Growing up in Poland, I was always interested in theater and dance. I was especially inspired by the works of the legendary Polish theatre director, Jerzy Grotowski, popular for his intense actor training processes, which had included Hatha Yoga dynamic sequence. He was inspired by Eastern philosophy and Yoga in his early life and much later, towards the end of his life, he spoke of ‘art as vehicle’ to explore energies of the physical and subtle body.
As a student of theater, I had referred to books that had discussed his work and clearly remember seeing two photos in those books, that of Sri Ramana Maharshi and the other of the Arunachala mountain.Though vaguely, or perhaps superficially, I was always aware of Yoga, but at that time I had not made up my mind to inquire or dive deep into the practice or philosophy.
“Art is a ripening, an evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.” Jerzy Grotowski
Later, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop which was conducted by the theater group from West Bengal, called Milon Mela. This opened up opportunities and interest to visit India in the following year. By then, I had completed months of Yoga practice at Sivananda Yoga center in Krakow, Poland. I was fit and relatively strong, so holding asanas wasn’t really a challenge in this style of Yoga. It was the Yoga philosophy that had caught my interest. I wanted to learn more about the Indian traditional art from. So I continued with my home yoga practice and after the the Milon Mela workshop I planned my first trip to India. This was around 2005 and 2006.
What After Flexibility and Strength ?
As a child, I was fascinated by dance and martial art. From Contemporary Dance to Karate, to basic lessons in Ballet and Movement, and Hatha and Ashtanga Yoga practice while training in theater … all of this had really helped in maintaining a flexible, strong and healthy body. I had realised that the Yoga practice was also slowly shifting the focus inward. I had begun to really enjoy my self-practice and appreciate the importance of self-knowledge. Yoga had taught me to be with myself.
“Yoga is to be known through yoga. Yoga arises from yoga” The Roots of Yoga
When I had first arrived in India, I went to practice the traditional art form in West Bengal with the Milon Mela group. I decided to explore more traditional art forms which took me to Orissa to learn Gotipua dance form, later to Trivandrum to learn Kalaripayattu and during this time of learning and exploring, the practice of Yoga was always with me. I observed that most of the practitioners of these traditional art forms are unaware of the fact that the practice of Yoga is embedded in most of these forms. I practiced at the Sivananda center, the Satyananda center, and further explored the Iyengar and Ashtanga styles as I travelled back and forth to India and Poland.
It is then that I had realised Yoga is so much more than what we are exposed to in our teacher training courses, which may include Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and perhaps some Upanishads. In reality, there are so many other philosophies of Yoga which are rarely spoken about. It may all seem very complicated but it all makes sense. This is primarily because the Yogic experience is something that is most natural. Thus my thirst to get to the roots of Yoga and learn its ancient history, only increased. I went ahead and attended workshops on Indian Aesthetics, Art and Philosophy.
India, the Roots
I kept returning to India to complete one course after another. I also learned the ancient Indian classical dance form, Odissi. I continue to practice and perform Odissi. I believe it has helped me maintain the balance beautifully and creatively. The balance I talk about is not the gender we identify ourselves with, but the fine balance of the masculine and feminine energies that is within each of us. I realised this when I spent couple of years learning the Southern style of Kalaripayattu in Trivandrum, Kerala. This oldest surviving fighting style from South India, had made me too strong. Same time, Yoga was making me too sensitive. And that’s when the traditional dance form, Odissi, helped strike a balance.
“Yoga aims at understanding the essential nature of the body, mind and spirit through meticulous, systematic and incremental self-awareness. Excellence in any classical Indian dance technique is arrived at through a similar process.” Rekha Tandon
You should refer to Rekha Tandon’s book, Dance as Yoga, which highlights Odissis’ mechanism for creating, dispersing and expressing energy. It is a different dance of Yoga, different than self-practice because you have to keep your audience in mind. When you perform, you have to communicate to the audience perfectly.
I also continue with my Kalaripayattu practice regularly when I am in Chennai. It is said that a number of South Asian fighting styles, dance and performing arts, all seem to have a common root, which in my opinion could be Yoga. All these traditional styles have immensely helped me increase my self-awareness and mental alertness.
Freedom to Explore
All this knowledge and training gives me the freedom to explore further. It is this possibility of choices, flexibility to do anything and the freedom to explore that keeps bringing me back to India year after year. Back home in Poland, we are made to believe that the world revolves around us, what we do and say is always correct and it has to be done or perceived in the way that is most convenient or familiar to us. But it is here in India that I understood that people with different beliefs and culture can live peacefully under one roof and be okay with the differences. Also there is abundance of ancient wisdom here in India, much is still hidden and much is yet to be understood.
The contemporary approach to teacher training is again limiting us to only Patanjali Yoga Sutras or a certain type and style of Yoga. But Yoga philosophy is an expansive topic and is not limited to any one particular path. The beauty of it all is that it encourages you to inquire and seek answers within.
The Path of Teaching
In the past 14 years of my Yoga practice, there have been accidents and injuries…once I had a broken leg which did not allow me to practice standing postures. However I used this opportunity to improve my splits and forward bends. I explored the use of yoga props. Likewise there was a time when I had a fractured rib. But that wasn’t an excuse to not practice. I continued with my practice by changing my routine and approach. I used props, skipped certain asanas, but I never missed my practice. This personal experience did really help me understand my students better and appreciate the fact that every body is different and is changing constantly. Thus understanding asana modifications, as per me, is an important aspect of teaching Yoga.
I think anyone who wants to teach should commit to self-practice and also spend some time assisting others in teaching. They should discover different ways to modify their practice, be it to match physical disability or disturbances in the mind which lead to depression, unhappiness or even loneliness, which in turn affects one’s physical body. They should take their time to identify and accept these patterns and work around them by modifying their practice. This equips us as teachers to teach students accordingly as they are all very different, in body and mind.
“Yoga allows you to find a new kind of freedom that you may not have known even existed.” B.K.S.Iyengar
There is of course a lot more that I have to learn. I would like to continue learning more about Yoga as a holistic practice, incorporating asana, pranayama and meditation. The book Roots of Yoga by Mallinson and Singleton and the Hatha Yoga project by SOAS, University of London, are two very interesting projects that throw light on the fact that Yoga is not just one form, philosophy or style. I had recently attended a course on the Kashmiri Shaivism, in Delhi, and also a Summer Seminary program which covered different perspectives and approaches to Yoga philosophy. I do believe that every style has something to offer that will further enrich your Yoga experience. But you have to explore, keep on learning and keep on practicing. It is self-practice and self-knowledge, which will open the right doors.
Poland and Chennai,
Teacher & Student of Yoga, Kalaripayattu, Odissi & Theater.
Also Read: https://www.juruyoga.com/amymcdonald/