After much anticipation, the first leg of Guruji’s European Tour kicked off in the thermal spa town of Aix-les-Bains on the 6 August 2006. Although there was a distinct French flavour to the week, the crowd was multi-national and definitely multi-cultural. For starters, there was a Chinese-American living in London, a Brazilian based in Paris, Germans from Stuttgart, and an Italian-Australian from Lyon.
Despite the initial hesitation about having to make a trip into province (as we city folk like to say), Aix-les-Bains was in many ways the perfect setting. Situated on the edge of Lake Bourget, and nestled in between the Alps, it provided a natural backdrop for the get-together of this group of diverse people with the single aim of meeting and learning from the guru of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhis Jois.
Some stayed in period hotels near the spas, others camped out in tents at the foot of the mountains while yet others found hostels around the lake. There were students and professionals, tattooed hippies, families with toddlers, the old and the young.
Starting from Sunday morning at 6am, this rather motley bunch of people, each with a tube strapped around his or her back would congregate at the Gymnase des Thermes opposite the town hall. It didn’t matter who we were, and at which stage of the practise we were at. From the moment Guruji boomed â€˜Ekam inhale, Dve exhale!’ we all moved in unison, ujayyi breaths synchronised.
Guruji, Sharath and Saraswati would move about the gym, helping people into postures as they walked along, often not taking â€˜no’ for an answer. If you resisted, it meant that other people had to hold the position for a longer time, while you were being pushed and prodded into the asana. Otherwise, you risked being labelled â€˜bad lady!’
Away from the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan city, without the distraction of having to go to work and nary an internet cafÃ© in sight, people had more time to socialise with one another. The daily macrobiotic meals whipped up by Roselyne and her culinary team, organised picnics by the lake and outings to the beach provided plenty of opportunity for people to get to know one another. Apart from being open for the daily morning sessions, the gym was further available from 5 to 7pm in the evenings for people who wished to stretch or do a second practice by themselves. These afternoon sessions were often a way to observe and practise with advanced practitioners and seek guidance from them as well.
Indeed, many of the participants were yoga teachers who had spent time at Mysore, and were now spread out all over France. As I rolled out my mat each morning, I would sometimes find myself in front of SÃ©bastien Monassa from Aix-en-Provence, sometimes to the right of Arnaud Kancel from Montpellier, both of whom had started out in Caroline Boulinguez’ Samasthiti Studio in Paris. In addition, Renan de Germain and Katell SÃ©ligour, Caroline’s current assistants, would both say hello to me before going into the changing room.
One of the highlights of the week was an intimate sit-down â€œquestion & answerâ€ session with Jois on Thursday afternoon. Guruji spoke in a strong and clear voice and got quite animated at certain points during the one-and-a-half-hour-long session. Some people sought clarification of specific passages from the text of Yoga Mala, while others asked general questions about chants. Topics ranged from specific questions on why it was not advisable to eat too many vegetables, to whether the restrictions on sexual activity applied only to men, to when was the best time to go to Mysore and whether one had to be Hindu to practise yoga. When faced with more technical questions on whether the nose or the chin should touch the knee, and the use of props, Sharath blithely replied, â€˜Come to Mysore, we will teach you correctly.’
As the week wore on, it became harder and harder to climb up the hill to my hotel and I started to develop a craving for ketchup after all the macrobiotic food. Dinner table discussions became more intense, with people wondering if yoga was just yet another commercial activity or if there was indeed a spiritual element to the practice, and what it meant to have a guru and what people expected of a guru.
Unlike the scene in London, where people were exuberant from day one, this lot was relatively shy in the beginning. However, participants warmed up to Guruji, Saraswati and Sharath as the days went by, with more and more people asking to have their photographs taken with Jois and for him to autograph copies of Yoga Mala and the coffee table book, Mysore Style.
By the last day, there were happy smiles all around, but not without a tinge of sadness as the trio whisked off to catch their flight for the next leg of the tour. We had all been touched by the presence of the disciple of Krishnamacharya, we had all immersed ourselves in this ancient science of Ashtanga for a week and it was hard now to part ways. Jenny Vanneufville and Pierre Baronian from Lyon who had put together the week with the help of the Ashtanga Association of Aix-les-Bains had done an excellent job and we were all grateful.
Slowly, we unhinged ourselves and each got back to our own realities. There had been a bomb threat at Heathrow airport, and the Londoners wondered if they should fly into Stansted or stay on with their new-found friends in France for a day or two. Others planned trips to nearby towns of Chambery and Lyon, which were an hour away.
Back in Paris, the weather is drab and damp, and I am already missing the easy camaraderie of my fellow Ashtangis and their sun-kissed faces. Next step â€“ Mysore?
About Jinn:The writer, Jinn Lim, is a lawyer from Singapore who currently lives in Paris and is an Ashtanga novice.
[Thank you to Jinn, our correspondent at the World Tour Europe 2006 in Aix les Bains, for this insightful and well-written post! Anyone interested in contributing from the Copenhagen or Helsinki stops, let us know. -Ed.]