You Have Chosen a Good Guru

“You have chosen a good guru” the man says as we walk past him and into our yoga class. His head bobs back and forth above a white shawl and loose white pants. His wife wears a traditional sari and the bindi between her eyebrows. 

I smile as I pass and think “What?  I have chosen a guru?”  This news is faintly alarming to me. While performing asanas I try not to think about it and focus on what I need from the session:  stretching, core strength, mental clarity, inner calm. But I once overheard my instructor saying that she was making plans to scale a holy mountain. That she would climb to the top, a difficult journey requiring a special permit from the Chinese government, and meditate in the mountain air. So maybe he was right. 

The first time I attended class I was overwhelmed. Completely overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with how little Hindi I know (which is to say, none), how difficult maintaining your body perpendicular to a wall with only a rope around your waist is, and the way knowing bodies churned back and forth from room to room, yoga block to strap, performing poses and breath exercises with eyes closed. For me it was less churning and more milling and lots of one-eye-opened copying. After the first 90 minute session I came home with eyes glazed and hamstrings on fire, unsure if I would return for the next session just two days later.

Our instructor, part drill sergeant part Dalai Lama, demonstrates and then walks the room straightening backs and pulling legs higher. Now, get ready for the royal kick she says and I don't know that this is when I should groan and prepare for a tiny Indian foot to land on my backside and push until I resemble a hunter's bow. She’s quite a force and I spent the first few weeks trying not to disappoint her, which, I came around to understand is completely the wrong way to approach yoga. 

While I waded through invocations and yogic chants, analogies based on the caste system and moves to stimulate chakras, I discovered that the key to experiences like this and really, living overseas in general, is to sift and select.  Try to understand what is happening, appreciate its historical and cultural context and then decide what can add to or modify your values and what you'll leave for someone else.  At first I was concerned that perhaps I was offering prayers to Gods I don't believe in.  Is this offensive to Hindus?  Is this offensive to my own Christian belief?  But those aren't quite the right questions. 

Krister Stendahl, former Harvard Divinity School professor and theologian, wrote about leaving room for "Holy Envy" in our spiritual practices. What Stendahl meant by this is that you should be willing to recognize elements in other religious traditions or faiths that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious traditions. It's an idea that has guided my interactions in the Middle East for many years now and given me a framework from which to approach other religions.
I'm sad to say that my full work schedule will no longer permit me to sweat it out with my Indian friends twice a week.  But this idea of mastering the self and purifying desires became such a tangible process to me over those months I hung from ceilings and practiced breathing.  Rejecting the limitations and deceptions of the physical world. Disciplining the body, controlling the outer life to calm the inner.

I'm not very comfortable with the idea of a "guru" but what I wanted was an authentic experience and I certainly got that.  Along with a little more strength and even a few words of Hindi. 

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