THEY CALL IT YOGA
I had been teaching yoga for a couple of years before I was introduced to Arturo. After the first class I knew that I wanted to study under him, so I did and still do. In the midst of a busy coffee shop in San Diego, we had the opportunity to sit down over tea so I could ask him about his experiences with both Indra Devi and B.K.S. Iyengar.
Jennie Olson Six, Yoga Teacher Magazine: How did your journey in yoga start and how did you connect with Indra Devi?
Arturo Galvez: Well, who knows, you know. When I look back now in my own life, I see the threads going back very far. I was maybe twelve in the playground in the elementary school and one of my buddies says, “Look at this, look at this, look at what I have, look what I took from my sister.” He had a picture of a guy sitting in Lotus posture. So I asked “What is it?” and my buddy says, “They call it yoga.” And I said, “And... what is it?” and he says, “Well, it gives you powers. It gives you powers and it teaches you to train your mind so you can control things with the power of your mind.” He was telling me all the things the mind could do and the power of the yoga to control the mind, but all I could remember was looking at the picture and seeing this dichotomy in the picture. On the one hand, I saw this older man in the picture, very peaceful in his face, like very serene, spaced out. At the same time, I saw an old man sitting very erect, and very almost royal-like. So there were two things going on, almost this strength of presence that we normally associate in a society more with aggression and power in a more typical sense. But at the same time it was obvious it was not the same kind of power that I had seen, like that power of a ruler or a supervisor or the power of a politician, it was this other kind of power and I couldn’t make a lot of sense of it. I remember looking at the picture, thinking I’ll have to file this away and get back to it because it was something in there that pulled me in.
Then later, in high school, I took a world literature class. We were supposed to read so many works of world literature. I looked at the list and I had already read half of the readings and the others I was not really interested in. So I went to the teacher, he was a good teacher, and I asked if there were any others, so he gave me five extra books. And one of them was the Mahabharata. And I go, “Okay, that’s the one.” I went and bought one, luckily it was one of those abridged versions, and I started reading it from the beginning. I couldn’t make any sense out of it, the names, the places, what they were saying, I did not get any of it. I tried for two days to read it, and I started to think, “I really outdid myself with this one. This is going to be the most stupid report that anybody gives.” I even considered making up stuff because I figured no one is ever going to read this book, and no one’s going to understand it anyway so I can pretty much say anything I want to, right? In desperation, I remember flipping through the pages and I got to the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita, which was interesting to me. I didn’t read the whole Gita part but I got to the part where Krishna was talking about Karma Yoga. I remember reading and thinking, ‘This is good enough,’ and I based my whole report on that, on the issues of ethics and obligations.
The teacher loved it, but I was left with this feeling that I didn’t get it, I didn’t even get one tenth of whatever was there. Yet at the same time it was the same feeling as the picture, I knew there was more to it, I just didn’t know what it was. And again, in the back of my mind: someday I’ll go and figure that out.
So that led me into looking for yoga in Mexico and South America. Everything that I found was very obscure, very mystical too. Nowadays I have a better understanding of what it was, you know. These were people that were practicing a form of yoga that was straight from some of the first people that had contact with yoga introduced in the wave in the 1920’s, now 40 years later still practicing that form. Some of it was very philosophy based, mostly talk or very much intertwined with the more mystical aspects of the more traditional forms of Hatha yoga, involving rituals and chanting. One group in South America had asana practice that consisted of one posture that they held for a really long time, but you started with a cold shower. So they had that kind of mentality of the old yogis, the ones up in the Himalayans, bathing in the Ganges. I guess I was too modern or something but I remember it was not that appealing. I thought, even then, that I had a sense that there are two parts to the practice of yoga. There are the cultural trappings that come with it and then there’s the essence. I kept thinking that maybe some of that is not necessary to capture the essence. It’s not that I figured it out then. But I can tell you that’s still a part of the process of my teaching: what is the essence, what is needed, what can you transform and find an equivalent of, and what you can not, because it’s key.
I came here to the US to the university and the yoga that I first had contact with was the yoga that came in with the second wave of gurus in the Sixties, the heavy sense of mysticism. I still maintain contact with them, Deva Gopur and Sathya Pujari. Both of them were children of the gurus of the Sixties, the hippie types that went to the gurus. But to their credit they threw themselves into the practice. Both would go to India and study extensively. I went with them to India. They were heavily into the spiritual part of the practice. Interestingly enough, they both connected with Iyengar after being fed up with all of the nonsense that was being passed on as yoga in India. Even there they were already catering to the Westerners that were coming. But they went to Iyengar to get clear. So that was my first contact with yoga in the US, with very dedicated teachers who would become Iyengar teachers. Pujari still lives in a retreat, Deva Gopur is retired.
At this point I was kind of in between. I wasn’t sure that I was going to stay in San Diego or what I was going to do. I had made contact with these teachers and then I was in contact with people in Mexico who were telling me about this other teacher, Indra Devi. Who had gotten property in Tecate, Mexico, which I thought was incredible because it was just driving distance from me in San Diego, and it could have been anywhere else. They told me where this place was. Indra Devi never called it an ashram, she called it the ranch, very close to Rancho La Puerta, right at the foot of Mt. Cuchuma. Evan Wentz, the translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one of the last things he wrote was about the Cuchuma mountain as a key spiritual center for this whole area. So she literally had the place at the foot of the mountain, the sacred mountain.
So I kept putting it off and putting it off. I had picked up something, a book or magazine article about this guru from India who had had this great following; I didn’t pay much attention to the names or anything. But I remember seeing the article, thinking it was interesting. Then I had this dream: I was surrounded with a group of people, and at one point I see this guru, coming in, and he was dressed in this orange robe, like the one worn by the guy in the magazine. And he was there, talking to these people, and at one point he comes to me. And he says to me, something like, “Go, go. You should go and look her up.” Like encouraging me, like you should do it. I woke up the next morning thinking okay, I’ll do it. It was not like I had a big spiritual experience. It was like, okay, I get it, maybe my subconscious mind was guiding me.
I didn’t have an address, I just went there and started looking, going here and there until I finally found the place. It was an old Spanish style place with a giant wooden door at the entrance, which made it look more like a convent than anything else. I stood there and started thinking. First of all, I didn’t know that she was there, if she sees people, or if she cares to. I know nothing, especially about the formalities of politeness of these things. I did not make it known that I was coming in any way or try to introduce myself.
So I knock and knock and knock and who opens the door, Indra Devi herself. Now, mind you, she lived there with her adopted daughter who ran the place and she had workers. I don’t know why she opened the door herself. She stood there, looked at me, and in her typical very direct sort of way ‒ this is one thing I discovered which I attribute to this Krishnamacharya lineage sort of way, that they all tend to be very direct, at times seemingly critical, but incredibly direct ‒ she looked at me and said basically, “What do you want?”
I said, “Well I came to see you and meet you.” She said, ”Why?” And I said, ”Well I want to learn more yoga.” “Who sent you?” I said, “No one.” But then I decided to lighten the mood and said, “Well, unless you count the dream I had about the Indian guru that said I should come to you.” I said this like, “Ha ha,” you know.
She asked, ”What did he look like?” and I said, “Well he had dark skin and wore an orange robe.” Then she looked at me really serious and she took off inside the house and disappeared, came back and had a picture and asked, ”Is this him?” And I said, “Yeah, that looks like it could be him.” And she just rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders, like someone had just given her a burden, like someone had said ”Do this favor for me,” and she just said “Praise Baba.”
She said come in and she took me back to her puja room. She asked me if he had sung for me and I said that I didn’t remember, but people had been singing in the room (in my dream). She then played some chanting for me. She was very serious about all of this.
Then she laid it out for me, the contract, basically; if she took me on and she’s my teacher, this is what I have to do. You have to do what I tell you to do, and if not, you can go your way. You either do what I say or go. I really don’t have time for anybody, so you have to catch up with me. I don’t wait for anybody. And if I say go, you have to be ready, otherwise you don’t go, you stay. So there were some simple rules, but that was the beginning with her. We had a short but intense introduction. And that was that. And from then on I just tried to catch up and keep up with her.
Six: Do you have any idea how old she was at this time?
Galvez: Sixties, I would say. You have to realize she lived to 102 I believe, so at this point she was middle-aged. [Ed. Note: Indra Devi: May 12, 1899 – April 25, 2002]
Six: And were you surprised at how difficult it was to keep up with her?
Galvez: She had this ability ‒I have not met too many people who have it ‒ she was not a multi-tasker but she had the ability to put all of her concentration on one thing at a time, but that one thing might only last ten or fifteen minutes. So you could talk to her and you knew that she was listening to you, responding to you and giving you direction. And then she would turn on and move on to something totally different, some business thing. So I would watch her do this all day, about 40 different subjects in one day. And she would do that a lot. So she had this kind of intensity, this directness that was interesting to see.
Six: So you attribute that directness to Krishnamacharya?
Galvez: I don’t know. They say he was like that. I can tell you Indra Devi was like that. And especially, Guru Iyengar in his younger days, I met him also when he was in his late fifties or early sixties. And he was very direct, and if you didn’t like it he just said, “Leave.” If you came in late and it wasn’t appropriate, it was like “Leave,” and if you were doing something and you thought it was right or you thought you were trying, he would come by and say, “This is all wrong.” I saw people fall apart completely. You had to see through that. I learned you have to see through that, understand where they were coming from, it wasn’t that they were trying to appease you or pamper you or make you feel better, they were trying to change you at a deep fundamental level. They weren’t trying to make you feel good with what you have right now, or about how you were right now, they were actually going into a much deeper level of change.
Six: So you studied with Indra Devi for a while and then went to Iyengar?
Galvez: Indra Devi started going back to India. Let me just say, this is just my view, it isn’t her view or anyone else’s. But I think Indra Devi went through some stages, like we all do, in her development as a teacher. People I used to talk to that studied with her in the Forties and Fifties used to tell me, when she brought yoga to the West, she brought it to LA, her yoga was very devoid of any spirituality, and was very simple, and I think by design. I think her idea in presenting these teachings to the West was to take away all the Hindu-ness and mystical part. She was the first one to associate Hatha yoga to health and to sell it as a health thing; someone had to make the connection as a healthy living thing. My first thinking was that she started out as a non-spiritual practitioner who eventually evolved into a more spiritual practitioner.
In retrospect I see that she started out a more spiritual practitioner, in many ways like me, but realized that in order to make it more presentable to the West it was necessary to simplify and keep it focused. But then later, in the years that I met her, she was going much more into the spiritual. She was going back into the full program, not just to the physical asana for health, but into the spiritual. So she started going back to India, to see Sai Baba, who she had taken as her guru. One of the things she would say was it was nearly impossible to teach spirituality in the West, because there were basically not enough gurus, no gurus. Her belief was that without gurus, there’s no spirituality, for a simple reason: it’s not just the lack of proper instruction, spirituality requires a person living a life in the way that you get inspired from.
But there’s also the more mystical aspect of that transference of energy that you get from that person, a thing that they’ve acquired in their practice that gets passed onto you. She said there’s not enough gurus, there are no gurus in LA, so let’s not go there. At some point there might be, but right now there are not.
So when she found her guru, who was Sai Baba, I think that turned life in a whole different direction. She became much more spiritual. So within a few years of me meeting her she started going back more often, to India. Then, two things happened. When I wasn’t with her I was studying with Deva Gopur and Pujari in San Diego, and she told me that was fine, they’re really good people. She told me I should go and study with Iyengar, she called him by one of his first names... But it was through that that I got in. It wasn’t like how it is today, where you submit your request and wait 2-3 years. But it was nevertheless a very formal protocol. You had to be recommended by another teacher to go there. For me it was very easy, because I literally had a letter from Indra Devi. I got a letter back, signed by Geeta, Iyengar’s daughter, saying to come to the Ramamani Institute. I thought, “ I have it made.”
I showed up at the Iyengar Institute, first thing they tell me is they have too many people, that they don’t have room, so just leave. And I’m like, “But, but…” and they tell me it doesn’t matter, there’s no room, just leave. I was in shock, and very jet-lagged, so I figured I would just go back to my room and sleep and I would come back the next day and it would be different.
So I came back the next day, very early, and I go in there and they see me coming and they say, “No, we told you, there’s no room.” I tried to see if there was a waiting list and they were like, “What waiting list?” So I left. The third day I came back because I didn’t have any back-up plan. Being there was the plan and I had nothing else to do. This time I decided to not go ask because I figured they would say the same thing. I literally sat outside and they were about to start a class, and here comes Guruji Iyengar from his prayers.
He saw me sitting and said, “Who are you?” and I told him my name, and he asked, “What are you doing here?” and I told him, “I’m sitting here because there’s no room inside for me,” and he asked something like who’s your teacher or who sent you and I told him Indra Devi and he just said, “Come in,” And he shouted some orders and I was in and that was that.
Six: I know you traveled with Indra Devi and were amazed she spoke eleven different languages.
Galvez: She spoke something like a dozen different languages and as far as I could tell she never got them confused. I think all her life she was a foreigner everywhere she was. She was Russian by birth, from a Russian nobility mother and a Swedish father. So in Russia, even though she spoke Russian, she still had this Swedish side. And to the Swedes, she had this Russian side. Then she married a man from Czechoslovakia and they lived in Germany. This is how she learned her languages, through the travels. Traveled through Europe, picked up a couple languages, and eventually ended up in Bombay/Mumbai. This is how she came into contact with yoga, even though she had already developed an interest in classical Indian dance. She was a dancer. It was not Krishnamacharya through whom she first had contact with yoga. It was someone else. It was through the German embassy. Two things come to mind: first she had really beat up her body through dance, and second she had this heart condition. And it was through this person at the embassy that she was introduced to Ayurveda. And then to Krishnamacharya.
Who of course rejected her! She had a lot of things going against her, you know. First, she’s a woman, and, as we all know, women, their bodies are not capable of yoga [laughing]. Secondly, you know this whole argument about the word bossy. Well I can tell you, Indra Devi, was bossy! She was a woman, she was a foreigner, and she was bossy. So she told me, she said, “Krishnamacharya was a very stubborn man, very bright, but very stubborn.” But then she would get this proud, Russian noble aura over her and say, “But I was more stubborn.”
She told me more than once, “Never underestimate the soft power of the feminine. You know why?” And I said no, and she said, “Because it’s not soft at all.” [Laughter.] So the soft power of the feminine, after being rejected a few times, went straight to the top, the Maharaja of Mysore, who was funding Krishnamacharya, who happened to really like her because she was a dancer and had already done one film there, so he really liked her. And people knew Indra Devi and knew she could really put on the charm and you could not resist. And so the Maharaja told Krishnamacharya to take her and he said no and the Maharja said, “I don’t care, take her.” And there it is.
Six: So it sounds like both B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi had an interesting connection of resistance in the beginning with Krishnamacharya.
Galvez: The little that I know, I can tell you it appears to be part of the whole guru-disciple relationship, in that it’s not always a wonderful love affair. It’s marked by a lot of ego clashing and conflicts, which I think is a lot of the process, because the relationship is not there to validate who you are already but it’s to do something else. I think that Krishnamacharya can only be understood from the point of view of his legacy and the teachers he created and the kind of promotion he did of yoga and how he transformed yoga and modernized yoga, then you see how great he was. But if you lived back in the Thirties you could have come out and thought he was a horrible guy.
Six: So when you studied with Iyengar, you’ve talked about watching people drop out...
Galvez: It was intense. If you did their intensives, you had classes in the morning and the evening, they made you work. It wasn’t the intensity of long Vinyasa practice or a heated room where you’re sweating; it was the intensity of having to focus on things, holding a posture, trying things that you hadn’t tried. I remember many days, you go there early, before sunrise, you’re done by 9 AM. After three hours of yoga, going back to my room and collapsing and waking up at noon or 1 o’clock, time to eat and get ready and go back. I remember my first trips to India, people asking did you go here or see the Taj Mahal and I would say I did yoga and stared at the ceiling of my own room.
But there was this transformative quality and I could sense that. And I think that’s what sold both Iyengar and Indra Devi into the practice too. And both of them for a while had the same approach, to focus the practice on the physical part and the curative aspects of it too, rather than the other mystical and spiritual. I think Mr. Iyengar too, at some point, around his sixties, became more of a spiritual teacher. But both of them in their own way had discovered the healing aspects of yoga… Indra Devi, a woman with heart problems who lived to 102, and Iyengar, with all his pulmonary infections and other issues as a child, becoming an accomplished world yoga teacher. Both of them discovered that. So I could feel that, in my body. It seemed so wearing on you, but I could sense the transformation.
Six: It makes sense. I remember we watched that movie Enlighten Up when Iyengar is being interviewed about enlightenment and when would yoga do that, and his response was he practiced for seven years before he even felt better. It makes sense that until you actually resolve your physical pain you can’t even get to some spiritual plane.
Galvez: One thing about Indra Devi that was clear, she knew how to move and work with power people, she was totally in her ambience. But she also could live simply. When she was in India, in the ashram, I stayed there too at Sai Baba’s. Life is really simple, you’re sleeping on the floor, bathing in a bucket and that’s it. She could do that. But she was equally comfortable with governors, philosophers, diplomats, movie stars, and artists. It was that Russian nobility air she had. And that’s why she was loved by all the big egos of the movie stars, because they had not had that kind of a teacher. They had had all the Vivekananda types, the ones that philosophized with them and tried to make them feel guilty for their wasteful lives. That didn’t go well.
Instead, here comes this woman who can come to their parties, and be equally interesting and have as many varied experiences, grown up with servants and nobility, having lived at the palace of the Maharaja. She was in her element. She would tell me that things were really bad those days, people were smoking and eating poorly. So one of her pushes with yoga was to get people to eat better and get rid of the bad habits and she tied it into health and beauty. This was big in that business, because your looks are tied into your money. She had the students, the big names, Gloria Swanson was one of her followers for a long time, Greta Garbo. Some people say that Marilyn Monroe might have practiced yoga, some photos of her she appears to be doing something asana-like. Well I know she did, because Indra Devi gave her private lessons. She had this private spiritual side and Indra Devi gave her some yoga lessons.
Six: When did you decide to teach?
Galvez: I didn’t. After her stay in India she was just ready to be with Sai Baba for the rest of her life. But he had a tendency to tell people to go do things. She connected with a bunch of movie stars from Mexico, she had met some stars from Argentina through this group, and they wanted her to come to Argentina. They eventually bought her a house there. And Sai Baba told her she should go back and teach more in America. So she’s telling me that she’s going to be spending more time in Argentina. She connected me with a psychiatrist in San Diego, Sam Sandweiss, who had written about Sai Baba, and his travels to India, the experiences of a medical doctor with spirituality. I traveled with him once. He’s very good at connecting people.
So she’s telling me how she probably wouldn’t be seeing me as much, as she was going to be in Argentina, unless I come to visit her. She then told me about how Sam knew this woman who led a yoga club at UCSD, but it wasn’t going well. Mataji [Indra Devi] told Sam that I would do it and that in fact I could turn it into a full class. And I’m thinking, “Wait, isn’t anyone going to ask me, when does anyone ask me?” I had taught for her before and assisted with her, she would tell me to get someone started on this, much like I did for you in the teacher training program, and she would come and finish. I had taught her orphans in India when I was there. But it was always to please her.
I remember arguing with her, saying something like I don’t know that I’m ready and she just totally ignored me and we went back to her puja room, the same room as on the first day, and she gave me her mala and blessed me in my work as a yoga teacher. And I’m like “Whoah, I thought we were going to talk about this!” but I realized it was too late. I still sort of complained. I don’t remember what I said exactly but it was something like, “What if no one comes?” But what she said was an expression, like there’s some expressions in India, she simply said, “You will teach 10,000 students.” I shut up. And I already have.
Six: Well, 37 years alone at UCSD! What did you think you were going to do with your life prior to this little endeavor?
Galvez: I thought I was going to be some sort of an engineer in communications or in business, for some corporation. But the little work I did, it was not satisfying; I knew that wasn’t for me.
Six: Is there one thing that you’ve taken from your experiences with Indra Devi and Iyengar? What’s something that you keep in your heart about them?
Galvez: From Indra Devi, the biggest, greatest teaching is the act of surrendering. As active as she was, as bossy as she was, she was totally given to her yoga, she had totally given herself to that path, a total surrendering, in a way that you only read about. That was her calling. In many ways, she was like the Mother Theresa of yoga, the way she could be devoted, the way she was focused on a cause, the way that very few people could stop her because she simply had the vision and had surrendered to her path, so there was no stopping her. To her there was no other path, there was no other way. So how can you change someone who has that view? I can only aspire to have that kind of strength and conviction.
With Iyengar, what I got from the time that I got to spend at the Institute was the dedication to the practice. I didn’t see it at first. It wasn’t that I didn’t think that he was dedicated, but more the degree that I came to understand, and the love he has for the practice. I got a taste of the real discipline. The real disciple isn’t the pushing it until it hurts, it has to do more with attention, with awareness, being able to focus and stay with it, but in that funny interesting balance that’s mentioned in the Sutras, the discipline versus the softness, the discipline that has to be harmonious, that has to make you aware on a deep level within yourself on a cellular level. The idea that through discipline you can cut through a lot of the obstacles and the illusions and difficulties of life. This very idea, this ancient idea that freedom comes through discipline, that’s Iyengar’s message for sure. But then I think it was also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita of my high school days, it just took me a few years to see it.
Teaching for over 30 years, Arturo Galvez (E-RYT500) is the Director of the two year yoga teacher training program at UC San Diego. He has conducted a series of yoga segments for Univision TV, has produced over 100 web based yoga videos through Hispanopolis.com, co-produced a radio program centered on metaphysical themes and self-help, and has been conducting yoga retreats and seminars in Europe and Hawaii. His next retreat on the Big Island of Hawaii starts September 27th.
Arturo's Yoga teachers include B.K.S Iyengar and Indra Devi, both world renowned masters in the Krichnamacharya tradition. His yoga studies span Latin America, India and the USA.
Arturo was interviewed by Jennie Olson Six, a yoga teacher and Arturo's student in San Diego, and also an early contributor to YTM: http://yogateachermagazine.com/article/177