Teaching Yoga (in MacLeod Ganj)

I met Jogesh in Lung Ta, the very pleasant Japanese restaurant in MacLeod Ganj’s Jogiwara Road. Jogesh is one of three brothers, all of them yoga and reiki teachers from Bhopal who have been travelling the best-known and most lucrative yoga centers (Rishikesh, Manali, Goa, MacLeod Ganj) always on the lookout for students. Jogesh and his elder brother Amrit, who was the unofficial leader of their three-headed group, were relatively partisan in their tactics of finding students. Mostly they were sitting in the most popular cafes and restaurants of MacLeod Ganj and struck up conversations with people, winning their trust and handing them information about their classes. It wasn’t hard to find anyone interested. A good sixty percent of Westerners in MacLeod Ganj were looking for such classes, but the competition was fierce. At the lower level, where the two operated, it wasn’t so noticeable. The struggle here was to get noticed. Their youngest brother, Aryan, was approaching things a little differently. Like his brothers, Aryan had rented a room in one of the countless guest houses springing up along the hillside and like them he went out and hunted for students, but there was a more permanent air to his endeavour. “Aryan Reiki & Yoga School” – it was a bright red sign on a post that he had standing in the corner of his balcony, it was somewhere between proudly proclaiming and half-forgotten. His room was a large workroom plus bedroom that he shared with his brothers whenever they didn’t have rooms of their own. A large bookcase and a small shrine indicated that he wasn’t just on the way through. His room was the office of the three brothers as well and most of my contact with them went through Aryan. I wasn’t a student of his, but during my conversation with Jogesh the topic of yoga had (inevitably) come up and he had offered me, very kindly, to teach in their studio. I have been a teacher of Hatha Yoga for several years. I have studied with teachers in India and Austria, but because of my solitary nature most of what I knew was self taught and, as the Indians would say, acquired in solitary retreat. That was a strange hurdle in every conversation that we had about teaching and courses – I didn’t know how to tell them that. I imagined, rightly or wrongly, that for an Indian the relationship with his teacher is one of the most important things and for me to say that I had no fixed teacher and that experience and a broad range of interests were my best teachers would seem disrespectful and would probably disqualify me in their eyes. In short, I felt quite insecure about my lack of official proofs of my qualification. So I dodged the topic whenever possible, probably causing a little bit of distrust that may have been avoided with a more direct approach. Their idea was to set up a center with changing teachers and they had done this sort of thing before, so we quickly arranged a deal. Everything was rather informal and by word of mouth. They told me to put up notices and hand out flyers and, above all, talk to people in cafes and restaurants.

My motivation was not entirely clear to myself. I had stopped teaching in Austria before I left and was toying with the idea of giving it up entirely. There was nothing for me in teaching anymore – I didn’t feel that I had made great impressions with my students or taught them anything of use and I drew no satisfaction from playing the teacher in front of an audience. After working in the world of yoga for a few years, most of the expressions of that world had become uninteresting for me. The various names of asanas were more interesting as a base for learning a few Hindi words. I found the attitude and the pomp that masked the insecurities of teachers and students alike annoying. The idea that yoga would, in any form, accelerate one’s mental growth had become laughable and all the self-centered discussions about ego and enlightenment were off-putting. The joy of movement was and is my main motivation to do yoga. I felt overwhelming joy at being able to move in those strange, undulating and exhilarating ways. There were psychological side effects, obviously, and there is an interesting correlation between physical injuries and muscular hardening and mental blocks that can be worked against with certain asanas, but yoga had never held any potential for mental development, in my mind. To sit quietly and enjoy or contemplate was one thing, but to weigh down this enjoyment and levity of the moment with overly complex mental constructs was something completely different…I can be overly intellectual so yoga, to me, always meant relaxing this rigid intellectuality. I can also be very detached and fearful, so it also meant accepting this fear and developing, curiously enough, more attachment. Early on during my teaching it was clear that everyone approaches yoga with a different idea in mind and as a teacher there are two ways to progress with that – you either find out what this idea is and then help the student find fulfillment within it or you make it clear that all approaches are mental constructs and try to get rid of them. The first way holds more sympathy and warmth, so it was always more attractive to me when dealing with other people. For myself I have usually used a monkish approach – to be very strict with myself and develop a kind of ascetic mindset. This mindset helped me continue practicing and increasing the difficulties of my practice. I have never paid a great deal of attention to the rigidity and the mechanics of joy that are publicized in books by teachers and yogins, for me it was a direct way to experience that joy. I could be, in some ways, a kid again, and find joy in breathing, existing, simple thoughts, dreams. This state is obviously harder and harder to maintain once the demands of the world increase, but a simple and pleasing thought is that we have only eighty years to live, if we are lucky, so why do we weigh ourselves down with so many useless things. Being a wide-eyed child for eighty years…in historical terms eighty years are nothing, in cosmic terms even less than nothing. So why not enjoy this gift of perception and combination for as long as it lasts? Yoga has, if it has done one thing for me, made me aware that I am alive. It’s strange to me, now, that one needs a reminder for that. My motivation to teach in MacLeod Ganj, however, remains as unclear to me now as it was then. Curiosity, perhaps. Something to put on my CV. Having a beautiful studio to practice in. The possibility to meet people – to meet women, of course.

I got to know just how much of a motivation that can be to some people while talking to Aryan. He struggled a great deal with the strains of his Indian upbringing and the availability of Western women. During a longer conversation with him talk would always veer towards women. He was asking with the strange naivety and earnestness of a young adolescent how he could get a woman to like him. He was a good looking young man with an honest face and his position as a teacher of reiki was an ideal one to meet women. He had a very split personality, though. He said numerous times that he disliked India and Indians and that he wanted to live more like Westerners, yet when a Western backpacker appeared before his door and asked him in almost perfect Hindi whether there were room to be had, he was impressed. Maybe he saw in him a mirror of his ideal image – an Indian who can confidently and naturally fit in with the European world of his imagination. He wanted to have casual sex with women but was wishing for the tightness of an Indian relationship. It puzzled and hurt him that relationships with Western women were both more fulfilling and more frustrating than those he imagined with Indian women. He had never been with an Indian woman – being the youngest of his brothers he had the comfort of being able to follow them out of Bhopal, were he was born and raised. Their choice was to stay in Bhopal and run a small school for children and the few Indians who are curious about yoga or to go to the hotspots for Reiki and Yoga, teaching there and forming connections. I remember a long story that Jogesh told me about a woman who had been receiving Reiki from him. As it turned out she was a general executive of a large Swiss bank and she later helped him receive a European visa that he had used to travel across Europe and teach in various countries. They were not short on customers and had learned to use their reputation relatively well. Between themselves the three managed to make a comfortable living. Visits to their parents in Bhopal were sporadic. Aryan wanted to live in Europe but thought that the few travelers he had met were an accurate representation of the West. He was so earnest in his wish that I didn’t want to dampen it with tales of racism and xenophobia. He was obviously attractive to women – I saw him walking with different female students a number of times and an Israeli friend of his was “hired” as his teacher of seduction and had long conversations with him, which, I imagine, mostly consisted of the man telling Aryan about all the women he had seduced – but he never seemed to be able to decide on anything and ultimately the women went away unsatisfied. He had a good heart and was friendly and welcoming to everyone, but that great split in his mind drove him to dark moods and depressions. He told me that he wanted to scream, often. That he wanted to go into the forest for a silent retreat. When he said these things he was laughing, but it was an uneasy and tense kind of laughter. On his wall and in his studio he had hung photographs of his graduation as a teacher of yoga. There was an image of Amrit teaching children pranayama breathing techniques; the three brothers together in various configurations, performing asanas; Aryan in classical pose, the lotus seat, a waterfall in the background. “Sometimes during the treatment (Reiki), water comes out of the people’s eyes”, Aryan said once. “Those are tears, but they don’t have the pain that comes with tears because the pain is dissolved and those old tears can flow.” He was caught in a stasis between being naïve and wise, a monk and a gigolo. For a while he was interested in Samata, a journalist from the British isle of Guernsey, but she soon said that “he hasn’t learned much about how to behave socially from all his spiritual books.” There was a directness about him that was both charming and off-putting. I took it to be something child-like rather than genuinely offensive. A yogin isn’t the most social of creatures – it’s a certain monastic type of person who can enjoy sitting in the forest without distractions and a type that I understand quite well, so I cannot pass any sort of judgment on him. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him, even though the inevitable aim of many of his discussions was “how do I get a girl”? He was writing a book on yoga, his own course book. As far as I saw the most individual thing about it was the design and the rest was copied from other course books, but that, too, is an essence of teaching yoga. You copy the traditions, not necessarily aim to add yourself to them.

Admittedly, there is no real difference between all the styles, simply because they all follow the same blueprint laid out several thousand years ago. Much of what goes on in the yoga community is, again, advertisement. Power yoga is simply an exercise plan, the various stretches that make up the asanas can be seen in techniques as various as martial arts and ballet and are not unique to yoga. It’s a peculiarly cultural art of movement of body and thought…a very good development in modern yoga, in my opinion, is to mix it with other techniques, especially with looser forms and forms that are more demanding as far as conditioning goes, like dances and martial arts. It’s a syntax of movement and as such yoga offers itself to be the integrating part of a larger language of movement. It’s an introvert’s art and science. Advertisements distract from the spiritual aspects of yoga (and vice versa) and so the moral, ritual and human obligations that make up the other limbs of yoga are generally discarded or severely limited when teaching in a Western context…I have limited them in my own lessons, because I am not good at preaching without developing a form of self-disgust and because there is an immense barrier in the minds of most people when it comes to accepting certain fundamental things about human life. Or, a more likely danger, it seems exotic, either too exotic or seductively so. A person feels ridiculous, practicing something that has hitherto had no basis in his cultural existence and is rarely mirrored in the outside world. Or they will feel seduced, but without understanding anything about the whole process, which has its attraction, certainly, but could well end up adding to meaninglessness. Much has been done to establish fundamentally Eastern concepts in the West, but as long as this just swings between the two extremes of mysticism and commerce nothing will be achieved. If I go to a yoga shop and buy myself yoga pants for my two hours with the sweet and wise Indian teacher, I have already commercialized, sexualized and estranged the whole procedure. Likewise if I sit there like a monolith and the only mental movement coming from me is a complaint, I might as well be a lifeless piece of rock. It is important to correctly identify emotions and thoughts and then let them exist without interfering with them…whether this is expressing them or passively watching them doesn’t matter. It is, however, important not to attach them to the wrong thing or the wrong person. You are responsible for your thoughts and emotions, not the person standing in front of you doing their job, nor the person teasing you or making fun of you, not the person loving you, nor the person hating you…

Hatha Yoga, which consists of the asanas, the knotted bodies and inverted poses that many people picture when yoga is mentioned, means – liberally translated – “the yoke for the stubborn”. The word yoga means yoke and there is room for interpretation whether the yoke is the body itself or the exercises inflicted upon it. The asanas (postures) are a way to create tapas (heat) inside of the body. This is done by various breathing techniques, some coming close to hyperventilation, and the exercise of various postures in order to stimulate the organism, supply blood and organs with ample oxygen and keep the body toned and flexible. If somebody says that this sounds suspiciously like exercise he is absolutely correct. The same thing is achieved by sitting on your bike and riding it or by lifting weights and any good trainer or teacher will tell you that for every sport a certain kind of breathing techniques are required in order to focus better. The one unique aspect is that yoga is not performance-centered. Again, it’s an introvert’s art – if the body is still, the mind can roam. You can treat it like a performance sport if you want to and I am aware that there are yoga competitions, but there is no way to do an asana better than the person next to you. You are not competing against anyone. The word yoke implies submission and the only thing you are competing against is your own desire to compete. In order to perform a posture correctly, you submit to the posture. This is not about change and growth by all means, but change and growth by the means available to us at the given moment. At the core is, yet again, a deeply pragmatic view. This is the philosophy behind yoga and a reason why many people have taken to it is that it offers an alternative to the growth-based philosophy prevalent in a society dictated by business interests. All things in the world are subject to an ebb and flow, growth and recession, birth and death. More than just living in the moment and milking it for all its worth, this philosophy aims to teach the students to understand the moment they are living in and to understand that it, too, will change and that wringing every ounce of possibility from the present moment might limit the chances in moments to come. It aims to teach perspective and to do so without the feeling of cosmic dread that a nihilistic approach to science and the world can induce.

In fact, yoga has become far more popular and widespread in the West than in India. It is one of a long line of exports that the West has taken to and modified to suit their needs. For me this is a very curious thing – while the Indians are immensely adept to adapt to situations without compromising their core, Westerners are immensely adept at turning situations and circumstances to suit their needs, even if it means remaining oblivious to the core or changing it altogether. There is an endless line of detractors for any of the “spiritual imports” from the East, although the resistance seems to have weakened a bit once it could be watered down and marketed. I think that Western modifications to techniques such as meditation or yoga and even to religious traditions like Buddhism have been so substantial that genuine Western traditions are starting to come into existence. Whether the techniques are used for recreation or deep seated spiritual healing, the centre of such techniques has, I believe, already moved far away from India, if it has ever really been there at all. Whether it is the rediscovery of shamanic techniques or old lore of plants and herbs, the West has a rich repository of spiritual traditions that have been often engulfed by the long overlay of Christian power politics but sometimes preserved in pockets that were genuinely spiritual. Not all of the imports are good or meaningful – an impossibility in an environment dominated by a competitive market – but unique schools are beginning to form and a large number of possibly fruitful combinations are being attempted.

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