Tuesday, January 29, 2013


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.

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