Arriving back in India last week and stepping out of the airport at 3 a.m., the heat, smells, sights and sounds were strikingly familiar although it had been a few years since my last trip to the Iyengar Yoga Institute to study. As the taxi left the Mumbai airport for Pune, the necessary combination of the patience of a saint, a good sense of humor and just the right amount of assertiveness was soon required.
First stop, air for the tire. Second stop, pulled over by three policemen hoping to find a reason for baksheesh (a tip). The last stop en route was at a checkpoint where we were held for having “invalid papers” during which time at least eight men gathered around to discuss the situation. After a total of 27 hours of travel, I finally arrived in Pune, and unpacked in my rented apartment only to discover that the electricity is shut off all day on Thursdays. No ceiling fan but LOL, I was back!
India is a total experience. It is an assault on the senses, and is colorful, diverse, crowded and magnificent. It is a land of contrasts from the squalid to the luxurious. Colorful and fragrant flower offerings are for sale on every corner (instead of our Starbucks) and these are created daily to be offered to the plethora of deities that are worshiped and revered in India. In addition to the many gods and goddesses, intricate images and sculptures, sacred texts, the diversity of religious denominations and the ritual of puja, there are of course, the holy cows that roam the streets.
In a place where spirituality is infused in daily life, and where tradition underlies everything, I was immediately struck by how much has changed here yet how little has changed as well. The last time I had seen BKS Iyengar he was still in his eighties and now he is 94. Although his appearance has changed, he continues to practice a wide range of poses including advanced backbends and inversions. His postures are fully supported with props and he holds them for long durations. I feast my eyes upon him during the practise sessions and I am intrigued, inspired and humbled by this man, a veritable genius in our time.
Assisting in the Medical Class, I feel honored to be able to help facilitate healing in others and to also observe BKS Iyengar working the room as if at a party. He is like an athlete in the zone, flowing from one person to the next, fully present. One minute “The Lion of Pune” is barking a command or pressing with such force on someone and in the next moment, he is bending down to kiss a young girl all the while leaving his indelible mark as he touches with pure brilliance.
Herein lies the mystique and transformative power of yoga. BKS Iyengar has made yoga accessible to the world and while the practise is bound in tradition, it is also constantly evolving. As I observe him practicing or teaching, I glance up to look at the hundreds of photos that adorn the walls of the Institute and I am transported across the lifespan of his practise. Change is truly the constant.
There is more traffic in Pune and available rickshaws are harder to find. I used to visit the Internet café in order to stay connected with home. Now I have Wifi. The rickshaw driver pulls out his cell phone. Walking to the vegetable market to select my produce sill holds an allure but there is now a “supermarket” in the new Pune Central department store just minutes from the Institute. However, staying true to tradition, each day I still buy the un-pasteurized “cow milk” (to be differentiated from the available buffalo milk) and boil it for my morning coffee. This has been something that I have enjoyed doing during every trip I have made to study here. Boiling the milk and using a percolator on the stove takes time and slowing down is a part of the learning for me here. I don’t want to give up this simple ritual. The coffee also tastes better.
Within Sacred India, many changes have arisen including technology, the emerging middle class, and the more common style of western clothing. Yet there remains an incredible sensory experience. Constant noise and movement threaten to overwhelm the visitor but the bombardment is offset by choosing to focus on the surrounding beauty including the rich jeweled colors of the saris, the sweet smell of the jasmine, the deep chants of the religious, the lyrical songs of the birds, the intense flavors of the food.
It is a privilege to return to India to study yoga at the source. I am grateful that the universe has at this time supported this experience for I am once again blessed to learn from the living masters of our time. As I open myself to all that this incredible country offers and in particular, the rich teachings of the Iyengars, I simultaneously open to my yoga practise. And change is what permeates both my inner and outer worlds. And just like India, where tradition underlies the changes, the constancy or ritual of daily practise provides for the ongoing process of change for the yoga practitioner. As I embark on this new-old journey, I reflect on the many changes that have occurred during my thirty-year yoga history and ponder what new changes will undoubtedly unfold.
“I’m living in the moment, I’m living my life Easy and breezy, with peace in my mind Peace in my heart, with peace in my soul Wherever I’m going, I’m already home” Jason Mraz from his new album, “Love is a four letter word”