KARACHI, Pakistan — I first heard of yoga while I was growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s, with the arrival on the Karachi scene of a colorful personality called Professor Moiz Hussain. He had trained at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, then branched out into alternative stress-reduction and healing techniques like reiki from Japan, NLP (neurolinguistic programming) from California and qigong, with roots in China. His Institute of Mind Sciences and Classical Yoga attracted a certain type of Karachi woman — affluent and well traveled — who was interested in developing her mind and body. Slowly at first, one teacher after another emerged to offer classes. Still, they had to be careful: The 1980s was a time of rigorous Islamization in Pakistan and cold hostility to India, and anything remotely associated with India or Hinduism was discouraged if not outlawed.
This particularly affected the arts, namely classical Indian dance; government officials banned public performances as both “vulgar” and “Indian”; Pakistani students of the art could not obtain visas to study under gurus in India, and local teachers had to immigrate to other countries because classical dance became so unpopular they could not attract students. (Only Kathak, with its Mughal origins in northwestern India before partition, was looked upon with a less jaundiced eye than the unabashedly Hindu-flavored Odissi or Bharatanatyam schools of dance.)
The way around this was to introduce yoga as a practice less spiritual than physical, but yoga classes in Karachi remained small, private and for a select few. Then, in the 1990s, when state-run television gave way to a profusion of private television channels, yoga found another outlet: breakfast and morning shows in which a physical activity segment aimed at housewives often included a 20-minute or half-hour yoga session. Sandwiched in between advice on the best foods for a baby and how to cook enticing meals for the household, a nonthreatening form of yoga — no extreme physical poses, just one that could be performed in modest clothing — was available to women in Pakistan with access to cable channels.
Viewers were encouraged to stretch and breathe to cultivate healthy bodies and minds, a goal not incompatible with the moderately conservative form of Islam practiced by 90 percent of Pakistanis. Yoga even began to come out into the open, with sessions held in public parks, where some teachers made mild comparisons between yogic meditation and Islamic reflection, or the poses in a simple sun salutation and the positions taken in salat, a ritual Islamic prayer. This opened up yoga to middle-class, conservative Pakistanis who might have remained hostile to the practice had it been presented as a purely Hindu or Indian ascetic discipline.
Today, yoga is immensely popular in all cities of Pakistan; a yoga teacher named Shamshad Haider claims to run 50 yoga clubs in Punjab, and International Yoga Day has been celebrated in Pakistan for three years in a row. Yoga is practiced all the way from Chitral in the north to Karachi in the south. There’s a whole crop of younger teachers now equipped with training from India, Thailand and Bali, as well as from yoga schools in North America and Britain. Teachers at swank studios in Karachi attract students through Facebook pages and affiliations with the International Yoga Alliance.
Their classes incorporate styles from hatha, vinyasa flow, ashtanga, even power yoga and Bikram yoga. They use the Sanskrit names for the poses interchangeably with the English ones, and both women-only and mixed classes are popular. Meanwhile, yoga still appears on television, in schools and in park sessions, with women meditating while wearing shalwar kameezes, or full abayas and hijabs, and men with long beards and shalwar kameezes performing sun salutations next to men in track pants and T-shirts.