He shot into prominence with the advent of Narendra Modi to the Prime Minister’s office in 2014. Suddenly he was thought to be responsible for the Indian leader’s well being; then soon he was considered the force behind the effort to get the U.N. to declare June.21 as International Yoga Day; and now, he is in a position to define...
Nagendra or ‘Guruji’ as he is referred to by those around him is an alum of the renowned Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. That scientific training, he put to use in short assignments in Vancouver, NASA and Harvard University and finally in the institution he founded – the ungainly sounding Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthan (VYASA). Situated in a 100 acre rural campus ‘Prashanti Kutiram,’ in the outskirts of Bangalore, it has become the hub of research in yoga and therapy. Now a deemed university, it offers doctoral programs and engages in studies with various educational institutions in the U.S.
Ever the pragmatist, Nagendra in his work, has found a neat balance between traditional and scientific thinking. While he admires the Upanishads and approaches the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit, he is willing with equal ease, to see yoga stripped off it and adapted. He can be expected to take that approach when he works with Modi, to make yoga a way of life when introducing it in the education system. He believes that the current idea of “me, me, me,” and the focus on mere “bread earning,” will change and become one of giving and citizen building.
The yoga master was in SoCal recently engaging with universities and the Los Angeles chapter, VYASA-LA. Excerpts from his conversation with IJ:
Q: When did you first get interested in yoga?
A: When I was a child my uncle taught me about 8-10 asanas. I did not understand its full implication then. The real interest came when I was at the Indian Institute of Science. A group of us became interested in a simple question: what is the goal of life? We studied the Upanishads and were led in our understanding and discussions by Prof. Satyanarayana Shastri. He taught Chemistry but was learned in Sanskrit. This was the true beginning of yoga for me.
Q: What did you learn in the US that has helped you with VYASA?
A: I have seen what research is going on. It is not very different from what I had learned at IISc.
Q: Why Bangalore?
A: Actually my sister Nagaratna (a medical doctor from U.K.) and I began our work in Kanyakumari. But we were hardly getting the word out or getting patients. Yoga therapy was a very new field and through the year we would have about 30 patients. Then we held a camp for asthma in Bangalore and had 150 people participate. We set up a control trial and followed up with the patients. That study was to become our first research paper. There was great response. Meanwhile, our father was seeing the work we were doing and he donated the land he had in Bangalore and we worked with the government to set up VYASA.
Q: Other yoga schools have kriyas, urge kapalbhati, yours is Cyclic Meditation – how did you device this?
A: We were at a summer camp in Delhi. Even in savasana (corpse pose) people were very restless. So I asked them all to stand up, then I told them lie down. It worked to calm them. Over time we studied it more. I went back to the Mandukya Upanishad which makes clear that if a beginner tries to meditate one of two things will happen – either you will fall asleep or the mind will work at jet speed. With study and time we were able to create Cyclic Meditation. It combines the practice of yoga postures, breathing, stimulation, relaxation, guided meditation. Now, I think some 25 research papers have been published on the effect of Cyclic Meditation with the findings showing how the mind gets calmer allowing us to blossom to our full potential.
Q: What is your yogic routine or sadhana?
A: (Smiles) I am a sadhak (practitioner)!
Q: You have said that yoga will lead to glimpses of Samadhi? Have you had that glimpse?
A: (Chuckles) We all do! Only thing is you don’t know you have had it! There are yogic techniques. It works in that instant before deep sleep. To stay there and stabilize it is what takes practice.
Q: Does all the work and travel you engage in, prevent it from being more than just a glimpse for you?
A: The mind has layers. The deeper you go there is silence, a blissful awareness. So you stay there and engage in outward activity. Awareness is a constant. It’s like driving through busy traffic. You may listen to music, talk on the phone but you are aware of the traffic you are negotiating.
Q: You are described as PM Modi’s yoga guru. Why did he pick you from among all the yoga teachers?
A: He was a full time worker at the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh where my uncle was the General Secretary. He was not in any office at that time. He first came to Prashanti in 1982 and after that was a regular. When he became Chief Minister in Gujarat, he brought us in for three days where the entire cabinet and others who worked in the ministries would learn yoga and its principles. When we meet now, we discuss about yoga and how humanity can benefit from it.
Q: What have you taught him? How has he benefitted?
A: Cyclic Meditation, Karma Yoga. He does pranayama, meditation. Late in the night he studies and reads. He is a very quick learner. He works and travels at tremendous speed but he will take short breaks to connect with silence and then continue again. I have met several leaders over the years but I can say there are two things about him that are unparalleled. One is his memory. He can meet you after several years and remember you. This happened when he met one of the VYASA people. He even enquired after his brother - by name! The other is his time management. Excellent. It’s his specialty. All the Chief Ministers, etc., will make you wait after giving you an appointment. Not him.
Q: Were you able to help Arvind Kejriwal when he was coughing and Modi had recommended that he go to you?
A: (Tongue in cheek) If he came to me he would become BJP you see, so he went to another place in Bangalore!
Q: Do you work with others like Baba Ramdev, Isha Yoga, Art of Living?
A: In 1974, the worst thing in my life happened in Delhi. All yoga groups had come together to create a common platform. BKS Iyengar, Dhirendra Brahmachari and several others, they were all there. One of the things that came up was to have a common name for the various asanas. Let’s say sarvangasana - the idea was that all schools and gurus would use that name. But the fight that ensued was unbelievable. Everyone wanted their own name and system to be in the forefront. I left that place disappointed and dejected with the state of yoga. It took me 25 years, but we were able to bring everyone together again so we could learn from each other.
Q: Yoga is going to be introduced in schools in India. How is the syllabus decided?
A: We have decided not to take anyone’s yoga capsules. We are going back to the traditional texts and creating material.
Q: Is yoga really not related to religion?
A: The sound ‘OM’ is a primordial one. NASA studies have also shown that. When we went to teach in Christian North East India, we only encouraged them to say A, U and M instead of OM and they all reported saying that the vibrations they felt in the body were very good. We have done several studies where findings show the brain is harmonized, mind is calm and the body is in equipoise. So everything is evidence based. At VYASA we focus on research so it can be put on a scientific platform. We want to do more and more work.
Q: Have you been getting more attention because of your connection with Modi?
A: Oh yes! The media especially!