Excerpts from “Guruji”
Guruji : The portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of Dena Kingsberg
How did you first become interested in yoga?
I came from a family of two different religious beliefs so I was never completely clear in which direction I should focus my own faith. My father traveled to India every year of my life. He collected religious artifacts and wandered the Himalayas. Perhaps I inherited his natural curiosity, for when I first came upon the word “yoga,” I was fascinated by what I had understood it to mean and felt that it was a definite direction for exploration.
How did you first come across it?
A girlfriend took me to a yoga class, it was Satchidananda style and we did a lot of interesting asanas. What really held my attention was the way the teacher sat in padmasana for an extended period of time and remained remarkably still. I was studying sculpture at art school and working as a life-drawing model to support myself, so I understood how difficult it was to stay still like that. I found her serenity in this complex pose was strangely moving.
How did that lead you toward an ashtanga practice?
The class sparked my curiosity but it was an isolated experience. Later that year, when my father passed away, I made my first trip to India. I had my eyes open for a yogic opportunity but not really knowing where to go, who to go to, or how to begin. The road eventually led me to Bodhgaya where I met a community of Tibetan Buddhists, who just melted my heart with their warm and welcoming smiles. And that was where my spiritual spark ignited, practicing in the lineage of Mahayana Buddhism. Strangely, it was not in India but on my return to Australia that I chanced upon Graeme Northfield and first encountered ashtanga yoga. He had recently returned from Mysore and was really passionate about Guruji’s teachings. I started practicing with him casually, but slowly it became my priority and I would miss art-school classes so that I would not miss yoga practice. After a year, Graeme moved on, leaving a small group of us to practice by ourselves. I felt a surprising amount of anger and disappointment at his decision to leave. I was more attached to the practice than I had realized. Some time after that I drove my car across a causeway and was swept into a rising river. The car and I were fully submerged before I could get out. On the surface I was fine, but in the months that I began to lose confidence and become more and more introverted. I felt like I was losing my way, shrinking. I thought of the most terrifying thing I could, and that was to go and seek out Guruji in Mysore.
So you wrote a letter?
I don’t recall the protocol, but I had directions! I had met up with a girlfriend in Madras and we traveled to Mysore together. “Go to the police station in Lakshmipuram and turn left,” or something like that. When the rickshaw pulled up outside the house, both Amma and Guruji were sitting on the front porch and I had the feeling that they were waiting for us. I was hardly breathing, I was so nervous. We got out, he smiled, and she laughed. They asked who our teacher was and when we said Graeme, they were incredibly welcoming. They served us coffee and we sat down in their little entry room feeling delightfully at home.
Do you remember going in for your first day of practice with Guruji?
When I arrived the first day there was a class of Indian students finishing up. I watched through a little window from the staircase. It was fascinating, primal, such an intense energy coming out of the room.
Do you remember how Guruji started teaching you?
Graeme had told me, “Stand up straight, begin, and don’t stop.” I had a relatively clear primary series, and that was my practice on that first day. Guruji may have adjusted me in a few poses but I remember the backbends, as he took me higher in chakra bandhasana than I had ever been before. It was quite the introduction.
How long did you stay on that first trip?
Three months, and I remember having a calendar on the wall and marking off the days as they passed. The intense yoga and the rawness of India made it quite challenging. If I could survive these three months then, theoretically, I would be in the next phase of my existence. That was the plan. I was very clear at the time that it was going to be a one-off experience.
Can you describe how the teaching unfolded with Guruji during that first period, and how things changed over the years in your relationship with him?
Guruji moved me relatively quickly into the second series, which I found quite intense. But once I was back in Australia, I realized that I had a certain longing to stay on that edge of intensity. There wasn’t any other place I could imagine that was possible other than the room in Lakshmipuram. So I did all I could to collect enough funds to get myself back there. It was an ongoing theme for at least the next ten years. It was all about being with Guruji and facilitating that education. I had once had other dreams for myself, other plans, but yoga simply outshone them. Guruji’s smile was the beginning of the relationship, and every other possible expression of human communication followed, from him being sweet and encouraging, to him being inquisitive, to him being what appeared to be angry, to myself feeling extremely unworthy. He would say, “Why you so stiff?” and I would be thinking, “Am I really so stiff?” And he’d be yelling, “Why don’t you practice?” and I’m thinking, “But I do practice, I always practice.” He was pushing me to the edge. For many years I was holding it together with my will, trying to seek his approval, to be good enough, to be worthy enough, and to be accepted by him. I would do whatever it took. One time, he pushed and he pushed and he pushed both physically and emotionally until the bubble burst and I started to cry and he asked, “Why are you crying?” I replied, “Isn’t this what you wanted?” Then he just laughed, and I laughed, too. And then began another phase.
Did your relationship with him change after the tears came?
It changed my relationship with myself and I was then able to see more clearly that his intention was simply based on love and his approach was to use whatever tools were required to move us through the practice.
So prior to that point in time, it was a little confusing as to why you were drawn to him. And after that you were more clear. I was clear that it was right. Exactly why it was right is not so clear.
The pull to it was as subtle and as real as gravity. Perhaps subconsciously I was looking for a father figure. He has certainly played or fulfilled that role, as well as others, over the years. A parent can be both harsh and soft in their intention to bring out the best in their children. I trusted in the method and felt blessed to sit at the guru’s feet. I just belonged there.
What is it that Guruji teaches?
He helps us to understand that our insecurities are not necessary and that we are each of us essentially okay. Guruji teaches that knowledge of the true Self is possible if we continue to practice. That eventually the veil that obscures us from self-realization will fall away, illuminating our true nature. That if God is in all things, then God is also in you. And if you can get out of your own way long enough, then perhaps you’ll feel it. Sometimes I feel it.
How did his methods bring you to that realization?
Repetition of the same practice daily brings some insight into behavioral patterns, our personalities, and the workings of the mind. Same practice, different experience. It’s an honest and often uncomfortable look at one’s Self. Guruji’s commitment to the method inspires trust that allows one to let go of self-set limitations. Under his touch, the body and mind find a new relationship beyond fear, both present and detached. As the physical body transforms to accommodate the unfolding series, the emotional body unravels with it. I had unwavering trust in Guruji that I would always land in a safe place. Because of that trust, my physical body and all that was dragged along with it has made remarkable changes.
It sounds very much like a personal journey rather than there being an agenda on Guruji’s part to impart a certain type of knowledge. Is he facilitating your own personal exploration?
Both. Guruji wants you to be well and whole and to understand. It was always clear to me that the process wasn’t going to happen quickly. When I first arrived in Mysore, I got the impression that all the female students were named Mary—because Guruji called them all Mary—and it wasn’t until you repeated your visit, that you showed some dedication, some sincerity, that you were even worthy of a name. And then as you came again and again, affection became associated with that and with the mutual commitment to the journey. His agenda was simply to impart the “correct method,” the one he learned from his guru. When Guruji appreciated your sincerity and dedication to the path, he took extra care to be sure that what he was presenting was understood with precision and clarity, as it was likely that those people who were ongoing in their studies would then be sharing the practice with the greater community.
How does Guruji’s personality come out in his teaching?
He would not tolerate disrespect or ambition. He would be truthful when it wasn’t always comfortable. He was endlessly patient and kind to beginners, compassionate if you had pain, sweet, affectionate, and loving. It was difficult not to adore him. He holds up the mirror, metaphorically, and he holds that mirror at the right angle to collect the light so that it reflects back on you.
Do you see Guruji as a healer?
Guruji embodies the practice. He carries great light and wisdom. His vibration is finely tuned and his hands are filled with shakti. Perhaps the practice is the medicine and Guruji is the doctor who knows just what and how much to prescribe. I’m sure many of us have never felt so well as when we are in his hands or in his presence.
What is Guruji’s role in the process of helping people go through changes?
Guruji pushes you right to the edge of your limitation. Because he has walked this path before us and shared the process with so many, he is familiar with the landscape. His confidence and experience inspires a trust that allows a student to let go. He will hold you gently as you pass through or catch you if you fall.
Do you have some examples of how he worked with you in those intense moments?
There was one particular posture that caused me a lot of grief. Each day when I got to the pose before it, Guruji would say, “Tomorrow: buddhasana—some difficult!” Buddhasana is an intense foot-behind-the-head position in the fourth series. I would get up very early in the morning, at two o’clock, and start warming up my hips in the hope that I would be able to move smoothly into the pose. When I’d get to that pose the following day he would say, “Oh! No. Buddhasana some difficult, tomorrow you take it.” So the next day I would get up very early in the morning and start warming up in the hope that I would get comfortably into this next pose and then he would repeat the cycle. We would get to the same place and he would say, “Oh, no, buddhasana, difficult posture, tomorrow you do it.” This went on for some time. I was lacking sleep and my anxiety was building and I was getting frustrated and exhausted, not because I didn’t have the pose but because of the pressure of the waiting, the building pressure. And then it was almost as if I gave up. On the one morning I didn’t get up early to warm up, I was given the pose. I slipped into it effortlessly and I could feel the rest of the students in the room opening their hearts with support and relief because the tension had finally been broken. But I couldn’t move after that day for quite some time. It was a structural renovation of my body on a deep level. I was left confined to my room and my head. The internal process was as uncomfortable as the physical. I guess Guruji knew it was coming. The other practitioners who had been past this point enjoyed a laugh of empathy as I tried to walk and regain the use of my body. But time passes and the body adjusts and facilitates this new liberation. Qualities of humility and patience accompany it. You change, you open, energy shifts, and you move on to the next challenge.
How important is family life and integration into society in the system of yoga that Guruji teaches?
Guruji teaches that yoga is not just for brahmacharis and sannyasis. It is a path to knowledge for all people. As the years passed, I started spending more time in Mysore than at home. I thought that if I had no other distractions I would be able to focus and go deeper with the practice. So I packed up my things in Australia, intimate relationship included, and planned to settle in India for an indefinite period. When I communicated this to Guruji, he just laughed and said, “No, that is too easy for you. You have to go back. You have to teach. You take one husband, you make two children.” So how important is family life to him? Well, at the time it seemed a lot more important than it was to me. But Guruji is always all about family. Amma was the twinkle in his eye. His life companion for more than sixty years. When she passed away, Guruji said to me, “Nonattachment is easy only in theory.” Family was and is everything to Guruji, and I mean both bloodline family and the family of students that he has given and devoted his life to. He said it is important for practitioners to have children. They would be special children. My feeling was that it was a way, a small way, to heal the world. You start with family.
Can you explain a little how relationships support yoga practice?
I imagine my experience with support in a relationship is likely to be very different than many. I was fortunate enough to choose the right partner—I had a little help from Guruji with that. Relationships are an essential adjunct and support to yoga practice. The world is our playing field, a stage for transformation in life. The people we share it with, the relationships we have, are the greatest of teachers. We learn so much about our conditioned mind and our patterns of behavior as we interact with others and our expectations, fears, and attachments rise to the surface. If you are clear enough about your path and you walk it with determination and commitment but with enough compromise to accommodate those around you, then there is nothing more amazing than having companionship on that journey. However, when there are distractions caused by other people, then you are forced to be clear how sincere you are about the practice. Finding the balance is challenging and sometimes difficult, yet this is often where the true yoga lies. Guruji and Amma performed a marriage ceremony for Jack and me in 1997. The one line he repeated in English over and over was “one thousand years don’t change it” (your partner, that is). It was also suggested that as Australia is a spacious country we should have ten children. We managed two. Our daughter, Zoli, arrived in the year 2000, and Guruji gave her the name Lakshmi. Our son, Izac, followed in 2003, and Guruji gave him the name Ishvara. He gave them chocolate each morning at 6 a.m. in the yoga shala.
Can you say something about the energy Guruji put into his teaching?
Guruji was and is a remarkable man. If someone new would come to the shala, he would sit down with them and give them his undivided attention while talking them through the beginning motions of the practice. He would do it over and over and over again, never tiring of the repetition. He saw to each person in the room personally. We were all like seeds of a crop that would fruit, whether we are at the initial phases or further down the path. Each time a new student came to him it was as if he was unwrapping a present. As the class size grew from a handful to hundreds, he still saw to each one in turn with personalized, focused devotion. It was remarkable how he held such unwavering joy with every new face. What an inspiration!
Do you see ashtanga yoga as a spiritual practice?
Essentially, it is the quest for truth. It is a path for those with longing to know the silent whisper of God’s voice. Each day, we breathe, we bend, we extend, we fold and unfold [through practice]. The next day again we breathe, we move, we move a little further, we unfold again. Again and again in the same place, penetrating deeper and deeper, peeling away the layers. Letting go. The practices strip us back. Through the struggle of it, we disentangle from the bondage of conditioned existence. We shed the layers of cultivated Self. You are neither your job nor your position in society. You are not your education or your image. You are not the people you attach yourself to. You are not simply body or mind. Stripped back of everything that separates us, blinds us, our awareness directed inward instead of outward, a spiritual awakening seems inevitable.
Why do you think Guruji starts with emphasizing asana practice, the third limb?
The first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, are the individual’s responsibility. They will evolve as awareness deepens. Our practice begins by removing impurities and blockages from the body. For this we need to move and create heat, we need to light the internal fire and produce sweat to begin the cleansing and eliminating of accumulated toxins. The unfolding asana practice cultivates strength, flexibility, and balance of body and mind and prepares us for the more subtle internal practices that follow. Breath, sensory withdrawal, and concentration are entwined and interconnected, not separate. Guruji starts with the work of unraveling the past so we can come into the present. Meditation is the doorway to liberation of the spirit. Asana practice and all that it encompasses is the path to that door. You’ve got to get to the door before you can pass through it.
How do you think the asana practice purifies the mind and body to be ready for meditation?
The practice is a purification process, a therapy to make us well. From this state of being well other things can unfold. We turn our attention inward, reducing distractions by withdrawing the senses. Drishtis direct the gaze to a soft focus and we listen to the even sound of the breath. This rhythmic repetition of movement becomes familiar and soothing and the mind slips away into the space between thought. Then the practice becomes a moving meditation, an invitation to stillness. I think of it like this: Perception is a window. This window has been marked with the passing of time. Impressions are left upon it by our conditioning. It is colored by life’s experiences, our upbringing, relationships, and culture. It is damaged by disappointment, trauma, and loss, clouded by uncertainty and confusion. I see the practice as the process of cleaning the window. Each day we dip the sponge into the bucket and wipe it across the surface. After some time, the change is apparent. A clear opening arises where it was clouded before and this unclouded vision brings more light and clarity. It’s enough to keep you dipping. Sometimes there are marks on the glass that are difficult to remove and sometimes there are areas in the practice that are difficult and it seems that we will never be able to pass beyond them. Repetition is the key. We go back to the same place over and over without expectation or judgment again and again in both the practice and in the cleansing until eventually catharsis, either subtle or dramatic, occurs as some stubborn or trapped part of us breaks free. A grief, a fear, a trauma, a secret, a sadness. Once it settles, there is clarity or lightness, a freedom of movement or a breakthrough in the practice that was not there before. That illumination and transformation inspires faith in the wisdom of the method. Days, weeks, months, years pass, and slowly the mind settles and the window of perception clears.
Guruji always says 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory. What’s your understanding of the theory part?
As I appreciate the theory largely in theory and not in realization, perhaps we should start with the practice part. That window is not going to get clean just by looking at it. Another metaphor if I may. It’s a little bit like playing the piano. In order to be a pianist, in order to create music on the piano, you have to go the piano. Having a piano is not enough. You have to touch the keys, make contact. Anyone can play, touch one and then another. From single notes to scales. From scales to a melody. With practice and effort an effortless grace arises, and with it the magic of music. At some point in the process it would be really helpful to have some understanding of written music. But that understanding alone will not produce the same outcome. It is the sound that has the ability to soothe the soul. It is the same with yoga. You can read endlessly, and though the words may be insightful, without practice it is the author’s insight and not yours. Make your own music, discover your own discoveries through practice. Then the intricacies of the theory will hold valuable meaning for you. I have a memory related to this. One particular student asked Guruji to describe the nature of the kundalini rising. Guruji proceeded to give a lecture in a mixture of Kannada and Sanskrit. After about forty-five minutes, with the whole class sitting perfectly still and looking on in awe with their mouths wide open, the student who asked the question said, “But Guruji, I don’t understand your answer because I don’t speak Sanskrit.” And Guruji said, “It wouldn’t matter what language I gave the answer in. You are not able to have the understanding until the work is done.” My understanding of the theory part is that by stilling the mind and purifying the nervous system through the practice of the eight limbs of yoga, discrimination between prakriti and purusha is realized, thus removing the veil that obscures the light of our true nature. That all things are God. That with faith, devotion, and practice pure consciousness will be realized. Guruji says to me, “You are still thinking the wall is a wall. The wall is not a wall.” Somewhere in there is the 1 percent that moves me.
Why do you think Guruji considers prayer and devotion to be so important?
Guruji says we think too much. And when we think, it is with a limited capacity to understand. “Do not think of here, do not think of there, just sing songs to God, that’s all.” He is trying to guide us to see that understanding doesn’t just happen with the mind, that the deeper understanding happens with the heart, so he encourages prayer and devotion. Those who are devoted to God offer the fruits of their work to God, see God in all people and all things, are close to God, not separate, and will reside in peace. Surrender and devotion will open our hearts and bring us closer to this truth. The practice of yoga requires not only tapas but also svadhyaya and ishvara-pranidhana. It is a devotional practice and it’s about finding the heart of the Self and unifying that vibration with all those things we don’t yet understand. How can you express the experience of the heart in words? Perhaps best through prayer.
You were an artist. I don’t know if you are still involved in art, but I have always felt that art and spirituality are very closely connected. Do you have any insight into the relationships between the two?
As an artist, when you are involved in the moment of creativity, when you are totally present in the now, there is a sense that something moves through you. This at it’s most potent seems to bypass the mind and speak of the soul. Time stops. I am still an artist, only now “I” am the work in progress.
Would you say that Guruji teaches a standardized form of practice, or is his teaching tailored to the individual?
Both. The initial elements of the practice are suitable for everyone, but how the practice unfolds—at what pace, how intensely, to what level—is tailored to the individual, and that’s the beauty of the Mysore style.
People think of this practice as being made up of primary, intermediate, and advanced series, and they get obsessed about it being a particular way. But what I’ve experienced in talking especially to the older students, who had a more individual relationship with Guruji because there were so many fewer in the room, is that they were being taught different sequences depending on their needs.
My personal experience was the first option of the two that you described. Primary followed by intermediate and then advanced series. However, I am aware of variations in Guruji’s approach over the years. These earlier students you mentioned shared the room. Guruji’s experience teaching the practice has evolved with his understanding of the students and perhaps his need to accommodate the ever growing numbers. I’ve seen Guruji working individually with people with illness or physical structural limitations in a very personal, healing way. He modifies the practice so it will work as a therapeutic tool for each situation. He fits the practice to the student. There have certainly been variations on the theme of standard practice in both Mysore-style and conducted classes, and many different approaches over the years to the vinyasa, from simple to elaborate. There has certainly been a noticeable change in method and type of student from Lakshmipuram to Gokulam in recent years. I think it’s best not to be obsessed with anything. Particularly believing that you have it right. Everything changes a little with time. Ultimately, whichever way we have learned, we are essentially all heading in the same direction. The method is like a box of tools. How those tools are used individually will depend upon the need, the understanding, the temperament and capacity of student and teacher. Perhaps the idea that it should be “this way,” this standard way, is emphasized to protect the purity and integrity of the practice so it will not be diluted or lost in translation.
What is the value of daily practice, day in, day out, over the years, and what is the inner quality produced by a long-term practice?
When the commitment to a daily practice is made, then there is no longer a battle of will I or won’t I. The resistance no longer wins. Once the practice is a constant, then the thing that changes, the variable in the equation, is the practitioner. You get to see yourself, have a relationship with the Self. It is through this repetition, through the observation of the variable, through self-inquiry, that we see the fruit of the practice. It’s like any relationship with a person. In the beginning it’s superficial, even though it might be very sweet. There are qualities that can only be found and developed over time and with commitment.
What are the inner qualities which are cultivated?
Those who practice for a long time with a positive attitude and without interruption following the correct method have a quiet knowing, a sense of well-being, a tangible spark. There is a precious acceptance and there is a possibility of union. With consistency and commitment, the practice can penetrate from the superficial to the profound. Over the years, the qualities of the practice change. What starts as a predominantly physical practice becomes delicate and subtle. And though the movement continues, there is an internal stillness as the poses unfold. Mental dialogue that once held center stage falls way as the body and breath surrender to the familiar comfort of repetition. Where once great effort was required to tame an awkward body and persistent mind, time inspires a steady grace.
What about the subtle aspects of the practice? Do you feel they are somehow integrated into the asana practice? Does one naturally evolve from asana practice to the more subtle— pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi?
It appears so. Guruji says, “Practice and all is coming.” Time will guide the senses inward as concentration is refined and will still the mind to a single point. Then meditation is its consequence. There will always be those collecting asanas, they are still traveling outward. Soon they will stumble on something that slows them down and turns their focus inward. It’s all part of the journey.
How do you try to incorporate Guruji’s spiritual philosophy in the way that you teach?
I have practiced this method to the best of my understanding religiously for more than two decades. I believe this work itself has left a mark upon me as a person and therefore as a teacher, I hope to be a natural representation of the teachings.
What do you see as the relationship between practicing yoga and teaching yoga?
Teaching yoga is an amazing yoga within itself. One’s life, one’s process, one’s practice is a visible example to others. Once you involve other people, then there is a challenge to maintain equanimity. I feel that teaching is an extension of practice and the whole path of yoga happens from the minute you wake up to the minute you wake up the following day. It doesn’t ever really end. Teaching is a very challenging form of practice. To maintain equilibrium while interacting, to be without judgment and stay objective, to teach with compassion and sensitivity while holding firm to the integrity of the lineage takes considerable diligence. Ideally everything you do somehow embraces the eight limbs as described by Patanjali. Every breath you take is conscious, every interaction and choice you make is conscious and with pure motivation. Teaching yoga not only provides an incredible forum for personal growth; it is both a responsibility and a privilege. The more I practice and explore the path, the more I appreciate how little knowledge I hold. When I teach, I try keeping this in mind.
How do you find teaching affects your own personal practice? And how do you find the practice affects your teaching?
When my practice is undisturbed and spacious, when I am able to find focused stillness, a connectedness arises. From within this space, teaching is natural, effortless, and harmonious. I have had a great love affair with this practice. I love teaching it, sharing it, and being a part of the journey for others. It fills me with balance and joy and light. As a teacher I strive to bring the best of myself to the students, to guide them by example. My practice stays as focused and religious as life’s events permit. Practice provides a stable foundation to teach from. Sometimes teaching makes me tired and sometimes when I am tired it fills me with energy. I think becoming older and becoming a mother also takes its toll. Having said that, the gifts from teaching and the gifts from parenting are so precious that one appreciates the wisdom of a path for householders. Someone once said to me that the second most difficult thing you could do in a lifetime is to become enlightened and the most difficult thing that you can do is have a successful relationship. I’d like to try both. I try to have a successful relationship with every person that crosses my path. As a representative of thepath of yoga, as a yoga practitioner, a yogin, and especially as a yoga teacher, I believe it is essential that my lifestyle demonstrate unwavering ethical integrity.
Do you think women and men practice differently? I know that some women are concerned about doing the more advanced practices. They feel like their bodies are becoming more masculine.
I don’t buy into it at all. I do not feel that the more advanced series steal femininity. There is nothing more beautiful than a strong woman. I do not think that as a female I have struggled any more or less with either strength or flexibility. There are delicate male practitioners who demonstrate grace and elegance. There are powerful female practitioners who defy gravity. They are all beautiful to me. Why not be a strong woman? Why not be an old, strong woman? The choice is ours. This practice is difficult for everybody. Male, female, young, old—we all find our obstacles. It’s a difficult but rewarding path. The changes to the female body are only more masculine if you identify strength with the male. If something was lost on the way, it was probably nothing I needed. I love my yoga body. Whether it is attractive to another is not a major concern. Femininity comes from within. My female peers are women of dignity and beauty. However, each woman needs to be true to herself regarding how appropriate, relevant, necessary the ongoing practices are. I don’t believe that the number of asanas is a measure of how potent the practice is. I have not concerned myself with the differences between male and female, whether it is harder or easier. The comparison is not helpful. We must make this journey with the gender we have.
As somebody who has been practicing for a long time, can you say something about your understanding of the bandhas?
Bandhas are the essence of the asana practice. With them one can build, regulate, and maintain the flow of prana. Without them, there is no spark generated, no energy cultivated, no lift, flight, or potency. They are the key to an internal understanding. Gaining them, maintaining them, igniting them takes time and focus.
Do you consider that these things evolve and develop naturally with correct practice over the years, or are there some techniques that one should apply?
Some long-term practitioners seem to be devoid of understanding of bandhas. Perhaps they spontaneously arrive in some students and not in others. I believe that a little focused attention from the offset is helpful. It’s not something you really want to try and tack on later. If the bandha is introduced, at least in concept, from the first breath, then it’s a seed that has been planted.
Can you say something about the role of breathing in practice?
If someone asked me what constituted a fine yoga practitioner, I would say it’s someone who can keep their mind focused on the breath. If someone asked me what constituted a fine ashtanga yoga practitioner, I would say it was someone who could keep their mind focused on the breath while activating uddiyana and mula bandha and cultivating ujjayi breath. You’ll notice that that definition in both cases showed no measure of where someone was in an asana practice. The breath is the beginning, it’s the first step and every step that follows.
Why is the breath so important?
The breath is our most powerful tool. Without it, life ends; with it, life begins. If we develop it, enhance it, empower it, invigorate it, extend it, the quality of life will mirror those things. In practice it’s the fuel, it’s the focus, it’s the mantra, it’s the strength, it’s the surrender, it’s the connection to the spirit, and it’s your best friend.
How do we come into a relationship with it?
Inhale consciously. Spend time with it intimately.
Do you see it as a tool also, something you can use for effect?
It’s the master tool, especially in the form of ujjayi breath, and even when it is most natural and relaxed. The breath is the spirit running through you. How it moves through you will mold each moment of you.
It seems to me it has a natural inclination to flow through you, but then when we get into a difficult asana, we restrict its natural flow if the mind is not attentive.
Guruji uses the term “free breathing,” and some of the asanas bind us so tightly that it makes free breathing difficult. And so we attempt to cultivate free breathing in a difficult situation. This practice is just a metaphor for an uncomfortable or difficult situation out in the world. When we find ourselves in difficult situations and we feel restricted emotionally and in the breath, then we use the tool of free breathing to try to be open and as present and relaxed and full in the breath as possible. And that in turn will make the difficult situation in life more comfortable.
What do you think are the most important considerations for a healthy, lifelong yoga practice?
A healthy, lifelong practice is really the aim, as it’s going to take a while for the fruits of our labor to ripen. In the beginning of asana practice, we are concerned with trying to do the best we can with what we have, our movements limited to the freedom and flexibility that is already available. Once limitations prevent progress, caution is then required. If one adopts an attitude of attaining an asana at all costs, then damage, discomfort, or pain often result in a reluctance to continue. Once one establishes an intention to practice for a long time, or a lifetime, then it needs to be done with patience and an anatomical awareness so as to awaken parts of the body, particularly of the spine, that are blocked, stiff, or compromised in order to spread the load of the asana practice more evenly throughout the entire body and reduce the pressure in fragile areas. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s not what you do but how you do it that will affect the longevity of the practice. I believe that flexibility is the gift of an even breath. We need patience to mature in the practice, patience to remove blockages both physical and emotional, time to integrate practice and change into daily life, and a holistic approach for safe personal evolution. Eight limbs not one. This is really important.
That sounds like it would be almost impossible to achieve without the help of a teacher. How important do you think a teacher is on the path of yoga?
If you have a teacher, then you are blessed. If you have a teacher who practices, then you are twice blessed. you have a teacher who practices and cares about you, then you are triply blessed. It’s a gift. How important is it? Sometimes it’s difficult to have a clear picture of where you are and of how you are proceeding. Having delusion about where we sit within the process is very natural, so it’s helpful, especially if the teacher has no agenda beyond taking care of your ongoing practice. Obviously it’s the ideal situation: guidance, reference, correction, alignment, support, an objective view are very helpful.
What do you see as the relationship between achieving asanas and psychological evolution?
The scope of asanas is never-ending, and they become more contortionist, complex, and bizarre as they unfold. Some of us need to drag our bodies a long way in order to facilitate the cleansing process. Those of us with stubborn, egotistical natures feel the need to drag ourselves even further, twist ourselves harder, and bend ourselves deeper in order to appreciate that at the end of the day, we simply need to focus our attention, open our hearts, and head back to a place of stillness. There are undoubtedly insights that present themselves along the asana journey—precious victories, awakenings, and unveilings. Still, I believe that psychological evolution is related to the continuation of practice as much as to asanas achieved.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
I reside in gratitude. What an amazing practice this is. The way it shines a light, that it inspires people to get out of bed in the darkness and to work so hard at what seems almost intangible gain. And at a time when there is so much potential for despair on our planet, so many, because of Guruji and this path of ashtanga yoga, so many people who may well have been lost have illuminated direction. Guruji is older now, he struggles with his health and he may not be with us physically for much longer. I only hope that we can do him proud.