I arrive at the Bareilly railway station late in the evening and take an autorickshaw to Civil Lines. The empty roads glisten in the monsoon rain.
Civil Lines, with broad avenues and large old bungalows, is the best address for a yoga studio in Bareilly. Located in one of the quiet inner roads is the Ashtanga Yoga Centre. It comprises a bare hall in a house on the street. Mohan Kumar Upadhyaya, a yoga teacher, runs the classes here.
The last class in the evening is about to finish. Students chant the closing mantras. The all-women group includes a college student and several housewives. Upadhyaya shyly requests them to share their yoga experience with me before they roll up the mats. A woman in black trackpants and T-shirt says that yoga has helped her combat chronic insomnia and she no longer takes pills for sleeping. She tells me she is 54 years old. Others share their stories too. Many of them talk about the psychological benefits of yoga. Their teacher nods quietly.
Mohan Upadhyaya believes that he has a divine connection with yoga. Drawn to spirituality as a child, he began learning meditation techniques from books. Although born in a poor family, economic constraints did not bother Upadhyaya. He ran away from home at the age of 15 to seek a guru in the Himalayas. Luckily, he met two tourists from Bengal who counselled him about being too young to leave home and advised him to complete his studies before embarking on such a quest. Mohan Upadhyaya returned home, following their advice. He later completed a master’s degree in philosophy and a diploma in yoga.
Mohan Kumar Upadhyaya began teaching yoga in Bareilly in 1999. Though he has a good teaching practice now, it was quite a struggle when he started. ‘Those days only elderly government officials were interested in yoga,’ he laughs. ‘Now all kinds of people want to learn yoga.’
A few years ago, he realized another of his dreams—he began travelling abroad to teach yoga. How did a quiet yoga teacher from Bareilly make his way to Dubai, China and Russia?
To understand why yoga interests young Indians, I meet Tarini and Shivani Narula. The sisters, both in their twenties, have been practising at a yoga studio in their neighbourhood since 2014. They live in Vasant Vihar, a posh south Delhi locality, with their parents. The boxy white house built in the 1970s by their late grandfather, an army brigadier, has a hint of the brutalist architecture popular at the time. It is one of the few older houses remaining in the area, whereas the others have been converted into modern-looking low-rise apartments. Both the girls are fashion designers educated at National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), India’s best college for fashion studies. Shivani Narula designs yoga wear for women and Tarini Narula has been running a fashion accessories label since 2011.
‘Yoga helped me slow down. Yoga helps you to take the “edge” out of your life. It is a much-needed therapy for our generation,’ says Shivani Narula. ‘Twenties are a busy age. We are all running to make our lives and careers. It takes its toll. When we started the class, we had only three of us in this age group, and now there are 15 to 20.’
Shivani Narula is the younger of the two sisters. Talkative and enthusiastic, she plays with her dog while speaking to me and I find it difficult to imagine her worried. Having grown up in an era without smartphones, I can only imagine how technology with incessant notifications and newsfeed on mobile phones can become an additional burden for young people along with the usual pressures of growing up. ‘I went to the trial class and in that one class itself I felt so good,’ Shivani continues. ‘To be able to switch off was such an incredible feeling. Outside our class, there is a sign which said: “Place your phone and your worries here”.’ Narula began her yoga wear line a few months after she began doing yoga. ‘It served as an inspiration,’ she says. ‘I saw what people were wearing. I wanted something which is fun and inspires women to come to yoga class feeling fashionable.’
(Excerpted with permission of Bloomsbury India from The Indic Quotient: Reclaiming Heritage through Cultural Enterprise by Kaninika Mishra)