Inspired by Indra

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With three books by Indra Devi in my suitcase, I’m on my way to Rancho La Puerta, the acclaimed health resort in Mexico, not far from San Diego. When a friend offered me the chance to go, the decision seemed a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t want to be fed fabulously tasty yet healthful food, get pampered by massage therapists, and choose from nearly 100 activities, including exercise classes, yoga, meditation, labyrinth walks, arts and crafts, and cooking?

What’s more, yoga, which is an essential part of my life, has been part of the ranch since 1955. It was originally brought there by Devi herself, who was probably the first Western woman to study extensively with a hatha master in India. (And not just any yoga master, but the most influential hatha yogi of the 20th century, T. Krishnamacharya, who tutored luminaries B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.) Establishing a yoga center at a neighboring ranch, Devi lectured regularly at Rancho La Puerta through the early 1970s.

Yet, despite all the ranch’s attractions, I’ve found myself uncertain about whether taking the trip right now is the best choice for me. A yearlong relationship appears to be ending, and I’ve been feeling heartbroken, raw, and fragile. At the same time, a career transition—returning to massage work after a decade as an editor—has proven more difficult than I’d anticipated. All in all, I’ve had the sense of being lost in a thick forest, with faint trails leading off every which way and no map or compass to guide me.

In the face of all this turmoil, my inner critic has been second-guessing every choice I make, and I’m afraid it might poison my week at the ranch. Will this perfectionist voice constantly berate me because I’m not at home dealing with my relationship and business? Can
I stop myself from cramming every moment with laudable activity? Will I feel like a failure if I don’t come home profoundly changed?

Luckily, in a moment of clarity, I’ve decided that a stay at Rancho La Puerta might be the perfect opportunity to step back from my anxieties
and get clearer about my path forward.

Feast for the Senses

The minute my fellow guests and I arrive at the ranch, we’re greeted by smiling employees who give us fresh lemonade and chilled, damp towels that go a long way toward erasing the fatigue of the day’s travel. I’m quickly ushered across the grounds and into an airy, tile-floored villa graced with touches of Mexican vernacular architecture and folk-art objects.

Heading out to explore, I follow shade-dappled brick pathways from one exquisite vista to another, discovering surprises such as a koi pond, a bamboo grove, and a bronze statue of a yogini in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose).

Later, the feast for my senses continues in the spacious colonial-style dining hall, where an ornately carved spiral staircase rises to a balcony that rings the room on three sides. Within minutes, one of the ranch’s signature soups arrives—a velvety puree of roasted carrot, ginger, and coconut, garnished with caramelized red bell peppers. The succeeding courses are just as elegant and satisfying.

As I leave the dining hall, the soft night air brings dense billows of scent from the gardens—rosemary, lavender, wisteria, sage—and I catch myself grinning. “Gee,” I think, “I could learn to like this.” Everywhere I look, I’m captivated by some lovingly tended detail. I feel myself leaning into the ranch’s graciousness, as though it were a set of warm arms comforting me.

Cardio or Chaise?

The next morning, renewed, I’m out of bed before dawn, eager to join the most vigorous of the early hikes. As we head up the mountain that adjoins the ranch, I race up the trail on the heels of the leader. At the end of the hike, after a brief round of stretching, I run back to my villa to shower, then grab a bite in the dining hall before a circuit training session. I round out my morning with two yoga classes: first a vinyasa routine, then an Iyengar session. After lunch, I head to the dance studio for a kick-butt hip-hop class, which leaves me just enough time for another shower before my hot stone massage. The next day passes in a similar blur.

By the third morning, I need two dangerously strong cups of coffee just to get out the door for the early hike. After breakfast, yoga, and another circuit session, I find myself outside the gym complex trying to decide between water aerobics and Super Cross-Training.

Fortunately, before I go too far overboard, Devi comes to my rescue. I began immersing myself in her books even before I came to the ranch, and over a few weeks of reading them, I’ve noticed that her voice—accessible, warm, wise, down-to-earth, and upbeat—has become a welcome inner presence and guide. And now, just as I’m contemplating which physical challenge to take on next, I hear Devi’s voice in my head, quoting from “Desiderata,” a classic spiritual prose poem: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

That does it—I decide to slow down and spend a few more hours in Devi’s company, reading her books on a chaise by the pool.

Spiritual Grandmother

By all accounts, Devi was singularly charismatic, persuasive, and inspiring. She was already an acclaimed stage and film actress when she met Krishnamacharya in the late 1930s. Though at first he strongly resisted tutoring her, a female Western student, he ended up insisting that she begin teaching.

After leaving India, she lived in China, teaching classes in the home of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, wife of the Nationalist leader. Then, after a brief return to India, she moved to Hollywood, where she established a yoga studio and attracted a wide array of students, including entertainment icons such as Ramon Navarro, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marilyn Monroe.

In the mid-1980s, following years of teaching in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere around the world, Devi moved to Argentina. She exerted a huge influence on the development of yoga there until her death, in 2002, at 102. She became an unusual cultural superstar, with thousands of people, even nonyogis, regarding her as a sort of moral and spiritual grandmother.

The single most important key to yoga, Devi often said, is the yogic breath: through the nose, with the upper and lower teeth gently touching and the tip of the tongue resting lightly at the base of the lower teeth. Most people, she said, tense the tongue back in the throat, partly closing off the airway and making a full, deep, relaxed breath impossible. Her teaching also emphasized the importance of a simple, pure diet and healthy mental habits, including the cultivation of positive thoughts and the release of stressful and negative ones. In teaching asana, Devi often included a pause in Savasana (Corpse Pose) after every nonresting pose, so students could drop into a deep awareness of each asana’s effects.

The more I explore Devi’s books, the more I realize that the development of self-awareness is at the core of her teaching. She presents her recommendations—about diet, exercise, relationships, and more—not as exotic practices, but as pragmatic techniques for fostering insight. I’m enjoying the ranch’s wide-ranging yoga offerings—which include beginners’ sessions, more-advanced vinyasa classes,
a men’s program, and frequent intensives by visiting instructors—but Devi’s teachings are exerting a far more profound influence on my week.

Although I don’t do Savasana after every pose, I do find Devi’s message shifting my approach to asana practice. Instead of straining for perfect form, I attend more to my breathing and notice the subtleties of my internal experience.

Devi’s guidance also extends beyond
my yoga mat. When anxieties about my relationship and finances jolt me awake, heart pounding, at 3 a.m., I recall her advice to come back to a deep yogic breath. As my body slowly relaxes, I gently thank my anxiety for its positive dimension—for warning me that these are serious matters. And I assure it that I will attend to them. I breathe in positive qualities I want to acquire—patience, equanimity, confidence, trust—and breathe out negative ones I want to be free from—fear, distrust, self-attack. After a while, more lines from “Desiderata” lull me back to sleep: “Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.”

As the week goes on I continue to let Devi’s teachings lead me. I try to build more spaciousness and more time for awareness into everything I do. Instead of overscheduling physical activities, I seek a balance between exertion and reflection. Instead of rushing off to a class or a meal, I leave early enough to stroll.

Coming Home

It’s not until I return home from Rancho La Puerta, though, that I begin to really understand how much I’ve benefited from my stay. I feel much lighter and springier after a week of lovingly prepared meals featuring far more fruits and vegetables than I usually eat. And now I load my shopping cart with fresh produce and take more time and pleasure in making meals for myself and my friends.

Having rediscovered how much better I feel when I get lots of exercise, I’ve become adamant about scheduling time to dance, run, bike, or take a long hike almost every day, along with my yoga practice. And I’m more excited all the time about exploring the more accepting, compassionate, and aware approach to asana that Devi’s teachings inspire.

And at least some of the time, I take this deepening of yoga into the rest of my life. I relish moments when I drop deeply, inquisitively, and compassionately into myself. When my harsh inner critic quiets down, I hear a kinder, clearer voice. I think I can trust it to lead me where my soul needs to go.

Contributing editor and massage therapist
Todd Jones lives in Berkeley, California.

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