The Brave Yogi – Conference Notes from Mysore, Funny Student Questions, Memories of Guruji
10 AM Sunday right after the Intermediate class
January 8th, 2012
Since it was Sharath’s daughter’s birthday we had Conference directly after the Guided Intermediate class at 10 AM, SST, Standard Shala Time which is 15 minutes ahead of normal time. We had just enough time to drink a coconut and scramble back inside to get a spot. Before I share what was a very powerful and touching discussion I want to talk about what was the biggest shock of the Conference for me, and certainly for my husband, Tim Feldmann.
Towards the end of Conference a student of Tim’s from one of his workshops in the U.S. asked Sharath what was to be the last question of the day. It was her first day of practice on Sunday and her first trip to Mysore. The student asked Sharath something like this, “What do I do when I learn different things in Mysore then from other teachers like Tim Miller and Tim Feldmann?” Now that sounded to me and every one of the more than 300 hundred other students here just like she asked what to do here in the shala in Mysore when she learns different things than what she learned from taking classes with the two Tims. But she came up to Tim after and explained that she actually meant to say something like this instead: “What do you do in your regular Mysore class at home in the U.S. with a non-Authorized or Certified teacher and it is different from what qualified Authorized and Certified teachers like Tim & Tim tell me is the traditional method in workshops that I take with them?” Two totally different realities. First of all I think it’s a kind of social faux pas to mention another teacher’s name during Conference with Sharath. Ask your question but try not to throw anyone under the bus by doing it. Secondly if you are going to mention someone’s name and you mean it to be in a positive light think it over very clearly and phrase your question as simply as possible so as not to miscommunicate. When the question was asked my husband eyes got huge, I stopped typing the notes I was taking and there was a general sense of awkwardness in the whole room. The last thing that any Ashtanga Yoga teacher wants to hear is that their teaching is contrary to the tradition, especially if that is not what the student meant to say anyway. We all devote ourselves to the lineage, the practice and the tradition with our whole hearts and to have that questioned is like a knife in our hearts. So anyhow the student went up to Sharath and told him what she really meant, but now there are three hundred students who heard the opposite. Tim is now “the famous Tim Feldmann” and has been answering people’s questions and explaining what happened to multiple people over chai, coconuts, dosas, in the street and under the lights of Mysore Palace. One other interesting thing that has happened is that many students who have taken classes with Tim have posted on his FB page how much they appreciate his teaching and how they feel that he represents the tradition well.
Mysore is an amazing place to come and practice and in some ways I feel that being here also accelerates anything that you are processing and any lessons that you may be in the midst of. In some mysterious way just being here hastens the pace at which the mirror of life’s good, bad, beautiful and ugly presents itself. All you can do is keep steady and strong and keep practicing.
Ok, so now as promised, here are the notes about the actual Conference with Sharath below:
Sharath started off by stating that “In this modern world now everything is instant, no one has patience, everyone wants to have as soon as possible. In yoga it has also become like that.” He said that many places will certify you to teach within 15 days or one month. There is always someone who comes to India and thinks that if they come for one month they should get a certificate stating that they studied here and are then qualified to teach. They get many phone calls asking about Teacher Training from all over the world, three last week. Sharath said, “Yoga is getting big but it is getting crazy also. It’s not that yoga is crazy people are making it crazy. A yoga teacher should always maintain the purity of the practice.” In the light of the NY Times article that questions the efficacy and danger of the yoga tradition I think it is useful to ask the question what it really takes to be a qualified teacher of yoga, how many years of practice does it take to really understand the depth of the tradition. Sharath said that for a practitioner it is very important to choose your teacher, one who can guide you properly, one who knows and who has been practicing for many years within in a lineage.
The notion of parampara as stated in the Baghavad Gita is important. You learn yoga through lineage of correct sadhana in order to have a teacher who can transmit to the students the knowledge of the tradition. First the teacher has to have learned it and experienced it within for many years and then only is it possible to transfer the correct method to the students. Sharath said that you can watch many amazing and crazy things on Youtube and it is hard to figure out which is good (I wonder if he’s seen my videos and if so if they are crazy to him?). His point was that you have to discriminate between so many things amidst the wealth of information out there. There are so many things that are called yoga like naked yoga, booty yoga, runner’s yoga so that soon everything will be joined with yoga. Accordingly t is our duty being a practitioner of a traditional form of yoga to keep the purity of the practice in tact. If we don’t keep the purity within us then in 10-15 years yoga will have a different meaning of yoga. Yoga has described in many different ways throughout the years, but the heart is the same. For example take the definition of “jiva-atma” meaning that when the individual soul joins with the supreme soul you are doing yoga. Yoga is the way of moksha, liberation. Throughout all the different explanations of yoga the deeper experience is the same, once you become one with everything, that’s the union of yoga. For yoga, sadhana is very important because if you only do it for a few years you won’t go for the depth of yoga.
Sharath gave the Four D’s that you need for correct yoga practice: devotion, dedication, discipline and determination. Yogis have a disciplined life because our mind shouldn’t get distracted to many other unwanted things. A yogis mind by practicing every day yoga gets stronger within and the mind thinks about what yoga is and replaces old negative thoughts with these positive ones instead. The kinds of thoughts that ponder the meaning of concepts like satya and ahimsa should come within the asana practice and the awareness of being a practitioner shows you to follow this spiritual investigation. The yamas/niyamas are ten sub-limbs of the method and these qualities develop strongly within us over time, decreasing the likelihood of conflict and giving a better meaning to the practice. If you just keep on doing asanas without thinking about these types of things then the practice is just like a mindless physical activity with no spiritual use. He asked what is the use of a beautiful physical if you don’t have a good heart or good thinking? So this asana is the foundation for all spiritual practice. Once you follow yamas and niyamas and then you won’t be disturbed by many things in your life and then you will have purity within. That is the transformation that happens when you do your practice for a long time with dedication and devotion to the practice. Sraddha, faith and devotion, means that one who has it can get the knowledge and realize the purity of the practice. Once you realize the transformation that can happen you will get a beautiful experience of the practice but it is something that should happen slowly.
When you get older and wiser in your practice the meaning also changes to a deeper spiritual practice. Sharath said that when he was 19 he started the practice again seriously but still was not very near to the heart of yoga. In some sense it was just bending the body, doing the movement, all fun and lots of pain. With each asana there was a new pain, but he said that his yoga was not wise enough. He continued, “Once we go deeper an deeper in this practice then the practice becomes deeper and wiser and it grows like a plant in the ground, when you wan to grow the plan you have to nourish it properly with water, fertilizer, etc. to make the plant to grow. Once you nourish the plant properly the plant will grow and flower will blossom. If you don’t nourish the roots then the flower will never blossom. Exactly like that asana, yama, niyama are the nourishment which our mind needs. When the yoga will grow and it will blossom within us. For this it doesn’t happen that easily, you have to gain something you have to do something. Many things you have to sacrifice. This is what I learned from home.”
At this point in the Conference I started to think of Guruji and just then Sharath started to talk about his grandfather and I was deeply touched by what he said.
Guruji would rise at 3 AM everyday and do his chanting to teach by 4 AM and Sharath said that his dedication came the same way by watching Guruji. The relationship between the guru and the student is like father and son relation and that same relation was there between Krishnamacharya and Guruji. They would do practice in the morning and theory at 12 PM and over many years the knowledge would transfer to the students. He said, “In this instant world nobody has patience. All they want is the piece of paper. The real yoga practitioner doesn’t care if he is certified or authorized because yoga keeps happening within them, yoga gets stronger and stronger within the real yogi.” Many people have a different opinion or imagination about yoga like if you jump back or do handstand then you’re a real yogi. Handstand if you can do it’s nice to watch, but you have to improve yogic and spiritual knowledge, once you improve that within yourself then you will become a real yogi. He said that, “We are still trying to become yogis and yoginis, we are still going in that direction but still we have not reached until we get enlightened. Whatever we do in this lifetime will carry forward into the next lifetime–maybe you don’t need to do so many asanas–then straight away you can get enlightened, like the Buddha and Shankaracharya. There are many yogis throughout history, even Jesus Christ, if he had been born in India he would have been considered a yogi. The many who got enlightened were all born yogis because of the hard work they put in from a previous life.”
Sharath said that in order to keep your motivation up you should keep a photo of your teacher in your practice space. He said “In my practice I always feel Guruji, like he is watching me, I miss the adjustment in backbending very badly. He would help me, but that connection is always there.” Nobody can see God, but only feel the presence. Like that, Sharath said he feels Guruji, physically he is not here but the energy is always there. Every student who had the benefit of directly experiencing Guruji’s power and presence misses him, but at least every one of us here in Mysore now has Sharath to help us in the practice. Who does he have to help in with his backbends and his practice? I always felt that on the days that Guruji adjusted me in the practice the energy of my being moved in a radically different way. It felt like karmic bonds of the past were being burned through–sometimes there would be real, measurable physical shifts and other times there would energetic shifts that words cannot even begin to describe. I have never had an adjustment in backbend like his and I know I never will again. He would effortlessly take me beyond my mental limit, right to the edge of my physical limit with no pain, no soreness after. My deepest backbends were always with his guidance. Even just Guruji’s presence in the room made all my pain disappear and everything seem more peaceful and more possible.
Then there were some small corrections in the Practice that he wanted to share with us based on what he saw everyone practicing.
1. In Surya B/Utkatasana don’t sweep the floor with your hands before enterting Utkatasana
2. In Utkatasana the Vinyasa is not to straighten the legs, but to keep them bent and then lift up directly from there. If you cannot lift up, try and then just jump back without straightening your legs.
3. Here is how the knee should be in Janu Sirsasana Postures:
Janu A – 90 degrees
Janu B – 85 degrees
Janu C – 45 degrees
Sharath then said that Guruji didn’t understand English really well sometimes and especially because everyone has different accents. New Zealand was especially hard to understand for him. Those from Mysore who speak his language were the best to understand what he was saying. For example the ujjayi breath is meant to be a pranayama practice, the practice breathing is just free breathing with sound. Only when you are long time student of Guruji’s could you understand. His heart was like a baby’s heart, his mind was like a baby’s mind. The breath during the practice should be long and deep so that each and every part of the body can feel the breath, from the toes to the top of the head, and the blood circulation is going properly. Deep breathing is especially important for shoudlerstand. Sarvangasana is the asana for the whole body so that every organ gets exercises. Sirsasana also important and he said that you can do them both for a long time. Sometimes you get various pains all over the body and this is all because of not breathing properly. He said that “The more we relax in the asana, try to relax and take long breaths and relax then it becomes easier. The more you relax the more easy you can do all the postures.”
Part of the discipline is also giving non-attachment, vairagya, so that you release your attachment to many material things. The world of the senses is on the outside and includes the thoughts that the brain has accumulated and programmed from watching the outside world. Sharath said “Who is a brave person is a yogi who will withdraw all the senses inwardly and try to realize the inner purity. By watching others we have lost ourself and lost our inner purity. With yoga practice you slowly get detached from everything and look inside and try to realize the purest form within.” This is what Shankaracharya said, that the divine is already alive within ourselves, but we are not able to recognize it because we are lost within many things. That is why this practice is very important and once we get wiser and more spiritually advanced then the distraction will vanish and you can see the inner purity. If you still the thought waves you can experience totally different things and the mind becomes very peaceful.
Sharath said that a guru is always a teacher and should be there for the students because if not the students will go off track. Guru is the dispeller of darkness. Sometimes we get lost in so many delusions within us and the guru is person who brings us back to track.
In the practice you have to think for yourself, come to the practice and experience. It’s up to you to decide who your teacher is. But too gurus will kill one student just like two doctors will kill one patient. Choose one teacher. Guruji used to say “Many teachers, crazy making, one teacher, shantih is coming.” Sharath said that none of the other students experienced what he did from Guruji. His knowledge of yoga came from total devotion to one teacher over more than 20 years. If you devote yourself to one teacher definitely transformation will happen, but you shouldn’t loose your heart and wander from the path after difficulty, pain or injury. Some people do for a few years and then decide that they have figured out a better way to modify, change or alter the practice. They then lose the ground gained and within two or three years they totally change the style of yoga and pronounce it as the “new” truth when actually just confusion is there. In yoga first that thats why we have to stabilize the mind and bring stability in the practice and mind. The quality of Sthira, stability is a key factor on the path yoga. Sharath said, “Yoga is the healer for anything. If you have yoga within you, yoga will save you. It is very good for us to keep this traditional practice alive and pass it onto the next generation, it doesn’t belong to one person, if you use it properly it becomes yours, you can experience it, but you cannot own it, if you don’t do it properly then its not yours.”