Maverick on the Mat

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When Shandor Remete stepped to the front of the crowded room on the fifth morning of our weeklong intensive, there was an immediate hush of respect and attention. Standing like a rock star in leggings—all chest and strut and imperious Hungarian accent—he announced, "Today I will teach you with my body."

We were trying to learn his preliminary series, a yogic stew that combines Iyengar-style practice with Pattabhi Jois's Ashtanga, adds a strong flavoring from Japanese martial arts, and derives its recipe from ancient hatha yoga texts. Shandor began by demonstrating what he calls the Vajrasana sequence ("vajra" is "thunderbolt" in Sanskrit). Moving with the confidence of a long-time, dedicated practitioner, he pushed his palms up toward the ceiling, sucked his belly up until his large rib cage was clearly visible, then rose up on his toes and lowered his hips to his heels without a single wobble. Then we tried to imitate him. "Why are you shaking? Did I say to shake?" he roared at us, his humor as evident under his harsh tone as the ribs beneath his skin.

The Vajrasana sequence is designed to soften the joints and stimulate lung meridians in the feet in order to facilitate proper breathing. In creating the sequence, which emphasizes the abdominal lift of Uddiyana Bandha, Shandor drew heavily from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a seminal yogic text that details some of the more esoteric practices of hatha yoga.

Spending half an hour with your heels lifted off the floor really does keep you on your toes—in more ways than one. The balance isn't easy, and if your attention lapses for a moment, it's pretty obvious: You fall over. Uddiyana Bandha is supposed to cultivate prana (essential energy, or life force), and I found the abdominal lift steadying. I could also feel it massaging the organs deep in the recesses of my body. I have to confess the thought that the bandha might also flatten my stomach prompted me to lift my belly with even more vigor.

After the Vajrasana sequence we moved into the Ashtanga portion of the practice. Shandor values the Ashtanga system because it gets us sedentary Westerners to move our bodies, but his modified version is designed to de-emphasize some of the muscular work of Ashtanga and to focus instead on the cultivation of more subtle energies. This was a slower, quieter, pared-down version of the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga—definitely less muscularly challenging—and, because we worked with fewer poses, we were able to focus more on Uddiyana Bandha, which Shandor continued to emphasize. He also demonstrated every movement.

Even as he launched into the basic Sun Salutation for a third time, his devoted students seemed mesmerized by every gesture, as if they were watching a master magician—Shandor the Magnificent?—cast the ultimate spell.

Shandor the Synthesizer

Shandor's yogic concoction is the result of a lifelong exploration which began when he was just 6 years old. Back in the 1950s in Hungary, Shandor's father was his first teacher, and it was his father who initially introduced Shandor to the bandhas—the body's energetic locks—that are still such a core part of his practice.

During his late teens and early 20s, Shandor took the only hiatus from his lifetime of practice. His family emigrated to Australia, where he was drafted and served for a year on the front lines in Vietnam. After the war, Shandor came across B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga and began practicing again, using the book for guidance. At first assuming that the Indian man pictured in fantastic poses was long dead, Shandor discovered several years later that Iyengar was not only alive but teaching. Soon Shandor was on his way to Pune, India, to meet Iyengar in the flesh and begin his very close and long-standing relationship with the fierce and powerful teacher, whose uncompromising approach is echoed in Shandor's style.

The depth of his relationship with Iyengar hasn't stopped Shandor from exploring other forms of yoga. About 10 years into his studies with Iyengar, Shandor learned Ashtanga and became an adept at that practice as well. He has also studied the Japanese martial art of sword mastery, a practice which teaches that the hara (the center of the body, located below the navel) is both pivotal and sacred. Shandor thinks the hara is the kanda mentioned in yogic texts—the source of the body's 72,000 nadis or energy channels—and that the practice of Uddiyana Bandha echoes these Japanese teachings. Despite the diversity of the practices he's studied, Shandor has been able to see their similarities and weave them together into a cohesive whole.

Shandor is also a scholar who has immersed himself in hatha yoga literature. Like the martial arts he's studied, texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are primarily concerned with the cultivation and manipulation of energy. Tony Briggs, who's been teaching yoga in the San Francisco Bay area for 14 years, finds Shandor unusual in his familiarity with yogic texts beyond Patanjali's Yoga Sutra—which, as Briggs points out, was written perhaps a thousand years before hatha yoga as we know it was invented. Students in our workshop, which included many teachers, seemed especially hungry for Shandor's more esoteric knowledge. As he described meridians, or explained how the elements air, fire, and water interact in the joints, faces lit up and pencils scratched frantically. When Shandor worked with a student and explained that he was using a pose to stimulate meridians, hands flew up: "Which meridians? Where are they exactly? What do they do?"

Shandor is not just an innovative and charismatic teacher, but occasionally a severe one. I remember a workshop a few years ago in which he silenced a woman who badgered him with disruptive questions by swaddling her head with an eye wrap, hanging her upside down like a bat from the wall ropes, and leaving her there for the rest of class. In this aspect, Shandor seems very much in keeping with the no-nonsense, old-school tradition of Indian hatha yoga masters.

He can also be surprisingly gentle. When he worked with me in a posture, his adjustments felt sensitive, intelligent, and respectful. He showed a special tenderness one afternoon during a class focused on yoga therapy. Working with a sickly woman who seemed like a fragile bird, Shandor asked her to lean against him and rest herself in his arms while he whispered instructions in her ear. She seemed to melt into him as if she had finally found a place to rest after a lifetime of wandering. After she completed several cycles of Pranayama (breathwork), following his instructions, the stern Shandor reappeared. He looked her straight in the eye with a penetrating stare and told her that her illness was merely the result of fear. He's a gutsy teacher, a maverick who's unafraid to make strong decisions, to be confrontational, to issue commands, or to create a practice that combines forms other people see as oppositional.

Work in Progress

Shandor also isn't afraid to change his message. A few years ago, he sometimes taught whole two-hour workshops covering only one standing pose. Back then, one student who asked Shandor for practice advice received one of Shandor's trademark stares and the answer, "You eat rice for 10 years. And do standing poses." This year, his series contains hardly any traditional standing poses. He's constantly evolving as a teacher, reassessing his methods, seeking, refining. "It was Iyengar who planted the seeds of yoga in me," says Shandor, "and those seeds have sprouted and grown." Like a wild vine, the seeds planted by Iyengar and by Shandor's father continue to grow, overrunning fences between separate fields, and always branching out into new territory.

No matter how he branches out, Shandor's likely to remain an electrifying presence. His confidence, charisma, and charm are backed up by serious yoga credentials and passionate commitment. And, as Tony Briggs notes with affection, "he's not middlin'." It's true: Shandor is never tepid, bland, or middle-of-the-road. Even if his flashes of arrogance and machismo make him what Briggs calls "a strong cup of tea," he clearly inspires great appreciation and loyalty among his fans. His strong tea might not be everybody's cup, but many of his students seem to agree with the teacher who told me, "If I could only ever practice with one yoga teacher, it would be Shandor."

Julie Kleinman studies Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga and bass guitar, and teaches at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California.