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Warrior pose turns Indian yoga soldiers into deadly foes

Warrior pose turns Indian yoga soldiers into deadly foes

Author: Rhys Blakely
Publication: The Times
Date: June 2, 2008
URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article4045641.ece

Those who assumed yoga is for peaceniks should prepare to have the notion shot down. The Indian Army is poised to adopt the ancient practice after trials showed that giving meditation precedence over conventional physical drills at boot camp makes for a deadlier fighting force.

Chants of "Om" and elastically athletic poses may seem out of place in a training barracks, but after three months new soldiers of the Bengal Engineering Group, who did 50 minutes of yoga a day combined with 40 minutes of traditional exercise, had steadier hands, stronger grips and leaner muscles than peers who underwent a gruelling 90-minute military work-out instead, according to a study.

The researchers suggest that their findings shatter preconceptions of yoga as a pacifistic pursuit. "The yoga group showed an improvement in skilled activities requiring co-ordination and concentration, as well as muscular strength and endurance." Dr Shirley Telles, the principal investigator on the project, said.

"This would be especially useful for activities such as shooting at a target."

The interest of the Indian Army (the second largest in the world after China's) coincides with a broader yoga revival. The military's routine is based on the teachings of Baba Ramdev, a superstar guru who has popularised yoga across the subcontinent through a combination of plain speaking, fierce diatribes against western lifestyles, and a cable television channel.

The army's study, which will continue for a year, is being carried out at Patanjali Yogpeeth, a yoga-focused research centre in Haridwar in northern India that is led by Ramdev.

The swami, who alternates between championing vegetarianism and a politically charged brand of Indian nationalism, formulated a special programme for army recruits. It begins with three minutes of Om chanting before moving on to five physical postures (or yogasanas) and six regulated breathing exercises (pranayamas). "Only if India exists will I be," he explained to The Times.

Indications that his methods help soldiers to stay alert without getting stressed chime with anecdotal evidence from soldiers already using yoga to combat soaring levels of stress in India's military. Since 2005 suicides have claimed the lives of about 100 soldiers a year in Kashmir - more than separatist violence has. Incidents of "fragging" - whereby soldiers from the same force turn on each other - are increasing.

Indian troops serving in the disputed Himalayan region have already been issued a standing order to engage in a weekly one-hour yoga session. They are taught 14 poses - including the fish, the cobra and the plough - to soothe nerves frayed by near-constant insurgent activity.

The measures were adopted after a high-level inquiry into military suicides last year which recommended that yoga be used to ensure soldiers are "full of vigour and enthusiasm while performing [their] duties". Colonel Anil Mathur said: "There is no doubt that we have seen that the benefits of yoga are universal, both in terms of physical health and mentally. We are pleased and intend to press on."

India does not seem inclined, however, to keep its new weapon secret. Indian Army soldiers recently shared yoga tips with their Chinese counterparts during the two countries' first bilateral counter-terrorism exercise. In return, the Chinese taught their Indian peers some martial arts moves.

Just weeks earlier, American troops from the US 25th Infantry Division had been given yoga lessons by Indian officers during a joint counter-insurgency training exercise held in the foothills of the Himalayas

"Limberness and range of motion is something we may not always stress, and yoga is a time proven method to enhance these health qualities," Captain Bob Hilleman said.

Co-operation between brothers in arms is likely to be approved of by Baba Ramdev, who has said that he intends to bring the benefits of yoga to every human on the planet. He said: "Swamiji [the honorific by which his followers call him] doesn't think little."

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