Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" - Interview with Elise Espat - Part I


How and why did you choose to ask the questions you asked for the interviews?

When I arrived in Mysore in the early '90s Guruji used to give regular theory classes, but his ability to communicate was often thwarted by language problems. 

Guruji spoke a little English but he had a strong accent which was often hard for English speakers to understand and mostly impossible to understand for non-native English speakers when he started to talk about philosophy. 

In the first few years I was there, there were 15-20 students at his theory classes. We were French, German, English, American, Dutch, Swiss… a jumble of languages with varying limitations on the grasp of Guruji's broken English and Sanskrit. So his efforts were often mired in frustration. I felt for him (and for myself - I was also frustrated we were unable to learn more from him in this forum).
There were also increasing numbers of students who did not want to think too deeply. For them being in India with Guruji was perhaps a bit of a lark and not an opportunity to absorb the fullness of what he had to offer. Often they turned Guruji's theory classes into a bit of a circus.

Guruji was a scholar and had the desire to share the gems of the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutra with his students, but as time went by, the quality of the interest was often brought down to a lowest common denominator by questions such as "Guruji, what is the best kind of yoga clothing or mat to use?" or other perhaps important, yet mundane subjects. 

In the end Guruji would often shake his head in frustration and resignation and say "You don't understand! Just do your practice and all is coming!" This was accepted by increasing numbers as a motto, and for some, as an invitation not to question any deeper. But I felt it was said in the context of frustration that direct teaching through the mind was not possible.

"Sat tu dirgha kala…" - perhaps Guruji's favorite words - "you practice for a long time! 10 years, 20 years, your life long, you practice!" He was able to convey this aspect of his teaching with absolute effectiveness - but what did he mean by "all is coming"? I think this is the subject of much of the book.

So my first motivation was to give Guruji a voice and to try to share his philosophy. Of course it is not his philosophy, it is the eternal teaching of the Vedas, Upanishads and other sacred literature of India, but unique in the way it came to expression through him.

Originally the interviews were part of a video documentary project. What I had in mind was to paint a portrait of Guruji, an Impressionistic image or collage, by juxtaposing different shades and hues of answers to the same questions. My questions were designed to be cut from the end result, leaving the interviewees to speak for themselves. You will notice there are very few questions which evoke a yes/no response.

I wanted to make the interviews as comprehensive as possible because I was not sure which parts I was going to want to use. When the interviews first started to take shape as an idea Guruji was still relatively unknown (Yoga Mala had not been translated into English) but by the time I started asking the first questions (1999), he was already traveling and teaching extensively and had become well known in the West. 

While I had been motivated to write a book myself, I felt that the voices of others would give much greater authority and weight - and as it turns out also wisdom, eloquence and insight! The questions covered several areas such as: Guruji as teacher, the practice, theory, Guruji as family man, origins of the series and the individual experiences of the interviewees. As time went by the question list became more comprehensive, but it changed with each interview as I noted particular areas of interest or expertise. If I found the subject going in an interesting direction, I would follow it. 

I have always known yoga as a spiritual practice, but many I have met on the path are more interested in the material benefits. Although the book is called "Guruji" and does contain biographical and anecdotal stories about his life, the larger part of the book is devoted to what he was teaching. What is yoga? And how should practice be applied? What are the benefits? And what is the metaphysical viewpoint which underpins the yogic knowledge? Guruji is the lens, the teacher,  but the main object of interest is yoga itself. Because there was no clearly (or universally) understood "Ashtanga Yoga Philosophy" amongst his students, his philosophy became summed up by many as 99% practice, 1% theory, do you practice and all is coming etc - and that was about it. I felt this imbalance needed correcting.

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