"N'aama haaaaaa," reverberated the chant inside the darkened gymnasium as 65 men and women standing on rainbow-hued rubber mats raised arms skyward then gently folded them inward toward their stomachs.
"Again," called the cherubic instructor in front of them.
"Naama haaaaaa," they echoed the mantra, arms raised ceilingward and placed over their hearts. In the front row, eyes closed in concentration, a thin, corkscrew blonde wearing dark leggings and a loose-fitting T-shirt arched back dramatically as she reached toward the heavens.
The scene could be perceived as a surreal cult gathering with participants hailing an invisible, revered deity. In fact, it was day three of a yoga seminar conducted by one of the world's preeminent yogis. The students, ranging in background and age, were themselves instructors learning how to hone their meditation and breathing techniques.
The teacher teaching the teachers was Kausthub Desikachar, a mid-30s yogi from Madras, India, who spent four days in September at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports mentoring forgiveness, yoga, and the significance of servitude within society.
No mere yogi, Desikachar hails from a hierarchy of masters. His grandfather, Shri T. Krishnamacharya, is considered by aficionados to be the initiator of modern yoga; while his father, T.K.V. Desikachar, is credited with popularizing yoga in the West. Kausthub sustains the legacy by devoting his life to spreading the word through seminars, authoring books, serving as advisor to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and offering free yoga classes to orphans, HIV patients, and prisoners in India.
"I sometimes feel that the responsibility can be a little bit frightening because I'm trying to represent two great masters who are my predecessors - my grandfather and father," admits Desikachar. "It's almost like an impossible task, but I feel that as long as I remain a student of this tradition, I will be able to manage with their blessings. I'm a student first and then a teacher."
The portly Desikachar negates conventional perceptions of a spry, sinewy yogi capable of contorting to seemingly impossible degrees. Accordingly, he corrects common misperceptions of yoga as a purely asana-(pose) based or physical endeavor.
"Saying that yoga is only asanas is like saying that bread is the only food. Yoga was created at a time when things were very different than they are nowadays. People were much more physically active and did not have cars, buses, and planes. They had to run or walk, do everything physically and be very, very active. That was 2,000 years ago. So was it created for the body? No, it was created for the mind," he clarifies.
"What affects the mind?" Desikachar probes. "Body affects the mind. Breath affects the mind. Emotions affect our mind. Personality affects our mind. Therefore, yoga has tools for each of these levels. For the body there's asanas; for breath there is pranayama (breathing exercises); for mind there is meditation; for emotions there are all kinds of meditations; and for personality there are attitudes which are taught. So a whole holistic range is taught in yoga," he explains.
The instructors paid NIS 900 apiece to attend Desikachar's seminar. Hagar Shur, a Herzliya Pituah yoga teacher and practitioner for 15 years, came because "it was a great opportunity to learn from that family of teachers."
Shur notes a definite increase in her student population over the years, adding that Israelis are increasingly curious about yoga.
Israeli Yoga Teachers' Association chair Sima Chandrasekhar agrees. Although unable to cite figures, Chandrasekhar estimates thousands of practitioners in Israel and says that the numbers are growing annually.
With flocks of post-army travelers visiting India's ashrams, and mind-body awareness segments routinely making their way into the media, the yoga craze is seemingly here. Yet some instructors say that the growth is moving at a snail's pace, and they puzzle over sporadic class attendance and sparsely populated sessions as compared with the packed-to-capacity studios of New York or San Francisco.
In the Tel Aviv area, for example, there are fewer than 10 studios (while several dozen private classes are taught from homes and apartments). New York, by comparison, boasts dozens of studios hosting a daily menu of heavily attended classes.
Tel Aviv's Chandra Yoga Studio owner Lauren Ohayon says that although she has built up a following over a four-year period, it has been frustrating at times. The spunky, ex-New Yorker started her career by renting studios throughout the city and shunting devotees from space to space for bi-weekly instruction. Ultimately, an impossible situation compelled her toward ownership.
Today Ohayon says her phone rings off the hook but maintains that yoga is "definitely not the way it's on fire in the US."
Desikachar's explanation for this can be found within society's cultural thread. In countries such as Japan, Israel, or India, where society is steeped in tradition and family values - "spiritual anchors" he sees lacking in the US - populations are less likely to cling onto practices the way their American counterparts do.
"What is yoga?"
"It's a state of being of the mind," Desikachar reiterates. "Definitely the Jewish tradition has a lot of spiritual practices and qualities. So maybe there are many, many people who are spiritual and mentally peaceful already. They just don't call it yoga."
Mentally peaceful in Israel?
Ohayon partially agrees. "The quality of life here is better. People go to the beach and watch the sun set or hang out with friends in the evening. In the United States, people become obsessed with the idea of yoga as self-help, whereas in Israel the idea of self-help is not big at all," she says.
Ohayon says that many Israelis have trouble with the quiet, meditative aspect of the practice - or simply "letting go" and being led. Some see yoga as an added expense if they already have gym memberships.
She readily admits that if there's a need for yoga anywhere in the world, it's this country. Both men and women occasionally silently shed tears during her classes - a common yoga occurrence instigated by the release of trauma or stress in the body.
This is Desikachar's first visit to Israel. Did he find Israelis suitable for such a holistic, all-encompassing regimen grounded in silence, meditation, focused breathing, and the chanting of forgiveness and gratitude?
"Israel is the best place in the world to do yoga because there is a lot of conflict and you should be peaceful even in the middle of conflict. That's what yoga is about. Not that you run away to a quiet, safe place where nobody is and nobody bothers you and you're peaceful. That's not real peace. Here you can truly test yoga and see if it's working."