Yogi Charu Teaches Ancient Practices Learned In The Himalayas
Yogi Charu is the real deal. At age 16 he left the rough streets of his native Belize for remote caves of the Himalayas, where he was inducted into the secrets of Hatha yoga and tantric meditation by teachers from the Savitri lineage.
He has become a sought-after teacher here and in Asia. But he is not teaching standard yoga, this is the yoga of Patanjali:more than just exercise, the aim is to raise our level of consciousness and transform our minds.
I had the privilege of talking with him at Pure West on a snowy January evening. He began meditation with a commentary on the competitive nature of Western culture, and encouraged us to get out of that mode. “Nothing is ours. We are only here temporarily.” He taught with a humble confidence, a warm sense of humor and an unassuming, joyful presence. I got the sense that he could relate to our very human struggles while still being able to transcend to higher realms of awareness.
After talking us into a seated posture he presented us with a series of brief exercises to help us develop sustained concentration through focusing on the natural breath – watching out breath as it comes and goes naturally without manipulation. “Your mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he told us. “But really the mind is neutral, and we can mutate it. Our culture today doesn’t cultivate the present focus of the mind, but we can change this through yoga practice.”
Then we chanted Shiva Shambo to the chords of the harmonium and moved into Salutations. I was challenged by his slow breath counts, and my muscles were pleasantly sore after class from the unaccustomed long holds in many of the postures.
“My mind tries to cheat me out of my practice,” he said, urging us to stay in each pose past the comfort point to build our strength and stamina.
After class I eagerly learned more about his epic journey from “plain sucker” (as he described his former life) to yoga guru.
Lauren Tepper : What attracted you to yoga at such a young age?
Yogi Charu: I grew up in Belize, where gang violence was rampant. I saw young friends and cousins killed with guns and started questioning, “Who am I? What is this all about?” When I was 15 a friend introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita. It is a powerful wisdom, and it clarified my doubts about life. My old ways dropped away effortlessly as I became more and more immersed in the teachings.
LT: How did people react to your transformation?
YC: My family and friends thought I was nuts. I wore the typical garb of a yogi, which was a loincloth. The only place I could practice chanting mantras was in the bathroom and sometimes my cousins would catch me in there, thinking I was naked. I persevered, saving up money so I could journey to India to study with the masters.
LT: What was your life like in the Himalayas?
YC: It was culture shock at first. I had an appetite for Indian samosas and sweets and suddenly I was living in a cave; there were no stoves, no refrigerators. We literally ate off the earth: berries, bark, leaves. I got used to it quickly because I was completely fascinated by what I was learning. Some of the masters didn’t need to eat at all; they lived on prana (breath).We grew our locks down to our knees and learned to harness the powers of the mind to accomplish super-human tasks like sleeping on a bed of nails. I don’t usually show that to people, just every now and then… My dentist here was amazed when I had a tooth removed without anesthesia. I just put myself into a deep trance. You learn to disassociate from the body, and it doesn’t even hurt.
LT: What are some of the most important techniques you’ve learned for transforming the body and mind?
YC: Vedic astrology, sitar, kirtan, and bandhas, of course in addition to pranayama and asana. The Kriyas (also known as Shatkarmas) are also very important. One example is Sutra Neti, which involves passing a thread from each nostril out the mouth to cleanse the sinus cavities. There is also Vastra Dhauti, which is threading a length of cloth from the mouth into the stomach and performing gyrations called Nauli to cleanse the stomach. Most Westerners only read about these in books, but in India they are pre-requisites to asana because they remove toxins and prepare the body for yoga.
LT: How did you make the journey from practitioner to teacher?
YC: After I gained a solid grounding in the philosophical, energetic, and physical aspects of Hatha yoga my guru sent me to the Bihar School, India’s first yoga university founded by Satyananda, where I learned to teach. My classes were in demand, and I was invited to teach in many Asian cities including Hong Kong and Australia. My friend Radhanath Swami invited me to teach at the Bhakti Center, and I thought New York would be a good challenge.
LT: How does your class differ from a typical one in NYC?
YC: I include classical Hatha eye exercises (for example, circling the eyes with the head stationary, and focusing from far to near and back again) plus a few brief mudra and bandha practices (including Nauli, or stomach churning and interlacing the toes one at a time). We do asana too, but my class is more about the breath and the mind. When I first proposed a meditation class the directors at Pure West said, “No way. That will never fly on the Upper West Side.” I convinced them to let me try it. Guess what – the class grew from around 5 students to more like 25. Then I introduced Yoga Nidra (deep relaxation) classes, and these have also become popular. My classes attract a lot of yoga teachers who are interested in the more subtle aspects of Hatha yoga.
LT: Tell us about being a yoga guru.
YC: Guru is often translated as ‘master,’ but really it means servant. A true guru serves humanity. Without love, there’s no service. When you fall in love with the Supreme Being then you can fall in love with all God’s creatures; then you become an instrument of service. So don’t look for glorification. Stay humble with your gifts, and be grateful. Fall in love with everyone, and serve them in your own unique way.
Yogi Charu offers weekly classes at Pure and Chelsea Piers, and also conducts teacher trainings at Pure and The Bhakti Center.