types of yoga


IMG_0930RIMYI is closed until September. No more classes for us August students. Suddenly, the purpose of my trip, yoga, was gone–at least in the way I’d expected.

At first I agreed to join my Canadian colleagues on a three-night trip to Ellora and Ajanta. That wasn’t my first inclination. I wanted still to practice daily, to be solitary, to go inward. I didn’t feel like embarking on a five-hour road trip twice in three days. I also wanted to head to Mumbai sooner, definitely before Ganesh Chaturthi. Still, I figured that I “should” go and see the caves.

On second thought, however, I forfeited my share of the vehicle fee–to do what I initially intended. I regretted not following my gut instincts.

Practicing, Prashant style

I was reminded of Prashant’s teachings of yoga practice. For him, yoga is all about going inward: body to breath, breath to mind. If your yoga is always in class, following a teacher, that is not “yog,” but just superficial physical exercise. “After class,” he says, “forget what the teacher says. In class, you don’t learn; you’re only taught what you must learn on your own.”

IMG_0933This was a good opportunity to practice in solitary confinement–to try to apply Prasant’s ideas. But did I really want to spend a few days in Pune? Back home in Kitsilano, home confinement would be a joy. Space, light, clean air and water, leafy sidewalks, crosswalks and cars that stop! Here, there are power outages for hours at a time. (Without lights, fans, and wifi, life in my cavernous apartment is rather grim.) And don’t get me started on the noise.

But it felt right to stay. In my mind, Prashant’s admonition to cultivate our own understanding of yoga applies to life in general. Don’t do what seems normal and sensible, but rather what’s right for me.

Readjusting to practice

During the first half of August, I’d established an early routine: wake by 5am, sleep by 9:30pm (10pm was late!). When RIMYI closed, my schedule was thrown off. I tried to practice for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. But without a set schedule, it’s been hit or miss.

IMG_0923I miss the open practice time. Yes, it was mat-to-mat crowded, but I almost always got my favorite spot, at the first or second pillar from the props. (If Mr Iyengar had been practicing by the trestle, I would have opted for the farther second pillar, of course!) I’d practice for two or more hours, covering a variety of poses and always including Supta Padangusthasana variations and Pincha Mayurasana balance.

It was clear that serious Iyengar yogis do independent practice, for everyone was focused on his/her work. Poses were wide ranging, but they all somehow rang out “Iyengar yoga,” if you know what I mean.

At home I’m still practicing, but due to my shopping and sightseeing outings with Nana, the gallant English-speaking rickshaw driver loved by Canadians and Americans, my schedule has been erratic. Again, India is forcing me to accept change, to catch time and space when I can, and to “adjust.”

A flame burns at RIMYI

There are no classes, but the office and bookstore are open. In the morning, I stopped by, chatted with Raya’s father in the bookstore, and then walked upstairs into the hall. It was still and silent, the scent of incense in the air. On the stage, a small shrine featured a large photo of Mr Iyengar, along with flowers, incense, traditional objects unfamiliar to me, and a glowing lantern.

IMG_0932Foam mats were laid out for visitors. Usha Devi was sitting by a pillar; a few students came to pay respects and left. I sat on a mat for a while. The hall felt familiar, although I’d never seen it so empty, so serene.

Late in the day, I stopped by again to see the basement library, site of legendary encounters with Mr Iyengar. Until today I hadn’t ventured there, somewhat deterred by puddles of water from leakage on the stairway. Today I forged ahead. It was closed, but the librarian let me look around.

Hundreds, even thousands, of books and reams of printed matter. It’s a small, simple space, with a long table for visitors, plus a desk and chair, which I assume was where Mr Iyengar spent hours.

Upstairs in the hall, Usha Devi was again there–or still there–tending the shrine. Again I sat in the empty hall, breathing the incense, taking it in.

Guruji_nov2012Walking toward RIMYI just after noon, I saw a crowd blocking the street. Just outside the gate, an ambulance was parked. Soon I heard chanting, and five or six men, draped in white cloth, came carrying the body of BKS Iyengar, adorned with flowers, high on a stretcher.

I went alone, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly I was swept along with seven Brits, riding to the cremation ground in an Iyengar family friend’s spacious, air-conditioned SUV. I’m still amazed at this man’s generosity: inviting eight strangers to squeeze into his VIP vehicle. (We had to catch rickshaws back; he had to transport Prashant.)

Hindu funeral rites are very unfamiliar to Western eyes. I couldn’t see much, standing behind dozens of others. Some were holding camera or cell phones above their heads. I, too, wanted to memorialize the day, but couldn’t bring myself to take pictures.

Besides, I won’t forget the informal gathering, so unlike the hushed, orderly funerals that I’ve attended. Within the family circle, rituals are sacred and specific, while the larger gathering is spontaneous and open to the public. Traditionally women aren’t permitted to attend the ceremony, but Geeta apparently modified this rule.

The cremation ground was simple and exemplified Pune: open air, cement and dirt, covered by a corrugated metal roof. Where I was standing, there were several pyre pits, some still ashy, in a row–and we had to be careful not to fall in.

It was witheringly humid, the air so damp that I was dripping just standing there. The crowd, comprising a mix of locals and visiting students, was large, but modest for a man of Mr Iyengar’s stature. That’s perhaps due to the immediacy of Hindu cremation; those from afar can’t make it on time.

When the pyre was lit, the smell of smoke filled the covered structure–another unforgettable experience that cannot be captured on film. Eventually Geeta, dressed in white, was helped out by teachers Raya and Uday and then her sisters, wearing colors. The fire burned bigger and brighter, by the time the crowd was dispersing.

I rode a rickshaw home with a familiar Italian classmate I’ll call Stefano. Before his first trip to RIMYI, his father, who had a wild white mane just like Mr Iyengar, passed away. When Stefano first arrived, he saw Mr Iyengar from the back. When he turned around, Stefano saw his father in Mr Iyengar.

He commented that I’m lucky: to have seen Mr Iyengar alive; to be here on his death. “It’s synchronicity,” he said. “It’s once in a lifetime, to see this celebration.” He repeatedly called the funeral a “celebration”; I wondered if he meant “ceremony.” But maybe it was intentional.

Maybe I am lucky. Of course, I still wish that I’d come to Pune sooner. Why wait? A day’s delay turns to weeks, months, and years. Time flies. Even 95 years.

IMG_0703In August 2012, I was chatting with a few friends about travel. Where are we going? Where do we want to go? I mentioned that I hope to go to India while BKS Iyengar is still alive.

“How old is he?” Doug asked.

“Ninety-four in December,” I said.

When I explained the application process, which entails a waiting time of up to two years, Doug said, “Shouldn’t you be applying now?”

His mom is elderly, and he knew I had no time to spare.

IMG_0739Two years later, I finally made it here. And I might be unlucky in my timing. Mr Iyengar recently took ill, and he hasn’t been well enough to practice in the hall. In today’s Times of India, I read that he was hospitalized this week. See here for another article.

Earlier in August, I was lucky enough to see Mr Iyengar a couple times. Exiting the institute around noon, we’d immediately notice him sitting on his front porch, directly facing the institute. Abhijata Sridhar, his granddaughter, would sit beside him. Some students approached with a bow and namaste; a few prostrated themselves and touched the ground below him. Most politely gave him space and privacy.

IMG_0700Yesterday Abhijata taught the Wednesday women’s class, which is packed to the rafters since men are allowed to attend. With great energy and clarity, she led the class through basic poses–Tadasana, Sirsasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana–that suddenly demanded full attention. I found her remarkably poised and articulate; nothing fazes her. She is commanding without arrogance. Her teachings combine precise asana instructions with straightforward yoga philosophy, and they are peppered with anecdotes of her grandfather.

She initially asked, “Did you come here to learn, or did you come here to do?” It’s an excellent question to ask yourself before any class.

Later, before Sirsasana, she talked about doing asana with sensitivity. About eight years ago, she set a timer for her headstand, aiming to hold the pose for 20+ minutes. The first few minutes were easy, and then one thing or another began hurting. As the minutes ticked by, she felt sweaty, itchy, and distracted, but forced herself to continue. At 20 minutes she came down and proudly announced her feat to her grandfather.

IMG_0702He asked, “What did you do in the pose?”

She had no answer. “I was just doing the pose. I was doing… nothing in the pose.”

“Then you wasted your time,” he said.

We then rose into our own Sirsasana, which we held for almost 11 minutes!

With neither Mr Iyengar nor Geeta around, I can’t help wishing I’d applied sooner. But some of the other teachers, such as Gulnaaz Dashti, are excellent. And if Abhijata is the next generation, Iyengar yoga has a promising future.

Students seem either to be enthralled by Prashant Iyengar‘s manner of teaching–or not to relate to it. Either way, his classes are memorable because they are unique.

IMG_0508After four classes with Prashant in one week, I’ve found them both compelling and frustrating. I’m compelled by his attempt to go beyond asana: Prashant is trying to teach us why we do yoga, not how to do asana. A charismatic speaker, he has an impressive facility with the English language. To make a point, he uses imagery, analogy, simile, or metaphor. He can speak intelligently, off the top of his head, for hours (literally).

He often wraps up his points with a rapid-fire, “Do you follow?” But it’s a rhetorical question–and no one dares interrupt his flow of ideas. He does has a sense of humor, lightening the mood with a funny example (often involving his local students) or an amused expression.

That said, it can be frustrating to be crammed into a space with 150 or more students. If you’re not in front, Prashant’s low voice is hard to hear, especially when he names poses. He’ll call out two to four poses, and students pick one to do. Then we switch. If we’re the least bit slow in setting up, he booms, “Quick!” but otherwise external asana form is unimportant to him. It’s a madhouse as students scramble to find a spot. There’s no such thing as “my spot” or “my mat” (or my American-sized zone of personal space!)

prashantiji_prayersIn the first two or three classes, he focused on “what is taught” versus “what is learned.” What a student learns might not be what the teacher intends to teach. Further, even if a student learns what is intended, that learning is superficial, only a first step. In-class learning is to learn what we should be learning.

Once, he discussed why people do asana. Often it’s done for display or performance, to improve health or to cure medical conditions. These are not the right reasons. It is not done in front of a mirror; it is not a gym sport.

Regarding physical benefits, asana will improve your health regardless of whether you focus on it–so why make this the main goal? Medical reasons are also suspect; as soon as you solve one issue, another will crop up.

You can do asana for 10, 20, or 50 years (for the above reasons) and never go beyond. In asana you must go toward “becoming in being.”

Before the first 9am-12pm open practice, which follows his 7-9am class, he commented on what people do: Some start doing one pose (for example, twists) and then see another person doing (say, chair back arch). They then decide that they should do chair back arch. They’re like a child with a toy basket: all of the toys are outside the basket, and the child is playing with none of them.

During the practice that immediately followed, I noticed six or seven students adjacent to me–since they had formed a circle and were doing group practice. Everyone in Baddhakonasana, everyone in Upavistha Konasana, everyone in Vamadevasana prep. The next day, same thing. Picture the whole group in Eka Pada Sirsasana, their legs splayed like those of synchronized swimmers. I was surprised; Prashant’s ideas can be complex, but one thread–to do asana from within–was clear. (Maybe there was a language barrier since the students, with whom I later chatted, are from Italy. Or perhaps they cannot override their Italian sociability!)

Maybe Prashant’s ideas would sink in better in smaller groups, where there could be more interaction. Or maybe what he’s trying to teach ultimately can’t be taught.

Recommended reading: Interview with Prashant Iyengar, 2010, by Bobby Clennell and Richard Jonas

Image: Prashant Iyengar, IYNAUS

Prashant’s classes always leave me with indelible images. I jot them down at home, hours later. I know full well that recording any class is prohibited, so bear in mind that the following paraphrased statements are my interpretations.

  • Don’t do asana strictly for the body. Think of a fountain pen. Now, if there’s a fountain pen made of gold or covered with diamonds, suddenly it is not a pen anymore; it’s something else. In asana, if you go beyond the body, it also becomes about something else.
  • In a group, if there’s one person who works hard, sometimes the others will react by doing less. But sometimes, in the presence of hard-working person, the others follow and do more. This is the result of leadership. A good leader causes everyone to work better. In asana, the leader is the breath.
  • There are many reasons why people take a cup of tea. In the morning the reason is clear but during the rest of the day, there are many reasons: waste time, be social, procrastinate, avoid doing what you should be doing. In asana, there are also many reasons how and why people do it. Don’t assume that the way it’s taught in class is the only way. Don’t think that any reason is a good reason.
  • Yoga has become about teaching. Why is there certification for teachers, but no certification for students?
  • Don’t judge your asana on how well you can do a pose, but on how well you understand a pose. If you can do a pose, but have no understanding, that’s not yoga.
  • Each asana is a book. Ask: what is this book trying to teach?
  • If you put milk in a churn and stir it, you will definitely get butter. The quality depends on the milk you put in. In yoga, simply by practicing, simply by doing, you will likewise be transformed. But the quality also depends on the raw material, on what you bring to it.
  • Asana, if done only at the body level, is anti-yoga. You must first learn anti-yoga to learn yoga. Once you see that asana is anti-yoga, you can learn true yoga.

Class after class, I collect more gems. It’s almost too much. For me, one Prashant class is sufficient for a week’s contemplation (and we’re all enrolled in three or four Prashant classes per week). The fountain pen, the cup of tea, the book… might occupy me for months!

IMG_0427 I was curious to attend a class at the Iyengar Yogashraya in Lower Parel, Mumbai. So I ventured there last Monday for the 10:30am class. I had no idea who the teacher would be. (The webpage is spartan, with no teachers, levels, or prices listed.) Located on a busy street, the place is old and unfancy, but fully equipped, typical of an Iyengar studio.

The teacher was Amrish Mody, a middle-aged man with upright posture, fatherly authority, and a round belly. Students lined up along the two rope walls, some arriving well after class started and filling the gaps. There were 21 women and five men, a ratio similar to that in North America. Based on appearance, three of us were foreigners.

Classes are taught in English, so it was no problem following his instructions. I felt as if I were in familiar territory, such is the consistency of the teachings. Also, while Mr Mody expected full attention, he was not harsh, but even-tempered and approachable.

He focused on opening the body for pranayama, less the breathing techniques and more on the fundamental stability and openness in the body. Here’s a rundown of the main poses in his sequence:

  • Tadasana
  • Uttanasana in one rope
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana in one rope
  • Trikonasana
  • Supta Baddhakonasana, strapped pelvis and feet, legs unpropped
  • Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana in chair, crown supported
  • Pranayama and Savasana on low bolster

The poses were held long and fully explored. In Supta Baddhakonasana, he made it a point to demo the entry, abdomen deflating. He advised against grounding the legs, even if doable, if that would compromise the soft abdomen. “Don’t do the pose from your flexibility,” he said, instead making us raise our Baddhakonsana legs slightly

Ample time was reserved for Savasana. He showed us how to enter: lie down, activate legs (as in Tadasana and Sirsasana, which he noted are the akin to Savasana) and then let them roll open and slide apart only slightly. For contrast he splayed his legs wide and collapsed his body: “this is not Savasana, this is sleeping.” He then talked us through pranayama breath observation.

I felt good after the class. It was grounding rather than dynamic, and it was just what I needed. I paid 150 rupees (about US$2.45) for the class.

What do yoga teachers earn in Mumbai? My tour guide, Hemali, told me that she does private lessons with a young teacher twice a week. He was scouted in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, moved to Mumbai, and works for his sponsor at gyms and in private homes. Because he is poor, he lives way outside the city, waking at 4am to commute in and returning home past midnight. His fee for privates is US$10 per hour, and most of his earnings goes to his sponsor.

Maximum CityIn late February, I got the green light to go to Pune in August. (Among Iyengar yogis, “going to Pune” means going to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.) Five months to prepare. To me, this meant buying Lonely Planet India, finding an apartment in Pune, booking flights, getting vaccinations, avoiding injury, and reading up on India.

Five months is enough time to do it all–except the reading.

While I’m going to Pune primarily for yoga, I have a hunch that the Pune experience encompasses more than classes at the institute. I’ve never traveled to India, and I suspect that my yogic challenges will go beyond 10-minute headstands–and test my adaptability to a society starkly different from what I know.

Perhaps because I’m a travel writer, my instincts tell me to be independent, to avoid tourist stereotypes, to know something about my destination. I can’t help recalling my first job, waitressing one summer in my Hilo hometown, when a tourist complained, “Why are there so many Asians here? I didn’t expect this.” Surely he appreciated Hawaii’s beaches and sunshine; but he was clueless about Hawaii’s plantation history and culture. That type of tourist sees only the obvious, overlooking the reality of a place. I don’t want to be that type of tourist.

Since February, here’s what I’ve read:

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katherine Boo This New Yorker writer follows the lives of several residents in Annawadi, a slum near the airport. Published in 2012, this is a consummate piece of journalism, written in a gripping, novelistic style. Couldn’t put it down!

The Age of Kali, William Dalrymple Researched throughout the 1990s, published in 1998, this set of essays introduced me to the caste struggles, political posturing, and irreversible changes of post-Partition India. Dalrymple, a British historian and writer, takes the reader around the subcontinent, presenting glimpses of its wildly varied regions. The best type of travel writing.

Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair I borrowed this 2004 paperback novel a friend who bought it in India. It’s well-done pop fiction, some might call it chick lit. Initially skeptical, I enjoyed this portrait of five women, strangers to one another, who share a train compartment and their life stories. A contemporary look at the social conventions expected of women–in India and everywhere.

Tales from Firozsha BaagTales of Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry I read this 1987 collection of related short stories about 10 years ago. Rereading it, I was  even more impressed. Set in a middle-class Parsi neighborhood in Mumbai, the stories trace the lives of several characters, including a boy who, like Mistry, fulfills the ultimate dream of moving abroad, to London, to New York, or, in his case, to Toronto. A great read.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta Mehta lived in Bombay until 1977, when he was about 14, left for two decades, and then returned for two years in the late 1990s. His 2004 account of that return combines memoir, investigative journalism, travel writing, and history. Through his eyes and ears, we go behind the scenes in Mumbai, glimpsing the world of gangsters, cops, dancing bar girls, Bollywood, and a Jain family that renounces their worldly lives. Very memorable to me are his mini essays, “Country of the No” and “Adjust,” both which seize on Indian personality quirks from an insider’s point of view. A must if traveling to Bombay/Mumbai.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Set in 1960s Calcutta and in Rhode Island, this 2013 novel of two brothers and their intertwined lives is a page turner. Based on her first two books, I’ve considered Lahiri a better short-story writer than novelist, but here I found the characters emotionally convincing. As in the prior two books listed, this novel deals with Indian protagonists who leave the country–and must somehow negotiate between worlds old and new.

An Area of DarknessI’m now reading An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul, published in 1964 and masterfully written. I’ve had to stop and reread sentences and paragraphs: they are perfect. As an Indian who grew up in Trinidad, he is neither an insider nor an outsider; perhaps this gave him an ideal perspective for sharp, objective, heartfelt observations.

These books span some fifty years, covering different eras and giving me context. No one book can apply to all of India (or all of Mumbai or all of any group).

On my reading list:

  • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri
  • Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald
  • Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

Acknowledgment: Thanks to K Yarker for excellent advice on books and India. A true adventurer, she traveled solo around India for one year.

« Previous PageNext Page »