Tuesday, January 29, 2013

HOW TO BE A YOGA STUDENT IN INDIA


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Many Iyengar Yoga students have written about the practical matters when one comes to RIMYI in Pune: how to find an apartment, how to get around, how to get cash, etc. However I would like to address the inner work of being a student at RIMYI, especially in this period in which India as a rising global power attracts travelers from all over the world.

At the end of last night’s class Raya UD gave an impassioned request to the international students: “PLEASE DO NOT COME HERE FOR VALIDATION OF WHAT YOU ALREADY KNOW.” In other words, don’t come to have your ego stroked, don’t come to confirm your beliefs and practices, don’t come to validate what your Senior Teacher has taught you, don’t come as a teacher at all. Come as a student, come empty, come humble. Be ready to be vulnerable, be ready to be corrected and even reprimanded, perhaps harshly. Instead of being affirmed, be ready to be disrupted, shaken up, and confused. Out of that confusion can emerge radical new learning.

Please don’t come to India to help. Come to BE helped. Come to be transformed, not to transform India to your standards. As the Australian Aboriginal activists say, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.”

Of course classes are crowded. Of course it’s noisy. Of course there is pollution, poverty, hawking and spitting. Of course there are mosquitoes and cockroaches. We cannot change or control these circumstances. As we practice nonjudgment and acceptance, we have more energy and space within for more learning, more transformation. We realize we don’t mind the dirt in the cracks of our feet—it all washes off.

The first time I came to Pune I witnessed a simple act that made a profound impact on me. I was staying with a woman who shared an apartment with her daughter and grandson. As we sat one morning at breakfast, a few mosquitoes hovered around the grandson’s head. After some research and discussion I had decided not to take the recommended malaria pills even though it was monsoon season. So when I noted the mosquitoes in the screen-free house, I experienced a little niggling anxiety. Usha, the grandmother, was as casual as ever, as she waved her hand around her grandson Akshay’s head. In the USA, even without the threat of malaria, we would have swatted violently at them, even if it meant striking the child. Then we would have been very proud of ourselves for decimating them. Here, the mosquitoes just were not a big deal at all.

I learned to practice this equanimity in evening Pranayama class, when at dusk, the mosquitoes would float indoors. Lying in Pranayama Savasana, I would feel a sting, but instead of reacting and scratching, I made myself lie still. What I learned is that the bite would swell up but stop itching in about 15 minutes. If I withheld the urge to scratch, by morning, the bite would be a tiny, inconsequential dot that didn’t even itch.

“When you come here, you are NOBODY,” Geetaji harshly reminds us, tired of the expectations of international students who are used to red carpet treatment. For some people this is a vacation, and the yoga is part of a range of activities which may include travel to a resort in Goa, shopping every weekend, day trips to ayurvedic spas or exotic temples, and so forth. Others may want to replicate their life in their home country and feel frustrated that they cannot find the right ingredients for their favorite dishes, or that things just are not as “good” here. Others may come here to be useful and helpful, and want to be appreciated for their service and sacrifice.

Morning practice in the hall can be intense. Mat to mat, we compete for space, props, and walls. Practitioners contort themselves into the most advanced poses that you’ve only seen in books, as well as those spending all morning propped in supine restoratives. Senior Teachers from around the world vie for Guruji’s attention, and the local teachers are on alert to anticipate and meet his requests. In that atmosphere it can be difficult to concentrate and impossible not to compare. One has to practice being fully in the present moment in that 24 x 68 inch space of one’s own mat, to listen to one’s own body and with intelligence, discern what should be practiced that day. Only here do we settle into anandamaya kosha, the bliss of the practice.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron points out, “Our ego is like a room with a closed door. Our whole life work is to open that door.” Study at RIMYI will be most rewarding if we let that door open: If we come with modesty, humility, openness, and trust, with a willingness to listen more than to be listened to, a willingness to have our ego bruised which could include getting our feelings hurt, and a willingness to feel small and empty. We learn that OUR ways are not always the best, that Western pharmaceuticals may hurt more than help, that what we believed about an asana may be delusional, and that cockroaches really can’t hurt us.

“Learning is as much an art as teaching,” BKS Iyengar observes. We come to RIMYI to shed the armor of our egos and practice the art of learning.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

So Many Kinds of Privilege…..

Privilege is a conundrum. Often when we recognize someone has a particular privilege that we do not have—the ability to do something we do not have the means to do—we feel irked and resentful, especially if that privilege is unearned and the recipient does not recognize the privilege themselves, On the other hand, if we receive a certain privilege, like being upgraded to business class on a flight, we feel lucky and blessed. Rarely do we turn down a privilege offered to us. But when we accept the privilege, if we are socially/politically sensitive, we may feel pangs of guilt created by imbalance, like having hungry people watch us eat.

Here in India, so many different kinds of privilege become strikingly obvious. Here are just a few:

Food Privilege: I am noticing how international students at RIMYI apply their economic standards to India, and think nothing of spending a couple of hundred rupees on lunch or dinner ($4), or feasting on figs, or hiring a cook to make a daily meal for them. However, to most Indians, these are rare treats, if accessible at all. I am conscious of how our apartment of 4 international students produces so much compost, more than double or triple our neighbors, because we are consuming so much each day.

I noticed food privilege quite starkly when the 2 youths I have been sponsoring since 2005, Trupti (now age 19) and Tushar (age 17), invited me to their 1-room dwelling for tea. Their auntie made a strong black tea with no milk and a lot of sugar. Sugar is important to Indians because it provides cheap calories. If it’s several hours until supper and you’re hungry, what can you do?

Muscle Privilege: The level of physical activity I choose to do each day requires  quite a bit of protein, which can be challenging to acquire in a nation whose staples are rice and dal. Not only did I haul several pounds of organic nuts and seeds to India from the USA, but I need to carry around packets of cashews and groundnuts to keep my blood sugar from plummeting and to keep up my energy level for yoga practice and study. Although India’s overweight population grows, like many of the obese in the USA, the excess weight is created by inexpensive carbs.

Size Privilege: Also related to Food Privilege and Muscle privilege, It takes tremendous resources to grow large people like the Westerners here. Even someone my size feels they are taking up too much space, requiring too much energy. I feel like a Land Rover among Civics.

Yoga Privilege: Not for a minute do I forget how privileged I am to be here studying. Trupti and Tushar  have never had exposure to this practice, and cannot relate to it. Only the well-to-do in India have access to this path. Not only must they have the money and time to study, but they also need to know English, the language used in many classes.

What to do with all my unearned privilege? Is it possible to deny myself these privileges as an act of solidarity? However, this disengenuous stance wouldn’t solve the larger global problems of inequality, unfair trade, white supremacy, and exploitation. The issues of privilege here are the same we have in the USA, except more extreme. Back home, even though I have given up much of my economic privilege, and have never enjoyed white privilege, I still benefit from educational and class privilege.

I see the project of “de-privileging” myself as a decolonizing process. That is, as I become increasingly immersed in Indian culture and society, I may become less dependent on my privileges. In the USA I have layer by layer shed middle-class privileges such as retirement benefits, health insurance, my own home, etc., in order to devote myself more fully to the yoga path, Perhaps the next stage of the yoga path for me is to become more aware of my place in the world, and how I perpetuate or challenge hierarchies everywhere, not just in the USA.

Here in India, I feel literally and figuratively that hungry people always watch me eat. May I sit in that discomfort, recognize my privilege, and with full consciousness, find ways to live the yoga message of liberation for all.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Iyengar Yoga, the Next Generation


When I was last at RIMYI in July 2010, Geeta Iyengar was taking a break from teaching to deal with health concerns. Everyone was quite concerned about her, as well as disappointed that our long awaited classes with our brilliant teacher were being subbed. We felt we had traveled such a long distance and sacrificed so much time, energy, and money, to come and study with her.

My generation of Iyengar Yoga practitioners who have had the honor of studying with her appreciate her unblinking keen eye, her precise language coupled with her scope of perception, and her ability to take a large varied group deeply into an asana and glimpse the eternal in that experience. For those of us who did not get to study directly with BKS Iyengar, Geetaji has provided a doorway lighting the way to his genius.

Our disappointment in 2010 was somewhat tempered by the opportunity to take classes with some of the other teachers at RIMYI, several of them with decades of experience. Now, in 2013, as Geetaji has stepped back from many of her responsibilities as the main torchbearer of her father’s teachings, the next generation of teachers at RIMYI have stepped up even more. In the last several years, many of them have traveled to Iyengar Yoga conventions on various continents, including ours, and are teaching more and more internationally.

These days, I can happily state that the classes they provide at RIMYI have fulfilled the role of Geetaji and Guruji. They are stepping into their shoes with grace, confidence, firmness, conviction, and an energetic freshness of spirit.

Abhijata Sridhar exemplifies this new generation. Only in her mid-20s in age, she has been the primary recipient of Guruji’s wisdom for the last 10 years or so, as he has tutored her intensely almost every day. He has virtually poured his knowledge into her. When she speaks, she conveys his depth of knowledge and insight. When she arrives Wednesday and Saturday mornings to teach the crowded Women’s classes that for many years were Geetaji’s signature classes, she goes directly to Guruji’s practice corner in the hall as students arrange their mats. He gives her detailed instructions on sequencing and actions. Throughout class, he communicates with her, and guides her as he is practicing and watching from Sirsasana or Dwipada Viparita Dandasana.

Although she teaches many Senior Teachers from around the world who have studied Iyengar Yoga longer than she has been alive, Abhi remains unflappable, calm, firm, and clear. She has the authority of Guruji fully behind her. Her classes are consistently superb, as she takes us from the gross to the subtle, penetrating our thick minds and resistant bodies and transporting us to a lighter, clearer, more sattvic state.

I feel I am watching history being made. As Geetaji and Guruji pass the torch of their teachings, the flame glows as bright as ever. Instead of losing our beloved teachers, we are witnessing the evolution of the teachings, through the brilliance of the next generation. We are honored to participate in this beautiful transition.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Unfolding Ourselves Each Morning

I am completely convinced that 4 hours of intelligent asana each day will cure any disease, any ailment, any condition whatsoever. Toss in a half hour of pranayama and an hour of meditation, and you're invincible. That's what I get in Pune on good days: pranayama from 5-5:30am, 5:30-6:30am meditation, 9am-12pm asana, then a 2-hour asana class in the evening. Some afternoons I go to the library from 3-4pm, before assisting with the Remedial (Medical/Therapeutics) class from 4-6pm.

But other days, I wake up too late for pranayama, or I have to be on a phone call to the USA before morning class, or I choose to nap instead of go to the library, or menstrual cramps compel me to observe class instead of take it, or.....any number of good excuses can be found here, just as at home.

My slack days do not deter the beneficial effects and karma of my good days, however. When we are so fully present in our bodies, aerating all our chakras, opening our hearts and minds, no obstacle, not allergies, not depression, not sacral instability, can deter us from becoming more and more balanced. Not that I have already cured every last thing that ails me, but I'm getting there!

RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute) is not the easiest place to study yoga, to say the least. This January is the most crowded I have ever seen. During morning practice, we are mat to mat, with no space to keep props out. During class, our mats overlap, and sometimes we have to fold them in half to fit more students. We take Shavasana with our legs folded in Swastikasana. The mats, donated by international students over the years since they're hard to come by in India, are in various states of wear and stickiness, and probably have never been washed.

Yet, when I settle on a mat in the main hall of the Institute, any mat, I am home. Sattva washes over me, rinsing away the agitation of rajas and the heaviness of tamas. I am grateful, open, aware. I decide what I will practice that day: am I feeling tight, sleepy, high energy, achy? What is my body asking for? My practice sequence unfolds differently each day, although nearly each day includes some standing poses, quite a bit of time in inversions, and some backbends and twists.

All around me, experienced practitioners from all over the world unfold their sequences as well. I've met students from France, Italy, Brazil, South Korea, Singapore, Germany, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, China....you name it. All around me, quietly, students are earnestly folding forwards, backwards, to the sides, jumping to and fro, leaping upside down, and in every permutation humans can imagine.

The room becomes even more hushed if we hear Guruji, BKS Iyengar, speak, from his corner by the props room. He may be instructing one of the Senior Teachers from abroad, or he may be instructing his granddaughter, Abhijata Sridhar. If he is in a teaching mood, we all stop mid-asana to gather and sit silently nearby to catch whatever wisdom he may be passing on. We sit knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder, eager to soak in what we all traveled so far to learn.

Sometimes Guruji speaks so softly I can barely hear him, or I am so far back I cannot glean the lesson. But I don't mind. Just being in that charged atmosphere in the presence of brilliance is enough to keep me practicing, learning, staying another minute in Sirsasana, attempting Parivrtta Parsvakonasana a third time or a fourth time, waking up without an alarm before the birds, opening up to the fullest potential of yoga, another day, and another day, and another day.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Greetings from Pune, India!

You can feel India the moment you step off the plane onto the jetway, as the soothing heat soaks right through its seams. Finally you get out of the sterile airport and into the pick-up area. Even though it's 2 in the morning, the airport is as packed and lively as high noon, the air smells musky and wraps around you like a cloak, and the sensory overstimulation has just begun. You squeeze yourself into a crowded car for the final leg of the journey, from the Mumbai airport to your apartment in Pune, only 200 km, but it takes a full 4 hours for reasons that only make sense in India.

I arrived at my sweet apartment I am sharing with several other yoga practitioners at 6:30am, determined to stay awake all day so I can get a full night of sleep and get quickly over jetlag. Soon, we walked down the street to the Iyengar Institute to register and practice.

BKS Iyengar, age 94 and regal, sat on a bench receiving arrivers with a generous grace. How do I describe the feeling of being in his presence? It's like driving down a road, turning a corner, and getting hit with a view of the ocean that takes your breath away: a sense of majesty, evoking a feeling of deep gratitude for having this opportunity.

This morning I enjoyed a delightful class with Devki Desai, who reminded us that just as we feel refreshed and ennobled when we enter a place of worship, or, I would add, a beautiful place in nature, we can experience that in asana. BKS Iyengar says "Alignment for Enlightenment," meaning that the purpose of all this attention to physical detail is to bring us to a state of clarity and luminescence. Devki asked us to make our legs not only intelligent, but wise. We spent a good half hour in Upavista Konasana, with respites in Baddha Konasana, before moving on to standing poses. Devki pointed out that Trikonasana can be a shrine for us, a place of ennoblement. Just as a walk along Lake Michigan can inspire and refresh us, so can an asana.

Let us create wisdom in our limbs, our organs, our nervous system, our digestion, and throughout our bodies. Let us make our bodies worthy of grace.

More later, namaste,
pkh