Dreams of Guruji

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In Pune at RIMYI, as the Iyengar Yoga Institute is known, you live and breathe yoga. The time is so intense that there is no time or space for anything else. Towards the end of my first full month in Pune, I also began to dream yoga.

I dreamt that Guruji asked me to do Urdhva Dhanurasana (bridge pose) with my feet to a high metal bar. This is a pose I find very challenging. Doing it with feet elevated is particularly challenging. On waking, I realised that Guruji was setting the bar high for me, testing my mettle.

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This is what the Pune month does: sets the bar high; tests our mettle. All the distractions of our usual daily lives are removed. The fabric of one’s life becomes entirely yoga.

Firstly there is one class a day to attend as a student. For most of the foreign students, this is the early morning class taught by Prashant Iyengar.  Prashant’s teaching is different from most other Iyengar teachers.  It is profound, making you question the fundamentals of yoga and with the potential to transform your yoga practice. Some foreign students choose to observe Prashant’s classes and attend the evening classes taught by other Institute teachers. Twice a week the morning class is taught by Geeta or Sunita Iyengar and one of these classes is for women only.

Because of Guruji’s semi-circular design, the practice hall where all the classes for visiting foreign students are taught, feels very intimate, despite the fact that there are usually about one hundred students in the room. Although this is more than the class sizes we have in the UK, it is a size where the teacher can see and correct students when needed. All the teachers saw and corrected – there was no hiding-place! Indeed, receiving a correction from one of the Iyengars or their teachers is a great learning experience – it is something you will never forget.

As July is monsoon in Pune, foreign visitors are fewer than many other months. Most UK teachers and students prefer to come to Pune in the British winter. I was one of only two UK students at RIMYI in July. In Raya’s classes (Raya Uma Datta, one of the RIMYI teachers who was trained directly by Guruji in the last decade of his life, together with Guruji’s granddaughter Abhijata), which were very demanding but brilliant, he identified foreign students  by their nationality. Thus I became “Miss Britain” or would hear “Hey, UK!” if he noticed me not doing something right. Corrections such as these are never forgotten.

With all of this yoga “gold” heaped before me, there was nevertheless something which “glittered” even more than the rest. It was being taught by Geeta Iyengar. On my very first day, she taught the evening Pranayama class. Someone else had set up my mat for me when I was out of the room. I came back to find myself right at the front, in the central spot below the stage. This was terrifying enough on my first class at the Institute. At the time I didn’t know who was going to teach the class. Then an excited whisper began: “She’s coming!” Geeta Iyengar entered and I found myself literally at her feet. I’m sure my nervousness (and that of others) was clear to her. She told us: “Let go of nerves.” Her teaching in that class was brilliant and will be forever memorable to me. We were lucky enough to be taught by Geetaji three more times. She was compassionate and showed a great sense of humour, as well as insightful teaching beyond any I have previously experienced. (I attended the 10-day international convention, “Yoganusasanam”, in Pune in December 2014, taught by Geetaji, but instead of the more than a thousand Yoganusasanam students, there were no more than a hundred at RIMYI, which makes a great difference. Geetaji can see all of the 100 students and they are in close proximity to her.)

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Most days the morning class is followed by a three-hour practice session (the practice time is shorter twice a week). The practice sessions were another highlight for me. How often are we able to make the time for this amount of daily practice in our lives at home? It was stimulating to practise with so many others from around the world, to be part of a community of fellow practitioners, equally committed to yoga. We learnt from each other. Another aspect was practising in the same room with the Institute teachers such as Raya, Abhijata, Dr Rajlaxmi. We learnt from observing them and sometimes they gave some teaching points to foreign or local teachers practising.

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Every day there is the opportunity to observe some of the many classes, to learn how the RIMYI teachers instruct their students. Indian students are, on the whole, much more flexible than Western students, so some of the things taught to beginners in Pune wouldn’t work at this level for most UK students. Equally, the high level of practice expected from students in the Intermediate level 2 classes at RIMYI would only be expected from teachers in the UK.

I found every class I watched helpful in some way, but particularly enjoyed the classes for older students and attended these regularly. By the end, I was assisting in them and learnt a lot that will be helpful in my own teaching. Once again, the average older Indian student is much more flexible than older Western students.

Three times a week we could also observe or assist in the medical classes. At first these can be confusing, as so much is going on in the room at one time. It can seem chaotic, with teachers and students dashing around with bits of equipment, but there is a system at work. The class is divided, with teachers teaching a group of students with shoulder problems and others teaching a group with lower back problems. Simultaneously there are many students following personal remedial programmes. A number of teachers work one-to-one with these students, with senior teachers overseeing. I was able to assist one of the patients and learnt a lot from him and his teacher, as well as learning from the adjustments offered to students in the room with many different health problems.

I also enjoyed watching the Sunday morning children’s classes. These are incredibly high energy, with a number of young teachers taking it in turns to teach the class. Once they were flagging, the next teacher took over – but the children kept going throughout!

A couple of times a week, in the afternoon, there was a led practice session, or a chat with Raya. (In other months, these are with Abhijata Iyengar, but she has just had a baby and wasn’t teaching in July.) In his chats he brought us closer to Guruji through his tales – particularly appreciated by those of us who never had the opportunity to meet Guruji in person. In the led practice sessions Raya gave us demanding sequences and, like Prashant and Geeta Iyengar, challenged us to deepen and develop our practice.

One of the things you are not prepared for before arriving at the Institute, is how you will cross the path of the Iyengar family daily – in the lobby, in the practice hall, or at their door. They live modestly in a house directly opposite the Institute building. This is at the sacrifice of their privacy, but they accept the ingress and egress of hundreds of students past their door with incredible grace and tolerance. Guruji chose to live next to his Institute and his family choose to continue his legacy in all things, from his modesty, his generosity to the precision of his teaching.

It felt an incredible privilege to have this month entirely dedicated to yoga. Every day to be taught by one of the Iyengar family, or one of the teachers who learnt directly from Guruji for decades. So much great teaching, directly from the source.

Over the years I’d heard about it, without ever really knowing what it would be like. As a mother of three children, I didn’t think I’d have the chance to go for a few more years. I’m so glad that I have finally had the chance.

At times it was hard. I missed my kids – a month is a long time for a mum to be away. Sometimes I missed home comforts – home food, safe running water. Some aspects of life in Pune are challenging: the pollution;  the danger in crossing the road with the traffic bearing down on you (one adjusts to this and becomes adept at weaving between the mopeds, cars and tuk-tuks); the endless beeping horns; Delhi belly; in July, the monsoon rains. But balanced against this is the friendliness of Indians, their welcome to foreign visitors, their high energy. And most of all, the inspirational yoga!

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In fact, a month isn’t enough. In the last few days I was just starting to “tune in” to Prashant’s frequency,  to understand and to find the resonance of his teaching in my practice. And then it was time to leave. His voice, his teaching, and the teaching of the other teachers has seeped into my cells, entered my core, and will stay with me and develop in my practice.

For those who came to RIMYI when Guruji was alive, his absence is particularly hard. I felt he was a palpable presence at RIMYI. The whole building is imbued with him – from the friezes of him in asanas which decorate the exterior of the building, to the many pictures of him performing asanas which adorn the higher parts of the walls. These are not just decoration. The teachers frequently point out the photos to illustrate aspects of a particular pose.

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But not to have his presence at the back of classes or him practising in the practice hall, this is a sadness, even – or especially – for those students, like me, who never met him. He has influenced our lives so profoundly, but to never see or meet him is a grief.

And yet, somehow, he was with me, nevertheless. Near the end of my time at RIMYI, I dreamt of Guruji twice. In the first dream he was practising extreme backbends in the last weeks of his life. His aura was so strong that everyone in the practice hall was able to perform the same difficult poses with versatility equal to Guruji’s. This dream seems to show how you can influence others by the way you are. Leading a yogic way of life can influence others, maybe even transform them. This is certainly what Guruji achieved.

The second dream was the one with which I began this article – Guruji telling me to practise Urdhva Dhanurasana with my feet to a high bar. This dream seems to be telling me to set the bar high in my practice.

Since leaving Pune and travelling in India with my family, the yoga dreams continue. I love the way my month in Pune has deepened my practice and knowledge, and entered my unconscious. In one recent dream, Raya tells me to do Sirsasana 12 times. In another, I visit a temple (which we are doing on our travels) but am required to do drop-backs to Urdhva Dhanurasana there (a new personal target). My dreams all seem to be telling me to set the bar high in my practice, just as Guruji did in my first dream. This is the message I have received in my Pune month. The bar has been set high, my mettle will continue to be tested, by what I now expect of myself in my practice. And Pune: I’ll be back!