Luke, what was life before yoga?
It is easy to look back in retrospect and tell the story of “me”, to create the meaning of ourselves in terms of a story. That is what we do. It could be, as I think yoga suggests, that there is in reality no story, and with it no “me”. I, of course, have my own stories as much as anybody else has theirs’, and while I know fully well that they may not be true…
Before yoga life was messy, confused. It was as if I wasn’t sure what I was doing in this world. I wasn’t sure of the rules and I didn’t understand why and how people behave the way they do. The world seemed to me tainted, governed by rules of untruth, compromise and even an under-current of threat and violence (well, I did grow up in Northern Ireland during the ‘Troubles’!).
In the midst of all this confusion and darkness I sought clarity and truth. Sometimes I would come across books, readings or music that resonated with me as truth in a way that nothing in my outside life did. Once, around the age of thirteen, I was given a book by a Hare Krishna (my first encounter with yoga philosophy) and something in it spoke to me. I didn’t have the same aversion to these ideas that most of my peers seemed to have. I was neither Protestant nor Catholic unlike most of my country-fellows who seemed already fixed in understanding themselves in relation to this either/or polarised identity.
After discovering marijuana around the age of sixteen or seventeen my music tastes changed very quickly! I listened to the Beatles and would hear deeply the messages of a transcendent Self beyond individualised identity - “Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void”. My eyes opened to a view of the world that had previously been veiled. A deep interest in the spiritual developed.
It was during my time at university that I got a glimpse of who-I-really-am. It was a dark time for me. Through a combination of philosophical inquiry, drug use, a relationship break up and continued confusion with the world, the identity that I had so carefully crafted as a means of coping with the world fell apart. I was plunged into a frightening world of hidden meanings and dark forces. I had had, what they called, an “acute psychotic episode”. I was hospitalised and medicated. Reality got pretty weird. A most interesting time!
That morning before my incarceration, as I lay in bed, tormented by the loud mental whir; out of nowhere a silence suddenly descended that stopped it all. I was fresh, free, alive, reborn, who-I-truly-was. I knew that I was beyond name or any other kind of label. The doctors were apparently not impressed by my new-found wisdom and refusal to conform to everyday identity. I was determined to remain in the spaciousness of beyond. They seemed determined to limit me to the labels and conditioning that I now knew were not who-I-am. Eventually, I had to succumb. They had the power.
The memory of this awakening, however, this taste of reality, persisted. Something changed. Something of the old me had died, and something else had been born. Upon returning to university I started to study religion both academically and in my spare time. I was particularly blown away by Taoism and began my first studies of Hinduism. These philosophies just seemed to make sense.
After my experiences I felt really shaken up, fragile and vulnerable in the world. Yet at the same time I felt as if I had touched upon something real. I wanted to build the strength to revisit the interesting and weird places I had gone to. One day, by chance, I met an old friend on the street and, in passing, he suggested I try out a yoga class. I did. It was Ashtanga Yoga. I felt an immediate connection of breath and body, the mind quietening, feeling good. The teacher, a guy called Mark, effortlessly lifted himself from lotus up into a handstand. I thought that was pretty cool too. I started to practise everyday.
This was quite a transformative period in your life. Please walk us through finding the practice to how you arrived at the doorsteps of Guruji’s shala.
After my experience it was clear to me that I wanted to be some kind of force for good in the world. I wanted to heal myself, I wanted to become healthy. I had tried going to the gym but this was not the kind of health that I was looking for. I was looking for a kind of health that incorporated wisdom, that was intelligent, that could lead one deeper within oneself rather than fixating on the narcissistic concern with developing the beautiful body or the testosteronic and goal-orientated drive to outdo the previous number of repetitions or beat one’s previous time etc. I was looking for a practise.
It was this desire to heal, the attempt to end my suffering that began the spiritual seeking in earnest. I didn’t want to go back to hospital or succumb to the darkness I had encountered. I entered the spiritual marketplace and began to try what was on offer. I tried affirmations, juicing, reiki, crystal healing, feng shui, meditation, hung a dream-catcher above my bed, read the tarot, threw the I Ching and built a library of New Age and spiritual books. I practised daily Chi Kung, a Taoist exercise that is designed to build up energy within the body. This was my first real practise and I still think of it as very profound and powerful.
However, in retrospect, I needed something a little more physical. Alongside my Chi Kung I had been practising yoga postures out of some of the books I had. They gave me a strong feeling of embodiment and connection and I could feel the innate intelligence of connecting with the body in this way. It felt like something real. I loved the internal exploration, the sense of experiencing within the field of sensation arising in the present moment. The mind would quieten. I would feel whole.
During the run-up to my final exams at university I took that first class. I didn’t know that this was a particular kind of yoga called Ashtanga. I didn’t know about Pattabhi Jois or Mysore. I just knew that it felt good. I trusted in it. The first week we learned Surya Namaskara and each week after we would learn a little bit more. In between classes I would continue to practise at home. I was hooked! I started to read more and more about yoga. I bought Light on Yoga, read Yogananda’s Autobiography, the Bhagavad Gita and whatever else I could get my hands on. I discovered sites dedicated to Ashtanga Yoga on the internet. I learned about Guruji and began to dream of travelling to India.
Like many people after university, I didn’t know what to do. The idea of entering into a career path just didn’t make sense to me. I was depressed by the extended treadmill - school, university, work, retirement… death! There must surely be more to life that this materialist hamster wheel! The only thing that made sense to me was yoga. It was also time for me to move on. I found online the name of the only (then) authorised (now Certified) teacher of Ashtanga Yoga in the UK. I moved from Edinburgh to London.
I still remember the intensity walking into Hamish’s class that first morning. A rickety old elevator brought me to the top floor of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital. Peeling back the metal grills there was a blast of heat conjoined with the smell of sweat and nag champa incense. So many bodies, all breathing with intensity, condensation running down the paint-peeled walls, the focused concentrated silence. Hard to describe it. It was something... something primal, something real.
I sheepishly, almost anonymously, joined this collective body in the mornings before I left to my temping job (pushing paper, filing, other monotonous tasks). I lived for 6am. The rest of the day I felt like I was undercover. A yogi in disguise. I felt fairly lonely after moving to London and this was the community with whom I silently communed day after day. It gave me a sense of belonging to something. A sense of higher purpose.
It must been after about a year that Hamish suggested, almost as an aside, that I should go to Mysore. While this had secretly been my dream, I didn’t dare imagine for a moment that I was worthy/good enough. I didn’t need much of a push however. This was all I needed. After I decided for sure, the universe seemed to confirm that this was the right thing. Someone gave me a guidebook to India, money appeared as if out of nowhere. One night I dreamt of Guruji and Sharath beckoning me to their Shala. I booked a ticket. I sent a letter.
Funnily enough, Guruji came to London for the first time soon after. My first led classes. I knew the practise but didn’t have any idea what he was saying between the postures! I received an adjustment. Maybe it was my imagination but, as he adjusted me in sarvangasana, I felt an energy come from him. At the end of class I gave pranam and said I would be going to Mysore. ‘Yes, you come’, he said.
Stepping off the plane in Mumbai, I was terrified. There was a line, which once you crossed over, you were in India. Although it was the middle of the night, the hawkers and beggars smelled fresh meat and immediately descended upon me. I gave away the last of my western food, I handed out rupees but I was only more beset upon! I had to get the hell out of there. What had I got myself into? I eventually paid someone to direct me to the bus for the domestic airport so I could fly out to Bangalore. I was already standing beside it! I remember the irony of discovering myself hugging my luggage as if for dear life as I looked out of the bus window to see the slum-dwellers, those with nothing, casually going about their daily wake-up rituals. What was I so afraid of losing?
Arriving in Bangalore, I took a rickshaw from the airport to the train station and got the next train to Mysore. As I stood on the platform I took in the alienness of the scene around me. I had never dreamt India would be like this. This was not another country, this was another planet! A filthy, crowded, noisy and chaotic planet! Where was the incense and spiritual air?
Once In Mysore I booked myself into the Kaveri Lodge hotel. My room’s walls were smeared with the blood that mosquitos had extracted from previous occupants. I slept for a couple of days and hid from India. When I was ready I took the rick-shaw to Lakshmipuram to register with Guruji. As the rick-shaw pulled up outside the little house I was greeted by the familiar and friendly faces of members of the Ashtanga Yoga London community. I was in the right place.
And with the Universe’s hand stroke, there you were in Mysore. What was Guruji like? What was it like at that time in the Shala? Can you please walk us through your experience practicing?
Even at eighty-seven, Guruji was an alive and powerful man. He exuded a presence, a weightiness. He was certainly not to be messed with! Day in and day out he would be there, sharing his knowledge and his presence. Starting at 4.30, in the busiest periods he would be teaching until after lunchtime! Then at 5pm he would give conference. While I arrived with a whole load of hopes, expectations and dreams of who Guruji might be, as the days and weeks went on I settled into the routine of experiencing him on a day to day basis.
For my first class I had been given a 6.30 start time (there was only around 30 students at that time). Of course I had no idea of the concept of “shala time” (always 15 minutes earlier). As I sauntered in the door I noticed there were a few spaces in the room. He turned to look at me. “WHY YOU LATE????” he shouted. He directed me to put my mat down right in front of his chair in the corner of the room. I practised like I’d never practised before, feeling the intensity of the Guru’s presence behind me. It came to backbending. He stood up, moved in front of me and directed me to grab my ankles! Yikes! Quite a first day.
Sometimes Guruji seemed to have something magical about him, some kind of power. Before I arrived in Mysore something like a ‘pop’ had happened in one of my ribs during an adjustment in supta kurmasana. My ribs were tender, some of the postures were sore and as the days went on I noticed it was getting worse. I said to Guruji one day, “Rib pain happening Guruji, maybe I should take rest.” “Show me”, he replied. I pointed to the spot, I pressed it to make myself feel the pain, making sure it was still there! “No problem”, he said, “one week going.” I was disappointed to say the least. What? No sympathy?! I felt brushed off. This injury had been with me for a couple of months and now he was saying it would go in a week. This was no doctor, I was sure of that. Nevertheless I dutifully soldiered on. Six days later I was still feeling the pain. Seven days and it was gone!
At that time Guruji held conference on a daily basis. There wasn’t so many people at that time so those who came could fit into the little reception room at the front of the house. Sharath and Guruji would sit on the wicker chairs and we would all sit on the floor. Sometimes it was uncomfortable. We would sit expectantly, wanting something. Guruji would read the paper. Someone would ask something from this place of wanting and a minimal response would be elicited. At other times he would be in great form, quoting large sections from the Bhagavad Gita, Upanisads or other texts in response to students questions. I plucked up the courage to ask Guruji questions. There was something about the way Guruji spoke to me that I felt affected by. It wasn’t so much the words he used, it was were they were coming from. They had a depth, they had a weight. It was as if he was talking directly to me, the ‘me’ beyond my personality.
One day, I came home from practise to discover a train of ants going into and out of my kitchen cupboard. They had found my imported bag of brown rice! It was ruined! I was furious. I wanted revenge. I went on the rampage. It was a massacre by any standards. An hour later I had forgotten all about it - it was only ants after all. That afternoon there was conference as usual. I had a question prepared, a clever one that would show that I had been studying, knew something of the Yoga Sutras, one which showed I had an inquiring, critical mind. “Guruji, when we do Ashtanga Yoga are we practising the yamas and niyamas or are we only practising asana”. He looked at me, laughed a little, “Yamas and niyamas very difficult. First asana practising, then yamas, niyamas coming.” He then started to talk about the various limbs. “Ahimsa [non-violence]. Very difficult. YOU KILLING THE ANTS!” I was stunned to say the least. Was this a coincidence? Did he know?
He continued. Satya (truthfulness) was, he said, also very difficult. It is only now looking back that I realise something of the truth of this. There I was with my prepared question, manipulating, trying to get attention, trying to show off my knowledge. Definitely not asked in satya. He came to the next limb. ‘For you brahmacarya very difficult’. Sitting next to the girlfriend I had recently met, I squirmed a little uncomfortably. It was as if I had had my cover blown, my cloak of intellectuality exposed.
Those months practising with Guruji and Sharath were undoubtedly a truly magical experience for me. I feel truly blessed to have been there at that time. Here I was, a twenty-four year old on his first trip abroad practising yoga, quite literally at the feet of the living Guru of Ashtanga Yoga. To be honest, I felt pretty cool! I felt the weight of the restrictions I felt living the UK lift off my shoulders. I felt free. I also had lots of something else I hadn’t been having a lot of: fun!
I was lucky enough to be in the company of some very experienced and/or sincere and dedicated practitioners. There were some who had been practising with Guruji already for fifteen years or more. Being among these older students of Guruji was almost equally as inspiring as being with Guruji himself. I felt truly welcomed, no judgement about being a relative newcomer to the practise. Everybody seemed available. These were people who had trodden the path for many years and were happy to share their insights without a sense of being higher or better. I learned a lot from them about the yoga path. I admired their dedication, perseverance and strength.
In the several months I was there, my practise went to another level. It wasn’t so much that I got better at doing the asanas, it was more that I felt as if I was charged up from being in that little room with Guruji, Sharath and eleven others day after day. The energy in the room was incredible. I felt as if I had been plugged into the mains. I was buzzed and blessed.
What makes the Guru Shishya tradition special?
Mmmm, this is a very interesting question! I have been a student of yoga/spiritual traditions for many years now and one of the things that has most fascinated me and continues to do so is the “guru phenomenon”. The more research I have done, the more difficult it has become for me to accept uncritically the sanctity of the guru/shishya model, and the idea of surrender to someone considered ‘godlike’ that it entails. There are just too many scandals, too many abuses around sex, money and power. Too many examples where the guru is definitely not the messiah but a very naughty boy! Unfortunately students and organisational bodies are often complicit in the covering over, justifying or excusing of guru’s abuses.
That is not to say that I necessarily reject the idea of the guru-as-teacher. One can learn a lot from an open relating with a teacher/spiritual friend. I don't think, however, that that necessitates leaving one’s brain at the door. There is a lovely quote, attributed to the Buddha, that advises people not to believe anything simply because it has been heard, spoken by many, written in religious books, or that it comes from the authority of teachers or elders. He advises ultimately that one has to be a light unto oneself.
In my own example, before I’d met Guruji, that is to say, before I had even had any experience of him, he was already in my mind the “Guru”. I was a believer rather than an experiencer. But my belief had nothing to do with Guruji at all, it came from me. It was my guru fantasy projection! I wanted to be special, I wanted to be accepted as part the group. As I lined up to touch Guruji’s feet at that first meeting in London, I was merely following what others were doing. It did not come from within. I listened to students who had been to Mysore many times talk about Guruji. They shared their anecdotes about their relationship with Guruji and I noticed that this, in my eyes at least, seemed to give them the sense of being somebody.
The essence of the guru’s role, as far as I understand it, comes in relating. When one is open in a moment of relating with another who sees more clearly, there is the potential for oneself also to see more clearly. This present moment undoing of the obstructions of one’s egoic structure is the teaching. It is not an addition, it is not something that is added onto oneself. It is a subtraction, it is a taking away. The danger is that the ego uses the idea of the guru to enhance itself, to create more of a story of its own specialness. Even the most beautiful moments, the most profound revealings, can be lost by turning them into something, by dragging them out into time.
Outside of that present moment relating, the guru can easily be turned into another extension of one’s identity to be protected and defended. One speaks of my relationship with my guru. My guru is better than your guru! Loyalty can take the place of honest self inquiry. Yoga can turn into fanaticism. Sometimes fledgling teachers use the story of their ‘guru’ in order to sell themselves more effectively in the spiritual marketplace. Sometimes gurus, failing to remain clear and without effective mechanisms of feedback, begin to believe the delusional projections of adoring disciples and fall from grace.
This does not mean, however, throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. We cannot learn anything without teachers and the best teachers are real live human beings who have a capacity to share their insight. If you want to learn another language, you cannot learn it without learning the rules of grammar and vocabulary. Better to learn from somebody who can actually speak the language and understands it from the inside out. Similarly, if you want to learn yoga, there is no better way than to learn from someone steeped in that tradition and follow the methods they proscribe. Take what is said as a hypothesis to be tested out, to be found out through one’s own experience.
The openness that the learning process requires is not the same as ‘surrendering the ego’. In its very attempt of surrender, the ego itself is strengthened. If there is to be understanding, if there is to be realisation, it is something that happens despite the ego, not because of its efforts. It happens through some kind of grace and, yes, that grace may be in relation to a ‘guru’ or spiritual friend. One’s preexisting ideas, however, about guru/shishya, about surrender and loyalty to lineage can be obstacles that inhibit such insight. Outward surrender is not inner surrender and inner surrender, even in relation to someone outside oneself, is a happening that is ultimately a surrender to one's own Self. Another is not responsible for our ‘salvation’.
How can students best utilize the practice as an honest, ego-less vehicle to self betterment over a long period of time?
There was once a wise man who said, “Do your practise and all is coming.” One of the beautiful things about this statement is its openness to interpretation. Here is how I interpret it. Guruji had so many people coming to him and asking questions, “When can I start second series?”; “When should I start pranayama”; “When will I be enlightened?”; “When will my kundalini rise to my crown chakra?”, or whatever. All of these questions suggest some kind of wanting, some kind of longing for some event in the future. The message I get is. “Do your your practise and forget about it.” Don’t worry about what the future brings. Do your practise and be here now! For me the ‘all is coming’ is the same as vairagya (non-attachment). For me, Guruji is simply saying the same as Patanjali. The way to be in yoga is through practise (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya).
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna puts it another way. He tells Arjuna to surrender the fruits of his labour. He tells him to carry out the action that needs to be done in the present moment, letting the consequences be as they will. Practise and forget about it! Don’t get caught up in what the practise will bring.
It's amazing how caught up we can get in yoga. There can be so much striving towards attainment. The next asana, the next series, authorisation, certification or whatever. It seems as if there is a never ending ladder to climb. When we get to the next rung, there is always another. I’ve noticed this in myself. I still notice it. Tempting imaginary carrots dangle invisibly in mid-air. On a good day I’ll see it, I’ll catch it. On a bad day I’ll get sucked into the grasping, the wanting and the inevitable ensuing misery! This is the real yoga struggle, the real kuruksetra, not catching one’s ankles in backbending or getting one's legs behind one's head. The real yoga practise, the real abhyasa, for me lies in awareness, in inquiry.
Of course things are compounded these days by the ubiquity of social media and the seemingly endless stream of yoga porn that encourages one to believe that attainment of this is the goal. And I put my hands up - I’ve done it, and I’ve felt good getting acknowledgement and approval for photographs I’ve posted. However, for me this feeling is quickly followed by a hollowness and emptiness that I’ve sold out the depth of something I love for a few cheap ‘likes’ of my narcissistic self-projection. Then I’ve noticed my self-righteousness and judgement of others who, in doing the same, are just singing their song, dancing to their tune. How the ego twists and turns! Another valuable seeing!
The key for me is just being honest. Spiritual practise can sometimes act as a cloak that obscures our less noble drives and motives. We think that because we are doing yoga we should be spiritual, we convince ourselves that we are being spiritual. Sometimes we sublimate the truth of why we do what we do. In my yoga journey I frequently encounter narcissism, jealousy, competitiveness, and desire. And that is just in Surya Namaskara A! There is something wonderful about seeing these things. I don’t think this makes me a bad person or any less ‘spiritual’. I just recognise that I am human and I love myself for being so. I would rather have an ugly truth, than a spiritual lie. It is in seeing the actual truth of who we are (and are not) that transformation is facilitated. We have had enough suppression already. Let it all come.
For me the goal is not to become ego-less (only a strong ego could have such a lofty goal) but to see the ego as it is in all its confusion and to love oneself anyway. For this reason I don’t think yoga is best practised as a form of self-betterment as if we could become some kind of superman/woman. This implies that who we are now is somehow not enough. Seeking to make ourselves better is simply a movement out of and away from this essential feeling of not-enoughness that is itself deeper than the goal that is sought.
Many people start yoga because they don’t feel good about themselves and may certainly find temporary relief from their symptoms. Perhaps they even develop, like a drug, a dependency on yoga practise to feel good about themselves. Those endorphins, that intensity can really take the focus off one’s suffering for a moment. The projection of oneself as a ‘yogi’ can provide a powerful sense of ego-security. Ultimately, however, I don’t think any amount of putting your legs behind your head is going to make you a better person or eradicate the causes of one’s suffering. For me, real yoga is self-inquiry. In the end we have to meet ourselves as we are. There is no escape!
The Ashtanga practise can be a really wonderful crucible within which the ego’s many faces and disguises arise and can be seen for what they are if one is willing to look. Sometimes within the movement, the breath and the falling into awareness of sensation there can also be a little bit of magic that takes us out of the everyday sense of limited self into an intuiting of something deeper, something beyond. Then we let that go too and keep practising for no other sake than that is just what we are choosing to do, like chopping wood, carrying water.
Guruji talked about God and devotion. What role does spirituality have in the practice?
On one level I don’t think physical movements, whether they are accompanied by breath-connection or not, are inherently spiritual. It is we who consign meaning to them (much as it is our minds that assign meaning to all phenomena). The same yogasana which represents an aspect of the divine in the Indian context may be, in another context, considered mere contortion. Spirituality, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I know people who consider their practise a purely physical activity and I know those who consider it spiritual practise. Whether or not our asana practise is a spiritual practise has got to do with us and what we bring to it.
The vast majority of Ashtanga Yoga practitioners (in the tradition of Sri KPJ) are westerners many of whom have found in yoga an alternative to the mainstream traditions of the West. While we understand yoga to have Hindu origins, ‘Hinduism’ is itself a very difficult phenomenon for westerners to truly get to grip with. Even though there are some who have taken wholeheartedly to the Hindu religion to the extent that they have adopted Hindu religious protocol, I don’t think it is appropriate or necessary for us all to do so. Just because Guruji was a Shaivite does not mean that we should become one too.
Spirituality has developed in the West as something that happens in the personal and subjective realm. One of the reasons Ashtanga has become so popular is because of its very extractability from its Hindu roots. It operates as a physical framework upon which one can hang one’s own subjective spiritual sense be it Hindu-based or not. It can act as a support mechanism for each person’s individual inquiry process, each person’s spiritual journey.
And what is spirituality?! I am not even sure what the word means! One of my favourite spiritual authors said that ‘spirituality is about waking up’. However, it seems that much of what passes as ‘spirituality’ in the West is little more than a hodge-podge of bits and pieces of various eastern religions pieced together to form a new and alternative belief system. Sometimes spirituality is even used as a cloak to avoid truly inquiring within. Sometimes it is just a nice idea that is useful as long as it doesn’t conflict with getting what one wants. Waking up is truly looking within to see the truth of who we are and that begins with being honest about how we are often not being honest about not wanting to do that! I am still a beginner!
As one famous Ashtangi once sang, “life is a mystery”(!), and as I understand it, the invitation of spirituality, of yoga, is to not-knowingly surrender into that mystery as it is, to recognise one’s essential unity with life's flow. I understand this to be something that happens not so much through one's own efforts but through grace. In the meantime the practise is there for us. Within it is the potential to daily begin again, to come to the experience of breath and the body as they are in each moment. We can watch as our fantasies and our ego projections arise and, on a good day, we can experience a dissolution of our holding on to things being the way want them to be. For me, the practise is a really stabilising and grounding force in my life. It gives me a disciplined focus and keeps me (pretty much) on the straight and narrow and out of trouble! Many of the more rosy-tinted-spectacle ideas I used to have about the practise have faded away. I’m not looking for siddhis anymore or exalted states of consciousness. I just enjoy it (most of the time!). It is what it is… and that is enough.
Guruji is quoted as saying that in the final understanding “wherever you look you will see God”. I understand this to be the result of no longer wanting anything to be other than the way it is anymore. Reality is accepted the way it is without judgement. No good or bad, no right or wrong. As the wonderful Hsin Hsin Ming says, ‘The Great Way is easy for he who has no preferences’. Who would we be without our preferences, our stories of the world? Even the very self who would want to experience such a state would be dissolved and gone with it any sense of spirituality that is based on a sense of separateness. We are, paradoxically, running to stand still and eventually we find the stillness there in the midst of our running. Running will continue or not. It doesn't matter. It never did. Spirituality is gone, the spiritual remains, and it is everything.
You have an advanced degree in Indian Religions focusing on yoga philosophical systems. Do you advise students to study philosophical texts to supplement their physical practice? Can that aid as a control mechanism to balance out such a physically oriented practiced?
Absolutely! Guruji may have said that yoga is 99% practise but let’s not forget that he was a very respected scholar, steeped in the philosophical yoga tradition. He held professorships in both Sanskrit and advaita vedanta and was frequently recommending philosophical texts to his students. In doing so he was following in the scholarly lineage of his guru, Krishnamacarya, who held degrees in each of the six classical philosophical systems of Hindusim, of which yoga is one. Ironically, it is mainly because of his innovations that the word ‘yoga’ has now become synonymous with postural forms to the detriment of its understanding as a deeply contemplative and philosophical tradition.
Even the term Ashtanga Yoga itself points us right back to that philosophical tradition. It points us back to Patanjali whose Yoga Sutras, as the defining text of the yoga tradition, was itself the culmination of a process of philosophical thought and inquiry that had been going on for millennia since the time of the early Upanisads. What arises in the yoga school is just one earnest attempt to answer the perennial questions of human existence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sell yoga pants.
The wholescale commercial takeover of yoga cuts yoga from its philosophical moorings and leaves it in danger of drifting off into a cloud of meaninglessness. Chakras, sanskrit letters, images of Ganesh, and the odd waft of incense remain as a pot-pourri of spiritual signification selling yoga to a mainstream, middle-class, disposably-incomed demograhic. Yoga has been the perfect candidate as the product for the ‘spiritual but not religious’ because of its seemingly non-dogmatic and individualistic orientation and has proved to be perfectly compatible with market-driven materialism. Yoga has become a nice idea, a cultural meme, a democratic look-what-I-can-do selfie opportunity!
I don’t think it is necessarily the practise’s physicality that needs to be balanced out. The physical is fine, perfect, the way it is. It is the pseudo-spirituality that is the problem. This is the spirituality that tends to package yoga in the modern marketplace, seducing us into the fantasy that we will be better, shinier, happier versions of ourselves, through the consumption of yoga and yoga-related products. The pure physicality of practise can be a respite from this. For a moment we forget about ourselves, experiencing what is. What a relief! Off the mat, however, we to want to continually recreate our identity and image of ourselves as a ‘yogi’. We do this through our identification with ‘my’ practise and an external sense of the ‘spiritual’. Do your practise, and forget about it (sounds like a good T-shirt)!
At some stage after engaging with the practise for some length of time the question may arise, ‘just what the hell is this yoga anyway?’. I am a little sceptical that you would find the answer to this is any of the leading trade journals (though you may well find the answer to what yoga is not). It is in looking to answer this question that the texts of yoga’s tradition come in particularly useful. Through them we are invited to peel away the acquired layers of pseudo-spirituality and inquire deeply within in the attempt to find out who we really are and untangle the misidentifications that lead to suffering. This, for me, is the beginning of yoga. The textual traditions of yoga are like guidebooks, manuals to this inner revealing.
How should a practitioner adjust as they get older, from an emotional/mental and physical standpoint?
I tend to feel a little hesitant when confronted by the word 'should'. My philosophy around the word 'should' goes a little like this… Things should be as they are. No mistake. When I think reality should be different than the way it is, I try to manipulate it into the way I want it to be, using and strengthening a willful ego in the process. Inevitably reality wins. My attempts to change it fail and as a result I suffer until the time I eventually accept reality as it is. This goes for my practise too. If I think that I should be able to do this or that asana when I can't, I end up hurting myself. If I think that I should be able to do a posture I was able to do before when I can't, I frustrate myself, I create clouds of stories, I lose presence.
The process of yoga is ideally leading us to an open and accepting experience of the present moment as it is. When we close down the sensitivity of our own intelligence, we grasp for rules and structures. When we stop trusting ourselves we look for 'shoulds'. Instead of experiencing what we are experiencing we reach for what we think we should be experiencing. A should is the opposite of yoga.
For me the real practise of yoga is being with what is as it is. This is the same for a practitioner of any age – do your practise and let it be as it is. This is of course challenging because so often we want things to be other than the way they are. As it is in the macrocosm of life, so it is in the microcosm of yoga. We don't want to get older, we don't want our bodies to change, we don't want to die. Yoga is not some means to postpone the inevitable, to become some kind of immortal superman/woman. Yoga is facing what is through a dropping into the now and experiencing it.
Inevitably, the external practise changes over time. Along with that come resistances, frustrations and, ultimately, letting gos which deepen our 'real' yoga practise. The more identified we are with the external practise, not to mention our external selves, the more difficult the lesson in letting it all go.
On the level of the external practise, I credit everyone with the intelligence to figure out from their own experience what is and is not appropriate for them. I feel available to support that process. Yes, I can make suggestions but ultimately the final arbiter of what is an appropriate way of practising is the individual himself/herself. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and nobody else can do the eating for us! We have to taste and savour each bite on our own. We are our own masters. Yes, the external practise has been laid out for us, but the internal path is our own to follow. That may well mean that we have to sacrifice certain aspects of the external form in keeping with our internal understanding.
I like to imagine that as we get older we also get wiser. In relation to the practise I imagine that this means that we prioritise depth rather than attainment. Of course I don't know how that will be for each individual practitioner but it is certainly how the practise has evolved for me. I remember the asana fixation of my youth (although I wouldn't have admitted that then). There was a drive, a competitiveness, the crazy notion that if I could somehow do a particular posture I would be a better person (or at least better than others)! Now I am mostly just happy to practise. I still sometimes play the game of attainment. I still like to challenge myself but the difference now is that I know it doesn't matter. I don't get any stars or a Blue Peter badge (UK practitioners will understand). We orbit a star in a universe with ten times more stars (in the known universe) than all the grains of sand on all the beaches and deserts on earth! How could it possibly matter if I can still get my legs behind my head or do whatever series.
While Guruji said 'practise and all is coming', I like to think that he left out the second, more profound part… 'all is going'. While we will all witness a 'going' of certain aspects of the external practise, if we are lucky, we will also experience the 'going' of layers of attachments to the material realm (prakrti). Ultimately, according to the yoga philosophy, this includes the 'going' or dissolution of our sense of being an individual separate self, a recognition of ourselves as the witness (purusa) of all that comes and goes. While I would like to say that we should not forget this final, philosophical, understanding of yoga, I know that this is, for many people, not the reason why they practise. In recognising that, I celebrate and support whatever it is brings people to this strangely compelling and magical practise trusting that it will take us all to wherever we should go.
Any final thoughts, Luke?
For those who are reading these words… you have travelled with me a long way. I really appreciate you for taking the time to listen to my stories and take in some of my ideas especially if you found some of them challenging. Thank you.
I’ve been practising now for about seventeen years and at the end of that I’m not some superhuman or anything like that. I would love to be able to tell you about my enlightenment, about my siddhis, about my conquering the fragility of human existence, but in truth yoga has not done that for me. Nor am I expecting it to. I am here (apparently!) as just another one of eight billion or so humans currently making this journey through the sea of life. I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to have had the Ashtanga practise, like a ship, keeping me afloat amidst life’s many vicissitudes. Without it, the story could have been very different (and that is not to say better or worse). But here I am, just another normal human being with all its seeming quirks and foibles. And in that, I am perfect. As you are too. Nothing else required.
Editorial Note: Please visit, http://livingashtanga.com, for additional information on Luke.
*photo provided by Luke Jordan
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-pilot Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-pilot Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance