(Discovered by the west during the hippie era as a way to transcendence, yoga has in recent years become part of the search for the perfect physique. Thanks to new teachers, gadgets and practices, it could again become an entry point for deeper spiritual practice)
The first time I tried yoga—I won’t say when, but Carlos Santana was still calling himself “Devadip”—it was in someone’s basement in the suburbs, with plastic mats on the floor. Some guy in sweatpants led us through the Sun Salutations and the obligatory guided relaxation in the Corpse pose. Afterward we all hung around drinking soy coffee.
A couple of months later, I was struggling to stay in the lotus posture in front of an intense, scary-looking Indian guy in orange robes. The scent of sandalwood incense hung in the air, blending with the sampaguita garlands draped around a framed portrait of the guru. After a couple of minutes he told me my mind wasn’t pure enough, and that I should chant “babanam kevalam” some more before coming back.
I had flunked the initiation.
The first wave of interest in yoga came in the aftermath of the hippie era, but the focus was on transcendence. Their minds having been expanded with psychedelic drugs, people looking for enlightenment turned east. In the ’70s, ex-hippies chanted “Hare Krishna,” tried Transcendental Meditation, joined Ananda Marga or devoted themselves to Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh or Satya Sai Baba.
Few people actually practiced the asanas-the yoga poses. Those who did did so perfunctorily, mainly to prepare themselves for meditation and-they hoped-eventual enlightenment.
Then toward the end of the decade, yoga took a turn for the weird. Chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi enlisted two monks from Ananda Marga to psych out Anatoli Karpov in their 1978 world championship match in Baguio City. Later that same year, a nun from the same sect set herself on fire in Luneta to protest the continued imprisonment of their guru in India.
Things went quiet in the ’80s, but something interesting happened during the ’90s. Somehow the practice of yoga merged with the cult of the perfect physique that had emerged during the Yuppie era. Western disciples had taken the teachings of their Indian gurus and democratized it, adding more than a bit of marketing spin. What in India were seen as age-old traditions emerged in the new global marketplace as brands: Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, Jivamukti. The asanas became the focal point of yoga practice.
Today, yoga is a growth industry. Ten years ago, you could count the yoga teachers in Manila on the fingers of one hand (and still have a finger or two left over). Today there are literally dozens of yoga studios offering a plethora of classes in Metro Manila alone, and other metropolitan areas aren’t far behind.
Beyond Yoga, a studio that opened last October in the Tomas Morato area of Quezon City, exemplifies the modern, Westernized approach to yoga.
“We’re different from the other yoga studios in that we offer different kinds of yoga,” says Cara de Ocampo, one of the partners behind the studio. “We teach over 10 styles of yoga: vinyasa yoga, gentle yoga, ‘hot’ yoga, jivamukti, ashtanga yoga. Our newest style is antigravity yoga, and currently we’re the only studio in the Philippines licensed to teach it.”
In antigravity yoga, the poses are done while the yogi or yogini is suspended on a hammock-like swing. Among other things, this allows them to perform strenuous inverted poses without unduly stressing their spinal columns.
“It feels like you’re flying,” says de Ocampo. “Your back gets stretched, you get a good workout, but at the same time there’s a fun factor.”
Apart from the varieties of yoga, the studio also offers dance classes in jazz, hip-hop, belly dancing and pole dancing.
“It’s really a one-stop shop where you can do all kinds of workouts,” she continues. “Our teachers train under the best abroad. We try to get the best teachers, but we also try to make our services affordable so everyone can incorporate yoga in their lives.”
Periodically, she adds, the studio will fly in guest teachers from abroad to conduct intensive workshops and to conduct teacher training for advanced students who want to take their practice to the next level. Beyond Yoga will be offering a 300-hour teacher training course in Vinyasa yoga later this year, the first in the country.
“Students start off being interested in yoga for the physical benefits-to lose weight, get fit. Then after doing weeks and months of yoga as a physical practice, it goes to a different level. People come to yoga to de-stress. They do yoga for all these physical benefits but in the end, they also benefit mentally and spiritually.”
Another partner in Beyond Yoga is New York-based yoga teacher Anna Carbonell. A second-generation yoga practitioner, her father is the poet Rolando Carbonell, who became better known as new age guru Swami Devaleelananda in the 1980s. Steeped in yoga practices since childhood, Carbonell rediscovered yoga in the US when she was in her twenties, and eventually became a certified teacher of vinyasa yoga in 2006.
“I am happy that [yoga] has become trendy in the Philippines even just in a physical sense because to some it becomes an ‘entry point’ to a deeper spiritual practice,” she says in an e-mail interview.
“A student or practitioner who starts off wanting physical beauty could evolve to seeking spiritual development because of the way the asanas affect the body and mind. When the body is in a good state, the mind follows and the next in line is the spirit. If it doesn’t go that way for them, then maybe along the line they will find a teacher or a yoga studio that incorporates spirituality in the practice,” she adds.
“Overall, yoga is a great practice whether some just do it for beauty but it’s best when it’s done with ethical living, wisdom, and devotion and respect to the ancient teachings and its origins… I believe that yoga in the Philippines will be influenced again with spirituality. We can make it happen.” •
Beyond Yoga is at 3F Il Terrazo Building, Tomas Morato Ave. cor. Sct. Madrinan, Quezon City. Check out www.igobeyondyoga.com