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Last Updated: Monday, 8 January 2007, 17:09 GMT
Re-inventing yoga for the masses
The BBC's Hindi Service is running a series of interviews to discover the unknown side of India's newsmakers. Here, the service's India editor Sanjeev Srivastava talks to yoga guru, Swami Ramdev


Swami Ramdev
Swami Ramdev's breathing exercises are immensely popular

He is hardly the kind of icon one would associate with a new, vibrant and technology savvy India.

But for millions across the country, there can be no bigger trendsetter in recent years than Swami Ramdev, also known as Baba Ramdev.

The maverick yoga guru and practitioner of India's ancient medical science, Ayurveda, commands a tremendous hold over public imagination.

So how come Swami Ramdev has made it so big in a country where maniacal fan following is usually the exclusive preserve of Bollywood and cricket superstars?

The truth is - nobody really has a clue.

Yoga has been practised in India for centuries and there have been several celebrated yoga teachers in the country before.

The ancient practice has been elaborated in great detail in historical treatises and texts and Swami Ramdev cannot be credited with inventing it.

Against dogma

Also, whichever yoga teacher one chooses to follow, the basic principles remain the same.

If everything is known about me, people will be less interested
Swami Ramdev

So what has he done that has bestowed this unlikely stardom on him?

In a country full of religious gurus and saints, Swami Ramdev does not even claim to be God's messenger or a God man.

If anything, he condemns all superstition and retrogressive beliefs.

"I don't believe in destiny. Palmistry and all this talk about the lines on your hands deciding your future is nothing but nonsense. So is this talk of sun signs and auspicious and inauspicious time and place," he says.

"Can you identify any moment or place where God is not there? He is everywhere and all the time. So how can any place or time be less or more auspicious?" he asks.

Secretive

Perhaps it is his unique way of logical reasoning which attracts millions to him.

Maybe it is his enigmatic persona - he is quite secretive and refuses to divulge his age or any other details about his background.

And, he is candid enough to admit that it is a marketing mantra.

"There should be an element of mystery. If everything is known about me, people will be less interested. Till the time they know little about me, they are always curious to know more. It's human nature," he explains.

I think it is his lack of spirituality which attracts his legion of followers most.

After all, there is no shortage of conmen and God men in India who promise to deliver a better after-life, salvation and a life in heaven.

But for all of these you have to be dead first.

Yoga camp
His yoga camps are held around the country

Baba Ramdev offers you something more immediate - you do not have to die to benefit from him.

That is why he is modern India's material guru.

He promises you a stress-free, disease-free and healthy life.

He even assures cures for several diseases like asthma, blood pressure disorders, heart ailments and even cancer.

All these claims are debatable, but his millions of disciples do not seem to care.

After all, there is nothing to lose as yoga has no harmful side effects.

Simple and easy

So thousands throng the early morning yoga camps of Baba Ramdev, now organised almost all through the year in different corners of India.

I never waste time having breakfast - I eat two meals a day and I eat only boiled vegetables and fruits
Swami Ramdev

Some television channels also decided to cash in on the Baba's popularity and a couple of years ago, they started beaming live his yoga training sessions.

Soon enough the popularity rating of the TV channel patronised by the Baba went up sharply as hundreds of thousands of yoga enthusiasts started their day with Baba Ramdev's lessons on breathing exercises.

There is perhaps another reason behind his popularity.

Yoga may be ancient, but he has certainly re-invented it by making it very simple and easy to practise.

One need not have an acrobatic, supple and flexible body to practice the Ramdev brand of yoga.

"Earlier I also used to try the really difficult asans [postures]. But gradually I understood there is no need to push and punish oneself needlessly. So now I practise and teach simple breathing exercises which keep one healthy and stress-free," he says.

"Life is not for doing yoga. Yoga is for making life better," he adds.

There is little known about his past and he does not reveal much.

"I joined a gurukul or a traditional Indian residential school at the age of nine. I used to do nearly 500 push-ups at a time and run about 5km every day. I loved wrestling and could easily defeat an opponent twice as heavy as myself," he says, talking about his early days.

Yoga camp in Orissa school
Schools have also held Baba Ramdev's yoga camps

"It was about 20 years ago that I turned to Pranayam [a yogic exercise largely guided by breathing techniques]. Then I also met my yoga guru who asked me to concentrate more on breathing exercises. That's been my life since then," he adds.

Baba Ramdev lives a simple life. He dresses in the saffron robes of Hindu ascetics and is a frugal eater, who has not eaten any grains for over 10 years now.

"I never waste time having breakfast. I eat two meals a day and I eat only boiled vegetables and fruits," he says.

The only drink he has - besides water - is cow milk.

He sleeps on the floor and does not need more than four hours of sleep a night.

And, he is a brahmachari sanyasi or a bachelor ascetic.

Not Gandhian

So is he never attracted to women? After all, among his disciples are some very attractive Bollywood actresses.

"The thought never crosses my mind. I think I have taken birth to propagate yoga and good values," he says.

But the Baba is not all Gandhian.

He loves a good fight and never shies away from controversy.

He has quite often courted controversy with his criticism of multinationals - particularly cola giants like Coke and Pepsi - as well as tobacco and liquor manufacturers.

Only last month he was in the news for a public spat he had with the federal health minister who asked Baba Ramdev to only concentrate on yoga and not run down Western or allopathic medicine without reason.

"I am not against the Western system of medicine. But why should the minister get so upset if I say that yoga has a beneficial impact on those suffering from heart problems or even cancer? Why does he want me to play down the benefits of yoga when people have benefited from them," he asks?

"In any case what can these governments do? A Saddam can be hanged for killing 142 people. Tobacco companies manufacture death for millions every year. Has one person ever been punished," he wants to know?

The radio interview with Swami Ramdev can be found via bbchindi.com. The programme is called Ek Mulaqat.


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