Post is from Priya’s Travel Blog. Please subscribe there to get her updates.
Pictures are from Ashtanga Picture Project.
Om ajnaana timiraandhasya
Caksur unmilitam yena
Tasmai shri gurave namah
Today will be the last conference of this season, so if you have any doubts before you go back…I know doubts always keep coming. If we don’t get doubts, there is no answer.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the count in the led practice? I understand they are numbers…is there more to it?
A: It is not a mantra, it’s just 1, 2, 3… counting. The counting in Sanskrit, that’s all. Ekam, dve, trini is 1, 2, 3. So that you can understand how many vinyasa is there in each asana, that is why we do the counting. Mantra is totally different. Mantra is chanting. In English, you call it chanting.
Q: I’ve been thinking a long time about ahimsa. I know you spoke about it recently. The thoughts I had are that every day every action has an infinite number of consequences. If I walk to the Shala, I may walk on things. If I ride the scooter, the emissions affect things. If I drive a car, that also has effects. In each action, whether I have knowledge or not, there may be harm. But then the consequences of me coming to practice may outweigh the potential harm. Like this, every action has both. And at the same time, inaction can also cause harm to yourself and to others. If someone needs help across the street and you refuse action, then you are also harming that person. Like this, every action has a potential consequence of causing harm. So I have struggled with this. In the end, how do you decide? You can’t ask somebody what to do. What is right? What is wrong? Where does the answer come from? That is my difficulty. I think at the end the answer has to come from within, whatever your consciousness tells you, whatever your feeling is. I would like to hear what you think.
A: See, first of all, then we shouldn’t walk. We shouldn’t sleep. Then we shouldn’t do anything because everything, knowingly or unknowingly, will be killing so many things. If that is what your perception is, then it will be very difficult to live. My answer for this is it depends on the intention. While walking, we are not doing it purposefully. We are not harming purposefully. While walking in the street, some stone might fall on us. That doesn’t become ahimsa. It just happens. While walking in the forest, if some big boulder comes and falls on you, what do you call that? That’s your fate, that’s all. For death there is no reason. If you take birth, you have to die one day. There is no reason to die. But one day each of us has to die. Each of us has a different way of going. That doesn’t mean you have to kill everything you see. If you see a cockroach, you don’t have to go and spray something on it and kill it. God has given you ability to think. You can go and catch the cockroach in your hand and leave it [outside]. We never kill anything in the Shala. Whenever I see a cockroach, I use my towel or my hand and take it out. So like that, every action which you take, you can think what to do because God has given you that power. If you are in a fight with someone, you can hurt them or you can just ignore and walk away. The fight will not be there. So this is what yoga brings us inside. You become wiser. What is wiseness? In the spiritual practice, it is how you think about these things. How to avoidhimsa. How to follow satya and avoid asatya. God has given you this ability to think. How you utilize it, that is very important. You see people on the street…as you told, if you didn’t help someone…if you just give ten rupees to someone, that doesn’t mean you’re helping them. You’re spoiling them. You think you are giving money for a girl carrying a baby to get food, but that money isn’t going to buy food for the baby. It goes to someone else who controls all these people. (*If this comes as a surprise or you are confused by this, I recommend reading a book like “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry. Although it is a work of fiction, it provides a very real portrayal of what life is like for many of India’s poorest people under the control of slumlords. A heart-wrenching read but deeply thoughtful and provocative*)
So while giving also you have to think. First you have to do your homework, where you are giving your money. I read in the newspaper the other day about a lady in Dubai who was begging on the street, but it turned out she was a multi-millionaire. When she died, she didn’t have anyone. There was one boy who was looking after her. He came to know that she was worth 6 or 7 million. So when you give money, you should give to a charity where you see the work that is going on. We have a charity, the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Charitable Trust. Most of the time, we buy things ourselves and give it directly to the needy. So like that, there are many things to avoid, many things which you must think about. Once you become wiser, by adapting the eight limbs, impurities in the body and mind will be destroyed. Jnana didihi– the spiritual knowledge will glow inside you. Then you will become wise in your spiritual practice. So this is the benefit of Ashtanga Yoga and practicing the eight limbs of yoga.
Yesterday my wife was helping me with oil bath (she rubs oil on my back where I can’t reach) so we were discussing spirituality. It’s the only time we get to discuss once a week since I am so busy teaching. I was telling her that everyone’s heart is good. Good heart, disturbed mind. When you are born, until age 5, you don’t know anything, your heart is so pure. You don’t know what is jealousy, you don’t know how to hurt someone, you don’t know any of this until five years. After five years, when you get a little bit older, all these disturbances start. Your mind gets programmed with so many things. That is through external [influence], what you see, what you hear, what you gossip with others. That is why yoga is necessary- to see inwardly. Once we withdraw all our senses and try to go inside, try to know who we are, what is our true nature, that is when the process of yoga starts.
You are always trying to see what that guy is doing, what this guy is doing. You are always bothered about others, you are not concerned about yourself. See what mistakes you are doing, how can you improve your spiritual knowledge, then you will become a yogi. The process itself [of looking inside] is what makes one a yogi, not just by doing asanas. That is only one limb, that’s all. That should lead you towards this. Asana is where we enter into yoga, many of us start here. Once you enter into this yogic practice, you want to know, what is ahimsa. Many of you were not born in India. Did you know when you grew up in your country what ahimsa was? Did you know what yoga was? No, so once you step inside asana practice, you want to know what is ahimsa. Then satya, how to be true. So you come to know, one by one [all the limbs], and try to follow it. That is the transformation which happens. Until then, you don’t know. I am not saying that in other countries, if you don’t know what is ahimsa, you don’t follow it. Many people follow this. But to go deeper inside, that yoga will take you deeper and deeper and make you a different person. Then your actions will also change. Your perception towards this life, towards others, everything will change.
So being vegetarian is better (he laughs). You’re not killing another life and eating it. Once someone was asking, “Why we should eat vegetarian?” If you look in a mirror and see your teeth. Our teeth are like a cow’s teeth, we don’t have canines. A tiger, a leopard or any carnivores, they all have canine teeth. That is to kill other animals and eat. But our teeth are like a cow’s teeth, so you have to be vegetarian like a cow 😉
Q: Someone again asked about practicing on moon days and Ladies holiday. She said she found it agitating to not practice for a few days.
A: I told again in last conference, you do japa. If you get agitated by not doing asanas on those days, you do japa.
Q: It seems from what I’ve read about Guruji with his students that he used to really push them physically to their limits. How do we know how far we should push ourselves in our practice?
A: How hard to push yourself? Until you get pain. (everyone laughs) Your body will resist. The body is very clever. It will say, “No, don’t push more than this.” But your mind doesn’t listen. That’s the problem. Because you see others and say, “Oh, they are doing like this, I have to do the same.” So then you push more and you hurt yourself. Your body is very clever. It knows when to stop. It will stop automatically.
Q: And how long should your practice be if you’re doing one series? Two hours?
A: One series is one hour twenty minutes. If you are doing Primary Series. But if you practice here and then go home and again practice…you keep on doing it…someone is doing some back opening, some hip opening, then you’ll hurt yourself. There is a limit to everything. If you go and eat a big thali four times, what happens? Your body can’t hold it. You’ll get sick quickly. You can’t digest the food. So asana is also like that. If you do 200 asanas in one day, next day you can’t get up. You’ll be hospitalized.
Q: Is there a story behind “Shala time”?
A: Many students have asked this question. Yeah, we don’t want our students to be lazy. Always we keep ten minutes fast so they are on time. It comes from parampara. I can’t help it. (everyone laughing) Guruji always used to keep [the clock] ten minutes fast. He was always on time. He was never late anywhere. If someone asked him to come at 5:00, he was always there five minutes before. So for many years it has been like that.
“Bandh” means “stop.” “Bandha” means locking, stopping, sealing. That is bandha. Mula bandha, uddhiyana bandha, jalandhara bandha, these three bandhas are there. We should practice not only in our asana practice; satatam mula bandhanat, mula bandha all the time. Mula bandha is locking the anus. Uddhiyana bandha, in the lower abdomen. Once mula bandha comes, automatically uddhiyana bandha will also come. Jalandhara bandha is mostly practiced in pranayama, and only some asanas. There are some asanas which are meant for pranayama, then you have to do that. Jalandhara bandha is locking the chin to chest. Those are the bandhas. Another two years you practice then I’ll tell you more about it because that itself is a very big subject.
Q: When are you supposed to use nauli kriya?
A: When you are sick.
Q: Only when you are sick?
A: Are you sick now?
Q: No, but I used to do it for warm-up. Some teachers say you can do it to warm up, some others say don’t, so I don’t know.
A: No, kriyas are only to be done when you are sick. When asanas are not curing your problem. For instance, if you have a bad cold and your sinuses are blocked and you can’t breathe…you’re doing asanas and still it’s not going away, then you do neti. If you’re doing asanas and you still have constipation, then you can do basti. Like that, you can do, but otherwise in this practice you do not need to do all those kriyas. Regular asana practice will cure many diseases if you do it properly.
Q: In the Ashtanga Primary Series, the focus is more on forward bending than backbending. From my understanding, the idea is that it is important to develop the bandha and to awaken the mula chakra first. I want to know your interpretation of the sequence.
A: Last time I told you the Primary Series is for chikitsa vibhaga, to cure diseases. There are many asanas through which our internal organs will be cured, they will be strengthened, purified, and work properly. By doing the asanas (like Pascimattanasana, Ardhabaddhapadma Pascimattanasana, Janusirsasana) we are pressing on the internal organs and it is very good to purify them and cure diseases. That is one reason why there are many forward bends. By doing forward bends you will also strengthen your back. First you have to strengthen your back. One doctor came, he had lower back pain. For many years he had been suffering from lower back pain. He was very young, only 28 years old. So I taught him Pascimattanasana, Ardhabaddhapadma Pascimattanasana, Triyangmukhaikapada Pascimattanasana, etc., and these postures he did with free breathing and the pain went away. So this is chikitsa. There are lots of good asanas in the Primary Series. First we have to get ourselves fit and healthy. Whether you have disease or not, this yoga chikitsa, Primary Series is very good, it will strengthen all the internal organs. Once you are strong internally, then it will be easier for you to go to the Intermediate Series. Many people have a big belly so they ask me how to reduce this. I say do forward bend. Primary Series postures will reduce your belly. Your lower abdomen will get stronger, slimmer.
Q: When should you start doing dropbacks?
A: Once you have finished Primary Series, then you can do dropbacks. Until then, you shouldn’t. First perfect the forward bend, then you start deepening the backbend. Otherwise your Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana will suffer. Some people have very flexible back, but in Kurmasana and Ekapada Sirsasana they struggle. So that you do first for many years, Primary Series. Some people will teach you handstand, they think it is very attractive. Like I said many times, they do ekam, dve, trini, they go to handstand. It’s all show-off. They think they are very advanced. But those people you see, they can’t do Kapotasana. Students who can do Kapotasana very well or easily, you do handstand everyday, do all the time, then see after six months how is your Kapotasana. It won’t be the same Kapotasana. See I have done a lot of research…helping students, watching them, doing my own practice. You do the asana only at the correct time when you should do it. You can’t do it all the time. I can’t walk in handstand up the stairs and down. Then it will be difficult for me to do Kapotasana. So balancing is very important. You’re good at handstand that doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time.
Q: If you have an injury, how do you know when you should work around the injury or work around the pose?
A: Sometimes when your body is changing, you will go through different pains and soreness. For me also, with each new asana there was new pain. When I was eighteen or nineteen years old and we moved from Laxmipuram to Gokulam, I had few friends with whom I would go on bicycle to Kukkarahalli Lake. Few of my friends were training with the National Cadet Corps. I would join them because it was fun. We would do cycling, jogging, pull-ups, push-ups. You want to show off big muscles and impress all the girls. No one got impressed but… 😉 like that when you’re young, you want to do so many things to be fit. But when I went back to learn yoga with my grandfather I had to suffer a lot. With each asana, there was new pain. My back was ok, it was flexible, but when I came to Ekapada Sirsasana there was lots of pain. Because we did so much bicycling, running, all those things, there was lots of pain. Some days I couldn’t walk when I learned Ekapada Sirsasana. But with practice the body changed. So you have to allow the body time to change. And use lots of coconut oil on the joints. Once daily after practice you can go home and put coconut oil and then wash with hot water. This will lubricate all your joints. That’s why we say, “No pain, no gain.” But you shouldn’t go and do all these extra stretches, this opening, that opening, all this nonsense, this is unnecessary. If you go and do all those things, then you’ll hurt your body. Then when you come to practice you suffer. So don’t do unnecessary extra stretches. Whatever you do in practice here, that is enough.
Q: Why when you do Pasasana, you start on the left side and when you switch sides, you don’t jump back?
A: You’re learning with me? I taught you Pasasana?
Q: No, Saraswati.
A: Right side means right shoulder. Which is your right shoulder?
Q: And why we don’t jump back when we change sides?
A: There is no vinyasa, that’s why. (we laugh) It’s a death trap. Pasa means death trap. We don’t give time, just straight away you go 😉 There are some asanas which don’t have vinyasa.
Q: How do you get rid of shaking or trembling or extra spastic energy?
A: Get rid of the fear. You have lots of fear? No fear?
Q: I mean after practice, later in the day, sometimes my hands shake, especially if I’ve had coffee. (hmmm…coffee you say? :-)) Well even when I haven’t had coffee…
A: You have to strengthen your body. Stamina has not yet come so your body is going through lots of changes internally. Whatever you do at home is different from what you do here. Here it is more intense. Like led class, for example, intermediate led class- after that you need to go home and take rest for one hour. So there will be high energy level after practice. Your body has not learned how to withstand, how to handle this much energy. Slowly it will get used to that. Sometimes you get so much energy you feel like fighting with someone. That’s why you have to be careful not to do too many asanas. It can make you aggressive.
Q: There are so many schools around Southeast Asia that teach Ashtanga where you can get a certificate in Ashtanga. I was wondering if you would like to do something about it or control it somehow…because I know in some countries there are teachers who call themselves certified Ashtanga teachers without having even been to Mysore?
A: What can I do? I can teach my students. I can tell them not to go to these programs, not to take these courses. But I can’t police the whole world and monitor who is doing what.
Q: If you put a trademark on it… (seriously?!)
A: Yoga can’t be trademarked or copyrighted. Can you trademark the sun? (everyone laughing) Can you trademark air? Not possible. Well, I suppose oxygen you can put in a container and trademark it 😉 But it is our duty to educate people. Who goes to these teacher trainings? People who don’t know about yoga or who know very little about yoga, and who want to make a living out of yoga. Yeah, yoga has grown very big. And many people are misusing it. It’s an unfortunate thing. Why should I get up everyday at 1:00 in the morning and do my practice and get ready to teach you? I can just run teacher training. Take 100 students and say “Ok, give me $5,000.” I have the name. (everyone laughs) In 15 days, the teacher training is finished. I can give one certificate, stamp it “Certified by R. Sharath Jois.”
Q: What about our authorized teachers who are doing teacher trainings?
A: This is bad. They are being dishonest to their students, to the system, to the lineage. Teacher training is easy money. That is very big ahimsa. Very big asatya. Not being true. Everybody needs training. They need it in a proper way. If my grandfather didn’t train me, I wouldn’t be here. But there is a procedure to do that.
Sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkara adara asevito dridhabhumih (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.14). You need to have a proper foundation, a strong foundation (dridhabhumih), then sa tu dirghakala, do it for long time, nairantarya, continuously, satkara adara, with gravity (seriousness) and respect…all these things are very important in yoga. These things are very important for a yoga practitioner. They should try to respect this system. They must practice for a long time, then only they will have the proper foundation. Most of the people who are doing teacher training, they themselves don’t know what yoga is. They don’t have many years of experience. There is no abhyasa. There is no sadhana in them. I go to some conferences. I see all these crazy people. They are big yogis. They put one ‘Om’ tattoo on the chin. So that makes them very spiritual. (everyone laughing) Spirituality doesn’t come like that. It has to grow within you like a banyan tree. Banyan tree grows over many years from a small tree into a big banyan. Many people have done lots of hard work, like Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, they have done lots of hard work to make this banyan tree of yoga grow. It should grow within each and every one of us slowly.
Q: Why we have to do ‘catching’? (LOL)
A: Catching? To see the stars. If you don’t catch, you can’t see the stars 😉 (everyone laughing) No, it strengthens your spine. If you look at many yogis, they are never hunched back like this. Even when they are 95 years, they still look like this (sitting tall with good posture). Because they have strengthened their spinal cord. So once we do lots of forward bending, we have to compensate with backbending. Then the spinal cord will become strong. So that is why you have to do ‘catching’. After catching, you feel…you go to Samadhi straight away. (funny, funny, everyone laughing ) Have you felt that?
Q: As long as I don’t have any pain in my body, can I keep practicing during my menstruation?
A: No, you shouldn’t practice. It’s not about straining yourself. It is about your internal organs.
Q: Is it the full practice that should be avoided or just inversions for ladies?
A: Full practice for three days you should avoid. No matter whether you are strong, you can climb a hill or whatever. But here, yoga practice you have to stop. I know you don’t listen to me 😉 but you should. Because you have to protect your internal organs. In future if you want to have baby, you can have problems. You can have uterus problems if you strain yourself during that time.
Q: What if you have to choose between satya and ahimsa? For example, if being truthful causes harm, what should you do? Do you choose ahimsa and not speak the truth? What if in not speaking the truth, you are doing more harm? How to balance these limbs?
A: There is a way to say everything. There is always a way to make someone understand. That art you have to learn. The art of teaching, the art of making others understand, you have to learn. Then, if you are following ahimsa, you will be following satya. If you are following satya, you will be following ahimsa. They are two faces of the same coin.
Q: What is your teaching schedule going to be for next year?
A: God only knows. I have not planned yet for next year. If I don’t teach, my wife will get really angry. She doesn’t want to see me in the house. I have not planned yet for next year. First let me settle down in the new house. There are many things.
Q: When we are here, we are in a very supportive environment. It’s easier to do the right thing and to enhance our spiritual growth when we are here. What do you suggest to us when we are not here and are away for months? How to keep progressing?
A: First you have to establish yourself. You have to make yourself stronger. Wherever you go, you should be capable of dealing with things. You should do your practice always. A teacher can teach you, but he cannot monitor you always and see what you are doing. I have thousands of students. How can I monitor everyone? Whatever you have learned, whatever moral support you have received through this Shala, through the practice, it should continue to grow within you. How it grows? By doing more practice. Keeping this practice everyday. You have to establish this strongly within you. Until then it will be very difficult. There are lots of aversions, there are doubts, sometimes there will be laziness, lack of determination, lack of concentration…all these things will arise within us. First we have to get rid of these things by doing our practice. Mentally, physically, you must become stronger. Like I said, yoga needs sa tu dirghakala (practice for a long time). You can’t get results in six months, 1 year, 2 years. Dirghakala. I have practiced for 24 years now. Everyday. So now when I get up, automatically I take my mat and go practice. If I go to the forest also, I practice. Once in Africa, I was doing my practice in my tent. I was in Kapotasana and a lion came, he was roaring next to me. It was the best Kapotasana of my life.
Ok, thank you very much. May God bless you all with lots of happiness and prosperity.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.