I learned the most from him, and he said the least.
For most people it takes years and thousands of miles to find that person. For yogis, that figure is usually described as the guru – the individual who will teach them about the wisdoms, the philosophies and the meanings of life.
He shared his knowledge with me, he taught me everything about the practice of yogism, the human mind and body. I didn’t have to travel overseas to find him — I grew up with him – this was my grandfather, Simeon Simeonov.
This is a story about him, the inspiration behind my own yoga practice.
It was 1980, when he found himself in Mozambique, Africa where he and seven other engineers and economists were sent by the Bulgarian Ministry of Supply and State Reserve to help evaluate and teach the Mozambique natives about food supplies, agronomy production and farming reserves. Prior to his arrival, Simeonov was experiencing excruciating pain in his lower back, and soon enough it was determined that he was suffering from spinal (lumbar) disk herniation.
“At that point everything was a struggle,” he said.
Trying to swim, for example, was like someone was pulling his body into two different directions, he recalls.
“Every muscle in my body was trying to make it work, but I just couldn’t do it,” he said.
One day while sitting by the pool a native Indian man approached him:
“Sir, why you are not swimming?”
“I can’t, I have a terrible back pain,” he answered.
“If you do everything that I tell you, I will heal you, but you have to do exactly as I say.”
That man’s name was Senior Rai.
For the first time, my grandfather was introduced to the philosophy and the practice of yoga. He started practicing twice every day, in the morning by himself and in the evening with his guru, Senior Rai. “Mastering the breathing exercises is the foundation of the yoga practice,” he was told, so Senior Rai did not allow him to practice the asanas before conquering the pranayama techniques. And for 30 days that was all he did, day and night. Only then, he slowly started studying the different asanas and their usefulness and benefits for the human body. The pain slowly disappeared and shortly after he could swim four laps back and forth. He felt stronger.
He continued practicing daily for the next two years, while still in Africa. At that point he knew that yoga would never leave his life, or at least he wouldn’t leave yoga. He incorporated yoga in everything that he did and he never stopped learning. I remember him always reading, always learning.
“Yoga is my second ‘I,’’’ he said.
He introduced the philosophy of yoga to me when I was about 14 years old. Some of the first things we talked about were the anatomy of the human body; from food digestion to the trigger point massage, which can help the body heal without the need of painkillers.
One of the very vivid memories I have is hearing him say to me while I am eating:
“Slow down. Do you just want me to put a funnel in your mouth and pour the food down your throat?”
I suppose this is how fast I was eating, but I was young and always in a hurry, so how quickly I was eating was the least of my problems. But he sat me down and explained to me that if this was to become a reoccurring habit, I would develop digestive and weight problems. Getting his message, I learned about digestion and the importance of taking the time to chew my food into easily digestible components, so my body would absorb the food with ease.
He taught me to eat small portions throughout the day, “as big as your fist, and don’t ever, ever overeat, because this is when your stomach starts expanding and to avoid this always leave the table a little hungry,” he said.
Growing up I never heard my grandfather yell, he always seemed to handle every situation with grace and calmness, and I wondered: was this his personality, was it the practice of yoga and self-control, or was it both?
When I asked him he smiled and said: “I do have a vibrant personality, [but yogism taught me to observe things from] a third person perspective,” which means not to get involved instantly and to first analyze the situation rather then being vulnerable to the predisposition of reaction or impulse.
He also taught me about meditation — the cornerstone of yogism. Meditation is necessary to build internal energy and to become consciously aware of your surroundings. Adopting this practice leads to becoming more forgiving and patient not only with yourself but others.
“Egocentrism is what hurts people and those around them, if you can avoid it – you have already achieved a lot.”
One of his favorite elements of yogism is the so-called “contemplation and concentration” philosophy. The thinking behind it is that if you focus on a specific thought, a goal for example, and if you constantly visualize the ways through which you can achieve this goal, then you inevitably will.
[Simeon Simeonov doing a head stand during his visit to Seattle]
“After becoming a devoted practitioner, the characteristics of yogism become part of you,” he said.
Thus, you become a person who leaves the small details behind, and you see the bigger picture. You are no-longer a slave of your own consciousness or sub-consciousness; you become free of prejudice and judgment. You are able to see more opportunities and pathways.
“But, this can never be possible if you do not learn the basics of the yoga philosophy, the practice, the breathing while also simultaneously working on eliminating the egocentrism within yourself and becoming more aware of others.”
“I have reached many high points in my life because of that,” he said.
Simeonov’s back pain and his search to healing transitioned into a life long devotion to the practice of yoga. I can only wish that one day I could have the same impact on my children and grandchildren. He is the most humble person that I have ever known in my life and I thank him for teaching me.
When I said, “thank you grandpa,” he said:
“I only told you about it, but you hugged this idea, and it became part of you. I am so happy. This path will bring you so much.”
Who is Simeon outside the yoga studio?
A woodcrafter, a plane enthusiast, a visionary…. and a National Geographic addict.
What is your favorite pose and why?
There are many asanas that I enjoy, as they all improve your health, but the Nauli Asana is what I have practiced for a very long time
What is the best yoga advice you have ever received?
Don’t overdo the exercises; you may hurt yourself very badly. First learn about yourself – Senior Rai
If you could practice yoga with anyone, dead or alive, who would that be?
Venzislav Eftimov – a Bulgarian yogi practitioner with over 55 years of practice
What is your advice for people?
What is your advice for the Seattle yoga community overall?
To students I would say: read more, listen to your body and be patient
To teachers I would say: that they carry a great responsibility, and their learning isn’t over when their training is. They need to consistently work on expanding their knowledge from the anatomy of the human body, to meditation practices and visualization.
But to all I say, keep doing it.
Simeonov currently resides in his home in Kalugerovo Bulgaria, a small village surrounded by mountains and rivers. Nowadays, he enjoys gardening, reading, cooking and of course: yoga.[sc:Yogi-of-the-week-Closing-Paragraph]
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