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Feature: When yoga becomes an ambassador for China, India


by Xinhua writer Sudeshna Sarkar

BEIJING, Oct. 17 (Xinhua) -- When Subbulakshmi Velusamy started learning yoga in her home city of Chennai in southern India more than a decade ago, the Indian graduate in physics looked for no greater benefits than enjoying good health naturally.

But today, beyond expectations, the ancient Indian holistic system of well-being has given her a flourishing career, taken her on an adventure abroad, and turned her into a China-India ambassador.

"Back home in India, people are amazed that I live on my own in China," said the 37-year-old, who works as an assistant professor of yoga at the China-India Yoga College at the Yunnan Minzu (Nationalities) University in Kunming, the picturesque southwest Chinese city not far from India.

"'How do you manage,' they ask me, 'especially when the language is so difficult?' I tell them, people speak the language of kindness there. Everyone I have met has been so kind and friendly, going out of the way to help," said Velusamy.

Velusamy recalls one occasion when she asked for directions. The people she approached, unable to communicate through language, walked her to their destination almost 1 km away.

Her China adventure started following an agreement between the Chinese and Indian governments, which led to the opening of the yoga college in 2015. As part of the agreement, two Indian teachers were to be employed at the college to teach the practical as well as philosophical aspects of yoga, and Velusamy was selected by a panel after a grueling interview in New Delhi.

By that time she was no longer just dabbling in yoga, she had obtained a PhD in yoga as a therapy for treating hypothyroidism, especially in women. Hypothyroidism is a condition created by low levels of the thyroid hormone, whose effects could range from a slower heartbeat to fatigue and depression.

"I was learning more about yoga practices, delving into its philosophy and Indian spiritualism, and I wanted to share what I had learned," she said. "So when I was selected for the job in China, it was like a dream coming true. I had this larger society which I could introduce our Indian culture to."

She was amazed at the popularity of yoga in Kunming. "The interest is growing by the day," she said. "There are so many yoga centers and studios in Kunming, with most of them run by Chinese teachers."

Her students at the university are Chinese and she said she is also overwhelmed by their interest. "I don't think I have seen so much interest in India," she said. "And it's not only among youngsters."

On Saturdays, the college hosts a free yoga session open to the public and Velusamy said people in their 50s and 60s flock to it. Besides her classes, Velusamy likes to display other aspects of Indian culture, such as Indian clothes and cuisine.

"In class, I always make it a point to wear salwar-kameez," she said, referring to the traditional baggy trousers worn by Indian women with a long tunic and a scarf. On the day Xinhua spoke with her, she was dressed in an eye-catching yellow tunic.

On special occasions, she brings out her saris, the traditional Indian wear that consists of one long unstitched swath of cloth that could be up to nine yards (27 feet) long and is worn draped skillfully around the body in a variety of ways.

Southern India, from where Velusamy comes, is famous for its silk and cotton, in rich, vibrant colors.

While to many foreigners, Indian food means curry first and foremost. Tamil Nadu, Velusamy's home state, has a distinctly different cuisine, which uses lots of coconut and lentils. She has introduced her friends in Kunming to the dosa, a crispy paper-thin wrap that can come with a spicy potato filling, and is eaten dipped in a tangy soup and a special sauce or chutney.

"My students are especially interested in healthy Indian food that doesn't use oil," she said. "They like the 'khichdi' (a dish that is a complete meal in itself, made by boiling rice with lentils and vegetables). We share recipes and that is another form of cultural exchange."

Velusamy has picked up "survival Chinese" during her 11-month stay in Kunming and what she cannot manage with words is accomplished through body language and, as she emphasizes, "the kindness" of the people around her.

Her China sojourn has also helped project an image of the modern Indian woman as independent, professional and with an identity of her own.

Velusamy lives in Kunming with her six-year-old daughter. Since her husband works in Chennai, the couple meet during their holidays, when he comes to China or she goes home.

Twenty years ago, this would probably have been unimaginable in the average family in southern India, which has very strong traditions. They included keeping the girl child sequestered when she had her monthly periods.

Wives' place was at home. While a woman could accompany her husband if he went abroad on work, it was unthinkable that she would take up a job overseas when it meant separation from the family.

"My family has been very supportive," Velusamy said. "At one point of time I will have to go back to India because of my daughter's education but now, she goes to a Chinese school, my college is happy for me to stay on as long as I want to, and my family stands behind me."

She came to China as an Indian cultural ambassador. When she goes back, Velusamy, with her knowledge of Chinese culture and her interactions with the Chinese, will act as a Chinese envoy as well.

"I will convey to Indians how people treated me in China," she said. "Everyone has been kind and friendly. I haven't had any conflict with a single person."

"Besides the friendship and courtesy that I was shown here, I also found China a very safe place, especially for single women," Velusamy said.

She has been traveling in China on her own and despite not having complete mastery over the Chinese language, has always felt safe and well-looked after.

"This is my experience in China," Velusamy said with a dazzling smile. "Finding kindness and security."


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