Sitting comfortably in Govindas, the cosy little restaurant at the Hare Krsna temple in Rondebosch, Murari Gupta Das and I have a conversation over a cup of ginger and lemon tea. He’s wearing a woollen beanie, and wooden beads around his neck. Not dressed in his usual orange attire (which represents celibacy) surprises me, and I ask him why. He replies that he will be working in the restaurant later, and he doesn’t want his clothes to get stained. It is customary for the monks to do service at the temple. Murari’s service includes working at the restaurant once a week, handling the temple’s finances, doing grocery shopping and last, but not least, giving yoga classes 5 times a week.
The turn of conversation towards yoga immediately fires a passion in Murari’s eyes.
The yoga he teaches is called Hatha yoga. Ha means sun and tha means moon. Traditionally, Hatha yoga is about uniting the mind and body. Murari, on the other hand, aims to bring his students to the realization that “we are not the body or the mind; we are the soul.”
As he excitedly describes the different yoga poses, he suddenly remembers one of his yoga books, The Yoga Bible. When he returns with the book under his arm, I am so impressed by the hundreds of different illustrations of poses that I asked him if I could borrow it. He kindly agreed.
I ask Murari to share the procedure of an ordinary yoga class. Firstly, his students start with centering themselves. In other words, they turn the mind inwards and focus on the breath in order to calm the mind and stop its unceasing racing. Then, they start with warming up exercises. At this point, Murari gets up from his seat and shows me how to do a plank in the middle of the restaurant. These warming up exercises, including neck exercises and other postures, prepares one for the main pose, or The King of asana, namely the headstand. According to The Yoga Bible, the benefits of this pose are countless. It calms the nervous system, nourishes the brain cells, balances the hormonal and digestive systems and strengthens the spirit. Not everyone can do the headstand, but a posture called the little bird helps one to reach the point of successfully doing a headstand. To do the headstand successfully, one has to concentrate. When I attended one of Murari’s classes a few months ago, all I could focus on was the pain in my limbs, my fast heart beat and my desire for rest. Concentration was the last thing on my mind. Murari said this problem can easily be solved if you “practice yoga regularly.”
So, how does yoga connect to spirituality? Interestingly, yoga was developed because people sat cross-legged during meditation, and a means was needed to assist the body during meditation. Meditation was almost unbearable since sitting in the same position for hours caused the body to ache and pain. Yoga was a solution, as it makes the body suppler. It creates a sense of spiritual and physical wellbeing to those who practice it. Even if one doesn’t meditate, yoga is still relevant to everyone, especially because we sit in front of the computer for hours on end.
If a single yoga pose has all those benefits listed above, why don’t all people practice yoga? I’ll be able to answer this question through self-reflection (by no means assuming my reasons are the same as everyone else’s.) Firstly, I hate the way exercise makes me feel – out of breath, in pain and sweaty. Secondly, I hate seeing how good everyone else is compared to me. I can’t even touch my toes without bending my knees. And lastly, improvement seems far away. I haven’t noticed any improvements, which is demotivating.
Murari’s advice – “practice yoga regularly” – seems to be a solution to all these problems.
Keren Shawlov, a student of Murari, says yoga gives her “mental clarity” and “it also helps me to maintain a good level of flexibility.” Another student who prefers to remain anonymous said “When I do yoga I feel de-stressed. I feel better physically and mentally.” Both students said they feel more spiritual when they do yoga. It is interesting that both students experience yoga as not just a physical form of exercise, but mentally revitalizing too.
Yoga isn’t all sunshine and butterflies though. “Yes, yoga could be dangerous,” says Murari. He encourages people to practice yoga under the guidance of a teacher. Yoga poses could be dangerous for different reasons, depending on the individual. For example, if you are pregnant, Murari doesn’t encourage you to do postures that compress the stomach. If you have high blood pressure, you shouldn’t attempt the headstand.
As our interview comes to an end, I swallow the last bit of my tea and then tell Murari that I would have liked to buy him a chocolate to thank him for his time but I assumed he doesn’t eat chocolate (he is a vegan). He tells me he eats dark chocolate, playfully throwing a hint. On that note, we conclude our interview, and I reluctantly leave the peaceful warmth of Govindas.