A New Martial Art Keeps Cult Leader’s Teachings Alive
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this unusual martial arts discipline isn't about winning.
By Devyani Nighoskar
- OZYMA (no relation to OZY) is a new martial art based on the teachings of Osho, the late controversial Indian guru featured in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country.
- Umesh Rohit broke away from the tae kwon do scene to start OZYMA, and now the new discipline has grown to 500 students.
Shortly after then-president of the Indian Olympic Association, Suresh Kalmadi, was arrested in 2012 for money laundering in the Commonwealth Games, tae kwon do coach Umesh Rohit broke away from the sport’s governing federations. The reason was one that had long plagued India’s sports bodies: scams and corrupt politics. The reckoning was one that Rohit had delved into for over a decade: his own martial art that was ethical and spiritual. Based on the teachings of his guru, Osho, Rohit’s martial art aimed to be independent, combining the tenets of meditation with the physical prowess of the body. And so, the “Oshi Zen Yoga Martial Art,” or OZYMA, was born.
“OZYMA,” greets a boy in an orange-collared dobok, bowing down to Rohit with his hands folded. He has just walked in to practice in the two-floor space known as the Osho Health Center in Saharanpur, a town a couple hours north of Delhi. The basement has a mini gym and the top floor is laden with Korean mats. From Buddha to Laotzu, motivational posters of spiritual leaders adorn the pastel-colored walls. The biggest one is of Osho. Covering one whole wall, it’s the most striking feature of the space, aside from a shelf stacked with trophies that OZYMA students have won in various sporting competitions. In the middle is a small framed photograph of a younger Rohit sporting a black belt and displaying a front kick.
For Rohit, foregoing a lucrative career to introduce a martial art based on teachings of a scandalous godman in a town where sex is a taboo is quite daring.
Attracted to martial arts by Chinese films, Rohit ran away from home at age 15 to Lucknow to learn tae kwon do, then returned home to Saharanpur in 1990 to teach the town’s first-ever class. Now known as “Sir” to his students, Rohit, 49, is tall and dark-complexioned, with a firm yet calm poise. Growing up poor, it cost him every penny to learn the sport. “I couldn’t even afford the bus, so I would walk for miles to make it to practice,” he recalls.
The years of hard work paid off. By 2010, there were about 16 tae kwon do classes being run under Rohit’s aegis. His students were competing internationally, but Rohit was disillusioned.
“Martial arts has never been about competing; rather, it’s a medium to channel our energy,” Rohit says. “I realized how a spiritual sport had been brutally commercialized.” As a martial artist, Rohit studied the lives of spiritual leaders and yogis to understand the energy of the human body. He was profoundly influenced by Osho, whom he started reading in the early 1990s. This set the basis for OZYMA, which Rohit claims isn’t just a martial art but an alternative education and a lifestyle on its own merit.
The essence of OZYMA lies in the awakening of the seven chakras, or the energy points of the body. Quoting Osho, Rohit explains: “It’s at these seven points that our physical body derives its power and life force.” The students delve into meditative practices and learn gymnastics, wrestling, martial arts and stick-fighting, to develop the mind of a saint and the body of a warrior. They’re encouraged to understand the channel of energy behind each physical sport they pursue. Osho laid a strong emphasis on individuality — the OZYMA instructors each wear a blue T-shirt that reads, “Remove Mask, Be Original.”
The message is not to be taken literally, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the training center to remain shut during the lockdown. Smaller classes resumed in September, focusing on meditation and pranayama, or yogic breath control, that help boost immunity.
Osho, the guru who died in 1990 and was at the center of the hit Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, was also known as Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh. In the 1980s, he created a large commune in Oregon that attracted cultlike followers known as Rajneeshees until he was deported from the U.S. for immigration fraud after clashes with the government. He has been a controversial figure in India mainly because of his liberal and complex views on sex. Thus for Rohit, foregoing a lucrative career to introduce a martial art based on teachings of a scandalous godman in a town where sex is a taboo is quite daring.
“Anything that people don’t completely understand becomes controversial,” says 27-year-old OZYMA instructor Vatsal Agarwal. Rohit adds, “We’re not trying to create Rajneeshees here, but using Osho’s enormous understanding of mind to teach a martial art that lends itself to an enlightened lifestyle. Saadhaks can question us, leave whenever they want.” As for the sex aspect, Rohit runs “counseling sessions for teenagers to encourage healthy discussions around sex,” he explains.
The approach has plenty of fans. “I have seen both my children become immensely balanced in their personality,” says Anuj Suri, father to a pair of OZYMA Saadhaks. Geeta Sharma, a professor who works on youth education for the state’s Higher Education Services, is supportive of the effort. “Umesh has been quite open about his approach and is working substantially toward bringing the much-awaited revolution in education,” she says.
Even so, some school centers have shut down and several former tae kwon do students have left, not just because of the association with Osho, but also because of the disassociation with federation boards that advance athletes’ careers. While OZYMA has managed to participate in tournaments independently, it’s been difficult to advance.
Ankit Sangwan, an international tae kwon do gold medalist and black belt, had a plan when he first started training under Rohit: Do well in sports, then join the army or get a good government job. Instead he became an OZYMA instructor. “I believed in OZYMA’s cause,” he says. “Now, there are no expectations to win, just to be the best possible version of myself.”
Across eight classes, two centers and occasional seven-day camps, around 500 OZYMA Saadhaks continue striving to be the best versions of themselves amid criticism. Can it sustain itself long term? “We just want to give our best today,” says Rohit. The Saadhaks agree and bow down to him with their hands folded: “OZYMA,” they say.
- Devyani Nighoskar, OZY Author Contact Devyani Nighoskar