Editor's Note: Please click here for the Spanish translation of Jose's interview. We thank Carola della Croce for her gracious translation assistance.
Jose, what was your background before yoga?
My life before yoga ... I do not know where to start! If I focus on what my life was just before yoga, I can say that it was quite chaotic. I had a strong tendency toward self-destruction and had a low self-esteem. I constantly needed reassurance from the outside world and was emotionally co-dependent. My health, which was weak from birth (born drowning and went straight to a ventilator machine and have always had breathing problems eg asthma) did not bother me in the least. I feel, like many of the young people this modern society, I was frustrated and tended to get depressed and disillusioned. My life was looking towards the weekend where I could get drunk for a few hours. I had an uncomfortable feeling that accompanied me day and night, to not feel good about me or my life.
However, there was always in me a desire to look beyond a certain interest in alternative livelihoods, which is not surprising when you consider my disappointment with the reality I lived. Hence, from time to time, I tried practices that had to do with spirituality. In 2000, I was studying acting at a school that won me by their approach as "acting without lying, from truth, from honesty, leaving the ego aside to accommodate the character." The fact that they chose this type of approach also makes me realize that I had always been attracted and placed value on yogic attitudes. It was during this period when I had a big scare about my health, pericarditis caused me such a strong pain in my heart that I thought when I entered the emergency room, that it was a heart attack. I got really scared. When I returned to school, one of my teachers advised me to practice yoga, therefore health issues such as body language, to help my acting training. And that's how I started practicing at the Sivananda center.
How long did you practice Sivananda? How did the Ashtanga practice find you?
I was practicing Sivananda for a year, which is really nothing. I was helping in the center, cleaning and doing all kind of duties in exchange for the classes. I was a student then and had not much money so I spent a lot of time with the teachers and I was loving it. It was a great discovery for me, yoga. Everyone who felt the same knows it’s impossible to describe it with words, but there was a huge feeling of joy, of having found something that touched a deeper place in myself than any other thing before. And still, after a year, I felt the need of searching a bit more, of trying different types of yoga, and I supposed as I was feeling that need, there was still something missing.
One day I remember reading an article about ashtanga yoga and the wonders of it. The big transformations that could bring into your life. And I decided to try it. Luckily, the aspect I was attracted to from the very start was the spiritual, transformational one. But I guess I was also missing a form, a type of practice which could connect more with my personality and my energy level, and that was the ashtanga practice. In that, I still had all the aspects of spirituality and transformation, and also I felt more connected and comfortable on the asana approach of the system. And I perfectly remember leaving the first class feeling I found what I was looking for. And yet, of course, this was just the very beginning of the search inside that new system.
Can you please talk about your visit to India? What was that experience like? What was it like meeting and practicing with Sharath (or Guruji)?
My first trip to Mysore was a few months after I started practicing ashtanga. They always say, when you get to India, either you love it or you just go back home straight away. I was the first case. I was fascinated by everything, from the dogs and cows and other animals on the streets to the people's reactions towards me, to the habits of Indians and their way of living. With India, of course there were times where it was not easy for me but still, it was love at first sight. Even now, on each trip to India I have moments where I fall in love and is fascinated with it but there are also moments when I find it so hard to be here, when I miss my home and my city. I think that’s pretty common to all of us!
I went there out of enthusiasm and at the same time, I was a bit scared, as I had a bad injury on my knee due to a strong adjustment. My teacher at that time insisted on my going to Sharath´s own classes instead of going to Guruji´s shala in Lakshmipuram, so that´s what I did. Sharath was teaching back then where Sharaswathi is teaching now, but downstairs, on the living room. We were very few, some days just four or five, some days up to eight or ten.
I remember being scared of Sharath coming to adjust me on Marichyasana D for the first time, which is where I got the injury. I remember he completely broke down my expectations on that adjustment. He was so gentle, he could totally feel my fear and as he come out of the adjustment i just thought, “Wow, he didn't do anything at all”, so I slowly started to relax on it, day by day. In a couple of weeks he managed to put me into it completely with no pain at all. I was so surprised and I realized how he worked with me in a complete different way than I was used to at that point. He worked with my body but also with my mind and my emotions, and completely won my trust to him as a teacher. I appreciated his simplicity a lot, the way he could combine being very strict and serious at some moments with having a sense of humor and being compassionate and empathetic. I went back home knowing I would come back again and knowing I have met my teacher. But it was on my next visit when I would meet and being in the same room with both Guruji and Sharath, in the main Shala.
And what was your experience like with Guruji?
I met GurujI in the main shala on my next trip, and I was lucky enough to practice with him and Sharath together on a few more trips. Guruji was a very imposing man. When I met him, he was already an old man by age, but his energy and strength did not fit his age at all. From the first day I went to the big shalla, it was clear I was Sharath’s student, he was the one who kept track of my practice and I felt it was totally right, so I can't really consider myself a Guruji student, if you look from that perspective. But I did spend a lot of time on the same room with him, got many of his both strong and sensitive adjustments, listened to his conferences and have a couple of anecdotes with him which I’d rather to keep for myself, as they are precious memories to me.
But I do remember one special moment I will never forget about him and I feel like sharing. It was after the Mysore practice was finished and I was at the waiting room talking to somebody when he came out. There were few students left and he stopped at the door and started to talk to us. This is something a bit personal and I feel a bit embarrassed to share it but I remember vividly he was smiling as he was talking to somebody and I noticed his look, his gaze was so luminous. And his smile was so pure. it was just this moment where I saw so much purity and kindness on his face, it moved me so much that tears started to run down my face and I jumped out of the shala not to be seen! This is a dear memory I have about him.
Even when I didn't have a strong connection with him, or a deep relationship with him, I remember when I got the call from my friend Hojung to let me know he had just passed. I was on the street and I went up my apartment, sat on the couch and started crying so hard, I could not stop. And at the same time, I was a bit surprised, as if part of me was suddenly thinking, “How come this is affecting you so much, you didn't have such a deep relationship with him, you didn't talk to him so much.” I realized then that they were grateful tears.
Still today, even now as I write this, my eyes get wet just thinking about how much gratitude I feel for Guruji. For his great effort to share and spread this practice, for the huge example he set for us, for his perseverance, his integrity and the way he was a living example of equanimity, commitment and sacrifice. For how much all those efforts changed my life and so many others. This is how big of a teacher he was, he could leave a huge mark not only on the people really close to him, but also on people who even never met him, as I keep noticing over the years in my teaching. So Guruji, the person, the human being, was someone I shared many months of my life in the yoga shala and someone I admired in the distance, but Guruji the great yoga master is someone very very close to my heart, and he will always be. Sharath keeps that room with the same kind of commitment, perseverance and integrity, and when I come back every year, I do feel Guruji is there. Totally.
How does our physical practice of asana tie into controlling the cessation of vrittis and help us towards yoga?
This is an exam question! I can only give you my own understanding of it. The only way our physical practice of asana can help us towards yoga is if it's properly supported by the yamas and niyamas. Part of what we do with our physical practice has to do with controlling the cessation of vrittis of course, but that physical practice only last a very small portion of our days. Sure, if we can do an asana practice where we can hold a good quality focus and make ourselves strong on that capacity, that will help. We are purifying our body and nervous system, which is also helping us to go towards the state of yoga. So with this physical practice, we are preparing our body and mind for that journey, gaining strength, stability, health, discipline, confidence. But during the day, so many situations will come along where that focus or peace of mind or good connection with ourselves and others will get compromised. So what is the point of the yamas and niyamas? To me, they just tell us what is the best way to behave, on and away from the mat, so that we can minimize the amount of interferences with our minds.
Asana itself, with no support of these principles, won't do much for you on a spiritual level, obviously. In order to attain more and more mental peace, and go to higher states of consciousness, we need to support the asana practice with the first two steps, which is not easy at all. Actually, I do think the very common obsession about asana we live theses days, the craving for new poses, the showing off of them on social media, this tendency of making ashtanga all about asanas, has to do precisely with the fact that, even when asana practice is hard, practicing the previous two steps are even harder! We tend the feel more comfortable in the surface and we get fascinated with the aspects of yoga that are more attainable, less subtle and less challenging. Yes, some of the asanas are very challenging too. I think this is one of the dangers of ashtanga yoga, the idea that all you have to do is get poses and poses, and new series and practice asana as much as you can and then, enlightenment will just happens. Sure, Pattabhi Jois said “practice, practice and all is coming”... but he never said “practice ASANA and all is coming.”
How do you encourage your students to not obsess over asanas then and help them cultivate their practice of yamas/niyamas on and off the mat?
Well, there are many opportunities to bring them into everyday situations, so I just try to bring awareness to them. For instance, when I realize a student is taking too much space, using some of the other’s space, or when I notice someone is starting on the “give me more asanas” program, I’ll take a moment and tell them about santosha, or asteya, and how important they are in this path and how they have an opportunity to work on them and find out if that makes a difference for them on their state of mind and on their lives. It’s is a tricky situation because I feel many of the people from our generation had a big disappointment with religion and yamas and niyamas, when not explained properly, can remind in some way to the religions some of us got away from. So we try for them to make sense, to refer them to the state of mind and as a way to help us find that state we wanna reach, and not as a way to avoid “going to hell”, if you know what I mean. They have to make sense for you to work, otherwise we just follow rules like robots and I believe this practice is about the opposite, stop being robots and recover our humanity.
We also have spaces on Sundays where, after practice, students are encouraged to ask questions, share their concerns or their experiences and we use those spaces to talk about the other aspects of yoga. I discuss my understanding of the yamas and niyamas with them, and usually discusion is created, and the student's points of view and opinions make those meetings very interesting and rich in many levels. But above all, I personally just try to have them present on my daily life, and I trust that these will be seen by my students, as I don't think there is a better way than to lead others than by example. That’s what I see from my teacher, I see so much of the two first limbs on what he does and how he does it. I love listening to him talking about them in conference, but is even more inspiring for me to see them in action, in the way he behaves.
So at the end is very simple, I just try to teach as he taught me. If it worked for me, why should I change it?
Jose, something magical happens when you find a teacher and have a consistent, dedicated practice, with this person. What happens in your opinion between teacher and student that allows this growth to happen?
It really is something magical to me and as any kind of magic, there is a big component of mystery, so is not very easy to put into words.
The word devotion is the first one that comes to my mind when I read your question. Devotion is so important for this practice and for a relationship with your teacher, or I should say, your guru, which to me has different connotations. Many teachers can teach you how to do poses or give you adjustments, or talk about philosophy. But not all of them can remove the ignorance on their students on deep levels. And same way there is a difference between a student and a shishya. So for me in a relationship between a guru and a shisia, there has to be certain qualities which may not be as necessary in the other kind, and one of the is devotion. And devotion is not easy for us, westerners. Sometimes I ask the students about devotion and some of them get really uncomfortable, or just say they don't feel devotion for anything. But I think if you follow this path, that should come, before or after, along the way.
For me, devotion has to do with full trust, full dedication. And that's how I feel about Sharath, I trust him a 100%, and I think when you feel like that, things are a lot easier. When doubts are not on the way, when you feel 100% confident, you can relax much more, you can be more open, and that openness will create space for many good things to happen. I feel like devotion, true devotion, is also something which develops with time; it grows. At this point, after few trips to Mysore, going through many different experiences, some very difficult moments I spent here in this shala, and having Sharath guiding me and helping me every single time, I can say I don't think I can trust him more than I do. And yet, anytime I come back, I feel that trust grow again. I feel I’m fully devoted to him, and that has been developing through all these years until now. And without that devotion, it would have been impossible to get as many gifts as I got from him.
True devotion does not depend on circumstances such as how many poses you get, or if you got authorized when you expected, or if you got what you wanted to get from him. That's sadly common in Mysore, many students loves to talk about their guru until they don’t get what they want from him then, from one week to another, they find a new “guru” who will keep them happy. I could swear every single time I listen to people in Mysore having problems about Sharath, complaining about him or having a crisis about coming to Mysore. At the end, all those problem always had a common factor: lack of faith. When you trust your teacher a 100%, you just do, and you will then trust there is a good reason for anything that happens in that teacher-student relationship.
So luckily for me, I don't feel the need to go to another teacher when mine don't fulfill my expectations, I always trust and I'm fully confident I’m in the best hands and whether he teaches me ten poses or none, whether he yells at me because I'm doing some pose wrong or he tells me “very good” after backbend, whether I feel he is following closely my practice or I feel he is ignoring me, I trust him enough to know that’s exactly what I need in that very moment. Because one thing is for sure, he knows way more than me. No question about it.
What he is doing in the shala is not only teaching postures. He is doing way more than that, on a way more subtle level. He is working with our minds, with our egos. He is teaching real yoga. A transformational practice. For that to work, you need to be open, and you need to trust. There is no bigger enemy, on my opinion, to this magical process, than coming to Mysore with an agenda. The agenda will distract you from the amazing work he is doing, as your mind will be too busy worrying about not getting your goals for the trip. You will have an amazing, virtuous master in front of you every morning, and you'll go back home disappointed because you could not see him!! This is, sadly, often the case. So I really feel very, very fortunate that I found this trust, that he won my full trust, that I have this faith with him. That faith allows me to come to the shala every morning, totally relax in terms of my practice and its development. I just need to do my job, and I can relax about all the rest as I know he is doing his. I can let go that kind of control over my practice, and that is an amazing feeling.
Many times we, Sharath’s students, talk about that special something we can perceive in the shalla, that special atmosphere, or energy, that can't be found anywhere else. I believe that is the devotion. The one he feels for his guru and the one so many of us feel for him. That same devotion which allows me and so many others to find the way, no matter what, to come back here every year to keep benefiting from this very special, unique relationship, the guru-shishya relationship. It really is a beautiful thing when you can feel it, or see it in others.
One of the things that inspire me the most is seeing Peter Sanson, after more than twenty-five years coming to Mysore, having been Guruji´s student for so long, getting on his knees to touch Sharath’s feet every morning before leaving the shala. That kind of devotion really moves me and inspires me way more than any picture of a perfect handstand on the cliff of a mountain. That is the kind of yoga I want for myself and my students. That is the kind of devotion that allowed me to evolve as a person and make amazing discoveries about myself. I feel that’s also the foundation of parampara, I feel I’m just a transmitter of that energy which has been passed from guru to guru, generation after generation. So when my students say, “I’ve been to many yoga classes, many yoga shalas, but I’ve never felt like this on a yoga room, there’s something special here, there is an special atmosphere.” I can only smile as I recognize myself feeling and recognizing that very feeling when I come to Mysore. Then I realize I have no merit on this, I’m just having the great honor and also the big responsibility to keep this transmission which came to me from my Guru, and from his Guru before him, and from his Guru before, and on and on.
So to me, this is very simple, you just need to find your teacher, or Guru (depends on which word makes you feel more comfortable), and put your sadhana on his hands, make sure you do your part of the job with full dedication and honesty, and fully trust him on taking care of your evolution, of your practice. It really is simple, if you look at it this way. I don't know how we manage to turn something so simple into all the complications we get into!
When the body is healthy and practice is strong, dedication and commitment flows. What advice do you have for students that are battling injuries or low-motivation?
If you were to ask me the top five things this practice has brought to my life, one of them would be learning to deal with pain in a much better, healthier way. There is so much to learn from this practice if you are open and willing to. Watching the reactions, the tendencies, the patterns, make them obvious so we can slowly work on them, to allow the transformation to happen. Pain is a big part of practice, as it is a big part of life. In both, we have a very hard time relating to it but practice can change that.
When pain is present in our life (on and off the mat), our natural tendency is try to avoid it as much as possible. I love this quote from Carl Jung, which says, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” I totally relate to it and I think practice is also like this. So that's what we do when pain shows up, we want to quit practicing or we want to skip it. We don't want to deal with pain, we just want to practice when it “feels good”. This is, in one hand, completely usual and you would even say, logical. But on the other hand, “Do we stop looking for a relationship just because we got hurt on the previous one?” That to me makes as little sense as stopping the practice when there is pain. There should be equanimity on this matter because that is like denying something that is actually part of the practice. And it’s also a great opportunity to learn to deal with pain, which is not easy, which make us feel unease, or incapable, or frustrated. It’s a great opportunity to work on equanimity. To learn how to practice when you “feel good” and also when you “feel bad” and realize both experiences are equally valuable. Learning to let go of the attachment of the “good practice”, which I don't believe is a real concept. Every practice is good to me, except the one you don’t do. From that one you won't learn anything. From practicing with pain, you will learn so, so much. Your concentration will have to increase so you don’t make your pain worse, so you can locate the moments where it gets worse, or when it gets softer.
The process is just so interesting and pain can teach you so much about yourself! So I’d say after a period of denial, of not wanting to accept the pain, maybe getting anger or frustration or quite a few more emotions, you will accept it and start to work with it and then half of the suffering will be over. Then I find the process fascinating, going everyday to the “place of conflict” and try to understand how that pain is, what are you doing to increase it, what can you do to heal, where are you putting too much tension, how can you face the pose from a different approach until you find the key, which might have to do with taking tension out, or realizing you are not using your bandhas, or with activating certain muscles, or with improving your breathing, or just to not go so far on the pose for a period of time until the pain goes away and then slowly go deeper into it again. This process will bring so many valuable lessons; no wonder why Guruji used to say, “Injuries are blessings.” They really bring many good things to us if we give them the space for it.
So to me, when pain arises one important thing to do is not let it take over everything. Yes, I might have pain in Kapotasana, for instance, but I'm not gonna let that pain take over my full practice and say, “My practice sucks, I have so much pain.” That attitude will only build up negativity and resistance. Sure it would be nice to not have the pain, but it's there and it's there only for five breaths a day, so let's not make it bigger than it is. I always remind myself the importance of keeping this practice for a long time, with commitment and dedication and with positive attitude in order to succeed, as yoga sutras says. Let's keep enjoying the rest of the practice, let's not get attached to the pain, and let’s try to face it whatever pose it arises with determination, courage and also sensibility and compassion. Let’s try to look at its face, learn what it has to say about me and the way I’m practicing and try to learn from it, and accept it as part of my practice now. I know it wasn't there before so it's fair to think same way it came, it will go. Maybe not when I want it to go but eventually, it will. And accepting pain on practice, and realizing it might be there but it doesn't have to paralyze me, that I still can do so many things, and that I can learn to go through it and overcome it, that is something so valuable for me. That's the kind of transformational experiences that are really priceless about this practice. The really deep, subtle stuff -- the stuff you can´t show in Instagram!!
I honestly believe and have experience how learning to deal with pain in practice makes easier to deal with any kind of pain also out of practice. They say yoga is the end of suffering, and I understand this not as yoga will stop the pain in your life, but it will teach you to accept it. Therefore, you will be accepting everything life brings you on any given situation. And that means you'll be at peace with anything, therefore, no suffering will happen. Of course all this is easy to say and difficult to put into practice, and the process is as fascinating as hard but definitely worth it!! Having said this, I need to clarify no one should practice careless and we should face our asana practice always trying to work with no violence and respecting our limits. But let's be honest, is not possible to do this practice without experience pain at some point (or many points in the span of our practice), as is not possible to experience life without pain. Anyone saying the opposite is lying. Guarantee!!
Regarding the low-motivation, these are things we all have to experience from time to time. It's natural not to have the same amount of excitement always, and the asana practice can be very demanding. We don't always feel like doing it and specially when there are difficulties like pain, things get worse. During these periods, I find helpful to read texts which might reflect my state and talk about it, such as yoga sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. They very often help to put things into perspective and inspire you to face also those moments. Having a talk with someone who has a longer process than you, might also help sometimes. And make what I call a cleansing of intentions. Meaning, taking time to reflect on the way you are handling your practice, what do you really wanna get from it, check if you are on the right track and if not, what is missing, where are you getting distracted, what important aspect you are not taking care of. The moments of low motivation, again, can bring many good things to us. It can be a very healthy to review your practice, ask yourself many questions and locate what is not working, what I can try to change, to locate and solve the issue. The important thing to me, in both cases (injuries and low motivation) is, as we say in Spain, “Take the bull by the horns”, and use them in a wise way to help yourself grow and learn from them, and not as the perfect excuse to run away from practice!
Any final thoughts?
I would like to say I feel that sometimes, our ambition, our desire to stand out or being admired, or just our lack of conscience, threatens the integrity and purity of this system that our teachers have worked so hard to convey to us in its purest form. These days it seems that "anything goes" ... and the ashtanga community also has its cracks. I do not pretend not to lecture or be pessimistic, but this practice is in danger. It is cheapening, becoming diluted, trivialized and becoming frivolous increasingly. I feel that we owe our teachers our efforts at maintaining the integrity of this practice and transmitting it for the good of all and not just for our personal glory. And transmit it in its purest form as we committed to do. I would call the reflection of our community because I think we have to be aware of all the obstacles that stand in the way. I feel it is important to be clear and to examine these conflicts. Teacher trainings are doing a lot of damage, creating thousands of teachers a year without the slightest experience, as I check again and again when some of them come to our room without even knowing the sequence correctly or have any efficiency in their practice. These teachers teach a superficial and decaffeinated practice to their students which in turn, at some point, will also begin to teach others.
Many of these practitioners end up feeling disappointed, blaming their teachers in the best case, or the practice in the worst. There is much ignorance regarding the transmission of practice and many take a huge advantage of this. I think it's very important to inform people, and above all, I think it is very important not to collaborate with these programs, in any manner or giving any cover name. And let's face it, anyone with a Facebook account knows that many authorized teachers fall into this. This frustrates me and makes me angry, and as a teacher belonging to this lineage, I feel betrayed me by these people. I feel that they are hurting a valuable system and feel that they are also betraying the trust of his teacher and peers.
I would also call for reflection on the use of asana images on social media and its effect on the transmission of practice. I know that everything depends on the intention with which it is done, and I recognize that many teachers who use social networks to promote themselves have great talent, and it is not my intention to criticize or attack them. Many are excellent teachers and have the best intentions and fantastic results, whether I share their methods or not. And I do not doubt the good intentions of most of them. But I think it is worth trying to look with perspective and see the effect of such photography, Instagram mania, so much exposure... One can choose to do this or not, is of course a personal choice. But I think all this is creating a lot of confusion and, again, is working to trivialize and leave the practice on a superficial level. It is increasingly associated with the practice of ashtanga to have an account on Instagram or Facebook, with many followers, to be popular .... I do not understand this. And I resonate over and over again the words of Guruji, "turn your attention inside" ... It seems that on one hand we are teaching a practice that has to do with looking inward, and in turn, we are encouraging students or practitioners to become stars of the networks, and this is dangerous. Putting your personal value in the response of strangers in a social network is delicate. And to do it while using the practice, even more, in my opinion. I think it's important to know you can do this practice, and have such "advanced" practice as having reached without showing it to others. It is not a requirement, and it seems that for the younger generation, this is not clear. Sometimes we get emails from students who want to start practicing at school and they attach their IG account as if it really were part of what you need, mat, cotton mat and Instagram! I do not think this is good or bad in itself, I repeat that I think it depends on how it is used, but I see very negative effects and I think reflect on the issue is of no harm.
I wish all of us could be awake enough to see and identify our own contradictions, our lack of consistency or honesty, and avoid at all costs to harm the purity of this, our practice.
I also want to thank your work and effort, Lu & Lydia. By the time we've spent developing our "virtual chat" I see that this project takes you many hours of your effort and your dedication, selfless and noble effort to reach people this tradition and its transmission, and as I said, I think it's very important to inform. So I appreciate that you invited me to talk about my experience, which ultimately is to talk about my teacher, because everything I know I learned from him. Thank you for the opportunity and for your effort!
(And it´s a condition for publishing the talk that you include my thanks to you!!!)
*Photos provided by Jose
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance