Demonstrating Hatha Yoga to the Haridwar locals. Haridwar is an ancient city and important Hindu pilgrimage site in North India's Uttarakhand state, where the River Ganges exits the Himalayan foothills. Haridwar is one of the four sites of Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in the holy river. The festival is the largest peaceful gathering in the world. The Haridwar Kumbh Mela dates at least from the early 1600s, with earlier versions dating from 644 CE.
In my encounters here, most of the locals in this region of India's north were mostly practicing according to their orthodox Hindu customs- praying to Lord Shiva, and bathing in the Ganges.
The Sadhus, which were many in number, were engaged in various practices, from continuously reciting holy books, to smoking Charas (pictured below), to complete renunciation of material possessions (wandering naked with body paint).
On a surface glance however, the practice of any distinctive Hatha Yoga seemed to be reserved for the plethora of schools and ashrams in nearby Rishikesh.
The reduction in overt practices of Hatha Yoga among the common people does have some historical basis, described in Theos Bernard's biography detailing his life in the 1930s:
"Hindus as well as Buddhists were persecuted by the Muslim occupiers, and the Hindu Tantricas were forced underground to practice in secret clans. Over the centuries many of their practices were lost as the holders of the oral tradition died and their foundational texts—hand-copied on palm leaves or birch bark—rotted in the monsoon climate or were devoured by termites. However, there was still a vast repository of Tantra that was widely practiced in reclusive Tibet, and Theos concluded that “everything indicated that the north [Tibet] was my goal.”
For instance, Muslim conqueror Timur invaded Haridwar in 1398, massacring countless pilgrims, while at an early version of Kumbh Mela.
The subjugation of Hatha Yoga is also epitomised in the 1935 letter by Theos' father, Glen Bernard:
“Heat. Dirty. Tropical. Hot month ahead. ...good stuff [Hatha Yoga knowledge] so scarce it must be looked for with a fine toothed comb.… Lots of ignorance and superstition. I begun my research by scouring the Imperial Library, the best in Asia, and visiting swamis at area temples; no good for practical Yoga, but good for philosophy and metaphors. So few now know yoga—[it’s] almost a thing of the past. Yoga can better be done in the States—[you] can find pundits there to help with the literature necessary for the path.”
Interestingly, Krishnamacharya makes the similar observations in his 1934 book Yoga Makaranda.
He speculates that the lack of interest in yoga in India at the time would result in "Westerner's" mastering it, and selling it back to India. My experience practicing in Haridwar in 2019 were that many of the locals were not practicing Hatha Yoga, but mostly engaged in the yoga of Bhakti, or “devotion".
From Krishnamacharya’s 1934 text: "For such achievements in yoga, we do not need to send our country’s money elsewhere to procure any items. Whatever money we get, there is plenty of place in our country to store it. The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasures of mother India, either right in front of us or in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favour and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with Yoga. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read the books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes closed, then the foreigners will become our gurus in Yoga... This is a very sad state.
The physical exercise that is yoga, this asana kriya that is with us is more than enough for us. The hut that we live in is enough. We don’t need excessive amounts of money for that. What yoga wishes for us is that we eat only the clean healthy food. The ability that our youngsters have to follow outsiders can also be used to follow the knowledge and skills of our country. I have complete faith in this. In schools, it is very important to have this yoga in the curriculum."
Furthermore, Krishnamacharya himself was forced to leave India and eventually travel north to Tibet to find himself a Hatha Yoga guru, spending the next 7 years studying with him.
The devotees I saw in Hardiwar were Shaivites (worshipers of Shiva), and you can see the massive Shiva statue in the background that sits on the banks of the Ganges.
A sect of Shaivanism, known as Kashmir Shaivanism lays out a six fold path including asana, pranayama, concentration, meditation and enlightenment, similar to Patanjali yoga. However I only witnessed the devotional and ritualistic aspects of the practice in my brief traveling.
As for Krishnamacharya’s efforts, the fact that the vast, vast majority of Hatha Yoga practiced today stems from Krishnamacharya's sole efforts at reviving it are a testament to his work, but also paradoxically contributed to the "Westernisation" of the practice that he so feared. As India got swept up in industrialisation, and chasing modern Western ideals, Hatha Yoga was not prioritized by the institutions. Meanwhile, the spiritual vacuum left after the Enlightenment bludgeoned Christianity's credibility meant that often the most enthusiastic yoga seekers arrived from outside India.
In recent years however, one of the biggest advocates for popularising yoga among Indians nationals is current Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modhi.
Below is a series of quotes from Modi, listed on his official website:
"Yoga is one of the most precious gifts given by the ancient Indian sages to humankind": PM Modi
"Yoga is a passport to health assurance, a key to fitness and wellness": PM Modi
"Free from illness, a path to wellness –that is the path of Yoga": PM Modi
"Yoga makes us better individuals in thought, action, knowledge and devotion" PM Modi
"Practicing yoga helps fight stress and find peace": PM Modi
"Yoga goes beyond boundaries of age, gender, caste, creed, religion and nations": PM Modi
"In a world of excess, Yoga promises restraint and balance": PM Modi
"In a world of fear, Yoga promises hope, strength and courage": PM Modi
Practicing on the banks of the Ganges, with Hindu mantras being chanted in the background, the breeze blowing from the Himalayas and the dedication and devotion to the "Divine" that saturates the atmosphere and the conscious lives of the inhabitants makes practicing Hatha Yoga here an overwhelming and unforgettable experience.
By Scott White