Somvir: Bringing back Yoga’s roots


Born of India’s moon people, Yogi Somvir claims his ancestry back to Lord Krishna, the blue sage of Hindu history. His color, says Somvir is because he “was a little bit dark, from the North of India where the original people were dark.”

Somvir’s discussion of his family history comes late in an interview with the Renon-based yoga guru, who is now an Indonesian citizen and founder of the Bali India Foundation that works to bring the two regions closer together; into the unity that translates in Sanskrit as Yoga.

“Lord Krishna left us two messages when he died; to be vegetarian and protect cows,” explains Somvir of roots that led to his establishment on a mountain in Bedugal, Markandeya Yoga City, thought to be the largest yoga centre in Southeast Asia.

Somvir knew he had to find spiritual land so he traveled around Bali meditating for six months, then had a dream to travel in the Bedugal direction. “I meditated here and it was perfect. I bought 1,800 square meters for my cow and it has slowly, slowly developed from there,” says Somvir.

Somvir began studying yoga at just four years of age, by the time he was 15 he took out the Indian Yoga Championship title in the under 16’s.

His belief in the benefits of yoga and later, Ayurvedic medicine, never waned, but he was concerned that ancient practices had been hijacked by spiritual entrepreneurs, who he says, have moved “about 80 percent” away from the correct, classical forms of yoga as laid down in 5,000-year-old Sanskrit texts – texts Somvir claims to read in the original Sanskrit, a language he also teaches to Balinese priests.

“I read these texts over and over – perhaps already 1,000 times, always there is something new,” he says.

Somvir moved to Bali from his home village of Haryana, Jakhala, in 1994, following a discussion with his guru.

“I asked him what I should be doing with my life and yoga practice,” says Somvir, “he said move to South East Asia and teach people yoga.”

Given Somvir’s Hindu beliefs, Bali seemed the ideal place. The island with its historical spirituality and growing numbers of people around the world looking for a balance in their stressed lives opened a door for Somvir lecturing in spiritual tourism at Denpasar’s Udayana University.

The problem with spiritual tourism is that so often it has been ambushed by non-Asians who may “study yoga for a month and become a teacher,” says Somvir whose mission is to return yoga teaching to Indonesians. He now has 50,000 Indonesian disciples across the archipelago and also teaches in Japan and Poland.

“Our mission is not commercial. We teach Indonesians traditional yoga called Patanjali because he was the founder of yoga about 5,000 years ago. Balinese all know of Patanjali, but now the new forms of yoga [taught in Bali and worldwide] are about 80 percent different from the original yoga.

“His belief in the benefits of yoga and later, ayurvedic medicine, never waned, but he was concerned that ancient practices had been hijacked by spiritual entrepreneurs.”

“Patanjali started from [observing] nature and today most yoga centers are not close to nature. People are doing yoga in the day and discoing in the night. But there is some yoga you should not do if you are having sex, drinking (alcohol) or eating poorly, but in the yoga market today — and I believe it’s become
a market — people do whatever they want.”

At the Bali-Indonesia Foundation, Somvir continues, we are very strict and only select a few people to go through to advanced yoga. Potential teachers must pass an Ayurvedic heath test, “because people say all exercise is ok, but not in yoga. We don’t recommend students do difficult exercises. In the West they [teachers] push them. In the traditional texts, only four to five practical exercises are introduced with the difficult exercises only for the celibates, because they have the internal strength,” says Somvir.

This is a difficult life to chose; a life lived alone and focused primarily on the divine. Somvir’s aestheticism has cost him his wife and most of the earthly joys many take for granted.

“I was once married, but to go further into this [yoga] practice meant I must be alone. My ex-wife also follows this path and is now helping people in South America. I did discuss the denials of earthly life, such as celibacy, with my guru. He said that I may have done all those things in another lifetime, so why not try something different this time around,” quips Somvir.

This life is an almost impossible task in the 21st century Somvir adds, with water, soil, air and sea pollution affecting the very water and foods we absorb daily.

“These days if people do the extreme exercises, it’s a problem. Our bones are not strong because of foods.

Time magazine cites around 20,000 due to yoga and who will be responsible for this? Yoga should not be blamed but rather the teachers.”

Somvir refers to one of his students in Japan. “She was cleaning her stomach every day. Her [yoga] teacher had told her to do this ‘Basti’ daily. She was losing all her energy and would have become very ill. In the [Sanskrit] texts, this should only be done once a year, at most once in six months,” says Somvir.

He points also to the industry that has sprung up around yoga, questioning its value.

“For example people are now buying yoga mats at hundreds of dollars. They are breathing in rubber. The mat should be cotton, a cotton sarong, which would also help local Balinese traders.”

Things in yoga need to be simple. “Yoga should not be considered a fashion, but a part of your mind, body and soul,” says Somvir who has a weekly program on Bali TV, is opening free yoga classes in the Renon park on Sundays and teaches his Markandeya Yoga City every weekend free of charge for local villagers, most of whom attend.

He also teaches yoga at Bali’s SMK National Technology school where 600 students follow his traditional yoga practice since its insertion into the school’s compulsory curriculum. “This is the first school [in Indonesia] and has accepted our yoga into the curriculum.”

Somvir hopes these school yoga classes will help reduce the tensions young people face in a changing world, giving them tools to reduce vulnerability to narcotics, alcohol and smoking.

“Fifteen years ago there were fewer problems than today. Now kids are taking narcotics, smoking and drinking all their money away. Students spend their money on this and may become criminals, so we are bringing them back to yoga, because yoga is the backbone of the culture and religion of Bali.”

Yoga in Bali is one of the methods started by the ancient sages like Markandeya who introduced Hinduism to Bali around the ninth century, Somvir continues. “He established the Mother Temple of Besakih, so the roots are very ancient. This includes Ubud, Markandeya came to Ubud and did yoga on the banks of the Campuhan River; this is why it flourishes in Ubud today.”

Somvir is currently marrying yoga, the mudras and Ayurvedic practice, all of which he understands in depth, into Suryasoma, a form of yoga to bring “health, peace and prosperity,” to all people. As to the cost, a three-month yoga course at the Bali India Foundation will cost you around US$40, and not a penny on yoga hip.

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