”Learn your theories well but put them aside when you meet the mystery of the living soul
Sunday conferences begin with Sharath taking a seat on the stage area and chanting quietly. During a recent conference a student asked what the chant was for and today we found out. As Sharath explained, this specific chant thanks all of his gurus in this lineage—Brahmachari, Krishnamacharya, and Pattabhi Jois. It is important to thank these people because many students, once they learn, they forget their guru. He reminded us that we represent our guru in this lineage. Without them it would be impossible to practice and relish this system of yoga. Sharath said that few people knew the system of yoga from theYoga Korunta, and Pattabhi Jois kept it alive by teaching it to others and spreading its message. Yoga is a science and a spiritual development. The purpose of the sadhaka is to totally submerse himself in the yoga and learn it.
To explain how to be a good student to our guru, Sharath quoted the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.1 tapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ, which means discipline, self-study, and devotion or surrender to the divine constitutes kriya yoga. He said it is important to become disciplined so that we do not get distracted and unstable. This discipline does not come all at once—it is a process that happens year by year. He reiterated that he wasn’t speaking only of asana but the whole yoga practice. Everyone wants to rush now, get authorization quickly, but our aim should be to learn first, and this is why self-study becomes important. Now we may see someone do handstands on a DVD and think they know what they are doing. He pointed out that even his young son can do handstands. We should get connected to whichever god or belief we like. It can be a belief in something without shape. We have created all of these shapes but there is no one shape for any god. Once we get connected and surrender to our self and to the divine, we can be very calm. A sadhaka should always surrender to his teacher. If that thirst does not exist, what you learn will only be physical. These three things—devotion, development, and dedication—are important to our practice because it gives meaning to what we are doing. Otherwise, why spend time doing it?
Questions started with an issue from a previous conference when Sharath referenced Rama shooting arrows at Hanuman, his most devoted disciple. Hanuman was so devoted that he became Rama. Student and teacher are one. Another student asked if we should chant something like “Om Namah Shivaya” during our asana practice instead of counting. Sharath said when doing asana we should devote ourselves to doing that only. Our concentration should be in one place, on the breathing. If we want to chant, that should happen at home before asana practice. When doing chanting, we should concentrate only on the chant. When discussing the breath in our practice, Sharath was careful, through the questioning of a student, to differentiate between Ujjayi breathing and “free breathing.” Ujjayi Pranayama is a breathing technique and not what we should do. In our practice we are not forcing the breath. We should inhale and exhale smoothly as this will help to activate our digestive fire. We should not hold our breath in asana and instead try to have a flowing breath to help our circulation and nervous system. Someone followed up by asking when a student could learn Pranayama, the fourth limb. He said he would show us when we are ready but there is one technique we could do on our own. He demonstrated and explained that he was inhaling through his left nostril and exhaling through his right nostril three times before switching to inhale through the right and exhale through the left. This was controlled using his right hand with his thumb on his right nostril and two fingers on his left nostril. Here there is no breath retention. This can be done after practice, after rest. A Pranayama practice can get rid of diseases but, done improperly, it can invite diseases into the body and make us crazy. We should learn properly and follow a system. It, too, is a science. Also, there are cosmic reasons for certain actions such as which side of the bed to get up on (right) or which direction your front door should face (East). When a baby is born, the parents take the baby outside at sunrise so the sun’s rays bring the baby good health. Just as the sun can bring us positive energy like solar heat and solar powered cars, it can be used incorrectly or negatively, too. Yoga is like the sun. It can be healing if used the right way but it also can be used to burn ourselves or someone else. A teacher has to know what asana is good for students who have imbalances in the physical body. A teacher should study the student and can’t push everybody. When questioned about whether we should take time off from practice or push through practice when injured, Sharath cautioned us to be careful. He said sometimes the body is only changing. Due to the things we’ve done to the body before our asana practice, we might be working through a lot of stiffness. Asana makes us free from all of this but during the transition there may be aches and pains in the body. We should practice but we should be careful. Do not push too much until we feel better. We don’t respect asana sometimes. Using himself as an example, he recounted his earlier days in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. He thought he could do deeper and deeper until he injured his shoulder. He demoed for Guruji the next day even though he was injured. After that day he practiced slowly and was very careful. It healed and he became more flexible. He cautioned that we should go slowly, let the body change, and don’t rush it. Flexibility will come. When doing this practice, exercises and sports can make us more stiff and susceptible to injury. He joked that there is no need for other activity unless we really like it and, then, we can do that once in awhile. He said, in his experience, injuries or pains that we get by asana, asana can heal. To wrap up he said yoga is bigger than us. Nobody can copyright it or brand it. It is our duty to uphold the system and educate people about what proper yoga means. When we protect dharma, when we protect truth, the truth will protect us. He sent us off by saying we should keep practicing—it doesn’t happen all at once. It takes a long time.
By Megan Riley
Sharath kicked off this conference asking for questions immediately. Over the course of an hour, he discussed the importance of a guru, our breathing, awareness and oneness, and the benefits of led class. After speaking about our opening mantra and the second mantra he chants alone after we finish (he’ll teach us when we’re ready), he answered a question about the benefits of a led class for practitioners. He explained that it helps us to understand proper vinyasa and breath. If we have only our self practice, many of us will not understand and make mistakes. He said many new students or students who learn incorrectly from teachers will come to the shala and do it incorrectly, as he sees in led class. This turned into a discussion on guru and the importance of the guru to our practice. Sharath says a guru is very important and more than just a teacher. Gu means darkness and Ru means dispeller, one who guides you, removes obstacles, takes you toward brightness and to real knowledge. With book knowledge a teacher will tell others what to do but will be unable to do it himself. A guru is someone who has been a student and has realized the teaching because he has experienced it. This makes the guru’s teachings more authentic and powerful. Sharath added, lightheartedly and with a chuckle, now, if you do handstand in Surya Namaskara, it means you are great. He then went through the count Eka, Dve, Trini, Handstand! Or, a teacher gives many postures, oh, she is great! Sharath explained, simply, guru never says “I am guru.” That should come from the student. Guru teaches us how to deal with our problems instead of being only a well-wisher. He explained life is like Lombard Street in San Francisco, sometimes up and sometimes down, sometimes off-road. If we practice yoga, we can handle it. We have life overdrive. Later, a student asked how often we should visit our guru. Sharath asked her when she was here last visit and she said two years ago. He asked her why she came back and she answered that she felt a need to be here. He proclaimed “you have answered your own question.”
The discussion of finding a guru led students to ask about the inner guru and our awareness in the world. Sharath said our inner guru can be unpolished and become evil. If we develop certain good qualities in ourselves, our inner heart becomes pure. Yoga will sprout within us. He warns us to not believe we know everything. We must see we are like everything around us. When we become one with everything, the trees, the forest, the ocean, that is also yoga. We should see a poor man and see ourselves. Yoga doesn’t mean just doing asanas. We should understand that we belong to this earth and go back to the earth, go back to nature. He says if you are part of nature and a tree is part of nature, when you cut the tree you cut yourself. Life should not be working, coming home, eating, sleeping. We should enjoy life, do charity. If we understand only what is going on outside of ourselves in a superficial way—what is she doing, how many postures did he get—we never really understand the supreme god in each of us. We wonder “where is yoga?” and think because we did a workshop with this person or have 200 or 500 hour teaching certificates that we will find it. Yoga is within us.
More technical questions about our asana practice wrapped up the conference. A student asked how our inhalation and exhalation should move in the body. Sharath explained that the breath uses the Bandhas for stability. Engaging the Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha in the lower belly and pelvis allows our breathing to stay higher in the chest. If we breathe low into the belly, there is less stability and we could get a hernia. Finally someone asked in what direction we should face to practice. North or East is best but we should never sleep at night with our heads facing north. Sharath told us the story of Shiva chopping the head off of the son Parvati made out of clay. To fix his mistake he asks his workers to find him someone sleeping with his head pointing north and to bring him the head so he can affix it to the boy’s body. Of course, everyone knew not to sleep in this direction and only one small elephant could be found sleeping in this position. And, thus, we have Ganesha.
By Megan Riley
This Sunday’s conference focused on the difficulties that arise in our yoga practice. Sharath began the discussion by outlining seven of the nine obstacles of yoga detailed in the Yoga Sutras (1:30). These are vyadhi (sickness), styana (idleness), samsaya (doubt), pramada (carelessness), alasya (sloth), avirati (lack of determination), and bhrantidarsana (confusion). Primarily, he focused on pramada and bhrantidarsana. These two are worth repeating because, as he says, they are common to many practitioners. Pramada, or carelessness, happens when our body is on the mat but the mind is someplace else. We become too comfortable and complacent in the posture or our mind is agitated and thinking about something other than the practice. Either way, physical injury and vrittis (fluctuations or activity of the mind) can occur. For bhrantidarsana, or confusion, Sharath explained “two gurus, one student is dead.” Confusion in our practice can happen when we look to too many teachers for answers. We must be intelligent with the information that comes to us. We should not seek many different teachers on a regular basis for our practice. Jumping around to different teachers is not helpful to understanding our practice. He cites Guruji’s famous 99% practice, 1% theory adage. Knowledge will improve with experience over time. We must experience our self everyday in order to feel the changes in the body and in the mind. Later he refers to this intelligence as a way to help us decide what is good and bad, spiritual and nonspiritual yoga.
Questions from students brought up related issues. He stressed that teachers can become “bigger than yoga,” meaning they can become too important and the ego becomes bigger than the yoga practice. As students claim this or that has changed about Mysore or about the practitioners around them, it is likely they who have changed. This causes their worlds to appear changed. He reminded us, as he did last week in detail, that asana is only one limb. Proficiency in physical asana does not make us great. He emphasized for us to be humble and steadfast when transmitting this yoga. The flower does not have to overly state that it has nectar, and the bees find it anyway.
Returning to the earlier idea of knowledge gained through practice, Sharath emphasized a need for nonattachment in our practice. I have heard him admit that attachments develop with the addition of family and loved ones. These are attachments formed with love. We are human beings and it comes up, for example, when we are responsible for our children. Today he cautioned that attachment to negative emotions wastes time. We have four stages of life. We begin as babies, grow to become teenagers, and then take on family life or responsibilities. In our final stage, as we grow old, responsibilities fall away. In the meantime, we should not waste our time by fighting, being angry, or worrying about what other people are doing. This, especially, goes for what practitioners are doing beside you. With correct drishti and proper attention we should not be bothered by that wayward limb, loud breath, or the accidental or intentional bump.
By Megan Riley
This week’s conference began with Sharath reiterating the importance of all 8 limbs of Ashtanga as we think beyond just our asana practice, beyond the series of postures we work through each day. He explained that the first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, relate to the external practice. At a most basic level these represent rules of behavior to self and to others, the discipline of postures, and control of the breath. The last four limbs, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi relate to the internal practice and happen automatically when we are firmly established in the first four. We should focus on the first four limbs, specifically Asana, as a way to achieve natural states of the later limbs of sense control, concentration, and meditation. Sharath reminded us that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an early Sanskrit text on hatha yoga, states it is impossible to practice Yama and Niyama without first bringing stability to the body and mind. Asana purifies the nervous system and allows us to steady the mind to work on the Yamas and Niyamas in our spiritual practice. This is why we begin our practice with the third limb, Asana. We must merge the knowledge that comes with practical experience with the knowledge that comes from scholarly pursuits. Both Pattabhi Jois and his teacher, T. Krishnamacharya, had a physical practice and minds full like libraries. We cannot teach others the scholarly knowledge from book study without knowing from personal experience.
Sharath spent the second half of conference talking about the practical applications of our asana practice. Why stay so disciplined? How do we incorporate it into our lives? Like a dog continues running with no purpose or a boat floats us on the ocean around and around the globe making us sick, it is not until we find purpose and dive deep into the ocean that we really understand what we are doing. We become more than just observers in the physical exertion. Physical pursuits could go on and on with no end. It is a way to enter the practice but not its single purpose. He said he is often asked how long his yoga practice is and is hesitant to answer. Asana takes up two hours of his morning but yoga is happening all day. We can see this best through the study of the Yamas and Niyamas, these ethical codes for right living. Yoga brings clarity to our lives so that we can be true to ourselves and to others. With this talk of “right living” and purpose, during a brief question period, Sharath reminded us that Ashtanga does not tie us to a particular religion. We are encouraged, as the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjalisuggests, to have discipline of the senses, to practice self-study of the teachings, and to surrender to the divine. Sharath encourages the study of good things from any scripture. It need not be that of a particular god or Jesus or Allah. Everything is one, therefore, all devotion is the same. Finally, a student asked what to do with our asana practice as we age. When do we stop adding postures? When do we step back from this third limb? To give an example, he said some 70 year olds are very sick and feeble and should be taught slowly and do not need to advance while some 70 year olds are very healthy, like his mother Saraswathi, and can spin all of the students in circles. He then demonstrates the swinging over his head as we laugh knowing he is absolutely correct.
by Megan Riley
In this conference Sharath spoke on a number of different topics. He started by discussing the need for students to persevere with practice for a long time. Sharath commented that many places offer the fast track to certification, as well as all kinds of new variations on yoga invented as ways to ‘sell’ yoga to people. He talked about the need to practice authentic yoga that has not been adulterated, that is from a lineage (paramparā), and that we need to practice for a long time with faith and devotion to truly understand it’s transformative effects and the great benefits that can be reaped.
In this modern world, everything is instant. No one has patience. Everyone wants to have [everything] as soon as possible. In yoga also it has become like that. Many places you go, they certify you in 15 days, one month. Always someone who’s coming to India, they think, “Oh, I’ll be here for one month, I should get a certificate that I’m studying here.” We get many phone calls. Last week also there were three phone calls, one from Delhi, one from England, another from America. Straight away they said “Oh, do you have teacher training.” Yoga is getting big but it is getting crazy also. It’s not that yoga is crazy. People are making it crazy. They’re not understanding the sense of yoga, the purity of yoga. A yoga teacher should always maintain the purity of the practice.
You know when I was a child, whenever I used to see a Chinese or a Japanese, I thought they knew Karate. We used to stay away from them because we thought they knew Karate. Because we had been to see ‘Enter the Dragon,’ the Bruce Lee movie. Then there was no television or anything, the only entertainment was to go to a theatrer and watch a movie. So, we watched that movie, and we thought every Chinese, Japanese knows martial arts. So he can beat us up, so stay away from them. And now [the] same thing has happened to yoga. Whoever looks like an Indian, if he is dressed in a saffron, or even a lungi (traditional South Indian dress), he becomes a yogī. Many yogīs are sprouting up everywhere. Why I’m saying this is, for a practitioner [of yoga] it is very important to choose your teacher. A teacher who can guide you properly. A teacher who knows, who has been practicing for many years, who has come from a lineage. That is very important.
(Sharath quotes from Bhagavad Gita ch 4, vs 1-2)
imam vivasvate yogaṃ proktavānahamavyayam |
vivasvānmanave prāha manurikṣvākave-bravīt ||
evaṃ paramparāprāptamimaṃ rājarṣayo viduḥ |
sa kāleneha mahatā yogo naṣṭaḥ parantapa ||
[I revealed this immortal yoga to Vivasvān (Sun God); Vivasvān conveyed it to Manu, (his son); and Manu imparted it to (his son) Ikṣvāku. Thus transmitted in succession from father to son, Arjuna, this yoga remained known to the Rājarṣis (royal sages). Through long lapse of time, this yoga has got lost to the world. (translation from Śrīmad Bhagavadgītā published by Gītā Press, Gorakhpur.]
The Baghavad Gītā is a very big, is a beautiful book. It says - eighteen chapters - it all says about yoga practice. How one should learn yoga through paramparā. Paramparā is learning through a lineage. Like how Krishnamacharya learned from Ramamohan Brahmachari, Pattabhi Jois learned from Krishnamacharya. You know it’s a lineage, its not like a cell phone booth you open here (pointing outside). Every street has a cell phone booth. A correct Sādhaka (practitioner), Sādhana (practice) is very important to transmit from a teacher to his students. For a teacher to transmit the knowledge to his students, first he has to learn it for many years. He has to experience it within him[self]. Then only it is possible to transfer the correct method to his students.
Now days you get so many videos on You-tube, it is very difficult to make out which is circus, which is yoga, which is what. All crazy yogas. All different stupid yogas. For everything they join yoga. Nakid Yoga! What is this nonsense? Kookoo yoga. Hot Yoga. What is Hot Yoga? Hoot Yoga, Heat Yoga, Bang Yoga, all these crazy yogas, for everything they join yoga. But it is our duty, being a practitioner of yoga. Some of you are also teaching. It is very important to keep the purity. If we don’t keep the purity within us, in another ten years, fifteen years, yoga will have a different meaning. Yoga is described in many different ways:
1. Union, union of the jīvātma or individual soul when it gets connected or joins with the supreme soul is called as ‘yoga.’
2. Or, yoga is the way of [to obtain] mokṣa (liberation)
3. Liberation [itself] is called as ‘yoga.’
So there are different explanations for yoga. It can be experienced in different ways. Once you become one with everything, it becomes yoga. So that’s union, we call it. So for yoga, to practice yoga, sādhana (practice) is very important. If you do it for one year, two years, three years, you won’t go to the depth of yoga. If you want to go deep…if you just keep on sailing in the sea it will never end. You’ll get bored. You’ll get bored and you won’t learn anything. Once you dive inside the sea, once you go deeper inside the sea, you can see the beauty of the sea. …Once you go deeper in your practice, you can experience so many good things. Different things, which our practice can give us. This can be experienced only when we have devotion, dedication, discipline and determination - Four D’s. All these are very important in our practice. You know yogīs have a disciplined life. Why we have a disciplined life? Because our mind shouldn’t get cañcala. Cañcala means distracted. If I go for a party late…for example, I’ll tell you, every day I get up at one O’clock [am to practice. One day I get bored and I go to a party…then I go and fight with somebody…then my mind becomes distracted. Next day I think, “Oh why did I do that?” We don’t want to create circumstances that make us do something….after fifteen days I think, “Oh, why did I do that.” But the yogī’s mind, by practicing every day, day by day, yoga gets stronger within you, and your mind doesn’t sit still, it thinks about ‘what is yoga?’ Those kind of thoughts should come within you. What is ahiṁsā (non-violence), what is satya, (truth)?’ These kinds of thoughts should come within you when you are practicing āsanas. When you’re practicing yoga these kinds of thoughts should come within you. Then automatically it comes within you, you will start to think “Oh, ahimsā.” When non-violence comes, as being a practitioner, I should follow this. So when you follow that there’ll be no conflicts. Like that each yama, niyama, the ten sub limbs….. develop strongly within us, once it gets stronger and stronger we get a better meaning to our practice. If I just keep on doing āsanas without thinking anything, not getting those kinds of thoughts…it will just become like working out in a gym, lifting weights… What is the use of that? A beautiful body what’s the use if you don’t have a good heart. Without a good heart, good thinking is of no use.
So this āsana is the foundation for our spiritual practice. To build a spiritual building first the foundation should be proper. So once we are not disturbed by these many things, all you have is purity inside you. Is it not true? So that is the transformation if you do it for a long time when we have dedication, devotion towards the practice - śraddhāvāṁ labhate jñānaṁ - śraddha –who has devotion, faith in their practice, he can get the knowledge, he can realize the purity of our practice. If you are very ignorant, if you do for twenty-five, thirty years also, you won’t realize what it is. It just becomes physical. Once we realize that, the transformation that is trying to happen within you, then you’ll get a beautiful meaning to your practice. It is a development which should happen slowly….when we take birth, how we make this body, slowly we grow our body…. So when we are a baby there are many things we don’t know….when we are a child it’s all imagination. Is it not true? It’s all fantasy when we are children. Yoga also starts like that….. but as you get older and wiser in practice, the meaning also changes.…..Early on yoga practice was not wise enough. As you go deeper, practice becomes deeper, wiser. Like a plant in the ground, it must be nourished properly to make it grow…. Once you nourish the plant properly the plant will grow and a flower will blossom. If you don’t nourish the roots then the flower will never blossom. Exactly like that, for āsana, yama, niyama are the nourishment which our mind needs to get. Done like that then the yoga will grow and it will blossom within us. For this it doesn’t happen that easily. To gain something you have to lose something – here you’re losing all the bad things – many things you have to sacrifice….This is what I have learned from, from whom?…My influence is my grandfather [Guruji]. Every day at 3:30am, he was chanting, ready by 4:00am to teach classes. [I learned] by watching him and assisting him for many years.
The relationship between a Guru and Śiṣya is like father and son relation. The same [relationship] was between Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois, and one more student Mahadeva Bhat (Guruji’s fellow student). [Guruji] did practice in the morning, theory at 12:00pm every day [with Krishnamacharya]. Like that only the knowledge will transfer to students. In this instant world nobody has the patience. All they want is a piece of paper – what is a piece of paper, which is of no use….The real yoga practitioner doesn’t care if he’s certified, yoga keeps happening within him. The yoga gets stronger and stronger within him. So why I’m telling this is many people have different opinions, different imagination about yoga. If you jump back properly that means you’re a yogī! Who can do handstand is a big yogī… We have to improve our knowledge, improve our yogic knowledge, spiritual knowledge. Once we improve that within us, then we are trying to become yogīs. Now days everybody puts “Yogīs, Yoginīs, we have a party please come.” Yogīs and Yoginīs never go to parties….[A] yogī wants to be silent, to sit, be calm, [to] do his practice. We are still trying to become yogīs still trying to become yoginīs. Still going in that direction but not yet reached. Some are very far, some are ahead, once we get enlightened, we have reached [the end]. What we do in this life carries on to the next life.