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Isha Singh Sawhney

Isha Singh Sawhney is a writer, musafir and obsessive people watcher. She loves seeing new places and hates leaving them.

Killing me softly with his asana? I’ll take my chances, thanks NYT

Yoga — for better or worse?

few weeks ago, the New York Times almost wrecked yoga for me. The article bounced around the Internet, as shocked friends and family sent it in every form of virtual communication: email forwards, tweets and Facebook links. I read the article horrified and distressed, right after an hour-plus yoga class. All the calmness of the last shravasana left, and tensions released during those few minutes of "sink into the floor", came flooding back.

As a newbie Vinyasa-Ashtanga "yogi", what I'd until then viewed as delicious pains in different parts of my body, post each class, suddenly took on a rather monstrous quality. Each clinically listed case study sounded more fatal than the next and my teachers suddenly seemed more like demonic torturers. My hypochondriac imagination went buck wild and a dull pain emerged in my lower back, hamstrings, elbows... phew! Was yoga, as the intrepid NYT reporter stated, softly killing me?

Slowly I steadied myself, and a few deep belly breaths, long inhales and exhales and remembering "things would look much better in the morning", I calmed myself. I kind of love my new class. This despite the class occasionally being so cramped that I found myself doing asanas under my neighbours underarms, and that the girl-filled class could become a bit of a chattering hencoop. It was going to take a lot more than the NYT for me to discard my yoga mat.

We do yoga as exercise. Not as meditation. We supplement our weights, spinning and Pilates with it. Sometimes, mixing it all up in one nightmarishly boot-camp cocktail. It takes a special kind of willingness to be married and confined to your mat.

Sadly though I couldn't quite ignore the whole "is yoga good or bad for you" debate that the West has now taken up. Over the last two decades in the West, yoga had become so popular that it seemed flip flops and a well-formed downward dog were the only accessories you needed for social acceptance. If you were homies with Deepak Chawprah or Beekram of Beekram Yogah, even better. This whole yoga debate has created a larger split than the Hanumanasana. For the uninformed, that's an asana inspired by Hanuman's leap across the Indian Ocean, and is akin more to what a 13 year-old Chinese gymnast can pull off than your average 35 year old yogis.

As an amateur yogi who switched schools from the slower more meditative Shivananda to the slightly more strenuous Vinyasa Ashtanga, I've always thought that the awesome part about new age yoga is that it doesn't matter what end of the spectrum you're practicing at, as long as it works for you. Damage comes when you don't know what is working for you. Teacher can guide. But the truest litmus is your own body. Trust it. Hear it.

Of course people were going to be angry. Yoga as the drug of the 21st century is our salvation. It's cleaning up our karma. Removing the sins and transgressions of our hectic grindstone lives. It's spawned videos (reference Yoga girl), fashion lines, scandalous affairs and many equally controversial hybrid versions of the original practitioners. Yoga studios in America, and fast in India too, are becoming as popular as coffee shops. It's got more pop culture respect than its biggest propagator, Madonna. And when someone attacks it, we get very, very mad.

The NYT piece pooh-pahed yoga as being the therapeutic, stress-release tool that most of us like to view it as, instead blaming it for scary diseases like strokes, paralysis, heart-attacks and blot clots in your brain or spine. Strange side effects when you consider that I was there to simply cure a potential niggling carpal tunnel wrist ache or strained lower back from too many hours hunched over a computer.

Yoga may not really be for everyone. For those who prefer iron-induced muscles or adrenalin pumping cardio, yoga might seem staid. It takes a lot of patience and open-mindedness; both for those inclined towards it spiritually and not. The latter make up a majority of today's yoga practicing crowds. We do yoga as exercise. Not as meditation. We supplement our weights, spinning and Pilates with it. Sometimes, mixing it all up in one nightmarishly boot-camp cocktail.

It takes a special kind of concentrated willingness to be married and confined to your mat. It takes a conscious effort to be aware of your breathing patterns, and differentiate between breathing from your stomach or chest, or both. To keep exhalations long while standing on your head or with your chin tucked into your neck and your legs behind you head.

For many the spiritual aspect of yoga is as important as the physical, but for a lot of people, that spiritual level comes later. They'll take away my yoga mat when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

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