In India the ancient and formerly esoteric practice is now a must for stressed-out truck drivers and soldiers.
Driving in India is a harrowing affair. Truck drivers face long, gruelling hours on notoriously chaotic, potholed and crowded roads.
Yet demand for road transport is surging. Ashok Leyland, one of India’s largest makers of commercial vehicles, has trained 170,000 truck drivers since 1995 at two centres near Delhi and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Four years ago, a new subject appeared on the curriculum to help drivers handle stress: yoga.
“There’s a lot of stress due to road conditions, traffic density and living on the road,” says Bothanatha Saie, assistant general manager of driver training. “They are under pressure to drive through the night. Everybody today is working under tension.”
Customers such as state transport groups and oil companies send their drivers to Ashok Leyland’s training centres for courses in traffic education, defensive driving, vehicle maintenance, first aid and Aids awareness, among other subjects.
Now, for an hour a day during Ashok Leyland’s three-month basic training course, a certified yoga instructor teaches drivers simplified stretches and exercises for hands and eyes. Breathing exercises and meditation – core practices in traditional yoga – are also taught in a room not far from where trucks rumble on giant test tracks close by.
Yoga has become fashionable and mainstream in developed countries, but it is not widely practised among the masses in India. Now it is enjoying a resurgence in the country of its birth as employers recognise its physical and mental benefits.
About 60 per cent of the 21,000 male drivers trained at Ashok Leyland’s centres last year were “youngsters” of 20 to 35 years old. Most had never practised yoga but responded positively. “They feel a change,” Mr Saie says.
Ashok Leyland also began offering optional Saturday classes to its factory workers two years ago and, more recently, classes for its executives to help them cope with stress and strain of handling a mouse and keyboard.
In a distinct trend, yoga has begun extending beyond India’s upper middle classes.
Employees at Delhi Metro, the capital’s subway system, participate in group sessions and the Indian army introduced yoga in 2004. Only select soldiers receive the training, such as those posted to high altitudes in the mountains of Kashmir and naval officers who man submarines. The air force is considering adding yoga to its training programme.
“Soldiers have to operate in extreme conditions. It’s not only killer instinct,” says Dr William Selvamurthy, chief controller at the Defence Research and Development Organisation in New Delhi. Thousands of soldiers have learned practices such as alternate nostril breathing and meditation, he says. They learn
14 asanas – or poses – including the sun salutation, the fish, the cobra and the plough. “Physical training is not adequate for these requirements,” he says.
A medical physiologist by training, Dr Selvamurthy spearheaded a 10-year research programme that resulted in the military’s yoga programme. Studies found that soldiers who did yoga along with conventional physical training showed better physiological responses than those receiving only routine training. Participants with yoga training maintained stability under stress and quickly returned to an equilibrium state.
One experiment put yoga- trained soldiers into a cold chamber wearing just shorts. Their heart rate and blood pressure were better than their counterparts; they also shivered less and conserved heat better, Dr Selvamurthy claims.
Having practised yoga for the past 32 years, Dr Selvamurthy says yoga “keeps you cool, calm and composed even in times of adversity”.