How self-assurance allowed yoga teacher Samin Pourkhalili to open her life to spirituality, and move from Tehran to India, and to the United States.
By Samin Pourkhalili
Photography by Nathan Solum
“Happy Birthday!” That’s what the cake read, only it was written in my native language—Persian.
Now that I think about it, I didn’t even speak English at the time.
I was inside a high rise apartment in the heart of the Iranian capital of Tehran. My older sister, a savvy investor, had moved there years before I had left our hometown on the southern beaches of the Caspian Sea. She let me live with her while I attended university to get a degree in Information Technology. I had spent the last four years studying all night, traveling two hours back and forth by public transport to the campus, living on cheap produce and rice, attending classes I had little interest in. Why? Well, because I was supposed to. Because my middle class family had made sacrifices for me to be there — yeah, no pressure at all. It happens to many of us—some well-intended soul says this path will bring you security and prosperity and that will make you happy. Well, that may work for some, but when I look back, I knew I needed something different. I was in search of something I couldn’t yet describe.
That evening in early October of 2015, as I blew the partially-melted candles on the frosted vanilla celebratory pastry, my 11-year-old nephew quipped—“Make a wish!”
It was my 25th birthday, and I closed my eyes and I wished with all my being for a profound change in my life. The universe heard me, and before I knew, I had booked myself to India for a yoga training program for the next month.
While Iran will always be close to my heart, India captivated my soul. I remember a book I had read when I was 20—Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East by Baird Spalding, which depicted a spiritual journey through India and Tibet by a group of prestigious mystics and academics. When I reached India, I felt like I was one of the travelers in the book, though the only places I had been up until that point were Dubai for a weekend, and Turkey as a child. I read it the book again as it gave me a sense of purpose and hope. I felt that there was something out there that I needed to find, or perhaps something out there needed to find me. Iran was where I came from but India was where I needed to go, where I needed to grow.
From then on, I tried everything from yoga to anything that related to eastern culture. I practiced more, I read more, and I followed my heart more than ever. I was drawn to this path.
Less than a month after my birthday, my plane landed in Bangalore. I didn’t know at that time that I would return again to this southern Indian city to find my true self. I was on my way to Mysore to practice yoga at the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute.
In Mysore, I was a lone woman attempting Sanskrit verses and words, such as Namaste, Shanti, and names of asanas, and I also knew the lyrics of the Hindi song “Tum Hi Ho” from the film Aashiqui 2—a Bollywood number I had become obsessed with after hearing it at a party some time ago.
Quick segue to link the song with my Indian visa. During a Diwali party at the Indian embassy in Tehran after my 25th birthday, I had sung this very song in front of government officials. It must have been pretty good, or at least humoring, because it did what three weeks of incessant pleading in the embassy didn’t—it got me an Indian visa which typically gets authorized in thirty days.
Back to Mysore. The yoga training was extremely challenging and an eye opener. My confidence was at an all-time low. In a matter of hours, I had gone from being an independent-Iranian-female-college-graduate and a burgeoning yogini to inexperienced-intimidated-scared new student at one of the most famous yoga centers in the world.
I cannot begin to tell you how many famous Ashtanga practitioners I met in my time in Mysore. It seemed like everyone was Youtube or Instagram famous—I even have a picture with one of my personal heroes, Kino MacGregor. While I’m extremely grateful and thankful for my time at the Ashtanga Institute, it was an ego rattling experience, life changing even. It, however, made me wonder— Did I get it all wrong, was I on the wrong path?
After almost 5 weeks of struggling through the grand aspirations of perfecting Surya Namaskara A & B as an outlier on those pre-dawn mornings in those competitive, crowded, celebrity filled shalas in Mysore, I had managed to make a friend. That friend would lead me to Mumbai. Another yogi I had met during training had an extra room with her host family in old Bombay.
After a week of exploring Mumbai and reassessing my journey, the gracious family I was then staying with, sensing my self-doubts, convinced me to visit The Art of Living International Center. And that’s how I found my way back to Bangalore. To my luck, the founder and guru of Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was in the ashram where I had signed up for a 3-day “Happiness Program.”
My room was a modest twin bed in a small space. The first night of my stay I walked alone through the lush green garden to the satsang or sacred gathering, which was packed with Sri Sri’s devotees. There were thousands of people chanting, dancing, playing tabla, zanz, cymbals, flutes, and other traditional Indian instruments. The room radiated positivity as the crowd heard their guru speak on stage.
During dinner time, I made two friends—one from Slovenia and the other from France. Neither spoke English as a first language. The next morning, we were together again at the we met up again at the “Happiness Program”, which was led by gentle and welcoming teachers who exuded tranquility.
Now, for some reason, on that day I had gained just a bit more confidence than the night before—I wanted to talk.
I found myself raising my hand to answer every question. Somehow, my confidence had leaped to a new high overnight, just by the power of being accepted by others. Soon, I was surrounded by friends. I was no longer alone.
On the last day of the program, one of the teacher’s—Swami—spoke about how being joyfully confident could trigger happiness and satisfaction in the others we meet, thereby helping more and more people gain positive enlightenment.
He mentioned ME as an example of being infectiously joyful. He said I was an example of someone who—stern adult voice—“Knew what they wanted to do in life.”
“Who me? Are you kidding me?” I impulsively bellowed. The class laughed.
Then, as proof of confidence, he challenged me to sing a song, and I graciously accepted, humored by my new found self-assurance.
And, just like that, I found myself standing in front of the class singing—no, not “Tum Hi Ho”—an old Persian song about a dream that my mother used to sing to me when I was a child. When I finished, everyone clapped and my teachers were delighted by the rhythm and cadence, saying it sounded like a mantra.
“Could you sing that tonight after satsang?” Swami persisted.
You mean with a microphone, a sound system, in the presence 2,000 plus people including Guruji?
“Sure,” I smiled.
That night, with amazing self-worth and confidence, I went on to sing in front of the thousands of people gathered for satsang.
In my opinion, my success was not in the performance, but in the realization and affirmation that I was indeed on the right path—a path I could not have walked alone. I realized that no one else should either. I also understood that the universe has a way of granting affirmation, and that it begins with self-acceptance.
A good deal has changed since I began my yogic journey, since I picked up Life and Teachings of the Far East, and since I first first set foot in India.
I have experienced the magical teachings of Osho in Pune, completed Vipassana meditation, taught and developed practice in Nepal. I have since become fluent in English. I have explored dozens of countries in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. I recently immigrated to the United States during the tumultuous “travel ban” presidential executive order. In an attempt to make yoga more accessible to those without local yoga communities, I have recently brought my practice online. In the near future, I plan to launch an international non-profit organization empowering young women around the world.
What has stayed the same is that I continue to listen to the universe and follow my heart.
For now, I’ll leave you with this. We are but a culmination of our experiences, some beautiful, some to the contrary. Positive change can happen at any moment—all you have to do is allow it. For me, in my journey, I needed the support of others and the power of positive reinforcement to allow myself to flourish and grow independent of past circumstances. I am always learning and I do my best to grow every day.
Samin is a yoga teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon. She is writing a book about her yoga journey from Iran, through India, finding love in Nepal, and immigrating to the US during the Trump era. Learn more about her at SaminYoga.com.
This article first appeared on Yoga Journal Singapore magazines.