by Gingi Lee
There is a photograph of a Karate Master prominently hanging in the reception area of the Shala Yoga Centre in London. He is garbed in traditional Karate clothing (Gi). He is in a fighting stance wielding an Okinawan martial art weapon that is shaped like an old fashioned fishing oar. He looks like he means business, and the expression on his face is that of a man who could easily kill another human being. He is ready to take your head from your shoulders.
You might think this is a strange image to be displayed in a place for further practices of loving kindness, ahimsa (non violence), and yoga in general. In many ways this man is responsible for the whole centre and how I got here in the first place. He’s my Father, and getting here was in many ways taking a different path from him, finding myself and beginning to understand the power of surrendering instead of fighting.
I look at the picture everyday when I come to teach yoga. I look into those eyes and see myself. We are our parents in so many ways; I was becoming my Father yet it was the decision to go a different path that brought me to yoga and away from being a warrior
Three of my uncles; my Father’s brothers, all were serious karate men. It’s a family thing. When I was twelve I began to train with my Father’s Master in San Francisco. Later when I travelled to Paris I continued to train with my “Uncle” Benny, my Fathers closest friend who was a filipino street fighter. He taught me hand-to-hand combat. A favourite weapon of his was a simple ballpoint ben. Then the really intensive training started with my Father in Paris. The training took over my life as well as my first year at Art School. I did very little painting but a great deal of training. I learned Karate, Tai Chi and a host of weapons. Pretty much all I did for the next few years was train. Then I started teaching at the karate schools and participating in fighting contests. The training was very hard and the fighting was pretty much full contact. I loved it. It gave me self-confidence that I lacked as a small child. I saw that I could be skilled at something, even be a master at something. For the most part of my childhood I had suffered from a lack of self worth and underachieving, partly due to dyslexia and being somewhat a loner. I now relished the fight, I was assured with my skill and I was always keyed up ready for the attack. It was a great feeling. I was gaining a respect and a reputation as a force to be reckoned with, with other fighters in the club. With each passing day, I got stronger, more fearless, and I relished combat.
It was my Fathers wish that I followed in his footsteps, take over his Schools and continue the traditions of the Martial Arts in our family. I realised this. I knew that I had a possible future. I sure wasn’t creating any master paintings at Art school. I was achieving high scores in competition level fighting tournaments, I was 3rd degree black belt by then, and it seemed only natural that I had found my way in life.
The fighting bouts were increasing becoming more violent. It wasn’t uncommon for students to break ribs, noses, fingers. I was kicked so hard in the groin that I went unconscious with pain during one fight. Because I was the Master’s son other black belts throughout the karate schools had me marked as a target. I was the Sensei’s son and I was the one to test your skills at every chance. This I came to realise would never go away. I would always have to prove myself. At twenty-five I was burning out quickly. The training was making me aggressive, self-introverted and I realised I would always be in the shadow of my Father. I was feeling trapped. I needed a break and the chance appeared with a chance to teach Tai Chi at an acting school in London.
This was the late 1980’s. The London of punks, squats and riots in Brixton. It was electrifying and I fell in love with London. I was feeling good being away from all the formality of the Martial Arts, the stern decline and I realised how lonely I had been in Paris. And teaching Tai Chi with it’s emphasis on slow, soft, graceful movements felt natural. I didn’t know if I really wanted a future teaching with my Father. I needed space to find myself. It was very disappointing for him l knew but I had such mixed feelings about going back to train and following in his footsteps.
I don’t know how the notion of going to India got in my head, I really knew very little about that country. It was a mystery. I suppose that was the reason, and a great adventure was very appealing. I suppose I was escaping, running away from life. There wasn’t a finite plan for the future. I was feeling lost. Should I go back to Art School? And what about all the time I had put into training with my Father? I thought I could at least do some art as I travelled to build up a portfolio if I decided to go back to art school, in any event I could use my skills to teach Tai Chi to continue my travels.
I arrived in India in 1989. It was mind-blowing. It turned me upside down. Once I built up the courage to leave my first guest house in Paharganj, New Delhi (I was so scared I stayed in the hotel for two weeks, before venturing out). What I found was a country that was beautiful and ugly at the same time, frantic, filling the senses at every turn, full of surprises, and completely soulful. I was in love with India. I didn’t know anything about the culture, geography, religion but I felt that India was going to teach me. The Guru can be a whole country and people I have found. My education began. Mother India enveloped me in her arms!
I travelled a great deal throughout India by rail and by bus. When I found somewhere that I liked, I stopped there and stayed put soaking up the environment, teaching Tai Chi , sketching in my drawing book, reading about India. I was filling myself with India, I was happy, carefree and I found the roof top Tai Chi lessons I was giving were a hit with the travelling community. It was after teaching a class at Sunset one evening in Pushkar, Rajasthan that a Student came up to me and informed me that a Yoga Swami wanted to meet me. I was taken aback. I did not know anything about yoga and to be summoned by a yoga master was pretty novel to me. I was intrigued and I went as instructed the next morning.
What I encountered there in the mist of the Rajasthani Tar dessert early the next morning, can almost be taken straight out of a romantic novel. Inside a very simple mud dung built hut, sat crossed legged on the ground a bearded man, a coal earthenware fire pit smouldering in front of him. He beckoned me to join him. He spoke very little English. It was his eyes that shone so bright that first struck me. He eluded warmth, calmness and wisdom. Looking back I almost laugh at how clichéd the picture is, but it’s true and I was enthralled. We did not speak very much that first meeting but I came back the next morning, and the following morning, and spent the next three months going back to him early in the morning. In fact I went back over several consecutive years to that mud hut to learn from him. At first we did no yoga postures – that came much later. Most of the time was a Q and A, in which I asked him questions. Most were about India’s customs, religion, and a great deal about philosophy. His English wasn’t great but he filled me with his wisdom. Could you be a warrior and still be peaceful? I remember asking him early on. He told me that the real fight was in surrender; to watch the breath, to be able to forgive. It was extraordinary. I realised that yoga was my path. The fighting stopped both outside and inside my head. Swami Shyam was the first yoga master to teach me postures, pranayama, meditation and Kriya.
I spent the next few years traveling back to sit with Swami Shyam. I also went on a pilgrimage around India searching out yogis, holy men, and visiting ashrams. The more I learned, the more questions I had. I spent time sitting along banks of rivers or in caves with babas (wise men). Some I found completely mad in their charas (hashish) haze, a few that I met seemed genuine and I learned some interesting practices from them. The more I searched the less I realised I knew about yoga. I was looking for something, but didn’t know what it was. The fire was ignited and was burning strong but I knew that something was out there waiting for me.
Then I found Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. It was a revelation to me. Interestingly though, it was not from a local, but from a young Australian man I met travelling from Mysore, where he had learned the yoga from Pattabhi Jois. I was teaching Tai Chi in Hampi when I met Simon the Aussie. I had not seen him practice. He said that he wanted to learn Tai chi and would I trade a few lessons with him. Once I experienced the flowing breath, synchronised to postures, the grace and strength I was instantly drawn to Ashtanga yoga. I knew that this was what I was looking for. Simon spent all the time teaching me the standing postures (I knew the postures but not the order). We had no time for the Tai Chi. The trade wasn’t fair, but Simon was very gracious and generously taught his hungry student.
The journey led me back to London. I was practising the Standing Posture of Ashtanga and I thought I was fairly advanced in my asana practice, but then I heard there was much more. There was a group of sitting posture that I knew about, but then I heard about the advanced series. I was only at the start of my journey. I had to find a teacher, but there was no one teaching in London. I didn't know anyone else doing this sort of yoga, the fact was that not many people were practising in those days. I then heard about Derek Ireland. In 1993, I went to a workshop he was giving in London. My first impression of him was ‘this guy can’t be a yoga teacher!” He seemed to me full of himself strutting around the room in designer Armani underwear, bronzed, blonde flowing mane of hair. Larger than life. More rock star than yoga teacher. I hesitated. Most of my previous encounters of yoga masters had been very different to this. I was about to turn around a walk down the staircase, but then I heard him laugh. It was a deep wonderful intoxicating laugh and that lured me back and I rolled out my mat.
This was the start of my time with Derek. I put my mat down with him for the years to come. Following him around the world. I moved to Crete, Greece to work at the Practice Place. The yoga centre that Derek and his partner Radha Warre set up. It was the only place in Europe where you could learn yoga. Derek was an incredible presence, a taskmaster like no other, who had you crying with laughter even while in the most gruelling yoga postures. His ethos was to go to the edge (and further) in the postures. As students of Derek and Radha we worked hard. We called it boot camp and we wanted to please. There was a group of us doing the third series, the most acrobatic yoga, handstands and the like which Derek had shown us. I was determined to get that handstand! It was bonkers and this is where I made the friendships of Hamish Hendry and John Scott. It was exciting and Derek and Radha were showing us that a yoga lifestyle was possible. I realised that I wanted to teach yoga. It burned inside of me. I wanted to share this incredible practice. It was pure joy.
I opened the Sangam yoga centre in 1998 with the intention of getting Derek to teach and run the school but with great sadness learned that he was diagnosed with cancer and would not live to see the success of the centre. The centre was one of the first dedicated yoga schools in London. It has grown ever since and is now renamed the Shala Yoga Centre. It has grown now into a multi-disciplinary yoga centre offering much more than it’s humble beginning with just me turning up to teach yoga.
Derek Ireland’s photo is to the right of the photo of my Father in the studio. In many ways they were so similar. It’s funny how life takes you where you need to be. Looking back at that time, realising that when I left my Father and his martial arts teaching, I was in fact continuing his teachings but finding yoga, and independence. I’m a different type of warrior than my Father. I continue to learn. I continue trying to surrender. I am grateful for the journey.
I am very humbled to be able to share the teachings of yoga to the next generations. The yoga has exploded into Western culture and now the west seems to be leading the way in propagating the teachings of yoga in new and innovative ways. Yogais a living tradition, which grows with the times and these teachers have been taking it .
For my part the yoga is always evolving and I find myself slowing down, when once I was is such a hurry to find yoga. The original teachings that I learned all those years ago sitting with Shyam yogi have been great lessons. The Yamas and Niyamas are the start of the eight limbs of yoga and I must say that I’ve been stuck here for quite a long time. It was the first introduction to yoga, and I continue to try and live and teach from these ethics. I have become softer. I don’t push into the deepest edge of yoga postures any more. As the decades move on I spend a great deal of time letting go of postures that I can no longer do. It’s a lovely relationship to be able to let go. As one very wise person said, the postures don’t belong to us. I have become better at communicating to beginners of yoga, inspiring them to not only to start, but to continue yoga as a way of life. To me the best thing a teacher can do is ignite that passion. The life is yoga.