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Yoga & Meditation: Laughed at and tarnished in India; recognised and valued in rest of the world

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The Lazar lab at the Harvard University is dedicated to the study of the impact of Yoga and meditation on various cognitive and behavioral functions. Their results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain. They also found evidence that meditation may slow down the age related atrophy of certain areas of the brain. There are other research that shows that yoga can teach children how to isolate themselves from harmful thoughts or emotions, thus, reducing anxiety and increased attention levels.

Other studies suggest that “mindful movement” such as Yoga helps to enhance kids’ working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility. Some studies have gone as far as concluding that Yoga has a positive effect on students’ academic performance or engagement, particularly among students who’ve struggled with traumatic experiences such as poverty and struggle with self-regulation as a result. After all, decades of research have shown that it’s hard for a child who hasn’t learned how to respond to stress to do well in school.

Kalaripayattu is one of the most ancient and comprehensive art form of India. It has an excellent system of physical training, effective self-defence techniques, both armed and unarmed, training for excellent flexibility for physical and mental strength and is based on the Dravidian culture of India. Kalaripayattu is considered as the basis for all martial arts. Ironically, today, finding a Kalaripayattu facility in Kerala is like finding a needle in a haystack while every street corner is filled with karate, kung-fu and jiu jitsu training centers. It’s like ridiculing the delicious, organic, healthy and economical traditional food and paying premium for the food that the west has labelled as junk and unhealthy. Reluctance to accepting the core Indian values is built into the Indian psyche. Generally, Indians tend to appreciate the merits of Indianness only when some external source, most of the time the western culture, accepts them. This could be a side effect of years of imperialism.

Thanks in part to western influence and TV culture, Yoga is certainly experiencing a revival in contemporary India. At least in urban India, Yoga is becoming a status symbol. It’s cool to be seen with yYoga mats. White collar professionals suffering from diseases of prosperity like hypertension and diabetes are turning to yoga as an alternative medicine. The first International Day of Yoga, with an internationally sponsored resolution at the United Nations, was celebrated on June 21, 2015. In his proposal for this day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained to the United Nations:

Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature.

Appreciating Indianness and promoting Indian values is not something to be ashamed of. Being Indian is beyond watching Bollywood movies, celebrating festivals and wearing traditional attire and sharing A.R. Rahman’s Vande Mataram video on WhatsApp on the republic day. All that being said, an important aspect of all these practices — Yoga, Kalaripayattu, Ayurveda, Siddha etc. is their strong roots in vedanta and Hinduism. Yoga is twinned with sāṃkhya as one of the six orthodox darshanas (worldviews) of Hindu philosophy, with Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra, a seminal collection of texts written between the second century BCE and fifth century CE.

It is perhaps this association with Hindutva ideology, that’s preventing these practices from becoming popular in the country. How can we be secular, inclusive, and tolerant but at the same time, help our citizens reap the benefits of these time tested practices that can promote health and wellness? People should disassociate them from religious ideals and should welcome these ideologies as multivalent terms covering a diverse collection of ideas and practices. Parents should set aside time everyday to help their children embody and explore yoga’s ethical and moral codes and make it really a way of life.

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