Yoga teacher still practising at 76 brings 'authentic' techniques to Dubai

Hansaji Yogendra has devoted 73 years to the gentle exercise — spanning love, life, heartbreak and tragedy

Hansaji Yogendra first started practising yoga aged three. Photo: Sneha Arora
Powered by automated translation

At 76 years old, yoga instructor Hansaji Yogendra has no plans to slow down.

The grandmother from Mumbai jets around the world teaching classes, training other instructors and opening studios, the first of which in the UAE has recently opened in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

Yogihearts, in Cluster T, is an affiliate of The Yoga Institute, to which Yogendra has devoted her life as director.

The institute claims to be the world’s oldest yoga centre — and if you’re looking for Goop-style Insta-snaps at sunset, then you’re in the wrong place.

'How can you retire from life?'

Since opening in 1918, the institute has focused on yoga as a source of inner calm and peace, with asanas — or physical poses — only forming a small part of the picture.

This is not a fierce, Instagrammable, dog-eat-downward-dog type of yoga. There are no scary poses or hyped-up salutations. Instead, classes are centred on gentle flows, traditional music and meditation.

“All circus people would be great yogis if asana were the only factor,” says Yogendra. “Yoga is not standing on your head or hot yoga or power yoga — yoga is a way of life, a science of living. Real yoga deals with the mind; psychology, philosophy, mastering your thoughts and reaching higher levels of consciousness.”

To date, the institute has trained more than 50,000 yoga teachers and has offered 200-hour teacher training sessions in the UAE since 2019 — and Yogendra is just getting started.

“How can you retire from life?” she asks bewildered, as if the mere mention of contemplating calling time on her career is unthinkable. “Yoga isn’t about asana or pranayama — it’s a state of being.”

From riches to rejection

From the age of three, Yogendra practised yoga with her family, being “forcibly” made to sit and close her eyes as her father recited his own practice from The Yoga Institute.

She continued as she grew older and started attending classes at the institute herself to improve her asthma, but the sessions brought her more than just good health.

“I came from a very affluent family. Even at the age of 25, I had never washed a single spoon with my own hand,” she says. “My father wanted me to get married so rich boys started coming to look at me, but I couldn’t tolerate these people.

“I was still going to The Yoga Institute to do my teacher training course and it was there that I met Dr Jayadeva, who was the son of the founder and taught the classes.

“He was a silent person and quite introverted, while I was very bold and strong with no fear. One Sunday, I went to the institute and I told Dr Jayadeva I wanted to talk to him after class. We sat down and I looked at him and said: ‘I want to marry you.’

“He was 44 and I was 25, and I told him straight. I wasn’t interested in these modern boys; I wanted a life with him.”

But the road to true love was far from smooth sailing. The wedding provoked outrage from Yogendra's father, who had hoped for a more “suitable” match.

Despite attending the simple wedding ceremony, her family disowned her immediately afterwards as their anger continued to simmer.

Meanwhile, she happily adjusted to a less privileged way of life, cooking, cleaning and caring for her new husband’s parents, before the arrival of a son healed the family rift.

“They heard about the baby, and my mother came to the house to make peace,” she says. “My husband and I continued teaching at The Yoga Institute, and we started to open up our classes to women and children, as well as men.”

Yoga's power to heal more than health

The couple dedicated their lives to yoga and each other, spending more than four decades together until her husband's death five years ago.

“My husband was about 90 years old. He wanted to leave his body, so he left,” she says. “Death is the result of birth, and we have to accept that naturally.”

Since then, Yogendra has continued to spread her love and knowledge of yoga around the world and can count instructors from Canada to New Zealand among her alumni.

During the pandemic, she started a YouTube channel, which has amassed 3.4 million subscribers, and launched the Nispand app, where users can enjoy guided meditations.

Now that her hectic life has resumed, she’s encouraging everyone in the UAE to practice “authentic” yoga that allows them to experience inner calm.

As well as the studio in JLT, there are plans for a second affiliate in Abu Dhabi, and a yoga retreat with Yogendra later this year.

“People suffer because they don’t know how to live properly,” she says. “They’re looking at life in the wrong way. With yoga, concentration, focus, memory, reasoning power and even control over emotions will improve.

“We need it now more than ever.”

More information is available at yogihearts.com

Updated: March 21, 2023, 5:24 AM