Let me introduce myself. People call me Sri M. Here, M stands for many things. Firstly, M means Manushya, a human being more than anything else. It also denotes the first letter of Mumtaz Ali, the name given when I was born to my Muslim parents. M also derives from Madhukarnath--the name used fondly by my spiritual master, Maheshwarnath Babaji.
I am a practicing yogi and that is the reason why I want to say a few words on the recent ugly, yet hilarious reaction to yoga that has come from those who call themselves orthodox Muslims. As you know, this is a marginal section of people, a set that pretends to speak for all the Muslims of the world.
This acrimonious public debate was prompted by the United Nations declaration in 2014 that June 21 be observed every year as the 'International Day of Yoga'. In the UN, 175 nations co-sponsored the Indian resolution, while 177 nations supported it. This shows that the world has come to understand the significance of the 5,000-year-old science of yoga--a legacy of wisdom, originating from India, leading to the transformation of the mind and body.
The fringe group objected to the Prime Minister's declared intention to publicly perform yoga in schools on 21 June this year. The Indian Government decided subsequently to exclude Surya Namaskar from the planned activity based on the objection that the yogic pose of bowing down to the Sun was an un-Islamic act. The Government notified later that it was not compulsory to observe the Yoga Day.
Naturally, the question that arises is what is yoga and how did 'M' get into it?
My introduction to yoga took place in an inadvertent fashion. At my home in Thiruvananthapuram, my father had a large rosewood desk in the room that doubled-up as his office. One day, I opened the drawer, and among many files, account books, bills, stamp pads, pens and pencils, I found two books--one, a well-illustrated book on yoga, and the other, a booklet called Japa yoga and Gayatri. The book on yoga had lots of photographs of a man in various physical postures that I then imagined were gymnastic exercises.
"While my mother did the customary Namaz five times a day, my father used to attend public lectures on Vedanta and other related topics by eminent experts."
In our home, my sisters and I were brought up in an environment that was suffused with Indianness. While my mother did the customary Namaz five times a day, my father used to attend public lectures on Vedanta and other related topics by eminent experts. He got up early in the morning and did his yoga rituals. Being a Muslim did not preclude him from practising it. In fact, if you look closely, Namaz (Salat)--the daily prayers of Islamic religion--incorporates many simple asanas. The resemblance between Namaz postures and Yog-asanas like Qiyam and Namaste, Ruk'u and Ardha Uttanasana, Julus and Vajrasana, and finally, Sujud and Balasana are quite striking.
In that illustrated book on yoga, a picture of the cross-legged posture named Padmasana (the Lotus Pose) fascinated me. I had seen a picture of Buddha sitting in a similar pose in a children's history book. I would often practise this posture and begin to imagine myself as the great Gautama Buddha.
My father, seeing that I was interested in yoga, arranged for an instructor to teach me yoga asanas and Pranayama every day. Later on, I learnt the advanced techniques from my Master in the Himalayas. Since then, I practice it everyday. It is this thorough practice of yoga through the years that has stood me in good stead, providing me with the necessary health, stamina and high spirits at the age of 66 to embark on the Walk of Hope--a gruelling 7,500 km padayatra for peace and harmony across India from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.
Yoga is one of the major Indian philosophical schools of thought along with Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya and Vedanta. Although Patanjali is considered the father of yoga, there is evidence that some kind of yogic practices were prevalent even as early as the Indus Valley Civilisation, where seals depicting yogic poses were discovered in Mohenjodaro. For the Jains and Buddhists too, who do not accept the existence of a creator God or Eshwara, yoga forms part of their spiritual practice.
Patanjali defines Yoga in his classical work, the Yoga Sutra, as 'Yogas Chitta Vritta Nirodha'--which means freeing the mind-stuff from negative modifications. The key benefits of practising yoga are physical wellbeing and mental stability to say the least and, for more serious practitioners of the meditation techniques, expansion of consciousness that ultimately results in spiritual evolution. At its heart, yoga is about the quest for awakening wherein the practitioner experiences his oneness with nature and recognises the spark of the divine in all beings. Patanjali terms this state of enlightenment as Kaivalya that is quite similar to the state of Nirvana in Buddhism or the Fana Fil Haq of the Sufis.
"At its heart, yoga is about the quest for awakening wherein the practitioner experiences his oneness with nature and recognises the spark of the divine in all beings."
To begin the practice of yoga, there is no need to have specific religious beliefs. Even the non-believer, atheist and agnostic can practice yoga and derive tremendous physical, mental and spiritual benefits. The yoga philosophy is universal in its appeal and one must not forget that it is India's great gift to the world and is part of its lofty tradition. In my opinion, yoga is a step-by-step scientific approach to spiritual experience wherein, by following the steps prescribed, a yogi can explore the spiritual realm and reach the ultimate goal through self-effort.
Having said that, I want to draw attention to the rampant commercialisation of yoga in the contemporary world. Yoga, with its roots in the Indian milieu, is a gift to mankind and it should not be retailed as a commercial product.
After all, in its fundamental essence, yoga--derived from the root 'Yuj' meaning 'to yoke, unite, harness, join'--attempts to manifest compassionate minds that relate to the whole world as one extended family, living together in peace and harmony. The Walk of Hope padayatra is an outward expression of this inner, unitarian experience--seeking to join together 10 million people while inspiring acceptance, reconciliation and respect for diversity in each individual.