She sat cross-legged in lotus pose for one whole hour — on a board with 2,209 nails.
As she sat, her back straight and her eyes gently shut, she says she felt at peace. She was not nervous. And she felt no pain.
That feat earned 17-year-old Uttrasree Ilango a spot in the Pathanjali Book of World Records.
Her nail-sitting took place on April 21 at an annual event with an audience of about 250 people, conducted by the nonprofit Rudhra Santhi Yogalaya Trust. Since 2012, the trust has invited children all over the country to show off their skills.
“We aim to spot talent, encourage and motivate children. Our book of records is named after the Indian saint Patanjali. who authored the work Yoga Sutra, a series of verses in Sanskrit on the theory and practice of yoga,” says Krishnakumar Palanimuthu, general secretary of the organization and a yoga teacher. “Uttrasree’s yoga was impressive,” he says. “She beat an earlier record set by a 14-year-old boy, who spent half an hour in padmasana [lotus pose] on a board of nails two years ago.”
Breathing is key to sitting on nails, Uttrasree explains. “One of the first things you learn in yoga is how to breathe. The breathing exercises give your body better balance.” It’s the balance, she says, that helped her maintain her posture over the board of nails.
And Uttrasree doesn’t just do nails. In her private practice, she assumes yoga poses on eggs.
(Editor’s note: Interviewees in the story asked to be referred to by their first name, as is the local custom.)
The teenager, who lives in the southern Indian city of Chennai, began practicing yoga at age 7.
As she was growing up, she would observe how her grandfather, Sornakkallai Muthiah, now 73 and the director of Rudir, an educational and charitable trust, would rise at the crack of dawn to practice his poses, his asanas. “Even today, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for his yoga session. He’s never ever skipped it,” she says. “His discipline and passion for the tradition has really motivated me.”
When Uttrasree first started learning yoga in kindergarten, a teacher thought she was exceptional and enrolled her in a state-level yoga competition, where yogis are judged on flexibility, balance, the ability to hold a pose and the stillness of their posture. The girl’s mother, Rajeswari, says she was stunned by her daughter’s progress. “I had never expected her to come in second at the state level,” she says. Over the years, Uttrasree has won more than 150 competitions.
Her daughter’s passion inspired Rajeswari to study the practice. In addition to her MBA, she now holds a postgraduate degree in yoga sciences from Tamil Nadu Sports University.
Rajeswari helped her daughter practice the art of breathing and balance — by coming up with the idea of doing yoga atop eggs. She would ask Uttrasree to sit on a large carton of 30 eggs — without cracking them.
“It’s an exercise that I do today with my other young students [ages 3 to 8] as well,” Rajeswari says. “I begin training with the eggs only after I’m confident that the student is experienced in the breathing exercises and can handle the pose.” Breathing right, she believes, helps the student disperse their body weight evenly, allowing them to balance on the eggs without cracking them. They are touching the eggs — but in the lightest way possible.
“Each practice session on the eggs lasts for 20 minutes, and one person [from class] is selected to train every day,” says Uttrasree’s 14-year-old brother Dheepak, who also started learning yoga at age 7. “I remember cracking up to five eggs a session when I first started out,” he says with a laugh.
After gaining mastery over the eggs, Dheepak can now sit in lotus pose over nails too and says he can make it for half an hour. “In the beginning, you do feel the sudden pinpricks of pain that can be startling,” he says. “But as your meditation deepens and your mind gains more focus and control, you learn to overcome it.”
There is a yoga secret to these feats.
“Sitting on a bed of sharp nails does cause most people to feel fear. But the secret is that if you sit perfectly still, the nails won’t hurt you,” says Krishnakumar, the yoga teacher who runs the Pathanjali Book of World Records event. “The challenge lies in sitting still long enough. In our world, even 10 minutes is hard!” The same goes for eggs — and not breaking them.
“There are two broader objectives to yoga — the mind must be stilled, and fear should be dispelled,” he says.
Uttrasree agrees that yoga strengthens and conditions the mind just as much as it builds the body.
“Yoga begins with the physical body, but it deeply involves the heart and the mind,” she says.
On International Yoga Day, June 21, Uttrasree and her family have been busy giving yoga demonstrations.
And someday, Uttrasree hopes to teach the practice. Her biggest dream is to make yoga available and accessible to anyone who may need it. “It acts like medicine, therapy and stress buster — the ideal remedy,” she says.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.