Editorial note: AP thanks friend of the site, Cat Barton, Editor at Agence France-Presse. Cat conducted this interview for submission. Ashtanga Parampara provided additional questions to Nigel to build on her work.
What was your life like before yoga?
I was a businessman. I’d always been a music fanatic. I willfully failed in my education; I’d deliberately failed my exams to spite my parents, especially my dad, and to bolster my idea of myself as a rebel type. So then I'm out on my ass and I found myself working in a record shop. All I cared about was music. I wanted to be close to the source somehow. I just loved records. Despite my absolute lack of ambition, I start being given fairly responsible jobs within the record industry, with music distributors. So by the time we get to about the early 90s, I’m running a record company. I realised that I did have a business acumen that came from somewhere or other. Despite the fact that I was very hedonistic, into late nights and the whole sex drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, I could still somehow manage to run a business. In the end I had my own business. I wouldn't have survived in most other industries. In the music industry you're allowed to be fairly dishevelled — you're encouraged almost.
Unfortunately, rather than seek success, I was seeking to be different. I was trying to only promote music that we thought had some artistic value. And that's commercial suicide. At best we were eight people in a tiny office in Shoreditch. We felt like we were a little anarchist party. I was trying to run a business but I didn't have that basic ethos that we must make as much money as possible. And that's a disaster. It doesn't serve anybody. So there's this big pressure, I'm running this thing and I start to hate it. I start to feel that I'm dishonest, that I'm not doing what I was supposed to be doing, I've suddenly got very far away from the music. I'm hearing new music and rather than thinking 'is it good?' I’m starting to think 'can we sell it?' and that was actually very far removed from my original intention. It becomes a joyless thing. If you’re going to be successful in business you basically have to be a con artist. In the end that's one of the reasons yoga was really helpful to me, and why I wanted to get out of all that, because I couldn't bear the pressure of being a professional liar.
So in that environment was when I found yoga. Prior to yoga, I was a stressed out, borderline junky and alcoholic. I was never addicted to the substances as such, but I was addicted to the enjoyment, and pleasure, and indulgence. More or less my hobby was getting fucked and having a laugh. And it wasn't necessarily out of depression or desperation; I just enjoyed myself too much. There was another aspect. I would never have accepted yoga were it not for having been studying at the School of Economic Science in London. The school has a background in Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way teachings, and going further back, in a kind of social justice based economics system. By the late 60’s the school's teachings started to be strongly influenced by the Indian tradition. The school doesn't make it known at first – I think for fear of scaring people away -- but it’s teachings are mostly based in the Indian Advaita Vedanta tradition. It’s not just study, it’s Satsang -- it’s participation and it’s practice. If you stick around they eventually offer and encourage you to meditate. Some of the ideas of the school are discipline, controlling the mind, and ways to be more present, more mindful. So we get away from pure philosophy and it becomes how to practice these things. It really appealed to me and eventually it started to work, I started to find that I was more in control of my life, of myself, I could concentrate, my memory was improving, I was becoming a reliable person. But for the first few years, I still had a foot in both camps. I would be thinking to myself: gosh, if my philosophy chums could see what I get up to at the weekend…
Eventually, I went on a retreat with them and I was forced to practice and live the lifestyle that up to that point I had only understood as a theory. On this retreat, we would all get up very early, meditate, eat the right food, behave in a very correct way. At first it was like going to prison for me. But then my mind started to feel very sharp and clear, I started to see huge possibilities for myself, that I could really improve myself, that I'm not a lost cause, that I can be anything I want.
During that first retreat, I had a vision of how I got so jaded: I remembered when I was a kid, experiencing my mum and dad fighting, they used to fight about anything, it was continuous, it was very disappointing that that was how adults related. And I looked at my teachers, and see they are no good as well, you could see their inadequacies. So where are the reasonable, sensible, intelligent people? This was my question as a kid, I'd forgotten about that, that there was nobody to admire. So then I'm on this retreat and suddenly I'm in this situation where people are behaving decently. And it was like wow, there are societies that are entirely unselfish. Not motivated by money, ego, but trying to move in the opposite direction of selfishness.
This set the foundation. I was getting deeper and deeper into the school. Then 2001, it was just after 9/11, a colleague asks me if I’ve ever tried yoga.
It’s one of those comical things. We looked for some yoga, in the phonebook, on the internet. We found a class, and it had this great big long name: Mysore style ashtanga vinyasa assisted self-practice. We didn’t know what that was, but that was all they had in the morning. So we rock up at the Yoga Place in Bethnal Green in East London, and there's this weird thin man — Alex Medin — and we were like, whoa. Alex grabs a girl coming out of the yoga room, and he tells her to teach us. She started with the mantra, "Vande, gurunam…" But we wouldn't repeat it! There were all these blank spaces, where we obstinately refused to participate. Isn't that terrible? I would dread that happening to me now. Anyway, I’d been regularly going to the gym for about a decade, I thought I was fit, but oh my god that first practice kicked my ass. And that was it really. At the end of the session, we did savasana, and I'd never done anything like that in my life. I came out of savasana and I was in a different world, something had happened in my brain or in my being. I knew: this is the thing. This method is what I've been looking for. The timing was incredible.
Afterwards, I said to the teacher: it might kill me but I'd like to pursue this. How do I continue? She said: you come every morning. And I was like, really, are you serious? Every day? But that's so difficult. What about one's social life? She said: I haven't really got one. And I said: I feel like practice would be hard even after a large evening meal or a couple of beers. She said: I don’t eat in the evenings or drink. And I thought: This is crazy, but I said: ok, see you tomorrow.
By spring 2002, I was going there daily. There was no turning back.
When did you first think of going to Mysore?
Meanwhile, we’d started shutting down the business. I realised that my whole adult life up to that point was about the music business; my whole ego was bound up in it, my whole identity was about being in the music business and the "status" I'd achieved running my own business, in this anarchistic way, doing whatever I damn pleased. And that it was now all being taken away from me.
But I realised that in fact, I didn't want the business, I didn't want to be a businessman, I just wanted to follow ashtanga. Even though I'd only been practicing six months, I knew that ashtanga was making me strong, and independent. Actually, I had been desperate to find something. I was a seeker. I had been thrilled by Ouspensky’s accounts of his years working with Gurdjieff and the extreme methods they used to become more conscious. And now with ashtanga it seemed that I had found my method. I had found something that works, and I knew it worked, because I was experiencing it in my body. For me it was very clear. Almost to the point where I can't understand when we have students who dabble. We get students who are in and out the class. I think: can you not see, that this is exactly what you need? Not just some, but all people. In my idea about the idealised normal human, everyone must do a strenuous, physical regime every morning. It's not just for some, for those who want to feel fit and healthy or whatever, it is essential for all human beings, it's our natural capacity. So I almost can't understand it when people are in and out. Life had been a struggle, with the business things were always going wrong, I'd put myself in an unnatural situation but as soon as I got rid of that and started to follow yoga, life became really easy. Opportunities started to present themselves. I literally walked out of the final creditors meeting, switched on my phone and I was immediately offered carpentry work, which I went on to spend the whole summer doing. I made more money doing that, than I’d made in years running my music business and I decide to go abroad.
Of all the cliches, I decided to buy an around the world ticket, and it will take in India, that was the first stop. I went to India in 2002. I went to Mysore. But I was totally unprepared. I got to Mysore and the shala wants a month out of you and I didn't have a month. So I couldn't attend. But I was practicing anyway. I practiced everywhere. I practiced in bathrooms and corridors, I would upend a bed, sweep the floor, do the practice. This horrible, grudging half primary — but already self-practice had become a reality for me. I would drop into classes, when I found them. In some places I would stay longer, like in Melbourne, I stayed a month, I loved Melbourne and that class with Greg. Then the following year, I went back to India to KPJAYI. In those days you didn't have to book. So taking my teacher's advice, I just showed up. And there was Guruji, like "Come come, you have the money? ok, yes come come." So then I'm practicing at KPJAYI.
How was that first experience?
It was disappointing, it was a circus, so it appeared to me at first. It was already at the big shala. It was the first or the second year of the big shala. Now I think of it, it was so quiet back then, there was hardly any waiting time, there was plenty of space between mats. It was pleasant compared to now. But it seemed to me then that there were a lot of people, and Sharath was already a fairly heavy-duty policeman. It was Guruji, Saraswati and Sharath, so you got a lot of help. Sometimes Manju would be there, sometimes Sharmilla. Obviously, those days are long gone.
Anyway, I was disappointed. Everybody told me the same thing that I would tell students now: don't have expectations because you'll be disappointed. Nevertheless, I had expectations. And they were something like: well, my teacher is really good, so his teacher must be really, really good. I get a lot of help from my teacher, so from his teacher I'm going to get a ton of help. And of course it is not like that. And even in those days you were more or less a number. The individual help is not really there. And I didn't like the hierarchy, I didn't like the snobbishness. I expected it to be much more lovey-dovey, more welcoming. But it was a fairly cold experience in many ways.
I remember that first year I went there was a situation that caused some kind of minor scandal among the students. People had their spots in the shala, especially students who were a bit more established, they definitely had their spots. There were students who really loved Guruji, and they want to be front row, close to him. So we get to the shala first thing one morning, and the whole front row, already has mats put down there. And clearly they’ve been there since the previous night. It was very unusual. People's noses were really bent out of shape. Not particularly me, actually I don’t think I really understood the significance at first, but anyway it didn't make for a nice vibe. People were wondering whose mats are they? Then these ladies I’d not seen before show up and the mats belong to them. Who are these people? Wait, this is some kind of special treatment? Wait, what? Like I said, it caused a minor scandal. Afterwards, I was told they were wealthy American friends of Guruji and Sharath, and that when they come over they're treated like Royalty, they can have whatever they want. It sort of confirmed some of my worst fears in a way about what was happening there.
I didn't know how to feel about it, and what to do about it. I had already written to my teacher, with a number of complaints. Prior to his answer, I went up Chamundi Hill to see the Swami. So I turn up and I tell him about how I feel, and I complain about the special treatment these ladies are getting, and all that. He listens to me, and he asks me: For what reason have you come to Mysore? And I told him that I had come to practice yoga. And he said: so practice, and that is all. And I was like, oh yeah; who cares about those ladies? What do I care? That put things in perspective. As did the reply from my teacher to my various complaints, which were kinda -- I'm not learning anything, nobody is teaching me anything -- and he wrote back and said 'I bet if you reflect on where you are now compared to a few months ago, haven't you learned? haven't you improved?' and again I was like: oh yeah. Call it osmosis, call it whatever you like, it is coming.
So at some point on that first trip, I am like: this is great, it’s great here actually. And I start to understand that the daily practice is MY practice, it is not the teacher's practice, I don't need the teacher, the teacher is helping to facilitate my improvement, but it is MY practice, which was a great thing to learn. Also that is my privilege to be practicing here with these people, and they may not give much instruction as such, but if I was doing something radically wrong then they wouldn't allow it, so therefore I am doing ok. And then I start to get some kind of a relationship with them. Sharath and I got to know each other. He knew me by the end of the first few months. But I came along too late in the day to have any kind of relationship with Guruji. He didn’t know me from Adam. I remember going into Guruji’s office to pay the fees for the next month. I had been practicing with him for maybe 6 months that year, and I say, Hi Guruji, I’m here to pay. And he says to me, OK good. New student? He was already quite old, not quite with it, in some ways. But in the yoga he was still sharp; his teaching, his led class, his adjustments were great. He was great, and I didn't fully really realise his greatness until after he was gone. Just the fact he was there, even if he apparently wasn't doing much, was very valuable and in fact he was doing a lot. Sometimes he would fall asleep in class for a bit. But it didn't matter. Because just being in the room, he was such a presence, and an influence. He was one of the architects of what we were practicing, and he was the embodiment of the teaching, he'd been teaching it 70 years, and you felt that, he was owed a lot. It was due to him. So just the fact he was there was enough. And it was amazing what he could do-- he could adjust people and teach us for hours. Hours and hours and hours, and then he'd go to Lakshmipuram and teach the Indian students. And sometimes I think he'd even teach the evening classes as well. It was incredible. It seemed effortless for him.
So you kept going back?
Yes. For a while, I would be in Asia for a few months, inevitably at KPJ, and then in addition I began to find other teachers, like Ralph, and then Kirsten and Mitchell in Thailand. I would do a rough circuit taking in Thailand, Goa, those kind of places and teachers, and then as money begins to get a bit thin I'd go back to England. By that point I’m a professional carpenter. So then I do carpentry work for three to six months, make a bunch of money, then by the time it is getting cold in England I'd come back to Asia. And I thought that was going to be my lot in life. I was very, very happy about that actually.
And then of course, you get offered a teaching job. Honestly, I was nothing special. I was maybe four or five poses into second. This student from China that I had been hanging out with in Mysore seemed to think I was good enough to teach. She said she'd be opening her shala in Beijing soon and I should come to teach. I said, yeah, sure, never imagining it would actually happen. I'm back in London and she starts sending emails saying that it was happening, and wanted confirmation when I was coming. I was like: jeez I'm just a nobody, I've never taught, I've assisted my teacher, but still. So then I'm in Beijing teaching classes. I didn't like the situation much. Tough city, she was a tough woman, she wasn't quite what she'd presented herself as. The situation was not as she had described it to me and in the end we fell out. So from there I went to teach in Bangkok and the rest is history. I had no intention to be a teacher, really. I know it is what everybody says. But I really didn't. I'm adequate, but nothing special really. Now I see that that is how everybody feels, or should feel. Everybody is just winging it really, if we're honest.
Let me circle back to the Swami at Chamundi Hill. Can you share with the readers who the Swami is? His advice seemed clear and profound. Did you find that transformative to your overall experience in Mysore beyond the issue you referred to? Did that affect other areas of your life?
He’s a cool old dude who lives in a cave beside the giant Nandi statue, on Chamundi Hill. Chamundi Hill is a Holy Mountain that overlooks Mysore. Hindu’s come from the city and from all over India on Pilgrimage to Chamundi Hill. It is a popular pilgrimage to walk up the 1000 steps roughly hewn out of the rock. I’ve done that walk many times myself in the early morning on yoga days off. You see all kinds of weird and wonderful types making the journey. From the devout literally on hands and knees, daubing each step with red powder, to fitness freaks sprinting up and down.
Anyway, the guy is a Siva Swami. He’s been living there in his cave for many years. Prior to that he was living in the Himalayas, and before that he was a teacher, if memory serves. He’s very knowledgable and very funny. The first time I went to see him I was astonished that he lived in this tiny, simple cave. I couldn't believe it and the first thing I asked him was, “Is this your permanent home; is this where you live all the time?”, and he had me laughing straight away when he answered, “Yeah, 24/7”. I haven't seen him for many years, but back then I would hang out with him at the cave quite a bit and we would talk about philosophy and this and that. Whilst I was hanging with him, Indians would come and go. They never stayed for long, just come in and bow, receive darshan and a pat on the head from the Swamaji and then split. I asked him what it was all about, and why they didn't want to partake in his wisdom. I was surprised to hear from him that he was quite cynical about the process and seemed to find it rather meaningless, except in terms of the apparent comfort the visitors may take from it.
Yes, his words were transformative for me. He made me realise that actually I really was not concerned about the issue at all, I had just hyped myself up unnecessarily, based on more or less just gossip, and he made me realise that is a behaviour that I can be often drawn into. I have the capacity to take things way out of proportion, like a lot of us over-complicated types do. Living in a simple way, really helps you see through the BS and keep things real. So he was the right person to seek advice from, and he basically pointed out to me that fact that I was allowing myself to be agitated by an absurd first world problem. There is a big emotional circus going on within the scene in Mysore - the various criticisms of Sharath and the KPJ system, envy's, gossips, scandals, who’s shagging who. And it’s easy to get dragged down into that dirt. When in fact, as the Swami pointed out, we are actually there to practice yoga, and that is all. Like a lot of the people who have been going to Mysore for many years, I tend to avoid the scene as much as possible. I rarely go to the popular Gokulam breakfast spots for example. I make an exception for Sandyha of course. I probably eat lunch at her place, near the old shala more than I eat anywhere else in Mysore. She is a lovely lady, and her food is simply outstanding.
Incidentally, when I did go back to see Swamaji a few years ago, he had a really quite well appointed additional cave. The cave even had cable TV. “Just to watch the cricket”, he assured me. And in recent times, I was surprised to find him on Facebook.
How did the teaching affect your practice?
Groucho Marx said: I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member. In my case I very rarely want to fully belong to anything. I like to keep a certain distance, a certain cynicism, a slightly on the sidelines view, rather than being a fully paid up member. So I would never say that Pattabhi Jois was my guru, people would queue up to kiss his feet, and I found that dodgy. I joined that queue once to see what it was like to do that. But this worship thing, I was never into it. And even though I was practicing daily, I didn’t idealise myself as a serious practitioner, or an advanced practitioner, or a teacher, I was just another guy, and this was just one of the things I do, and I don’t want to be taken seriously, even though I take it very seriously and I'm very dedicated to the practice.
So how did the teaching affect my practice? It wasn't until I began to take myself as a teacher a bit more seriously, that I began to also take my own practice a bit more seriously in a certain way. I began to think: I need to go back to the texts, and read them again, and study them, I need to pay a bit more attention to how I practice, I need to listen to my own teachers a bit more. It made me look at things, like why it is I find certain aspects of the practice so difficult. For whatever reason, certain things weren’t getting easier. Why I was injuring myself. Certain postures were still so very far away from me. So why is that? That needs to be looked at. And that's a process that continues to this day.
And teaching made me want to take some trainings. I love it when, I go to a really good training, like the Richard Freeman thing last year, and I get very specific, very precise information on the dynamics of certain postures and movements. Another instance, was Chuck Miller's workshop. He's the one who first taught me to change emphasis in Upward facing dog; lifting the chest, keeping the face vertical rather than cranking back the neck and facing the ceiling, from him I learned the importance of nasgri dristi in Upward facing dog.
To me the real understanding is not about new postures anymore, it is about learning to do the basics more precisely. I doubt I'm going to achieve many more postures at this point in time. But becoming better at understanding the basics and better at passing on that understanding, that is what is important to me. So we can all practice safely. Which is the same thing that the old school guys – Chuck Miller, Richard Freeman etc -- have been saying for some time. If you look back at the six Americans video, some of them are doing that bendy, wavey vinyasa thing, and cranking their heads back and now they’ve changed their minds. Now we hear them saying don't do that, be very careful with alignment, you can wreck your shoulders, you can wreck your neck. I feel the same way. If I can express the basics to people, so that they can practice the basics safely, then there is a very good possibility when they approach the more advanced stuff that they can do that safely too. Whereas if you are grounded wrongly, as I was, you'll wreck yourself in these advanced poses, which is what I did.
Either I was too pig headed to get the proper message from my original teachers or they never told me. I do remember them saying: if you continue to power through like that, you'll hurt yourself. But I thought I was as tough as old boots. Then I hurt this knee, then the other.. I myself get tired of repeating the same thing to the same students every day: will you breath please, will you stop doing that… every day. You know at some point, the words just don't come out of me any more. So eventually you stop and that person will hopefully learn the lesson for themselves; the practice will teach them.
When I first assisted Sharath at KPJ, I was running around trying to do everything, and he said to me: don't be so helpful, don’t adjust so much, and never demonstrate anything. He said let them figure out how to do it. He doesn’t want them to be shown how to do it. And if someone can basically get into the pose, don’t help them get into it deeper. If they cannot get into it, that's when you help. I did what he said there. And that kinda works in that situation when you’re in Mysore. But I don’t really apply that in my teaching here. I probably wouldn't have many students if I did that in Hong Kong. It’s a different situation in Mysore, people are there with a different attitude, they naturally want to work hard, whereas in this sort of environment, we have to force people to work hard, they have to feel like somehow the teacher is forcing them to work hard, or they're not going to show up.
And of course, teaching can have a negative impact on your practice. Insofar as you may get so tired and fed up with teaching so much damn yoga, you just don’t feel like practicing. I almost never skip my practice, but I find that excessive teaching holds me back from making maximum effort in my practice. I know that inside me is the possibility of a “better” practice, but I can rarely access that, when I’m doing all this teaching.
How is it to teach a Mysore program in a high-pressure environment like corporate Hong Kong?
Personally, I'd rather be living by the beach. But in a place like this, Mysore-style can be very helpful. As it is, it is doing well, because people are quite desperate here. To understand how unhealthy we are, we have to think about how far away we are from a truly natural existence, in harmony with a natural environment. In Hong Kong, we could hardly be further away. Hong Kong is the epitome of a concrete jungle. Most people spend the majority of their lives here in air conditioning, in an environment of plastic and chemicals, everything is artificial. Even our yoga has to be done in what is effectively a sealed air conditioned environment.
People who are forced to live in this environment, working in the business world, whether we know it or not we are craving for something natural. Some method is needed to get away from this virtual existence. So then to get into the yoga room and you are getting in touch with your body, breathing, sweating, working your ass off and trying to manipulate yourself into these strange poses, and you have someone yelling straight leg at you. To me this is very valuable, I think it is worth a lot. In this Hong Kong situation I think Mysore is really, really needed. And it is popular here because enough people recognise that this is exactly what they were needing.
Can people come at the practice in the wrong way?
Some may come initially, for the “wrong reason”. With some of the young people who show up, they're there because they're heartbroken, split up with their boyfriend or lost their job, or hate their job, desperate in some way. And some of those are smart enough to recognise that an ashtanga practice is what is going to help. Why else would they come? They could have an extra two hours in bed. So some people realise that this is what's needed. The antidote to all the poison.
Another thing here you see a lot is the over-ambitious type, that kind of go-getter ego thing, especially in the early days. I want the next pose, I want to start Intermediate. The envy between students; which series are you practicing? I've fallen out with students because I won't let them move on. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes I overlook things. But mostly that doesn't happen — normally if someone is stopping at Marichyasana d there is a reason. And to go much further would be pointless and perhaps dangerous.
When you look at Guruji's or now Sharath's Indian students, there is so much more ease about them, they're floppy easy practices, wearing full saris, they barely sweat. I think guruji must have been shocked in the 1970s when he had the likes of David Williams showing up, these fit and eager young men. I don’t think he'd experienced that level of enthusiasm before. That's something westerners have brought to it for sure with our ambition-led minds.
Either way, I suppose in order to change and transform there are always going to be some kind of difficulties, you know; growing pains. Every kind of growth brings pain. Years ago, in conference in Mysore once a guy asked Pattabhi Jois: Guruji, yesterday, you gave me a new posture and today I have so much pain in my body. It seems like every time you give me a new posture, there is new pain. So my question is: will there always be pain? And with a smirk Guruji said “oh yes, always there will be pain!” It's just a fact.
Of course, with pain there’s also a “wrong way’. One has to distinguish between a destructive pain - a sharp pain in the joint, and transformative aches and pains of muscles, changing their shape, changing their pliability, or whatever. You know the theory of exercise, that we're basically creating micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which then heal in a different way, and that's how we change. In ashtanga that’s pushed quite far, but it’s still a very controlled way of doing it working with the same postures everyday.
It’s not like rocking up to a random led class where, according to the teacher's will that day, according to how lazy or how supple they're feeling or how much they feel like demoing, they throw a bunch of postures at you. The same sequence every day is a much better system. You know very well what's coming. You know how it's likely to feel. You can chart your progress. You know just how far you can push yourself. I'm afraid of joining these random led classes now as I don't know what the teacher's gonna do. I'm afraid that in such a situation, I might hurt myself. I want to keep this measure of control that we have Mysore style. I'll push the envelope to the extent I think it is sensible. With ashtanga there's a feeling of achieving some kind of excellence in the body that we never imagined we could have. I find it fun, to be able to do these things that I never imagined I could do, or that I could be in this condition and maintain it. And it seems to me that to stay youthful, we have to stay supple and strong and we need to have a system for that. And the system has to be bloody difficult but it also needs to be an intelligent sensible system. Again, ashtanga will do it. There may be other systems. But this one is good enough for me.
It has to be really, really difficult or it won't change you. Staying within comfortable confines, it's not going to really work. But you get to the point that you're 50 years old, then you have to ease down your expectations. Like I say: how many more poses are going to come to me? Probably none. And I'm alright with that. Now I'm more interested in maintaining this level of health and wellbeing. So one's practice kind of evolves with time.
Actually I never had a peak period. People talk about when they were practicing in their 20s -- well, I didn't start until I was in my 30s and I was a total mess. I was stiff, then I injured myself for years, and then finally around eight years ago I guess, I began to get a little bit comfortable with the practice, I began to plateau. Now I can basically do most things quite well. I can say now that second series is enjoyable and most of the asanas I practice, I can do quite well. And that's about as good as it's going to be for me. So I figured it out in the end. That is mostly what happens I think; however they started, those who stick around figure it out in the end.
You mentioned your feelings around the idea of surrender/guru worship — have they changed over time as you go deeper into the practice?
The only thing that really changed is that there is no longer repugnance for other people’s worship. But for my personal feeling, I am never going to do that. I'm not looking for a master or a guru or anything like that. I feel a lot of people are trying to fill some kind of void by taking on a guru. I called Pattabhi Jois "Guruji" because everyone called him that but I don't necessarily attach any kind of worship to that or special or holy status. That's for other people to do if they want. To me almost the antithesis of self-realisation is putting someone else on a pedestal and expecting them to basically save you. You're back to square one of religion and faith, and I'm not that sort of a person at all. I think the work has to be done ourselves, and all that Sharath is, and all that Guruji was, is someone who can help show the way. I never felt like worshiping anyone, especially Pattabhi Jois or Sharath. That's not what it's about for me. They're facilitators. It is for other people to worship if they want. For me there has been no shift, other than I am no longer freaked out by it. I see it going on, I even joke about it with some of my pals. They're calling Sharath "Guruji" now, to me that seems very weird, but they can do that if they like.
People say you've got to have faith. I have faith in the practice, because it's working. But actually, that's not faith -- that's practical. Faith is: I hope it works. Practical is: it is working. And I'm practical. In the understanding of blind faith in the practice, I don't really go for it. And I wouldn't expect anyone else to; I would want someone to come to class and try it out for a few days at least. As a teacher one should put the effort in for the new student, then that person has an experience, on which they can make a decision based on how they feel. I don't think you can require faith from anyone, especially a new student. I'm not a religious person. I don't believe in anything, until I've experienced it. And so, the answer to that question is: nothing's changed, I'm just as cynical as ever.
How did you become a vegan and how does that fit into your practice?
It's been an organic process. Stopping eating animals was a moral decision rather than a health decision. I went to an abattoir in the early 90s by accident actually, and I never got over it. Prior to that I already knew I was a hypocrite. I knew very well. But to actually be in the abattoir and see all these animals strung upside down, their heads swelling with blood. I just couldn’t bear it. There was no way I could participate in that any longer. So it was ahimsa, before I knew the word.
When I decided to run the London marathon for the first time, I realised for the training period, I’d have to quit drinking, drugs, late nights, and I’d have to eat properly. I thought it would be boring to be like that, but at least it would only be for a few months, I thought. Of course, what happened is that it wasn't boring at all, it was fantastic to be sober. I could become reliable. I could commit to something. I could turn up at my parents on a Sunday without stinking of booze. I started to feel really good, I ran the marathon, and I never went back to the old habits. That was before yoga, and it’s why I was able to make such a quick transition to ashtanga as I was already in the habit of getting up really early, doing a lot of exercise, being sober. I was already acting like a yogi, including trying to live an ethical life. I was already halfway there when I swopped up going to the gym and running, for the practice. It wasn't that much of a change.
The practice doesn’t require one to be vegan of course. Pattabhi Jois loved ghee. Every Ayurvedic doctor I have ever seen says that for my particular constitution, I must have milk, and ghee. I’d dabbled with being vegan for a while, but then I’d have the occasional egg or a cheese sandwich or whatever. This is not really being a vegan. Then I was dating this girl who was a raw vegan and she was enjoying such an extraordinarily high level of health. I was jealous of the condition she was in! It’s not easy being raw vegan, I tried for three months. It doesn't suit me. But after my raw period, I stayed vegan, I never went back to the dairy and eggs. I always knew it wasn't healthy and that it wasn't right how the cows are treated, or the chickens, the factory farming and so on. I’m glad that's another hypocrisy that's gone. I'm so grateful to have made that decision, I'm so happy with it.
With your background in music, do you ever listen to music when you practice?
Never. Some things don't work so well together. Music is such a big thing in my life. When there is music that I like I'm fully engaged with it. Either I'm fully listening or I'm moving to it, or it is in some way informing me. So if it is on while I am practicing it will permeate my practice, it will change me, it will drive me. For my self practice, I don't want any distraction like that. There's already enough in my mind that is trying to draw me away from the practice, the ideas like; it's enough Nigel, there's so many things you need to do, quit now, plus you're really tired, next pose is your last pose, let's quit now. All of this is going on all the time. So then to have music as yet another thing to draw me away from that kind of quiet I am trying to stay with when I practice, I don't think it works.
How do you think a seated meditation practice fits into ashtanga?
Meditation and ashtanga, they’re two different things. Though ashtanga can put us in a better condition so that we can better approach meditation. Actually, I love to see the students sit there quietly before or after their practices, I think it’s amazing. Just prior to the practice with that anticipation of the practice or just after, that is a very special time. Whether they’re sitting there dreaming, thinking about mediation, or actually meditating, I don’t know. But even the act of trying to just sit still is very very difficult, and it’s laudable to try that.
A lot of people like to talk about meditation, and many people claim that they like to practice meditation, but are they actually meditating? Even people who are sitting there, appearing to meditate, are often not meditating, they are lost in a daydream, or thinking about meditation, which is not meditation. I know because I also do that.
Funnily enough, my meditation practice had fallen down to almost nothing. Last year, I had more or less stopped meditating. There’s something about Hong Kong — since I came here my meditation has fallen off. For 10 or 15 years I was really consistent, at least once a day if not twice a day. It was extremely helpful to me. Whereas not meditating regularly, I saw a lot of my ugly, unpleasant tendencies; things I don’t like about myself had returned somewhat. I think meditation lessened them — my irritable temper and things like that.
Of course trying to be still mentally can be very useful. I have really looked into the difficulties of trying to still the mind and meditate, in my own practice. Having been through that barrier and having been able to achieve in the right circumstances, a pretty deep meditative state, I know what the difference is. Trying to still the mind is an amazing thing and it is very useful in itself, but the mind actually being still is another story. For me, it is something that can only happen in special circumstances. Only a very special person could do that in their normal daily life.
Ashtanga and tristana is brilliant but it’s not meditation; it’s a concentrated moving activity, but that’s not meditation, according to my definition. Meditation is stillness, in body and mind. When one learns how to sit extremely still, it's possible to notice these little movements. I begin to notice for example, that I’m constantly, minutely swaying. But once all the movement stops, and the breath can become very soft, eventually becoming just this tiny whisper in the nostrils, then the mind can really begin to calm down, and then there is the possibility of real meditation.
Have you ever been stuck on a pose?
I have the mother of all stories about that, I think. In 2004 or thereabouts, Sharath started giving me poses from second. The previous year he'd got me standing up from drop backs. So then he gave me a few poses in second, up to Kapotasana. At that time, my practice was pretty crappy really, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was pretty stiff and my practice was very basic, let’s say. My second series poses, anything that involved backbends were rather hopeless really. But anyway, I kept trying to do the poses of course. So for a few years, I didn't expect to be given anything else, because I was just not good at those asanas, in particular my Kapotasana. But then after a few years, they were no longer that bad, and I'm waiting for him to say, Nigel you do Supta Vajrasana. But that moment just never came. And for seven years I stopped at Kapotasana. For the first few years I didn't mind. But then we get to, 2008 or 2009, and as I said, my Kapotasana is kind of alright now. But still the next pose just doesn't come. The form is, of course, you don't ask him for an asana. So I just waited. But it was getting a bit frustrating that my contemporaries are getting more poses, and I'm not. One year, maybe 2010, after he helped me in my kapo, I asked him: am I ready for the next one? And he said: next time. He was holding me there for sure. And then the next year came, and at some point I asked him again. And again he said: next time. I thought, my God Sharath really doesn’t like my practice!
Sharath would help me in Kapotasana almost without fail every day. It was the time before there were assistants. It sort of became our little arrangement that I would get to Kapo and I would do it myself, repeat it several times, until he showed up to crank me into it fully. So I am doing it five times, seven times, sometimes more, sweating profusely, shaking. It was questionable as to whether it was improving over those repetitions. Then he would come along and put me into it - I can't remember with what degree or frequency of success.
And tied in with this story, is how I got Authorised. It was funny; one time he was standing over me after his Kapotasana adjustment. I come out of the pose a mess, pouring sweat. And he looked down at me with a cross face and says: "you come to my office, after your practice." Oh my God, what have I done? I thought, surely my Kapotasana isn’t that bad?! What had happened after Guruji first passed away, to my knowledge anyway, it seemed to be that people weren’t getting Authorised anymore. Maybe it was out of some sort of deference to Guruji. But that season (2008/09) I became aware that some of my contemporaries were getting Authorised. Some of them had filled out the form to be considered for Authorisation -- I'd also filled it out. So anyway, after the seemingly angry summons to his office, he goes away, leaving me quaking from the adjustment. Then suddenly I think: oh, wait…could it be? I sprinted through the rest of my practice, super quick backbends, 30 second Savasana, then straight to his office. I suppose, if I'm honest, I was fairly confident it would be about Authorisation -- he can't be wanting to give me a bollocking about my rubbish Kapotasana! But I didn't really know for sure. So I'm standing outside his office feeling like a naughty schoolboy. His door was open, and I see that he's writing on a tiny piece of paper. But he didn't seem to notice me. So, I coughed, hoping to get his attention. Then, without looking up, he just thrusts his arm out with this little piece of paper in his hand, and I take it and read it and it says: Rangaswamy Sharath, the name of his bank, the address plus an account number and some astronomical figure of Rupees. "You've Authorised me!" I blurt out. "Just pay the money, and bring me the receipt," he says. And I'm stammering something like: "oh wow, I don’t know what to say, I’m so grateful, thanks very much..." He kept this stern face at first, and then after enjoying my obvious confusion and astonishment a big grin came over his face. I admire it in a way, there was no well done, Nigel, you’ve worked hard, you deserve it etc. It was just pay the money, get on with it, no fuss.
So Authorisation came to me during my stuck in Kapotasana phase. And it sort of gave me a confidence that he's gonna take me out of this stupid phase very soon and I'm gonna be flying through the complete Intermediate. Anyway, so I've been Authorised -- then I come back the next year but it's the same Kapotasana deal. So now we're up to 2012 season I think it was, seven years have passed stuck in Kapotasana. Whereas a lot of my contemporaries have moved ahead, finished Intermediate, started Third maybe. Even, and this is the real irony and a terrible situation, a girl that I had taken to Mysore with me, she'd never been before. She was my student. She had only just finished Primary with me. She was struggling to get through Primary actually; she wasn't proficient at many of the asanas in primary. And yet almost immediately Sharath started throwing intermediate postures at her. One after the other. It was a total surprise to me and to her. It was so surprising, when he said to her: you do Pasasana. She said: I don't know what that is! And he said, do Pasasana! and so she kinda remembered seeing me do it in our practices together, so she did a very rough approximation of it. Then he said: Good, now do Krounchasana! And she was like I don't know what that is! And it went on like that. And in the end, she’s at Kapotasana and way beyond -- on her first trip -- it was like every week, two, three new asanas. Then he tells her to join Led Intermediate. And because he kept chucking more asanas at her, I started showing her the next poses at home, so she knows what to do when he inevitably asks her to do the next asana. So it was a really weird situation. I don’t remember who it was, maybe she, or some other friend, told me to go and ask Sharath about why I’m stuck at kapo for so long. Because I was really getting kind of mad about it. Seven years is enough to try anyone's patience. So there I am standing outside his office again. Really nervous this time, because you know, this might not go well; you're not supposed to do this. I go in, I sit down and I say to him something like: Sharath, you've had me at Kapotasana for seven years now. I know, he says. Then it was something like: so is my practice really bad? And he said no, it's quite good now. I said, How come I see all these new people coming, and their practice seems to be much worse than mine but they're moving ahead of me… I don't remember exactly the words, but that was the essence of it. And he says to me, I want you to be perfect in asana. But okay, you take the next five asanas. I was almost disappointed. “Take the next five”; it seemed so arbitrary. Couldn't he have given asanas to me in increments? And, why did I have to ask? And what if I hadn't come to ask? Would another year have gone past… Sometimes I like to tell that story to students who pester me for a new pose because they haven’t had one for a month or two!
Is it some kind of mind game, holding people at one asana?
I don’t think so, not anymore anyway. I think when there were fewer students they had a much more personal relationship with everyone, maybe then there were some interesting things going on. Now there are personal relationships with some people, but there are just too many of us to connect in such a way with everyone. He can't possibly keep such a comprehensive tab on everybody who's coming into practice. Anyway, I think with somebody like me, I'm not high profile but I've been going a long time. London 2002 is the first time I ever practiced with him. So he knows me, he knows my practice. He knows the difficulties and the struggles that I've had and so on. So that's not really the issue. But there is an idea, and a number of people I think would agree with me, that some people do become part of the furniture, and are not really noticed anymore. There are these, some of the new, younger, very fit young people who come, and I suppose he's sees a lot more possibility in their practice, he sees a lot more potential. So the potential of my practice – well, you get to a certain point and you know not a lot more is going to come your way, in terms of more asanas. Personally, I don’t mind, it's just a fact of life. Whereas if you get someone who's 25 years old, very athletic, busting through Intermediate Series no problem. I suppose the thinking is that that's a person who's really worth putting a lot of effort and energy into because they could go very far with the practice. I can sort of understand it. So where does that leave the rest of us? A number of us think that people with a fairly mediocre practice like me are kind of left a bit high and dry. I think maybe if you’ve been going for so long, and your practice is nothing special, maybe you just kind of melt into the background in a way. And I think that's what happened with me. I don't think he was playing mind games with me. I think maybe I should have put my hand up earlier. Perhaps it's like that? It took going into his office for him to wake up to me and say oh yeah, that Nigel guy, he’s doing ok. Take the next five. Well, anyway, at least that broke the cycle I was in.
The same thing can happen in my class actually. Sometimes, like maybe he does, I overlook people. A student came to me a few weeks ago. He had been practicing quite consistently for a couple of years. Achieved his drop back/stand up a couple of months ago. But it just didn't occur to me to start him on Second. It may be my failing. I didn't think of it until he asked me last week. We're never as strict as they are in Mysore. But we do try and be as orthodox as we can. On the other hand, I have another student who comes to class, doesn't make it very regularly, does a very rudimentary Half Primary, with a lot of modifications. And yet hardly a week goes past where she doesn't try to add something, or ask for more poses.
I've had fall-outs with students over it. Four years ago, a student wrote to me, and asked me if she could have Karandavasana. She'd been struggling with Pinchamarayasana for quite some months in my class, and she he was completely unable to hold Pincha. So how is she supposed to do Karanda if she can't even hold the basic pose with any stability whatsoever? So I tried to explain to her -- but I could see the tears welling up. She was saying: but the other girl… you gave her Karandavasana last week, and.. and it’s not fair… Then she bolted out the room. I didn't see her for at least a year. Eventually she came back to the class. I was surprised, I didn't think I'd see her again -- incidentally, when she returned she was still struggling with Pincha.
I don’t think it’s mind games -- you would think that after all those years he (Sharath) would have forgiven Nigel for his shoddy Kapo -- this man with his weird thin lanky body, who is never going to be able to do it really well, it's never going to be easy, or beautiful, is never going to be perfect in asana. So, can we just move on?
I just don't know, nobody knows how it works, how he makes his decision regarding these kinds of thing. I think Manju and most other teachers are more forgiving. They apply the same philosophy that I would apply -- when somebody has been struggling with something for six months or a year, then let's move on. As long as the student seems to be consistently trying, then why not give them something new to do. One of my students can't drop back and stand up, but I've started her on intermediate. I don't do that lightly. She's been working really hard for a long time, drop back and stand up is just not going to come, maybe ever. So let's just go for it. That's the way I try and teach: as orthodox as I can be, but with generosity -- the same generosity that I've been given by western teachers. Sharath knows very well that people are practicing way beyond what he has allowed them. He knows. When he just says to do the next asana, he knows full well that we already are practicing it.
What about people doing extra stretching in class?
I posted a video I made a couple of years ago of Tim Miller talking about what he calls "Researching". In the video he tells the story of how Guruji was a lot more generous with him than with some of the others. Tim always had some difficulty with the backbends. And he was talking about a very challenging backbend, in Fourth I think, I don’t even know it’s name. So what he would do is just prior to that posture, he would always choose that moment to apparently go to the bathroom. He wasn't really going to the bathroom. It was in the old shala, and he would go upstairs where there is a half wall, and he would drape himself over the half wall for five minutes to try and open his back up, to prepare for this incredible difficulty. But one day Guruji comes upstairs and sees Tim doing this. And Guruji says to him: “Researching?” So sweet. So Tim calls stretching or preparatory stuff research poses. And Tim’s philosophy is I think: the researching shouldn’t disturb the flow of the practice too much. It mustn’t be so over the top that it takes you right out of your practice zone. That’s the difficulty. Sometimes I find I cause that — I sit down to explain to a student about some aspect, then I realise that five minutes has gone past and I’m thinking oh my God I just destroyed your flow, you’ve stopped sweating, it’s going to be a real struggle to get back into it now. Anyway, I think a little prep, carefully chosen, can be very helpful, but the excessive routines and stretching really can cause that disturbance.
Another thing is, sometimes what was useful or seemed necessary once, may not necessary now. People forget. They find a little thing and they do it again, and again, and then it becomes an inseparable part of their practice and they’ve forgotten that it isn’t actually the practice, and moreover have failed to notice that the prep isn’t needed anymore. That happens quite a lot actually. I call it, failing to notice that the paradigm has shifted.
What about splitting the practice, like doing half primary then some intermediate?
Yes, there’s a logic to that. It’s to save energy, and time. Sharath doesn’t want us to do too much. And he think’s it's too much to do all of Primary and a big chunk of Intermediate. You get to the point where you’re up to around Titthibasana, and it’s maybe becoming too much. The practice is taking two, two and a half hours. Sharath is sometimes asked, why don’t we do Full Vinyasa anymore? He says no — it’s too much. He even says it’s bad for the heart to do that much. I sort of agree with him. People can manage to stretch their practice out to two and a half, three hours. They’re doing, let’s say one and three quarters series, plus a load of backbend stuff. You can turn that into three hours if you want. Come to think of it I've got a couple of students that come in at 6am and they’re pretty much going until 9am.
Sharath is also absolutely opposed to extra strength drills, flexibility drills. Several times I’ve heard him say no to swimming, cycling, excessive walking. No hiking, no martial arts. When Sharath was in Hong Kong once, we were crossing the Wanchai bridge together and we walked past a gym. We’d stopped to chat. I said to him that I have this situation where students are doing a variety of different things, various different types of yoga — they practice ashtanga then a strenuous vinyasa class in the afternoon, then they’ll go to the gym. Sharath said: no no no no. We’re looking at these people in the gym doing all their exercises, and he's saying: no no no, absolutely no.
I picked him up at the conference centre on another occasion, for the Asia Yoga Conference, and we were coming into town. I steer us towards some steps that lead to the MTR (Hong Kong’s subway) and he says: "no no let’s go over there, there’s an escalator. I’m not walking up any steps, its bad for the practice." He didn’t want to walk up stairs! Bad for the practice. He doesn’t want to do anything that’s going to stiffen him up, apparently.
Exercise physiologists might say it’s good to mix things up?
The argument’s been raging and raging. Yes people will say — the trouble with ashtanga is that it's the same thing every day, that can’t be right. It will cause repetitive strain injury, we need to do a variety of strong physical activities etc. Personally, I believe in the ashtanga yoga method. Ashtanga yoga is a method designed to balance strength and flexibility. There’s this sutra Guruji quoted — oh yogi, don’t do asana without vinyasa, right? So if we're going to take that information literally, if you do a bunch of yin yoga style stretching, you are gaining flexibility without balancing it with the strength gains, so you are therefore sending yourself out of balance. You haven’t balanced the flexibility you have gained with any kind of strength gain.
Yin practitioners would argue the practice balances the constant tensions and stress of normal life?
Sharath wouldn’t see it that way, I think. I guess he tries to organise his life so he doesn’t cause unnecessary physical stress to himself. I suppose he hopes his students can do likewise. As I said, I think in the moment, in the practice itself, the gains ought to be made in the context of balance. So the flexibility gains should come whilst we’re doing our vinyasa. So if you stretch yourself out for ten minutes before your practice, what is gained is maybe not to be trusted. That’s what I think he’s talking about. And I can see his point. However, a teacher I know who suffers in the way that I do, insofar as flexibility doesn’t come easy to him, told me that in the end Sharath said to him, ok you do some stretching in the afternoon. So he makes exceptions. But I think as a general rule, it is better to just trust the practice. I would prescribe it differently for different people. People who come to see me and they’re very, very stiff, I might also suggest some yin classes or whatever. But it is a very different philosophy. Ashtanga and Yin may be complementary but they are very different. Having said all that, I did yin for about five years very regularly — it was like a miracle to find that, a short cut to flexibility. And I used it, and I feel it helped me get somewhere. I’m still not really flexible, and I know that I would still “benefit” from yin practice -- but in recent years I am just no longer greedy enough about my practice or “results” to care about becoming flexible, or whatever. I know I could do certain postures more fully maybe, but I just don’t mind anymore, I don’t feel there is anything really worthwhile to gain in that.
There are those people that approach the practice, from the “gains” aspect -- the gains being getting new poses, getting much much deeper into the poses. It’s kind of an aggressive desire for flexibility. Krishnamurti said that not accepting fully where one is and desiring change, is violence. There are some students at Pure (the studio in Hong Kong) — who are there at the studio almost all day -- they take multiple classes every day, plus between classes, they do their own crazy personal stretching routines. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum from me. I would rather just take my chances with the practice, once per day.
We can sort of understand these people though. Think of the average Hong Kong office worker, living what they may feel is a pretty humdrum life. After they finished education all they’ve done since is work in an office in a very square environment, doing a job they are not interested in. And they never had the time for indulgences, for lengthy breaks, for deep exploration. And then suddenly they find yoga and it starts to open them up, and challenge the way they think and feel. So it’s brought such a massive change to their lives, they want to throw everything they have into the yoga, albeit just the asana aspect.
Nigel, on a personal note, you have recently found an interest in video editing?
Summer 2015, I invited a Buddhist monk from Thailand, Tan Dhammavidu, to come and lecture in Hong Kong. He is a very senior Buddhist monk who teaches meditation retreats in Koh Samui. Just prior to his coming I realised the talks had to be videotaped. I asked a professional video maker friend of mine and he agreed to help me film them. But, he said, the editing was gonna be up to me. I ended up with hours and hours of footage. It was to be a huge amount of work and totally new to me, but somehow I knew exactly what had to be done, practically and stylistically. I asked the friend to look at the videos I was creating, and he said they were professional quality. In the end I created about 10 videos from the talks, and they are all up on the Ashtanga Yoga Hong Kong YouTube channel.
It seemed that I just had an instinct for it. Suddenly, my life was different. I mastered every single remote corner of iMovie and then moved up to professional software. I’ve worked on a number of different film projects: yoga stuff, lectures, music and currently a series of short films about a recent trip to Palestine.
Then January '16 David Bowie died. I am a big Bowie fan. He was my number one musical hero when I was a kid. Back then, in the late 70’s, early 80s, when he was at his peak, he was making very high art, it wasn’t mere pop music. When he died it affected me deeply. I realised that he was like a father figure to me and I was quite devastated that he was gone. I was trying to come to terms with it, confused about my feelings, and in the midst of that I made a Bowie video, called "Right". After I’d finished it, I showed it to a couple of music friends, and they were impressed. I uploaded it to YouTube. And all this appreciation started coming in. Members of David Bowies’ band wrote to me saying how much they loved the video, could they put it on their site etc. That video will reach 200,000 views soon. After the first Bowie, I made another one. Again, it was really well received. And so I made another, and another. Soon all of these mega Bowie-fans started to come out of the woodwork, contacting me, and collectors started offering me rare footage to work with. I was sent me an unseen eight-minute silent reel from a mid-70's tour Bowie did, of which there is virtually no other footage. I knew immediately what I had to do. God did it take a long time. It took about 200 hours. I just sat there for like eight or twelve hours a day at the computer, trying to sync every little ten seconds of footage with the music, playing it forwards, backwards, slowing it down, making it loop, doing anything. I created a cool video from that silent footage and it’s now exceeded 150,000 views, I think. My YouTube channel, with my Bowie videos, has now had almost 2 million views. So I find myself in this weird position where I am like this Bowie video archivist restoration expert, and every day I can’t wait to get home to get back to work on my latest Bowie project. What I typically do is I create an ideal that never existed; I take an existing Bowie video or footage and I make something much better out of it. Typically I’ll bundle up loads of different clips; him and his music, being interviewed, maybe some relevant footage from the era, and try to give context so it becomes more of a historical, cultural document. This is something really really valuable to me. I personally believe that he was one of the greatest artists of our lifetime, so to be able to create video documents to prove his value, to me is very satisfying. In fact, at the moment, it’s all I want to do. I don’t know if it is very healthy to be working so obsessively, but it’s very satisfying.
The weird thing is that getting into the video making was predicted five years ago in Mysore. I went to see the Vedic astrologer, Dr. Shankaranarayana Jois. People say, he is Pattabhi Jois' cousin. I don't know if that is true, I never asked him. But he is a former student of Guruji's; he has some cool pics of himself in his office, as a young man, practicing some difficult asanas. Anyway, Dr Jois is a widely respected academic, from Mysore University. He did my personal reading around 5 years ago, and he asked about my career. I told him I was a yoga instructor, which he said was very suitable work for me to be doing, "at this time". However, he said, within five to eight years you need to move into working with film, artistic work, visual arts, directing, “very favourable for that field” and a big connection to music, he said. I remember hearing that and thinking: well, that sounds great, but how am I going to do that? I know nothing about it and I’m already too old to start. Now I find myself absolutely inspired to do this editing work, and I feel it is really suitable for me, with my kind of borderline OCD and my music obsession!
Any final thoughts?
Did you see a video that was recently doing the rounds of Richard Freeman speaking at the launch of the new book that he and Mary Taylor have just published? In the video, Richard is saying that if you are really practicing Ashtanga properly, then it must be in the context of the 8 Limbs, and that before you get into asanas etc, the limbs start as “very socially orientated”. In the same way, there is Swami Sivananda’s maxim: Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize. He is saying that the first thing, on the path of awakening, before all the fancy stuff, is to just serve. Another example of the same thing that I love is in Guy Donahue’s classic interview with Norman Allen. Norman was I think the first American to practice with Pattabhi Jois in Mysore in the mid-70’s. Guy asks, how far can the physical practice take you? And Norman answers, for most people, probably nowhere. He says, without taking other steps, without the right diet, the Yamas and Niyamas, nothing’s gonna happen to you.
For me, without knowingly trying, I’ve noticed in myself a growing tendency to want to serve, to give my time freely. I mentioned it earlier - last year I went to Palestine. There was a very big desire to try to serve the people of Palestine. Why Palestine? Prior to the devastation of Gaza in 2014, Israel-Palestine was just “another conflict” that I barely knew anything about. Beyond having a fair idea which side was the aggressor; I had only very vague knowledge about it. Then in 2014, I watched Gaza being bombed live on the internet. I thought this is so terrible. But what I was equally shocked about, and what eventually got me involved, was all the victim blaming and apparent tacit acceptance. So I began to enquire and read to get some kind of perspective. Eventually, I had the realisation about the cause of the problem. I can’t bear injustice, and I began to see that this is the worst kind of injustice. I began to take a special interest in it, and I lost a few friends.
Last year, I realised one could actually go to Palestine. So I found a yoga school there and communicated with one of the teachers. She told me that yoga is tremendously helpful to people over there. She said that some of her students are so stressed out, that mostly she just teaches them how they can become aware of their breath and feel their feet on the floor, to help them when they’re queuing at checkpoints. So I’m very moved by that and I can hardly believe what I am hearing, and I ask: how can I be useful? She told me that there was a Mysore program in Ramallah. So I make a plan to go, to teach and try to help the teachers. We also organised a shipment of 40 Manduka Pro’s. They got stuck in Tel Aviv customs for weeks, but eventually reached Palestine.
I taught an introduction to Mysore practice and led class and I taught the Mysore program for a week or so, and at the same time gave some methods of teaching. I think it was useful, and I will go back next year if I can.
I wrote an article about what we experienced, and it got published in Namaskar magazine. Also I interviewed various people, academics and others, and shot a lot of video, which I am slowly editing. I’m fed up with arguing. I feel that the opinion I hold on this issue is the moral opinion, and I want to substantiate that with this film I’m making.
It was really good to experience Palestine. I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but it was great. People warned me before I went that it wouldn’t go well, they said Palestinians are racist and xenophobic; they won't like you. But it was nothing like that, absolutely the opposite.
I went there and what it is is great — except the Occupation and the monstrous wall with armed turrets on the top, people are being shot in the street, they have no rights, that’s what’s wrong. I wanted to see it myself, I wanted to have that experience and that first hand knowledge. Now I’ve seen it myself. Until you’ve seen it you don’t really know. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that if one is really trying to be a yogi, then one should find a way to do something that one feels is really useful for others. So, I feel that trying to help the people of Palestine is my karma yoga.
Editorial note: Photos provided by Nigel Marshall
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor, Lydia Teinfalt, for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor, Lydia Teinfalt, for editorial assistance