Andrew, what was your first visit to Mysore like? Can you share your experience meeting, practicing and learning from Guruji?
My first trip to Mysore was in the old shala in Lakshmipuram and I arrived at the same time that Guruji and Sharath were returning from a US tour. The first day in the shala there were less than 20 of us practicing and many of those were people who had stayed back in Mysore waiting for the Guru’s return. Within a few days student numbers were rapidly burgeoning and the line of waiting students began extending up the stars further and further, seemingly up to the heavens. Fortunately I was in the second batch and the wait on the stairs was relatively brief.
This first trip to Mysore I had already been practicing for 7 years back at home in Australia and had not yet met either Guruji or Sharath. They were very welcoming as if we’d known each other a long time, but I was still a little overwhelmed by the intensity of practicing with them. Though there were only twelve students in the room, it was so small and we were all so close it felt like a big crowd with no place for all that energy to go except back into practice. I was like a fuse during a power surge that was not able to handle the energy and there was definitely still a lot of cleaning that needed to happen in my system before the energy could flow easily. The first batch at 4.30am was mainly those that had come to Mysore to stay for as long as possible including a few of the older students. There was a feeling that we all wanted to get in as much time with Guruji while he was still teaching, especially in such a small place with so much attention and everyone was working extremely hard. Guruji was already in his 80’s and none of us knew how much longer we would have this opportunity to practice with him like this. The time in the shala was of course amazing, but one of the greatest blessings was that Guruji gave afternoon conference on every practice day. It was in the front room of the shala / house in Lakshmipuram, and only ten to fifteen of us sitting at his feet with the opportunity to ask whatever we wanted.
The thing that struck me most about this great man was his humility and sense of ease. Guruji never tried to answer a question that he didn’t know the answer to, never tried to bluff his way through to impress people. In some ways, like a child with a playful sense of humour and a lightness that was tangible, something that I have discovered in only a few people in my life. He didn’t let his mind get pulled along by the unsteady minds sitting in front of him either, and would reassure people often that the things we found disturbing were ‘no problem,’ chuckling and allowing us to see things from a much bigger perspective. A yogic view of life, if you like. Sometimes he would just sit there reading the paper, then if someone got up to leave, feeling that nothing was really going on, he would ask ‘why you leaving?’ pointing to the fact that many of us were unable to just sit and relax, just be present in the moment without needing a distraction from ourselves. He was so relaxed but then when he needed he could summon up enormous and very focused energy. A few years later I had traveled with Guruji and a few other students to Mangalore for him to receive a special yoga award from the University.
The program went on a little and by that time in his life Guruji’s health was beginning to wane. I watched him totter unsteadily up to the stage where he sat with the other dignitaries, nodding off repeatedly during the speeches and looking quite frail. I wondered what would happen when it was time for him to receive his award. Finally it came time to introduce him and like magic he pulled up to his full height, went to the dais and began to give a long animated speech in Kannada about the Aṣṭāṅga Yoga method. He was full of energy and boyish enthusiasm and although I didn’t understand Kannada at the time I knew that speech back to front as he’d given it many times during conferences at the shala in his broken English. This time however I was extremely impressed by his obvious eloquence and authority as well as his natural ability to communicate and inspire the audience in his native tongue. As soon as he sat down again, he was back to nodding off throughout the rest of the ceremony.. In the conferences in Lakshmipuram if someone asked a deep philosophical question (sometimes seemingly to impress with the question rather than really seeking an answer) he often just laughed and said ‘I don’t know’ with a little giggle and that was that. We would all fall silent and ponder the fact that no, our Guru didn’t know everything after all. There was beauty in the fact that he didn’t care to impress us with some high philosophical response, which he could easily have done. Sometimes philosophy was useful, and he knew a vast amount, but often humility and lightness was a much greater teacher.
Anyway, mostly we weren’t ready to discuss philosophy with him at his level and he spared us that problem, serving us only what we could digest. He was indeed very special and with great knowledge, but really, he just wanted us to practice and experience the real bliss of yoga that would come from practice. When he could successfully communicate that to his students, he was truly happy. I also never once heard Guruji talk about himself. When asked about ‘his Aṣṭāṅga Yoga method’ Guruji’s response was always that ‘this is Patanjali Yoga, this is Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, this is not my yoga.’ he was reeling us back in, telling us that ‘no this is yoga - you can’t change yoga and it will never be yours, yoga is always the same, permanent.’ As Kṛṣṇa says in the BG, yoga has existed since the beginning of time, we can only try to understand and experience it but we cannot make it ‘ours.’’ In fact, it’s after many years of practice this has become more and more apparent. Yoga is in fact very simple but it so is easy for us to get taken away from ourselves, making it more and more complex in our minds, trying to look for the answers in the complexity of the unreal. It is the tendency of our minds to get agitated and take us away from the yogic state, trying to find meanings in more and more layers, layers of ignorance, when the truth really lies in their absence. For many teachers this becomes a trap and we try to give the students more than there really is. More big and fantastical ideas about yoga where there should only be simplicity and grace. Guruji was well aware of this and held steadfastly to his teachings, always bringing us back to the simplicity of the method, patiently tending his students like a farmer tending rows of plants, nurturing them and letting the method work it’s magic. He was so passionate about yoga even after teaching many thousands of students, tending so many rows in the Mysore room for so long, but his eyes would still light up whenever he discussed the subject of yoga.
His enthusiasm for yoga was always there and in that small room in Lakshmipuram I remember noticing him occasionally staring at me with an intense and frightening glare, a real shot of electricity bringing me fully back into the present moment. Although quite overwhelmed I would give him a little smile back and then his glare would become a huge beaming smile full of love, so special, again communicating something deep about yoga and the state of his own mind. It was as though everything was flowing through him without him getting stuck as he moved effortlessly between the different modes and emotions required to give us what we needed but never becoming bound by them.
The best part of practice every day though was touching his feet before I left to go home after practice, waiting by the door for him to find a few seconds to come over and present those feet to me to receive his blessing. It was as if he was offering all the knowledge that he had, saying, ‘here take it, take this knowledge of yoga, which I’m holding for all of you.’ The experience of the yoga with Guruji and Sharath, in India surrounded by this culture, brought about a great sense of devotion, love and gratitude within me and Guruji’s feet were the perfect focal point for this to manifest. Many years later, in May 2009, I had been in Mysore for a year and a half and Guruji’s health had deteriorated significantly. He had just returned from a stay in the hospital and Saraswathi said I could bring my three year old son, Narayana, to see him in their house. We came into his room and he was obviously very frail and uncomfortable. I was amazed to see his reaction to this small child as he raised himself up becoming infused with that same boyish energy as I had previously seen. Despite his physical condition, he became quite animated and played with Narayana for around 10 minutes chatting to him, smiling and laughing. It was two days later that he passed away and although I was sad, I didn’t feel any sense of loss. I felt that everything I had experienced with and learned from him, His essence and especially his joy, remained firmly in my heart, only the vessel was gone.
You’ve reached the highest level of teaching in our lineage: Certified. With the years of experience practicing under Guruji and Sharath, and on your own, what advice can you impart to students?
Always remaining a student. Although I may have reached a ‘high level’ in terms of which certificate I’ve been issued, that is really, in some ways, irrelevant. Instead I have to keep the ‘goal’ of yoga practice in mind and to continue working on the path of yoga, toward a higher and higher understanding of the Self, and not to relax under the false impression that by teaching I am no longer a student. The title ‘Teacher’ can come and go but I must always remain a student. As a steadying reminder to this there is a beautiful thread of sūtras that describes Īśvara as the supreme teacher. These sutras say that ‘Īśvara is a Special Puruṣa untouched by karma or kleśas, who is the source of all knowledge and who is the Guru to all Gurus, even to those Gurus have come before us.’ If I keep this in mind it is very helpful to understand that no matter how much I ‘know’ there is an unlimited higher knowledge that is the same source for all of us. Patañjali also mentions that one of the obstacles of yoga is bhrāntidarśana - the illusion that we have already reached the goal of yoga, that we have already made it. So I should always be trying to refine my practice, to gain more and more awareness and insights until my last breath, not thinking that I am there yet. Maybe I have removed a little of the dross that is covering the gold of untainted awareness but there is still much more work to do in yoga. Of course I’m not talking about which āsanas I’m doing. They will go away one by one as I get older, but about developing the practice in way that takes me to a deeper and more subtle awareness of reality, of the Self. Another obstacle given in the Yoga Sūtrā is Alabdhabhūmikatva. This time rather than believing we have already made it, it is an inability to progress beyond a certain level. There is a barrier of some kind. Although tapas is important I have found that devotion is what gives me the greatest resilience and ability to keep going when I reach these blockages. Devotion is a practice that can easily enter into all aspects of life. There is both joy and surrender in it and although still working hard there is a sense of being carried through the process. A joy with ‘what is.’ So for me, devotional practices have become very important as an integral part of the process of yoga. The Bhagavad Gītā and the yoga Sūtras, Mahābhārata, Rāmāyana and especially the Bhagavata Purāṇā have all been great sources of inspiration as well. They are filled with so much wisdom. Without them I feel I would still be swimming in a sea of āsana confusion. All of these texts are discussing yoga on a very profound level and I find they bring a new dimension of understanding to yoga. Guruji used to tell us not to mix different systems of yoga together, even worse now that yoga vidya is being mixed up with completely different knowledge systems. I believe it’s very important to try to practice and understand this one system completely. It’s too easy to get distracted and start to make changes when we have not yet fully understood the system and the process of transformation that is happening. This often requires examining again and again what I have been told by Guruji or Sharath, really trying to understand the reason for the details of the method, instead of trying to find fault with the teachings I try looking at what mistakes I may have made in my interpretation.
What exactly is “yoga” and how does the practice of Ashtanga fit into this focus?
What is yoga? Guruji used to say that Yoga was ‘mind control’ stressing how important this is. Patanjali defines yoga as ‘nirodhaḥ’ or control of the activities of the mind. If we can control these many activities then we can direct the mind in a way that is beneficial for us to achieve a state of clear attention but when we are unable to control the mind we are in all sorts of trouble, our mind is going in so many directions, it is ‘cañcala' or continuously moving from one thing to another and we are unable to focus and unable to see or act with clarity. Now the highest goal of yoga is to take the mind in the direction of God, to identify with the supreme soul or Paramātman. When asked ‘what is pratyahāra’ (the fifth limb of aṣṭaṅga yoga) Guruji said ‘seeing God everywhere.’ Pratyahāra, defined as ‘withdrawal of the senses’ rather than directing the senses away from their usual material objects means purifying the senses so that we experience divinity in all things and we see ‘God’ (the supreme soul,) everywhere. This does not mean turning away from the world but beginning to relate to the world from a different source, from the ātman, and ultimately experiencing divinity within all objects of the senses. In the beginning, the practical application of nirodhaḥ, is to control the mind in one direction so that it is useful to us in our daily interactions with the world, to reduce our distracted state of mind and increase our effectiveness in our chosen direction. Nirodhaḥ can also be defined as ‘stopping of the mind’ but this is probably not useful to us in a practical sense. It is the last frontier and results in the highest form of Samādhiḥ and liberation from this plane of existence. I once heard Sharath say that from that state, there is no return and assume he meant it is the state beyond the death of the physical body. The eight limbs of aṣṭāṅga yoga are the method that we use to achieve a state of yoga, to be able to direct the mind in an effective way. The practice of Aṣṭāṅga as we know it starts with the first three limbs, yama, niyama and āsana and includes the foundation of prāṇāyāma and these ‘external limbs’ are sufficient to allow the last four ‘internal’ limbs to arise by themselves.
How does our physical practice of asana tie into controlling the cessation of vrittis and help us towards yoga? How does the physical practice of āsana tie into the controlling the cessation of vṛttis?
This is an excellent question. But first of all, we are not usually interested in cessation of all vṛttis (activities of the mind.) For us vṛttis are very useful, imperative in fact, for the path of yoga. Rather than stopping the vṛttis completely we’re aiming to control the vṛttis, reducing those that are counterproductive to the path of yoga while maintaining and strengthening the vṛttis that will lead us in the direction of yoga. Physical practice of āsana will bring these benefits if practiced diligently, following the aṣṭāṅga method over a long period of time. Yoga Mala stresses the importance of making the body healthy and stable, which will be reflected in the mind. The āsana sequences sequentially realign the body and together with vinyasa increase the circulation and remove toxins from the tissues while the practice of bandhas and correct breathing brings the spine into correct alignment for prāṇāyāma and dhyāna. Deep, smooth and even breathing also strengthens the nervous system which is gradually made more calm. Experience tells that concentration on these different aspects of practice gradually quietens the mind and reduces the vṛttis - the noise - but it is a gradual purification process that happens over time, sometimes quite a long time. Many students do not understand the amount of time required to begin to gain the more profound results from practice and may quit, thinking that they are not getting the benefit that is promised by yoga. It can be a very long process. It is also essential to combine the yamas and niyamas with the āsana practice in order to move in the direction of yoga. These are a foundation for purification of the mind and are also tangible in that we can practice them relatively easily and experience direct results. The mind, being a physical entity, although of a more subtle nature, is ‘cleaned’ by both āsana and yama and niyama. Each one of the yamas is a sādhana in itself that results in a change in our perception. For example, once we start to pay attention to satya (truth) making an attempt at following it completely, we will start to notice the complexity of our thoughts and interactions with the world. We have many layers of thought associated with our relationships with the world and practice of satya makes it more and more obvious how we so easily distort the truth. By practice of satya we will notice how even a small lie disturbs the tranquility in our mind and we will also notice how easily we lie in order to bring about certain outcomes. We quickly become bound by those small lies continually trying to manipulate situations, creating both stress and a covering of the spiritual heart within. Lies that have accumulated are like a web that binds us and affects us on many levels and cause tension mentally as well as in the physical practice. As we start to follow satya diligently the web begins to untangle and a sense of release and ease replaces replaces tension. The mind gets freed up a little and our experience becomes closer to that which we could call truth. Experience then becomes more aligned with that element within which is permanent or real, sat. Given the opportunity the consequences of telling the truth are then far better than we had imagined! There is a sanskrit verse ‘Ṛtam vadiṣyāmi, satyaṃ vadiṣyāmi, tan mām avatu, tad vaktāram avatu, avatu mām, avatu vaktāram’ which means ‘may I experience truth, may I speak the truth, may that (truth) protect the speaker, may it (truth) protect me, may it (truth) protect the speaker. By speaking the truth and paying attention to satya, we begin to align ourselves more closely to that which will in the end protect us and lead us in the direction of yoga, toward the bliss of the permanent Self within.
Patañjali also presents the limbs after āsana as requiring the perfection of the previous limb: Pranayama is possible after perfection of āsana, pratyahāra after prāṇāyāma etc. There is an argument about āsana just meaning the posture that you take for sitting. But, experience bears that the āsana practice we do in Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, following the technique of breathing, bandhas, dṛṣṭi, dhyāna and vinyāsa transforms us over time. Patañjali tells that we should have sthīrasukhāsanam, stability or groundedness and comfort or sweetness and that we should find a perfect balance of effort and relaxation (like Anantha who supports the massive weight of Viṣṇu while providing him with perfect support and comfort.) and that we will then be unaffected by dvandva, the pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, happiness and sorrow etc. This is the state in which we can experience real prāṇāyāma, in which we can bring the mind to a state fit for the internal limbs to blossom; a state in which an inner light is revealed. So here again, it is perfection in āsana that is tied to controlling the vṛttis. For practice to be fruitful though, and Patañjali mentions this several times, the practice of Īśvarapraṇidhāna is profound. It is mentioned by Śaṅkaracārya in his work, Baja Govindam, that bhakti or devotion to Nārāyaṇa, is the final piece in the puzzle, the thing that transforms spiritual knowledge into liberation. The concept of Rāmānuja’s Vasiṣṭa Advaita of śaraṇāgati in the same way, says that by complete surrender to the Lord we are able to give up all our karma to him and only then reach mokśam or liberation. Although the philosophies of Ramānuja and Śaṅkarācārya, two of India’s greatest spiritual leaders, differ in certain details, finally they stress the necessity for what is essentially Īśvarapraṇidhana mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. Īśvarapraṇidhāna, bhakti, śaraṇāgati are all variations of similar positive vṛttis which can be cultivated and used to bring us closer to the state of yoga.
Guruji once said, “When the mind is still, the asana is correct”. There is a sweet space we find in practice when our concentration becomes absorbed into a space between thoughts. Brief moments of clarity, if you will. Any thoughts on this? How can we carry this into our lives outside the mat?
I would guess that he is telling us that “When the mind is still” refers to a mind that is directed, not empty. When the mind is fixed in one place and we recognise that state of very clear awareness, even momentarily, we have identified a state that is useful in the pursuit of yoga. At this point we are not experiencing duality or dvandva, the effect of the pairs of opposites, and this is the result of the ‘state’ of the āsana being correct. Hence we should be discussing the ‘quality’ of the asana but not confuse it with the external appearance or form. Since it is finding the correct qualities (stability, comfort, right effort and taking on the qualities of anantha) that prepares us for prāṇāyāma and the revealing of the inner light. A good teacher will see when the internal qualities are present in āsana rather than be impressed so much by the outer form.
The experience of the moments of clarity that result from finding perfection in āsana is itself vijñāna or ‘experiential knowledge’ and we need to pay attention to that. It is spiritual knowledge, real knowledge. This kind of experience will begin to carry over into daily life for a practitioner that maintains a steady practice over a long time. It is the kind of knowledge that is waking us up and telling us to start paying attention to all situations in our lives. So, practice may have been responsible for bringing up this new experiential knowledge, but what to do with it? It is very important to also study and enquire into it and to try and understand what these experiences are telling us, to utilise them. Regular practice (which includes āsana and prāṇāyāma, yama and niyama creates the conditions for that awareness to expand but what are we doing with these experiences? This is where tapas, svādhyāya and Īśvarapraṇidhāna become very important. Tapas is not just working during āsana practice, but maintaining effort consistently in all areas of life in order to increase our clarity and gain greater spiritual insight. When tapas is combined with svādhyāya there is enquiry that is both directed and sustained and we begin to look very deeply into the philosophy and teachings of yoga. It’s my understanding that svādhyāya is either the chanting of an appropriate mantra that has been given by a guru in order to correct the mind and bring spiritual insight or it can also refer to the studying of texts handed down to us in our paramparā. Traditionally this was most often by receiving instruction in the section of the vedas that was being maintained in the family lineage. These texts included vedanta and were deeply spiritual and philosophical. An understanding of sanskrit meant that the student would imbibe quite a lot of the meaning directly from the text, but instruction by the guru would also be given. In our lineage it means listening and paying attention to discourses from our teachers and studying texts such as Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gītā etc. Practice of a japa mantra and understanding the esoteric meaning behind it is also extremely powerful. Adding Īśvarapraṇidhāna to tapas and svādhyāya allows that enquiry to flow from a place of much deeper understanding. Praṇidhāna means ‘to deposit’ and we are essentially depositing ourselves in Īśvara, or ‘depositing Īśvara in our heart.’ We are letting something flow from within, beginning to draw knowledge from a higher source. We should also spend as much time as possible learning the theory of yoga and related texts and study very deeply. Through tapas, there is a consistent effort; practicing yama and niyama and paying attention to the mind, not letting it run the show. In other words we have to understand the theory but by understanding it through real life experience and through consistent practice, in order for that clarity to expand and become fully established within us. Lastly, a guru is very important in all this as it is easy to distort or attribute fantastical meanings to our experiences and a true guru will ground us, correct our thinking and keep us safely moving in the right direction.
What role can chanting and mantra recitations play in our practice?
At one level mantras are a way to focus the mind in one place and prevent it from wandering here and there. They have a similar effect on the mind as paying attention to the flow of vinyasas during āsana practice. Focusing on a mantra with a particular meaning can also be used as a way to modify patterns of the mind, making new associations with appropriate objects for dhyāna. For undesirable patterns, a mantra can be used to create new, more positive patterns and gradually reduce the undesirable ones. What may seem like an insignificant mantra can be extremely powerful and often the reason it works may not be apparent to the practitioner, but only to the guru who has given it. A good guru will also understand the correct medicine for the student and prescribe an effective mantra with a desirable outcome. There are also certain mantras which are considered to be mahāmantras, ‘great mantras’ that are very powerful and useful for everyone, especially when the esoteric meaning of the mantra is understood correctly. Through continued practice the mantra may start to be there all the time, in the back of the mind, so that there is a continuous process of transformation going on in the background. One teacher who has given me some insights into mantra has said that after doing a lot of chanting it should be there when awake and even while sleeping, going on continuously in the background ‘takatakatakatakataka,’ all the time. This is called mantrasiddhi or perfection of mantra. While yama, niyama and āsana purify at a relatively tangible level, mantra and chanting are purifying in a more subtle way and the effects may only be felt and understood after a long time. It can require a great deal of faith and trust, therefore, to continue practicing over the long term. It is said that mantra purifies the speech and the voice. In this regard my experience is that mantra arises from the same place as speech and thought, from the place within the heart also closely related to the initiation of the breath, the spiritual heart. Actually, Pattabhi Jois mentions in his Suryanamaskara booklet that chanting mantra internally during the Suryanamaskaras helps to destroy the ariṣaḍvargāḥ, the six spiritual enemies that surround the spiritual heart. These are Kāmaḥ (desire,) krodhaḥ (anger,) lobhaḥ (greed,) mohaḥ (delusion,) madā (pride) and mātsaryam (jealousy). He says that whatever we see outside is a reflection of our own inner self and so once these six enemies are destroyed rather than bad things we will begin to see divinity in all things both inside and out. Through mantra repetition awareness is guided back toward the spiritual heart, the point from which thought arises. Chanting also purifies speech and gradually everything that we say and think will become more aligned with the divinity residing in the space of the heart.
Editor's Note: Click here for Andrew's SoundCloud for his personal chanting recordings.
You said, “the highest goal of yoga is to take the mind in the direction of God, to identify with the supreme soul or Paramātman.” Can the student reap the full benefits of the practice if they don't believe in a God?
First of all, God is a pretty loaded word in our culture, but it is the word that Guruji often used with his limited English. He was describing something quite different to our concept of God as a separate being or Creator God, something limitless of which the Creator God is also only a part. And to us, unless we understand the broader philosophy that underlies yoga, words like Ātman and Paramātman may not be useful either. Although Patañjali’s yoga does not specifically mention God, it takes its authority from the vedas which explain in great depth the single reality, Brahman, of which we are a part. It is that singular and all encompassing reality that Guruji was calling God. In terms of practice, the beauty of Aṣṭāṅga yoga sādhana is that it is experiential and although philosophy is important, it can sometimes interrupt or colour the process of directly experiencing the shifts happening within us. A serious practice of the first four limbs of Aṣṭāṅga yoga will lead most practitioners to experience shifts in how they relate to the world. The quieting of the mind and senses that comes about through consistent practice may lead to moments of profound stillness, moments where there is a change in the perspective of observation, an awareness of something internal that was previously buried in a lot of noise. Perhaps, for the first time there is a feeling of observing thought instead of identifying with it and a moving away from the identification of I and mine. Questions may begin to be asked about identity. Who am I really? In this way, even for those who do not believe in any higher truth, the purifying nature of the practice of Aṣṭaṅga Yoga will actually begin to create small cracks around the spiritual heart allowing some light to shine through and although there may not be ‘belief in God’ there may be the beginning of an experience of divinity within - an experience of what Guruji was referring to when he used the word ‘God.’
Any final thoughts?
Finally, I bow down to the lotus feet of my guru. I take no credit for anything that I have learned or understood correctly. Much of what I have written is from my own experience, especially the section on mantra and chanting and I ask forgiveness for any mistakes or misinterpretations of the yoga dharma which I have made and which case are entirely my own. Om namo nārāyaṇāya.
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-pilot, Lydia Teinfalt, for editorial assistance
*Photos provided by Andrew Hillam
*Photos provided by Andrew Hillam