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Beware of the yogi man

He's just about as big as the Beatles, said one pilgrim. In fact, Swami Ramdev - yoga guru, self-proclaimed healer, celebrity - is probably bigger. His yoga camps have spread from his home country, India, to the US, to global TV audiences of at least 20 million people, and now, in the natural order of things, to the Scottish island of Little Cumbrae.

How Ramdev found himself on a treeless outcrop in the middle of the Firth of Clyde is a tale of wealth and ambition worthy of the global guru. Sunita and Sam Poddar, a millionaire couple, snapped up the island for £2m in July, with a vision of transforming the bleak, bare landscape into
a five-star yoga retreat. And who better to launch the enterprise than the man who claims to alleviate the symptoms of Aids, induce weight loss and help cure cancer? This isn't just yoga. This is life-saving yoga.

Of course, Ramdev is himself a walking miracle (or his own best advert). Born in Haryana, north-west India, he suffered paralysis as a child and has said that yoga helped to cure him. He started by offering free yoga training to neighbouring villages and soon thousands across India were attending his camps. Followers said he had relieved all manner of ailments, from spondylitis to obesity.

But, like any self-anointed saint, he has his detractors. And he hasn't always helped himself. When the Delhi high court decriminalised homosexuality in July, Ramdev was outraged. "The verdict will encourage criminality and sick mentality," he said. "This kind of thing is shameful and insulting. We are blindly following the west in everything."

He said he would take to the streets of Delhi in protest, but instead seems to have opted for exile in Scotland. It's not clear whether anyone has told him that homosexuality is legal in Britain, or that Scotland counts as the west; if they have, it hasn't dissuaded Ramdev. Or perhaps this is his next mission: to cure the west of its various ills. Either way, Little Cumbrae, renamed "Peace Island", is sure to reap the rewards of its association with the controversial guru. Tour operators are hoping to send about 20,000 people a year over the black waters of the Firth to sample the laughter classes and yogic wisdom. Some kind of peace.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people