Healthy mind, healthy body?


In a few minutes, as you finish reading this, I will suggest a simple but interesting exercise to test your mind and body at the same time. But let’s start with how I learned about it.

In 2008, I spent a weekend hiking in northern India. I slept in a tent, swam in the strong current of the freezing clear Ganges, I rode in a battered bus with people sitting on top, I saw the snowy Himalayas, far in the distance. It was fun. On those steep hills, my skinny guide was as nimble as a goat and as strong as a bear. At dawn, he would do stretches, lithe as a cat, outside his little tent. I asked him how come he was so healthy. He was standing on his head at the time. “Yoga,” he said and closed his eyes to meditate, breathing deeply. I sipped coffee in golden sunlight by the misty river, and promised myself: Someday, I’m going to try that.

I finally got my chance here in Azerbaijan. One Friday night I was having dinner with some Azeri friends, talking about our busy week, the stress of city life. Samira with the bright eyes and corkscrew hair told us that Saturday morning yoga was the perfect solution. “But can you stand on your head?” I asked. She just smiled – silly English – and looked at her watch.

Soon, I joined Samira’s yoga class: 90 minutes, three times a week in a gymnasium on the 9th floor with a spectacular view of Baku and the Caspian Sea. I’m glad I did. We do a variety of stretches – asanas – and finish off with five minutes of breathing exercises and fifteen minutes of meditation, lying on our backs listening with the lights dimmed, listening to chill-out music.

To be honest, it was a bit difficult at first. I found some yoga positions hard, despite all my years of running and swimming. Yoga also gave me headaches afterwards. But it gets easier and after just a few weeks I now feel stronger and more flexible. It’s a different sort of fitness. Something has changed in my mind too.

Our teacher is the quietly spoken Mr. Rasim Hasanov. He is a gentleman and a scholar, and I asked him a few questions about yoga, just for you.

FHM: Rasim, how did you discover yoga?

Rasim: A book fell on my head! I was 17, visiting a friend. His dad was an academic. I was browsing his home library in Baku and an old book tumbled down on my head. It was about yoga, published before the Russian Revolution. I borrowed it and started teaching myself.  That was in the Soviet era and yoga was banned. My parents feared the KGB would arrest us!

FHM: Why did you persevere?

Rasim: As a teenager I was feeble and always getting sick. But after three years of yoga, I felt like a new person. No illnesses, no more medication. I’m 60 now. I’ve been doing yoga for 43 years, in my spare time.

FHM: What did you do for a living?

Rasim: I was a researcher for gold mines. I have a PhD in geology. But after Azerbaijan gained independence, I became a geography teacher. I also compose music.

FHM: What advice would you give to someone just starting yoga?

Rasim: Find a teacher, learn properly and take it slowly.

FHM: What are the most common misconceptions of yoga?

Rasim: Some people think it’s a religious sect, aerobics or psychological training. But in fact, it’s a way to re-discover yourself. There are over 20 different types of yoga. Some people prefer the meditation to the physical exercises. But you should beware of ‘hot’ yoga, in a hot room – that’s a dangerous gimmick, trust me.

FHM: What are your worst and best experiences of yoga?

Rasim: I hurt my legs when I started. That was the worst. The best was when my masters – B.K.S. Iyengar and Ravi Shankar – approved me to teach yoga. I was also pleased to give a class at a symposium of 2000 teachers near Zurich, and to publish my first book. I’ve written two – yoga for the spine, yoga for pregnant women. Now I’m writing about yoga for children.

FHM: Is yoga popular in Azerbaijan?

Rasim: Well, these days, I have military generals and politicians in my classes. It’s funny how times change! As for the future, I want to start my own academy. I need investors. I hope for the best. The world would be a better and more beautiful place if everyone did yoga. My best wishes to Romania!

That’s all from Rasim. But finally, dear reader, try this: Remove your shoes, stand straight and bend your right leg back at the knee, holding your right foot behind your bottom with your right hand. Extend your left arm vertical, reaching for the sky. Close your eyes and try not to wobble. Tricky huh? This is one version of the Lord of the Dance position. It will tune your body and mind. And by the way, I’m typing this standing on my head.

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This story first appeared in FHM (Romania) in October 2011 and reappears here with permission from
S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL .