My Time with Peter

The air is sticky and hot, and as we sit here in this park, discussing the events that brought us all together to Luke’s workshop, sipping coffee, juices, and eating a colourful palette of breads, energy balls and other things I can’t remember, beautifully merged with the cloth tapestry that was serving us as both resting spot and dinning table, someone asks,

– “So, how’s Peter like?”

A shiver hopscotches up my spine. I felt like a stranger sitting there. What was this new language? I didn’t know how to speak.
I search the faces around me, looking for a continuance, as if it was just a very opportune draft of air that made me quiver. Maybe someone felt it to. all eyes are just wondering, some staring at their phones, others waiting for a reply, perhaps not that interested in the outcome.

But there she is. our eyes cross and that glimmer that lights up as if someone just pressed two fingers directly into our pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, triggering a wellspring of self-produced neurochemicals that turn the pursuits and struggles of life into pleasure and make us feel happy when we achieve them.

This biological design is generous, but lays dormant in many, and remembering Peter, or the fact that in a few weeks we will be back together, is enough to create an upward spiral of hormones that had no place to escape but through our eyes in the form of watery tears and blinding shine. That understanding said it all. Screamed it.

“You should come”, I recall, the words from my teacher at the time.

I think she will never know this, or understand it for that matter, but it was the best advice she could ever have given me.
I came to know Peter at a time in my Ashtanga practice where my increased asana progression was accompanied by a growing distaste for the “method” – or at least, as it was being passed on to me at the time. Notwithstanding, I still wanted to do very well. So, I suspended disbelief and went with the process. I tagged Yoga Mala pages with fine-point pens. I dropped back, I jumped back and through, I memorised Anustana’s vinyasa counts, I didn’t do any pranayama. Like a dutiful subject of colonial education, I imbibed and disgorged. In the end, my results were mostly in the average range. I was told that I had done “very well,” as we ashtangis were all “graded” on a very strict curve. But I was appalled. I’d practiced harder than I ever had— all the while denying myself an active social and family life and lugging around brick-thick yoga books and rainbow packs of highlighters in an unflattering worn out backpack that smelled of sweaty clothes and wet paper — just for a bunch of asana? I thought this was unacceptable. I would have to do much better. I was quietly determined.

There is no point in beginning something without ambition. In so many aspects of my life I have foolishly held to that notion, and it has led to more than one fiery crash through the years.
I like to think I was entirely aware of what I was doing back then. That my vision was crystal clear and that I was actually standing there, ready to spit in the face of the ego, even as I reveled in it (for how could I not? As much as I railed against the ropes, I loved the fire). Now, I’m not so sure. It’s easy to ride on instinct in the moment, only to look back later and attribute cogent mindfulness to everything that worked (while ignoring everything that didn’t). Too easy.
Ambition never goes away. It may shuffle off, grumbling, feet dragging, only to slide across into something else – usually the next project. It doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. So, I had set my mind that with Peter, I’d learn to do better.

As we came to our mats, I diligently started by taking surya namaskar A. Strong, tense, the only softness to be seen or felt was the 6mm of rubber underneath me and Paz Munoz practicing at my side. Coming to surya namaskar B, Peter’s mantra sung in the background started to fade, and until then I actually hadn’t payed much attention to it – but as all things come to tell us, it’s in their fading goodbyes that we come to value it. As we stood up to do the chant, I could barely start, lungs depleted, sweat pouring from head to toe. Vande gurunam – I bow to the lotus feet of the guru. All these years and I never found meaning to this verse. You see, I never met the disseminator of Ashtanga Yoga. He was still alive when I came to practice but life had chosen other plans for me (and now I’m thankful for that).
Was my teacher my guru? No. A very good postural yoga teacher nontheless.
So, I was guru-less and god-less, hence bowing to the lotus feet of the gurus was as foreign to me as kapotasana at the time. After the opening mantra ended, I stood there, catching my breath.

“You start slowly now”, Peter said. (this came to be my mantra for the following years, at this point – and he says it every time – it’s when I truly start my practice)

And so I did. Each breath, hand, feet, gaze, slowly placed in its due place. I started to find a softness that never before had been present in my practice. I’m not ashamed to say that it was only after many years of practicing yoga, that I found love within my practice. Peter showed me to be kind to myself, cherish my difficulties and treat my wounds with the time and care they deserve. I stopped fighting. With postures and with myself. Ambition fell. I became irrelevant.

Nothing is predictable, neither the great discoveries nor their unexpected consequences, and this love is the least logical thing of all. So by jumping forward in time from that moment, many Peter encounters later, I still observe and experience first hand the way that he masterfully expresses us his path to personal enlightenment in this practice. The way he makes us find that little box inside, and access it. The skill with which he balances the glory of the Ashtanga method and their continued benefits against the terrible consequences of the human patterns of conditioning and self destruction. Come Saturday, and we all sit there, waiting to drink from the fountain of knowledge and kindness. May I dare to say tradition? I believe so. I seldom see such tradition being passed on nowadays, but if I ever came into contact with the essence of Ashtanga, it was with Peter. While he speaks to us, he speaks to each and every one of us. In almost no case does he simply illustrate the action; his recollections are bold, somewhat carrying some longing for bygone times, even sad at some point. New age Ashtanga is a constantly shifting matrix – dare we not assume it loudly – for a subject that refuses to be pinned down and relegated to the backseat: performance and ascension. Peter guides you skilfully through an ocean of information and “inspirational” and “delightful” workshops and the next big thing by the next big teacher, making you come into contact with that little jewel you keep inside your tinny box, in a journey of self-mastery, true love and the discovery rendering their effect as the most powerful indeed, may you be willing to let it take charge.

I don’t always understand the complexities of why we practice Ashtanga but I feel the great love that motivates all those who do. It is a love of self and each other that turns the dark nights into mornings, and eases the painful recognition of our sometimes feeling of meaningless existence in this cosmic apparatus.
Ashtanga for me is an act of survival and the literal act of placing one foot in front of the other assures me that I am still worth it. Even when all circumstances in life seem bleak. I keep learning with Peter that you just do what you can.

“So, how is he????” She presses.
“Oh!Peter? Well, you definitely should come!”

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