Dr.H. R. Nagendra, a doyen in the field of yoga is the chancellor of the Swami Vivekanand Yoga Anusandhana, the President of the Indian Yoga Association and the Chairman of the newly formed Vivekananda Yoga University (VaYU) based in Los Angeles, California.
He is trained as a mechanical engineer; he is a distinguished alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. He was at NASA working in the field of space science for some time and then in the field of yoga for the past many decades.
Dr.Nagendra is known for his scientific approach to yoga and yoga therapy. He has authored over 100 research papers, and over 35 books on yoga. He is an academic, an institution builder as well as a guide and a mentor to innumerable people in the field of yoga. He is also popularly known as the personal yoga consultant to the Indian Prime Minister, Sri. Narendra Modi.
The Government of India awarded him the fourth highest civilian honour of the Padma Shri in 2016 in recognition of his services to society.
Qn: You were trained as an engineer; you were a scientist, from that to becoming one of the most respected figures in yoga, how did that journey transition?
Dr. H.R. N: When I started my doctoral program inThe Indian Institute of Science, we were really asking a question as to what the purpose of this research was. The top brains from The Indian Institute of Science discussed and we found that there was no way we were headed towards finding reality! We then wondered what the way out was. It is then that I got exposed to the Upanishads, and we were convinced that indeed we now had to go the Upanishadic way and Yoga was the way to bring in this dimension. This was the turning point in 1965. And then I started studying the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, Sanskrit and all the texts and also started doing many practices. Soon, it started growing more and more. That's how everything crystallized. When I went abroad, I developed a clear idea that I would come back and pursue this line to further advance whatever research has been done in the West. We would now take it further. That's how the whole process started. We realized that there are many yoga institutions throughout the world, but our specialty would be to bring in scientific research. And as you said, this is what we have pursued at our institution, S-VYASA. It is known for research. https://svyasa.edu.in/
When I found the direction in which to progress and pursue efforts, Swami Vivekananda came into my life. He told me to combine the best of the East with the best of the West. The best of the West is modern scientific research. So, I wanted to get familiarized with the total perspective of research, the best universities in the US and the Western industries. So I worked there for a while and came with a broadened perspective and started engaging in research in this field.
Qn: Can you just talk us through some of the biggest challenges and how you coped with it?
Dr. H.R. N: I was not an institution builder, but I'm an academician and also a researcher. Our training took place in Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari, under the overall guidance of Sri EknathjiRanade. He was a tremendous organizer, builder and a team builder. He then developed the VivekanandaRock Memorial in Kanyakumari, amidst all odds. Nobody imagined that we could build the Rock Memorial. How he converted problems, challenges and difficulties into opportunities was a great training and a mind boggling experience. I had the good fortune of staying with him from 1975 until his death, for almost 11 to 12 years and that helped me learn the science and art of building organizations and teams in the country. He also gave two beautiful books,’Sadhana of Service’ and ‘Rousing Call to Hindu Nation’ which were almost like our Bible, in which he brought out the complete and essential dimensions regarding the direction we had to move in using the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. We came there from Kanyakumari with hardly a few rupees in hand. The biggest challenge was that we had to collect the donations and finances and already Eknathji had trained me to be a good beggar(laughs). That beggary helped me to go around the world, and get some funding for this. Slowly, it started getting built and my colleagues Nagarathna, Mohan,Subhadra and I, worked together as one team to bring whatever was needed. In contrast to many other Universities or organizations that were built with industrialists’ support and financial backup, ours was built from scratch. We always believed that if it has to happen, it will happen. We were to only be instruments in the hands of the Divine. And that's how it had grown.
Qn: If we have to highlight the connection between the wisdom of our yoga, the traditional yoga, and the modern scientific, how do we bring this out to the young people, and into the modern world?
Dr. H.R. N: Swami Vivekananda said that we have to bring yoga from the Himalayan Mountains down into our day to day life, to make yoga, a socially relevant science. There are very few among the millions who go on to pursue yoga with the goal of getting to Liberation or Moksha. But how could I bring yoga to our day to day life for the rest? That was the whole idea. And we started this journey way back in 1975 when I was in Vivekananda Kendra. We decided we had to bring it to our education system and it slowly started coming up. Working in Arunachal Pradesh (a state in India), was most challenging; unread and unschooled people had to be trained to blossom as beautiful flowers in the country. And that's what we did by developing wonderful yoga modules, for total personality development and consciousness, physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, personality development, and full core consciousness of civics and patriotism, service, health and spiritual life. These modules were put into practice there. We had scientific research, we published papers and started implementing them. The children grew wonderfully much to our great satisfaction. That's how we spread yoga around the entire country. The government saw the research and decided to bring it to our education system.
Qn: Can you give us two to three examples through evidence and research the benefits or the potential of yoga?
Dr. H.R. N:We started getting inquires for helping people deal with issues like arthritis, bronchitis and asthma. We started by conducting yoga therapy camps and also started measuring all the things gradually just like when we go into more rigorous studies. We incorporated randomized control trials, and then went into long term studies. We put in our efforts and by 1986, we published our first research paper in the British Medical Journal, which was unheard of in the field of yoga. It was the first yoga publication and it was presented in the best journal of the world; not an easy task; we worked hard for almost a year with questions from reviewers;tearing, tough questions. We had to answer everything and at times the communication went back and forth three or four times; given that we did not have any email facility at that time, it was letter correspondence. It was a huge effort but finally, one single paper in the British Medical Journal called, ‘Yoga for bronchial asthma - a controlled study’, brought our entire work in front of the whole world.
Then we published a long term study in the Journal of Asthma in the United State of America, in which we showed people the results of follow-up practice of yoga. Normally, when people are very severely asthmatic, they practice yoga very regularly, about 95% of the people practice. When they get better, only 60% practice; when they get even better, only 20% practice yoga. This is what we have seen, and we tracked in our study that was published in the Journal,what happens to patients, when they are regular, discontinuous, or irregular in the practice of yoga. It was a paper involving 660 patients and also all the work was done with no grant at all. It was entirely volunteer work and that was the beauty of the project.
In recent times, another big project has been a model for diabetes. Throughout the country, India is facing the challenge of diabetes and our Prime Minister gave a mandate that we should see that we prevent India from becoming the diabetic capital of the world. We conducted research with around 250,000 people around the country, and we have published 30 cutting edge research papers. Because of all these, the American Diabetic Association, which is the premier body in diabetes acknowledged that this was the biggest research and also the best and gave us the biggest award for the year.
Now we have taken up COVID Research also in order to bring out some important dimensions through yoga; how we can boost our immune system to meet the challenge of COVID and many such questions are addressed through this research.
We have published nearly 800 papers on various problems including cancer. Cancer is another big research we were involved in and this was with MD Anderson Cancer Centre, the biggest Cancer Centre in the world. We have also completed a five year study on Cancer, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) which is complete and will go into the archives as some of the best research papers in the field of cancer.
Qn: Can you explain how yoga actually helps lifestyle influenced or non-communicable disease and works on the entire aspect of health rather than just the physical?
Dr. H.R. N: What we wanted to find out was where this knowledge base is available to us in our ‘Yoga Shastras’. We searched and finally, we found the clue and the secret in the ‘Yoga Vasishta’, in which it is beautifully described as to how these ailments are promoted and how they are caused. It all started with ManoMayakosha as Aadi and comes down to the physical body and becomes the vyaadi (disease). I've been talking about this everywhere. Unless we remove the Aadi we have no solution. The entire medical world that we have today is essentially only with the physical aspect; trying to go deeper and deeper into the body level, going into the immune system, going into the respiratory system, going deeper into the DNA and even gene therapy is being pursued. But the root cause is not tackled; that is the Aadi. So that’s the speciality of yoga.
We developed an integrated approach of yoga therapy to work at all levels of the bodily sheaths or koshas and develop a holistic system, which can bring about improvements as diseases are not only physical. They present a multi-dimensional challenge; they have physical and mental, restlessness, emotional upset, deep-rooted psychological conflict etc. Whether it is asthma, diabetes, hypertension, heart problem, epilepsy, migraine, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer or depression, all these are very complicated, sophisticated, and pose a multi-dimensional challenge. Yet the knowledge base that we have in modern science and technology is essentially physical. We cannot fight with a one-dimensional solution for a multi-dimensional challenge. Yoga provides a multi-dimensional solution.
But the important point to note is that people have to realize that specific modules have to be developed based on the pathophysiology and deeper dimensions of their disease. We have Dr.Nagarathna. She’s an expert in the modern medical world. Both of us together developed the model which was needed.
Qn: How do you encourage people to actually give the time and discipline that Yoga requires?
Dr. H.R. N: Normally, we ask people with severe symptoms to come to our centre here in the beautiful PrashantiKutiram campus, a 400-bed facility. When they come here, they are trained from morning 4.30 AM till night, on Raja yoga, Bhaktiyoga, Karmayoga; all put into in an integrated approach. Now, we have added the dimensions of Ayurveda, naturopathy, homoeopathy, physiotherapy, acupuncture; all these are included in an integrative model which reduces the time to heal and harmonize.
Qn: As an expert in yoga what is your view on the new trends of interpretations and adaptations in yoga?
Dr. H.R. N: People can use yoga as a physical exercise and also bring in various permutations and combinations. That's fine. Nothing wrong in it; people also can find out innovative, even creative ways of adopting these dimensions. And that way, we start off. But, gradually, they should grow. There are thousands of people throughout the country who have been doing that and they are developing themselves at various levels. Now it has to be brought into the greater focus. And therefore, we have standardization procedures through the Yoga Certification Board in the Ministry of Ayush.
Similarly, WHO is also coming up to help establish standardization, in order to show people basic level and advanced levels. And this how it's going to come up. In order to bring it to the university level, the MHRD has developed the Inter University Centre for Yoga Sciences. The main objective is to train people to reach higher levels and ensure that centralization happens at the university level. This is how it has to grow, from the primary level, to the middle school, and then high school and college level. There's nothing wrong in it; let them have a different approach to yoga and use it differently. But you need to be cautious as to not bring a bad name to yoga by practising distorted and maybe totally dangerous forms; claiming that yoga can do everything in the world; there is nothing that yoga cannot do, etc.; such claims have to be curtailed. This is what we are requesting people and the Indian Yoga Association, which is a conglomerate of all the top yoga masters in the country has been able to build upon this idea. It's a great achievement in a sense because people were working as islands, at different places. We had to build a common platform to synergize the effort.
Therefore, around 12 to 13 years back, when we wanted to achieve this, we went to Sri BKS Iyengarji. He became the first President of Indian Yoga Association and slowly we brought everybody, the 18 yoga paramparas and others on a common platform to synergize and build standardization.
Qn: What advice and recommendations would you give to people, across ages, to cultivate a yogic lifestyle?
Dr. H.R. N: The COVID crisis has given us a great opportunity to bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of our way of working and also the process of how we can handle staying alone, in an isolated situation. Thanks to our Prime Minister and the COVID, which have turned out to be a boon, now people are forced to take up a new way of life. They were all very busy and when we used to say at least half an hour to one hour of practice is required, they would say, “Where do I have the time? I am very busy. I don't have time at all.”I would counter and ask, “Are you busier than our Prime Minister, who spends almost an hour every day for his practice?”People have their own limitations of laziness, lethargy against doing anything physical and hence they say that. Now they're forced to change due to COVID and therefore, it's a great opportunity to change one’s lifestyle from running all the time, at times not knowing where we are running, to a place where you can stay and develop our family ties with love and affection and gradually move towards selflessness, which is the key essence of yoga and also using various yoga techniques.
Therefore, we developed three modules; one below 15 years, then 16 to 60 years, and above 60 years; they are integrated yoga modules, very simple ones that everybody can do in about 10 to 15 minutes. We ask them to do this in their home, maybe three to four times a week. Information on this is available on our website. Then, for people who are already in the hospital with COVID, we have 5 or 6 other simple modules, which require only about 5 to 10 minutes. And they can be done even while lying down on the bed.
Essentially, whatever you practice, we have to bring this dimension of harmony, love, and peace to the people at large, contribute more and more to society. You slowly move from a self-centred life to a selfless type of lifestyle; raise a man from our normal level to become great human beings, super divine human beings. These are the qualities we have to develop. And we promote these through various yoga practices, that is asana, pranayama, mudra, kriya; these are all there to bring about transformation right from inside, deep relaxation at the body level, and slowing down of the breath at the prana level, calming down of the mind at the mind level, bringing equanimity at the emotional level and a proper understanding at the intellectual level.
Qn: If one wants to live a yogic lifestyle, what would you advise them as the first thing they should start with?
Dr. H.R. N: I would say Santhosh; to be happy all the time and spread the fragrance of love and bliss to everyone. Whatever be the circumstances we are under, we have to maintain that equipoise, the blissful awareness and the smile on the face. If you start doing that, it will start working wonders.
Author: This interview was conducted by Madhusudan Rajagopalan, a member of the Early Birds Club global board. Madhusudan is a Director of Himalayan School of Traditional Yoga (HSTY - himalayanschool.com), a yoga institution founded by Mohanji to propagate the knowledge of authentic traditional yoga. HSTY is a Yoga Alliance registered yoga school and an associate centre of the Indian Yoga Association. Madhusudan is also CEO of Mohanji Foundation (mohanji.org), and an entrepreneur who is currently building a new venture, Water and Light Applications (https://waterandlight.in), in the domain of coherent water.