Yoga Challenges the Concept of Inevitability of Disease in Old Age: Chitra Ravi

UK based Yoga practitioner and teacher Chitra Ravi has called her practice Turmeric Yoga (Turmeric Yoga). She says  she wanted a name that would convey the two things that she enjoys very much – teaching yoga and plant-based cooking. "Fresh turmeric (an important spice in my cooking) not only has the most beautiful vibrant colour, it has so many healing properties, and like yoga can greatly contribute to health and well-being," says Chitra.

In her website she quotes a research paper which says that “through consumption of plant chlorophyll pigments, animals, too, are able to derive energy directly from sunlight.” Chitra predicts that sometime in the future, "people will start having chlorophyll skin patches, or better still, chlorophyll skin tattoos, and when people go into the sun, they will be able to make their own food."

In her interview with CSP she talks about the role of Yoga in healing for all.

How do you think Yoga can help people reverse aging both in the mind and body?

I can talk about this from personal experience. At the age of 50, I found myself with high blood pressure and very high triglycerides. I was overweight and would tire easily. I generally felt quite depressed at the prospect of having to deal with age related diseases for the rest of my life.. Until that time, I had not done any meaningful exercise. I was not even convinced deep down that yoga could help.

During one annual visit to India, I arranged for a yoga teacher to come home and teach my daughter and I. It was more as an activity to please my daughter. As any good Indian yoga teacher, he was uncompromising. We had daily lessons for about 5 weeks. It was tough but the feeling I got in my body was something very special. Despite all the aches and pains triggered from the yoga, I started to feel wholesome. It took another summer for me to get hooked into yoga fully.

Seeing my enthusiasm, my teacher suggested that I train to be a yoga teacher. Again I had to overcome a lot of mental blocks before I took the plunge. It has been one of the best decisions I made. In parallel, I began time restricted eating (intermittent fasting) and a plant based diet. At 60, I am in the best shape of my life. I have a healthy weight and I have come off all my medication. I am now trying to learn Kalaripayattu.

My mother began learning yoga at the age of 78 on my insistence. She too was overweight. She is now fitter than many of her age. I also notice the difference yoga can make to the overall well being of many elderly people that I teach. The following is from the manager of a Dementia Day Centre where I teach chair based yoga:

‘The benefits have been amazing and the feedback from the people is that they feel healthier, sleeping well, more flexible with body movement and better balance. The staff team has also seen tremendous results in the people that attend these sessions. We have noticed less agitation and restlessness.’

During the lockdown I taught chair yoga via Facebook Messenger to several elderly women and it helped them both in their physical and mental well being.

Yes I definitely see a possibility for reverse aging with yoga both in body and mind.

Do you think that not just children but also school teachers and other professionals should enroll in yoga classes from a young age.

I definitely think that yoga should be taught alongside core subjects like Mathematics, Science, etc. As I continue practising yoga, I find myself more accepting of other people. I am able to relate to others in a more non-judgemental way. My tremendous popularity among students as a secondary school maths teacher is due to yoga and Vedanta. I am able to treat each student as an individual and tailor my teaching to the needs of each and every student. I feel centered within myself and this feeling is also passed on to my students. I am able to be kind without appearing weak. Students feel secure and supported in my lessons. Yoga helps me create that nurturing atmosphere in my lessons that helps students thrive.

I think if teachers practised yoga, they would be more kind and compassionate. They will be able to avoid unnecessary friction in their interactions with students and colleagues.

How did you find learning yoga in the UK?

I have experienced learning yoga both in the UK and in India. In the UK, there is a greater emphasis on health and safety. There are strict protocols and rules in place. There is a component of the spiritual side of yoga in the teacher training course but this is not tested. My peers in the yoga teacher training course were more interested in the asana aspect. Of course there are many teachers here who try to bring out the spiritual side when they teach, but for most parts the yoga teaching qualification was just geared towards teaching the asanas in a safe way.

Your being good at Sanskrit being appreciated by others speaks a lot about the value accorded to the language. Did you learn Sanskrit before?

I have not formally learnt Sanskrit. My exposure to Sanskrit is from the slokams we used to recite at home when I was growing up in India and listening to spiritual lectures. Sanskrit was much embedded in my upbringing. I didn’t quite appreciate that before. I am making more of an attempt to learn it now. There is a natural aptitude as it appears encoded in my genes.

What is the value of Sanskrit for you in unearthing the treasures of Yoga, Vedic Maths.

Right now I am going through Dr Jayaraman Mahadevan’s course on ‘Introduction to Yogasutras’. I am starting to get a deeper understanding of the sutras as I learn to understand the sutras in Sanskrit itself. I do have a long way to go. I would like to take a similar approach to Vedic Mathematics. Even with my little knowledge, I am able to convey to my students that many concepts in Mathematics originated in India. Recently I did a lesson on Pascal’s Triangle and I was able to trace it back to Pingala and the Meru Prasthaara. I am able to point out to my students (a diverse group of all races, colour and creed) that many commonly used words in mathematics can be traced to Sanskrit, e,g Locus to ‘Loka’ etc.

When I start teaching a new bunch of students, I first ask them to hold their mobile phones up. Then I tell them that you wouldn’t have this device (many of them can’t be without them even for a short while!) but for the Indians and the concept of Zero. I talk to them about ‘Karma’ in the context of Newton’s laws. One student recently gave me a card in which she said that she also enjoyed the philosophical aspect of my lessons. I am happy to play my small part in giving the younger generation the right perspective about India and what contributions it has made to the world. I keep telling them about the benefits of yoga as well. I run yoga classes for stressed teenagers. I am always pleasantly surprised when a few boys turn up. I tell them yoga has come from the country and people that made your mobile phone possible. So take it seriously!

The adaptation of yoga to people with different issues is something very inclusive and admirable. Most other physical activities celebrate winners who are faster, stronger....whereas yoga helps everyone at different levels. What prompted you to take yoga to these vulnerable people?

Here in the West, yoga seems to be mainly the domain of health conscious young women (mostly) and men. And most yoga classes are not accessible to those who are differently enabled or have health issues. But I feel that Indian knowledge systems like yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda, etc are for all people, all places and all times. I cannot twist my body into shapes that a young millennial can, but that has not prevented me from benefiting from yoga and turning my life around. So I wanted to take it to those who could potentially benefit a lot from yoga. I wanted to do it with a lot of compassion and present it in a way that vulnerable people could access it. In 2020, I was pleasantly surprised to win the Best Yoga Professional UK Award in the My Life My Yoga video blogging competition. My video blog was on chair yoga.

The inevitability of disease in old age has always bothered me. I saw many of my own relatives accept this with resignation. I have always wondered if there was a solution to this. Can people not grow old gracefully like a fruit in a tree that just drops off when it is ripe. When I heard about the 98 year old yoga teacher Nannammal from my hometown Coimbatore, I felt that yoga may be the answer I was looking for.

During a visit to the local dementia centre, I noticed that many looked sad. I wanted to bring some cheer into their lives. I started volunteering there to teach chair yoga and it always warmed my heart to see them come into the yoga session with a lot of enthusiasm. Many had dementia and other age related illnesses. I have written a few blog posts about my experience with the dementia patients: https://medium.com/@turmericyoga

(It also has a couple of posts about my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother who led a dharmic life.)

As I mentioned before, I also teach yoga to stressed teenagers. It was quite a revelation to me that many young people could not do savasana. They are so restless that lying down quietly makes them quite anxious. I worry that this kind of restlessness may lead to other problems like alcohol or substance abuse. As I mentioned before, I feel that if yoga and pranayama had been part of their curriculum from an early age, so many problems could have been avoided.

I taught yoga to autistic students and I could see the potential of yoga to calm them and also for improving their proprioception.

How did the chanting course help you take your love for Sanskrit further?

It was an amazing experience. I have always liked to listen to vedam chanting, maybe a liking inherited from my father. Chanting is already enhancing my yoga teaching. I was also fortunate to continue learning from Shantalaji. I completed the course on Agni Mantras of Rig Veda as well.

I really admire Shantalaji for taking such a hard core thing as Veda chanting and presenting it in an accessible format to a world wide audience without the slightest dilution. Her presentations are simple, clear and elegant. She presents it without making it sound overly esoteric or mysterious or claiming it to be something miraculous or magical. She conveys the rigour that is needed without scaring people off. She has a pleasant presence, voice and accent. Shantalaji’s confidence comes from her deep knowledge and saadhana. She has also invested a lot of time and effort in getting the technical aspects right like sound, lighting, website, communication. It also helps that she understands both India and the West. I feel that any knowledge from India should be presented in this way. She has definitely set the benchmark for how Indic Knowledge related things should be presented to a global audience.

What do you think can be done to make Yoga in the UK more rooted.

Yoga is now a big business in the West. The emphasis is mostly on asanas. On Youtube and Instagram, some yoga teachers are making big sums of money. To make it more rooted, we need teachers who follow the Shantalaji model. Have a good presence, voice and accent. Get the technical aspects like lighting, sound, camera angle, ambience, clutter free surroundings, clothing, etc right. In the West there is a greater emphasis on the outward forms and presentation. Teachers who can get these aspects right and yet teach without dilution will be able to make an impact.