Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pain and Injury - further questions from Elise

What is the difference/similarity/benefit/purpose/meaning/etc of pain, soreness, opening, and injury?

The purpose of yoga is to overcome unnecessary pain - physical and psychological pain - and to become indifferent to it as it arises. Yoga is a means by which we learn to navigate our life and our bodies differently - so that we stop doing that which causes us to suffer. Whether these are mental patterns or physical symptoms - only we have the power to change them. Thankfully yoga provides us with many tools to achieve this.

The Lessons of the Yoga Sutras - further questions from Elise

After asking me about the Guruji book, Elise followed up with some other questions she had been pondering:

Do the lessons of the Yoga Sutras automatically come through practice without reading them?

Guruji felt it was very important to study yoga philosophy. Without study the aim of practice is likely to be misguided. In the Guruji book I asked Norman Allen:

"How far do you think the physical practice can take you?"

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" - Interview with Elise Espat - Part IV

Is there a point in the book that you feel is really crucial to understand Guruji, the system, or the practice?

I feel the book makes a few important points. Perhaps nothing new is said, although for many people there will be a lot of new material. The fact that we have 30 statements or interpretations, and that these statements are broadly in agreement, or together put pieces of the jigsaw in place, what we have as a result is a kind of "authoritative" text.

Interviewees were not always in agreement and at times completely contradict each other, however, I think you can trace at least 80% agreement on most of themes throughout the book.

In some respects you could say the interviews were research on my part. For instance, on the origin of the sequences: David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff believed that the sequences we practice (with some modifications) had been passed down directly from the Yoga Korunta, a text, 100s or 1000s of years old. This was the story I received when I first started practicing since my first teacher had learned from a student of David's. I asked Guruji about this several times and was never quite sure what he meant by his answers.

Apart from Nancy and David, everyone else who was interviewed believed that Guruji was involved in creating the system of asanas. Manju goes as far as to say that Krishnamacharya and Guruji sat down and went through various texts (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Yoga Korunta, Yoga Rahasya) and made up the sequences based on Chikitsa and Shodhona. Norman Allen alludes to Norman Sjoman's book and its suggestion that this type of practice is a new creation modeled on gym training.

I think, through the interviews and my own conversations with Guruji,  a picture emerges that the Yoga Korunta contained  asanas and vinyasas grouped according to their therapeutic benefits but that the actual sequences we practice were created by Guruji under Krishnamacharya's supervision based on Chikitsa, Shodhona and so on.

It seems that Guruji did much of the work in organizing the sequences as well as in modifying the vinyasas. If you look at Yoga Makaranda - Krishnamacharya's book of 1934 - you can see how he sequences the asanas and structures the vinyasas quite differently. Shammie said he invented, or discovered the surya namaskar - I believe this is true - at least in the form that he taught.

One of the reasons I made the interviews was to establish a coherent picture and to correct some misconceptions about the nature of yoga, as taught by Guruji.

Guruji felt very strongly that yoga is a spiritual practice. It is perhaps ironic that someone who believed this so deeply, is sometimes seen as propagating a purely physical practice. Too many of my fellow practitioners in the early '90s tended to think this way, and maybe this is something which motivated me to initiate this project. For Guruji, the purpose of yoga was to make one fit for realization - that was his main interest - I think this is emphasized in the book.

For many people who never met Guruji, or whose contact with him was minimal, the anecdotes and stories about studying with him and about his character have brought him to life in vivid color. For those who did know him, the interviews reveal other facets of his teaching and has brought back many memories. I have received many emails from readers expressing gratitude for having been able to experience an intimate meeting with Guruji through these interviews.

here is an email from John Scott:

Dear Guy,

Brilliant! Fanatastic! Congratulations!

Thank you Guy, I do think you and Eddie have put together a lovely and very valuable book.
It reminds me how much we learned from each other back in those days (the early 90s).
Guruji passed on so much wisdom to every individual student, and this was because he was always 
on-to-one with each student, and therefore the questions asked of him were all uniquely different. 
What is so nice,  is that Guruji's students love to share and pass on their personal experiences with
everyone else.

The photo on the back cover looks great* and it's just as Guruji was for us back in those days.
Those were the days - the Lakshmipuram days

guruji - photo by John Scott

I have already read a few of the pieces and have learn't so much more already
So again Thank You Thank You for sharing

Love John
Lucy India and Fynn

* This is John's photo

Guruji in paperback

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Faith vs Objectivity

It is the nature of this age of Kali Yuga, that even practices designed to move us towards sattva and spiritual awakening are engaged in with a religious fervor or obsessive faith. Ashtanga Yoga is no exception. Any word spoken by Guruji or Sharath may become the object of a religious fanaticism amongst the aspiring Ashtanga practitioners of today.

It is the role of a teacher to inspire faith in and devotion to his method, but an objective and inquiring mind is also a requisite characteristic for anyone treading the spiritual path. We need to be able to judge for ourselves whether we are moving in the right direction. This is certainly very difficult in the beginning when we plunge into a practice which is completely unfamiliar. But questioning the Guru is frowned upon and from a certain point of view it is unproductive and may be undermining of practice.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" - Interview with Elise Espat - Part III

Did you ask any of the questions to clarify a question you had?  For instance, whether advanced asana meant advanced practice?  Or what was mulabandha?  Was there a satisfactory answer?

I believe there is a general misunderstanding of the purpose of asana practice - which is therapy. Advancement comes through perfecting yama and niyama, pranayama and the internal limbs - asana practice is the foundation of that process. So no, I was not curious - I had the desire to get the subjects to speak about this so as to dispel this general misconception. 

Mostly the questions were not asked out of personal curiosity but with the intention of  getting the interviewee to speak on a subject of interest. However, I was certainly interested to hear their different perspectives and feel that my own understanding has been enhanced through the process of making the book.

In the Guruji book, it seems that people agreed that advanced asana did not necessarily mean advanced yoga practice.  Do you think that is true?  Through asana, with the tristhana and a good teacher and time wouldn't that lead to advanced practice?  Would a student automatically start doing self-study and such?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" - Interview with Elise Espat - Part II

Everyone you interviewed spent time with Guruji in Mysore.  Why is making the time to practice in India so crucial? Or is it?  

If you want to go deep into a subject, you have to go to the source. Spending time in mother India is an incomparable experience and having the opportunity to study closely with a master such as Pattabhi Jois is a priceless opportunity. I believe that it is almost impossible to understand yoga without spending extended time in India, so for a deeper understanding I think it is necessary.

Practicing with Guruji, especially in the intimate setting of the "old shala" in Lakshmi Puram was a very powerful and transformative experience. Receiving the asanas from Guruji and being adjusted in them by him on a daily basis also has a profound impact. Beyond the effectiveness and beauty of the sequences he created, the nature of his adjustments and the way in which he engaged with each individual were teachings on a daily basis. Much more is conveyed through teaching asana than is at first evident.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ashtanga Myths - 999% practice

Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory

There is generally a complete misunderstanding of what this means.

Guruji did not mean yoga is 99% physical activity and 1% philosophy!

He meant that the theory of asana is quite simple - vinyasa, drishti, breathing, bandhas - this is the 1%. The theory of Ashtanga Yoga is quite simple: its a method of purification going though sequential steps.  These are the theoretical explanations for the simple practice of Tapas. But sadhana (practice) also includes Svadhyaya (self study and study of scriptures) and Ishvara Pranidhana. 

What Guruji meant was that there is no benefit from, or possible understanding of yoga without practice. One cannot understand the theory without practice because one cannot understand the context in which yoga is to be understood. Practicing asanas expands the mind in ways which cannot be categorized - only with a glimpse of where yoga is directing us through practice does understanding of the goal become apparent. As Guruji often said - you cannot explain the taste of honey - you have to taste it to know it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

mad attention?

On a few occasions when asked about meditation, Guruji quipped: "What? Mad attention!"

Westerners can be justified in their confusion about the very specific use of the word dhyana (translated as meditation) in the context of Patanjali's yoga. In the West, meditation can be taken to mean absorption or reflection with a non-specific level of attention. In Patanjali yoga, dhyana forms a central role in a triad of internal functions leading to the ultimate state. According to Patanjai, dharana (concentration), dhyana and samadhi are linked - one leads to the next. He calls this process Samyama. Samyama is used in all the stages of samadhi.

Guruji's response was probably to the question of a naive new student, someone who had perhaps explored some new age guided meditation. "You have no idea what you are asking about!" is what he meant. Ashtanga Yoga is a step by step method - first you have to purify your body and mind and then it will make sense to sit, otherwise your attempts at meditation will produce "mad attention" - total distraction. Guruji did teach meditation and mantras on an individual basis to his students, so he was not of the opinion that meditation was a waste of time for Westerners.

At the end of practice there is a natural opportunity to sit in padmasana for a longer period of time and many students naturally start to include some meditative elements in their practice at this point. Some students are attracted to chanting, others to pranayama, others integrate meditations they bring from their own traditions. Vipassana is very common amongst ashtanga practitioners and seems to make a very good partner in the connection through breath.

For most students it takes many years to feel ready to properly explore the internal limbs but some very few do not even need asana practice. For many ashtanga practitioners, pranayama is the gateway to the internal and leads naturally to the succeeding limbs.

Dharana - Dhyana - Samadhi - Samyama

Concentration, dharana, is a function of our day to day life. We are always trying to concentrate, so even though dharana is called the first internal limb, it may be found as part of everyday life. I am not suggesting that dharana is easily mastered, just that it is something of common experience.

The practice of dharana involves keeping the attention fixed on one object for a period of time. The mind has distractions, but it is repeatedly brought back to its object. These distractions are accepted within the definition of dharana. Patanjali suggests concentrating on different points of the body, a practice which is elaborated in the Yogayajnavalkya Samhita.

According to Guruji, dhyana which follows from dharana is a natural outgrowth of purifying the mind through yoga.

There are sixty-four yogic arts through which meditation and samadhi can be experienced. Any one who has gained some mastery over a musical instrument can attest to the way in which the mind shifts from a state of concentration to a state in which the mind merges with the music. Dharana is likened to the individual droplets which form when when water is poured from a vessel, in contrast dhyana is likened to the pouring of oil - no droplets (discrete thoughts) form, there is a merging of thoughts into a single flow in the direction of the object.

Patanjali says, if you are having trouble fixing the mind in Samadhi, then you should meditate - he says any suitable (appropriate) object may be used.

The practice of samadhi is to merge the mind completely with an object. The ideal object (subject) is the Self. The Self cannot be witnessed or described, it has no attributes, so its manifestation arises when the mind becomes attribute-less, when the mind dissolves, finds total quiescence. There are numerous meditations which may lead to the mind's dissolution and the resulting Samadhi. Some are gradual, some are direct, but success, of course, depends on the readiness of the subject.

Apart from following the limbs of yoga, success will only come to one who lets go of worldly desire. So long as desire persists, it will act as a distraction in meditation. Guruji spoke a great deal about practice, but much less often about vairagya. Patanjali says, these two, not just practice, but practice and moving the desire for the external towards an internal goal, will lead to chittavritti nirodhah.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

sutra class 3

Patanjali’s definition of yoga, as yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, is the basis of the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Guruji used to say, if you cannot control the mind, you need to practice step-by-step Ashtanga Yoga for mental and physical purification.

We have looked at a few different perspectives on how the human being is constituted. According to yoga philosophy we are in essence Sat Chit Ananda – truth, pure consciousness and bliss.

Yogis have described the human being as having five bodies or sheaths, which fit one within the other – first, the body of food (annamaya kosha), second, the pranamaya kosha, the body of prana, the body of vital energy. Manomaya kosha is the third, the body of discursive, lower or animal mind and sense organs. vijnanamaya kosha is the fourth, which is the body of intellect, the body of knowledge and decision-making. And the anadamaya kosha, which is called the body of bliss or causal body is the fifth - it also contains the samskaras or karmas, which cause future reincarnation. The food body and the prana body taken together are called the physical body, the manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas together are known as the subtle body (or body of mind) and the anandamaya kosha is known as the causal body (it contains the material cause for all manifestations of our experience).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ashtanga Yoga Darshana - Sutra Class 1

There was no transcription of the first sutra class. What follows covers the subject discussed:

“It is very important to understand yoga philosophy; without philosophy, practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy. Mixing both is actually the best.” - Jois & Anderson, Yoga International, Jan/Feb 1994

Pattabhi Jois was influenced by two philosophical/spiritual traditions: the tradition of yoga and the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. Two paths: one that starts from the dualistic experience of being in the body (yoga), the other, a non-dualistic (advaita) contemplation of divinity and the oneness of creation. The path of yoga starts in the dualistic realm of relativity of the physical and culminates in the non-dual experience of the essential Self, which is the purview of Advaita Vedanta. Hence they are not separate but conjoin at a certain point where yoga becomes an internal experience. The most important teacher in the lineage of Advaita Vedanta is Sri Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya, in addition to being an important saint in the advaita lineage was also a strong advocate of yoga. The main inspiration for advaita philosophy is the Upanishads.

We can see from the many interpretations that have been made of the sutras over the years, that the essential meaning and intention of Patanjali has many different nuances and no one can say with authority which is correct. In fact it is the nature of such spiritual texts that they should convey something essential to each individual based on his/her individual samskaras. Since Guruji’s perspective was that of Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, it would seem to make most sense to take this point of view while interpreting the sutras in accordance with Guruji’s philosophy.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" - Interview with Elise Espat - Part I

How and why did you choose to ask the questions you asked for the interviews?

When I arrived in Mysore in the early '90s Guruji used to give regular theory classes, but his ability to communicate was often thwarted by language problems. 

Guruji spoke a little English but he had a strong accent which was often hard for English speakers to understand and mostly impossible to understand for non-native English speakers when he started to talk about philosophy. 

In the first few years I was there, there were 15-20 students at his theory classes. We were French, German, English, American, Dutch, Swiss… a jumble of languages with varying limitations on the grasp of Guruji's broken English and Sanskrit. So his efforts were often mired in frustration. I felt for him (and for myself - I was also frustrated we were unable to learn more from him in this forum).

Sutra Class 2

Alex kindly transcribed these talks so those who missed a class can hear what was discussed. Unfortunately the first class was not well recorded.

Sutra Class 2 - Jan 2012

I am going to recapitulate what we spoke about last week. In fact every week we will go over the same basic concepts.

Atha yogānuśāsanam

The meaning of this sutra indicates that yoga is not something newly to be expounded upon, this is an exposition of a subject that is already known. The subject is known because it occurs as a natural state in the human being.  It is not an artificial state.

According to the yogis or rishis, there are four different states of human experience. The first one is called the waking state. The second one is the dream state, the third one is the deep sleep state and the fourth one is called Samadhi, or Turiya. In ancient times human beings used to experience all four of these states naturally.

The state of Samadhi has unfortunately been lost for most of us, but it is still accessible. One might have the impression that to attain the state of Samadhi and have the experience of the Self, is a long and arduous task and takes some effort. But in a certain sense this is a mistaken view since the Self is always present, the Self is always the source of who we are. The problem is the mind.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Patanjali Yoga in Light of the Teachings of Sri K Pattabhi Jois

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone wanting to invite me to a "Yoga Rave" - a  party like none other in the world; a new concept in fun where the mind and body respond to a uniquely crafted sequence of high-energy music, movement, yoga & meditation. I responded by saying, a yoga rave is a contradiction in terms. "I can guarantee that the party will be 100% yoga compliant: it is substance free, it will end earlier than a typical party and all the proceeds will go to a non profit." Came the response.  My reply was obviously completely lost on the poor fellow which is probably not surprising considering the general lack of understanding of the meaning, purpose and practice of yoga in modern times.

Despite the fact that we now have many yogic texts available in translation, this has further compounded rather than reduced the problem. Translations and interpretations conflict with each other, causing a general muddle in people's minds. Today we have Yoga Sutra interpretations from buddhist, christian, atheistic, dualistic, non dualistic etc - so many different perspectives (mostly by non yoga-practicing academics). This has caused a great deal of confusion, especially as these underlying perspectives are often not stated and the translators have little or no practical experience with yoga.