Remo Gramigna is an Italian-born PhD student of Semiotics at the University of Tartu.
My bike is still there faithfully waiting for me. I put my feet on the pedals and here begins my daily route that leads me from Kalevi Street number 37 to the crossroad with Riia Street. Here I encounter the first traffic light and its redness asks me to wait. I stop for a while. I look around. It’s quiet and peaceful. I wait for the green, then I go down the hill where the busy traffic of Riia Street starts. I avoid the cars and move onto the sidewalk where I come across the fist passer-by. It’s still dark outside. It’s a little chilly and it’s starting to rain. I should be in a grumpy mood, for this plumbeous sky is unbearable and this awful rain has now even started caressing my face with wet drops.
I keep biking. I turn to the left. The light is green now, and I’m already approaching Küüni Street. I speed up just a little bit, taking advantage of Riia’s slope. I go straight up to Raekoja Plats. Oh! I just enjoy this exact moment. The town is still sleepy. It’s still looking to awake. Only a few people are running around and I bet some of them are wondering where the hell that smile on my face is coming from. They must think I’m still drunk from the night before. Meanwhile, I continue cycling while the few people I meet run away.
I cross the ‘Kaarsild’ bridge. I watch the water flowing slowly while I pass by. My pedalling through the city is fluid. The next traffic light is waiting for me. I leave the city centre behind and I go home.
The path that leads me from Kalevi Street to the place I live is one of the best moments of the day. Here I give up the fast life. While I bike my spirit is calm. It is the moment in which I start realising that the world goes too fast out there and that it does not make any sense to follow this frantic pace but I have to start breathing. And slow down. Yes, slow down. When you slow down then you’ll see how fast and frantically this world moves around us.
This is the first rule of the ‘club’ I belong to. The second rule of this club is: ‘breathe’. And the third rule you can now figure out yourself.
‘To breathe’ (hingama) is most probably the first Estonian verb that I learned. “Hinga sisse, hinga välja”, “hinga sisse, hinga välja” the teacher repeated almost as in a mantra. Most probably I was the only foreigner there. I looked around trying to make sense of these and other foreign expressions and guess what the meaning could have been. Then I realized that people were breathing in and breathing out slowly and deeply while doing some weird exercises and postures. Yes, this was the rhythm, the sound, and the pace to follow. The tuning fork that was joining these human beings together: breath.
Strange is life. In the coldest place I have lived so far I met a practice born in the warmth of India. For however strange it might sound, Tartu led me to discover yoga. Would you believe that? Although it’s cold and dark, and of course it will snow at some point as it always does up here, Tartu is a city that breathes. It breathes and sweats. There is a whole underground world in Karlova that is made of breaths, sweat, and pain.
I must admit I was one of the most sceptical persons about these types of training, such as Ashtanga yoga. What’s all this about? How is it possible to stretch when you’re cold? Does it really work? My ignorance led me to disregard yoga as a useless practice and consider it as utter bullshit. I was talking about a book I had actually never read.
Let us return to my first practice now, almost two years ago. The teacher started to talk, explained, and gave indications as to what to do and how. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what she was saying, so I fell into the usual fallacy of beginners: I started looking around and watching the other people in order to understand what to do. This was a terrible mistake, for I started to compare myself with others. I suddenly realised an unpleasant truth: I had not trained for years. And in that precise moment I was paying for all the time I had waited for such a moment. Needless to say, it was a costly price that I had to pay for my prolonged inactivity. Only much later I discovered the meaning of another sentence often repeated by the yoga teacher: “Vaata oma nina” (watch your nose). Forget about the rest. Focus on what you are doing.
The end of the lesson was something to remember. It was maybe the most interesting part of the whole training, not only because I was exhausted and my body was hurting everywhere, but because the training ended with a sort of choral relaxation, in which, once again, our diapason was the breath. All the trainees were just lying down on their backs covered by a warm blanket, with arms and legs spread. Incomprehensible words and sentences were floating in the room. People’s breaths almost disappeared. I forgot about my own legs. About my pain and sweat. Then the teacher said: “Don’t think, just breathe”. This was ‘Achilles last stand’, the last relaxation pose.
The very last pose of the whole yoga sequence. The moment in which you close your eyes, lie down on the ground and rest. Sometimes while doing this pose I felt like a trunk of a tree chopped off from all the rest. Sometimes I wondered what all the others thought or felt during this same time, when the breathing slows down and the room goes silent. Many different lives and stories that for a minute or two are part of a common breathing humanity. I wonder what their worries, fears, or dreams are. What are they thinking when they do not think?
For me Savasana is the moment in which I literally ‘reset’ my own existence. This way yoga is like dying every day and being born again.
As in every other discipline, practice is fundamental. “Practise every day and everything will come”, or “practise and all is coming” states one of the mottoes of yoga philosophy. So it says and so I did. From that very moment I started to train on a regular basis. Believe it or not, actually, even the spring finally arrived. Day by day, I started to reconsider my own lifestyle and this was a huge change, a tiny revolution. I started to make different choices and question my own habits.
The role of art is to make a change in the ordinary perception of life. For the Russian Formalist, for instance, the role of art was to make the already known unfamiliar. They would call it ‘estrangement’ or ‘defamiliarisation’: to make the familiar unfamiliar. Victor Shklovsky once wrote: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”. I believe that this effect can be achieved also by other means and in other ways. One of them is through daily yoga practice.
It’s a risky business trying to describe what it’s like to do yoga without sounding arrogant, mystical, egocentric, hippie, bohemian or simply ‘cool’. It’s risky because this is exactly what yoga is not likely to be. The only thing I can say then is this: try it first if you want to, so that you can judge it yourself. No one will tell you what it is like to be doing yoga but you can just discover it yourself in case one day you move towards this direction.
I can only talk about my own personal experience. Since this is happening in Tartu, maybe it makes sense to talk about it by sharing my thoughts with you. At the end of the day, what really matters is you and what makes you feel good.
Ego is a tricky beast. When you find something enjoyable your ego pushes you in order to have more of this something that looks beneficial or simply makes you feel good. Ego wants more and more of it. This can happen with anything, even with the practice yourself; namely, when you start being so attached to your own practice that you can’t live without it. Obviously, this is something abnormal, for one thing we should always bear in mind is that sooner or later, everything will reach an end. Punkt.
Attachment, therefore, can even be counterproductive. Let something go, especially when you are attached to it; it’s one of the most difficult tasks mankind has constantly to face. Thus, non-attachment is what yoga is really about.
At this point I always think of that scene from “Fight Club” in which Tyler Durden says: “It’s only after we have lost everything that we are able to do anything”. You all remember this scene, right? Tyler is making a chemical burn on Jack’s hand, his alter-ego, when he says: “You can go to the sink and run water over your hand. Look at me. Or you can use vinegar to neutralise the burn, but first you have to give up. First, you have to know that someday, you are going to die. Until you know that, you will be useless”. For me, yoga is a bit like that. It follows the same logic.
Ashtanga yoga workshops in Tartu
Non-attachment. This and other topics were discussed during the last workshop held a month ago in Tartu by Jocke Salokorpi. The latter, who defines himself as a dedicated ‘yoga student’, started his practice under the guidance of Lino Miele. Jocke is very active in promoting the practice of Ashtanga in Estonia and runs the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute based in Tallinn. He frequently comes to Tartu to share his experience.
One of his students, Ülle Põldmaa, decided to follow his teachings and started her own Ashtanga yoga school in Tartu. Her first encounter with yoga was during her pregnancy in 2006. Then in 2007 she started practising Ashtanga yoga. She confessed that she was very surprised to see how dedicated and focused everyone was and that the exercises were so tough. She found it unbelievable that everyone knew what to do, or at least so it seemed to her. Her life has changed since then and yoga is for her an instrument to achieve such a change. Ülle became my teacher, and I want to thank her for all the effort she has put into such an enterprise.
I forgot to mention perhaps the most important thing. It is said that yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice. It’s time for me to leave. I have probably already said too much.
But before that I want to share with you my last thought. As I said before, yoga served to question my own habits. I never imagined waking up before my neighbours and going out while it’s still dark outside, no matter if it rains or snows. I never imagined starting my day by sweating for an hour or so, breathing deeply, and only after that to start thinking about the rest. I used to see only one thing after waking up, which was a cup of hot black coffee. I’m Italian and you all know that for us coffee is like a religion. Now, when I’m riding a bike through the empty streets of Tartu I follow a different path. This is when yoga became my morning cup of coffee.