opened its doors 10 years ago as the first yoga studio in Istanbul. Turks even now consider yoga as an advanced form of stretching, but this is changing. Yogasala now has two locations in Istanbul and one in Ankara. As well as early morning Ashtanga classes there are other forms of yoga being taught. Can and Seyda Malta have given up their business careers to devote themselves full time to yoga. Their feeling is that if they can get the locals through the door eventually they will embrace the philosophy of yoga. The intention is “to create a place and community where people can come practice yoga, breathe and be at home in their bodies".
The studio in Nisantisi is a lovely space, with two yoga practice rooms that are light and airy. Gail Couzins teaches Ashtanga at Yogasala. She began Astanga in 1999 in Mysore with Sri K Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath and continued to practice with them and with Hamish Hendry before assisting Hamish and beginning teaching in London. In Mysore she fell in love with the practice and found that the daily practice and the rhythm of the traditional sequencing and breath resonated with her. She says that surrendering, facing yourself each new day on the mat and not being able to avoid the bits you don't like are a challenge and it is what makes the practice worthwhile. She has set up her permanent home in Istanbul after having taught as a volunteer Ashtanga teacher on a wonderful project call Project Air.
” Project Air is a not-for-profit organization that has implemented a unique program to help allay some of the trauma and mental health issues left in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Focusing on HIV+ women and their children, Project Air uses yoga to help genocide rape survivors manage the devastating effects of catastrophic sexual violence and HIV/AIDS".
After two weeks off from practice I just about faint in a pool of my own sweat and swear, as usual, to never every take time off again. Gail has a wonderful gentle way of adjusting and as I come to the end of my practice and get through my first set of backbends I complain to her, as I had heard to so many yogis complain, that I found the backbends the hardest and that I thought it was due to all the forward bends in the primary series. She said that she had thought so too until David Swenson, who had recently taught a workshop at the Nisantisi sala mentioned that if we did our upward dog properly, with shoulders back, the primary series actually contains more backbends than the second series. Another one of those 'aha' moments!
After returning back at the hotel from yoga I went downstairs to confer with my new bestest Turkish friend Yavuz Tuncer.... the concierge at Gallery Residence
. I am super impressed with this place. I have a lovely room that is more like a one bedroom apartment. Contemporary decor, kitchen, queen sized bed, bathroom etc. They have three concierges here as they work 8 hour shifts each, but Yavuz is probably the best I have ever encountered. He literally bends over backwards to achieve anything you want him to. He gets the best cabbies, books restaurants, and lined me up with a tour guide who could get me into a small order of Dervishes, the Halveti Jerrahi
, who rarely perform for tourists. I knew very little about the spiritual side of Turkey, especially the mystical practices of the Whirling Dervishes
. The Halveti Jerrahi order has many thousands of members all over the world and is highly active in many relief efforts such as donating clothing, food, medicine and money towards the flood victims of Bangladesh, Afghani refugees and the genocide victims of Bosnia and Kosova. The Halveti Jerrahi are a cultural, educational, and social relief organization made up of Muslims from diverse professional, ethnic, and national backgrounds. The Jerrahi order has branches in Turkey, New York, California, Illinois, and Seattle, Bosnia, Germany, Greece, Italy, France, England, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil.
This was certainly an experience of a special kind. There were ten of us being bused to the Mosque that lies off the beaten path in one of the suburbs of Istanbul. The women were shepherded upstairs to join with the sufi women and the men went to another area. It amazes me that something as innocuous as a head scarf can seem so extrinsic to us. I wore a head scarf and loved it. No need to fuss with my less than luxuriant locks, and in this heat it keeps it from sticking to my face. The scarf (hijabi)
has a very significant meaning to the Islam women. Of course it provides a sense of modesty to the wearer, but also has a metaphysical meaning if we take one of the original translations of the hijab, the 'veil' that which separates man from god, into account. The hijab has become a political symbol of the 21st century and it mystifies Western society.
The group of women I have come up the stairs with have moved on to another room, while I stay behind trying to catch the eye of someone that might be in charge, so that I can ask a few questions about their order. I peak around the corner to find a table of ladies eating their dinner. They range from early twenties to late eighties and some of the elder ones wave me in. A chair is moved in front of a plate for me and I am given soup and a meat stew. The food is simple and good. Suddenly the elder lady to my right begins to sing a few notes from a prayer and the women lift their hands palms up in a gesture of receiving. They join in and than just as sudden they stop and get on with finishing their meals.
Finally we gather behind the wooden lattice divide overlooking the prayer room in which the men have gathered to perform their prayer rituals (zikr). There must have been at least 50 men in the room bearing white kippahs, sitting on the floor and reciting scripture. The prayers become more and more passionate with the men's bodies swaying and rocking in time. Zikr is literally translated as "an Islamic prayer whereby a phrase or expression of praise is repeated continually", but is also considered a form of meditation, a fervent praise of all the wondrous things the world has to offer through the greatness of Allah (God). Soon I am also caught up in the trance like quality of the singing and the hours fly past. Then seven black robed men enter the space below. They are wearing tall camel hair, conical shaped hats and below the black robes voluminous white gowns.
"The tall felt hat or sikke represents the tombstone or the death of ego. The long, weighted dress or tennure represents the Islamic burial shroud or our inner consciousness. The dark cloak or hirka, worn at the beginning and close of the ceremony, personifies the tomb itself or our outer consciousness. Under the cloak is a white jacket, called a dasta gul, which poetically translates as a bouquet of roses. The left lapel is loose, while the right is secured to a wide black belt, also known as the alif-lamed. Alif is the first letter in the Arabic alphabet. Most dervishes wear thin, ankle-high leather mosque slippers called mest. Each action in the ritual focuses on striving to attain a perfect form through humility. Everything is kissed, from the different articles of clothing as the dervish puts them on and even the floor. These devotional actions and symbolic items assist in preparing the dervish for liminal states of consciousness. They are acts of humility".
The men go through a process of ritual bowing and then discard their black robes. They begin to spin and, it seems float, slowly circling the floor. Their feet do not make a sound as they whirl anti-clock wise. Arms are held high above the head, one palm up receiving divine blessings and the other hand palm down dispersing the blessings. The men's faces are serene, their bodies becoming a pure vessel and channel for the spiritual gifts bestowed by Allah (God). The sufi men repeat their mantras (zikr) as the dervishes whirl elegantly across the floor. 'They empty their hearts of all but the thought of God and whirl in the ecstatic movement of His breath' (http://www.cassiopaea.org/cass/dervish.htm
). It is absolutely hypnotic watching the whirling men, their white gowns gliding like thick cream around their ankles. Even from the first whirl their faces take on an expression that is something beyond extacy, something much less turbulent and more so peaceful.
As my group gathers back together we are all awestruck, certainly an experience we won't forget.