(Images by Wari Om Yoga Photography)
When Heeki Park arrived at her husband’s house in Japan as a new bride, she was shocked to see the three-metre-long dining table. Park remembers bits and pieces of the conversation that her mother-in-law had with her. It was mostly about her duties as the first son’s wife, the main one being filling up the table with all kinds of traditional Korean and Japanese delicacies every single day. “I was not at all used to all this,” says Park, who studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, and gorged on french fries and sandwiches.
“It was a big family of nine members and I was cooking the whole day,” she says. All the work, coupled with her husband’s busy schedule, made the twenty-something take refuge in the yoga videos she brought with her from the US. She practised the various poses behind the closed doors of her room.
When her husband moved out of the family business and bought a house of their own, Park suddenly had a lot of free time. So, she thought of taking forward her interest in yoga. That was 20 years ago. Today, Park teaches her students to shake their bodies to the music of the waves hitting the shore at Ashwem Beach in north Goa. Yes, literally just shaking every part of the body.
An advanced certified teacher of jivamukti yoga, Park prescribes shaking as an antidote for physical stress. “It relieves stored up stress from the body and makes you feel lighter,” says Park, who trained in Madurai and is one among the 25 international gurus present at the second edition of the India Yoga Festival in Goa, which took place in January.
The movement is first met with giggles from some of the students. However, the giggles turn into content smiles by the end of it. In fact, it soon becomes the day’s punch move, with toddlers, accompanying their parents, aping it happily.
Almost empty and peaceful, Ashwem Beach offers the perfect setting to put up your feet and soak up some sun. But the participants have no time to relax as they have to catch up on 20 different styles of yoga in 50 classes over three days. With rolled up yoga mats under their arms, they scramble to ensure a seat for the upcoming class.
The programme, which kicks off at 7am every day with a sadhana (meditation session) conducted by Indian yogis, ends by 8pm with bhakti kirtan (singing devotional songs) led by renowned singer GauraVani from California. Throughout the day, the chants ‘Hare Krishna’ and ‘Radhe Shyam’ fill the air as classes and lectures go on at three different venues simultaneously.
Hosted by the Castellsagues, the family behind the Barcelona Yoga Conference, in association with Goa-based yoga proponent Deep Deka, the festival found a following among westerners. With Europeans and Russians leading the pack, it was difficult to spot the Indian participants. Herxheim-based Julia Weis and Montreal-based Gabrielle Gauthier travelled to India just to attend the event. Gautheir, 22, was doing her yoga teacher’s training course in Uttarakhand in 2013 when the floods forced her to drop the course halfway. She later did the course in Thailand and now runs a yoga studio in Montreal with her acroyoga enthusiast partner Ariel Hedmi. Like Gautheir, Weis, too, teaches yoga back home in Germany. She attended the festival to update herself on the newer styles in yoga.
“Indians are right now at a stage where America was 20 years ago. They want to make money, become rich and famous and remain unhappy,” says Bijay Anand, a kundalini yoga teacher. “The westerners have done all that and are now coming back and finding peace in India. We will take another five to six years to get there.” Anand, who acted in a couple of Bollywood films in the 1990s, says that such festivals can be life changing. “I found my kundalini guru, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, at a festival like this and my life changed drastically,” he says. “Yoga is the first step of going into the soul and understanding what you are doing here. Such festivals are the first stops to making yourself aware of your body and, in turn, your subconscious mind.”
Anand’s classes are one of the many that get filled up 20 minutes before time. He says kundalini yoga was introduced to the west by Harbhajan Singh Khalsa. However, it is only now that trained Indian teachers are reviving the tradition here. “My aim is to make more Indians aware of this style and help them clean their soul and be happy,” says Anand.
During the kirtan sessions, while the westerners sing praises to the Hindu gods with devotion, most Indian participants walk by oblivious to it. Only five among the 20 teachers at the festival are Indians. In fact, most Indian teachers we met at the festival got their training from abroad. While Anand went to Los Angeles for a 45-day intense training, Namrata Pamnani, India’s first certified acroyoga instructor, did hers in Switzerland.
A mix of acrobatics and yoga, acroyoga involves two or more people balancing each other while performing various yoga poses. A visual treat, acroyoga was the most sought-after style at the festival. “A lot of people in India wrongly think that acroyoga is a foreign import,” says Pamnani, who shuttles between Delhi and Switzerland. “But if you dig a little deeper, you would see that even the master himself, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya [often referred to as the Father of Modern Yoga], used to do acroyoga in the early 1930s.” More than the visual or performance aspect of it, the underlying principles of mutual understanding and trust in acroyoga have to be emphasised, says Pamnani.
Another attraction this year was the presence of German jivamukti guru Patrick Broome, who introduced the style in Europe. The 6ft-tall man, with long golden hair tied up at the nape, is as calm as the music he plays during his sessions. Soft-spoken and shy, Broome was the official yoga coach of the German football team that won the World Cup last year. “I am glad that I have become a student again,” says Broome, with a smile. “It is great to see such an integration of both Indian and international styles in one place.”
When we catch up with Pau, the eldest of the Castellsague siblings, after his four-hour-long Thai massage class, he is elated. “Although it is called a Thai massage, it really is a 2,500-year-old tradition that originated in north India,” says Pau. “It is a blessing to be able to come and teach it in its motherland.”
Pau’s brother Wari and sister Mireia, both trained yoga instructors, say they are happy that the government has created a new ministry called AAYUSH for the promotion of traditional medicine and yoga and welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for declaring June 21 as International Yoga Day.
Pau, who is also adept in acroyoga, says hosting the festival in India was fairly easy. “We faced no bureaucratic glitches during the process, which is a blessing,” he says. “The only challenge was that an entry fee of 100 euros [Rs 7,000 approx] turned out to be too high for a large population of the Indians.”
From hatha, Iyengar, ashtanga, vinyasa, anusara, kundalini and jivamukti to even Bollywood yoga, the participants were spoilt for choice. Those new to yoga are the ones who can benefit the most from festivals like this, says Tymi Howard, a Florida-based vinyasa flow instructor. “About 30 per cent of the crowd has never done yoga before. It is good for them because they have access to the best gurus in various styles. So, they can figure out which style suits them best.”
Although not a traditional branch of yoga, Bollywood yoga—taught by Yamuna Devi, a certified hatha yoga and acroyoga teacher—was a favourite among both Indians and westerners alike. They keenly listened as Yamuna explained the various mudras of dance to them and led them through a choreographed piece of Bollywood dance.
Even as detractors rubbish styles like Bollywood and rainbow yoga, Pau justifies them saying they bring the right mix to the festival. “We have swamis and yogis teaching the Gita and the Yoga Patanjalis on the one side and experts like Patrick on the other, so it helps to have a session like this too for people who want to have a bit of fun,” he says. “Also, it is not so much about the style, but about getting the right teachers to the festival.”
Encouraged by the footfalls, the team has decided to organise a bhakti pilgrimage along with the festival next year. “A group of 40 people will travel together to places like Rishikesh, Varanasi and Bodhgaya, where there is a strong vibration and connection with the divine.”
As the sun set on the final day of the festival, the yoga mats were rolled up and the chants of Hare Krishna grew more passionate and loud. Towards the end of the ‘bhakti celebration’, many people were up on their feet dancing and swirling to the bhajans in expression of their love and devotion. “I feel like my practice and my being has been elevated to another level just by being here in India in this atmosphere,” says Howard. Many echoed her sentiments as they packed their bags in the hope of returning to the festival next year.
Kick and flex
Patrick Broome loves being in India. The food, the ocean, the people… the list of his favourite things goes on. Yoga instructor to Madonna, Sting and the German football team that won the World Cup last year, Broome is the embodiment of calmness. We spoke to him after a gruelling session of freestyle jivamukti yoga, which left many of the students huffing, puffing and sore. Excerpts:
How did you turn to yoga?
As a student, I was introduced to yoga during the psychology lessons. But I soon forgot about it. After this, I took up martial arts and as part of the class, they taught us sun salutations. That was when I really got drawn to it. I did my yoga teacher’s training course at Shivananda Yoga in Germany and met my gurus, Sharon Gannon and David Life, who taught me jivamukti yoga.
How is jivamukti yoga different from the other styles?
The base is derived from hatha and vinyasa yoga, but the main difference is that we adhere to five principles. They are shastra, ahimsa, nada, dhyana and bhakti. It is a holistic practice, encompassing the physical, emotional and the spiritual. It also advocates ethical living and lifestyle changes like veganism.
How does yoga help someone who plays an intensely physical sport like football?
It helps them relax and be aware of their body and surroundings. This helps them in tournaments like the World Cup where there is a lot of pressure and expectations. It also makes them more flexible and prevents injuries.
What was the kind of exercises that the German team did during their training for the World Cup?
First of all, it wasn’t a part of the regular training sessions. It was voluntary. The focus was on the upper body, hips and legs. The sessions used to be one hour long and it was conducted by the beach at the team’s Brazil base. The sessions mostly consisted of easy movements, stretching, deep relaxation and meditation. Not just the players, their wives, girlfriends and coaches also attended the sessions. The regulars were Mario Gotze, Mats Hummel and Manuel Neuer.
How was the experience of working with the team?
I have been working with them for three years and this was the first World Cup in which I had coached them. And, they won. What can be better than that? The experience was simply amazing.