Yudhi Widdyantoro : A yogi with a deconstruction plan
The Jakarta Post
Yudhi Widdyantoro, a yogi for more than 20 years, has a lot of things to say about recent development of yoga that have gone to the direction of the expensive, elite and healthier-than-thou stereotypes.
He has been trying to deconstruct that stereotype by writing articles, talking in discussions and even planning to publish a book. But the most effective and fun way of deconstruction is his brainchild Yoga Gembira (Fun Yoga) community, an inclusive, free-of-charge yoga activity held regularly on Sunday mornings at several parks, including Suropati Park, in Jakarta.
'It's free, but you can donate some money to our coffers if you want. The money is used for charity,' Yudhi said.
Established in 2008, Yoga Gembira, also known as the Social Yoga Club, has recently broken an Indonesian World Record Museum's (Muri) record for holding the largest mass yoga event. Held in cooperation with an insurance company earlier this month, the event attracted 1,021 participants, who made a very long row in the slow lane of Jl. M.H. Thamrin in Central Jakarta.
Yoga Gembira was established in early 2009 when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) launched an investigation into yoga and later banned 'Hindu-heavy yoga' for Muslims.
Yudhi said the word gembira (fun) meant a lot in Yoga Gembira, because through the event he wanted to send a message that there was nothing to fear about yoga.
The other message he wanted to convey was in his session yoga was not expensive and he was not the type of yoga teacher who pressured participants to do yoga poses (asana) precisely. 'Listen to your own body. You have bones and there is nothing you can do about bones.'
'We also have a sharing session afterwards. Once we had [Islamic scholar] Musdah Mulia with us. Afterwards we usually have lunch nearby, like at the chicken congee stall,' he said.
Developing a better body image, he said, was one reason that people, mostly women, want to do yoga. This reason has been mined heavily by the market to earn money and is where the problem with yoga as a trend started.
While welcoming the rising popularity of yoga, Yudhi criticized the unethical side of competition between yoga centers. He is also concerned with the hype, calling it not sustainable. 'It will be sustainable if Indonesian schools teach yoga, like few international schools have done in their extracurricular programs.'
The lack of an authoritative body that can issue credentials for yoga teachers has also given way to the mushrooming of self-appointed yoga teachers who get 'students' by self promotion, such as by posting pictures of themselves doing poses on social media.
Yudhi said yoga was more than just asana, and is only the third step in yoga's eight limbs.
He also refused to wear a badge of a certain style in yoga, although he once studied at Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India, an institution that authorizes teachers of the Iyengar style. He said adherence to certain styles or trademarks was not liberating and tended to breed fundamentalism, which he said went against the principles of yoga.
'Many yoga centers and teachers copy and paste what yoga institutions in India do. Teachers wear Indian attire and they instruct yoga with military precision, yelling at students,' Yudhi said. He said the stereotype of vegetarian yoga teachers was also only a stereotype. 'I am not a vegetarian,' he said in Rumah Yoga, a yoga studio in South Jakarta that he helped establish.
Many also copy the way yoga gurus and students in India relate, which runs in the course of patron-client style, where the teachers are seen as representatives of God.
Yudhi, who will turn 50 on Oct. 31, learned yoga in 1991 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indian Cultural Center. He knew next to nothing about yoga; his motivation was to learn meditation to deal with his 'bad temper.' 'You know, the kind of 'people against the state' anger,' said Yudhi, a dropout from Jakarta's two biggest philosophy schools, University of Indonesia and the Driyarkara School of Philosophy.
He said at that time he paid Rp 20,000 (US$1.80) to participate in yoga sessions in the center for as many times he wanted. 'I came every day,' he said, laughing.
At that time, he was the only Indonesian yoga student. The others were mostly diplomatic staffers from various embassies. Soon, he said, because of his regular attendance and relatively flexible body, he was assigned by the teacher as 'the head of the class,' or a person in charge of showing how to do the pose every time the teacher needed to leave the class briefly.
His career as a yoga teacher, however, did not start until the Indian teacher took a three-month leave. Yudhi and his fellow yoga students later arranged collective practice, with Yudhi leading poses they learned from an asana book. 'The book became very worn out.'
When some of his classmates could not make it to the practice, one by one they started to call Yudhi for private sessions, and he started to get some money out of yoga.
Yudhi said that the Asian economic crisis in 1997 inspired people to look for alternatives in healthcare. Many looked to yoga, which was already a popular form of exercise in the US. His students had grown in number and an interview with TV host Sarah Sechan on an MTV program at that time propelled his career further. 'I had to put people on a waiting list.'
The recent hype about yoga and the money that I has brought with it, however, has not changed Yudhi's lifestyle much. He still rides his motorcycle everywhere and his savings from teaching yoga have mostly gone to traveling, which he loves. The birth of his first son last year, however, has made him cut his traveling.
Besides trying to promote yoga for all, Yudhi is now learning about the connection between yoga and nature; he once joined a community of sustainable living in India where he learned organic farming.
His interest in nature has also influenced his preferred venues for Yoga Gembira: the many parks in Jakarta. His choice has made him a kind of a celebrity among proponents of Jakarta's green initiatives; his yoga community is now on the main menu on almost every activity list for the city's parks.
'Yoga Gembira is about four things: Doing yoga, having fun, sharing knowledge, and doing charity,' Yudhi said.
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