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Ashtanga Yoga in the Indian Megacity by Alan O’Leary

4 Sep 2013, 17:14 in Ashtanga Yoga
Yoga Manchester

I just spent the summer in Mumbai and Delhi, and let me start by stating the obvious: India is massive! So it should not surprise us that the character of the yoga on offer will vary from town to town—and from city to megacity. Mysore might be just a drive to Bangalore and then a short flight to Mumbai or Delhi, but both mega cities (populations of around 20m and 17m respectively) have very different cultures of yoga.

Google is a constant companion to the travelling ashtangi, but not always authoritative when websites are not updated or have not been created, and while many individual teachers in India list themselves as teaching Ashtanga, the same teachers also often claim to teach Iyengar, Kundalini and several other forms you may have heard of—a not altogether plausible range of competence. For the Real Deal you have to dig deeper.

In Delhi I found a beautiful little school in Hauz Khas market, where modified primary is taught in led classes, even if their most popular classes are advertised as ‘vinyasa flow’. They also sometimes host workshops by teachers like Monica Marinoni, normally based in Auroville.

Mumbai I know better. It is a place of chaos and energy, where the city is always being rebuilt around you and where roads designed for two lanes of traffic informally host six or seven (eppur si muove!). Not fun, though, if you want your yoga without a half-hour or more of concentrated exhaust fumes to and from class. The nice campus of the long established Yoga Institute in the northern ‘suburb’ of Santa Cruz is at least adjacent to the local train station—and also under the flight path from the nearby airport, sadly. However, and like the yoga you sometimes find taught in the ubiquitous Hindu temples, the practice taught is kept accessible and simple. This is asana and breathing as basic physical therapy, and very worthy: but it isn’t Ashtanga, even if aspects of that system have been absorbed.

My impression is that, with the exceptions mentioned below, Ashtanga in Mumbai and Delhi has been re-imported from the West. It exists most often in the vulgarized ‘Power Yoga’ form that was also the West’s first popular encounter with Ashtanga, and which, in India, tends to be taught in gyms. Still, there are teachers in Mumbai authorised by the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute: Deepika Mehta seems to teach mainly corporates and privates, while Maya Rao also does some small led classes in The Yoga House, an expensive lifestyle hang out in the posh area of Bandra West. For Mysore, you have to head for the middle-class suburb of Andheri, where Suveer Balvi oversees daily self-practice (led on Fridays) on the third floor of a half-finished tower block overlooking a noisy main road. It’s a new shala and Suveer has a dedicated group of, mostly, beginners. But most of these practice every day and won’t be beginners for long.

Ashtanga in the megacities is still young then, but things will certainly change—and soon. As more teachers get qualified, as students get more adept, and as more advanced students and teachers migrate in, an Ashtanga culture will evolve like that in, say, London, where superb teachers and buzzing shalas can be found in many corners of the city. In the meantime, my favourite place to practice in the Indian megacity remains Delhi’s Lodi Gardens, one of the world’s most beautiful parks. Yesterday, I did yoga in the shadow of a pair of ruined Moghul tombs, surrounded by the calling of parakeets and a benign cloud of dragonflies. Young couples giggled at the leg behind the head postures, and local kids interrupted me to ask Sir-what-is-this-exercise-you-are-doing-only. I like to think that one of these same kids will be the megacity’s yoga teacher of tomorrow.

Alan O’Leary teaches Ashtanga Yoga in Leeds and Italian at Leeds University

What are your experiences of visiting Indian cities for Yoga? Have you practised (or indeed, taught) Ashtanga in one of India’s megacities? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Alan’s article and any of your own experiences. Feel free to comment and share. We look forward to hearing from you. 

  • Sookhi

    hi Alan,

    Thanks for your insight into yoga in Mumbai and Delhi. I’ll be passing through Mumbai in October, so I shall indeed check some of the places out that you mentioned. I haven’t practiced Yoga in the mega cities, but I have spent ample time in various ashrams around India. I have to say, that I much prefer to practice in the ashrams where stavic food is provided, and you can spend the entire day enjoying the countryside scenery, studying scriptures and being away from the hustle and bustle. It really is heaven for me.

    Sookhi