New Conference notes from Ekam Inhale
We had conference with Sharath last night here in Mysore, India. Each week he takes some time to teach us about different topics concerning yoga philosophy and also answer questions. It does feel like it’s getting a little bit quieter here than in February but it’s still really busy and the shala was packed full. Just 3 weeks left before he closes for April and we all head back home with the knowledge and inspiration we’ve learned right from the source. It’s been a great experience and no matter what people tell you about it you really have to do it yourself to know. With these notes I try and convey what he has said the best that I could understand it.
Often Sharath’s son will join him on stage and tonight he was sitting beside him in padamasana. Sharath lifted up in Ut pluthi and then his son did as well. Everybody clapped. It was a really touching moment. Sharath said that this was how yoga came to him. He was surrounded by it and would try Ut Pluthi and swing back and forth because it was fun. In a previous conference someone asked if his son would take the place of Sharath. He replied that his son would have his own place. He said that the yoga has to grow inside of him.
Sharath started the conference by saying that the first four limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama) are the external limbs that you can practice. The next four (Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi) are internal. He went on to explain the Yamas and Niyamas.
Ahimsa (nonviolence) – “it should come from within you, nobody can force you” Your teacher can’t watch what you are doing all the time.
Satya (truthfullness) – “to be true to yourself and be true to others”
Asteya (nonstealing) – “Shouldn’t steal – even asana stealing, which you have not been taught – doesn’t come from the parampara to you. Some people create their own yoga, which is happening now – this is not being true to yourself and not being true to others – the yoga should come through parampara as many manuscripts say like (he mentioned some texts but I didn’t catch which ones) it says it should come from parampara – it’s not only Asana – generally you shouldn’t steal anything”
Aparigraha – “don’t accept anything which you don’t own”
Saucha (cleanliness)- There are two types of Saucha – internal and external. Internal cleanliness comes from asana practice, eating clean food (vegetarian). It’s related also to ahimsa and you need to make the choice once you know about ahimsa on how to eat. He talked about how if you eat bad food with too much sugar or cholesterol it will affect your body and your organs. “Be very careful what you are eating. Some food will give lots of toxins – so your body also will get sick”.
External Saucha – “how to keep yourself clean, your environment clean, how to keep your clothes clean, how to keep your mat clean – mat clean is very important (laughter)”
Santosha (internal happiness) – he talked about how this is disturbed when you want more than what you have.
Tapas (discipline) – Very important for yoga practitioners. When you have to get up early to do your sadhana you need to set your timetable to support that. This means figuring out when you will eat, what you will eat, when you will go to sleep, what you will and won’t do.
Svadhyaya (self study) – He said this can be very confusing for many people. It’s not watching videos on how to do a handstand. What it means though is reading the manuscripts. The yogic manuscripts. “Just by doing asana practice you won’t gain any knowledge. Once you read yoga related books then your knowledge will also increase, you’ll get a better picture of what yoga is, you’ll get more clarity in your practice, in your sadhana – if you don’t do it it’s like going to the gym and lifting weights.” This knowledge is not to impress anyone it’s just for your own benefit to understand what is yoga.
Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to your god) – “how you get connected to one divine. Japa is the best example of how you do this – when you do Japa it should be meaningful with good Bhavana – good heart within you”
Questions followed next and one student asked about how to choose a deity and how he found them all interesting. What Sharath said about this I found is common theme that keeps coming up. He talked about how to the western person it is all fancy and colorful. In India they are taught to surrender to one. To have faith in one. He talked about how faith and trust were so important. He said the people who were very poor and suffered horrible things could still keep going because they had faith and internal strength. In the west we challenge everything. The way I understood it was that It’s the same has having many teachers instead of sticking to one lineage. It get’s confusing.
Another student was asking about what to do if she had no teacher back home. She had three kids and wasn’t able to go to a teacher so she came to Mysore to learn from the source and wondered what to do when she got back. Sharath said to just practice what she learned here in Mysore. He said “Put one photo of Gurugi in your practice room – when you put that photo in front of you that energy is going there”. He talked about how having a family was the biggest yoga. He said one child is 8th series and two was 9th series, he didn’t have 3 so he didn’t know about that – the student said – it’s 10th series.”
Conference Notes From Priyas Travel Blog
In this tradition of practice–the vinyasa system–there are so many asanas. As many jiva rashis (living beings) are there, that many asanas are there. Is it possible for everyone to do all these asanas in this lifetime? It’s not possible. Because there are millions of jiva rashis, millions of living beings. There are so many animals, there are so many trees, so seeing all these living beings, that is how all these asanas have been learned.
There are many asanas which are good to cure diseases. Like in Primary Series–we call this Chikitsa Yoga. Chikitsa means as a therapy, we can use these asanas to cure diseases. Then comes Nadi Shodana, or the Intermediate Series. There are many asanas which are good to cleanse our nervous system. Even in Primary Series, the nervous system will be cleansed. But only in Intermediate is it a little more intense. That’s why you have to go step by step. First you have to perfect Primary Series. Once you do that, you build up strength, stability, stamina. Then you can go to the next, which is Intermediate Series. Then comes the Advanced postures. Like that it has been divided into three series. When you go to Advanced, it is called Sthira Bhaga. Within Advanced, there are 4 small series. Sthira Bhaga brings more stability, more flexibility, more strength. There are many backbends, there are handstands, more leg behind the head, so it needs even more flexibility. Many people don’t have the patience to go slowly, one by one. They go try intermediate handstand class. You go to yoga conference and they have this type of class. They want to attract many people. They offer you, ‘Oh, today is handstand class.’ So you go and do all handstands. And then? You are strong, you do handstands. But when you come to Kapotasana, you struggle. When it comes to backbending, you struggle. When it comes to Marichiasana D, many people struggle. But they go home and do handstands. First we have to go from Primary postures, then go to Intermediate. Once you bring that flexibility, then you do Advanced postures. You have to balance your body. You do handstands when it is time to do it. Not all the time. Every jumpback you can’t do handstand. There are many videos which show this, you watch and go, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful.’ They do Surya Namaskar, they do ekam, dve, trini–they go to handstand. You think, ‘Oh it looks so beautiful.’ You go and start doing that. And after when it comes to Urdhva Dhanurasana, you struggle. How to balance…asanas are there, but you have to use it carefully, with the proper guidance. Asana is a very powerful tool.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika speaks about sthiram, stability. If you do handstand, that doesn’t mean your body is very stable. Stability means by doing various postures, you have to be comfortable in the postures. Now there are so many asanas, for example in Primary Series, Marichiasana C and D…by practicing those asanas you can open up your upper chest and shoulders. Once those are open, then Kurmasana will be easy. If your shoulders are stiff from doing handstand and you look like this (he makes some funny tight shoulder postures which make us laugh), you’ll be crippled in Kurmasana. And you also suffer in Marichiasana D, you can’t twist because you’re doing all these nonsense things. That’s why it takes many years. My grandfather always used to say, one asana should be done 1000 times to perfect it. One thousand times means how many years…you have to keep doing it to bring more flexibility in the body, you have to allow time for your body to change. So year by year your body will change, even if you just do asana practice without doing anything else. You can’t do many things at the same time. You can’t do asanas here and then go to the gym and lift weights. These are opposites. There you make your body very stiff. (*A funny little story to share along these lines, included below at the end of these Conference Notes*) So that is one thing.
The second thing is, not everyone’s body is the same. We all have different kinds of bodies, different kinds of flexibilities. Some are very good at backbending, some are very good at forward bending. By practicing, we can make anything perfect. Naturally very few are blessed with flexibility. Some are very tight, but by working everyday you can bring flexibility to the body and also you will build up stamina and endurance when you practice over many years.
When Guruji used to teach, we used to practice for so many hours. With new asanas came new pains, because they required a different kind of flexibility in the body. So like that, you have to allow the body to change. You shouldn’t hurry yourself. You have 100 years. Everyone has 100 years…maybe 80 years I would say, to do asana practice. So slowly when you practice you bring flexibility and stability to the body. This is the foundation for our spiritual building. Once we bring stability, then the pranayama, pratyahara, all this will be easier. The Shastra says once you have mastered in asana, then only do the contraction of breath, that is pranayama. Kumbhaka pranayama (breath retention) only should be done once you have mastered asana. Nowadays everyone offers…’In 15 days we teach you pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana.’ It is very attractive. But according to the Shastra, the method has to be followed as it says. By doing pranayama one can get rid of all the diseases. But not doing it properly, it can invite unwanted diseases. So this particular limb, pranayama, should be done very carefully. When you do it with proper guidance from a knowledgeable teacher, then you can get rid of many diseases.
(Sharathji recited some verses written by Shankaracharya)
Shankaracharya has written beautifully, once you do kumbhaka pranayama, this whole nervous system will be purified if you do it properly. When kumbhaka is done properly, it is said the divine sound, or sound of Vishnu, will come inside–this is known as pratyahara. Wherever you see, you will see the divine. In everything you will see Atman, or the Supreme energy. So even this wall will be nothing for you, you can just pass through it if you wish.
Sharathji shared a story about an enlightened yogi who lived in the south of India. His identity was unknown to the Maharaja, and the King apparently cut off his arm. However this did not affect the yogi. The point of the story was that once you reach a higher state of consciousness, nothing bothers you, nothing will affect you (not even if you’re missing your arms!)
The floor was then opened to questions.
Q: I asked what he thought of Ram Dev Baba, who in the last several years, has made pranayama practices widely accessible to the general public in India.
A: It is very basic, I think, the breathing exercises that he teaches. It is good to cleanse your body if you have any allergies. First you have to see if it works for you or not. As I have said before, any pranayama before doing, you have to have some asana experience…because your lungs have to become stronger to withstand the breath that you take, the inhalation and exhalation. If you do continuously like this (he shows some Kapal Bhati, fast exhalations) it will put lots of pressure on your lungs and heart so you have to be very careful when you’re doing that. First you have to strengthen your lungs and respiratory organs, then you can do the pranayama properly. If they are not strong, there can be an adverse effect. It can be very tricky, you have to be very careful when doing that. That’s why kriya also you can’t do straight away. Before you can do Bhastrika you have to first do asanas.
Q: I used to do a different kind of yoga before, and they taught me some pranayama. Now that I’m doing Ashtanga, should I stop doing the pranayama I was taught before?
A: It is not necessary to do those. You’re already doing pranayama in your asana practice. The breathing technique we use, this is pranayama. It is going on in your practice. You can’t do two things. If you’re doing this system, you have to follow this system. If one student has two gurus or two teachers, he is dead…because they both say different things. One says this, the other says that, and you can’t follow both. Just like if one patient has two doctors, the patient is dead. Because one doctor gives one medication/treatment, the other gives a different medication/treatment, and the patient is confused so he takes both. Then he’ll die. 😉
Q: A few weeks ago you said doing your practice is like going to the temple. I can go to the temple by myself, so then what’s the role of the teacher?
A: Who told you to go to the temple when you were young?
Student: I told myself.
Sharathji: Someone must have told you.
Student: Yes, God.
Sharathji: He came and told you? Hmmm? He came and told you that you should go to temple? Did you record in your iPhone?
Student: In the beginning my parents.
Sharathji: Yes, and who are your parents? This is what I wanted to hear. In India we say mother is the first Guru. Who teaches you how to walk? Who teaches you how to eat? Who teaches you how to crawl for the first time? Who teaches you how to speak? It’s your mother. So mother is considered as the first Guru in our life. Without a Guru, you can’t even take a step. You would be blind.
He recites this sloka:
Om ajnana timirandhasya jnananjana salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri gurave namah
Salutations to that Guru by whom the eyes blinded by the darkness of ignorance (ajnana) were opened with knowledge (jnana).
Ajnana means you are caught up in ignorance. Who is the one who removes the ignorance in you and takes you towards the light or enlightenment? Who gives you the spiritual knowledge to realize? It is the Guru that destroys the ignorance and tries to take you towards the rightness, or jnana. So this journey from ajnana to jnana, only a Guru can teach you.
Sharathji asked the student: How you learned yoga? By birth you were able to do all the asanas? Who taught you? Someone must have taught you. Who?
Sharathji: Someone must have taught you how to breathe properly, how to do asanas…how to behave properly, how to be a responsible person…? All this you learned in your school, right? They teach you discipline, they teach you many things. So that is next to Guru. After your mother teaches you, she sends you to the school to learn from an academic Guru. Like that, you gained knowledge. In different stages you have different gurus. Once you have that basic knowledge, you can advance your spiritual knowledge. Then a spiritual Guru, or Sadguru, will come into your life. Now my grandfather is not there, but his teaching is always with me. Many years of learning with him, what he taught me, where he brought me, it is always with me. It will never die. His physical body is not there but his teaching is still there. The experience that I got through him with this practice, it will stay forever.
In India we have three main Gods: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer) and Maheshwaraha (destroyer). (*Note: Hinduism is, however, the belief in ONE God! Think of this more as the holy trinity;-)) So we see all these three–Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh–in our Guru.
He recites the following sloka:
Guru Brahma Gurur Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwaraha
Guru Saakshat Para Brahma
Tasmai Sree Gurave Namaha
Guru is the representative of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwaraha. He creates, sustains knowledge and destroys the weeds of ignorance. I salute such a Guru.
If I tell this to westerners they cannot understand because western culture is different. In Indian culture we are brought up praying all this at a young age. So that’s why we have so many Gods in India. We pray for everything. 😉
Q: How long on average does it take someone new to Ashtanga to get from Primary Series through Advanced Series?
A: If you come regularly, maybe 20-25 years…IF you come regularly 😉 It depends how devoted you are. I spent 19 years with my grandfather. Every day being with him was like spending 108 years with him. Every day…he had so much knowledge, you would need 500 years to learn everything.
Q: Did you ever meet Krishnamacharya?
A: Yes, once when I was young we went to Chennai to meet him. It was like going to Vatican City to meet the Pope. It wasn’t fancy like that, they lived very simply. But I remember we went to meet my grandfather’s Guru.
A couple questions were also raised by students asking Sharathji to speak about Bandhas and Bhakti, but I won’t repeat the discussion here again since it has already been covered in detail in previous weeks.
I leave you with this funny little encounter I had with our Guru today (Wednesday) 🙂
As I left the Shala after practice, Sharathji came outside. I put my palms together for a final Namaste, and he says to me, “So you’re dancing, I hear.” Surprised by his knowledge of my extracurricular activities, I asked, “Aapko kisne bataaya?” (Who told you?) “I know everything,” he says with a smile in Hindi. I laugh. Knowing he probably doesn’t approve of any activity that might ‘interfere’ with my practice, I try to explain that I have grown up doing Bharatanatyam (Classical Indian) dance, but that I don’t do it very much these days. He stands there and continues to smile. Feeling like I’ve been found out by the Guru, I go on to inform him that I’ve started sitar lessons recently so I’m dancing less! “Good. Sitar is better. Dancing will cause tightness in your lower back.” Our conversation shifts from talking about dance to talking about my sitar lessons, and I am relieved 🙂 I wonder what he would think of my other upper-body-building and back-stiffening activities, like rock climbing and mountaineering… to me they are yoga too, enriching my soul and connecting me more deeply with myself, with others, with nature and the elements…but I think I’ll save that discussion with him for another time 😉 For now, we’ll just stick to the practice!
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.