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.

Visual Literacy – Advertisement or Visual Poem?

If you want to be a good photographer, you have to be visually intelligent and literate. What a writer does with words, juggling and dancing with them, subduing them, making them do things that they ordinarily do not, that you have to do with images.

But what does it mean to be visually literate? It means to be able to read an image; to understand that in a good image things might be coincidental but never meaningless; to be able to gather information from clues, hints, gestures – in short from all wordless things.

An image may tell you a story and in fact a simple hint for beginners is to make sure that there is a thread, a story, a visual movement in any image that you take. Imagine your subjects as actors of some sort of self-chosen and spontaneous drama. The image becomes a representation, something removed from the actual subject.

This may sound awfully philosophical, but it is true and very unwieldy. To see a picture of your dog on a cell-phone is not seeing your dog, even if the instinctive reaction inside yourself tells you different. It represents your dog, either in an act, or in a state. You have chosen to depict that moment because you want to achieve some purpose with it – the image is, for example, a squeal of remembered delight or a bittersweet reminder of your pet. This is very different from your actual dog who may be – in the very moment that you look at the image – looking entirely different in reality than on your image.

We are inundated with images, flooded with them, yet the fewest of us are actually visually literate and able to differentiate between them. Differentiation means a clear awareness of the intent and the information conveyed by an image, the active, conscious part as well as the subconscious part. Visual literacy means not only a quick ability to separate advertisement from information – a necessity in an age that gave birth to something as insidious as infotainment – but to be able to access the deeper layers of information contained within an image.

Look at a couple of portraits of people and attempt to describe their state. Can you do it in a word and is it utterly clear what their expression conveys? In that case it’s a bad image or an advertisement. Human expression is varied and always contains more than one emotion at a time. A clear expression might be good for propaganda, journalism and advertisement, but when it comes to actually depicting a human being, complexity is necessary. Apparently simple expressions like wonder, joy and frustration – how often do they appear clearly on a person’s face? Is it not more usual to see them mingled with other expressions?

Think about watching an actor or an actress that you admire. Are those the people that clearly and unmistakably show one emotion on their faces or is it people who stimulate discussion and wonder because the expression is multi-facetted and unclear? Because it needs more than one word to describe it?

Come away from thinking that every images needs to be entirely clear in composition or meaning. Juxtaposing different meaning, misleading the viewer, offering them to make their own interpretations…those hold much more fascination than a clear, easily readable image. It’s the difference between reading an instruction manual and a poem. Sure it’s nice to know exactly what’s going on, but wouldn’t you rather engage your imagination?

Three Ways of Photography

There are three ways to approach photography (at least for starters – after a while there are as many ways as there are fingers clicking buttons and eyes looking through viewfinders, but this is as good a starting point as any).

–          Photography as a technical matter

–          Photography as a philosophical matter

–          Photography as an aesthetic matter

In an ideal photograph all those different approaches would be on a level close to mastery. And certainly there are many photographers who have excellent abilities in all of these approaches, but most of them end up specializing on one or maybe two of them.

I would like to pick out a few examples for each of these approaches:

Scott Kelby would be an example of a master of photography as a technical matter. The writer of some of the best-selling and probably most influential guides on how to use photoshop has seen his style take over the works of many aspiring photographers. His aesthetic is very sleek and functional and rather underdeveloped and the philosophical content of his images is nil, but he obviously knows his way around his gear.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is, and this probably goes without saying, a master of the philosophical content. His works are among the most resonant of any photographer of the twentieth century. Technically his work is very modest – no tricks with perspective or depth of field, in fact he stuck to his old Leica for purely practical matters: it was small enough to allow him to shoot unnoticed – while his aesthetic is very subdued, influenced by and influence for the emerging cinematic arts and occasionally sublime. As far as philosophical content goes he might still be unmatched – his images work on so many levels and are worthy of every superlative.

A photographer who is masterly with aesthetic content is a friend of mine, the Polish photographer Malgorzata Maj. She shoots with very modest technical means but uses a very sophisticated method of post-production and her images have a strong and level philosophical streak inspired by influences ranging from Gothic horror to pre-Raphaelite sensitivities and more. They take inspiration from classical works of art and have a powerful sense of mood, atmosphere and personality. She has one of the strongest purely aesthetic approaches to photography that I know.

These photographers show three very different approaches, which are all completely valid and yield very different results.

If you are looking for an original, new and exciting way to shoot things, but aren’t that concerned about the content of what you shoot, knowing photography on a technical level might satisfy you.

If you are interested in the wider sense of what it is you are doing and consider photography a tool to understand humanity or the underlying connections between things or simply as a way to make thoughts visible and document elements of the world, you need to approach photography as a philosophical matter.

If photography is a means of heightening the visible world and making the unseen visible and not just a strict representation of the outside world, but a tool of introspection, then you should perhaps begin to consider the aesthetic aspects of it.

Of course this is not an exclusive list, but simply a way to start looking at the complexity of photography – even those three aspects are usually interwoven. A good photograph can contain elements of each of the three aspects (or of none), but it is a starting place for anyone who has ever wondered what makes a photograph good.