John Krich gets back on the mat with Bangkok’s budding yogis in a search for enlightment – or maybe just a good workout
Long before it became the most commonplace piece of advice in the world, I’d tell anyone who wanted to listen that yoga was about the best thing you could ever do for body or mind—the perfect pre-industrial tune-up for humans with sluggish sparkplugs. There was only one problem. I rarely ever got around to doing it myself.
But if there’s a most congenial and convenient spot for getting back in the karmic flow, it’s not some remote Himalayan ashram, but gritty, flashy Bangkok. According to Master Kamal, founder of the Kriyoga system that stretches taut bodies in five city locations, there are 120 or so yoga studios in the city and counting. And that’s probably not including all the gyms and clubs that offer something nominally termed yoga on the side, or the various parks and campuses where enthusiasts meet to salute the sun on their own. “This is the biggest urban market outside the US,” states Kamal, who sports a skin-tight white bandana and arms as ripped as Schwarzenegger, though I’m not sure anyone has done such a worldwide survey, or that this can be substantiated any more than claims of promoting longevity.
If so, why here? Could it be a reflection of Thailand’s inherent closeness and receptivity to all things Indian, in a country where there’s Sanskrit roots to be scratched below every surface? Or that our fair city is always up-to-date when it comes to following global trends? That yoga, after all, is the perfect counterweight to the urban crush, noise, and pollution, the quickest and most effective way to tune out? Or simply the most self-absorbed means to seek escape from the self for a largely young and female white-collar crowd while showing off well-toned physiques in spandex and the latest styles of sports bra? Or that Bangkok has a built-in predilection to tending to the body over the mind?
And how was a sixty-four-year old supposed to join in all this? After all, I hadn’t been able to touch my toes since the year my entire high school class flunked President Kennedy’s call to national fitness and sadistic gym coaches forced us brainy private school kids through an entire year of unending calisthenics. It was twenty years later, after numerous trips to the mystical East and years of struggle with the bulging waistlines and anxieties of aging that I first took the plunge into the yogic world. And only after searching for years for an equivalent did I come to realize that I had found the perfect means to ease myself in. In a huge, painted Victorian near San Francisco’s Dolores Park, an entire commune of resident hippies who shuttled back and forth to India took turns giving classes in an airy attic just perfect for all forms of transcendence. The Hatha House, as I called it, specialized in the simplest and most straightforward progression of postures—nothing more, nothing less. For even the most inflexible initiates, here was a perfect no-frills, no-name yoga where I never came away sore or stressed by competition urges, but merely a tad calmer, wiser, and properly oxygenated. Never mind that my best move was the so-called corpse pose—essentially, sleeping. If yoga was for me, it could truly be for everyone. And that didn’t mean I had to pressure myself into any tortuous contortions, like the amazing children I would witness in a New Delhi living room twisted into pretzels to demonstrate before a Western reporter how and why yoga should be considered for inclusion in the Olympics.
Today, yoga goes by far too many names and brands, plagued by too many gimmicks. There’s Vinyasa, Bikram (hot), Kundalini Iyengar, Ashtanga, and so on, ad finitum. And there’s no consumer protection afforded, no central board to bar or disbar practitioners, no truth in labelling when it comes to achieving “union” (the original meaning of yoga) between the physical and the spiritual. Let the stretcher beware! But isn’t a lotus position a lotus for all (as a rose is a rose is a rose), the downward dog pointing nowhere else but towards the floor no matter how much you fancy it up? The trouble, I found, is that even within specified programs, the variations between individual teachers can be great. At an amazing poster from India exhibited in the lobby of Yoga Elements, the outstanding centre where I first got back into my practice, the final and perhaps most crucial of all the various asanas is the one where the student stoops to touch the feet of his or her guru.
I already knew my home studio to be serious and sincere, though the emphasis on Vinyasa—signifying a steady flow of movement to keep up the aerobic level—sometimes proved a bit much for me. So I decided randomly to try out a few more. My first choice was a Sunday morning class at Yogatique, atop a small building on an out-of-the way curve off Sukhumvit 23. The proprietor Minh was an earnest blonde Canadian, despite her Vietnamese nickname. She stressed how much her studio was about building community and giving back to it in charitable ways. (They are also proud of a 30-day yoga challenge, with prizes given to participants.) My class, for instance, was by donation only, with the proceedings going to good causes—a nice way to take the commercial sting out of what was truly a secular religion. As for the class, I found it a bit disjointed—with the perfect warm-ups of saluting the sun come towards the end, after a number of backward leg pointings I could barely manage. “I had to respond to the energy of the class,” said my teacher in apology for my evident pain. But never mind—it was up to you to respect your own limits.
I was more enthralled by the ethos and vibe of Prem Yoga and Prana, a homemade, three-room centre at the back of a fading condo block along a back curve of Soi 24. Founded by an Indian housewife living in Thailand to help her recover from childbearing and other health issues, the place is decidedly “ailment-centred,” designing specific programmes for various forms of healing.
When the Ayurvedic Dr Zakaria arrived (15 minutes late for his afternoon class), looking positively swami-local with his unkempt, two-tone beard, a mere touch of my wrist and ankle pulse with two fingers led him to conclude that I needed a full course of sessions (and that was before I told them I had diabetes!). I vowed to come back to take his advice and try his Mysore-style technique—whatever that was—and I was especially curious to see how a class went with so truly Indian a personage as to not speak a word of English.
Speaking of which, I was soon reminded of one of the major pitfalls of the Bangkok yoga scene when I took Master Kamal up on an invitation to sample Kriyoga. Arriving at his huge bright space overlooking the Sky Train in Lang Suan, I was very impressed by a graduation ceremony of followers celebrating teaching certificates with a variety of astounding splits of acrobatics. Kamal, and his assistant Master Cham, a seeming double in terms of bulging muscles and swashbuckling pirate earrings, seemed to have inspired a true following. “Kri means new life, better life,” he explains, saying his classes build a lot of methods into one in order to take the practice way beyond “just stretching and relaxation.” But once the class started, it seemed suspiciously like the old Hatha basics, only done at more breakneck speed.
It was certainly instantly beneficial, if not life-changing, and would have probably been more so except for the fact that the highly energetic and enthusiastic Thai teacher shouted her steady stream of exhortations in a personal lingo that jumped without warning between Thai, English, Tinglish, and just plain Yoga-speak. It’s hard enough to concentrate on rhythms of breathing or get into a contemplative state on command, that much harder when you are straining to understand every word. But this wasn’t the first time I had tried to keep from bursting into laughter at being enjoined to jump from “downward dog ka” to “child’s pose na-ka.”
Once again, all the complications and elaborations seemed merely to remind us that nothing can really be simpler. It’s just a matter of breathing in and out. You can even do it at home to video instructions and avoid all of the above. But most of us appear to need company to help us detangle, witness our travails on the mat, requiring the incentive of masters and rigid class schedules to somehow force us back to ourselves.
If you meet a yogi wearing a mike, kill it. But I really do plan to keep it up this time, all the way to Nirvana—whether that proves to be a neighbourhood of Bangkok or not.