let’s give ‘em something to talk about

Fasten your seatbelts, kids!  I’ve seen a flurry of articles about yoga on Facebook that SCREAM for pithy comments!

Here goes:

Tony Perkins Upset That ‘Goofy’ Yoga Classes ‘Driving Religion Out’ Of Military

Christian conservative leader Tony Perkins is upset — this time, about yoga classes being offered to military members.

Why? Because the “goofy” style of exercise has been used as a “wacky” substitute for a “personal relationship with God,” effectively driving religion out of the military.

My first thought on that was hmmmmm……maybe if yoga was not taught as strictly a fitness regimen in many places (“power” yoga, “yoga boot camp”, etc.) and the therapeutic (healing for both body and mind) aspects were emphasized, maybe this guy wouldn’t think it was a “goofy style of exercise.”  Maybe if he knew that real yoga is all about healing and transformation……  but I know I ask for too much.

I am  not talking about yoga therapy.  I am talking about therapeutic aspects of yoga in general.  I don’t separate the therapeutic aspects in my classes.  I occasionally do private yoga therapy sessions (such as trauma sensitive yoga), but I consider ALL my classes therapeutic in one way or another.  In western yoga culture, there is yoga and then there is yoga therapy.  Separation.  Duality.  No one called Krishnamacharya a “yoga therapist.”   Krishnamacharya’s principle was “Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other.“   He taught that yoga should always be adapted to the unique needs of each individual.   When people lined up down the street outside his door he prescribed practices for them based on their individual needs, asana+pranayama+meditation.  It was just yoga.  It saddens me that I still have to explain to people that yoga heals, it’s not all about getting your ass kicked in a yoga class.

Actor, columnist, cook: Meet Yoga’s glamour girl Kathryn Budig

Damn, and I thought I was yoga’s glamour girl!  Ripped off again!  A comment from my Facebook page:  “‘she realized she was meant to be a yoga teacher.’  I never had that realization.  Rather, my teachers told me.  And I resisted.”

My teacher also told me to become a teacher and I resisted, too, but I became a teacher at 48, an age that some people think you’re all washed up.  I read something the other day:  in this culture when a woman hits her 50s she becomes invisible to men.  When a woman hits her 60s she becomes invisible to other women.   Good thing Ms. Budig is already a sensation at the ripe age of 29.

A New Year’s Resolution for Queer and Trans People of Color: Forget the Gym, Occupy Yoga Studios

This piece rocks!  I absolutely love it.  Although I am not black/brown/L/B or T, I feel the same way:

I’m tired of Googling “yoga” only to have images spat back at me that scream entitlement–the kind of entitlement that comes with being able to pay $18 for a class that takes place in some bourgie studio with the words “om” and “namaste” printed on everything and giant pictures of the Hindu God Ganesha everywhere.

I’ll tell you what I’m tired of:  yoga bleaching. 

yoga bleaching: 1. a form of marketing in which yoga or an image of yogic lifestyle is used to make an otherwise unrelated product appear to be in line with yogic principles. 2. the act of using yoga or an image of yogic lifestyle to sell an unrelated product. 3. a form of spin or marketing intended to deceive consumers into believing that a product is related to yogic practice or theory when in fact it is not.

The local studio is selling a natural deodorant with the name of DeOm.  Yes, you read it correctly:  DE OM with a conspicuous AUM symbol on the bottle.  It was created by a teacher at the studio using minerals and organic herbs.  You can sweat like a horse in your hot vinyasa class but not stink like a street in India:

pondicherry sign

Now I am all for women entrepreneurs and I know the teacher; she’s very nice, I like her, and I hope she makes a lot of money, I really do.   HOWEVER…..using a sacred symbol to push your product a la yoga bleaching makes me all types of itchy.  A different name and image perhaps such as LOTUS, even AKASHA?  I would probably buy a natural deodorant named Lotus or Akasha but wiping something with the AUM symbol under my arms?  But hey, that’s me.

Would it be any different if I invented some new fangled toilet paper and named it “Jesus Wipes” and put His image on it?

Just askin’.

Not Your Parents’ Yoga

Jason Brown once again knocks it out of the park:

Among serious-minded practitioners, there is palpable discontent with the course the yoga industry seems to be on. Teachers, who in the past were voices defining what yoga is in the 21st century, are now understandably more concerned with enjoying their latter years than attempting to push back against entrenched forces that care little for the soul of yoga. The newer generation has often been thrown out into the wilderness without the tools or knowledge to fulfill their impulse to carry the torch. In the absence of teachers framing the conversation and defining yoga in authentic ways, the market will always fill the gap with whatever sells….

One of my readers here wrote to me and said how refreshing it was to see someone doing “old school” with no apologies. There is much to be said about staying true to yourself and not caving to mainstream.  I may not have lots of students because I no longer teach in studios but as a friend told me, I and my students have created a true sangha, old school yoga way.

Folks are not buying just anything as yoga anymore. And they are telling their friends. The rampant commercialization and co-opting of yoga has become so overblown that even the unfamiliar are skeptical. Times remain too tough to effectively continue hocking candy-coated platitudes. From out of the daunting malaise of pressures and seeming demise, conditions are becoming more ripe to slough off obsolete thinking. No more will we be led around by false gurus or complacent with hypocrisies. No longer will success be defined by status or achieved at the expense of others.  We can and will do better. Let us have the courage to imagine it so.

I’m certainly not a yoga sensation like Ms. Budig but when a woman younger than her tells this Crone, “You are a life saver.  Without you I would be a stressed out 20 year old bitching about everything.  Now I live my life and I’m writing my own story and I have never felt better.  I tell everyone about you and how you guide people to find not only  happiness but themselves.  I thank you for opening my eyes to that.”….

….. THAT is success.  Priceless.

The New Mantra: Replacing ‘Om’ With ‘Glam’

The athletic-wear company Lululemon, known for its yoga togs, introduced a meditation-specific capsule collection in fall 2012, with pieces retailing at relatively affordable prices, including a Devotion Long-Sleeve Tee ($68) and an Intuition Sweater Wrap ($178) that doubles as a meditation blanket. With its extra-deep hood, the Please Me Pullover ($118) is perfect to wear during Zen Buddhist meditation practice, said Amanda Casgar, a spokeswoman for the company, since during the process “you keep your eyes open but focus on a point on the floor in front of you. Pulling the hood right down over your eyes automatically creates that line of sight,” she said.
For the more affluent enthusiast, Donna Karan’s Urban Zen line, affiliated with her charitable wellness foundation of the same name, has become a popular choice (sweat pants, $995).

Oh.  My.  Goddess.  How the hell did anyone meditate before the Please Me Pullover?!?  I mean, really?  Apparently these guys don’t know a damn thing about yoga and meditation ’cause they’re all nekkid!  How did they survive all these years?

IMG_1373

Real Yogis, Kumbh Mela, Haridwar, 2010

“When meditating, the author Gabrielle Bernstein avoids belts or drawstring pants. “Tying anything to your body blocks the energy flow,” she said.”  Please show me the palm leaf in India where that is written.   Is that in the secret palm leaf library in Tamil Nadu?

Note the traditional red string tied around the waists of these babas.

Just sayin’.

Lastly, while this is not a post on yoga per se, I believe it is relevant considering the NYT piece.

Creativist Manifesto:  Consumer v. Creator

I think it absolutely ties in with modern yoga.

Being a consumer means accepting an essentially passive role in our life, one in which we seek fulfillment through the accumulation of stuff, whether it be material goods, a high status job, or even in terms of our relationships.

And yet, increasingly, we know that living our life as consumers is damaging us—damaging us as individuals and as a society, and damaging the earth that supports us. As consumers, we are left searching for that which will give meaning to our lives, as we fail to find lasting satisfaction in consumption….

Instead of seeing ourselves as consumers, I believe we need to see ourselves as Creativists.

A Creativist is a person who creates and connects and acts. Creativists are connected with who they are and are driven from the inside out, rather than being defined by a position as a consumer in society. Creativists fulfill their need to create which is part of all of us. Creativists use their gifts, and in doing so connect with others and in turn society benefits.

The distinction is clear. Consume versus Create. And the forces of consume versus create contain within them a series of choices that we make everyday in our lives—in our relationships, at work and in our communities.

And that’s why Yoga — REAL Yoga — is a radical act.  As Krishnamacharya said, “Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new and more appropriate patterns.”  Real Yoga enables us to make appropriate choices for our relationships, work, and communities.

The renouncers of the Vedic rituals, the ancient yogis, the sramanas,  were radicals who made the choice to break free of mainstream 8th Century BC.

No special clothes required.

what’s the line between ego and service?

Sometimes readers email me to shoot the breeze about yoga stuff.  Last week a reader and Facebook friend wondered about this (he gave me permission to quote him.)  He said:

“I had a conversation with my mentor…whom has been my connection to the Krishnamacharya lineage.  We were discussing the effects of traditional systems vs. Innovative systems, most specifically the relationship between Ego and a teacher’s “need” to innovate.

Obviously one of the key features of Krishnamacharya’s teaching was the importance of adaptation of the practice to suit the individual…..and American teachers seem to be very good at adaptation….but that adaptation seems to be more about their own ego and “self value” in creating the newest and most “effective/clever” system of Yoga.

I’m not really asking a direct question, but more your thoughts, maybe you’ve written something of similar subject?  I figure your being connected with KYM, this is something you guys discussed?”

Interesting discussion!

I actually have never written about this and in all my times at KYM, this topic has never come up.  If I understand the question correctly, it is:  where does the ego and service, so to speak, separate?

I can’t comment on what other teachers “invent”….Anusara, Forrest yoga, etc.  Does it come out of their ego on wanting to control or change things?  I don’t know.  Someone once said that I created METTA YOGA.  Did I?  I don’t know.  I say that Metta Yoga is the Yoga of Awareness, i.e. being awake to reality, all the good and especially the bad, our shadows.  All I know is what informs my practice:  trainings at KYM, with Srivatsa Ramaswami, Buddhism.  “My” yoga is all about the breath, meeting people where they are (both aspects being totally KYM), being aware of what is happening now (the Buddhadharma.)  Yoga, for me, must contain pranayama and meditation for it to be called Yoga, but that’s me, that’s the lineage in which I study.  Am I going to totally spin the teachings to suit my own purpose?  No, because to me Real Yoga (and I don’t care if that phrase upsets people) is about Transformation and Healing.

We all know what happened with John Friend and Anusara…karma?  And people applaud Ana Forrest’s “new” way of teaching — isn’t it supposed to be a bit more therapeutic now?  I’ve been teaching that way for years, i.e., about watching what comes up, digging down to face your demons.  In my opinion, she did not come up with anything brand new.

No one called Krishnamacharya a “yoga therapist.”  When I was in India this year, A.G. Mohan told us that Indians did not come to see Krishnamacharya for “yoga for fitness”, i.e., purely asana practice.  They lined up literally down the street to see him for yoga for depression, bad backs, and other conditions.  He did not teach “yoga therapy”, IT WAS JUST YOGA.  So did he change what he learned from his gurus?  Of course he met the individuals where they were, we know that he taught Iyengar, Jois, and his son Desikachar differently because that’s how those styles evolved.  But did he make up something that was dramatically different from what his gurus taught him?  I don’t think so.

All I know is that I must meet people where they are and as Desikachar has said, whatever happens, happens.

What I do know is that in the end, it’s all the same, really.  What did Friend create?  Anusara is Iyengar inspired and he put a new spin on things, his whole tantra-esque thinking is nothing new, he just made it sexy palatable for Westerners.

After I responded, the reader went on to say that “the direction American Yoga is moving in is pretty darn interesting.  In fact, over contemplating your email, I started wondering what drives most Western yoga students to become “teachers” in the first place, let alone trying to reinvent their “own” system.   Part of it, I’m assuming, is the ego wanting this seemingly luxurious life of being a yoga teacher……because let’s face it, the way most Americans work their lives away pretty much sucks!  The American Dream has essentially become Corporate Slavery.

I think Americans turn to Yoga because it almost seems like a way out.   In a way, it’s a very distorted approach to Moksha!
 
The other reason I think students are going the “teacher” route is that it kind of offers students a way of deepening their own Yoga practice/sadhana — [quoting his teacher] “teaching is a fierce sadhana”.   Ain’t that the f%$#ing truth!  I think American yoga students do want and are hungry for more than just “asana classes” so why not go through a teacher training course!  They are always also described as an “opportunity to deepen one’s own practice”!  I think the American yoga community is maturing enough as a whole to realize there has to be something more to yoga than just asana…..hence so much innovation and crazy weird shit happening in yoga classes.
 

As bad a rep as the Guru principle has received in the US, I think it’s a missing element.  The idea that a teacher has done the long hard journey and come back to help others along.  Not to say they are totally missing….but I think there is a lack of very experienced teachers amongst the yoga population here.  And the ones that are around are too busy traveling around teaching workshops to thousands of students around the country rather than working closely with a student for a long long time!”

I absolutely agree that the the missing piece is having a Guru or at least a long-term relationship with one teacher which I kinda sorta wrote about here:   http://lindasyoga.com/2012/03/29/whos-afraid-of-the-big-bad-guru/

As for everyone doing teacher trainings, I personally think there are TOO MANY teacher trainings.  It feeds into what I wrote about babies teaching babies….http://lindasyoga.com/2011/08/03/babies-teaching-babies/ — which ironically has a video of John Friend!  Hey, who knew, right?  ;)

As for yoga teacher trainings helping someone to “deepen” their own practice….really?  In what way?  Always?  For everyone?  I tell my students that if their path is the length and width of their yoga mat, that ain’t much of a path.   How are you treating people, what are you saying to people?  “Deepening your practice” is a loaded phrase.

I believe that teacher trainers do a disservice in taking everyone into their training, like those who have been doing yoga for a month.  Uh, no.  If I did my own training my requirement would be one year of solid yoga practice, at least once a week.  I am damn old school.  I was a student for 7 years before I became a teacher, not 7 weeks.

Another question to ask is, is yoga teaching a job or a way of life?  I know what it is for me.  I don’t care anymore about “success”, I just feel blessed to teach the students who seek me out in my home shala.   I did not want to come back from India this year, I wanted to stay in India and study study study.  On that false merit of prestige and “success” as a teacher:

“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”

Talk amongst yourselves.

“Transformation in Yoga Philosophy” – a lecture by Kausthub Desikachar, 3/7/12

Krishnamacharya

This is the first of four posts on lectures given by Kausthub Desikachar and A.G. Mohan during my two trainings in India during February and March.  I will say, yet again, that I have been blessed beyond belief to have been introduced into the Krishnamacharya lineage as early as I was in my teaching career.  Even after 10 years of teaching, these last two trainings confirmed (again) how vast yoga is, that no matter how many people I have studied with, there is always so much more to learn.  I will never call myself an expert.  It is an honor and a responsibility to be a representative of this lineage.  I hope I can always convey as authentically as possible what I have learned via my trainings in this tradition.

For those who don’t know, Kausthub is the son of T.K.V.  Desikachar, who is the son of Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga.

************

Transformation begins with a serious practice of yoga.  Throughout the lecture Kausthub emphasized a serious practice of yoga — yoga beyond asana, yoga that is more than skin deep.  He said that according to some ancient texts there are four stages of transformation, other texts talk about 7 stages.   In his lecture he dealt with the Upanisads and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that talk about our personal transformation having four stages.

It is Kausthub’s belief that not even 5% of people practicing yoga today are in the first stage of transformation, i.e , the state where prana begins to move fluidly in the body (prana being the life force, not merely the breath as is frequently taught in modern yoga.)   He said that most yoga practitioners don’t know what prana really is because they only know asana.  This knowledge of prana does not come from a casual yoga practice; it does not come from a practice that is only about the physical.  Transformation begins when your yoga transcends the body.

The first stage of transformation is when prana flows smoothly throughout the body.  Our perception become very sensitive.  Patanjali speaks to this in YS 3.36.  Our senses change, everything heightens, our sensations are beyond memory and all these happenings really can’t be explained in tangible terms.

At this stage it is very common for people to stop their yoga practice because their entity is so different now, it is discomforting, it is out of the norm.  Our perceptions are altered on a deeper level and this changes our relationships with people, with partners, and sometimes people want to change jobs.  However, Kausthub said that this is not the time to make dramatic decisions.

At the second stage of transformation, there is an identity crisis.  We start feeling like crap.  Our internal drums are beating and there is a loud noise inside us that disturbs our structural foundation, the way we have been accustomed to for so many years.  Our mental patterns are challlenged, our outlook changes, but again, try to make no changes….yet.

This is another stage where people leave their practice, we want to continue but we can’t because things are even more discomforting.  This is the time to especially sustain the practice.  Kausthub said that it is at the end of this second stage that collapse often happens and depression can set in.  The ancient yogis said LET IT COLLAPSE.  Just as an old building starts to collapse, no matter how much you try to prop it up, it’s not the same.  Let it collapse and then build a new foundation for a new building.  This is progress.

The third stage is when new patterns start to manifest, the new structures are built.  Let whatever is new come up slowly, don’t grasp.  It is only by not grasping do these patterns sustain themselves.

The fourth stage is freedom, not bound by any patterns, but this is a stage that few people reach.  It is difficult in modern times because we are still attached to so many things.

There was a different teacher-student role in every stage of transformation.  That is the way it was in the olden days as my teacher Ramaswami calls the ancient times which is very different from now.   In the olden days, yoga was taught one-on-one, teachers did not teach to 300 at a yoga conference.  There was absolute trust between teacher and student and the teacher was the platform of support for the student when the student’s structure was changing.

Kausthub believes that model is seriously lacking in modern yoga.  Back in the day this teacher-student model was taken for granted but nowadays it is not consistent because there are too many styles of yoga and many of the giants of yoga who could lead people in these transformations are now dead.  As for yoga teachers nowadays, Kausthub said that if anyone tells you something is absolute, like “this pose will always help X”, “this pose will cure X”, “X pranayama will change this”, know that it’s bullshit because nothing is absolute.  Every mind, every body, every day is different.

  The tools of yoga (asana, pranayama, meditation) don’t have power on their own; their power comes from the way they are practiced.  He gave an example of child’s pose:  it’s called child’s pose because it’s so easy a child can do.  Do it over and over without any emphasis on the breath or mental awareness and it’s just movement.  But taking 15 seconds to do it with emphasis on the breath and mental awareness has power because you are releasing your prana in a totally different way.

Don’t evaluate your yoga by your level of flexibility or your ability to get into a pretzel pose — only evaluate your yoga by the transformative effect it has on you.  When someone asked Kausthub “how do I find a teacher like you are talking about?”, he said “instead of looking for a teacher, ask if YOU are ready to be a student.  Seek to be a student first, then you will you find your teacher.”

Referencing current problems in modern  yoga, Kausthub said the main problem, in his opinion, is that anyone can be a yoga teacher nowadays.  Everyone wants to be a teacher but there is no accountability.  Of course training is important, but being a good teacher is not about how much you know but is about your transformation.  A serious question to ask is:  if someone is going through these stages of transformation, and their teacher just graduated from a 200 hour training, how in the world can a newbie teacher cope with the questions that student will ask if the teacher herself has not experienced those stages yet?  In the olden days, a teacher always needed their own teacher before they could call themselves an ACHARYA, and that practice no longer exists in modern yoga.  Because anyone can call themselves anything nowadays!  Look for a teacher who has a current relationship with a teacher, but focus on the teachings, not the teacher.  Kausthub said his father and grandfather were not perfect men, they were not perfect teachers, but they had a passion for the teachings.  That is what makes a great teacher.  Freedom is not about being perfect, it’s about making friends with your imperfections.

Making a veiled reference to Friendgate, Kausthub said this is not the first time yoga has faced difficulties.  If the spiritual teachings are valid, yoga will sustain; if yoga is merely a fashion, it will not sustain.   The teachings are much larger than any crisis modern yoga is currently experiencing.

who’s afraid of the big bad guru?

It has always struck me how Western yoga peeps are afraid of the word “guru.”  I’ve gotten into it with a well-known yoga blogger about the use of the word guru, her argument being that somehow there is something inherently bad or negative about the word.   We give words their power.   There are different definitions for guru:  venerable, weighty, teacher, dispeller of darkness.  In Buddhism a guru is seen as a teacher or a spiritual friend.  So many connotations on such a simple word yet so many problems associated with it.  That’s what happens when we look outside ourselves for our identity.  We become lost and confused.

I was happy to be in India when the John Friend scandal broke.  Yawn.  That’s when the discussions of guru began.   I have no problem with so many seemingly intelligent people calling him a guru.  But I think the entire debacle raises questions on WHY so many people got hood-winked.  What does that say about them?  What were THEY lacking in their lives that they entrusted their identities, indeed their yoga souls, to someone like Friend?  People can argue that we all have the need to belong to a group, we all need to feel wanted, praised, loved, but at what price?  Just because the Kula Kids gave up their identities to a charismatic charletan, does not make the concept of guru bad.

I have been called a guru, albeit in India, and I don’t have an entourage like Friend.  When I am in India and people find out I am a yoga teacher they automatically ask “who is your guru?”  People have touched my feet in India, especially at the Kumbh Mela.  I know that would shock people here and the first time it happened I was taken aback, but I realized, that’s what people do.  I did not automatically think that I am any more special or more important than they are.

Kausthub Desikachar spoke to us twice during my training this month and he spoke about the teacher-student relationship.  He said yoga students should look for a teacher who has a current relationship with a teacher, but to focus on the teachings, not the teacher.  He told us that people would always tell him how wonderful it is to have Desikachar as a father, how wonderful it must have been to have Krishnamacharya for a grandfather, that they must have been the perfect teachers.  He told us, no, they were not perfect men, they were not perfect teachers, but they were passionate about the teachings, that the teachings of yoga are much more important than Krishnamacharya or Desikachar.  Kausthub said that if one reads the Sutra-s carefully, Patanjali did not say if we practice authentic yoga that we will not have any problems, we will only have less klesas.   Freedom is not about being perfect, it’s about making friends with your imperfections.

I read on a yoga teacher’s website the other day that she is an “expert in all things yoga.”  Wow.  Does that make her a guru?  Instead of wanting to learn more about her, that makes me run like hell.  I have never heard the teachers at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram say they were experts in anything.  In fact, in spite of some of them studying with Desikachar for 10 or more years, during my training they said they are still learning from him, from each other, and from us, the students who come to sit at their feet.   Humility bespeaks a true yogi.

So put down that smartphone, look someone in the eye, and listen mindfully next time they speak to you.  That person might be your next guru.  Not the rock star yoga teacher you idolize at the yoga conference, not the yoga teacher you pay thousands of dollars to for a teacher training, but your next door neighbor.  Or a homeless person.  Or a domestic violence survivor.

I am blessed with serendipitious meetings when I am India and one of them was during my last weekend in India.  In a land where even the beggars have cell phones, this man does not have one.  He does not do email and he did not know what Wikipedia was until I told him.  He is a wealthy man, a movie distributor whose father was a famous film director in 1950s Bollywood and whose mother was a well-known musician who played at Woodstock.  Yet, one of the most unassuming men I have ever met.  We talked about the cell phone phenomena, about how people feel lost without them, AS IF constantly checking emails and Facebook and Twitter gives them their identity.  He said, “I see people all the time in restaurants, they are out together but not talking, they’re always checking their phones.  Nincompoops.”  He said they were missing life, missing connecting with someone who could be their teacher.  A guru.

My friend said he does not allow people to make or receive calls when they are in his flat, only in emergencies, only if it is an absolute necessity.  He makes them go outside because he finds it rude and distracting.  This, in a country where there are more cell phones than toilets.  I’ve decided that next time I am talking with someone who is more interested in swiping their smartphone or checking Google Maps, I’m going to stop talking and wait for them to practice mindful listening.

We spent 17 hours together during my last weekend in India.  No computers, no phones — only walking, talking, drinking tea.  And always mindfully listening to each other’s guru.

Because you never know who that might be.

wisdom from my teacher: “Spinal Exercise”

Here is the latest newsletter from my teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, the yoga master I met in 2003 who inspired me to travel to the heart of yoga.  Here also are links to his newsletters from 2009 and 2010, a wealth of yoga information from the longest standing student of Sri Krishnamacharya:

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 1

Ramaswami’s Newsletters Vol. 2

Each volume has a search function, so you can search for “mudra”, for example, and find 15 references.  Thanks to Krisztian Krutzler for preparing these downloadable docs.

If you are in the Chicago area and want to study with a true  yoga master, come to the Chicago Yoga Center, September 9-18.  Ramaswamiji will offer a two hour program on mantras on the 9th and a 10 hour program on the last two chapters of the Yoga Sutras on 10th and 11th. There is also a 25 hour certificate program on Core Vinyasakrama asanas and a 10 hour program on asana, pranayama and meditation on the 17th and 18th.

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SPINAL EXERCISE, THE BOTTOM OF IT

I have not been writing about Asanas for quite sometime.  I have covered a lot of ground in my Vinyasakrama book and also in the earlier book, Yoga for Three Stages of Life.  I thought though I could write about asana again- of course, nothing entirely new but a
different angle.

It is said that one of the main aims of asana and pranayama practice (Hata Yoga) is to maintain the health of the backbone.  It is a common refrain that one is as old as the condition of the backbone.  And some of the most charming postures of yoga involve the many positions of the spine.  Parsva Bhangi, Matsyendrasana, Akunchanasana, Kapotasana.  Paschimatanasana and a host of other poses bring out the majesty and
the versatility of one of God’s marvelous engineering creations called the spine.

The spine has been the center of attention of several systems, like the chiropractics. Among Yogis, Kundalini Yoga and Hata Yoga can be considered to be spine centric.  The one bone assembly, the backbone is not straight but one that is curved back(kyphosis) and forward (lordosis) and the yogis try to make it straight at least during the time they sit and meditate so that the Kundalini is aroused and moved through the sushumna in the spinal column as per the Kundalini Yoga or the integrated prana moves through the sushumna as the Hatayogis explain hatayoga.

The spine can be divided into different sections for study and practice.  The bottom is the tailbone or coccyx which is curved and has three to five tiny vertebrae.  It stays beneath the pelvis.  There is some mobility in it but we do not pay much attention to it until one
falls on the butts.  A few years back, already an old man, I tried to carry a teapoy down the stairs in my house.  I was wearing hard slippers and as I overstepped a step I slipped (I had the slippers on, you see) and fell heavily on my butts.  The teapoy (tea table) broke and we had to discard it.  I was in great pain.  My wife took me to a hospital immediately for a precautionary X ray which did not reveal any damage (not broken like the furniture).  But the orthopedist warned me that I may have some recurring pain in the coccyx region when I sit for a long time.  For a period of time whenever I did long travel, like from NJ to Los Angeles, I used to feel a lot of pain sitting.  So I know where the tailbone is.

The backbone although it is one assembly has different sections each having its own idiosyncrasy, so when exercising the backbone one has to pay attention to each section. The tailbone/coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic and cervical sections have their distinct characteristics.  The muladhara chakra is associated with coccyx, the svadhishtana
chakra is linked to the sacral region, the manipuraka with the lumbar region, then we have anahata with the thoracic spine and the vishuddhi chakra is in the cervical region.  The spinal column descends from the occipital region and we have the aajna chakra in that region and the sahasrara is in the cranial region.  The tailbone is the baby of the
assembly at the bottom and tucked nicely but is surrounded by heavy muscles and tissues and protected well.  It has some mobility.  Since it is the root of the spine it is also known among Yogis as the Mula.  Since both Hata Yoga and Kundalini Yoga are predominantly connected with the spine the mula becomes an important aspect of yoga. When one wants to work with the spine, it, the coccyx, should be firmly anchored.

Let us consider the example of the fishing rod (old times).  It has a flexible pole, a string and the bait. (sorry I could not think of an ahimsa example).  One holds the pole at the far end and when the bait is taken, the pole bends. The fisherman will have to hold the pole firmly so that the pole can bend to the extent required, even though there will be some play or movement in the hand of the holder.  Further he has to hold at the farthest point, holding a bit inside the pole reduces the leverage and the pole will not bend sufficiently.

The coccyx and sacrum (sacro-coccygeal section) are at the bottom of the backbone. The coccyx is at the very end of the spine.  It represents a vestigial tail (hence the common term tailbone) and consists of three to five very small bones fused together. There is limited movement between these bones permitted by fibrous joints and ligaments. The sacrum is a large triangular bone at the base of the spine and at the upper and back part of the pelvic cavity and where it is ‘inserted’ like a bone wedged between the two hip bones. Its upper part  is connected to the last lumbar vertebra and the bottom part to
the coccyx.   In children it consists normally of five unfused vertebrae which begin fusing around 16 years and become completely fused around 26.  It is kyphotic (curved, concavity facing forward). Even so, it is now an established fact that the sacrum moves between the ilia by both ambulatory and respiratory motions.  It would therefore point to the
logic of the use of fuller breathing in vinyasa movements as in Vinyasa Krama.

So the mula or the tail bone will have to be held firmly during the spinal exercises.  And the yogis used the well known technique called mulabandha which is contracting a few groups of muscles surrounding the tailbone:  the perineum, rectum and the gluteal muscles.  All
spinal movements, the forward bend,the rounded back, the turn, the back bend, the side bend, all will be better if the mula is gripped firmly and engaged.

Now let us consider the different types of spinal movements.  The turning or twisting movement has to emanate from the mula and my Guru had a couple of asana vinyasas to provide for this movement.  The Jataraparivrittis efficiently engage the tailbone and the next
immediate section sacrum.  Please refer to my book The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga (pages 105,106,119,121,122).  Tatakamudra (page 105) by anchoring the sacro-coccygial portion of the spine helps to stretch it. These are some of the very early exercises my Guru used to teach to almost all the students.

For the back bending exercises it is necessary to protect the lumbar spine. Towards that, the flexibility and the strength of the sacro-coccygeal region is to be necessarily cultivated. The pelvic push is efficiently facilitated by a simple but effective asana called dwipadapeetam (pages109-115) or desk pose.  This posture which is casually practiced with the feet apart and thighs spread out leaves out the the spine in the pelvic region. Hence it is necessary to keep the feet together, tighten the gluteal muscles, draw in the rectum and gently push the tailbone/sacrum up and feel a healthy stretch at the
bottom of the spine. Any back bending done without fully involving the sacro coccygial region is a less efficient back bend and tends to put more strain on the lumbar spine. Again my Guru used this posture to teach to almost anyone.  This upward pelvic push is to be done on inhalation generally but, it can be done while exhaling smoothly by the elderly, the obese, the pregnant, the highly strung etc.  Because the feet and back of the head are well anchored it becomes easy to control the back bend very well and one can improve the stretch step by step.  Other poses that are in this group would be catushpada peetam
or Table pose ( page79 ) and Purvatanasana or the anterior stretch pose (pages78,79). The other back-bends in the prone poses such as Bhujangasana, dhanurasana and salabhasana (pages 138-145) also may be done with the thighs and feet together to keep the sacrum and tailbone engaged and stretchered.  To ensure this condition, the teacher may ask the student to keep the feet and thighs together by placing a piece of paper between the feet  and not let the paper drop to the floor while raising the legs up in asana like Salabhasana.  In these prone exercises keeping the legs together enables to exercise all parts of the spine, especially the oft neglected sacro-coccygeal area.

The sacral/pelvic tilt also is an important movement in the context of forward bending.  This is achieved best in balasana or forward bend in Vajrasana (page 179,180) first and then in paschimatanasana (page 75-77) or the posterior stretch pose.  Those who are able to engage the muscles surrounding the sacrum and coccyx are able to achieve a good forward bend facilitated by the tilting or tipping of the pelvis. One procedure that will be helpful is for the teacher or a friend to support the sacrum with both the hands and push forward and down on exhalation and allow the subject to return to dandasana on inhalation while still maintaining the healthy pressure.  It may be good to maintain the pressure for a while in the posture pushing forward and down on each long exhalation and then holding it on inhalation.  Over a period the practitioner would be able to use the group of muscles at the base of the spine and stretch the muscles of the sacral region.

Then we have the important movement of lifting and holding the tailbone/sacrum up, by pulling up the waist and hips.  Here the muscles of the hip joints are brought into play.  This can be done in the beginning of tadansana sequence itself.  When the subject raises the
arms (page 4-5), he or she can get a partner to hold the pelvic girdle below the hip joints and push the pelvis up.  This helps to stretch the pelvic and hip muscles up and along with that the sacrum and tail bone also move up a little bit and it will be easy to stretch the
supporting musculature.  One can do the movements a few times with the helper holding the pelvis up a little while the arms are brought down on exhalation and pulling the pelvis up when one raises the arms on inhalation.  Over a period of time the practitioner, while raising the arms, will engage the hip muscles and gently pull the pelvis along with the sacro coccygeal portion of the spine. Sri Krishnamacharya would frequently exhort the student to pull up and hold the hips up in several seated postures like parvatanasana (page 196) and dandasana (page 39).  He would say in Tamil “iduppai thooki pidiyungo” or “Pull up the waist/hips and hold it up”.

I think it is good to use these simple asana and vinyasa procedures to prepare the bottom of the spine.  These simple procedures help to maintain a good flexibility and the tone of the supporting musculature at the bottom end of the spine. My Guru taught many of these simple and doable procedures almost to all levels of yoga abhyasis.  He would
appropriately alter the breathing to langhanakriya so that some of the overweight, older, tense and pregnant (except prone poses in pregnancy) abhyasis could do these procedures.  These are good preparatory exercises that will be helpful in getting a good control over the sacro-coccygeal spine that will help in doing some of the more difficult and charming spine-centric asanas like ushtrasana/kapotasana, triyangmukha uttanasana (backbends), paschimatanasana (forward bend), matsyendtasana (spinal twist), akunchanasana(rounding the spine), parsva bhangi(side bend) and other spine centric asanas and vinysasas.

The term Cakra is well known to Yogis.  Cakra means a wheel in normal usage.  The Samkhyas refer to the potter’s wheel as cakra while describing the post kaivalya time of the yogi. The seven cakras are usually represented as wheels.  Brahmananda, the commentator of the Hatayogapradeepika, refers to cakras as Nadicakra in the context of
nadis. He calls it a collection/group of nadis or nadi samooha.

Several contemporary yogis relate this concept of nadi samooha to ganglia or plexus.  A wheel also is an assembly of different parts, like the hub, spokes, rim and a tyre.  Since Nadis can also refer to blood vessels, the heart itself is referred to as hrdaya cakra.  The
Chaedogya Upanishad of Sama Veda mentions that there are 101 nadis that emanate from the heart.  It is possible then that cakra could mean an organ in this context.  The anahata cakra refers to a cakra that produces a sound without being struck by another agent.  The heart produces the sound by itself.  So anahata cakra could mean the heart cakra or the heart.  In the Suryanamaskara mantra of Yajurveda, there is a mantra which refers to the human body as “ashta cakra, nava dvaara.”  The nava or nine dvaaraas or openings are the two eyes, the two ears, the two nostrils and the mouth in the face plus the other two openings.  While explaining the meaning of the eight cakras, Sayana, the well known commentator of the vedas, refers to the cakras as different arrangements of cells or different tissues (humors) in the body as tvak (skin), carma (dermis), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), medhas (fat), asti (bone), majja (marrow), sukla (seman)/
sonita (uterine secretions).

Thus the term cakra could indicate a group, collection, village of some tissues or an assembly.  It is also suggested by some scholars that the cakra w.r.t the spinal column could refer to different parts of the backbone itself, each section having its own unique
arrangements of bones: the coccyx, sacrum, lumbar, thoracic, cervical and occipital.  And the entire spine with the cranium looks like a kundalini or a cobra with the beautiful wavy body curvatures.

wisdom from my teacher: "Statics and Dynamics of Asana"

Another newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami….enjoy

When I was a student I had to study a course in Mathematics (or was it Physics or Engineering?) titled, “Statics and Dynamics.”  That was the time Mathematics left me but I liked the name of the course which I am using as the title of the article.

When I was young I used to be called “Soni Ramaswami” by many relatives, friends and many who were not very friendly.  “Soni” means puny.  I used to be very thin, even so I used to be very interested in outdoor sports activities. I managed to get onto the college/school teams in Tennis and Cricket.  In fact, I was coached for several years by the father of the National Tennis Champion in India at the time and the father had coached the champion.  I thought I did well in spite of a lack of the required physique and stamina.  I was the college champion in Tennis for three years and also won the district championship for college students.  My best moment was the match I played against the All India number 3 ranked player at that time.

Barely 18, I came close to beating him.  In the close match, in the final set I could not cope with the physical demands.  My coach told me later that I had a good ball sense and talent (please bear with me on this, old men like me need some bragging for sustenance), but with my kind of physique and lack of stamina I had little chance of making the grade.

Much earlier I had started learning Yoga from my guru, Sri Krishnamacharya.  Prior to that I had learned some Yoga asanas from my father, several people in my school and a few other teachers.  In my school the physical education teacher usually doubled as a yoga master as well and several students were familiar with yogasanas and many were able to do several poses like sarvangsana, padmasana, etc.  I used to do asanas randomly, no coordinated breathing, no pranayama, more interested in the form alone.

But when I started the studies with my guru the whole picture was different.  Slow synchronous breathing, the counter-poses, the sequencing, the adaptations, pranayama, chanting, text studies were all new and it was astounding studying with him.  Initially I was continuing to engage in outdoor sports which he was aware of, but did not ask me to choose between the two.  One day he said that the philosophy of Yoga and outdoor sports were very different.  He would say that while Yoga is considered as a sarvanga sadhana or practice for all parts of the body (and mind) modern sporting activities were anga bhanga sadhana as they affect different parts of the body differently producing disequilibrium and asymmetry.  I remembered at that time I came across a story in a sports magazine about the left wrist of Rod Laver an outstanding Australian Tennis player. It was said that the wrist size of his playing left hand was twice as large as the right one.

Sri Krishnamacharya also used to say very interesting things during the rest pauses between different asanas and sequences. Once he said that the Yogi should be thin or krisa. One should not be overweight….  Carelessly developed fat bellies and cultivated oversized biceps one should guard against.  It suited me as I refused to put on weight when I was a young adult.  After I became a senior citizen, of course I started putting on weight growing sidewards.

He also emphasized individual home practice. Merely studying with the teacher may not be sufficient. Regular comprehensive practice was emphasized. He would quote the following sloka:

anabhyase visa ham vidya
ajirne bhojanam visham
Visham sabha daridrasya
Vridhddhasys taruni visham

“Knowledge without practice (application) is toxic.  Food during indigestion is poison.  Partying is poison (ruinous) to the poor, while to the old a young spouse is disaster indeed.”

By then I had a copy of his Yoga Makaranda, the Tamil version.  Fortunately this book, a treasure of information and instructions for everyone who wants to know the Krishnamacharya system is now at everybody’s fingertips, literally…..

Modern day yoga asana practice follows two different streams.  There are old schools which teach different asanas and require the participants to stay in the pose for a long time, no appreciable movements or breathing but just stay in the pose for a long time.  They emphasis the steadiness definition of yoga even though many find long stay in the poses painful and boring.  There is no ‘sukha’ in it.  Then there is another stream, more modern, in which the asana practice is a continuous flow of movements like a train going at breakneck speed not stopping and looking at at any of the beautiful stations and places called asanas in between.  A set of regimented routines on a graded scale of difficulty is done at a hurried pace without coordination with slow breathing day in and day out.

In the Yoga Makaranda of Krishnamacharya and the way I learnt Yoga from my Guru, the asanas are described in two perspectives.  The book contains pictures of a number of asanas. Krishnamacharya also in most cases mentions that one should stay in these poses for a long time:

Chaturanga dandasana (10mts),
Adhomukhasvanasana (15mts),
Urdhwamukhaswanasana(15 mts)
Mahamudra/Janusirsasana (15 mts),
sarvangasana (niralamba)10mts, etc.

It is clear that many of the static poses require time to confer the intended benefits to the abhyasi.  He also details the benefits that accrue from the long stay in these classic poses.

One also finds that Krishnamacharya has described in the Makranda a number of Vinyasas leading to an asana and then the return sequence.  These are not illustrated though.  It it is gratifying to know that Yoga Makaranda’s English version published by Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram has sketches to illustrate most of the Vinyasas which along with the beautiful asana pictures of Krishnamacharya makes it a very useful companion to understand the Krishnamacharya system of asana practice.  Further the required breathing also is described in the Makaranda, whether a particular movement is to be done on inhalation or exhalation or occasionally holding the breath.  However, the book does not contain the several vinyasas done in the asanas or ‘in situ’ vinyasas mainly because the book is a small one.  He has though mentioned that several of the asanas like sarvangasana, sirsasana, padmasana, etc. have a number of vinyasas emanating from the basic
poses.  These vinyasas, as many and as varied as possible, should be done.  These vinyasas make the system of yoga a sarvanga sadhana as my Guru mentions in the Makaranda. In my book. Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, I have attempted to include almost the complete range of vinyasas in all the major asanas as I had learnt frm my guru.  When one exercises the body with deep vinyasas one is able to squeeze as much of the venous blood as possible from the various tissues and thus enhance the muscle pump effect.  Then the deep associated breathing used in Krishnamacharya’s system helps to enhance the respiratory suction pump effect on the heart thereby increasing the rakta sanchara or blood circulation especially the venous blood return to the heart. More and more vinyasas help to stretch the blood vessels as well keeping them more elastic.

The practice of vinyasas itself is made very interesting by my Guru.  Each expansive vinyasa would be done on slow ujjayi inhalation and every contraction movement would be done on slow smooth exhalation.  What should be the length of the inhalation and exhalation as compared to our normal breathing of about 2 seconds of inhalation and 2 seconds of exhalation?  He would ask us to take a slow inhalation, say about 5 seconds and another 5 seconds for exhalation.  It is the minimum.  One could slowly increase the time for inhalation from 5 to 6 and even up to 10 or twelve seconds.  The vinyasas were never done at the breakneck speed with which they are done these days. The slower the movements the better and more beneficial it is. A rate of five to six breaths per minute in vinyasakrama is in order.  At this rate the suryanamaskara routine of 12 Vinyasas would take about 2 to 3 minutes.  By studying Yoga with him one could realize how different Yoga is from workouts, aerobics, outdoor sport activities and even fast paced Yoga where the slow, mindful breathing is compromised.

So Sri Krishnamacharya’s system of asana practice, as evident from the Makaranda and also from how I have studied with him, is a judicious combination of dynamic Vinyasas and classic asanas. Vinyasas also help to achieve perfection in poses.  A few years ago when I was conducting the teacher training program, we went through the entire gamut of vinyasas centered around Padmasana.  We continued the practice for several days gradually adding more and more vinyasas.  Then we did a number of movements staying in Padmasana. At the end of it all, a participant came to me and said that it was the first time he could do padmasana even though he was a yoga practitioner for morethan ten years. The quality of his padmasana improved day by day as he started practicing more and more vinyasas in padmasana which all helped to make the final posture more secure. And he could stay in the posture for a longer period of time, say 10 or 15 mts, as Sri Krishnamacharya would want the abhyasis to be able to do.

How can one stay in postures like paschimatanasana, sarvangasana, sirsasana, etc. for 10 to 15 mts or even 30 mts as some yogabhyasis do? Will it not be painful, won’t the limbs go to sleep and what about the mind, does it not get bored? It will be interesting to know the way Sri Krishnamacharya taught Sarvangasana to me.

First do the preliminary poses like desk pose, apanasana and urdwa prasarita pada hastasana, slowly with the appropriate breathing.  Then get into the more relaxed viparitakarani position.  Keep the legs relaxed -even limp- for a while watching the unhurried breathing.  Then come down.

Do it for a few days and then after getting into the viparitakarani position straighten the body, support the back behind the ribcage with the palms placed close to each other. Stay for a few minutes, come down, do an appropriate counterpose and do the routine a few more times for a total of about 10 minutes. From then on try to increase the duration of stay in the pose until you are able to stay for 10 mts in one try. After a few days of comfortable steady stay in sarvangasana, increase the stay to about 15 minutes the ideal duration in sarvangasana. Now start concentrating on the breath. Your inhalation can be short say 3 seconds or so in this pose as the inhalation is a bit more difficult because of the cramped nature of the chest. But one can have a very long exhalation. After a few days practice try to introduce the bandhas as you start your slow exhalation. Start drawing in the rectum and the abdomen in tandem as you exhale finishing the exhalation with mulabandha and uddiyana bandha in place. Hold the breath out and maintain the bandhas for about 5 seconds. Then release the bandhas and start the next slow inhalation.

After a few days practice count the number of breaths that you take for the entire duration of your stay in the posture. Then try to reduce the number of breaths you take for the same 15 minutes stay. The aim is to reduce this number until you reach a steady state that you can maintain consistently. There are people who are able to maintain a breath rate of about 4, 3, 2, or even one breath per minute staying in a static yoga posture as sarvangasana. It is better to learn these procedures from a teacher.

Many years back I used to teach in Houston for several weeks at a time. It was a time when asanas like sarvangasana and pranayama were taboo and padmasana was a dreaded asana. I tried to encourage the class to practice sarvangasana, learning it an orderly fashion through preparatory Vinyasas and finally the posture. It took a while and then the participants were encouraged to try to stay in the asana for a while doing slow smooth breathing. They were able to stay for longer and longer duration and towards the end of the program more than half of the class could stay for the full fifteen minutes maintaining at best a breath rate of 3 or 4 per minute. In my teacher training programs the participants are encouraged to develop endurance to stay in some of the important poses like the inversions, paschimatanasana, mahamudra, etc. even as they learn several hundred Vinyasas in the course.

Further, while asanas are a necessary routine for a yogabhyasi it is not sufficient. A well rounded yoga practice should contain other angas of yoga like pranayama because they between them help to reduce the systemic excess of rajas and tamas.  Day’s yoga practice should consist of a proper combination of dynamic vinyasas and static asanas. Add a stint of pranayama practice and some meditation or chanting, and you have a wholesome daily yoga practice.

it bears repeating

late July gardens, 2010

Last week on my birthday I listened to Mark Whitwell’s talk on the new website Yoga Teacher Telesummit. I have to admit that I did not finish listening to his talk because my birthday arrived with gorgeous weather and I was compelled to practice my other yoga — gardening. A beautiful day is wasted sitting in front of the computer even if it is spent listening to Mark. You can read my other posts about Mark here.

However, I did write some notes as I listened and what Mark talked about bears repeating: yoga is about the breath first and foremost, as Krishnamacharya taught.

Mark believes that “yoga [in America] has painted itself into a corner by a few obsessed people.” He said that exaggerated postures done by people of certain body types is not what yoga is about — yoga is about connection, our connection with the intimacy of Life.

Mark feels that the source scholar of yoga, Krishnamacharya, has been forgotten and it is “time to put scholarship into what has been popularized”; i.e., put the principles of Krishnamacharya back into what has become popular. When this is done “yoga then becomes efficient, powerful, and safe.”  It becomes the “direct tantra of intimacy”, the nurturing reality of what yoga really is.

Mark said that five things must be remembered in order to accomplish this:

1. Body movement is for the breath, not the other way around — body movement IS breath movement. Breath starts and ends every movement.

2. Inhalation is receptivity from above — the receptive aspect of life; exhalation is from below — the abs in and up, the chest secondary, strength receiving.

3. Ha-tha Yoga is the union of opposites in your own system: sun/moon, male/female, strength that is receiving, softness supported by strength, yin/yang, shiva/shakti.

4. Asana creates bandha and bandha serves the breath. Bandha is the “intelligent cooperation of muscle groups” in our system. They are in polarity of above to below, inhale/exhale, strength to receptivity

5. Asana allows for pranayama and when you do pranayama in the way that is right for you then meditation arises naturally, this is what Krishnamacharya taught.  Meditation then comes as a siddhi, it is a seamless process. Understanding that Krishnamacharya referred to the combination of asana and pranayama as sadhana — (sadhana being “that which you can do”, that is, the asana that is right for you as Krishnamacharya taught) mediation will arise as a result of YOUR sadhana.

Mark said that sleep arises naturally and spontaneously, you can not force yourself to sleep, it just happens. In the same way you can not force yourself to meditate, meditation arises spontaneously after your sadhana of asana + pranayama.

As much as I adore Mark, I canceled my teacher training with him at Omega in August.  It would have cost me over $1000 and that is the price of a plane ticket to India.  I have a chance to study yoga therapy with AG Mohan, another one of Krishnamacharya’s long-time students.

Sorry, Mark, but I will see you somewhere in 2012.  Ma India is calling me home. Again.

wisdom from my teacher

Yes, even my yoga guru shuts up to do his practice:

“…[the] English translation of my Guru Sri Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda (I have the Tamil translation of the book for over 45 years and refer to it even today whenever I want to just shut up and listen to my Guru, Sri Krishnamacharya.)”

Note:  that’s called humility…one of the aspects of a true yogi.

Click here if you want to download Krishnamacharya’s “essence of yoga.” This is a priceless gift. 

Ramiswamiji’s May newsletter on Advaita….

“My teacher Sri Krishnamacharya took considerable pains to teach the Yoga Sutras to his students. He also wanted his students to study and be familiar with other orthodox philosophies like Samkhya, and Vedanta. The several Upanishads, the Gita and Brahma sutra he taught to explain the rather tricky, involved vedanta philosophy, usually following the visishta-advaita approach, though he also was adept in advaita philosophy. He once said in the Brahma Sutra class to the effect that while Advaita could be intellectually stimulating it is visishta advaita that will be emotionally satisfying.

Perhaps the most widely read orthodox Indian Philosophy is Vedanta and especially the Advaita school. There are tons of material available on this philosophy and many people interested in vedic thought study this and gradually become lifelong students of Vedanta. Many long time Hatha Yoga practitioners have taken up the study of Yoga as a philosophical system and considerable material is available from both old and contemporary writers in different languages especially English. And some among the the yoga practitioners have taken an interest in studying the vedanta philosophy also especially the advaitic interpretation. In this however, the published material on Advaita Vedanta available is so technical and involved that the difficult subject is made more inaccessible by several portions which are very technical. Profound and daring, albeit very ancient, this philosophy stands out among all the vedic philosophies. I thought I could write very briefly on the basic tenets of this thought process.

There are at least two things we need to have an experience, a subject and an object. When you and I sit at a table over a cup of coffee or a can of beer or a more yogic glass of goat’s or cow’s milk, I am the subject and you are the object and it is the other way from your point of view. We are two different entities and what does advaita say about our relationship? Advaita says that there is only one principle, the observer which is pure consciousness. It implies that there is only one principle or entity that is pure consciousness that can be termed as one having “Existance” (satya).  Nothing else qualifies to be termed “It exists“. So the term advaita refers to that one principle that alone exists. Of course it appears to contradict our experience as we converse as you and I.

Many Indian philosophies both vedic and non Vedic, endeavor to explain the absolute beginning (aarambha) of the creation of the universe. The several puranas have the narration of creation as an essential aspect of purana. They explain how God created the Universe. There are other views like those of the Samkhyas and Yogis who say the evolution of the Universe began with the disequilibrium of the gunas in the dimensionless mulaprakriti. They do not see the need for a God to create the Universe. The vaiseshika philosophy says that the universe came about by the combination of various atoms of earth, of water, etc. and the atoms or paramanus are the basic building blocks of the Universe. Further all these vedic darsanas are careful to point out that there is also the individual self that is distinct and different from the material universe created. Because they suggest two different principles– the consciousness and matter– these philosophies came to be called dwaita or dualistic. They also differ from the modern scientific view which says that the universe started by the evolution from a tiny but hugely dense entity called singularity, but seems to imply that individual consciousness is a product of matter and not an independent entity—contrary to the vedic philosophies.

Advaita as the name implies indicates that there is only one principle and none else . That principle is pure non changing(sat) consciousness(chit) which they call Brahman. How do they explain the existence of the evolved Universe? Since there is only one principle which itself does not undergo any change with time (avakasa) or place (akasa) the evolved universe is not real but only an illusion and not independent. When we attempt to find out the beginning of the evolution we go back from the present. The classic examples of the chicken and the egg or the seed and the tree are mentioned to indicate the impossibility of finding out the beginning of the evolution. One school of advaitins says that since the chicken-egg phenomenon involves an unending chain of changes the beginning of which can not be determined , so the very exercise of finding out how the universe started (Aaramba vaada) is futile and all views about how the universe began are wrong. In fact, accordingly, the several theories about the beginning of the Universe cancel one another. The impossibility of finding the absolute beginning also could open the possibility that there is no real beginning and that the evolution of the universe itself is not real- the world is not rock solid as we see- and at best it is virtual. They assert that there was no real creation. Gaudapada in his commentary of Mandukya Upanishad states “nobody is ever born.”

In this context I remember a movie I saw when I was young (I was hardly sixty at that time). In the mystery movie, the young detective was trying to find out who murdered “Victim X”. After two years of painstaking investigations (and two hours of my painful viewing) the detective is unable to find the killer, only because “Victim X” did not die in the first place. Our detective started with a wrong premise. I have been trying like crazy for 72 years to understand how the world was created, poring over orthodox and contemporary dissertations on the origin of the Universe and now some Advaitin says that I can not find it because the world was never really created.

Advaita also asserts that a non-changing pure consciousness can not produce a ‘real’ material world nor can a non-conscious prakriti, paramanus or singularity produce non-changing consciousness which is the nature of our true self. So in our dualistic world the advaitin’s view is that only the consciousness is real while the persistent world is unreal. In this context one may consider the statement of Einstein, “Reality is merely an illusion albeit is a persistent one”. Reality here refers to the universe which we experience as real. And advaita rubbishes the general perception that the Universe was really created (sat karya), a universal, taken-for-granted view. The advaitins give several examples to explain the ‘virtuality’ of the observed universe. They compare it to the space that we see in a mirror; though the space that we see in the mirror may be considered to be within the two dimensional mirror surface, it appears to be outside (beyond and behind) of it. The other example is that of the dream experience. In the dream, the space, the objects and the other beings and even our own dream self can be considered to be taking place within the dreamer’s head but they all appear to be real and outside, during the dream state. The third example they give is that of the work of a magician who is able to create an illusion of space and objects. At a higher level is the world created by Siddha yogis.  There is a story of sage Viswamitra creating an illusory heaven to accommodate one of his disciples, King Trisanku. And the Lord who created this virtual ‘universe of illusion’ is the most consummate magician of all.

The Brahman, the only one existing – the advaita -, is pictured as even smaller than an atom (anoraneeyan) but is immensely dense consciousness (prajnana ghana). Within it, due to the inexplicable Maya the beginning less universe appears, only appears, to evolve and exist and persist. Further even though the universe is within the Brahman, it appears to be outside it. And that is the grand illusion.

There is an interesting episode about Lord Krishna as a toddler. Krishan was a purna ‘avatar’ or complete incarnation of Para Brahman or the supreme being. He was raised by his foster parents Yasodha and Nandan in Gokulam. One day he was playing and his mother saw him taking some dirt from the floor and putting it in his mouth. Concerned the mother lifted him and asked him if he put dirt into his mouth.  Without opening his mouth the child shook his head. The mother now more concerned asked him to open his mouth. The child opened the mouth wide and lo and behold! Yasodha saw the entire Universe in his mouth. She had a bird’s eye view, rather an eagle’s eye view (or a Google view) of the Universe including her holding the open mouthed divine child in her arms. She realized that the child was para brahman (the supreme being). The entire universe was within Him even as He appeared as a child, within the vast universe, like all of us. The Lord says in the Bhagavadgita “Everything is in Me but I am not in everything.”

I, as I know myself, wrapped in this maya (maya=that which really is not: the trickster), even though I am within the supreme consciousness, the individual I, as part of the Universe appear to be outside of it, engulfing It, the Brahman. And consequently the supreme consciousness, Brahman, appears to be within this physical me as the Atman or the individual Self ,in my heart cave (dahara). Now, though I am in It, It (Brahman) appears to be within me as my Self or Atman. The Upanishads tell us the means of finding It, within each one of us. The pancha maya model is one such vidya or practice by which each one can find the self within oneself, within the five kosas. It is an exercise by which one knows the only real principle that exists, the Brahman, the pure consciousness as one‘s self or Atman. The Self that resides in my heart lotus (dahara) and the Self that you, sitting across the coffee table , find in your heart lotus are one and the same, the same Brahman. That is advaita. Advaita does not mean all the varied objects like you and I are one and the same, but the Self within us are one and the same, even as they appear to be distinct and different, shrouded by illusion.

There is a considerable amount of source material available on this advaita pilosophy. The ten major Upanishads are the main source followed by the Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavat Gita. In the Upanishads the Vedanta philosophy is presented succinctly through anecdotes, dissertations and dialogues between parent and offspring, teacher and pupil, spouse and spouse, God and devotee, saint and sinner and friend and friend. The advaitic interpretation is chiefly presented by Sri Sankara through detailed commentaries on these major Upanishads, Bhagavat Gita and also the Brahma Sutras. Sankara and some of his pupils have also written several easily accessible texts on advaita called prakrana granthas, like Atma bodha, Vivekachudamani and others.

Many of his works with some translations are available online. The Upanishads themselves explain the philosophy in detail from several viewpoints answering multitude of questions that may arise in the followers’ mind. Several vidyas or dissertations help to have a clear understanding of this old, unusual philosophy. They also contain some very pithy statements which are used as mantras or memory aids and are tellingly direct. Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman), Pragnyanam Brahma (Absolute consciousness in Brahman), tat tvam asi (You are That, the Brahman) ayam atma brahma (this individual Self is Brahman) are the most famous. Further there are other equally powerful statements like Brahma satyam, Jagan mitya (Brahman is real/ existence, the Universe is myth –mythya–illusion). Jiva brahmaiva na aparah (The individual Self is definitely Brahman and none other.)

What is the benefit of this kind of inquiry, especially to the majority of us who muddle through life rising with the tide and rolling with the punches? The advaitins say that knowing the truth about ourselves and the Universe is essential and they aver that this is the truth. Truth should be known whether it is sweet, bitter or insipid. Once we know the truth about ourselves and the universe around us our interaction with the outside world could drastically change. The Yogis say that the external world ,predominantly, is a constant source of threefold sorrow (duhkha). So say the Samkhyas. But the advaitin goes a step further and says that to a discerning mind the external world is not only a source of duhkha (barring individual variations, look at the enormity of the threefold collective duhkha in the world–self created, caused by other beings and by nature’s fury) but is itself an illusion. How much importance do I give to the dream experience during dream time and then when I wake up? One tends to shrug off the dream experience as ‘just a dream’ on waking up.

Likewise when my mind after study, contemplation and determination finds that the world after all is virtual like a dream, I may not take my transient worldly life with so much anxiety, expectation and remorse as I seem to be doing all my life. An enormous amount of psychological burden that I unnecessarily carry may be taken off my mind then, and make me peaceful, hopefully. Furthermore, the thought or realization that I am the non-changing majestic reality, the one and only eternal Brahman, is just cool!”

Advaita Pranayama

While slowly inhaling, meditate that the virtual external world is being withdrawn into the source, the Brahman in one’s heart.  Next during the breath holding (antah Kambhatka), meditate on the fact that the Universe is within the Brahman and has no independent real existence.  Then while doing the exhalation meditate that the
illusionary universe is being renounced.  And in Bahya Kambhaka the meditation is on the pure Brahman that alone exists as advaita (based on Sankara’s work and Tejobindu Upanishad.)

A Sanskrit prayer

Death without distress
Life without dependence
Grant me, Oh! compassionate Lord Sambhu (Siva)
In Thee are established all.

addthis_pub = ‘yogagal60510′;

Krishnamarcharya and those British gymnastics

“Sir” and his father, KYM, 2005

2010 has been the year of scholarly yoga books such as Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture and Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Both authors have written that Krishnamacharya’s yoga was derived in part from British gymnastics and military training exercises.

Even the eminent yoga scholar Georg Feurstein recently wrote that:

“The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country’s defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult.”

I don’t know if Mr. Feurstein has ever spoken with Srivatsa Ramaswami about his guru Sri Krishnmacharya, but I do know that there is not one mention of Ramaswamiji in either of the above-mentioned books (I looked.) Neither is he mentioned in Feurstein’s book, The Yoga Tradition, first published in 2001.

Those of you who know me know that I am an ongoing student of Ramaswamiji, having studied with him now for about 7 years. Ramaswamiji studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30+ years, longer than his own son Desikachar, and longer than Jois and Iyengar ever did.

So I was glad to see Ramaswamiji address the question of his guru deriving his yoga from gymnastic exercises. If anyone would know, I would think it would be someone who studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30 years.

Knowledge from a book is valuable of course, but it can not replace wisdom from an ongoing relationship with a teacher. That is one yoga jewel that has stayed with me from my first training at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram: the teachers said that personal transformation can only begin in a group class; it is achieved by working one on one consistently with a teacher over a period of time. I truly believe this as I have seen the differences with private students v. group classes.

The following is from Ramaswamiji’s newsletter, unedited but for the the addition of paragraphs and an [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe this will answer the scholars’ questions.

##########

Yoga Gymnastique — Srivatsa Ramaswami

Some eight years back I wangled a presenter assignment at a Yoga Conference in Texas. I was never invited again because, among all the presenters, I had the dubious distinction of attracting the least number of participants for every one of my presentations.

During one of the breaks a well known yoga teacher in US came and sat by my side and inquired about me, about where I was from, etc. I mentioned that I was a student of Pandit Krishnamcharya for three decades. With a quizzical look he asked, “What were you doing for 30 years with him?’, and with a wry smile he said, “Oh, you must have been doing your daily practice at his school”. He left before I could start my long answer. “How can anyone study Yoga for such a long period when there are just a half a dozen sequences or just a little over a score of asanas?,” he must have wondered.

Krishnamacharya as I have mentioned earlier was like a many splendoured diamond each facet brilliant in its own way. He taught yogasanas following the Vinyasakrama, the art form. He also used yogasanas, pranayama and meditation for chikitsa or therapeutic applications. He taught a vast range of Sanskrit chants from the Vedas and also from smritis. He taught several traditional texts like the Yoga Sutras and the sibling philosophies including the several Upanishads, following mainly the Visishtadwaita approach. He taught Vaishnava religious texts as well to a number of his Vaishnava followers. He was a well rounded Yogi and he could make every class absorbing. There would always be something new and insightful. One could never get bored in his classes whether it be the asanas, chanting or textual studies. I wanted to explain these to my celebrity friend but he was too busy to stay and listen.

Some research scholars have mentioned that Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa approach to yoga has a considerable dose of physical exercise systems prevalent at that time in India like the drills and also gymnastics imported into it. But my experience with Krishnamacharya’s asana practice is somewhat different.

It is true that some of the vinyasas and vinyasa sequences like part of Surya Namaskra, the handstands, the jump throughs, jump arounds, push ups (utplutis) may appear to mimic floor exercises in gymnastics. Perhaps there are some asanas and vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught that had some resemblance to drills or gymnastics. But he taught to me almost 1000 vinyasas making up close to 150 asana subroutines. The head stand, the sarvangasana, padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other system seems to have anything like that.

Further, yoga as a physical culture is very old. We may not have records because in ancient times most of instructions were oral and the transmission of knowledge was from teacher to student and the only way to learn was to go to a teacher and learn, practice and internalize. Later on a few texts were written as scripts were developed but they were written in easily perishable palm leaves — like the Yoga Kuranta — and barely one manuscript, no xerox copies, no electronic books were available. So in these matters we have to rely upon authorities/tradition or as the Vedas would call it “aitihya” or firmly held belief.

Even from the available texts like the Puranas one can glean a lot of reference to yoga practice including asana practice. The Brahma Sutras mention that a seated asana is a necessity for meditation. Works written hundreds or even a thousand years back contain sections on Yoga including asanas. Thirumular, a yogi said to have lived 3000 years back wrote about several asanas in his Tamil classic Thirumandiram. Puranas, smritis and several later day Upanishads have sections on asana practice.

There is a dhyanasloka pertaining to the Ramayana which mentions that Sri Rama was in Vajrasana while seated in his flowered bedecked, jeweled throne. In fact from time immemorial many people in India, as a religious practice, have been doing sandhya or morning worship of the sun with specific sun worship mantras and physical movements and gestures. It includes mantras like the Gayatri, pranayama and many postures like tadasana, uttanasana, utkatakaasana, and danda namaskara and utakatasana are specifically mentioned in the smritis.

So in a way we may say that suryanamaskara with mantras and the physical exercise has been a very old practice. The word Yoga is indeed a vedic word. You may check with my book “The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga” (here no commercial intended) based on my studies with my guru and I do not think it in any way resembles a book of gymnastics. Yogasanas have their own distinct nicety. Gymnastics of course has its own charm. Gymnastics was one my favourite programs while watching the Olympics. I do not know if I would enjoy Yoga Olympiad.

My guru had mentioned on a couple of occasions that physical yoga had been the core system of physical exercises in India. It had technically influenced several ancient systems like wrestling, archery, fencing etc., very physically demanding disciplines, requiring a high degree of strength, dexterity and focus. Yoga is called a sarvanga sadhana as it is helpful for all parts of the body, including the internal organs. There were other indigenous circus-like practices such as malcam, kazhakkoothu where they use ropes or poles and do routines very similar to asanas. He had also mentioned that almost all the physical systems of the world, including gymnastics, had borrowed heavily from Yoga, because the asana portion of Yoga was the most ancient and developed physical culture system. Therefore it could be that there were a few similarities between asanas and some obscure gymnastic systems in different parts of the world at different times. Then one has to investigate the origin of those obscure systems, whether they were older than Yoga, or if they themselves borrowed from ancient yoga practices.

My Guru himself was a passionate researcher. He would always be looking for works on yoga and other systems. He even would advise us to go to different agraharams (small cluster of homes of scholars in certain villages) and look for works on Yoga available with such scholars. He would say that we should visit the hundreds of temples in India, especially South India, and observe the sculptures and idols all over the temples for study of yoga postures. And because of the oral tradition and relying on degradable palm leaves, Yoga itself had a checkered progression, in the limelight during some time in history and obscure at some other times. It then becomes a futile exercise to try to determine which among the physical exercise regimens came first, the seed or the tree or the better known example of the chicken and the egg.

There are distinct differences between the yoga I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya for a long period of time and some of the aerobic exercises like gymnastics. In the vinyasa krama asana practice, the breathing is synchronized with the movements at the rate of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds for inhalation and exhalation thereby reducing the breath rate to about 3 to 5 per minute, whereas in contemporary aerobic exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts, the breath rate increases to much beyond the normal breathing rate of about 15 or so. This alone makes yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya distinctly different from other drills.

The variety of movements in Vinyasa asana practice is said to be designed to exercise all parts of the body including the internal organs. We do not find deep movement, synchronized breathing, and the significantly profound exercises like the bandhas — which are an integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya’s asana practice — in other forms of physical exercises, especially gymnastics. Look at the 1930’s videos, the bandhas of my Guru, they are not a gymnast’s cup of chai.

When I was young, some exercises were very popular. They were outside the pale of yogasanas. One was known as “dandal”, which would look very much like a repetitive movement between caturanga dandasana and the plank or a simpler version of urdhwa mukha swanasana. The other was known as, if I remember right, ‘bhaski’. It involved standing up and doing repeated squats. The first one, ‘dandal’ looks very similar to part of Surya namaskara. Baski resembles a very popular ritual that is done by thousands even today and is known as “toppukaranam” in Tamil and “dorbhyam karanam” in Sanskrit. One holds the lobes of the opposite ears with one’s hands and squats usually in front of the idol of Lord Ganesha. It could be 12 times or 108 times. It is both a good physical exercise and a loving devotional practice to the charming Lord Ganesha.

Are these physical drills, yoga exercises, or devotional practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows.

Then there is the question of whether Suryanamaskara is old, from the Vedic times. The Surya namaskara can be considered from two views; one is the mantra portion the other is vyayama or the physical part. Certainly Suryanamaskara mantras are from the Vedas. In fact, there is a complete chapter of Suryanamaskra mantras from the Veda which takes about an hour to chant. Again, the other important Surya mantra, Gayatri, is also a Vedic mantra. The Vedas exhort using Gayatri as a mantra to worship the sun daily.

Worship of the sun is considered a daily obligatory duty for the orthodox in India. We have a procedure called Sandhya vandana which is supposed to be done thrice a day, but definitely once a day. This Sandhya procedure is a kind of a worship ritual, towards the end of which one prostrates towards the Sun. While the Gayatri japa portion is done sitting in a yogic posture after required number of pranayama, the upasthana or the second part is done standing. Towards the conclusion the worshipper of the sun has to do a namaskara, a prostration. So from the standing position, usually one bends forward, half squats, places the palms on the floor, takes the legs back by jumping or taking one leg after the other and does an saashtanga namaskara or the danda namaskara prostration). One has to go through these steps (from standing to prostration) and if the steps are properly organized we get the surya namaskara vyayama, a sequence, a vinyasakrama. So, since one has to do sandhya daily and has to do the namaskara startig from standing and since the sandhya is mentioned as an obligatory duty, it will be correct to say that suryanamaskara, both the mantra portion and physical namaskara portion, are from the Vedic times. The actual steps may vary but the physical namaskara to the sun is a procedure practiced from ancient Vedic times.

Further, in India you can see many people who do not practice yoga or the formal ritualistic sandhyavandana, standing on the terrace or on the beach, facing East early in the morning, and doing prostrations a few times, returning to the standing position every time. They do not call it Yoga but suryanamaskara. Some of the present day yoga enthusiasts however do the suryanamaskara, probably at night, in any direction or directionless, do not use the mantras or the devotional bhavana associated with it, but as a mere workout.

I had chanted the suyanamaskara mantra almost on every Sunday with my guru for several years. Namarupa also published my article on Sandhya vandana with pictures of the steps some time back. I also have the one hour long Suryanamaskara mantra chant from the Yajur Veda (which I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya) recorded in mid ’80s and the CDs are still made available in India.

Sri Krishnamacharya’s range of teaching was sweeping. I have mentioned about the asana teaching, his chikitsa krama and vinyasa krama. His chanting of vedas was beautiful and very engaging. I do not know of any yoga teacher during his times who could chant as well as he could from memory. He earned the title “Veda Kesari” or Lion of Vedas. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a Sanskrit Pandit. He taught the vedanta philosophy, the prastana trayas, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutra and the Bhagavad Gita in the visishtadvaita tradition. He was given the title “Vedanta Vageesa”. He was also quite familiar with the advaitic interpretation. He once said while doing the sutra on Anandamaya “Anandamaya abhyasat” in which the two interpretations, advaita and visistadwaita differ from each other, “If you want I can teach you the advaitic interpretation, but advaita may be intellectually challenging but does not give the emotional satisfaction one gets from the visishtadvaitic approach”. He also taught us several important Upanishads. I studied with him several Upanishad vidyas from the major Upanishads, like Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Kaushitaki and others. Some of the vidyas he taught include Pancha kosa Vidya, panchagni, pranava, madhu, Sandilya, Dahara Pratardana and many others.

Once I asked him why if the goal is the same, understanding Brahman the ultimate Reality, then there are so many Upanishads, why so many vidyas. He would say that pupils have different questions about the ultimate reality and these vidyas take you from the known to the unknown.

Supposing fifty people, strangers from different places, go to an unknown country, Pineland, and take a picture with the leader of the country, Mr Pineman. Every one sends home a copy of the picture by email. The way they would point to the unknown leader, Mr Pineman, to those back home would be to start from the known. The known entity in the picture will be the one who sends the picture. He may tell his son/daughter, ”the leader is three rows in front and eight to the right of me.” Another person would start first by asking his kid to identify him/her first in the picture and may say the leader is three rows behind and five seats to the left. Likewise, all the various vidyas of the Upanishads try to help the aspirants to realize the ultimate truth, starting from a known tatwa. I had the privilege of studying several Upanishd vidyas from my guru Sri Krishnamacharya.

He also taught many of the sibling philosophies so that one’s understanding of Yoga and Vedanta will be on firm grounds. He taught Samkhya philosophy by explaining the Samkhya karika with the commentary of Gaudapada. He also taught Yoga Sutra in considerable detail. He had obtained the titles “Yogacharya” and “Samkhya Siromani”. He also was an expert in another profound philosophy called Nyaya and had been conferred the title “Nyayacharya”. He also taught smaller or easier works like Tarka Sangraha to introduce the difficult Nyaya philosophy.

His religious studies were outstanding. He was such an expert in the Vaishnava philosophy, that he was in consideration to head a well known Vaishnava Mutt. He was truly a devotional person. As he practiced yoga he performed his daily puja with great devotion. He had several students who studied the Vaishnava religion in considerable detail. He could quote from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several other puranas like Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, etc.

I do not know of any person who was so well versed in the sastras and also at the same time an outstanding practising Yogi. Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, it is almost exclusively due to his yogasana teachings. But his scholarship and teachings were enormous. I feel a bit sad when he is portrayed as a hatha yoga teacher who plagiarized some exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and nothing more. [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe there is some common ground between these two different physical disciplines. I continue to remain in awe of his enormous scholarship, practice and teachings and kindness towards his students. He was a teacher who would uplift you, a true Acharya. When you study with him, you get an unmistakable feeling that his only goal in life was to transmit the traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the student. He was a unique Yogi, a unique teacher, a unique individual. Twenty years after his passing away, I remember him everyday, while practicing, studying or teaching, sometimes in dreams — fondly.”

If you want to study with a true yogi, a true yoga scholar, and a vedic chant master, Ramaswamiji will teach at the Chicago Yoga Center September 17-26.

Mark Whitwell: sex, peace, and all that other stuff


I had stopped attending the Midwest Yoga Conference but I went last year for the first time in a long time just to experience Mark Whitwell. I attended every one of his workshops and I drank the Whitwell kool-aid — if I could only study with one person the rest of my life it would be Mark.

This year I registered on the spur of the moment for the pre-conference one day “teacher training” with Mark — here is the abridged description:

“Part 1 – Yoga Is Peace -
Peace is our natural state and it is freely Given. You will learn how to practice your own Yoga, which is your direct intimacy with life in every way. The essence of life is regenerative, nurturing, healing and dependable….

Part 2 – The Yoga of Peace, Intimacy, Sex and Relationship

In this session Mark will go deeper into Method and Understanding that Yoga is relationship and relationship is peace. To be very clear Yoga postures (asana) is hatha Yoga and hatha is tantra, the non-dual understanding. When asana is correctly practiced, actually and naturally, daily but not obsessively it helps intimate relationship of every kind.

You will understand that you live in a powerful regenerative force. Nurturing Source is appearing as the extreme intelligence that is Life, that is you. Mark will guide you to understand how to participate directly in this force and enjoy optimal health, intimacy and sex. You will learn the specifics of hatha yoga practice to make sure any Yoga practice is entirely your own….Mark will help you make use of real Yoga in your real life.”

I was not disappointed.  Mark is so true to the Krishnamacharya lineage that I felt recharged.

It was an intimate group of only 9 people and he started the morning by asking us why we are here and what we would like to get out his teaching for the day. One woman was very interested in the intimacy aspect of his teaching. She said she wanted to learn how to use yoga as a way to enrich the intimacy between her and her husband.

One of the reasons I love Mark’s teaching is that yoga is just yoga. The longer I practice and teach the more tired I become about the different styles. Mark believes that these yoga labels are an American phenomenon. A few people told Mark that they are “doing yoga” more than once a week, running from class to class, from teacher to teacher, and from style to style, but they felt they do not have their own personal yoga….which is Mark teaches — how to make yoga your own.

I know for myself that I am comfortable with MY yoga, and that’s what I say when people ask me what style of yoga I teach. I tell them, “my style. come check it out and if it resonates with you, nice, if not, have a joyFULL day.” I say on my website that I developed my own vinyasa style “in an intuitive and eclectic way based on Krishnamacharya’s method”, integrating elements from other schools that enhance my practice and teachings. It is “Mindful Yoga”, nothing more, nothing less.

As for those different yoga styles and lineages, Mark feels when we are stuck with one style of another, it’s a false identification with another culture and we do not acknowledge other cultures. He said the yoga lineages are not the point — the point of yoga is not to be attached or identified to something so solidly that it blinds you to the full participation in life itself.

He asked us how do we practice asana without wanting to get to the next asana because trying to get somewhere implies that we are not already here. Get it? Yoga is not about “looking for”, it’s about “participating in” the given, i.e., life. Yoga is about our direct experience with life, there should not be a stylized struggle for a future result.

Mark said he was disappointed that Krishnamacharya’s ideas have been absent from modern yoga. He said that while Krishnamacharya taught Iyengar and Jois, they did not fully utilize Krishnamacharya’s practices of non-dual tantric yoga. Mark believes that the Krishnamacharya lineage of viniyoga has become nothing more than physical therapy in this modern yoga age.

At that point I told Mark that it seemed to me that many astanga practitioners are obsessed with perfecting the physical part of the practice (and I’m not dissing any astangi!), doing countless drop backs and jump throughs over and over again until perfection is achieved. Mark said that obsession comes from feeling inadequate; again, it’s that trying to get somewhere else when we are already here. He believes that yoga should be practiced consistently, not obsessively. No time frames, no certain number of asanas, just be your yoga, and in fact, your asana practice may fall away completely when the things that are obstructing you from full participation in life are removed BECAUSE of your yoga practice.

To make your yoga truly yours Mark recommends starting with a daily 7 minute practice, and who doesn’t have 7 minutes a day for asana and pranayama? Don’t obsess, just start with a 7 minute sadhana of asana and pranayama, or even just breathing — embracing your breath, not merely being a witness to it. Mark believes that when asana is our bhakti, i.e., our connection to the divine, then meditation comes as a siddhi.

….to be continued…..