The big red building loomed above all the others. We climbed the concrete stairs to the entrance. At the entrance we turned to the left and headed down into darkness. I now recall he had said something about “downstairs” or “below” but I was having a hard time with the Cuban accent and so I missed or misheard words or doubted my understanding especially if it didn’t make sense. It now made sense, linguistically at least. You know that part of the movie when the scary music begins? It would have begun just about now. We arrived at a large metal gate that he opened revealing a Bauhaus inspired tile floor with different colors and shapes forming an almost moving mosaic. The walls were a distinctive green with white silhouettes of yoga postures, two faded India tourism posters of a tiger and the Taj and a bucket hanging from the ceiling to catch the mid afternoon rains that cool the hot island summer heat. The back wall reads “Yoga Comunitario.” I’m in the only yoga studio in Cienfuegos, Cuba.
Juan Miguel met me at my casa particular in a “taxi,” a horse drawn carriage the most cost-effective and efficient mode of transportation in what people call the most modern city in Cuba. My mom and I planned a mother/daughter trip to Cuba and I had remembered a teacher I know in Guadalajara, Paul King, had taught in Cuba. Maybe, I could teach one day while traveling with my mom. Paul put me in touch with Juan Miguel who he said was serious student with a passionate group of students. He also warned me that they didn’t have much. A week after my initial email, Juan Miguel responded that he would like for me to teach. The significance of Paul’s comment and the delay in response to my emails didn’t really register until I arrived in Cienfuegos.
Sitting on the bay, Juan Miguel told me how yoga had found him. He happened upon some photos of postures while in university. Like many Cubans, he and his pals were all very athletic and found the poses fun and not all that hard to do. Years passed until he came across an article on yoga in Cosmopolitan. Yes, the magazine most known for it’s quizzes like “What’s your Sex Position IQ” Or “Which Disney Prince is your boyfriend most like.” It is through Cosmo that a spark of yoga reached a young man with access to very little else. You might think differently of Cosmo next time in the checkout line. Juan Miguel found a few others with a similar interest and they began practicing together. They joined forces and miraculously received approval to use the basement of a building as a community yoga space. The small band of teachers and their students cleaned out the roaches and grime, painted the walls and laid a floor with bits and of pieces of cast-off tiles found in construction site trash heaps. Yoga Comunitario was built by a community whose walls and floors literally contain their blood, sweat and the occasional summer rains.
Abhijata, the granddaughter of BKS Iyengar said at his memorial that the teachings of Guruji would rain down on every part of the world. It was purely by chance that Juan Miguel was introduced to the teachings of Guruji through Paul. He immediately recognized something distinct from other teachers. He told me he loved the intricate precision and clear instruction. It is by luck or possibly divine hand that Paul started to come to Cuba, once a year for the past three years.
Juan Miguel and the other two teachers offer classes for free after working their full-time jobs. They have visits from Paul, the two or three books that are translated and no online access or ability to download resources as internet is not readily available. They have one another, they have their common passion for yoga and they have their practice.
This group of teachers and students are struck by the fire of yoga. Yoga is not a fad here. Many of the students have to scale obstacles much greater than driving on a highway or a stalled subway in order to arrive at class. Even though classes are free just getting there can be an obstacle. Salaries are extremely low. There is no extra money. When I say no extra money its like when I was told “they don’t have much,” I didn’t get it. It’s really hard to imagine unless you are there. There is nothing extra. But there is interest in yoga, as proven by the 22 people of all ages and walks of life who showed up for the general class. There are no outfits to purchase, there aren’t twenty different kinds of mats. There is just the room they built with their own hands that leaks now and then and a community as diverse as the mosaic floor on which they gather upon to practice yoga together. Never before have I witnessed a sense of inclusion and community. Juan Miguel told me they get together as a group for events and adventures. Prashant Iyengar often speaks of the practice as a community of action or even socialism in action as all the body parts, the breath and the mind work together. As far as I’m concerned, these yogis in Cienfuegos walk through their metal gates a few steps closer to the true experience of yoga before unfurling their mats.
For the teachers, I decided I could offer to teach some organizing principles of the method that they could apply theoretically and experientially in their practice and teaching. I also wanted to give a philosophical context for the precise instruction as well as how to teach in different rhythms so as not to get bogged down in details. I hoped this would give them a guiding structure for their practice and study (svadahya). Because there weren’t any props but the mats under their feet, we looked at the body as a support and used whatever was around. For example, a block from an old wooden beam. Hey, I said, chop up a beam and make more blocks, that’s what Guruji did!
For one older student with severe scoliosis, Juan Miguel saw me throw off the bags of the only chair in the room to help her create more length and space in her spine. We rigged up a belt to the metal gate and voila, we had a rope wall for her to experience some traction. This is place not a stranger to invention. Cars from the 50’s, timeless and intelligent in design continue to run on creativity, invention and determination. Guided by the principles of the Iyengar yoga method, as timeless and well-engineered as a Chevy Bel Air, they can use their innovation and invention to help themselves and students. They won’t need Jade Black mats or Lululemon pants to reach a higher state.
To the general group, a mix of ages and abilities, I decided to teach inversions as Juan Miguel said they didn’t practice them. I focused on all the preparation poses for headstand and then variations of introducing headstand as well as Chatushipidasana and supported (with the hands) Setu Bandha Sarvangasana to prepare them for Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) when one day they have blankets. And because there were some young fit people, they ascended up into Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand) followed by group applause and support. This is a community in every sense of that word. The ability to do achieve what you never thought possible potently affects us and gives us a sense of possibility to overcome internal or external obstacles off the mat.
Fours hours after descending into the basement, the sun dipped and a summer rain began to fall. Drip. Drip. The teachings of BKS Iyengar entered the space of Yoga Comunitario.
If you are interested in helping raise funds to buy yoga props or if you are a certified Iyengar teacher who is traveling to Cuba and can teach in Spanish or travel with someone who can interpret for you, contact me!