My yoga journey
Perhaps it was what happened in Dharamsala in northern India that spiked my fate and took me on a path that even in my wildest imagination I hadn’t dreamed of. Or was it already decided with my first breath? Or perhaps when my soul ended up in this body? Who knows?
The endless search
I have always been a searcher and a restless person. Even as a young girl I sought after something that would mean more than what I saw in life, or could give me the love and feeling of safety I so strongly yearned. I searched in Sunday schools, free churches and through prayers. I searched in literature, films and music. I found a lot but not what I had been looking for.
For many years I sought self-awareness, knowledge, happiness and love through both creative and destructive ways. I found a lot even there, but again not what I was looking for. I am grateful for all the paths I’ve walked, and all the people I’ve met. Everything and everyone has brought me to where I am today, in my now.
During a theatre education in the 1980s in Stockholm I came into contact with yoga. I knew immediately this was something that would be a friend and companion for the rest of my life. That’s when my journey within, using the tools of yoga, started.
Eventually, my longing to go deeper into yoga and into myself brought me back to India, a country I had already visited for several months looking for adventure. A country which has touched me and moved things within me in both an uncomfortable and fascinating way. To return to India was a longing I nourished since I came back to Sweden.
Coming back to India was like coming home. But this time the trip was different. Yoga was the goal, and making contact with Indian teachers, learning more and immersing myself, developing, becoming quiet.
I travelled and travelled and met different teachers and all sorts of people, meditated in caves, walked with the pilgrims amongst the Himalayan mountains, swam in the Ganges, hung out with hippies in Goa, visited the holy cities and so much more. I also had my first encounter with Ashtanga yoga.
I was instructed by an American man, Mohana, on a rooftop in Rishikesh. I’ll never forget the feelings of the first sun salutations. At that time I’d never heard of Pattabhi Jois and the method I’d started was being taught both in India and in the West. The sun salutations have since followed me on the mat and further around India and wherever I go in the world.
My yoga mat became somewhere I always came back to, a place of safety, a cornerstone in my travelling life. The philosophical part of yoga was something I longed to know more about and meditation became a tool to observe my thoughts and worried feelings that were part of my inner life. My longing to meet the masters and teachers I had read and heard about was strong and sincere, and since yoga’s country of origin is India, that’s where I wanted to be. Everything about yoga comes from there and I wanted to know more.
This journey was going to be different, and so it was. Back home in Sweden after this trip there was only one thought in my mind: to come back and study yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar, to meet the Dalai Lama and eventually travel further around the world.
A life-changing trip
So I returned to India. My next meeting with Ashtanga yoga was with Derek Ireland in Goa. Ashtanga in a tent on the beach with a lot of joy, sweat and enthusiasm – wonderful! At that time I had heard a lot of exciting things about Pattabhi Jois. He was a man I would love to visit.
But first was Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama, meditation, studies and mountains. What happened in Dharamsala changed my plans drastically and the round-the-world trip had to be cancelled as a completely different journey now stood in front of me. This trip brought profound experiences of fear and grief, compassion, friendship, trust and love. But it also brought that special paper in my hand – a certificate from B.K.S. Iyengar with the blessing and certification to go home and start teaching yoga! I will never forget his words to me: “You have studied and worked hard here at the Institute. You have my blessing and my best wishes to go home and start teaching yoga.” And there was the paper with the coveted certification of yoga in my hand! Something I did not even know existed when I packed my backpack in late 1994 to head for what I thought was a round-the-world trip. Instead, it was the beginning of an inner journey that is still ongoing to this day.
In Dharamsala in early 1995, I lived in the mountains. I meditated, practised asanas and pranayama. I often walked down to the bazaar in MC Cloud Ganj where I had friends among the Tibetans and the Indians who lived there. I spent much time with Tibetan nuns, meditating and talking. I recorded our conversations on my tape recorder. Many of the nuns’ stories were poignant and brutal. They had all fled from tragic circumstances, many involving brutal assault and rape.
What brought me back to the nuns again and again was the warmth and love they exuded. Their kindness and generosity was indescribable. This was something that left deep traces in me. To not let anyone take your joy and zest for life. Not identifying yourself as a victim, but proceeding with the love of life. This gave me hope for change and a renewed joy in life.
The Dalai Lama, who lived in this area, was holding a gathering so I went there to meet him, as I had read and heard so much about him. In fact, I felt as if I already knew him through the nuns who often recited him and spoke so lovingly of their leader. Going to meet the Dalai Lama was a dream come true.
In order to meet him I was required to register with my passport the day before. At the time, I usually kept my passport and cash safely stored in a money belt around my waist. On this fateful day, however, I happened to be wearing a jumpsuit which doesn’t make for easy access to a money belt! So I’d actually moved my money belt and passport into my shoulder bag.
I was out in the bazaar on the way to the post office to see if I had any letters (this was a time before email and mobile phones!) But as I went to pay for some stamps, time stopped and fate struck a cruel blow: my money belt was gone! The money belt with almost 30,000 SEK! Had I left it in the registration office? No. Perhaps back at the village where I was staying? I raced all the way back with only a pounding heart and the thought of “It can’t be true” for company. But it was true. All the money for my round-the-world trip was gone. I cried many tears and cursed my stupidity. But the money was gone and so was the trip around the world.
My Tibetan and Indian friends helped me pay for a trip to Delhi where I could arrange some travellers’ cheques. A young Tibetan man said this event was probably an antidote in my life. Nothing negative was going to happen and in my case I lost money. It could have been a body part or something even worse. Now I know with all my heart that it was true.
Finding my way
This event changed everything. To cut a long story short, I ended up with B.K.S. Iyengar and his family at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune. I had planned to stay there two months and then travel to Australia, but I stayed for nearly a year. I learned so much from B.K.S. Iyengar and spent almost every afternoon with him in his library. I practised yoga with his son and daughter each day in the shala. I met people from all over the world. I lived on very little money, staying in a simple apartment and cooking most of my own food.
Since I also had to deal with injuries of two slipped discs this became a healing time for the body and the soul and also made me realise my inner journey even stronger. My studies with B.K.S. Iyengar and learning Yoga Therapy was also a part of my time at the institute in Pune.
Yoga became my life and my studies of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras began. During this trip I also met the extremely wise and special man, Ramesh Balsekar, in Bombay. A former bank manager who had seen and understood life’s essentials and conveyed them in a unique way, he was a teacher I returned to many times before he left his body in 2009.
Money is energy, but what I lost I got back a thousandfold in kindness, compassion, love, generosity and so much more. What I learned about yoga and myself by spending so long with a yoga master cannot be bought with money. When I left B.K.S. Iyengar and his institute with a certificate in my hand and his faith in me as a yoga teacher, my life changed.
Back home I started teaching yoga on a small scale that quickly grew to more and larger groups. I was also a school teacher at the same time – something I trained for in the 80s. All the money I earned from yoga teaching (I didn’t even charge at the beginning) I saved for future courses and pretty soon I landed in London and met with Ashtanga yoga again.
Finding my Guru
A few months later, in 1996, I found myself in India again. This time I was in Mysore with Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji as he’s fondly known, and his wife Amma. My first encounter with Guruji was intense and emotional. There were only 5 of us in his room. My first hug with him made me cry and I knew immediately that I had come home. The safety and love I felt with him was for me unique and strong. It felt like the love between a granddaughter and grandfather.
During the 13 years I spent with Guruji, travelling back and forth, our relationship developed with great love and trust, and what I received from him is a gift of love which I hold high and loving. His knowledge of yoga – and I mean the essence of yoga – was enormous and endless. Every time I came back to Mysore he hugged me and looked pleased with me and said: “You still have a body. Very good.”
It was not always easy. Just like life itself. But with Guruji as my Guru I increased my mental focus, became calmer and felt more safe. Yoga became alive in every part of my life. Yoga is so much more than the asanas, which Guruji managed to convey so clearly in his teaching. I feel so grateful to have had the chance to be with him for such a long time.
When he left his body in 2009, he left a big gap and I still miss him every day. I have been back to Mysore to practice with his grandson Sharath several times since his death. Sharath has shouldered a great responsibility in the best and knowledgeable manner. He carries on the tradition with great respect and love for his family’s heritage and for Guruji’s memory.
In recent years I have also visited and studied with Shri O.P. Tiwariji, a pranayama teacher and master. He teaches worldwide and is the head teacher at Kaivalyadhama Institute in Lonavala, two hours outside Bombay. I’ve been there several times and also received a certificate to teach pranayama. Again, a priceless gift and something that means a lot in my life. I return to him every year to deepen my own pranayama practice and learn more about this important part of yoga.
Becoming a pioneer
My teaching of Ashtanga yoga began in 1999 when I opened one of Sweden’s first yoga studios of Ashtanga yoga. Yoga Shala Södermalm it was called then, but I pretty quickly changed the name to Yoga Shala Stockholm. I received Guruji’s blessing to teach Ashtanga yoga and, despite my insecurities, I started with Mysore-style and led Ashtanga classes. At first the Mysore classes were alien to most people, but they slowly grew, and from just a few participants the room eventually started to fill with dedicated practitioners.
When I left Yoga Shala Stockholm 10 years later the Mysore classes were filled to the brim. Word had spread amongst students and other yoga shalas around Stockholm, and this became a breakthrough for yoga in Stockholm and the rest of Sweden. I learnt so much during those 10 years. I enjoyed every moment being a teacher and being responsible for the teaching at the Shala. I enjoyed being able to share what means so much to me with my students. Seeing students develop and witnessing dedicated students on their way to becoming yoga teachers. All this was a source of joy and inspiration.
Coming back to myself
By contrast, to be ‘the boss’ of the whole organisation was not as enjoyable. It took me away from what I loved doing. This was one of the reasons I decided to leave the school and start teaching yoga in my own ‘global shala’. To do what I love, to have time to develop as a teacher-human, to be free, to have time to reflect. Creating projects with others. To travel. To teach in beautiful places. To strive to be authentic and genuine. Being myself both as a teacher and a human being.
Many of the students I’ve taught over the years are now yoga teachers, and some have their own studios. Yoga Shala Stockholm is in good hands with Lisa Lalér and her sister Lotta Lalér. I feel warmth in my heart when I see how yoga develops and becomes available to all people. Sometimes I worry about the superficial part that social media conveys, and that people can think ‘standing on hands’ is yoga. I worry about too many rules in yoga and that it can sometimes feel a bit elitist. At the same time, I know that everything has its time and everything changes. People will see through the rules and find their own ways. And the essence of yoga will never change.
The only thing I lack in my global shala is continuity with my students. But many of them regularly come to practice with me around the world, so then there is a different continuity. To be able to teach yoga is a great gift for me. I am grateful every day to do what I love and to share something that I know can change you deeply within and give you meaning beyond words.
So, the stolen money belt and all the fear and tears I experienced evolved into a life with greater meaning, a deeper sense of self and a belief and trust in life. My eternal restlessness is there in the shadows, worries come and go, but I have access to a feeling of peace and trust I never thought I would experience.
Life is an adventure of our own design, intersected by fate and a series of lucky and unlucky accidents - Patti Smith