Yoga at Sambhavna, it’s definitely not hip!

In the last decade yoga has become somewhat of a global phenomenon. As it finally dawns on the West that materialism, wealth and anti-depressants may not be the means to a fulfilled existence, people are seeking solace in the ancient spiritual and cultural practices of the East. An astonishing range of yoga styles and teachings have developed, catering to every imaginable taste and schedule.

The choice can be intimidating for wannabe yogis: Ashtanga Vinyasa Flow, Kundalini, Anasara practice, Bikram (that’s the hot one), restorative classes, power yoga, pregnancy yoga, tantric yoga, laughter yoga, not to mention the much dreaded Iyengar yoga, complete with scary looking straps, chairs and blocks. The very thought of walking into a yoga studio, being accosted by flexible, good looking twenty somethings kitted out in LuLu Lemon and asking what type of yoga exactly it is that you usually practice (is sit-on-my-ass-asana an appropriate answer?) is enough to make many people make a sharp exit before they utter their first ‘Om’.

I have been in yoga classes in San Francisco, where the teachers are warm and friendly, and so utterly fantastic at yoga that it seems kind of pointless to try. In London I was rendered a nervous wreck as I walked into a class full of edgy looking women with elaborate tattoos and funky haircuts who liked to play drum and bass during yoga. I’ve been yelled at by an elderly Iyengar teacher in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, “You’re not strong enough to do yoga,” as I tried to heave my shaking body off the floor into arm balance, while trying to avoid the massive stick he carried and ignore his disparaging upside down face, and in Thailand I’ve been gently taught to honour my body and its limitations by amazing teachers.

Choosing a yoga class has become somewhat like ordering in Starbucks, you enter and are faced with a baffling list of choices when all you really wanted was coffee. The Iyengar yoga teacher I mentioned above put it concisely as he tried to beat our Western ways out of us. “You people,” he exclaimed, not attempting to hide his disgust, “walk into coffee shops and order skinny-mocha-choco-frappe-latte-make-that-vente-and-can-I-have-it-fast-please? In India, we order “coffee” (clearly he hadn’t been to Café Coffee Day). “This is what is wrong with you, and what is wrong with your yoga practice.” I have yet to decide if I agree with him or not but I think he may have had a point. We might have made it all a bit too complicated.

Yoga means union: union of body, mind and soul through breath to achieve self realisation. It is a combination of physical poses (asanas), breathing techniques and meditation that allow us to take time to look inside, and become aware of what lies beneath our physical selves. An ancient practice that originated thousands of years ago, adapted by the West to fulfil our physical, emotional and spiritual needs. I have no problem with this adaptation. The yoga I love the most is that which celebrates life and embraces the abundance of the universe and everything in it, allowing us to deepen our spiritual practice, strengthen our bodies and smile, all at the same time. I have reached the conclusion that it doesn’t particularly matter what you do: as long as it feels good and your intentions are truthful and sincere then your practice is positive.

Sambhavna strips away any pretention, delusions or ‘hipness’ surrounding yoga. Here it is used in its purest form. To provide relief for people who need it, allowing them to explore avenues of treatment that don’t encourage dependence on medication, or support pharmaceutical mega-corporations who depend on us to depend on them (unsurprising then that it is in their best interests to keep us sick and therefore dependent). It is an absolute joy to wander into the Sambhavna yoga room at any point in the day and watch Muslim women remove their burkas to stand or lie aside sari-clad Hindus, practicing asanas, completing surya namaskar (sun salutations) and working through pranayama breathing exercises.

We have become largely fixated on so many of the issues around yoga that actually aren’t actually that important: what we wear, what we look like, how good we are. What is important is that yoga makes people feel good, and for the women of Bhopal feeling good is something that, through the hardships of daily life, the burden of poverty and illness, and the continual struggle against the injustices they have been served does not come easily. Dr Shruti, Sambhavna’s yoga teacher (above) explains:

Yoga is successfully used to treat a variety of physical and psychological ailments. People are referred from Sambhavna’s doctors for treatment of conditions such as diabetes, cervical spondylitis, menstrual problems, obesity and depression.

Specific asanas to target the person’s condition or symptoms are taught, along with breathing exercises and meditation. The balance of the three components depends on the person, and an individual treatment plan lasting from three days to two weeks is developed, which is then repeated or modified as necessary. Dr Shruti, who is also an ayurvedic practitioner and dietetics graduate, uses a combination of yoga asanas with breathing exercises and meditation practices, such as positive visualisation, energy work and yoga nidra (sleep).

Often, people who come for yoga have many psychological worries, which may contribute to conditions such as high blood pressure. Using positive visualisations, encouraging people to imagine themselves in a beautiful tranquil place on a perfect day, can instantly drop blood pressure, and practicing physical asanas with meditation encourages longterm improvements.

Dr Shruti also reports great success in encouraging people to direct their breath to areas of their bodies that are distressed, focusing on flooding the area with positive energy. The power of breath is something that most of us are unaware of. Breathing is an involuntary reflex action that we all continuously perform without thinking. When we stop to pay attention, and learn to breathe with intention and focus, the physical and psychological benefits are astounding. Respiratory conditions may be improved, tension headaches and lethargy can be relieved, and through learning to pay attention to the breath, people begin to become attuned to their bodies, and can then be encouraged to make positive changes to their lifestyle and health.

It strikes me that yoga is being accessed by the people who need it most at Sambhavna. This is perhaps one of the greatest successes of the clinic, and something that the staff here should be intensely proud of. People from low-income backgrounds, with myriad health problems are being shown that there is another way and are reaping the health benefits of a practice that should be available to all.  All too often, particularly in the West, yoga is reserved for the middle classes. The people who would benefit most are denied access for a multitude of reasons such as cost, lack of opportunity and exposure or the intimidating social factors mentioned earlier.

In the UK, I have observed people addicted to prescription medication, crippled by depression and anxiety, patronised by clinicians who have little understanding of the social or environmental issues that affect them. People are completely disempowered through a system that does almost nothing to support them to make positive changes in lifestyle and fails to recognise the holistic needs of individuals. Yoga and meditation could and should, from my experience here at Sambhavna, be integrated into primary healthcare structures  but there’s liitle sign of this happening, despite its popularity and the wide recognition of the health benefits. The reasons for this are most probably a combination of political apathy, lack of financial gain from therapies which do not generate income for corporations, and therefore government, and a general lack of appreciation of the need for holistic healing by many medical professionals.

Yet again I am struck by the realisation that what exists here at Sambhavna is addresses so much more than the health needs of the people of Bhopal. Sambhavna is also a profoundly positive working model of the way that healthcare can be delivered and its happening in a place where, from the outside, it seems most unlikely.  This is the future for our world, we should pay attention. As the name Sambhavna implies, there is so much possibility, based on similar feelings.

Girl with candle Bhopal

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