NEW DELHI — On a cold, foggy January morning here in South New Delhi, Narendra Kumar, a longtime yoga guru who has been teaching and learning for nearly two decades, sat on a mat in the middle of a makeshift studio attached to the local society’s community center.

He wore a beanie and a tracksuit — all black — as he instructed three students, who sat on their mats facing him, while others joined online. Kumar, 54, saw me from the window and began wrapping up his class. He muttered something before they let out loud, whole-hearted laughs in unison. It didn’t startle me — I’ve often seen people practice laughter yoga, which allows the lungs to engulf more oxygen while releasing mental and physical stress.

Kumar, who is 54 years old but looks decades younger, has been practicing yoga since 1996. He has a master's degree in the practice, while also dipping into studying naturopathy and acupressure, from Jain Vishva Bharati Institute in Ladnun, Rajasthan, known for courses on the science of living. The institute even offers doctoral programs in yoga.

After his students exited the studio, Kumar, with a smile that reached his eyes, invited me inside to talk about his practice, which intertwines with his life’s philosophy, and the miracle that led him to become a yoga teacher. He laid out a mat for us to sit on and chat.

The interview has been translated from Hindi to English and edited for clarity and brevity. The views are Kumar’s, reflect his experience, and are not an endorsement of any practice as a medical cure for various ailments.

Deseret News: What led you to practice yoga? 

Narendra Kumar: In 1996, I had an asthma attack. There is no medical treatment for asthma in India, but I came to know of a therapy through yoga at a meditation center in New Delhi. After trying it out, I felt a lot of relief in just 15 days. 

DN: Wow, in 15 days! 

Kumar: I got rid of my inhalers and medicines. It was a miracle. I thought that if asthma can be treated, then there is no disease in the world that cannot be treated.

DN: How old were you at that time? 

Kumar: I was around 26 years old. I was healthy at the time, so some days I would go to the meditation center, and some days I wouldn’t. When my interest fully blossomed, my guru, Swami Dharmanand Jain, who has helped me to move forward in this field, told me about the Jain Vishva Bharati Institute and suggested I take a class there.

Now, I try to help people through naturopathy, yoga therapy or acupressure therapy. Yoga is my passion. I don’t do just yoga. I live yoga.

Amid the pandemic, all my yoga seekers who got infected with COVID-19 survived the illness very well.

DN: As in, no serious long-term effects of COVID-19? 

Kumar: No one collapsed. They were able to come out of it safely. 

DN: In your study, what did you learn about the origins of yoga? Was it born in India?

Kumar: Yes, yoga is the gift of Maharishi Patanjali, the father of yoga (and a Hindu author and philosopher). He was the one who created Ashtanga Yoga, a traditional yoga, in the second century B.C.

DN: Is this practice limited to those who are flexible? 

Kumar: Yoga is unlimited, like an ocean, the more you go into its depth, the more you’ll enjoy it. It encourages flexibility not only of the body but also of your thoughts, and your mind.

Yogic teachings include the body, mind and soul. It is an overall health package with flexibility, energy, stamina and spirituality.

All one needs is a mat, determination, and a peaceful environment to practice. If they have these three things, they will never look back in life.

DN: A “health package” — well said. You talk about yoga as a lifestyle. How can we see it as that and not just a class where we come for an hour, then go home and forget everything?

Kumar: In yoga, we must follow a routine. We need to sleep for eight hours. Our meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — should be on time. We should eat seasonal fruits. 

DN: Is food a part of yoga? 

Kumar: Yes, diet and mental well-being is a huge part. We can’t separate it. Yoga is a way of life, a style of living, but people have put limits on it. They come for an hour, move their hands and legs, and think that they’ve done yoga, but it is not so.

Our traditional Ashtanga yoga has eight limbs: Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).

Yama calls for always speaking the truth. Yama is also about nonviolence, which isn’t about physical force but your thought process as well, and aparigrah, or nonattachment. The latter questions the value of an excess of everything. Yoga works till the point where your thoughts are pure, and there is harmony and love.

DN: So, offshoots like Vikram yoga and hot yoga are only a small part of the larger yogic teachings?

Kumar: Yes, they are only one part of it. And their entire focus is only on physical fitness. Here, our focus is on your spirituality as well as your physical and emotional health. 

DN: How do you teach people about these other valuable aspects?

Kumar: For that, we explore meditation and relaxation. I also conduct lectures during my classes and provide individual counseling. It depends on what’s your need of the hour.

DN: What are your practices? Can you tell me your exact routine?

Kumar: As I told you, I had an asthma attack, but I don’t suffer from it now. I don’t wear glasses nor do I have diabetes or any other health issue. So, I still practice yoga — a complete Surya Namaskar as well as some asanas (postures) — every day and go on walks regularly.

I wake up at 4:30 a.m. I teach from 5:30 a.m. to around 11 a.m., and again in the evenings.

I don’t eat food at night. I don’t consume tea, coffee, cold drinks, tobacco or wine. I eat natural foods. My lifestyle is very simple. 

DN: So, what do you eat? 

Kumar: I eat seasonal fruits and vegetables. I don’t eat anything that is nonseasonal. 

DN: What is your advice for Americans who are doing yoga and meditation? Or for those who want to start this journey? 

Kumar: Many foreigners used to come to our meditation center. I have noticed that in India, yoga is taken for granted, but Americans are disciplined, focused and aware of their practice. But no matter what country you are from, yoga will not differentiate you. Yoga is not a religion, it is a science.

Understand the basic difference between modern medical science and yoga. Modern medical science requires you to fall sick first before administering treatment. You go to the hospital and you have a problem with your eye. The eye doctor doesn’t know if there’s anything wrong with your heart. Go to a cardiologist, who doesn’t know about your liver, and a liver specialist? He does not know what is happening with your brain. But we say that you come to us healthy, and we will never let you fall sick.

DN: Do you have any tips for people who live in cold weather, like Salt Lake City? 

Kumar: Surya Namaskar is a complete package and the best during the colder months. Surya Namaskar translates to sun salutation, a sequence of postures. There are 72,000 nerves in our body and it awakes those nerves while generating heat.

You can also practice Kapalbhati, a fast-paced respiratory exercise; Bhastrika pranayama, a breathing practice that mimics fanning a fire; and Surya Bhedi pranayama, another breathwork exercise with a focus on the right nostril. All these pranayamas can help anyone stay warm and healthy.

DN: Have you witnessed any general illnesses or ailments that were cured because of yoga?

Kumar: The biggest problem in India is gastric-related. Asanas can help reduce bloating and save the person from undergoing any sort of operation. Arthritis can also be cured through our practice. I help treat many cases of cervical neck pains and slipped discs, which are a result of jobs that require sitting for hours on end. Doctors have no cure for these problems, but yoga does. And it does not take long — people recover in 15 days to a month.

DN: Any suggestions on how to cope with mental stress?

Kumar: For that, meditation is considered the best. Employees face a lot of stress in the corporate settings. This gave rise to corporate yoga, where the company sets aside an hour for its employees to practice and relax their minds. In paramilitary forces or the Indian army, too, they focus on meditation to reduce their stress levels. In Tihar jail, one of India’s largest prison complexes, prisoners are taught yoga to help them not commit such crimes in the future and control their anger.

DN: Just by everyday practice? 

Kumar: Yes, daily practice.

DN: And which pose are you sitting in right now?  

Kumar, comfortably sitting on the back of his legs: I am in Vajrasana. There are 8.4 million asanas. Out of those only this asana can be done after eating. Otherwise, you should not perform any postures or meditate after eating, which is a principle of yoga. It must be practiced on an empty stomach in the morning or evening. There should also be a gap of at least five hours between food and yoga. Only then you can fully enjoy it. 

DN: As an instructor, how many of the millions of asanas do you use?

Kumar: There are 84 asanas in the typical routine. But it depends on the person’s needs. If someone has a slipped disc, we will not make them do forward bending but backward bending asanas. Not every person can do every posture and there are restrictions. That is why yoga should be done under the guidance of a good instructor. There is a yogic prayer: Dekha dekhee saadhai jog chheejai kaaya baadhai rog. It means there is harm in copying others.

These days, people learn yoga on their own through YouTube. You must remember that not all asanas are for you.

DN: So, even in the U.S., they should find a guru? 

Kumar: Yes, or find a good instructor. You ask them where they were taught and for how many years they have been practicing. Nowadays, everyone is teaching yoga since it's trendy. But someone with a monthlong certification can do more harm than good.

DN: Is there anything that you are still trying to achieve in this field?

Kumar: There is no limit to yoga. The more you practice, the more you will improve, right?

DN: Indeed. Any final advice for current or future students of yoga?

Kumar: The final advice is that if you want to live a quality life, then you should practice yoga. There is an ad on TV in which a girl says that her skin does not reveal my age. Similarly, no one can tell how old a yoga guru is by looking. What I mean to say is that a yogi is ageless.

DN: What is your plan? Will you teach yoga for the rest of your life?

Kumar: This is my practice. I will continue to do yoga as long as I live.