Urban Zen hosted a celebration in memory of of Astanga yoga guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, bringing together yogis from the many practices around New York City. I wonder what guruji would have thought of that. If my teachers, direct students of his, are any indication, probably not much.
SKPJ was big on Astanga, and not much else when it came to yoga. The system of practice he developed, however, was originally intended to help teenage boys sit still for meditation. The practice’s curative effects came known to him over decades of teaching, as was evidenced by the people who spoke at the ceremony.
I may be prejudiced because I’ve studied with her, but my favorite speaker was Ruth Lauer-Manenti. It didn’t hurt that her story also most closely reflected my own. Twenty years ago, an injured, emaciated Sharon Gannon convinced an injured Ruth she had to go to India. There she set about doing her practice her way, meaning no shoulder stand. But Guruji insisted. “You do. You do!” She (finally) did, and it revolutionized her ability to move beyond the limits of her mind. Which is not to say I’ve forgotten the injuries. Or those teenage boys.
Teenage boys are extremely competitive, and this practice demands years and effort and concentration and it’s damn hard. The sequence builds as the practitioner masters postures, which stokes a teenager’s innate desire to outdo his mates on the mat. Of course, I’ve never seen a teenage Indian boy in class. Those of us who do stay with Astanga are inherently competitive. Over time this work yields a beautiful relationship with this aspect of ourselves, but what often results in the meantime is injury. It’s required far more strength of me to know my limits and respect my teacher–whether the instruction is to push ahead or not. Today I rarely practice “pure” Astanga, but like the evening at Urban Zen, I blend. The result has been, like the evening itself, pure magic.
A few quick notes on the night–Donna Karan wore all black against a lit screen, very effectively shrouding herself (ie, not calling attention to herself, incredibly admirable considering that the event in her space was free of charge).
John Campbell paid a lovely tribute to the community aspect, nodding to his own Buddhism and the fact that Guruji never tried to dissuade his beliefs. And Courtney McDowell exemplified how the practice teaches you to inhabit everyday life, rather than focusing overmuch on what you think you can or should be reaching for.
For me it was a real thrill to be in the place that came to my attention the first morning I returned from India. My mom roused me to the television set while Karan was on the Today show talking about the center she’d established to advance the cause of bringing more holistic options into the world of health care — Urban Zen. I never would have imagined that not only would I get to go visit, but that I’d be drawn there to study.