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Sharath in Copenhagen, Coffee in Ashtanga and a Strong Mind

When my husband and I travel to Europe in the summer to teach and visit his family in Denmark we rarely get the chance to be students of yoga. Normally we squeeze in a practice around our workshop schedule on the weekends and before a family gathering during the week. Sometimes we get to sleep in and we certainly enjoy those mornings off. But this summer R. Sharath Jois, the grandson of my teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, was teaching in Copenhagen during a relatively calm week when we had little else to do. So we had the great fortune to join his classes for three days of Guided Primary Series and two conferences where he talked about Ashtanga Yoga philosophy.

I love practicing with Sharath and especially taking his Guided Primary because I get so sore. There is no better series to work on building the strength to support the challenging jump through/jump back movement than the Primary Series and I love working on that because it is still an effort for me. I woke up on the second morning of our three days with aches and pains in my deltoids, serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi that let me know that there is always further and deeper to go in the journey of strength. His count is steady and strong like a metronome that never misses a beat. It shows me just how much I lapse into cheating it just a little too easy around the postures I like the least on my own. As I usually practice the Advanced Series taking time to focus on Primary is also a healing practice that gives my body a break from the intensity of my usual practice. On the last day Tim and I were running late and the only spots open were at the front of the room. As Sharath waved us over and we unrolled out mats an internal shriek filled my heart as I noticed his camera pointed directly as us. Thankfully afterwards he told us that all the photos were very dark!

During the first afternoon conference that we attended Sharath explained that in order for the tradition of yoga to be communicated you must meet a teacher who is steeped in the tradition. Then the student must also meet the teacher halfway. Or in other words the student must surrender to the teacher in order for the knowledge that the teacher has to flow towards them. Rather than argue with the teacher or attempt to disprove their teaching the student should surrender if they want to learn and receive the teaching. When I met Guruji for the first time my heart opened and transcended all my questions and doubts. I know from personal experience just how important that heart-opening surrender is and just how lucky I feel to have had my heart broken open by such a powerful teacher at such a young age.

On the last day Sharath’s conference was filled with great tidbits of wisdom from the Ashtanga Yoga lineage. He humbly shared his thoughts on the great obstacle of doubt in the practice. He said that everyone gets sore, including him. Some mornings when he wakes up during his vigorous routine of rising at 1 AM to practice at 3 AM a feeling of futility rolls over him. With grace and humor Sharath said that especially in the middle of the week he finds himself questioning why he should bother with the practice when his body feels sore and he wants rest more than yoga. His prescription for this was that if you in that moment force yourself a little to muster up the strength to unroll your mat and take practice that day can be your very best practice of the week. I agree and perhaps you do too. I’m not sure if our expectations are set so low on days when we feel sore and tired that anything we do feels amazing or if there is an ego-obstacle that takes the shape of soreness and tiredness right before we are about to break through into something deep. But if you can just commit to unrolling your mat and seeing how it goes on the good days and the bad days then you will experience the magic of the Ashtanga Yoga method to see you through the ups and downs of life. Or you could just sleep in and go for coffee…

There is some strange connection between Ashtanga Yoga and coffee. Guruji used to drink it and sometimes say “no coffee, no prana”. Well I guess if I was waking up at 1 AM I would consider drinking coffee to highly caffeinate my body too. But I don’t like coffee and I never have. Occasionally I taste it and try out what so much of the world loves so much. When I was in Paris this summer I couldn’t resist a croissant and a cafe au lait and in Italy I absolutely had to try a cappuccino. Believe me I relished and appreciated every sip. Sharath actually likened the practice to drinking a cup of coffee. He said that he looks forward to that first cup of coffee in the morning and makes a conscious effort to relish and enjoy it. The practice, he said, should be just like that too. You shouldn’t just do the practice just to do it and get it done, you should enjoy your practice every day. My takeaway from this speaks deeply to the mind training of the Ashtanga Yoga method. You can go through the motions of the practice just like you can chug a cup of coffee in the morning because it’s part of your routine. Or you can consciously choose to savor each sip of your life. You can choose to train your mind to enjoy every moment of your practice just as you can choose to focus on the positive elements of every life experience. Sharath quoted Yoga Sutra 2.48: Tato Dvandva-anabhighatah, that states that when the yogi’s mind is strong peace is maintained in the face of opposites such as pleasure and pain or attachment and aversion. In order to avoid getting hooked into the cycle of suffering the equanimous mind is a crucial development along the spiritual path of yoga. If you are always running towards pleasure, running from pain, fighting against aversion and fighting for attachment then the very motion of your actions will fuel the wheels of karma and further bind you into conditioned existence. But if your mind is strong and you consciously choose your path as appreciation, joy and gratitude for every sip of life, then your freedom is already evident in each moment both in your practice and in your life.

The path to controlling the mind in the Ashtanga Yoga method comes from controlling the inner body. But not just any part of the body, specifically the bandhas. Sharath shared a quote from Sri Shankaracharya where this great sage stated that all who practice bandha become raja yogis, the kings of yoga with light bodies. Just as God is the source of all elements, bandha is the source of all strength according to the shastra he quoted. I didn’t get a chance to ask Sharath which shastra he quoted for this valuable piece of information but I’ll do my best to ask him this winter in Mysore. There is a chitta bandha that a means mind strength and it comes automatically from practicing the bandhas during the Ashtanga Yoga method. As anyone knows who really works with the interior space of the pelvis the practice of the bandhas is truly a lifelong practice that trains the mind to be one-pointed on the inner body.

Sharath ended with a reminder to have strong faith in the Ashtanga Yoga method. He said that purity comes from within and when you focus on the outside world you will often see ego, stress and other negative things but when you focus on internal purity you get stronger and ultimately you will see the world as pure when you are pure within. The outer world is a reflection of your inner purity and what you see and respond to is a statement about where you are in your own development. If you see others whom you feel have strong ego, Sharath recommend to just let them have ego and focus on your own practice until you can see the world through the eyes of the divine. This good vision is the inner sight that yogis develop. Sharath ended by wishing us all to have this revelation. He said, “When you have good vision in your practice it is easier to reach your goals in your practice and in your life.”

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