Over the holidays I revisited this piece of writing which captures my yoga studies in the early 90’s and realized it was a seminal turning point in my life as a yoga practitioner and something I wanted to share with you on the blog. It’s what inspired me to teach and later to teach teachers. Not so much because of the teacher who taught me, but of the experience of what it meant to live the life of a yogi.
As we open applications for our upcoming 2019 Ishta System Teacher Training on the Sunshine Coast. I invite you to take a peek into my personal history of study and practice.
“Let’s go to Shandor’s intensive next week,” Louisa’s sunny voice chimed snapping me out of the daze I was in. “Who?” “Shandor; he’s this wild Hungarian Yogi who was a student of Iyengar’s and he is just meant to be the most amazing teacher in Australia and he’s coming next week, I think we should go!” “Ok,” I conceded, knowing there was no point in resisting her wave of enthusiasm.
Shandor was more than wild he was tyrannical. “Stay in the pose” he boomed as he strutted from one end of the room to the other wearing a pair of bike shorts. “If you move a muscle, you’ll be in there for another ten minutes. You think you’re yogis? You’re all cowards – look at how your muscles are shaking after two minutes.” We were like geckos smashed against the walls in a forward bending pose called Uttanasana. He was moving through the room slapping our hamstrings and challenging us to stay there in spite of the pain and fear. His accent was thick and as he spoke you could hear the spit in his mouth flinging itself around. “Ok relax everyone; child pose – and be still there.” The whole class collapsed into the next posture and for ten minutes there was dead silence. I could feel all the tension and fear and uncertainty from the previous pose melt away and I was almost asleep when he shouted, “what are you all doing asleep! Get up and stand on your heads.” I had never in my life felt such exhilaration in a yoga class. He was like Mussolini one minute and then soft as a jellyfish the next. When I came out of a pose I felt like a bee drunk on pollen. The more I forced myself past my limits, the more my spine freed up and my joints began to open. By the end of the week, I was flying high and like a junkie I wanted more.
“Shandor’s offering a three week intensive for Intermediate students in Adelaide in a few weeks, why don’t we sign up?” Louisa encouraged, “we would learn so much and go so deep.” I could feel the inevitable ‘yes’ building in me like a bubble about to burst. Shandor was magnetic, bold, powerful and challenging. It was such a great opportunity to deepen my practice.
Louisa and I managed to secure accommodation with some yogis we had met during the intensive in Byron Bay. In just a few short weeks I was attending my first ever serious yoga intensive with a guru type figure in a reputable yoga studio.
“Come into adho mukha virasana everyone.” Shandor’s look-a-like assistant Cameron commanded on our very first day. The thirty of us dropped like soldiers into the posture, knees wide and buttocks to heels, forehead squashed into the mat and arms extended. At first, I thought it was a joke. Where was Shandor, wasn’t he leading the intensive? I thought we would be there for five minutes at the most, but five turned to ten and ten to fifteen and just when I was sure my legs were going to drop off Shandor’s voice pealed through the room, “Get up you fools what do you think this is rest time at kindergarten? You are here to do yoga not sleep. I want everyone in tadasana NOW!” I tried to move my legs to get up but they were cold as stone. My legs weren’t the only ones unable to comply with our commander’s demands. All around me I heard moans and groans as people tried to rouse their limbs to attention. Shandor marched back and forth in front of our sorry crew hurling expletives at us. “This is a yoga class, not a cradle, get up.” I had found him amusing and inspiring in Byron but here in Adelaide amongst strangers and far from home and only fifteen minutes into my first intermediate class I felt overwhelmed.
When I finally was able to stand I looked over at Louisa. From her stature, it was obvious that his words and manner didn’t frighten her at all and later after class, she confessed to me that it had been so hard not to laugh, “I think he’s quite gorgeous actually and a real softie underneath it all,” she confided. She was right. In the morning he was a hard taskmaster and during our lunch breaks at the local juice bar, he was soft as oatmeal.
Living in Adelaide with a house full of yogis was a real eye-opener. In the morning’s everyone muscled their way into the bathroom to perform the various cleansing practices (Sat Kriya’s) that Shandor insisted we do during the intensive. We were to practice sutra neti, which meant placing a rubber type hose up the nose and then pulling it out through the mouth to clear the nasal passages; and vamana, a process where you drank salty water and then vomited it back up; or basti, which was really just a fancy name for having an enema. Every orifice needed to be squeaky clean for our morning pranayama practices. I was hopeless when it came to the sat kriyas and couldn’t face doing any of them, as they just seemed so invasive and violent and scary. I conveniently managed to wake up late every morning so as to avoid them. Most of the yogis that we lived with were older and more experienced and it was understood that I was the baby of the group and wasn’t ready for some of the deeper practices.
Once we had cleaned ourselves from the inside out we were ready for early morning pranayama. Shandor asked us to arrive at the studio at six each morning. When we entered the studio he was already midway through his own practice having started at four and was performing long and dangerous breath retentions at a ratio of 1/4/2, which meant he inhaled for sixteen counts held for sixty-four and exhaled for thirty-two. When he suspended his breath his ribs would fan out like a pair of giant bellows. The whole group would watch and try to breathe with him but none of us could keep up. Whenever I tried to do the simple ratios he taught I would start to choke and flail and hot tears would stream down my cheeks. There seemed to be so much pain and fear in my breath that it prevented me from being able to sustain the practice for any length of time. Seeing my distress he would come over to me and place his large palm in the space between my shoulder blades and whisper, “let it go for now, try again next time, you mustn’t force the breath in pranayama, if it doesn’t come for you yet it’s okay.” He could be so soft and loving when he felt like it and it was hard to come to terms with the teacher who showed incredible understanding and support in my pranayama practice and the one who announced to the group, after I had shouted “fucking hell!” while in shoulder stand, that thanks to me we would all stay in “fucking hell” until we could learn to keep quiet in a restorative posture.
I was determined, in spite of feeling like a failure in the class, to stick the intensive out because I was learning so much about the postures and starting to develop more stamina and strength and openness as the weeks progressed.
On the second to last day of the course Shandor announced that we would be going to the Hyatt Regency for brunch, but first, we were to each complete one hundred and eight back flips. If anyone in the group failed to complete their backflips then it was breakfast at the scummy juice bar for all of us.
Our most enthusiastic participant Simon Borg Olivier started flipping before the rest of us were even lined up and ready to go and was roaring his way through each flip like a lion on the make. There were a few older yogis who needed to be supported through each one and then there was Louisa, light as a feather, flipping and flipping away next to me with hardly a hair out of place.
I stood with my arms in the air ready and waiting for Shandor to guide me into my first backflip. I had decided that as this was nearly the last day I would surrender to him and his teaching methods and silently prayed that I would emerge with all my parts intact. Once he got me going on the first few flips I felt like a circus chick in the center ring flipping backward through hoops. I began to move at a dizzying speed and had no idea what number I was up to. Cameron, Shandor’s assistant came over at one point to tell me to slow down and relax; apparently, Shandor was worried that I would take off like a rocket.
Our ragtag band of blown out yogis eventually did make it to the breakfast buffet at the Hyatt, but I, too spaced out to eat, sat and watched Shandor pile his plate high with chocolate eclairs. He was a crazy bugger, but I had fallen in love with his teaching and had learned more than I had thought possible. I had been both the youngest and most inexperienced member of the group, but I felt that something in me had grown immensely. I was ready and open to whatever came next in the world of yoga.