Gulnaaz Dashti is an Indian teacher who studied and taught with the Iyengar family at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute in Pune, India. She now teaches outside the Institute in Pune and travels the world teaching workshops. Earlier this year she taught a workshop at the Marrickville Yoga Centre. Tiffany Lee-Shoy is a teacher trainee at The Yoga Nook. This is her account of her experience at the workshop.
“Look at your body. How will you know if you don’t look?” probed Gulnaaz Dashti, and 100+ yoga students standing in Virabhdrasana II dutifully turned their heads to inspect their arms, hands and elbows. We had just spent the first 30 minutes of class lifting our arms above our heads and back down again, so if ever there was an expectation of good alignment this was it! But here we were, with our stable outstretched hands, and Gulnaaz still reminding us, “A Warrior is more than strong and courageous. A Warrior is alert, so you need to pay attention to what your body is actually doing, don’t just assume. You need to turn your head and look.”
In May, I attended Gulnaaz Dashti’s series of four intensive classes at Marrickville Yoga Centre. Gulnaaz has been teaching at the Iyengar Institute in Pune for 14 years, and studied directly under BKS Iyengar, his daughter Geeta and son Prashant. It was my first experience of a generational, Pune-trained yoga teacher and I found it at once exhilarating and terrifying!
We spent a lot of time being warrior-like over the weekend. To increase our strength and stability we returned to the foundations of our feet and hands. For a warriors alertness, Gulnaaz asked us to really look at our body, become aware of its quirks, observe how it moves and keep the tissue charged, ready and active, rather than going dull in a pose.
As we stretched our hands in variations of Parvatasana and found even more opening in the fingers, palms, and wrist joints, Gulnaaz emphasized learning to do each pose accurately and concisely and not adding anything. She described it as ‘dancing around’ – any additional movement, no matter how small, that will limit or diminish the stretch or conditioning of the tissue. In other words if we are working the body intensely in a pose or sequence, ‘shaking it out’ disturbs the tissue and can diminish the progress made. Instead, she advised us to rest in Tadasana and be with the sensations, allowing the tissue to settle down and recover.
Gulnaaz has a firm and commanding teaching style, with a melodious voice and warm, amiable smile. I was enthralled by the ease with which she managed the large class and pushed us to work harder and more mindfully. She stressed that the teacher’s language and expression in class, must continue to open up and motivate the students. When we grabbed props for the final Setu Bandha Sarvangasana that day, Gulnaaz advised that we refer to “bricks” not “blocks” because the word itself can block/ inhibit students from listening further or being fully present in class.
Gulnaaz encouraged us to become an expert of our own body, to really know our body’s quirks and conditions so that we know how to ‘interpret’ instructions from our teacher. Not every instruction is equally for every student in the room. For example, a direction to the class in handstand to “push your elbows back” may result in twisting the shoulder for a student with valgus (where the forearm tracks more laterally than the elbow); while “straighten the leg” in Trikonasana, for someone with hyper-extending knees, can result in too much pressure exerted on that joint. By seeking to understand our own unique conditions, such as areas that have weakness or vulnerability, we can assess which instructions might be unhelpful and modify them to take care of our bodies. Gulnaaz could be heard giving instructions with the caveat “not for the bendy ladies” or “take care of your knees” throughout the workshops.
I enjoy the metaphor of being a Warrior in my yoga journey. Right now, it is motivating to think of my practice as strong and courageous, and that I am alert to the uniqueness of my body and mind. Gulnaaz reminded me that I can work harder than I think and that with focus and persistence, I can find yet more in myself.