My Guru, My Self
Everyone has different fears and expectations. I overhear little snatches of conversation. One man wonders, "Will he remember me?" His companion replies, "Who is this guy anyway? Why does he have this strange power over people?" A woman worries, "I'm frightened. I don't know what to do. Will I make a mistake?" Another complains, "Look at those people; they're dressed all wrong."
Me, I'm just thinking one thing: I hope he still likes me!
A True Siddha
The popularity of this unusual Brahmin from Mysore and of his distinctive method have grown exponentially since his first trip to the United States in 1974. This time, his classes are three times as big as during his last trip to New York seven years ago. It's not just the trendiness of Pattabhi Jois's Ashtanga method that has attracted so many people. The man has tremendous charisma. He pulsates with the aura of a true siddha, one who has acquired unusual powers through dedication to yoga practice and teaching for more than 70 years.
It sounds a little strange, but when this 86-year-old lies down on top of me in Paschimottanasana, I feel love, as I have for all of our 12-year relationship. With his touch, he has healed me from long-term physical injuries that refused to respond to any kind of therapy or bodywork. Over the years, he has diminished my fear with his generous support. And the way in which he has surmounted his own struggles constantly inspires me.
A Carrot and a Stick
Throughout his stay in New York, Guruji teaches two classes per day: a 6:00 a.m. class for more advanced students and an 8:00 a.m. class for newer students. I enroll in the 8:00 a.m. class. In Mysore, I attend 4:30 a.m. sessions. But that's easy: Except for shopping, eating, and e-mail, that's all I have to do in a day. In New York, 6:00 a.m. is too early for me. I work late teaching and directing our studio; I'm not in New York on a yoga vacation. Besides, I just finished a 20-day fast to celebrate joining the yoga-after-50 club; I'm still recovering, and I feel weak and frail. The early class is too gung-ho, and I decide I don't have to prove anything to myself or to other people. All I need is darshan—the proximity of my guru. Of course, he doesn't miss this chance to push my buttons. Assuming his gruffest persona, he says to me, "This class is for beginners only."
"I am a beginner," I reply. And I mean it.
Guruji moves around the studio giving instructions and admonishments, evoking immediate posture corrections by his students—and often laughter too. The man commands a respect that causes each of us to snap to at his command. But he also has a certain mischievousness in his manner that makes you laugh for taking yourself so seriously.
Guruji insists, "Breath duration should not vary during practice"—and then he immediately slows his count as we get into a very difficult pose, or pretends to lose track and starts over. He uses the breath count to reprimand, to urge us on, to gently mock and tease.
His humor, his easy relationship with his students, and his dedication to yoga come out not just in class but also in the informal afternoon talks in which he answers questions every day.