Listen to this article
Round the back of a college auditorium in Matunga, central Mumbai, a handful of young people are crowded around a yellow plastic climbing wall. Two figures hang from the structure, while others stand on multicoloured crash pads below shouting instructions: where their friends should move next and how to improve their balance.
Bouldering, like many other non-competitive sports, is becoming increasingly popular in India, as the growing middle class becomes interested in health and fitness.
Sociable sports that require teamwork rather than competition are catching on in particular among an urban population eager to escape the stresses of daily life and meet new people.
“When I came [home] from college, I used to play on the PC and I got fat . . . I used to get bored,” says Anogh Jadhav, 18, who now climbs five times a week in Matunga. “All this group are fun.”
Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that usually involves heights below 15 feet. That means climbers do not require a rope – just climbing shoes and chalk to dry their hands – making it a simple and accessible sport.
Cricket and football remain the most popular forms of exercise in India, where many people also play badminton and squash. But bouldering is among a handful of non-competitive sports that are gaining prominence.
Large corporate houses are catching on, using these non-competitive activities to help with team building.
At Tata Steel, for example, executive trainees are sent on an adventure programme with the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation. For 15 days, the group of 30-35 graduates works together trekking in the Himalayas, for example.
“It is expensive but we do that for employees, as these are activities that go towards ensuring stronger employee engagement,” explains Kulvin Suri, a company representative.
Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, who studies the US market, says: “There are a lot of alternative kinds of fitness happening. Many of them I would describe as social fitness activities, meaning that you’re doing them in a group.”
Climbers, for example, advise one another, setting new routes to challenge their peers. “People help each other,” says Praveen CM, 28, a champion climber who is an instructor at Equilibrium, a gym in Bangalore. “You learn the technique I have, and I learn the technique you have.”
The gym, located in India’s IT capital, has some 600 members. It draws the city’s large population of young professionals, who climb during their lunch break or straight after work, paying just Rs150 ($2.50) for a day pass at the gym.
“Climbing is one thing that comes from your ancestors – it’s inbuilt,” the instructor explains.
As income levels rise and the urban middle class looks to spend time outdoors, interest in adventure sports is rising. But India has long been a hub for these activities, with the Himalayas in the north and the Western Ghats near the commercial capital of Mumbai.
Nowadays, many people plan trekking trips with friends at the weekend, or join an organised group to meet new people. Be it a day’s hiking or a longer holiday, most amateur groups are mixed in terms of gender, age and ability, with people supporting one another along the way.
“Trekking and being healthy is catching on with the young crowd as well as the old,” says Abhijeet Mhatre, founder of Letscampout.com, which organises day treks near Mumbai for Rs999 a head. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds.”
The group’s revenues have rocketed from about Rs1m in 2010 to more than Rs20m in the financial year just ended, and it now has 12 campsites around the state of Maharashtra.
Social media are helping drive interest in these sociable sports as internet penetration rises in India. The young climbers in Matunga say they heard about the facility on Facebook and many trekking groups credit their growth to their online presence.
“People who had never thought about trekking see pictures of their friends trekking and having a good time, then they want to try it,” says Asif Ebrahim, managing director of Nature Knights, a group organising adventure activities in India. “Social media have a large part to play in influencing people.”
The convivial nature of these activities may be driving demand but the rising interest in these sports also comes down to economic development – India’s rising wealth and open economy.
Diving is the perfect example, as interest in the sport is growing rapidly. On expeditions to exotic destinations, including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the east coast of India or Lakshadweep off the west, divers take to the sea in small groups.
“Diving is a buddy sport,” says Anees Adenwala, who runs Mumbai-based Orca Dive Club and has taught more than 2,000 divers over his career. “You’re looking after your buddy and your buddy is looking after you.”
But India’s growing interest in diving comes down to access. Just as climbers claim it was difficult to find good shoes in India until recently, trekking groups say quality tents were once difficult to find. Mr Adenwala says safety is crucial and he still imports a lot of equipment.
Diving, which requires everything from wetsuits to face masks, remains an expensive hobby. But as India develops, many people are willing to spend lavishly to enjoy a sport that takes them to exotic destinations to mix with new people. “There are many rich people in this city,” Mr Adenwala adds.
Yoga: Popularity sparks revival at home
Celebrities, from Sting to Madonna, have popularised yoga in the western world– and these endorsements have triggered a revival in India, the birthplace of the practice.
“People might start because they see someone famous or beautiful doing it,” says Deepika Mehta, a well-known instructor in Mumbai who regularly features on television programmes about fitness.
But, she explains, they stay because they appreciate the benefits of the combination of workout and meditation.
Yoga participation in the US has increased an average 6.5 per cent annually in the past five years to 24.3m people in 2013, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. And a vast business has emerged to serve the fashionable pursuit.
Matt Powell, an analyst at SportsOneSource, estimates that the US fitness and yoga apparel industry was worth $500m in 2013, up from $350m in 2010.
As the practice becomes popular in the western world, so the Indian public are also returning to yoga.
Ms Mehta, who was introduced to yoga after an accident, has trained many of India’s best-known models and actors eager to keep in shape, including Bollywood royalty, Aishwarya Rai. And the instructor has seen demand rocket.
She takes classes around the city, charging some Rs6,000 ($100) for a course of three lessons a week over a month. Her training is at the top end of the market, so the price means that yoga remains fairly affordable in India.
Ms Mehta comments: “Especially in the urban areas, it’s almost a functional need.”
Stretching for a work/life balance with yoga
The death in August, at the age of 95, of BKS Iyengar momentarily thrust into newspapers and television news obituaries images that modern practitioners of yoga might find exotic or dated, writes Elizabeth Robinson. Here was a man who from the 1950s on TV screens across the world demonstrated his form of yoga, naked save for a pair of trunks, contorting his supple and toned body into impossible shapes, and adding to the mysticism surrounding a form of mental, physical and spiritual exercise that had existed, by some accounts, for several thousand years.
Iyengar yoga, based around precise body alignment often using props such as belts and bolsters, was designed to unite the body, mind and spirit, thereby aiding health and wellbeing. Fast-forward to today and in addition to Iyengar yoga, you can find a multitude of styles marketed under the broad “yoga” umbrella: for example, Bikram yoga, which demands a sequence of positions in a heated environment; ashtanga, for hardcore athletes; or kripalu, which emphasises spiritual wellbeing.
Sally Lovett, founder of Stretching the City, a London studio, observes how far yoga has come from its origins in India as a spiritual discipline: “Our generation, we think we have invented everything. There are more dynamic styles now.” She stresses, though, that to get the most out of yoga it is important to remember its “authentic origins” based around meditation and breathing, otherwise it is no more than a series of physical positions. For example, she points out that Bikram yoga, which emerged towards the end of the last century, is hugely popular in London, as the heated and humid environment in which it is practised aids weight loss, but “Bikram overlooks yoga’s authentic principles of being kind to your body”.
However, the evolution of styles and the introduction of props have widened yoga’s appeal, even if some of the methods might be dismissed by yoga purists as “gimmicks”. In particular, more men are now practising the regimes, perhaps spurred by Ryan Giggs, who attributes the longevity of his footballing career to the strength, balance and flexibility he achieved from being a yoga devotee.
Ms Lovett has been teaching yoga for 10 years and notices “loads more guys in the classes. They are more open-minded now. When they do give it a go it is a revelation – it’s actually quite hard.”