I feel incredibly lucky to have just returned from my first-time experience of a month-long intensive at the Institute. And while still in this liminal state, here is my ‘digestion’ of the experience.
RIMYI - A first-timer's experience, by Jackie Ruddock..
“Your intelligence was munching,” reminds Prashant Iyengar to the room full of students, nearing the end of a Friday evening Pranayama class. The hall windows are all open. Outside it’s dark and the heat from the day has yet to subside. Even though we look to be resting, there’s still a lot to take in. And really, I could use any one of the many adept phrases Prashant-ji uses to encapsulate the dynamism of being at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune. I feel incredibly lucky to have just returned from my first-time experience of a month-long intensive at the Institute. And while still in this liminal state, here is my ‘digestion’ of the experience.
It’s called an Institute for a reason.
In the past I’ve been fortunate to be able attend a number of masterclasses and intensive short courses, designed for developing subject-matter expertise, and being at RIMYI is no different. Here you experience practitioners living and working their ethos day in and day out. The devotion and commitment to the embodiment of yoga principles, by the people who lead, is palpable. As those who have attended RIMYI well know, the purposeful livelihood also goes a step further for the family who lives onsite. As foreign students come and go, so too on a daily basis does the cart of fresh vegetables and fruit, wheeled by the bhaji wala, up to the family residence. We study as the daily domestic rituals and chores of life are undertaken; as the children entertain themselves playing games below the hall grills. Lives progress within recurring cycles, and yet we have our own distinct pattern and duration of participation. Within this context, I recognised I was momentarily just ‘along for the ride’ within a much larger narrative. Therefore, I saw it as my job to actively observe and listen and, in so doing, try to take-in the experiential knowledge happening in real-time.
With close to half a century of studious examination of yoga just in this building alone, there is much to absorb! Incorrect knowledge is addressed, sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly. Challenges are articulated. If you’re here for yoga, then be here. All of us are pupils, within a vast and deep body of ancient knowledge. Being in situ with professionals so passionate about their purpose, is an incredible experience and RIMYI delivers in spades. Of course, this keen focus also brings continual bewilderment - well, at least for me! And so, at times, I just had to acknowledge how out of my depth I found myself, despite my efforts. I could laugh too, knowing that the often-referenced Patanjali’s Sutra II.47 is clearly still several lifetimes away for me! “Perfection in an Asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached,” BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Yoga embodied as a science, philosophy and art.
This phraseology, from Iyengar Yoga, is well-known to many, so observing these three intertwined threads enacted was captivating. RIMYI delivers learning development across a vast array of modalities (let alone bilingually). Six days a week, the daily schedule consists of attending one taught class (five asana, one pranayama) coupled with a scheduled allocation each day for self practice. Sunday mornings are devoted to a children’s class, which students can observe and delight in. Young children and teens effortlessly move from Adho Mukha Svanasana to Virasana to Ustrasana and then from Dhanurasana to Parsva Dhanurasana and into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Over, and over again!
When we as students are in class we have our own tasks. For example, we participate in asana classes where we’re asked to experiment and respond to what is happening in the moment. Questions such as; ’What do you notice today?’ ‘What knowledge does it bring you now?’ ‘How is it different from last time?’ ‘If I tell you x, y or z, how will it change your perception?’ The class room is a laboratory, and we each have a role to play. Guriji’s photos surround the walls and are regularly referred to, almost like the Periodic Table of Elements. ‘Just look at how straight his entire leg is there!’ ‘Look at that verticality of his spine!’
There are also historical films to view, including one from an overseas convention (with students wearing excellent, late-1980s, coloured yoga leotards!). Then there are Geeta-ji’s recorded classes to follow, and as well as lecture sessions. For example, BKS Iyengar’s Grandson, Srineet Sridharan invited us to examine Samkhya philosophy and its relationship to yoga. I’m pleased I can personally thank him for his and Prashant-ji’s extensive online Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Lecture Series that we study. An engaging demonstration was held by a number of teachers on how Viparita Karani could be taken in an assortment of ways. We then put this theory into practice the following day in a 2-hour back-bending class.
The architecture and interior of the space itself also demonstrates ‘design thinking’ that moves beyond mere aesthetics. These include the vast array of props (both known and unknown for their purposes) which are, as teacher Dr Naik says, “Divine!” I found by arriving early, I was able to spend some quiet time closely examining the many artworks as well as historical archives and photographs, and also the stunning Hindu statues on display. I even managed to see the hood of the many-headed snakes up close by climbing up to the roof turret!
Self-practice and -reflection, within the collective.
Anne O’Brien writes, “Yoga is replete with paradoxes; the deeply personal, individual practice of yoga is at the same time a group exploration,” (Iyengar: The Yoga Master, edited by Kofi Busia, 2007). I read her article within this book collection in Pune, and being at RIMYI, it pertinently spotlighted this insight. Ultimately, we know, it’s you on the mat. Teacher Raya Uma Dutta highlighted, at one point, that the sustained benefits in yoga are gained through self-practice. More explicitly he reiterated this argument because the ‘dosage’ within taught classes won’t always be applicable to benefit everyone, as our needs and requirements are as diverse as each of us.
The 3-hour self-practice sessions 4 days a week were an excellent opportunity for me to ‘test’ these theories. What I did, and why I did it, was solely up to me. ‘I’m here now, so what will it mean I actually do?’ Physically, I learnt most directly about both stretching and looking up more often, to help lift and draw-in my spine, and make my trunk more active. Mentally, I experimented with no set timings for two-sided poses, as well as for the entire sessions themselves. No focus on the clock, simply moving from asana to asana.
Solo. Although a single entity, you’re also surrounded by the larger RIMYI community. This includes not only the local and abroad yoga students, but also the whole RMIYI team, who with commitment and dedication, do everything they can to ensure that all runs smoothly. The care shown is patently clear. Not only are there significant personal challenges that arise but there is also the large-scale human suffering in countries which directly affect people here. So students help students, teachers help students, people chat, console and laugh between sessions. People attend the therapy classes. Particular attention is paid when and where required.
On a Sunday shortly after my arrival at the Institute there was the ‘Beginners Orientation’ introductory session led by Mrinal Pate and well-attended by local students. Warmth and depth were consistently shown in talking about the many aspects of collectively studying yoga. This included a philosophical base as well as an overview of asana sequencing and also incorporated people’s own personal reasons for being there. Finishing the session with tea and (what I’m pretty sure were Santosh Bakery) veg pastries, helped too! Which is to say, I witnessed the collective spirit of yoga in a myriad of ways.
As to coming here by myself, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew, of course, that so many have done this all before, and for decades (when there wasn’t nearly as much sage advice to draw upon). But, as Head of RIMYI, Abhijata Iyengar well-reminded us in a practice one day, ‘first times’ carry their own particularities. In her case she was discussing this notion in regard to developing the ability to stay in asana and then progress to learn more difficult asana. Abhijata reminded us what it is like to try and breathe the first time you go into Supta Virasana. No matter really what the experience is, for someone it’s going to be their first time. Meaning too, of course I made non-deliberate, cross-cultural mistakes as well as general errors per se. I was grateful for the thoughtful and caring responses to no doubt, many gaffs. The community aspect of RIMYI is an integral part of the whole… that said, be warned, the neighbourhood community/stray dogs were not always so welcoming at 5:20am in the morning as I made my way to class! Dr Naik’s joyful wisdom still rings in my ears, when he said in one of his classes, “We humans bark at each other like dogs, when we should be stretching like dogs!”
When I first came to India (a year ago for a holiday) I wore a bandage over my eyes at the end of some days when practicing. It was my attempt to calm my optic nerves. India is a bedazzling rainbow gem and, as a person who loves colour, my eyes were and are perpetually wide open here!
This time, another jewel also presented itself. That of being able to observe classes. Yoga observation is a precious gem. Some days I would watch up to three classes in order to be exposed to the various teaching styles and techniques used by the teachers and support staff. Their expertise is astounding because you can see that it has been honed by repeated practice, feedback, practice, reflection, practice. Constantly evolving. I observed over 16 of the RIMYI teachers take classes, some of them multiple times. Being able to watch how, and in what ways, students respond to a teacher’s instructions was another excellent learning experience. To watch how a group of people react to the same set of instructions individually in order to take action was fascinating. It gave me an insight into how instructions are processed in each of us differently depending on our bodies, what we hear, and how we interpret the message. Therefore, that the students themselves accept RIMYI as a teaching school is great. That we were given the opportunity to participate in this way was incredibly valuable.
“Eyes open!” was verbalised by teachers across many classes, and especially in therapy. I got to experience and witness how, when things get physical, and our bodies are ‘opened’ in new directions, we often shut the eyes and move inward. By students having their eyes open allows the teachers to literally see some of the students internal responses. It’s a way to check whether the person is okay and, in turn it helps the student ‘face’ the feelings that are arising. “Eyes open” literally jolts us to wake up to what’s going on.
What does it mean to attend RIMYI?
How ‘close’ to Iyengar does one need to be to ‘do’ Iyengar yoga? How does experiential philosophy change over time? Worldwide, is it now the norm that the majority of Iyengar students themselves never met or learnt directly from Guruji and Geeta-ji, nor that their own teachers learnt directly from them either? Or was it always the case that much of the ethos of Iyengar has been transmitted by a much-wider and committed group? How do we as individual students experience the ripple effect of the yoga lineage - specifically - what makes it feel ‘strong’ for some and ‘weaker’ for others? Plus, what effect did (and will) the pandemic have on the continuing dissemination of Iyengar yoga?
I heard discussions here and there about ‘changes’ occurring at RIMYI. I think part of the mythology of anywhere special is cultivated by our own human nature to try and work out how, where and why we fit in, and what makes an experience special, or conversely, what we think we missed out on. I also met people who have come here many times and often over decades, who reflected gently how it’s always been changing. Or, listening to students discussing what repeated RIMYI experiences have provided for them by what they proffer themselves. Ultimately all perceptions are subjective. I have no ‘baseline’ from which to compare how this ‘RIMYI’ is different from any other.
What I do know is how much my own teacher prepared me for the wonderful experience of being at RIMYI. It is through the firm and lasting dedication of many senior Australian teachers that I, and countless others, have been steadily introduced to the concepts RIMYI use daily. This was a reaffirming and welcome realisation. My thanks to all those committed to teaching. To reiterate also, the zeal I feel I was exposed to right here, right now, by the dedicated and amazing RIMYI team was nourishing. In class one day a local student was wearing a T-shirt which said, “Yoga. India’s greatest gift to the world.” RIMYI as an Institute - both a literal and phenomenological location - has its own array of discourses. As such, if we are willing to engage, it has much to offer. I hope to return.
Jackie Ruddock travelled to RIMYI in October 2023.
With regard to Prashant-ji’s “munching,” a massive shout-out to Pune’s extraordinary vegetarian eating. This place is a vibrant, busy city. It has a long tradition of manufacturing, IT and academic pursuits. The population and land area size is akin to that of Sydney. So there’s much happening! And, being at RIMYI 6-days a week basically from 7am to 8pm - with only a long break for lunch - made me incredibly focused on what I’d eat out each day. Thanks to Google Maps and the ‘Pure Veg near me’ search function, I ambulated the streets daily to be introduced to nearby neighbourhoods, and found SO many amazing restaurant establishments (both the people working within, and the food itself). As someone who doesn’t consider themselves a ‘foodie’, the simple joy a good, tasty meal brings while you’re on an intensive experience cannot be underestimated!