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From Tehran to Tokyo

5 Snapshots of Yoga's Global Reach

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Iran

By Todd Jones

Twice a week, Aghaghia Rahimzadeh arises early and heads to a yoga studio in an affluent sector of northern Tehran, a mile from her home. Rahimzadeh, who's the program officer for an environmental advocacy group, studied Ashtanga and Anusara in the United States for 11 years, but these days she practices in a very different environment. Before leaving the house, she covers her hip-length brown hair with a headscarf. A drab brown duster, called a manteau, covers her from shoulders to knees, completing her hijab, the modest public attire legally required for all Iranian women since the 1979 revolution that ushered in the Islamic Republic.

Braving Tehran's eye-searing smog and notorious traffic, Rahimzadeh passes women in a startling variety of hijab. Some cover themselves from head to toe with the traditional tentlike black chador. Others, more bold and daring and often young—almost 60 percent of Iranians are under 30—show off brightly colored, transparent headscarves and short, form-fitting manteaus that highlight the curves they're supposed to hide.

Like the sexy manteaus, yoga's growing popularity in Iran reflects an easing of social restrictions by the government over the past eight years. Before the revolution, public yoga classes were offered in Tehran, but after 1979 most yoga groups kept a low profile for more than a decade. Although the government became more tolerant of yoga by the mid-'90s, it also pushed teachers and organizations to register for supervision by a state-run ministry. Today, teachers in several traditions, including Iyengar Yoga and the Sivananda lineage, offer hatha classes. By law, all are segregated by gender; men teach only men, and women only women.

Influenced by the Sivananda tradition and Indian custom, many Iranian teachers encourage their students to wear loose-fitting, all-white outfits. But Rahimzadeh says that when the hijab comes off, the women in the Iyengar classes she attends usually are wearing tank tops and tights, or T-shirts and sweatpants. The women-only school, a spacious ground-floor room in a private home, has about 140 students registered for each 12-class term. Although instructor Behnaz Vadati, who studied with B.K.S. Iyengar in India, offers instruction for young girls and teens, most of her students are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Many are affluent and well traveled and have practiced yoga for 5 to 10 years.

"After class, we gather in a small room decorated with lots of colorful Persian pillows and rugs," Rahimzadeh says. A samovar in one corner warms a pot of tea, and biscuits and an assortment of sweets rest on a small table. "We sit together, sipping and talking. It's a time we cherish before we have to cover ourselves and venture back into all the noise, traffic, and pollution."

Japan

By Andrea Kowalski

After a long day, Shizuka Takamine leaves the world of foreign bond trading in Tokyo's Otemachi business district to head to an Ashtanga studio in the hip Shibuya district. She's often exhausted from hours of processing financial transactions, but this Nomura Securities office worker rarely skips her intense two-hour Mysore practice.

Yoga, Takamine says, helps her handle the constant pressure of working in Tokyo's competitive financial market. "My practice has helped me deal better with co-workers," she says. "The more grounded my body gets, the more stable my mind becomes."

Takamine represents a new generation of Japanese yogis. Twenty years ago, most of the handful of yogis in Japan practiced Oki-do (the Way of Oki) Yoga, a form developed by martial arts instructor Masahiro Oki in the 1950s after he studied with several masters in India. Oki-do is still thriving in Japan, although most young people do Power Yoga, says Hikaru Hashimoto, who studied Oki-do in the 1970s and is the president of Tokyo's Japan Fitness Yoga Association.

These days, new studios and styles seem to crop up monthly, with about 40 or 50 dedicated yoga studios in Tokyo alone, says Nobuya Hashimura, editor of Yogini magazine. Ashtanga-based Power Yoga is the most sought-after style, but Iyengar, hatha, Bikram, and pure Ashtanga are gaining in popularity.

Japan's economic free fall in the '90s contributed to yoga's growth, Takamine says. "In a good economy, we focused on the material world. Now, we've shifted. People must go inward to find peace."

Yoga's surge in popularity stalled in 1995 when Aum Shinrikyo (Om Supreme Truth), an apocalyptic religious sect, released sarin gas on a Tokyo subway, killing a dozen commuters and sickening thousands more. Yoga's image suffered because the cult had started as a yoga school. Fortunately, over the past 10 years, that association has faded, and people have turned to yoga again in ever-increasing numbers.

In fact, the Japan Fitness Yoga Association, which includes many forms—from Oki-do, Iyengar, and Ashtanga to hatha and Power Yoga—reports a spike in membership from 200 to 1,000 students in just two and a half years. Hashimoto suspects the growth is due to high stress and a long-standing fascination with anything that has to do with Western pop culture. "Japanese women's magazines have begun to feature Hollywood celebrities doing yoga," he says. "The Japanese like American culture. They're eager to capture its essence."

Kenya

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz

In Nairobi's rainy season, the roof over the Patanjali Yoga and Ayurvedic Center clatters with a cadence reminiscent of Kenyan tribal drums. Some students skip class when the winter brings frequent downpours, chilly days, and flooded, potholed streets, but Anne Muriithi finds the evening cloudbursts comforting after the hot, dry summer. "It's beautiful to do yoga during the rains," she says.

Muriithi, a dental surgeon who teaches physiology at the University of Nairobi, first learned of yoga from the novels of Lobsang Rampa, a quirky Englishman who claimed his body had been taken over by the spirit of a Tibetan lama. A few years ago, when a friend invited her to the PatanjaliCenter, Muriithi decided to check it out. After class, she felt so good that she's been a dedicated student ever since.

As in many countries where yoga is just establishing a foothold, most yogis in Kenya are from expatriate communities. Nikil Kallungal, the Indian immigrant who runs the Patanjali Center with his wife, Rupina, says more than half of their 100-plus students are from Nairobi's sizable Indian community. Another 30 percent are of European descent, and just a handful are African.

If you're a tourist headed off on safari to see Kenya's famed lions, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes, some outfitters will book a yoga teacher to accompany you, and a few spa retreats near Mombasa, on the coast, offer both yoga instruction and Ayurvedic treatments. But these services cater almost exclusively to foreigners or to Kenyans of Indian or European descent.

"I see a gap between the African community and the Europeans and Indians," Kallungal says. "They mix in the business world, but not so much elsewhere." Also, he says, yoga is a luxury in a country where many people live in poverty and where the Indian and European communities are more affluent than the native Kenyans.

Muriithi offers another explanation. "Many Africans think of yoga as a religion," she says. "So they don't realize they can practice yoga without compromising their Christian, Muslim, or traditional beliefs."

Onaya Odeck, the registrar of the University of Nairobi and one of the few Africans to regularly attend Kallungal's school, echoes Muriithi. "I am a congregant at a charismatic Pentecostal-style church, and when I started doing yoga, some members were worried I would become a Buddhist." But both Muriithi and Odeck predict yoga's popularity in Kenya will grow. "I think the younger generation of Africans is opening up to eastern practices, from the martial arts to yoga to alternative forms of medicine," Odeck says. "Prayer is wonderful, but from a therapeutic, medical point of view, yoga is even better."

Croatia

By Kristin Barendsen

Less than a decade after Croatia emerged from the bloody conflicts following Yugoslavia's breakup in the 1990s, sunrise in Zagreb illuminates a much kinder, gentler environment. As streetcars roll to a stop on the capital city's vast central square, where Renaissance and rococo architecture mix with modern skyscrapers, two groups of yogis cross paths as they head to morning practice.

Those carrying mats and wearing Lycra head for Nava, a studio on the square's west end, where they'll salute the dawn to the pulse of trance music and Ujjayi breathing. Those dressed in flowing white clothes are bound for the Yoga in Daily Life ashram just east of the square, where they'll chant, practice pPranayama and some asanas, and sit in meditation and devotion to their guru.

For many Croatians, yoga is synonymous with Yoga in Daily Life (YIDL), Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda's decades-old system popular throughout Central Europe. YIDL's meditative and relaxing hatha practice is accessible to practitioners of all fitness levels, but it doesn't emphasize physical challenge in the way many American yogis have come to expect.

Until recently, YIDL had Croatia's yoga market all but cornered. But in 2004 some serious competition arrived with the opening of Nava. Founded by Miriam Westercappel, a New York-born yoga practitioner who relocated to Zagreb, the upscale, well-appointed studio offers a wide range of Power, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga classes, as well as Pilates.

Since Nava's founding, its roster has grown to 800 regular students, many of whom attend class five days a week. Westercappel believes Nava is popular because students want to be physically challenged. "Croatians must take gymnastics in school," she explains, "so they tend to progress very quickly with difficult hatha yoga styles." But until recently Nava's teachers largely avoided mentioning yoga philosophy. "We tried including it," says Westercappel, "but many of our students were so staunchly Catholic that they did not like it." As the school grew, however, demand increased for pranayama classes and dharma talks, and Nava's instructors now offer both.

The recent surge of interest in yoga is a positive and welcome new chapter in Croatia. During the years when the country was part of socialist Yugoslavia, many yogis felt safe practicing yoga openly only as a sports activity, not as a philosophical pursuit. After socialism fell apart, Croatia fought a brutal civil war with Serbia before transitioning to capitalism. "Interest in yoga closed down during the war," says a YIDL nun, Sadhvi Anubhav Puri.

Anubhav Puri thinks some Croatians are drawn to yoga because it offers a respite from the decades of turmoil. The economy is still recovering from the effects of the war and a wrenching shift from socialism to capitalism; today, unemployment is high and wages are low. According to Anubhav Puri, capitalism has meant longer hours, more competition for jobs, and less job security for many people, so there is some growing nostalgia for the old socialist days. "Today we're all under stress with this new Western style of life," she says. "But yoga is noncompetitive and a very practical stress antidote." Westercappel agrees. "Croatians don't have much to be happy about these days, with the aftermath of the war and their low wages. But they walk out of yoga class smiling."

 

Argentina

By Fernando Pagés Ruiz

At 8 a.m.—early by Argentine standards, since dinners in Buenos Aires often start at 10 p.m., and many nightclubs don't open till after midnight—Silvina Scagliusi sets a match to a stick of incense. As a small fan blends the musky scent with the muggy summer air of the Argentine capital, Silvina intones an Om and begins to teach her morning yoga class.

 

Silvina leads daily classes with her husband, Alberto Hidalgo, in the living room of their two-bedroom flat. As car horns blare and early risers jostle in the streets, the couple strives to teach the physical and philosophical tenets they learned at the Sathya Sai Baba Ashram in Southern India. "To us, yoga represents a total lifestyle, not just exercise," says Silvina.

Many such small groups thrive, and you can find most well-known hatha styles in the busy capital. But since the mid-1980s, the brightest star on the local scene has been the Indra Devi Foundation.

Indra Devi's influence in Argentina capped an extraordinary 65-year career as a world ambassador of yoga. Born into the Russian nobility in 1899, Devi traveled throughout Europe as an actress before becoming an Indian film star in the late 1920s. In 1937, yoga master T. Krishnamacharya reluctantly accepted her as his first Western female student. She proved so dedicated that within a year Krishnamacharya insisted she begin to teach. After a stint in China, giving classes in the home of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947, drawing celebrities like Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Arden, and Gloria Swanson.

Charismatic, dynamic, and fluent in five languages, Devi continued to teach around the world for 35 years, but perhaps no one could have predicted the effect of her first appearances in Argentina in the early 1980s. Challenged on TV by a hardheaded reporter to explain just what she meant by the life energy supposedly developed by yoga, Devi responded by hugging the skeptic. As thousands of Argentines watched, the reporter stood transfixed for a second, and then blurted out, "That's not energy, that's love!"

That energy must have touched a chord in Argentines, because Devi was soon inundated with invitations to teach, and overflow crowds showed up wherever she went. Almost overnight, she became one of Argentina's most revered women, a beloved pop icon whose advice was sought by national leaders. By the time of her death in 2002, she'd established six schools. With over 5,000 students, they're still going strong, offering many classes, including a university-level program that attracts people from all over the world.

Given their years of troubles, perhaps Argentines were hungry for someone like Devi who symbolized spiritual renewal. In the decades before she arrived, Argentina went through a long period of government corruption, political turmoil, and economic instability. Then, in 1982, after the war with England over the Falkland Islands, the eight-year-old military dictatorship collapsed. By 1989, inflation had soared to a staggering 3,000 percent per year, and 40 percent of the population was living in poverty.

Devi's healing message and unflagging optimism, humor, and honesty gave the Argentines a sense of a new beginning, says David Lifar, who now directs the foundation. Devi fostered strong bonds among her students, and today the foundation remains not only a yoga school but a closely knit community that celebrates birthdays, weddings, new babies, and more. "With so many students, the parties never stop," Lifar says-perhaps no surprise in a buoyant, vivacious culture where, despite hard times, many clubgoers still tango the night away.

Todd Jones is a former editor with Yoga Journal. He lives in Berkeley, California. Andrea Kowalski, former online editorial director for YogaJournal.com, now lives in Oregon. Fernando Pagés Ruiz lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. Kristin Barendsen lives in Prague and writes about arts and culture for the Prague Post.
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Reader Comments

Jennifer

I loved this article. Please more articles on yoga studios abroad. I travel overseas a lot and I appreciate any recommendations I can get.

saraz

i really happy to have his page.
i want to know more n more about YOGAA.

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