered the father of modern yoga–was initially appointed to teach at the royal palace. Later, the king asked the guru to set up and operate a yogashala–an independent yoga institution. Together, they managed to rid the misconception about yoga and even got the British on board with fostering the tradition.

Sure enough, Krishnamacharya became the seed of the tree that would grow up to be the present day yoga tradition of Mysore. Of his many disciples, Pattabhi Jois, B K S Iyengar and T K V Desikachar played instrumental roles in founding the major yoga schools of Mysore–ashtanga vinyasa yoga, Iyengar yoga, and Viniyoga. “Once the Maharaja’s rule ended after the independence, these gurus moved out of Mysore and spread yoga throughout the country and even abroad,” yoga expert Dr B N Maruthi of Sri Pathanjali Yoga Shikshana Samithi told Soulveda.

The gurus indeed took yoga far and wide, but not before teaching westerners in Mysore. André Van Lysebeth, a Belgian, was the first ever westerner to study yoga under Jois. Yoga practitioner and researcher Dr Ronald Steiner, writes of this story in his blog. According to him, in 1964, André spent two months with Jois, learning ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and wrote many books on the subject in the years to come. One of them–Pranayama–contained the guru’s photograph, his name, even his address. With this, Jois’ name spread far and wide in the western world, especially in Europe.

It wasn’t just Andre. Jois had devoted students who were instrumental in making his name international. Dr Steiner also mentions the Americans–David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff–who happened to learn from Jois in Mysore, a few years after Andre. Upon returning home, in 1975, they invited Jois to California, to conduct a workshop. With this humble start, yoga gained universal traction.

By the 1980s, Mysore was well known as an authentic yoga hub. No wonder people of various cultures flock to this palace city to learn the ancient art of yoga for holistic wellbeing. With thousands of students–Indian and international alike–learning at over 150 institutions, Mysore is a go-to destination for yoga.

It doesn’t matter that various invaders plundered India. It doesn’t matter that western philosophies heavily influenced the land of yogis. Yoga has managed to hold its ground and spread its wings across the world. Today, on the 21st of June, even as we celebrate International Yoga Day, Mysore is on its way to set a Guinness World Record with nearly 60,000 people gathering and performing asanas for 42 minutes.

Inputs from Shilpita Roy & Indumathy Sukanya

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