A myriad of stars punctured the black sky. The shine of the stars was reflected in the eyes of my three friends sitting in front of me, our silence occasionally interrupted by a distant warning horn from a riverboat. I was sitting on a mountaintop in the twilight of Siberian summer.
After a few minutes of silence: “Let your whole body relax where it is. Take another long breath.” I observed myself uttering something along those lines. “Close your eyes, and imagine that your whole body is made out of brilliant light. Let every breath you take bring that light inside your body…”
The year was 1988. I was twelve. It was a typical summer night in Siberia, where I spent my childhood. I had no formal meditation training. Yet I practiced and offered informal meditation instruction since I was about ten.
Despite living in Soviet Russia, where religious and spiritual beliefs were taboo at the time, my parents practiced yoga, Tai-Chi, studied Eastern philosophy, followed a healthy diet, and observed other practices considered eccentric in that culture. I remember my father fasting for days on water on a regular monthly basis, making Kombucha tea and Rejuvelac drink at home, studying Qi Gong breathing exercises, and running to a hole in the ice in the Yenisey river to dump a bucket of freezing water over his head in the middle of Siberian winter as our neighbors looked on in bewilderment and disbelief. Even as a child, I knew these lifestyle practices were not typical, and they fascinated me, although it would take me a while to integrate yoga into my own lifestyle as an adult.
This book is a collection of writings, stories, and insights from my practice of yoga. A few of these stories have been inspired by those distant days of learning and meditating about the nature of the universe in Siberia. Life was slower-paced and less hurried there. It was easier to pause and connect to the all-pervading Universal Consciousness with little distraction and far away from the rest of the world.
The neighborhoods in my home city, Krasnoyarsk, stretch along the Yenisey river, one of the largest rivers in Russia. The Sayan mountains surrounding the city are visible in every direction. I remember running away from my gymnastics class one afternoon with a couple of friends. We were about ten or eleven years old, and not fond of our instructor who used to force-stretch us into various split positions.
On this day, we conspired to skip the class and do something fun outside. “How about heading into the mountains,” I suggested and pointed to the closest range of bluish mountain silhouettes. We walked through the city streets, neighborhood after neighborhood, for almost an hour. There was no traffic on the roads in those days. Few people owned cars in Soviet Russia. The mountains did not seem to get any closer. With their view being our only compass, we were getting into unknown territory. Starting to feel uneasy and lost, we decided to turn back. Perhaps, we should take a bus next time, we decided. Luckily, we found our way back. But we had fun along the way discussing what we could possibly discover in the mountains, what trees we would climb, and if we would see a brown bear.
Although we did not reach our destination that day, the river and the mountains had always been the draw for people to spend time in nature. We would take a bus, or a river tram, up or down the river to a remote village for fishing, swimming, hiking, cave-climbing, and meditating in the woods. My parents headed into the woods almost every weekend.
My father belonged to an underground martial arts club which was operated by his close friend from the Army. They served in the Soviet Army together on the border of Russia and Japan patrolling the numerous coastal islands, a place of high tension between the two countries, each claiming their ownership over the highly coveted fishing territories. My father’s friend was a martial arts expert, and was responsible for providing the hand-to-hand combat training to Russian soldiers. Growing up, I heard many stories about their army experiences, which included dealing with bad weather, bad generals, bad food, and innumerable conflicts and altercations with the Japanese soldiers and their staged ‘peaceful’ combat matches. The Russians would usually lose. But my father’s friend never lost a single match.
Once back in the city, the friend found a space for a martial arts gym. The operation had to be kept secret because private enterprises were banned by the communist state. However, many military and police officers became members of the club, to practice and connect with like-minded people, all while maintaining the façade of a regular apartment. My father taught a yoga class there twice a week. It was very informal and not a flow class as most classes in America these days. Instead, it was a workshop-style class with detailed explanations of breathing and energy movement within each pose, often followed by a discussion after each pose. Many yoga poses were often practiced multiple times to notice and feel their different aspects and arising sensations.
I visited the club many times, but never actually participated in a full yoga class. Instead, I would take the Kung Fu and Qi Gong classes taught by our family’s friend, or else hang out in the weights room climbing a rock-climbing wall, throwing Ninja stars at a darts target, or doing handstands.
The most impressive aspect of the club was the friendly atmosphere and a strong sense of community. It seemed that even such taboo subjects as religion and spirituality were open to discussion among the members. There was tremendous interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality and simultaneously a very limited access to any spiritual literature and teachings. I remember leafing through a bunch of Hungarian books on yoga that somehow my father got his hands on. There was always time for meditation after each class, followed by discussion about the nature of consciousness and our life’s purpose. Often, the meditation sessions were lead by my father or other experienced practitioners. This is where I got my idea for it and developed my early thirst for spiritual practices.
Despite being steeped in that early exposure to yoga, this book includes my more recent inquiries and observations inspired by various teachers and personal meditations while living in America. In 2000, I wandered the streets of New York City and stumbled upon Integral Yoga Institute on 13th Street near Greenwich Village. At the time, I was searching for a good path in life, feeling lost, and making a concerted effort to succeed as an actor in New York, on stage and in film. Integral Yoga Institute felt like home, instantly familiar, and reminiscent of my early experiences at the club in Russia.
I met Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, and, impressed with Swamiji’s depth of spirit, authenticity, sense of humor, and ability to communicate complex spiritual truths in a simple disarming way, spent the next several years studying yoga with the help of his senior instructors at the Institute. I started teaching yoga classes in 2002 and made it my practice to share spiritual insights and inspiring stories in my yoga classes.
Many stories and insights in this book have been written as yoga class themes, and therefore may feel conversational or even instructional. Often, I would write down an inspiring thought on a piece of paper, or jot down a few lines on a napkin for reference right before teaching a class. I would write the way I intended to speak to my students. The stories are intended to ‘stop the world’ in the words of Carlos Castaneda – to notice the underlying reality beneath the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our minds, to make us pause, ponder, and wonder, and to seek wisdom in the smallest and simplest things. I recommend not rushing through the pages, but sitting with each story for a moment. It may evoke a sense of recognition or spark a new take on an existing perspective.
The stories are arranged in a particular order to build upon one another, like threads of a tapestry, complementing each other and ultimately making up a single but multi-faceted whole. This whole is the understanding of yoga: what it is as a philosophy, as a science, and as a practice.
The reader may be familiar with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a comprehensive and definitive guide on yoga. Threads of Light is by no means a representation or interpretation of the Sutras. Some entries in this collection of stories may correlate and resemble the Sutras. However, it is not my intent to reproduce the Sutras in a different light or see them in a different perspective. The Yoga Sutras are a work of art of a supremely clear-minded yogi, and, in my opinion, cannot be replicated, but only elucidated and contemplated upon, as many existing books of commentaries attempt to do. Instead, the stories in this book are sparks of insight, observations, and small kernels of wisdom from various spiritual teachings. My hope is that the reader will gain a broader understanding of yoga for personal development and of the role of yoga in our culture.