When Yoga came to UNESCO

Situated in forested
countryside, four km away from the cliffs of Caux and 12 km from Fécamp in the
north of France, Ayurveda Guru Kiran Vyas’s Tapovan campus offers a calm,
serene and relaxing atmosphere close to the refreshing air of the sea. It is
only a small walk away from the beaches of Petites Dalles whose beauty inspired
the paintings of Monet and Delacroix.

Born in 1944 in
pre-Independence India, Vyas was influenced equally by the philosophy of
Mahatma Gandhi, with whom his father worked, as well as by Sri Aurobindo. His
father was a close associate of Sardar Vallabhai Patel and was asked by the
great Indian leader to look after Sabarmathi Ashram when both Patel and Gandhi
were sentenced to jail during India’s Independence struggle.

Vyas’s father was
given the responsibility of developing and working on Gandhi’s vision of an
Indian education – self-reliant and community driven – with half the time spent
on work and the other half on academics. Only four when Gandhi was
assassinated, Vyas says Gandhi has had a major influence on his way of
thinking, with his own father wearing khadi ‘till his last breath.’

Reminiscing on the
past, Vyas says, “Historically when I look back at India at what India has done
and where India stands today it is very interesting to note that India is an
energy by itself.” Having lived in France for over four decades, he speaks
about the journey of Ayurveda and Yoga in France in particular and Europe at
large.

How was India perceived in France during your
early days?

When I first came to
Europe, Indian culture was much appreciated particularly in France and Germany.
In fact 40-50 years ago, the elite in France would think it very fashionable to
be a little Indianised. They would read Indian works and quote either Tagore,
Gandhi or Sri Aurobindo. They would organise feasts or a festival and would
tell everyone to come in Indian attire. The elite were very interested in Indian
culture.

French youth were
extremely attracted to India and Indian culture because many Indian writings
were translated into French. Right from the beginning of the 20th
century, from 1914 onwards, many writings of Indian culture and philosophy were
translated into French and so the impact was very deep. Mother, at Aurobindo
Ashram, was from France and she influenced a lot of French people towards
Indian culture. Many great French authors and poets came to India and stayed
for a long time.

France is very aware
and open to Indian music. In fact all the great maestros of Indian music come
very often to France, so much so that you can experience more Indian music
recitals in Paris than in Bombay or Delhi. It is quite interesting that ‘Indianess’
in music, art, dance is much appreciated here.

How did you establish Tapovan in France?

When I first came to France there were some Yoga
practices but it was more like gymnastics. It was the dancers and acrobats who were
attracted to Yoga practice. There was a total lack of breathing practices.

I had a great opportunity as I was also working at UNESCO
in the 1970s in the educational sector. Once the wife of Director General Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow came to me and asked me to be
present at an evening reception dinner. I told her that I personally don’t like
these kind of events where people drink champagne, what with me being a soft
drink kind of person.

But she told me that each time when I was there,
especially when I was standing next to her husband - the Director General, he
would feel much quieter, and was also able to express himself better especially
in difficult situations like when he was with the President of America or some
Prime Ministers or with other people. She really wanted to ask me what the
secret of my composure was.

I told her that it was perhaps because I practice
Yoga, to which she asked what Yoga was.  I
told her that Yoga is fundamentally a practice of inner search. Externally, it
is true that when we practice asanas and pranayama, it makes us more even tempered
and quietens the mind. It also gives us good health and opens up our
consciousness.

She suggested immediately that we start a Yoga class in UNESCO. We had regular classes and I asked them for a place for meditation in the UNESCO building. So slowly people started taking keen interest in yoga and meditation. But my serious work started in 1982 when I founded Tapovan - a Centre for Yoga and Ayurveda. Now it has developed into Tapovan Open University of Yoga and Ayurveda with the head office in Paris.

In Normandy we have around 25 acres of campus where we have planted more than 7,000 trees. It has become a very friendly, eco-friendly place like some of the old ashramas. That was the concept I had in my mind and we have developed it accordingly. The climate here does not allow us to grow all the medicinal plants so we bring some of them from India. But France has some West Indies islands like Guadeloupe and Martinique which have a similar climate as that of India where turmeric and some other spice can be grown. We try to grow as much as we can as there are very strict restrictions regarding the importing of medicines from India.

What is the policy
and attitude towards Ayurveda in Europe today?

At present most of the Western Governments are against
Ayurveda as a medicine. The WHO has accepted Ayurveda as a medicine but the
world at large is allopathic minded, even though it is allowed as a medicine.
We can use it as a well-being programme in Europe and elsewhere. I was perhaps
the first in Europe, especially in France, to practice Ayurveda.

When I started in the 1970s, the word was not even
known. It has taken 40 years to get Ayurveda introduced into society. At
present I am even teaching Ayurveda in the Medical College here. Certain
practices of Ayurveda they are now willing to accept in what is known as ‘pain
management’ and ‘wellness programmes’. To help in prevention and also to have
it as a secondary practice to help patients. But as a medical practice, let us
be very clear, as yet, it is not a legal medicine.

For the last 10 years I have been bringing many
doctors to India to learn Ayurveda and since the last 20 years I am holding an
international symposium in Normandy, and slowly more and more people are
accepting the basic principles of Ayurveda.  

I usually start by telling people that Yoga and
Ayurveda are the two greatest gifts of India to humanity, to planet earth. I
tell them that the health of a human being depends on the health of our planet
earth. I also tell them that a human being’s health health is not just for the
body - it includes the body, mind and feelings. There is the pranamayakosha – the body of energy, the
manamayakosha - the body of the mind,
and then ofcourse the psychic and spiritual body. All of our being should be
treated, to be in good health. People are becoming more and more aware of
this. 

Should Ayurveda and Yoga be practiced and preserved as a traditional Indian
science?

I believe that since these two traditions have come from
India, they should remain faithful to our ancient Ayurvedic texts like Charaka,
Sushrutha, Vagbhata and Yoga to Patanjali’s Yogasutras. But these practices
should also be seen from the modern perspective. The 20th Century as
far as Yoga is concerned, right from the Raj Yoga practices of Vivekananda, and
then Sri Aurobindo, has given us some of the most scientific approaches towards
Yoga and a spiritual life. Intellectually and scientifically, I would say that Vivekananda,
Ramana Maharishi and Sri Aurobindo are the three great personalities of modern
yoga.

Westerners have only taken yoga as a physical exercise
that too only asanas. This is a very limited approach to Yoga. The spiritual
quest is the approach of India. However, even while the world is practicing
these asanas they are turning by themselves to Indian spirituality and that is
the beauty of the practice of yoga. Even though they only practice the asanas,
they feel the need within themselves to go towards the source that is India, to
go towards that hidden thing which is spirituality, which is behind each of
these things. I find that a very great achievement on the part of all the
teachers, and all the practitioners of Hata Yoga. In the last 40 years that I
have been teaching here, I have seen a transformation take place.

Has the practice of Ayurveda and Yoga
influenced people’s lifestyles in France?

Since the time I
started, these two practices have played a very important role in people
becoming vegetarian. Basically, Ayurveda is not a vegetarian practice. In
Ayurveda one can eat meat, fish, anything. But at the same time, as far as
health is concerned, Ayurveda recommends that one be a vegetarian after the age
of 40 or 50 as eating meat causes more pain due to arthritis and other
problems.

If you want to practice yoga, becoming vegetarian is almost a necessity. It is true that without imposing on anybody, the influence of Tapovan and our classes have made so many people vegetarian. They may be eating things when they are with their families from time to time for some social functions but they are largely vegetarian otherwise.