with Julie Anderson
Ali Dashti is a Senior teacher who trained at RIMYI and is now based between Switzerland and Pune. Since Covid, he teaches predominantly online and has many international students. Ali has been a regular guest teacher in Scotland since 2000, when Julie Anderson and Carol Nimmo organised his first UK-wide tour. It was a real treat to have him visit again for live classes in June 2022. This interview was recorded prior to this visit and the pictures were taken during it.
On First Visiting the UK
Julie: We have known each other for quite some time. I first went to RIMYI in 1999 with my friend Carol. We were mostly in classes with Geetaji and she demoed everything on Ali. Whenever she was late or needed a break, Ali would cover. We thought: Ali is a great teacher, we are going to bring him to the UK for a big tour. What do you remember about that, Ali?
Ali: When we look back it is many years, but I feel like it was yesterday. I had never taught outside the Institute. When we talked about coming to Edinburgh, I went to Guruji and asked him about making this tour. He gave his blessing, Geetaji too. Even today, teachers who work [at RIMYI] have to get permission.
I came from Pune but my luggage didn’t! I was teaching in Manchester, so Jeanne Maslen helped me. Her husband lent me shorts and I jumped in to teach the class. I am very thankful to her; God rest her soul. So, I started teaching in the big hall, more than 100 people, and when you spoke it used to echo. In those days in Pune, we did not use a microphone. I had suggested that we should, but Geetaji had a strong voice. I would raise my voice and Geeta would say, “Your voice is not good, you have to have a voice,” so I started yelling. This yelling I took to Manchester. The students were terrified. Then one lady came to me and said, “Please don’t shout at me!” It opened my eyes that actually there was no Pune background traffic, no horns in the background.
I taught there for the weekend, staying with Patricia. I was honoured that she gave a room [to me] that Guruji had stayed in too. We had a big dinner with all the Senior teachers of the country. That was very beautiful.
I toured the whole country. I took buses, stayed with different people. It was my first time in the UK, in Europe. I went to Edinburgh and Newcastle. I finished in Maida Vale. I went from Nottingham to Glasgow, then to you. In those days there were no websites or such things, it was all phone calls.
The experience was a big one for me and it really changed me. Teaching in Pune, you are teaching Guruji’s students. Doing this UK tour, I was out of the shade of the Guru. Indian gurus, poets or philosophers refer to the shade or umbrella of the teacher. I realised in the West, they used the term ‘sunlight’ for the Guru, rather than shade. When I wasn’t in the sunlight or umbrella of Guruji, then people were coming to me! My tour in England really had such an impact. I don’t think I have learnt so much from any other trip, or done a trip like it since.
Julie: When and how did you start at RIMYI?
Ali: I started in 1986 and I was injured. I was doing martial arts, teaching and practising. It’s a fast sport and I had torn the ligament in my shoulder and had surgery due. My friend encouraged me to attend one of Guruji’s medical classes to get a second opinion before my operation, so I went. My arm was in a sling and I couldn’t move it. Guruji looked at me and said, “Remove this!” about my sling, “Go and hold the ropes”. So I held the ropes. “Go forward”. And he came behind me and kicked one leg and I fell forward out of the ropes. “What is this young man, you are strong but you can’t hold the rope?” I stayed for the class and at the end left thinking I would never return.
My shoulder had been so painful that I had not slept well for many nights. I had taken painkillers but they hadn’t helped. However, that night I slept very deeply. I got up and called my friend, “How do I go back?” I felt something, it was really feeling good. This was Friday morning and I returned to the Institute on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I went again on Saturday morning and attended Geetaji’s class. After the class, I went for a practice and Guruji saw me. He said, “You’ve come back!” I think he knew I wasn’t planning on coming back. That was the insight of Guruji. “Now you do the rope again, by yourself!” That’s how my yoga study started and I have never looked back.
Julie: You continued to be close to Guruji?
Ali: I had a martial arts background where my teachers were rough. Guruji was not like this. Many. people were scared of him, but I did not feel scared. He helped me; he had a soft touch. The people that have been touched by Guruji will know he had such a beautiful touch. He also had a very nice smell, the perfume of his body. He did not use any deodorant. He used to put on oil, ghee sometimes with sandalwood. He would smell very nice.
Because I went there with an injury, he always used to help me. In the beginning he was very soft, even though he pushed me. I learned from him that you need to do something, you can’t just pity yourself. Since I have had all these bad gurus in the past, I felt very comfortable with him. I used to always sit near him. If any functions were on, I would always be there, I would help. I would be there doing my own practice and would be like an assistant.
In the Institute, even today, there is so much work, it’s really 24/7. Back then, every month there was a group, English, German, French, Australian, American, that used to come. One lady was making a big mess of Supta Pädänguṣṭäsana and Guruji was standing next to her. I knew enough to see that she was going to get a beating, so I jumped in and helped her with the rope. I looked at Guruji and thought he was going to say, “Bravo”, but he said, “You are so selfish.” I said, “What? I tried to help her.” He said, “You get better and you just want to do yoga for yourself.” This was around two and half years since my injury. “I have taught you all this, you know exactly what needs to be done. You are selfishly just practising for yourself and you are not sharing your knowledge with others.” It gave me goosebumps. This was his way of giving direction to start helping others.
On Becoming a Teacher
Ali: I had been away on a trip to Goa. When I returned to the Institute, Geeta was sitting on her own, in her room at the Institute. She said, “Ali, go and teach my class.” I said, “What shall I teach?” “Have you practised today?” [she asked.] “What did you practise?” I began to tell her but she said, “Don’t tell me. Go and teach the class what you did this morning”. It was already six o’clock. I sat on the platform. Geeta was punctual so people were ready and getting a little restless. Everyone knows I am working around the Institute at this time; I have been around a long time and sometimes taught the beginners’ class but never Geetaji’s class. I said, “Everyone, sit straight and fold your palms. Geeta is not coming today. I am taking the class.” Everyone is sitting there with eyes closed but my Indian friends are looking at me aghast thinking, this is not a good joke, please come down, Geeta will appear any moment! So I taught the class. That’s how I started.
On Zoom and Mentorship
Julie: Last year, Abhijata asked you to do mentoring. You are now an international teacher; your students are largely international and you are mentoring online.
Ali: One good outcome after all this hardship for the whole world, for me and other yoga teachers, is Zoom. Previously, I taught students around the world. Some places I visited regularly, especially as I was now living in Switzerland. Europe was easy to do weekend workshops..
When the pandemic started, it was one of students in Bern that told me about Zoom. I knew nothing about it but she told me what to do. I watched all the ‘How to do Zoom video meetings’ on YouTube in one day and my son helped me set up the class online for my Bern students. Then the word spread. Now, I have several students from all around the world.
During the pandemic, I went to India and spoke to Abhijata. I had never done teacher training in my life I was just teaching. Now I was informed about this new rule, mentorship, laid out in December 2019, and knew the system very well. The Institute then started with Zoom. As they had many students interested in becoming teachers, Abhijata asked if I would be interested in helping with mentoring. Now with the blessing of Prashant and Abhijata, I am offering mentoring. I think I am the last Senior teacher [to start] doing mentorship. Among all my colleagues, since 1986, I am the last to start. Many are already established yoga teacher trainers, but I started just recently. Let’s see how it goes!
Julie: Very well by all accounts! How do you think you have matured as a teacher?
Ali: I am still not mature. There are still a lot of things to learn. I think you cannot say, “I know everything”. Practice sessions with Guruji were like a laboratory or a garage. He would experiment on something, a chair, a belt, a brick or some new props he would create, after seeing people’s problems and he would use it in his own practice. He was always about improvement. He never fixed his rules. Guruji, Geetaji, Prashant, they were always changing and upgrading the system, for all the levels.
Today all the Senior teachers are getting old, myself included. So, we have to change our practice. We can’t do the things we did 20 years ago, like in 2000 when I came to the UK. I am also coming to Edinburgh and it’s been two years since my last visit already. I can’t do the same things and be expecting everyone to keep your brick like this or touch your hands to the ground. We have to evolve around our health and our practice.
I won’t say I have understood everything; there are many things to be learnt and discover. I share my knowledge and I am ready for any kind of feedback or criticism. It’s like the lady I mentioned at the start of our conversation who said, “Don’t shout at me.” It’s eye-opening for me. I don’t have to do it this way just because I did it in Pune.
Julie: You have to have a depth of knowledge and understanding to be creative on the spot. That is what I think has matured for you over the years, about your teaching.
Ali: Prashantji always said that. When he lost his arm in the horrible accident he changed a lot. He always said, and I quote him, “If you are not flexible in your body, you have to be flexible in your mind”.
Julie: Creative thinking, responding to what you see…
Ali: …And not to be fixed on one thing, one way in time. That is the one thing after 22 years of travelling that saddens me when somebody says, “There is only one way of using the brick, the belt or the chair”. This is not Guruji, how he taught or what he wished for. We can have many ways, many possibilities and there are many more to come. We have all the props in the cupboard ready. When I started, there were already students that were aged, so I know lots of tricks to help pass this age and stage, peacefully and in good health.
Julie: Thank you very much for this, Ali. Namaskar.
Ali: God bless you, Julie, and God bless those reading this interview. Stay safe and keep your practice as much as you can. Thank you!
Julie Anderson is a Level 3 teacher, Mentor and Assessor who has visited Pune regularly since 1999. She is currently based in north east Fife where she runs a small studio, Yoga on Tay.
With thanks to East of Scotland Iyengar Yoga for funding the event photographer (esiy.co.uk)
Published in IYN Autumn 2022