The idea of a guru has always been, to my western mind, a little unsettling. To a secular rationalist the concept of a living deity sounds ridiculous at best. Cynicism degrades it further to opportunism. But I’m in India, the country of elephant headed gods and blue skinned warrior gods, of orange robed sadhus, red robed thankas and red bearded devotees of Mohammed, of bells and chants and incense and prayer wheels and calls to prayer, of endless incomprehensible ritual and festival. The birthplace and home of the guru, in India the metaphysical knows nothing of superstition. Spirituality isn’t a separate path; it’s just the dusty shoulder on the side of the road.
Yoga is known to be a “path”. For me, like most westerns, it started as exercise; a physical practice. But what is interesting about yoga is that without any coaching, without any direction or external reference, the physical practice of breathing and postures leads to a mental practice and from there, with the right environment, evolving into a spiritual practice. Which is why yoga gurus refer to yoga as an ancient science, perhaps without quantifiable statistics but with volumes of qualitative results. A leads to B leads to C. An equation that has added up for thousands of years. Rishikesh is India’s unofficial center for the study of yoga and meditation. I came hoping to practice. I found a guru.
Surinder, with his full black beard, cheerful smile and robust build, could be the Sikh Santa Clause. He is also the most impressive yoga teacher I’ve ever studied with. Hatha of the (I think) Iyengar school, his extremely slow pace belies the notion that motion is the key to fitness. The first class I felt my hips, back and shoulders open in ways they’ve never opened before. I wake up every day sore in the best possible way – pushed to the limit but not beyond, stretched but without danger of injury. In a week of practicing with him I’ve felt my strength increase dramatically. My spine feels straighter, my shoulders looser, my hips more open. I have a good start on a Handstand practice, am that much closer to Scorpion and yesterday was in a ridiculous variation of Wheel with both forearms on the ground and one leg extended to the ceiling. These are not things I was aware my body could do. I’ve watched him coax people into some of the most alarming of postures. Revolved Triangle has never looked so awe-inspiring, with hips square to one wall, legs strong and shoulders open, loose and square to the opposite. With knowledge of physiognomy that often seems telepathic he never needs to push. He just come up next to you, places a finger against a rib or a hip and barely above a whisper says “now open and extend, now feel strength in the back foot, lift the toes, now stretch stretch stretch!” and suddenly your hand is flat on the ground and your shoulders are open to the ceiling.
But gurus aren’t just physical practitioners.
During asana practice he explains postures in terms of how they affect your energy and your state of mind and he closes every class with taking questions, either technical or spiritual, and a dharma talk about using your practice to look deeper. I knew I was onto something good in the first class when he started talking about how “to be in relationships, we must be like the water. The water, when we touch it, it is cool. So like the water we must always be cool, never hot, never fiery. When we taste the water, it is sweet, not like sugar, but nourishing to taste. So like the water we must be sweet and nourishing. When we look at the water, it is transparent. We can see through it. Like the water we must be clear, honest, not trying to obscure what lies beneath. And finally the water, when we pour it into something, we see, it immediately takes the shape. So like the water we must be adaptable. These are the qualities of the water.” He’s full of these analogies. We’re all like “the coconut. How is the coconut on the outside. Very hard! This is the ego. And how is the coconut on the inside. Very soft! This is the nature of the coconut. This is how we are on the inside. In our true natures. Very soft. And do you see how we open the coconuts in the temple? To make the Prasad? No? They do not take the machete, no, to make all clean and nice. No. They smash the coconut to get to the inside! And so we must work to smash the ego.” He’s advised a daily meditation, that every time we look in the mirror to check our outward appearance, we also close our eyes “wipe the mirror inside, and try to see our inner appearance.” And he’s talked about yoga, the union, not just of breath and movement but of “the three kinds of action. Action of the hand, which is the physical action, like asana practice. Action of the mind, which is thought. We know our minds are like the monkey, always busy, always active. In this action we are very good. And there is the third action, which is action of the heart. This is love. And so with our yoga practice, we are trying to make the union of the actions. With our asanas we bring the mind, to the body, the heart. So please, try to bring the heart action both to your yoga practice, but also to *all* of your actions, body and mind.”
But that’s all before today. Yesterday I skipped a class for the first time since I arrived because I was getting my period. This morning, I attended class as usual and excluding briefly touching my lower abdomen before we started sun salutation, I’m not aware that I gave any indication of anything out of the ordinary. So when he came up to me half way through asana practice and said “please, during the moon cycle, do not push so hard during the Chakrasana” it took me a minute to register what had just happened. Gail was as stunned as I was; she mentioned why I was absent yesterday.
Later during practice we came out of our standing practice to lie in Savasana having just completed Warrior One and he kneeled quietly next to me and whispered, “some people, they have trouble with the gaze. They are always fixing the gaze on the ground. Sometimes this is because of lack of confidence or self-esteem or sometimes inferiority complex. They don’t feel they have the right to the world. To be in the world. To speak their feelings and their problems. So we have to work on lifting the gaze to the eye level. Not in a place of ego. But in place of opening to the world.”
I recently finished reading The Jew in the Lotus, which documents a delegation of American Jews’ conference with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala to discuss how a culture survives in exile. There is a lot of discussion about how metaphysics have become divorced from religious practice in Judaism, how the overtly spiritual is discredited by secular intellectualism in the west, which leaves many disillusioned by religious practice. At one point one of the rabbis comments that an outcome of this is that “today young people turn to psychiatrists instead of their spiritual leaders,” and likened the rabbi to a geologist. “If you want to dig for water and you don’t know where to start, you can dig a bunch of holes five meters deep and hope you find some water, or you can ask the geologist where to dig a hundred meters deep and find water and gold.” Personally I come from a spiritual background with a democratic philosophy. I’ve always been encouraged to question the teachings of others to discover my own beliefs, which frankly, has been one of the gifts of my life. My spiritual path has been completely self-determined and largely self-led. But having met and studied with Surinder I’ve finally had the chance to work with a geologist.