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A Yoga Class with Swami Bua
by Cara Jepsen
This article first appeared in Yoga Chicago magazine in 2006. Swami Bua passed on July 22, 2010.
Last March I signed up to spend a week in New York City studying with my 90-year old yoga teacher, Pattabhi Jois. When YOGAChicago editor, Sharon Steffensen, heard I was going, she suggested I look up 116-year-old yogi Swami Bua while I was there and find out if he’s still teaching yoga in New York.
Swami Bua is a household name to yogis who started practicing in the seventies, since he used to come to the international yoga congresses in Chicago that were arranged by Swami Rama of the Himalayan Institute (that was back when Swami Bua was in his 80s). Apparently, he even appeared at a retreat given by longtime Chicago yoga teacher Becky Love.
I looked up everything I could about him before I left. A 1999 Hinduism Today profile that was reprinted in YOGAChicago appeared shortly after he’d won the 1998 Hinduism Today Hindu Renaissance Award at the age of 109. I learned that he came to the U.S. in the 1970s with the help of the Shah of Iran after Swami Bua had cured him of an illness, and he’s been teaching in the NYC neighborhood Hell’s Kitchen ever since.
Unlike most of today’s yoga teachers, Swami Bua--the founder of the Indo-American Yoga-Vedanta Society in New York--has never asked a fee for classes and eats “only what is offered, fasting if nothing comes.” He’s never gone on the record about his age, which is estimated to be 116. I found a 2005 Men’s Health article that asked him--“The world’s oldest man”--about karma (it’s real), the most painful way to die (suicide) and why every single woman on Earth loves the movie Grease (“A man and woman must have companions. If you don’t have companions, it is a sin.”).
I found his number online and called it a few days after I arrived. He answered the phone right away, but we had a hard time understanding one another. Eventually he told me he teaches hatha yoga every day at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. and at 4 p.m. on weekends. I asked if I could come the next day, and he said yes.
His place is in a tony high-rise that is technically in Hell’s Kitchen but is very close to Columbus Circle and Central Park. His daughter answered the door. In the living room/yoga studio, Swami Bua sat on a bench, leaning back on a fuzzy orange pillow near a wall phone. He wore a white dhoti (sarong) and a kindly, alert expression on his face. In fact, he looked exactly like his photo. The walls were covered with framed photos of him at several stages of life, doing asana. I didn’t notice the famous picture of him teaching a teenage Satya Sai Baba, but I did see Dharma Mittra’s giant asana poster.
I signed my name on a clipboard and attached a donation of $20 to it; others had signed before me, and everyone had left $20 or more. I was the only one who showed up for class, and he had me do some classical hatha yoga that began with standing poses with twists. He was surprisingly spry and asked my permission before moving my arm into place. He said I should keep my fingers together (i.e., hands closed) in all the poses, which Pattabhi Jois also says. The sequence included Marichyasana (a seated twist), ardha baddha paschimottanasana (seated half-bound lotus forward bend) and ardha Matsyendrasana (another seated twist). He also had me do some leg lifts and twists, as well as shoulderstand and headstand with twists. More than once he said I was flexible, which was nice to hear even if I didn’t really believe it. It felt good to do all of those twists.
Afterwards he had me sit in a chair in front of him and asked me if I had any problems. Unable to narrow it down to just one or two, I shrugged, smiled and said, “Not really.” Besides, it felt like enough just to be in his presence. He gave me a tour of some of the pictures of him. He said he could stop his pulse, which I wholeheartedly believe. He’s also supposed to be able to swallow his tongue--a kriya technique.
At one point, he looked at me and said, “You are a good girl. You are a good person.” That’s never a bad thing to hear from anyone--especially a yogi with that much wisdom.
But I already felt an intense sense of well-being even before he said that.
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About the Author
Cara Jepsen, RYT-500, teaches yoga in Chicago and is a direct student of Sri Dharma Mittra and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She specializes in breathing, meditation, and yoga for back care and depression, and teaches workshops around the country. For more information, visit www.carajepsen.com, or contact her via email@example.com.