Selling yoga to India

Swami Ramdev caused uproar when it was claimed he could cure Aids. Now, however, India's government has recruited him to help halt an obesity epidemic. Andrew Buncombe investigates

Whatever might be said of the yoga master Swami Ramdev, one cannot accuse him of being dull. Clad from head to foot in orange robes, his early morning television show pulls in 20 million viewers in India alone, and there are the usual video and summer camp spin-offs, as well as the more unusual ones, like yoga cruises.

Two years ago, Ramdev triggered a row with the country's health minister after allegedly claiming yoga could cure Aids. He also managed to upset followers of Mahatma Gandhi by appearing to question the contribution he had made to winning India's independence, and he fell out with a female MP who alleged the Ayurvedic treatments produced by the guru's Himalayan laboratory contained human bone.

Now, in the latest addition to his colourful curriculum vitae, Swami Ramdev is being recruited by the government for a new health initiative. In what might seem like a case of selling coal to Newcastle, the Indian Health Ministry wants the guru to help persuade more Indians to take up yoga.

Yoga, which was originally designed to bring about spiritual and physical transformation, was first developed in India more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient seals contain figures in various postures, or asanas, while yoga is mentioned in the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads. Yet while there have been efforts to introduce yoga in schools and many people may do basic yoga in their homes, only a fraction of the population practises it seriously.

Experts say that in the past decade, growing numbers of Indians have become interested in yoga, not for religious reasons, but for the health benefits that come along with it. Some believe the uptake has also been boosted by the growing popularity of yoga in the US, especially "celebrity styles" such as Bikram yoga, as practised by Madonna and the actor George Clooney. The Indian actress Shilpa Shetty recently produced her own yoga video.

On the face of it, the thinking behind the government's grand yoga plan makes sense. One of the side effects of India's economic growth is that a changing diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyle have created a health crisis. While up to 60 per cent of Indian children under the age of three are malnourished, in urban areas an estimated 20 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women are considered clinically obese. Around 40 million people suffer from diabetes.

Yet there are several peculiar things about the recruitment of the guru by the centrist government, which is led by the Congress Party – not least his affiliation with the far-right organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Even more curious is the fact that the man turning to the guru for help, Anbumani Ramadoss, is the same health minister with whom he had an unseemly public spat two years ago. But that's not what Mr Ramadoss wants to concentrate on.

"We are focusing on preventive health care and we see yoga to be a leader in preventative health care," he explained on the sidelines of an anti-smoking rally at Delhi University. "[Guru Ramdev] is working to help the government. Our vision is that each village should have a yoga teacher."

Guru Ramdev became aware of yoga's benefits many years ago. Born Ramkishan Yadav in Haryana state, he studied yoga at an early age. He has claimed that as a child he suffered paralysis and that it was only through yoga that he gained the full use of his body. He then began to live a monastic life and started teaching in villages. He may have started small, but his business has become very big indeed. In 1995 he established an organisation to promote yoga located in the Himalayan foothills at Haridwar, where the river Ganges emerges from the mountains. His headquarters is home to yoga camps and is also equipped with a modern laboratory to research the scientific evidence behind yoga's benefits. Reports suggest the Patanjali Yogpeeth, as his flagship project is known, earns about £20m a year.

Beyond the money, there is little doubt that the 55-year-old has become immensely popular. Reports vary as to the number of people who follow his teachings, either through videos, television or at the camps he also holds in the US, Canada and Europe. It is safe to say, however, they are in their millions.

Yet whatever Swami Ramdev has so far been able to accomplish, he has been unable to avoid controversy. His now notorious clash with Mr Ramadoss came when a website promoting his products claimed the CD4 cell count – which drops over time in people suffering from HIV – had increased after yoga. It was reported that the guru was claiming yoga could cure HIV and the Health Ministry ordered him to put a stop to the claims. The guru responded by saying he had been misquoted but continued to argue yoga could increase someone's immunity. He has also continued to claim it can cure various forms of cancer.

Guru Ramdev is currently in the US, where last week he announced the setting-up of a £2.5m centre in Houston. He has been holding classes for 2,000 people and has told his students that yoga – or yog as he prefers – can cure everything from cancer to heart disease. A report in the Voice of Asia said a participant at the camp, Parul Rawal, described how yoga had saved her life when she was suffering from terminal lung disease. Discovering a CD by the guru, she turned to his lessons when all other methods had failed to cure her. To loud cheers, Ms Rawal said that within six months of starting the yoga she underwent a recovery that stunned her doctors.

Swami Ramdev's spokesman said he could not arrange a telephone interview, but the guru confirmed his plan to work with the government via email. "The government of India is willing to help us in our movement for a healthy India, since our aim too is to ensure health to each and every Indian," he said. "The Patanjali Yogpeeth and Health Ministry are eager to work together to build a healthy and an ideal India. Besides, efforts are afoot to reduce or eliminate the use of [carbonated] drinks, fast-foods, drugs, alcohol and tobacco, which are causing adverse effects on the health of people."

Asked about the benefits of yoga, he said: "There are instant benefits of yoga. On average, 250g to 1kg of weight gets reduced in a day. In many other diseases, like heart ailments, hypertension, high blood pressure and diabetes... one also gets immensely benefited by doing yoga. In India, nearly 50 per cent of people over the age of 40 years are suffering from different types of arthritis... the stress level is also on the increase. All these problems are taken care of effectively by yoga."

The Indian government's Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy readily admits the benefits of yoga, but officials are somewhat sceptical of Guru Ramdev's claims. "It's wrong to give the impression that yoga is a cure-all," said Varghese Samuels, the department's joint secretary. "Diabetes and hypertension have been treated by yoga but that does not mean it's a standard treatment."

Arts and Entertainment
Sheeran arrives at the 56th annual Grammy Awards earlier this year
musicYes, that would be Ed Sheeran, according to the BBC
Sport
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Alan Hansen and Gary Lineker during Hansen's final broadcast
Sport
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Eminem's daughter Hailie has graduated from high school
music
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?