Saturday, June 30, 2012

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


Everyone you interviewed spent time with Guruji in Mysore.  Why is making the time to practice in India so crucial? Or is it?  

If you want to go deep into a subject, you have to go to the source. Spending time in mother India is an incomparable experience and having the opportunity to study closely with a master such as Pattabhi Jois is a priceless opportunity. I believe that it is almost impossible to understand yoga without spending extended time in India, so for a deeper understanding I think it is necessary.


Practicing with Guruji, especially in the intimate setting of the "old shala" in Lakshmi Puram was a very powerful and transformative experience. Receiving the asanas from Guruji and being adjusted in them by him on a daily basis also has a profound impact. Beyond the effectiveness and beauty of the sequences he created, the nature of his adjustments and the way in which he engaged with each individual were teachings on a daily basis. Much more is conveyed through teaching asana than is at first evident.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ashtanga Myths - 999% practice

Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory

There is generally a complete misunderstanding of what this means.

Guruji did not mean yoga is 99% physical activity and 1% philosophy!

He meant that the theory of asana is quite simple - vinyasa, drishti, breathing, bandhas - this is the 1%. The theory of Ashtanga Yoga is quite simple: its a method of purification going though sequential steps.  These are the theoretical explanations for the simple practice of Tapas. But sadhana (practice) also includes Svadhyaya (self study and study of scriptures) and Ishvara Pranidhana. 

What Guruji meant was that there is no benefit from, or possible understanding of yoga without practice. One cannot understand the theory without practice because one cannot understand the context in which yoga is to be understood. Practicing asanas expands the mind in ways which cannot be categorized - only with a glimpse of where yoga is directing us through practice does understanding of the goal become apparent. As Guruji often said - you cannot explain the taste of honey - you have to taste it to know it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

mad attention?

On a few occasions when asked about meditation, Guruji quipped: "What? Mad attention!"

Westerners can be justified in their confusion about the very specific use of the word dhyana (translated as meditation) in the context of Patanjali's yoga. In the West, meditation can be taken to mean absorption or reflection with a non-specific level of attention. In Patanjali yoga, dhyana forms a central role in a triad of internal functions leading to the ultimate state. According to Patanjai, dharana (concentration), dhyana and samadhi are linked - one leads to the next. He calls this process Samyama. Samyama is used in all the stages of samadhi.

Guruji's response was probably to the question of a naive new student, someone who had perhaps explored some new age guided meditation. "You have no idea what you are asking about!" is what he meant. Ashtanga Yoga is a step by step method - first you have to purify your body and mind and then it will make sense to sit, otherwise your attempts at meditation will produce "mad attention" - total distraction. Guruji did teach meditation and mantras on an individual basis to his students, so he was not of the opinion that meditation was a waste of time for Westerners.

At the end of practice there is a natural opportunity to sit in padmasana for a longer period of time and many students naturally start to include some meditative elements in their practice at this point. Some students are attracted to chanting, others to pranayama, others integrate meditations they bring from their own traditions. Vipassana is very common amongst ashtanga practitioners and seems to make a very good partner in the connection through breath.

For most students it takes many years to feel ready to properly explore the internal limbs but some very few do not even need asana practice. For many ashtanga practitioners, pranayama is the gateway to the internal and leads naturally to the succeeding limbs.

Dharana - Dhyana - Samadhi - Samyama

Concentration, dharana, is a function of our day to day life. We are always trying to concentrate, so even though dharana is called the first internal limb, it may be found as part of everyday life. I am not suggesting that dharana is easily mastered, just that it is something of common experience.

The practice of dharana involves keeping the attention fixed on one object for a period of time. The mind has distractions, but it is repeatedly brought back to its object. These distractions are accepted within the definition of dharana. Patanjali suggests concentrating on different points of the body, a practice which is elaborated in the Yogayajnavalkya Samhita.

According to Guruji, dhyana which follows from dharana is a natural outgrowth of purifying the mind through yoga.

There are sixty-four yogic arts through which meditation and samadhi can be experienced. Any one who has gained some mastery over a musical instrument can attest to the way in which the mind shifts from a state of concentration to a state in which the mind merges with the music. Dharana is likened to the individual droplets which form when when water is poured from a vessel, in contrast dhyana is likened to the pouring of oil - no droplets (discrete thoughts) form, there is a merging of thoughts into a single flow in the direction of the object.

Patanjali says, if you are having trouble fixing the mind in Samadhi, then you should meditate - he says any suitable (appropriate) object may be used.

The practice of samadhi is to merge the mind completely with an object. The ideal object (subject) is the Self. The Self cannot be witnessed or described, it has no attributes, so its manifestation arises when the mind becomes attribute-less, when the mind dissolves, finds total quiescence. There are numerous meditations which may lead to the mind's dissolution and the resulting Samadhi. Some are gradual, some are direct, but success, of course, depends on the readiness of the subject.

Apart from following the limbs of yoga, success will only come to one who lets go of worldly desire. So long as desire persists, it will act as a distraction in meditation. Guruji spoke a great deal about practice, but much less often about vairagya. Patanjali says, these two, not just practice, but practice and moving the desire for the external towards an internal goal, will lead to chittavritti nirodhah.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

sutra class 3


Patanjali’s definition of yoga, as yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, is the basis of the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. Guruji used to say, if you cannot control the mind, you need to practice step-by-step Ashtanga Yoga for mental and physical purification.

We have looked at a few different perspectives on how the human being is constituted. According to yoga philosophy we are in essence Sat Chit Ananda – truth, pure consciousness and bliss.

Yogis have described the human being as having five bodies or sheaths, which fit one within the other – first, the body of food (annamaya kosha), second, the pranamaya kosha, the body of prana, the body of vital energy. Manomaya kosha is the third, the body of discursive, lower or animal mind and sense organs. vijnanamaya kosha is the fourth, which is the body of intellect, the body of knowledge and decision-making. And the anadamaya kosha, which is called the body of bliss or causal body is the fifth - it also contains the samskaras or karmas, which cause future reincarnation. The food body and the prana body taken together are called the physical body, the manomaya and vijnanamaya koshas together are known as the subtle body (or body of mind) and the anandamaya kosha is known as the causal body (it contains the material cause for all manifestations of our experience).