Yoga Across Cultures

Shraddhaji with the Director of Indica Yoga, Dr Vinayachandra Banavathy

“I love everything about India I’m a fan of India. I truly feel that India is the cradle of human achievement because of what the Rishis and Saptrishis achieved through yoga.That is India’s biggest gift to humanity. Indian spiritual culture is the light that allows one to reach their true Self, and that yoga culture is now being practised across the world some of it authentic, some of it not (laughs). I’m a very emotional person, that’s why I love India,” says Ilkay Ozcan (Shraddhaji) when I asked her what she loves most about India. Born in Turkey, she has been living in the UK since the 1970s and she is the Eastern Regional Officer of the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY), which is the largest yoga organisation in England. 

Before she became a student and teacher of yoga, Shraddhaji was a political activist and she even likens her activism to yoga saying it’s the first time she experienced selfless dedication to a cause. “I had finished high school in Turkey, this was around 1977 and at the time, the political situation in Turkey wasn’t very good, so when I finished high school, I couldn’t go to university in Turkey because students in Turkey had boycotted university for an entire year. My uncle was a geriatric surgeon in Germany, and he wanted to support my education so with his kind support I attended Leeds University in the UK and studied Architectural Engineering. But, the turmoil in Turkey was so intense, I had to get involved with it and was a political activist we were against the fascist junta or the military junta in Turkey. Because of my political views, I couldn’t visit Turkey and didn’t see my family for 15 years. I didn’t complete my degree either because I was so involved in the politics of the times. In fact, being in that political situation with my fellow activists was my first experience of selfless devotion to a cause, like in an ashram (laughs). I met my husband then, too, and we are very like-minded. We were married and after seven years of being married, it dawned on us that we have nothing, at least in terms of material wealth (laughs). We didn’t have a house or car…we had poured ourselves and our resources into political activism, publishing newspapers and sending resources to Turkey. After seven years of marriage, we decided to take a step back and think about ourselves and by that time, the situation in Turkey had also improved, this was around 1998. So we found new work. My husband has a Master’s degree in metallurgy and then did another Master’s degree in IT and got a job and we started living a ‘normal’ life (laughs). That’s also when we found TM or transcendental meditation and Maharishi Maharishi Yogi and we were earning money so we travelled to various retreats. At the same time, I had started attending a local yoga class in our neighbourhood, but it was just one evening a week,” says Shraddhaji.

The one class a week was how her yoga journey may have started, but it was enough to ignite a life-long passion for the subject and Shraddhaji recalls her initial years of studying and teaching as her fondest memories, “The way we studied was that we did an hour of asanas, then pranayama and then meditation. As I continued to practise, yoga and my teacher became increasingly important. I also started reading yoga philosophy and was very curious and eager to learn more so I decided to deepen my knowledge. I understood the value of a physical practice and how effective it is for good health and well-being but that was never my priority with yoga my interest was always more towards the philosophical part of yoga and spirituality. So my teacher directed me to do a foundation course and also became my best friend in the process. I even went with her and lived in an ashram and did a year-long chakra course at the Mandala Ashram in the UK (this was in 2014-15). I also did a teacher training course to learn more and when I started teaching, I loved it. I absolutely love teaching, I would even teach at my workplace. I was working for an international finance data services company and we would finish our work day at 5:30 PM, and it was a very nice environment. I even got a big room with windows to teach after work. So that company grew and offices were located in more than one building and I was asked to teach in the other locations as well, so for a while that is how I was teaching. Then, a teacher/friend of mine stopped teaching and I took over that class and this was a local night class which was difficult to accommodate but I managed my husband supported me a lot he practises much better yoga than me (laughs). So I was teaching and working and doing the chakra course as well and it was exhausting but I loved it. I did this for ten years. In 2021, when COVID happened, I started teaching on Zoom. Then, my mother wasn’t feeling too good so I had to travel to Turkey and when I got back I had my grandson visiting so it’s been hectic (laughs). But yoga has always been steady and constant,” recalls Shraddhaji. 

She further adds that her experience at the Mandala Ashram is what inspired her to join and collaborate with the British Wheel of Yoga. She feels “blessed that I got to spend time and study at the Mandala Ashram the teachers there have immense knowledge and teach with authenticity. I wanted to bring them to where I live in Essex (they’re based in Wales) and so I became a county rep for the British Wheel of Yoga only so that I could bring these teachers to various events. In 2018-2019, I did around six or seven events with them. I was then asked to become a regional officer for the BWY and so I did. At the moment, I am not teaching because I am between the UK and Turkey.”

The thing I loved most about Shraddhaji is her open-heartedness and warmth. We Indians possess a similar joie de vivre and I was curious about how Shraddhaji manages to beautifully balance her connection with English culture, her love for Indian culture and her Turkish roots. “I think yoga still ‘looks’ very Indian to people in the West so as far as cultural exchange is concerned, it took me ten years to settle into English culture because it was so different from my Turkish roots. In fact, it was when I started practising yoga that I realised that they’re also just human beings and I have to find a way to tap into that to make connections. I actually feel my Turkish roots help me connect more with yoga and Indian culture as Turkish culture is also an Eastern culture. We even have so many common words…I remember when I was working in finance, I would find that every day nobody talks to each other in the lift (laughs). I was always the first to start a conversation and turn a dialogue into a friendship. But when I visited India, it felt more familiar because everyone is friendly and open-hearted,” explains Shraddhaji. 

Her spiritual influences include the works of Swami Vivekananda, she’s been deeply affected by the book Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, she’s a devotee of Sadhguru and her all-time favourite books on spirituality are the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. “One of my fondest memories of being in India is when I spent time at the Santacruz Yoga Institute in Mumbai. The lady in-charge there, Hansaji and her husband, have also been influences on my spiritual path and the reason I appreciate the British Wheel of Yoga so much is because it reminds me of the same authentic teachings I experienced at the Yoga Institute,” says Shraddhaji. 

Talking to people like Shraddhaji, I’m always amazed at just how profound yet approachable yoga and spirituality is when someone genuinely and authentically follows the path. From being a political activist to being a wife, mother and grandmother, Shraddhaji feels yoga permeates all aspects of her life and her advice to young students and teachers of yoga is, “Yoga is life. It’s about achieving consciousness and finding that core within and I think when people practise sincerely, they will feel that shift. I think gradually everyone will get there but it will take time. The greed of this capitalist world, the greed of earning more money is the destroyer but the other side is getting stronger as well so the more people practising, the better it will be for the world. Just be yourself and be connected within yourself and if you’re a teacher and student, don’t beat yourself up thinking you are not doing enough. Yoga is life and life is yoga. If you are consciously living this life, you are in yoga and once you have that, life will only get better and better.”

Visit the British Wheel of Yoga for further information.

PHOTO: Shraddhaji with the Director of Indica Yoga, Dr Vinayachandra Banavathy