Not a Journey: a Visit to the RIMYI
by Krisna Zawaduk
For those of us who have made a life of practice and teaching in the Iyengar tradition, it is a feast to return to the source. To spend a month immersed fully in practice and study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute is enlivening on so many levels. We congregate in the main hall, placing our well worn yoga mats on the unforgiving stone floor and go to it. The yoga hall at times feels like a temple. I remember Guruji practicing there in the hall with the rest of us. “My body is my temple, the asanas are my prayers,” he famously said—and that philosophy seems to emit from the walls, the floors and the marble platform. Now he is no more, but have we lost anything? Why bother travelling all the way here when the master is no longer?
The spiritual work belongs to each of us. It sure is helpful to have a master guide, but ultimately, it is our duty and responsibility to do the tapas, svadhyaya, ishvara pranidhana (self-discipline, self-study and surrender to God). And I feel that responsibility, but I do appreciate a good class when I get one too. When we go to RIMYI for study, we take daily classes and some of us also observe. There is an allotted practice time that we can use the hall everyday. There was a very cooperative and friendly mood in the practice hall this time around, a mostly humble mix of practitioners from around the world: India, Scotland, Turkey, Brazil, Switzerland, USA, Israel, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Russia, and the list goes on. It is a chance to interface with the global community that has become enthralled in the subject of Yoga owing to Guruji’s brilliance. B.K.S. Iyengar’s son, Prashant, teaches 7 am classes most days, and his style is unlike what you will find in your typical Iyengar class. A master of words and esoteric concepts, he urges us to go for the real Yog, rather than be seduced by the mundane “yogaa”that has taken the world by storm. It really helps to have some background in the yoga sutras and some basic knowledge of Sanskrit words to be able to digest his teachings. He is an incredibly prolific writer. I picked up three of his books, one of them is over 700 pages, and apparently he is now working on a 4000-page volume! Both Geeta (one of Mr. Iyengar’s daughters) and Prashant have lived lives steeped in Yog, and it has become the very fabric of their being. It is very inspiring to be in their company.
There is a younger generation of teachers that are teaching classes at RIMYI now. They gave us classes with great vibrancy and movement and some surprises. Some were very challenging with a lot of jumpings or drop backs into backbends. They encouraged us to drop the rigidity around the asanas having a limited set of instructions that must be adhered to. Experiment, open the book (Light on Yoga, of course), try the asanas. Guruji’s granddaughter, Abhijata, is especially skilled. She spoke of the different fabrics available in asana practice. Cotton, wool, silk—each have their own characteristics, like warmer, softer, tougher etc. These fabrics of the asanas have to be explored by you. If you are a hard worker, you have to experience the delicate softness also. If you avoid the hard work, you have to experience the sweat. Abhijata is humble and firm, a clear communicator, and is adept in sequencing as well as bringing the scriptures to life in the yogasanas.
Speaking of scriptures, we (fellow teacher Deborah and I ) did take a few opportunities to delve into the beautiful, written culture that exists in India. Some of you may know of the Bhagavad Gita. The saint, Dynaneshwar, translated this work into Marathi language around the tender age of 16. His poetic commentary on the Gita is much celebrated all over India. We went to Alandi, which is the temple town that emerged around 700 years ago after Dynaneshwar took samadhi in an underground chamber. It is a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of people every year. They sit on the banks of the river or in the temple complex beneath the “tree of knowledge” reading or chanting this rendition of the Gita called the Dynaneshwari. Some believe he is still alive in that chamber 700 years later! First day out with Nana, a favourite rickshaw driver, I asked about finding a copy of the Dnyaneshwari, which led to this trip to Alandi. And it just so happens that Nana had an English copy of the book waiting the past year for the right owner….Lucky me.
India is a country of exquisite food, beautiful people, art, music and an unparalleled variety of things to see, touch, hear, smell and taste. One great example of this was the Annual Day Celebration. January is the anniversary of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI), now its 43rd year. Geeta Iyengar spoke on the Saturday evening with great reverence for her parents, and in this case, especially, she gave the history of her mother, after whom the institute had been named. She spoke of Ramamani’s early marriage to and unflinching support of BKS Iyengar throughout the years. She told of her exacting touch in asanas and even her mother’s innovations, like the special way to tie a sari so women could practice, and later the shorts she designed for Geeta. Ramamani did the bhumi puja for the land on which the institute was to be built and then suddenly sickened and died a few days later. Imagine.
The following day, we were treated to more than three hours of special presentations of Bharata Natyam, Odissi, Kathak, (classical Indian dances) and tango from Argentina, djembe and tablas played by talented youth musicians, singers of Indian and Ukrainian origin, a comedy skit, a talk on the mysteries of time and space from a yogic perspective and so much more! It was one of the best multi-concerts I have ever been to, fabulous offerings from people all around the world. This ended with a delicious thali lunch served outside to a couple hundred or so people.
One of the highlights of the month was Geeta Iyengar’s masterful teaching. She had not been teaching regular classes during the month, except for the medical classes. It is incredible to watch her at work there with the varied conditions. She has many junior teachers that are ready to jump in and pull a rope, or heave people up into headstand or handstand, for example. Her eagle eyes can see right across the room. One day, she spotted one of the Canadians helping a student with a botched hip replacement do some work on the trestler in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3). She called her and the other Canadian assessors (Deborah and I who were observing this class) over to give the three of us some very strong and potent teachings about the work in Virabhadrasana III and Prasarita Padottanasana for this woman. She questioned us and made sure we understood! Near the end of the class were were called over again and a large group gathered to partake in Geeta’s address, as any crumbs dropped from a master are quickly devoured by the hungry awaiting students!
A group of 80 or so Russians were having a 10-day intensive with Raya and Abhijata at a hall about a 10-minute rickshaw ride from the institute. Two of those days, Geeta taught that Russian group, and we were all invited to attend. There was a translator for the Russian group. Geeta taught 3.5 hours straight on that Tuesday and 4 on the Thursday. Wow. We were blown away. Geeta has been suffering with health problems and has lost a couple toes on one foot. I do not know the full extent of her illness, but she spoke about these troubles resulting from many serious childhood illnesses such as nephritis, malaria and she listed several others. She often uses a walker, but that has not dampened her passion for the subject of yoga—she has incredible dexterity to weave the philosophical teachings into the practical asana work and injected quotes and themes from the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. She emphasized that we all have conditioned minds which make us hold a very narrow view of life. Yoga is freedom, and so she teaches us to discover the vastness of the universe within our bodies and minds.
One absorbs a lot in a month of intense practice and study such as this. Like your regular classes, it takes time for the teachings to become assimilated and fully digested. It will take me some time and I trust in the work, as it has never led me astray. Whether you ever care to make it to India or not, it does not matter. B.K.S. Iyengar has always spoken of how yoga is universal, and can be taken on by anyone regardless of age, physical ability, social status, religion and so on. It is a “personal practice”; it is to be done by each individual in their own unique manner. Teachers are there to give us guidance, suggestions and encouragement to move beyond our self-imposed limitations. We appreciate the company of our fellow students, yet the yoga is only ever one’s own.
Prashantji spoke of how we talk about going on a spiritual “journey” but yoga, he said, is about going “from you to you!” If you go on a journey, this implies there is distance and time. However, to go from you to you, there is no distance, only time. The microcosm (you) contains the macrocosm (universe) and vice versa. Through yoga you discover the universe inside. “How can you make that astronomical journey?” he asks. What is the vehicle? Can you ride a bike? No. Can you take a plane? No. Will visiting RIMYI make it happen for you? Not necessarily. Each time I make the journey to RIMYI, however, I am again reminded of my personal responsibility to do my spiritual practice. Your regular class or trip to your yoga mat can also serve this purpose.
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