“It started with one person in the basement of my mother’s house, and soon in about two to three months, there were twelve people. People just showed up and I don’t even know how they showed up. It was merely through word of mouth and to date, I’m not very good at marketing myself!”
When asked about her first experience with yoga, Rohini Manohar, founder of the Chennai Yoga Studio, laughs. It was actually her friend who had pushed her to join her. After escaping various attempts to be dragged along, she was finally left with no choice when her friend paid for her first class. Rohini had been expecting an easy class of around forty-five minutes of Pranayama and then a little bit of shavasana, something she had been seeing all along in Chennai. However. nothing could have prepared her for how strong the class really was. “In that first class, I actually fainted,” she says sheepishly.
Despite having fainted, she noticed that her skin was glowing, and that her mind had never been more silent and relaxed. Her teacher consoled her, assuring her that her body was learning something new and this was what happened with any skill. Determined, she went back the next day and she hasn’t looked back since. “For lack of definition, it’s like a high that you get. Literally like sixty minutes of silence is never possible in here,” she says, pointing to her head. Despite how busy she got, Rohini always made time for her yoga classes and claims that yoga was probably the only constant in her ever-changing schedule.
When people ask where her yoga journey started, they might expect an answer like in an ashram with some monk, but her journey actually started from that first class in Melbourne, Australia.
The history of yoga says that it was compiled by Patanjali from various older texts, called the Yogasutras, and was then taught in different ways by different teachers, each of whom added their own flair and style to it. The most popular among them in India is Sivananda, whose style is what is considered “normal Suryanamaskar” today. The reason this style became popular was because the knowledge lay in the hands of monks, and the people who generally went to these monks were people in Vanaprastha and it wouldn’t be logical to teach hardcore yoga to such elderly people.
As a result, sivananda yoga was assumed by people to be the only style of yoga, while in fact, the first yoga was taught to teenage boys who couldn’t sit quietly and it’s a physically challenging practice to keep your mind very still. The logic goes this way, if you can control what you can see, then you can control what you can’t, which is your mind. The method of teaching modern yoga is the Mysore style of yoga asana practice which comes under the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition as taught by K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore and is followed by the rest of the world.
“Obviously I missed home. It’s very hard living abroad and yoga seemed like the perfect connection. Those sixty minutes. Sometimes it just feels like life just pulls you in a certain direction and this felt like that.”rohini manohar
After completing her education, she worked in Australia for two years and then came to Chennai because she wanted to join a United Nations (UN) program called YPP, which requires two years of government work and two years of NGO work. Having worked in Greenpeace for two years, and after completing that stint, she was waiting for the application window to open. During the two years, she had been in Chennai, she had been looking for a good teacher because yoga had remained a constant practice.
However, after going to about four or five studios, she realized that nothing matched the style of yoga she had learned, and so out of a dire need, she decided to get herself certified so that she could continue teaching herself and continue her practice without looking for someone else to teach her.
Slowly, people just showed up and she swears that she has no idea how. Initially, she felt awkward charging for her sessions and refused to. Slowly, she started charging a nominal amount. Soon when numbers grew, she realized that it was growing on its own. As her classes and students both increased in number, she didn’t even have an opportunity to apply for the UN program.
She has never looked back since.
After that, she started to get offers to teach in the northeastern parts of the country, which allowed her to travel, see new places and also to teach, which by then were two of the things she loved to do. The first place she got to teach outside Chennai, was Manipur, and being a place she had never travelled to, it had a certain thrill factor to it. Rohini now gets offers to travel and teach almost every month, another major positive.
Not only has yoga helped her feel much healthier physically, she also noticed major differences in her mentality. She found herself getting anxious much less easily and lesser outbursts of emotion. One of the other major differences she noticed in herself was she no longer felt the need to fit into society’s model of success or failure. Initially, she found it hard to digest, but it longer bothers her.
In the beginning, there would be days where she had eight students, and there would be days when she had only one, but she made it a point to give it her all, irrespective of the number of people.
From her first class in a tiny shala, over time, her classes gathered a lot of attention, which led to the organizers giving her bigger spaces for her class, along with better timings. Through the event, she was also able to build a network of yoga instructors, and she even collaborated with a few of them.
In addition to classes at her own studio, she has also been teaching yoga at the Covelong Festival held at Covelong Point, Kovalam for the past three years. The three-day-long festival combines music, surfing and yoga, and invites teachers both from within the city and as well as from other countries.
For her studio, as a businesswoman, she has had to set goals for both herself and her yoga studio, in order to keep moving forward. Her first-year goal was to build her own studio, second year was to organize a yoga retreat, third was to conduct teacher training programs, fourth was to host an international retreat. Her goal for her fifth year was to conduct a yoga festival.
In accordance with her goal, Rohini has hosted a three day festival for yoga day, during which she conducted 12 classes, including yoga classes, sound bowl healings, singing, and even lectures. She had noticed that yoga had become more physical, with people focusing more on the physical aspect of it and not on the mental and spiritual aspect of it and so she wanted to bring together all elements of what yoga really is.
She held the festival at her own studio and the response was such that people who came even a minute late had to go back home, only to come back and wait, twenty minutes before the next class. Some of the students even brought cake and food, making it seem like a big party.
“My favorite places, with good response to yoga – are Rishikesh, Sri Lanka, Bali, Hampi, Yamunotri, Manipur, Dharamshala, and Thailand.”Rohini Manohar
When asked about her plans for the future, she replied saying one of the areas she wanted to explore was prenatal yoga, as she feels Indian society treats women very delicately during her pregnancy which, while important for a little while, ends up with inducing unhealthy amounts of fear into the woman’s body. Another goal of hers is to host another festival at a much larger scale, involving people of great intellect and spirituality.
“There’s no other form of exercise that has been passed down for five thousand years. I just wish that people learn to take our heritage seriously. In the western markets, two billion people practice yoga every year, two billion! And what are we doing?”