e5c2d27ca14c2f8af58494281334e2e7-1My first experience with yoga was as a child in India. I had got up earlier than usual one morning and watched, somewhat apprehensively, as my father did a headstand. He patiently explained to me the benefits of the posture. He kept some time each day for his asanas, devotional hymns, and the study of the Bhagavad Gita and other books of philosophy. He was, indeed, a practitioner of yoga in all its forms. This was true of many Indians of his generation who took their traditions seriously. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was known to begin his day with shirshasana, the headstand.

All this, however, did not wash well with me when I was growing up. At school, situated inside the fortress of Gwalior and run by a group of Theosophists, a mandated silent meditation each evening was the most difficult period I had to contend with. Later, in college, at the IIT, the motto “yogah karmasu kaushalam (in the pursuit of yoga is well being)” meant little to me at that stage of my life. A student of technology, I looked at anything religious with suspicion, and yoga appeared too archaic to catch my interest.

Soon, I was on my way to Germany, a country flush with its post-war prosperity, and was at once enraptured with the glittering ways of the West. On my return to India, I was impatient with a culture where productivity and efficiency were held in disdain. Life was lived to enjoy one’s family and friends, not in a frenetic rush to enhance the bottom line. Not content, I set my sights on going back to the West, this time to the citadel of its material success—America. But before that could happen I got involved with yoga in many ways, and this involvement, almost imperceptibly, began to change the way I viewed the world.

The first was a series of talks on the Gita by Swami Chinmayananda. With a mixture of humor and melodrama Swamiji explained to an audience of engineering professionals some of the basic tenets of yoga philosophy. He talked of the Self as the “knower,” and the “field of experience,” or sansar, as that which the Self witnessed. The body, the mind, and the intellect were just as much a part of the objective world as the surroundings in which one functioned. To realize this, to experience this, was the purpose of life. And yoga provided the means to do so. The lectures prompted me, for the first time, to study the Gita.

The second happening was in Bombay (now Mumbai), where I worked for many years. Driving home one evening along Marine Drive, I noticed a school of yoga, which went by the fairly comprehensive name of Kaivalyadhama Ishwardas Chunilal Institute of Yogic Physical Culture. It was the Bombay campus of a school of yoga established by Swami Kuvalayananda at Lonavla early in the last century. Swamiji, influenced by Western science, had established it as a research center for understanding the effects of yoga on bodily functions. He was thus the first to bring to notice the benefits of hatha yoga in Western medical terms. I attended the school for three years, an hour each evening, and proceeded methodically through the various levels of the course. Each level involved a set of asana, bandha, and pranayama in their increasingly complex forms. The carpeted rooms provided a peaceful and quiet environment. The instructors taught the practitioners one at a time, while taking pains to respect the space of others in the room. It is clear that this system of classroom training in yoga had taken over from the way a person was taught in earlier times, individually, by a recognized guru. The latest Western incarnation of group training, albeit with taped music, was still in its infancy.

Once I graduated from Kaivalyadhama I thought I was done with yoga and could pick up some other pursuit. But that was not to be. The stress of work and increasing responsibilities forced me to go back to the mat and devise a regimen to suit my needs. Each evening I would retire to our terrace for my practice of asanas, which, when joined by neighborhood kids, soon evolved into an impromptu class. Meanwhile, my interests in the philosophical aspects of yoga also remained aroused. Listening to the prominent teachers of the day, including J. Krishnamurti, broadened my knowledge and increased my thirst to seek out the deeper meanings of the discipline.

In due course in the mid-1980s I did make it to America. Strangely, when I came here, its materialism did not hold me in thrall, nor was I disdainful of my own culture any longer. On the other hand, with each passing day, I was discovering new meanings in India’s time-tested traditions and thoughts. I restarted my yoga regimen and soon began teaching weekly classes at community centers in Downey and Cerritos, Calif. At first there was some resistance to what was considered a “foreign” practice. However, as people realized that the postures, stretches, and breathing exercises did not interfere with their belief systems, yoga began to gain greater acceptance. Such weekly group classes were a far cry from the personalized, painstaking ways of the teachers at Kaivalyadhama. They, however, served the purpose for those who needed some form of de-stressing after their daily toils. As I progressed with the classes I also got back to the study of yoga philosophy—its ancient roots, as defined in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Gita, as well as to its more modern interpretations by Sri Aurobindo and others.

In these last years interest in yoga has grown rapidly and an abundance of resources are now available for the enthusiast. Centers of meditation in many traditions abound. Schools of hatha yoga have mushroomed and gatherings for satsang and chanting are commonplace.

So what does all this mean to a prospective student keen on initiation? How is one to choose a discipline? An answer to this is to search for a practice that will complement one’s nature. Yoga, in whatever form it is followed, serves to hone our attention both to oneself and to all around us. In doing so it liberates us from the bondage of one’s own ego and enables us to more fully explore and absorb the experiences of life. Finally, and hopefully, someday one reaches a point of equilibrium between oneself and the world around us, between the soul and the sansar. In that moment of truth one attains a state of peace with all that is, was, or ever will be.

Srinivas Chari is a retired engineer with a lifelong interest in yoga, theater, and the arts, who came to the United States after spending the better portion of his working life in India.

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