Bend it like Bikram
The mind is like a drunken monkey, Swami Niranjan-ananda had said, it constantly jumps here and there. Amidst ringing phones, the steady traffic through the front office and the chatter of colleagues, I remember the voice of my yoga teacher saying: "If your mind is not right here, right now, focused on this practice, pull it gently back to the present".
But it returns to a recent past, in a softly lit yoga hall decorated in muted earthly tones and perfumed with incense. "Yoga is about discovering one's true self, and there is nothing religious about this," Maria Spassova, instructor at Gayatri Studio, says, speaking of the misconception that the ancient Indian lifestyle and belief system is a religion.
When she was a student of pedagogy some five years ago, Maria decided to accompany her mother, who had serious health problems, among which a form of cancer, on a trip to India. "I did it for fun and out of curiosity," she said.
Maria spent two years at the Bihar Yoga Bharati, the first accredited yoga university in the world. Her mother still lives there and serves the yoga community by travelling all over the globe and spreading the word. "I know, it sounds like some sect, but it is not," Maria says, laughing. The melodic mantra chants coming from the stereo join the stream of her laughter.
"I don't understand people who want to do yoga only to make their bodies fit or flexible," she says then seriously. "I can't think of yoga simply as physical exercise, because I know human beings are not simply physical bodies. There are, actually, those who start off by focusing on the 'asanas' (postures) but gradually they develop an understanding and a desire to learn more than there is to the bending and twisting of muscles and joints."
And there is infinitely more. In the homeland of yoga, India, a wise man named Patanjali summarised the way of the ancient art in the Yoga Sutra some 2000 years ago. His eight-limb path (ashtanga yoga) consists of restraints, observances, postures, breathing, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption.
The Sanskrit word "yuj," from which the term "yoga" originates, is literally translated as "yoke", or "union" - the union of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual body of a person, the union between the person and the Universe.
In the United States, the yoga workout has been popular for the past 30 years and more, with celebrities such as Madonna, actor David Duchovny and model Christy Turlington bringing it in the public eye. The physical exercise, or the so-called hatha yoga, is the emphasis and sometimes the only aspect of yoga on which people focus. Sprained ankles, overly strained muscles and even fractures are quite likely to happen.
Bulgarian yoga started in the 1960s with pioneer Ventseslav Evtimov laying the foundations, but only in the past couple of years the number of people who reach for the mat as a form of stress-relief has increased. Yoga studios have popped up all over Sofia and in some larger Bulgarian cities to answer the demand. Almost every fitness complex offers training sessions such as yoga stretching or power yoga, but breathing and meditation techniques are taught sparingly.
A number of certified yoga instructors in Bulgaria are educated in the Satyananda tradition, which is an integral type of yoga and combines breathing, meditation and postures. If you are looking for a teacher, it is a good idea to ask them how much they emphasise each of these practices, and how intensive the workout is. There are types of yoga, such as Ashtanga, or power yoga, in which most participants will actually break sweat. It is physically demanding as moving from one posture to another might include jumping. The followers of Sahaja yoga concentrate on meditation. The Bikram practice is carried out in sauna-like hot rooms to replicate the climate of the homeland of yoga.
There are a number of other traditions and practices, so always ask what you should expect.
Some who are new to yoga prefer to start with limiting themselves to the physical workout, because they are intimidated by the complexity of advanced asanas where one would literally put their feet behind their ears. Others don't want to become vegetarians and to perform cleansing routines such as pouring salted water through one nostril and taking it out of the other.
"No one would force you to do all these things," Maria says. "You go by your own rhythm and you are encouraged to listen to the signals of your body. If you are not ready to take up vegetarianism, don't do it, it is not obligatory. Modern-day yoga adapts to the modern-day world," she adds.
There are only two "rules" she would advise her students to follow. First, by all means talk to the instructor if you have some type of serious or chronic medical condition, so that they can adjust the asanas to your special needs. And second, don't eat for two hours before your yoga practice.
"Go to yoga on time, at least 10 minutes before the start," Maria adds, "When you are late you stress yourself, and yoga is about the opposite - relieving stress."
When asked why the number of women in Bulgaria interested in yoga greatly exceeds the number of men, she says: "Women are emotionally more open, and for our practice you need to be open, realise how you feel and not suppress these feelings. Men's social role is to be stable and reliable, to provide for the family. This is why most men cannot let go and have serious blockages on an emotional level".
"Men are afraid to be called gay if they admit they practice yoga," Maria continues. "And this is horrible, just look at what our society does to us. Fear is used to dissuade people," she adds.
Maria is silent for a moment while the mantra "Om shaanti shaanti shaanti" pours from the speakers of her stereo. Then she joins the beautiful female voice and chants along with the prayer for individual peace, communal peace, and universal peace.