In the Mecca of Celebrity Yoga

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Luca Tettoni / Corbis

Practicing Yoga in Mysore, India.

Natascha, a French yoga teacher, is a type that could be found in any organic-vegetarian restaurant in any of the cosmopolitan cultural capitals of Europe and the Americas. She has studied with the glitterati of yoga masters, and is in town for a refresher course. "It's a dream life," she says, while munching an organic vegetable hotpot at a café catering exclusively to yoga enthusiasts. "You can practice yoga with the masters, eat organic food, and rent a bicycle to take you around this beautiful city!"

The beautiful city, in this instance, is not San Francisco or Berlin; it's Mysore, in southern India, which each year draw several thousand yoga pilgrims from around the world. Mysore began its journey towards yoga mecca-dom in 1931, when a 40-something, five-foot-two-inch Brahmin was summoned by the ailing monarch of what was then a princely state under British tutelage. Numerous doctors had failed to cure the king's affliction, but the yogi succeeded within a few months, and the king rewarded him by building him a yogashala (yoga school) in his grand palace. It was here that the yogi, T. Krishnamacharya, developed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga — a comparatively aerobic style whose devotees include the likes of Madonna and Sting, and thousands of hipsters from Tokyo to New York. But it was necessity, rather than the body-toning concerns of Western fashionistas, that shaped Krishnamacharya's style: Most of his students were restless young boys, and he found that the best way to focus their attention for purposes of meditation was to put them through a rigorous regimen of strenuous postures, struck in quick succession to minimize mental distraction. Today, the style appeals to Western devotees whose priority is a high-energy workout rather than an inner journey.

K. Pattabhi Jois, who taught Natascha here, was a disciple of Krishnamacharya, whose style he took to the world. But she also studied with Jois's student B.N.S. Iyengar, who moved away from his guru's rigidly-defined sequence of postures towards greater emphasis on the spiritual. "If anyone asks me for advice, I suggest Jois for flexibility, and Iyengar for concentration," she says, while demonstrating a split and touching her forehead to the ground as nonchalantly as a cat stretching after a nap.

The café shares a compound with the Mysore Mandala Yogashala. Just before sundown, a batch of eight students — all foreigners — are beginning their evening session with a Sanskrit mantra invoking Patanjali, the sage who compiled the Yoga Sutras, expounding ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga philosophy. The room is dimly lit and already slightly clammy when the students begin huffing and puffing their way through ten repetitions of surya namaskara, or sun salutation, the opening asana. Within a few minutes, their bodies are glistening with sweat as they flex themselves into scary positions, sometimes tugged and pushed by the teacher, all apparently impervious to the army of mosquitoes buzzing all around.

A host of similar schools have emerged in the wealthier neighborhoods of this prosperous city in recent years. Jayakumar Swamyshree runs Pranava Yogadham, where he offers courses of varying durations, but usually with up to four sessions in a day. Like many teachers and students, he is critical of Jois's brand of yoga, which many teachers in Mysore have adopted — largely to attract foreign students and their dollars. "Yoga's about liberation, emancipation, inner peace, harmony... That's the ultimate aim of yoga — kaivalya. It's not just about a perfectly sculpted body," he says. He also says Jois's fees — $700 for a month-long course, three to four times the amounts charged by other schools — are excessive, "especially as he doesn't even teach himself any more. His daughter and grandson take the classes."

In the town centre, near the imposing Mysore Palace, is the older Sri Patanjala Yogashala. Up its ancient, carved staircase is the room where B.N.S. Iyengar sees students twice a day. On this day, a young Canadian woman is taking notes on kundalini yoga, another of Iyengar's specializations. "Without philosophy, yoga is just gymnastics," he says, adding that it's a shame that so few of his students are Indian.

The influx of foreigners has created a small yoga economy in Mysore. "Whatever they want, we give," says N. Harish Bheemaiah, managing director of Mysore Mandala Yogashala — lessons in classical Indian dance, music and painting, sattvik (vegetarian) food, accommodation, ayurvedic massage, and so on. In between coconut groves and rice paddies, cafes and eateries catering to foreigners have sprung up. An Austrian Caf loudly announces itself with an orange-and-blue sign; not very far away is a Subway sandwich shop. But the locals are largely unaware of their city's status among the international yoga jet-set. Many do not even recognize famous teachers' names. The visitor, in fact, may be better off asking directions from a foreigner — at least when they're trying to find a famous yoga teacher.