Published Nov 13, 12 PM
By Christian Möllenhoff
I have always been baffled by just how many different meanings can fit into the word “yoga.”
In its vast diversity, all its incarnations pull more or less in the same direction—just look through a glossy yoga magazine. Yoga seems to be mostly about maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a fit, flexible body and generating positive thoughts and harmony. At least, in Europe and in the United States, this is what it’s all about.
Yet yoga is an Indian concept and it has been part of Indian spirituality for thousands of years. If someone has the right to define yoga, then it must be the truth seekers of India, right? So, in 2010 I went to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar to see for myself what yoga looks like at its roots.
The Kumbh Mela is an age-old, insanely huge tri-annual gathering. Millions of sadhus, swamis, babas and yogis leave their caves and ashrams in order to come together and give blessings to the common people and to receive blessings from the spirits. Here you can, under the best possible astrological conditions, meet the people who have passed down the tradition from guru to disciple since the dawn of time.
The only problem with Kumbh Mela, for a practitioner of Western yoga, is that hardly anything you experience there will be very familiar. If you come expecting to attend inspiring asana workshops taught by superstar yoga teachers, buy hip designer yoga pants or taste the latest in raw food trends, not only will you be disappointed; you will also be utterly shocked.
At a Kumbh Mela there is no wheat grass juice, no anatomy lectures, no aromatherapy and no guided yoga classes. No one seems to give a damn about wellness, personal development or body alignment, and there are no quiet gardens with pan flutes and waterfalls.
What you do get is a dirty, noisy and stinking city that is overcrowded with long beards and orange dhotis. You get kirtan 24/7, holy baths, unending satsangs (if you speak Hindi, that is) and pujas covering the entire pantheon of Indian gods and goddesses.
If you are surprised by the beggars, the crippled and the lepers you are likely to be even more surprised by the tapasvis, the yogis who voluntarily take on difficult physical challenges in order to demonstrate their strength of mind to the deities.
I was never the kind of person who thought much about what to wear to yoga class. The naga babas seem to share my disinterest in fashion. Only, they have taken it much further. Many of them are naked. In spite of their nakedness, I think it is a fair guess that not many of them would feel at ease in a Bikram yoga studio (or in a naked yoga class, for that matter).
The nagas belong to the most ancient of the spiritual orders of India. They are at the core of the yoga tradition. However, they seem to be far more interested in smoking chillum than doing asanas and meditating, and they like strong chai with lots of sugar more than potassium-stacked coconut water and yeast flakes.
The naga babas are the holy warriors of the deity guru Dattatreya. They are not the gentle, understanding, Santa Claus-like saints that tell you exactly the right things to make you feel good. Nagas are more like rough saints that could easily make you feel uneasy with the powerful energy they radiate. They are the kind of people who do magic and rituals—the ones you had better treat with respect. A foreign photographer who was shooting too indiscreetly got to experience their terrible side. He got his cameras smashed to pieces and a good beating. All in front of the Indian police.
At one point I was invited to see Mahamandaleshwar Banwari Puri Ji, a high-ranking yogi in the Juna Akhara order. Through his Indian translator he told me that he understood that I had come to India to learn the religion of the yogis, and he encouraged me to ask him any question I liked. I silently thought to myself that it was very interesting that religion was the word the translator had chosen. I certainly had not come to learn about religion.
“What is most important when seeking yoga?” I asked.
If I had expected him to reveal the most important yoga posture, or to prescribe a personalised diet according to my Ayurvedic dosha, or to tell me to go on a specific meditation retreat, I would have quite honestly been disappointed by his answer.
“Most important in order to reach yoga is to give up your small self in favour for your big one.” That was his answer.
My conversation with Mahamandaleshwar Banwari Puri Ji and my experiences at the Haridwar Kumbh Mela showed me with great clarity that yoga in India and yoga in the West are far from on the same page. It occurred to me that of all the mysteries of yoga, the biggest of all is how yoga evolved from what it still is for the sadhus of India today to what it has become in the West. I’m now convinced that if one wants to understand yoga as we practice it, this particular mystery must be examined and taken into consideration much more so than we now do. For any honest Western yogi, these discrepancies should be disturbing.
About Christian Möllenhoff
Christian Möllenhoff is a Swedish yoga and meditation teacher living in France. He is the senior teacher at Yoga & méditation Paris. He has many years of experience in advanced hatha yoga and meditations from the yoga tradition. He lived an ashram life for several years and he devotes his time to karma yoga.