Yoga has been around for longer than any archaeological records; by its very nature, it leaves nothing behind to point to its existence except for tales of the amazing powers possessed by some of the best yogis.
In Bangkok, yoga has been taught formally for only around 40 years – which is rather surprising if you consider that some scholars assert that yoga practice is central to Buddhism.
The first evidence of yoga’s practice is provided by Indian stone seals showing figures in yogic postures dated around 3000BC. In text, yoga is first mentioned in a collection of scriptures known as the Vedas, written five hundred years later. But it wasn’t until the sixth century BC, when the epic poem Mahabharata was published that things spread more widely. The poem contained the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famed of all yogic-related scriptures.
Hatha yoga, the generic term for most yoga practised in modern times, is based on a later text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which describes the various yoga postures still practised today.
Although things here in Bangkok may have been slow to kick off, today more and more Thais, along with expats, are becoming interested in yoga. “I don’t know if it’s a fad or what,” says Hilary Fedderson, who teaches her own blend of yoga several times a week here, “but people are certainly picking up on it now.”
Even a new Iyengar yoga studio has opened to deal with increasing demand for knowledge of, and a space to practice, this ancient tradition.
Hilary points out that the idea of yoga was never merely to exercise. “The idea of yoga was to have a healthy body so that you could go higher spiritually,” she explains. If the body was more flexible and strong, sitting meditations would be easier. “It’s like you’re joining the individual soul to the universe. At a lower level, it’s the joining of the mind to the body.”
And you don’t need to be flexible to start doing yoga – you’ll feel the benefits immediately regardless. “The moment you stretch your legs and you feel the stretch – already you’re opening up energy pathways,” Hilary says.
The word yoga in fact literally means “joining”. Essentially, five principles can be identified as making up complete yogic practice (although various schools may have slightly differing theories). These are: proper relaxation, proper exercise (that is, yoga’s physical postures, or asanas), proper breathing (that is, the practice of pranayama), a proper vegetarian diet, and meditation.
“I don’t teach everybody pranayama,” says Chomchuen Sidthivech, also known as Khun Noo to the many students she teaches from her Bangkok home. “It’s very difficult compared to the postures – it’s inside. The postures are outside. Before you progress to pranayama you should concentrate on your breathing in your asanas. When you practise pranayama every day, it’s easy to progress to meditation.”
Many people start yoga initially because they’re suffering from a specific problem, or they are simply looking to maintain their health. Khun Noo started practising yoga because she suffered severely from allergies, regular colds and period pain.
“I found out about yoga from a magazine,” she says. She read an interview with the man who would eventually become her guru – and her father-in-law. “I wanted to help myself – I don’t like taking medicine.”
She soon began practising every day. “I was very stiff and not strong at all. After about three months, my menstrual problems cleared up, which made me very happy. It took one year for my body to really change. After that I improved quickly.”
Her guru had been suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, and weight problems, so he studied at the renowned Sivananda Ashram in Rishikeh, north India, when he went to India as part of his job as a journalist. He returned after several years of study to open a yoga school here in Bangkok located on Soi Wattanayothin – that was around forty years ago.
Khun Noo studied with him for around three years before she too began teaching at his school. Eventually they moved the school to Khun Noo’s current house, where they taught together for around eight years. Her guru died around eleven years ago, and she now teaches alone, although she is training her youngest sister to assist her. One group of around ten women have been coming to her for more than ten years. “A lot of my students are like my sisters or my cousins,” she says, smiling.
The Sivananda school of yoga that she teaches emphasises gracefulness, with no jerking, a trait that can sometimes be observed in other schools, such as Ashthanga which is becoming popular in the US. “Sivananda is smooth, gentle, slow,” she says. “It’s quite different.”
She is emphatic about the benefits of practising yoga. “If you practise every day, you learn how to breathe and move in a complementary way – it makes you become happy,” she says. “After a while, if you miss a day, you start to feel bad.”
American Justin Herold, who recently opened Bangkok’s first Iyengar yoga studio, undertook yoga seriously when he found it offered him better all-round health than running, his previous method of maintaining fitness. He eventually took a teacher training course in Los Angeles, taught at the Los Angeles Iyengar school for three years and spent time studying with BKS Iyengar, the school’s founder, and his family at their institute in Pune, India. He arrived in Bangkok around eight years ago, where he has been teaching since.
“I go back in yoga around twenty years,” he says. “And the people who went back say ten or fifteen years prior to me were really on the cutting edge in terms of learning yoga in America. When they started, they were kind of like the real weirdos – the people you most associated them with were like beatniks, the flower children. It was something from the East, and it was something that was really – you know, maybe communist-rooted or something like that!”
He chose the Iyengar school of yoga, which emphasises body alignment and uses props such as blocks, ropes, belts, blankets and bolsters to help students get into poses. As he has a background in construction, he says this sort of approach to yoga appealed to him. “You find things that you grasp, that you can understand. Building and foundation make a lot of sense to me because I’ve seen it through the work I do.”
Justin points out that one of the main things with yoga is finding both a school and a teacher you like. “The end results are pretty much the same. Some people like Ashtanga yoga, where you go through a series of postures, and it gets really rigorous. It’s subjective, and that’s why I get people here – because some people like the way I teach.”
So if you’re looking for a way to maintain your health or you’ve been suffering from chronic pain or illness, and you’re prepared to give an ancient, highly-reputed therapy a go, Bangkok is now a good place to be. Invest in some casual exercise clothes and you’re set: you just need to find the teacher and the school right for you.
Hilary Fedderson teaches several classes weekly in the Sukhumvit area. She can be contact via email at [email protected]. Khun Noo teaches Monday to Saturday at her home on Ekamai Soi 16. Justin Herold takes classes at set times every day except Friday at the Fiftyfifth Plaza Bld, 90 Sukhumvit Soi 55. Phone 714 9924 for a schedule.