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Yoga: Ashram to studio

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URBAN BENT: Sessions at modern studios cost as much as Rs 3, 000-5, 000 a month. Members at A 1000 Yoga in Bangalore (top left)

Entrepreneurs are importing the western concept of a mixed style yoga studio for fitness enthusiasts. The emphasis here is not on spiritual practice but on achieving the body beautiful.

At the Indiranagar, Bangalore studio of A 1000 Yoga, warm morning light filters into a large, bare room with wooden floors and a raised platform, on which an instructor sits. A session of hatha yoga is about to end with pranayama, and soon the uniquely uplifting sound of many voices chanting 'om' echoes through the room.

A 1000 Yoga, a chain of yoga studios, has two branches in upmarket Bangalore localities, believes there is a form of yoga to suit everyone's needs, and its aim is to personalise yogic practices to suit individual requirements. Most of the yoga studios that have opened in the past two or three years seem to believe in this 'mix-n-match' philosophy, which allows students to try out various forms before they settle on the one that suits them, or continue with a combination of formats.

While A 1000 Yoga offers hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga, power yoga, Sivananda yoga and Satyananda yoga along with pranayama and meditation sessions, Total Yoga recommends vinyasa, hatha yoga and power yoga, with each of three classes in a week focussing on a particular form. Studio 136. 1, a Chennai chain, puts options like Mysore Ashtanga yoga, Satyanand Yoga, Sivananda yoga, weightloss yoga and restorative yoga on the mat.

Most of these studios have been founded by young entrepreneurs who are deeply passionate about yoga, yet don't shy away from marketing and branding their offerings suitably to draw in more students. A 1000 Yoga was founded by Pradeep Govinda Gowda, an engineer by education who gave up a corporate career to train in yoga at the famed Munger institute in Bihar before going abroad to teach at studios in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Returning to India, Gowda found that urban India was ready for the Western model of organised studios that provide yoga training in structured and wellregulated modules, and combine various forms to create the right 'package' for individuals.

"The concept of the yoga studio is very much borrowed from the West, " agrees Gowda. "Yoga gained popularity in the West in gyms and health clubs, which emphasised its fitness rather than spiritual aspect. And most Indians who want to take up yoga are looking for an alternative to solitary gymming, or for something that complements it, " says Gowda.

Manish Pole, who runs the Total Yoga chain of studios in Pune, Bangalore and Singapore with his wife Neetu Singh, who is also a teacher at Total Yoga, believes that for many years, yoga suffered from an image problem. It was seen as something boring, conducted in tacky hired halls and auditoriums.

"To reach out to the young, that image has to be changed, " says Pole, who gave up a job in advertising in 2003 to train in yoga with Bharat Thakur. "You can't offer the same routine to a 20-year-old and a 50-yearold. You have to make it more enjoyable and dynamic for younger people, " says Pole, who was CEO of Thakur's Artistic Yoga for 10 years before branching out on his own. Total Yoga has tied up with Bangalore corporates to provide in-campus classes, with Dell setting up a special yoga studio where Manish and Neetu teach five afternoons a week. They also visit offices to train people in 'desktop yoga'.

While yoga has been popular among young urban Indians, professionally run yoga studios have started gaining a foothold only in the past three years or so. Unlike older yoga schools, which didn't mind settling for small flats in nondescript bylanes, these studios spend good money to make sure they are located in posh areas and are done up attractively.

The A 1000 Yoga studio in Indiranagar is as welldecorated as a boutique hotel or trendy restaurant. Potted plants dot window-sills, paintings in warm oils line the walls and a small wooden stand holds products such as mats, mat holders, coffee mugs and organic food products prominently branded with the 'A 1000 Yoga' logo. There are lockers for students, a pantry and spotlessly clean restrooms and shower-rooms. But, says Gowda, it is not just about "ambience". "The environment may attract students initially, but they stay on is because of the benefits they derive, " says Yashwant Saran, founder and managing director of the 136. 1 studios in Chennai and Bangalore. Studio 136.

1, named so after the standard frequency of the Om tuning fork, is one of the older players in this sector. While their methods are rooted in traditional practices, most studios don't deny that they have made certain changes keeping contemporary needs in mind. So while 136. 1 offers customised packages to deal with lifestyle problems such as lower back pain and obesity, A 1000 Yoga teaches the rather faddy hot yoga, during which the studio is heated to sauna levels. Pre- and post-natal classes are also increasingly popular. "Yoga has to change and evolve, " says Manish Pole. "You can no longer say 'this is the only way to do it'. "

The transformation has meant that it is no longer inexpensive. While personal yoga teachers charge Rs 6, 000 and upwards per month, studios cost as much as membership at high-end gyms and fitness clubs. Monthly memberships could cost between Rs 3, 000 and Rs 5, 000;the annual fees are between Rs 18, 000 and Rs 20, 000. But nobody seems to be complaining. "Our membership renewal rate is 60 per cent, " says Saran. Gowda says practitioners treat the classes as 'openended' sessionsz, and many even opt for the teacher training programmes.

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