Yoga has become a pious bore. Thanks to the evangelical fervour of its practitioners in India, it has acquired a whiff of sanctity. Doing yoga, its followers imply, makes a person not only physically fitter but also a morally better person.
Worse than that are claims that it can cure cancer. The latest person to utter this incredible belief is Shripad Yasso Naik, who heads India’s ministry of alternative medicine. As recently as last month, referring to a yoga institute in Bangalore, he said: “The institute has found a technique of yoga for the prevention and cure of cancer.” He said the institute would provide scientific evidence to back up this claim within a year.
Mr Naik is not the first Indian to make such claims. The website of India’s top yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, also states that yoga can cure cancer, along with virtually every ailment that afflicts humankind. Epilepsy, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, asthma, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, kidney problems, eye diseases, arthritis, piles, hepatitis, leukoderma, bronchitis, sexual disorders and memory loss can all be cured by yoga, according to Baba Ramdev.
Another site I stumbled across claims that hair will start sprouting from a bald head if the person twiddles and rubs his fingers in a certain way. Can yoga solve the Israel-Palestinian impasse too? Not yet. But give it time. Meanwhile, there is no stopping yoga’s inexorable march across the world, conquering countries and winning over celebrities. Yoga teachers spread the message with fervour. Almost all my friends in New Delhi do it.
The more they praise it, the more it irritates me. I am prepared to accept yoga as an excellent form of exercise for the body but I cannot accept it as something that is spiritual. Equally irritating is the tendency of yoga teachers to get carried away by their evangelical fervour and to keep pushing you to do more and more because they are so convinced of its wonderful properties. In doing this, they often ignore the factors related to age that can make over-strenuous yoga a disaster for some people. Plenty of people have suffered injuries in performing exercises inappropriate for their age or level of physical fitness.
What are these instructors trying to prove? That something so beneficial cannot possibly have any drawbacks? I can see the usefulness of flexibility up to a point, but why is it so wonderful to be able to wrap your legs around your neck? Does it add to the sum of human happiness?
And why are some people who do yoga so fanatical about it? A few years ago, actress Uma Thurman got up during a flight to do yoga in the aisle. Last week, a Japan-bound plane had to return to Hawaii because a man insisted on doing yoga on the floor instead of sitting in his seat.
One reason why some Indians are so fervent about yoga is that it is something their country can claim as a contribution to the world. India’s achievements, particularly in ancient times, in science, maths and religion, were extraordinary but in modern times, it has been less successful. Its name is synonymous with poverty. Naturally, then, there is a great deal of pride over this fantastically successful export.
But this should not mean that you can make preposterous claims that have no scientific basis. Describing yoga as a cure for cancer is deeply irresponsible. Many people with the disease or their relatives may take such claims at face value and abandon conventional treatment, giving false hope to desperate people.
My father, who was 87 and the sanest of men, was swayed by a neighbour into making a long, exhausting journey by train, car and bus to an ashram in Haridwar several years ago in search of a cure for my brother in the United Kingdom, who was dying of oesophageal cancer.
He took the UK doctor’s report on his son’s condition with him. I had read it a week earlier and almost fainted. The cancer was advanced and metastatic. His doctor gave my brother only a few months to live.
At the ashram, a collection of quacks told my weary and frightened father that they could cure his son and told him to arrange for him to be flown to Haridwar. Later, during the long journey home, my father’s reason resurfaced, mercifully, and he realised that these men were charlatans. But if he hadn’t seen sense and had acted on their advice, imagine the dislocation and discomfort my brother would have endured in flying to Haridwar, leaving behind his family and home.
There is no need to bestow yoga with miracle qualities or to propagate it with a missionary zeal. Let yoga remain what it is – a fine form of exercise, breathing and meditation. It’s just not holy writ.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi