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Going back to yoga

The timing was perfect. Just when the rainy season ending my nine-hole-a day (or nearly) routine and with my belly a constant reminder that I needed really serious exercise, friends of ours invited me and my wife Getsy to a private yoga class for three couples.
It was a time-warp sort of feeling for me.

Like many of my generation who idolized the Beatles, their dalliance with the Transcendental Meditation of their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi got me hooked for some time into yoga and other Eastern spiritual practices.

The author in the Warrior Pose, or an attempt at it, outdoor.

The author in the Warrior Pose, or an attempt at it, outdoor.

But there wasn’t any TM ashram here and the Ananda Marga  seemed to me too much of a Hindu sect, with their emphasis, I thought at that time, on the secret mantra with which each disciple was supposed to be ladder for his awakening.

In the 80s, I joined a group, which said it was a Kriya Yoga group whose main practice was in awakening the Kundalini “serpent” from the sacral region to move upwards through the spine to the thousand-flowered lotus in the brain.  Fascinating: there was one explanation that it was the sexual energy travelling along the spinal cord into the brain stem and exploding into the cortex, creating the feeling of cosmic consciousness.  I decided though that I was too young to have my sexual energy going somewhere else instead of its usual channel.

I could only turn to yoga books, which was not easy to get at that time.  You could find these and other such books on Eastern disciplines only at the bookstore of the Theosophical Society of the Philippines on a small street near the Manila-Quezon City boundary marked by that Welcome Rotunda.

Then my journey got into the more well known—controversial really—sect of then Poona-based Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh.  Most of its meditation techniques though were very unorthodox, such as an hour-long cathartic shouting, or wild dancing and dervish spinning before sitting down to meditation. I even got to be a full-fledged sannyasin (disciple) of Osho—the new name he assumed in the 1990s—that I had complied with his only rule: always wear orange or hues of it, even maroon (not robes, but regular clothes, just as long as they’re colored orange or hues of it) and a rosary-like mala with the guru’s photo. I was flipping, my friends whispered among themselves.

Our small group of sannyasins though gradually drifted apart, not only because of the controversies that broke out over Osho. It was difficult to get a place for the kind of shouting meditations we did. Often the barangay chairman or village security would be alarmed and ask what the shouting was all about.

After that sojourn though, it was, to use the Hindu seekers’ term, maya—the world of illusion—that totally took over, and yoga and meditation receded in the mind to even seem like tales told by another person. A last attempt to get into the Path again—a Zen retreat in Kyoto five years ago—was disheartening: I couldn’t endure after three days, the 45-minute meditation sessions the whole day, with only ten-minute walks as respite.

Those into yoga then were considered weird, identified with the really weird Hare Krishna devotees dancing in the streets and jiggling their tambourines.

Now yoga—at least its physical aspect—has become as mainstream as, well, tennis, or gym classes. In the US, there are 15 million practitioners and yoga mats, suits, and other accessories have made it a $27 billion industry. For some reason though, seventy percent of yoga practitioners in the world (and probably here), are female, in sharp contrast to golf whose players are 70 percent male.

A website yoginifrommanila.com lists about 30 yoga studios offering different schools of yoga from the Ananda Marga Yoga Center (the pioneer in the country) to the Iyengar version (the mostly widely practiced in the west), to Bikram practiced in a hot room, to the nearly-gymnastic Ashtanga Yoga. Many of the gym chains like Fitness First, I’ve been told, offer yoga classes.

“Aging sucks” was the thought that coursed into my mind during the first sessions two weeks ago of the yoga class we joined.

I could go into the half-lotus, and even the full lotus for at least a minute before. But that was a lifetime ago. Now even the “Easy Pose” (seating cross-legged) is so difficult. The Bow pose had been my favorite. Now I can’t even touch my heels. With a push, I’m glad I could still go into the shoulder-stand pose, or close to it. I also liked the Warrior and other standing poses, as I could practice them even outdoors, after some walking (see photo). I could still go into these poses—as long as these poses are not kept more than ten seconds.

Don’t get me wrong. Yoga isn’t about being a body contortionist. The difference from Western exercises, I think, is that the yoga emphasizes the stretching of the spine and the limbs, something running and other sports hardly do. I had always suspected that it was after I seriously got into yoga when I was 18 that I grew taller.

Scientists studying yoga have also found that its postures stimulate or massage certain important organs of the body, mainly the glands and the plexuses, seven of which are identified by yoga with the so-called chakras (centers) of the human body.

Because photos of people doing yoga naturally portray them stationary in a pose, there is a misconception that it isn’t an active exercise. While there are yoga teachers who emphasize the tranquility achieved through certain poses, most yoga schools require quite strenuous physical exertion. After a yoga session, there’s some kind of high, and a sense of renewed energy I’ve never felt after golf or walking.

The basic routine, called Surya Namaskar (Salute to the Sun), is a series of six to twelve (depending on the variation) that goes from a standing position to poses resembling push ups to back-stretching that would instantly make you sweat profusely, and give you a good cardio workout.

I haven’t met anyone who’s tried it who wouldn’t be gaga over yoga, that it’s the best exercise ever for people of all ages and physique. I’ve seen 70-year-olds and obese people who surprisingly could be so flexible as to go into the intermediate-level poses.

As the guru—in person not in spirit that is—is said to be absolutely necessary for enlightenment, the yoga instructor, I’ve learned all these years, is so important. We’re lucky at this time that young Ananda Marga yoga instructors, Radji and Anandi who are so capable and helpful, with a refreshing cheerfulness.

Think of it this way: it’s been practiced in India, and variations of it in China, for over 3,000 years. There must be something good in it, which in fact modern science has recently provided empirical evidence for. I highly recommend it.

Google or yahoo! could point you to several yoga studios in Manila.

Whenever we’re in Tagaytay on a weekend, I join the 10 to 12 noon Sundays and Mondays all-level classes at Alfonso Hotel (0917 9764949) in Alfonso town, on your right, right after the Splendido Golf Course.