Last spring when I was planning my residency, I stumbled across a small conference online in the town of Pune, India. From the website I couldn’t quite figure out what was offered, but I got the sense that it was genuine to the roots of yoga without a western influence. Pune is the home to the world-famous BKS Iyengar Institute, and known to be ‘The Oxford of India’ from its affluent universities. The festival featured a handful of medical professionals with workshops related to rehabilitation and management of disease. There were also some notable Swamis on the website, which I learned is a spiritual leader of the highest achievable level in yoga practice.
I emailed the site to ask for the 2018 dates, and was thrilled to get a reply that the next conference would be in January during my semester. I was also told the conference was almost entirely Indian. It drew me in further that there would not be any commercialized yoga at this conference. This is the real deal, I thought. Or at least I hoped for that, since there was no real schedule or concrete information on the site. The next step was convincing my inner gut that it would be a good idea to wire money to India, venture off the beaten tourist path, and post up for four days without creature comforts in the hills beyond Pune. The director of the program regularly communicated with me and was very welcoming, thus persuading me to attend. I would soon learn I was one of three westerners attending the conference, and the other 400 participants were of Indian origin.
It all felt like a shot in the dark, and I left my expectations behind when I boarded my flight from Delhi to Pune. We were lucky to find a driver willing to take us two hours into the hills from the Pune airport. The sun had already set and we swerved through the tiny backroads north of Pune, dodging cattle and stray dogs, to reach the holy Ashram of Chinmaya Vibhooti. In India, an Ashram is a holy center for practices related to spirituality. Ethical guidelines are followed, such as prohibition of wearing revealing clothing like tank tops and shorts, cooking or ingestion of meat is banned, no use of wifi, and the area is kept very clean and pure. All of the water, including the shower and drinking fountains, were filtered (hallelujah!). Not the traditional Indian experience, which made it the perfect way to ease into our month of travel through this country.
We arrived at the premise around 10pm, and luckily there was a flurry of participants at the check-in area. Everyone was speaking a mix of Hindi, Marati, and English. Generally, English is spoken around India, but there are 30 states within the country that all speak their own local languages. Can you imagine the complexity if the United States had separate languages for each state?
After surrendering all our personal information on our passports and bank accounts, we got a set of keys and settled in our room. The four-day festival was a full-speed event. Workshops started at 5am and ended around 10pm. Justin and I missed the first morning workshop (hello, jetlag), and learned that this was not an option during the conference. All attendees were strongly encouraged to be at all workshops, because after all, yoga in its definition means to ‘yoke’ or come together. We tried not to feel guilty for missing one hour of the 15-hour day.
The Pune Yoga Festival was far beyond my expectations. The information presented was deeply thought-provoking and stirred new ideas in my personal meaning of rehabilitation. It would be impossible to brief every detail, but my biggest takeaways surrounded the dramatic difference between yoga in India versus the USA. How obvious, I know, but my perception of the difference diverted down a new path. In the United States, yoga is almost entirely asana-based. This means the focus is virtually only yoga poses. If you think about this from a rehabilitation standpoint, how is an individual recovering from stroke supposed to perform a sequence of poses when one side of their body is paralyzed? I struggled with this in the beginning of my journey with yoga, but it became clear in Pune that the asana is one of eight limbs of yoga. The other 85% is being left out! This dilemma left me floundering a bit while I was in Arizona, because I was aware of the eight limbs, but no one was teaching them in classes I attended. The Pune Yoga Conference slaked my thirst for a deeper knowledge of the limbs. But four days of study barely scratches the surface, and the study of yoga is a lifelong journey.
A normal day at the festival entailed the following: Attend 5am chanting session, followed by one hour of meditation and adaptable asana practice. 8am breakfast. 9am workshops begin and last until 10pm with a lunch break between. The workshops most relevant to my studies included yoga for stress and anxiety, yoga for prevention of disease, yoga for obesity, and the science of chanting and the nervous system. The designated speakers came from variable backgrounds. Some were swamis, many were medical professionals, and others were yoga therapists.
The comradery at the conference was incredibly warm and welcoming. Justin and I felt immediately taken in by the community. Other attendees regularly approached us to introduce themselves and shared meals with us. We felt connected through many relationships formed at the conference. I cannot stress enough the friendliness exuded by Indian people. Some of our friendships made in Pune I know will last a lifetime. Many of the attendees were from Mumbai, our next destination, and we were given loads of travel advice, and even invited to some of their homes.
If you are a foreigner thinking about making the journey to Pune, trust your intuition and take the leap. Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions. I might just see you there in 2019…
Find more information about the festival at PuneYogaFestival.com
Above: Swamis and event organizers at the plenary introduction.
Below: Vishwas and Vidula - the creators of the Pune Yoga Festival and the couple who convinced me to come to Pune.
Basic Indian breakfast at Chinmaya Vibhooti Ashram. Minimal oil and spices are used as a part of the ethical guidelines followed on site.
Evening ceremony: A bowl of cow dung is lit as a way of honoring yogic ancestors. We then stare at the flame for one hour in meditation.
Rice is offered to the flame as a gesture of spiritual praise.
Evening sitar music combined with the speaker's message. More of this in the United States please!
Swanuhooti Vatika: The garden on the Ashram premise was beautifully designed, with the notion of 'honeying' your life. There were positive messages through the garden with elaborate tributes to spiritual leaders.
I am an outdoor and travel junkie who is currently completing my doctorate in occupational therapy overseas in rural Fiji. On Sweet World Travels you will find stories of my life with my husband, the communities we serve, and the many adventures we take.