Sharmila, what was your life like before yoga?
As early as I can remember yoga was a part of my life. When I was a child I was introduced to yoga with the spiritual discipline being an unwavering thread through my life experiences.
When we were children and if we were ill for any reason my mother in Mumbai would take us to a yoga therapist. He would give us specific restorative asanas to help in the healing process in addition to us visiting a homeopathic doctor. My grandmother, Hima Devi, at the same time had a profound influence on my yogic life. Having lived through Indian independence she was very committed to Gandhian principles only wearing khadi and Indian spun silk saris religiously reading the works of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo. She was passionate about India and what it meant to be autonomous, finding answers to her philosophical intellectual questions in India’s ancient sciences. Hima Devi was a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba and would awaken at 2 am to begin her prayers that would last until 5 am. Waking up to the smell of burning nag champa incense and to her voice melodically chanting the gayatri mantra repeatedly was a magical way to start the day. I would often join her towards the later end of her mornings, softly chanting with her and practicing some simple yoga asanas. I am so grateful that from a young age my family defined yoga as a practice that was both healing and devotional; the foundation for all else. Spiritual discipline, Sadhana, as a way to connect with the Infinite was the heart of the household and was a ritual approached with joy, curiosity, integrity. When my grandmother eventually passed away, the search to find personal truth and lyricism stayed with me as I ventured into new chapters in what lay ahead.
There was a big emphasis on academics in my house as well. I suppose this is quite typical for a household of Indian origin where the family immigrates to the West through the fruits of education. When I attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts I would practice hatha yoga in my dorm room bringing me tranquility in an academically rigorous environment while I was far away from the comforts of my home in India. Similarly at Columbia University I would practice the asanas I learned from the Sivananda ashram in Kerala and from the Iyengar yoga therapists in Mumbai in my studio apartment on 110th street. Having a designated quiet time to connect with the body and the breath allowed me to approach my studies with a steady concentration as I was methodically questioning and theorizing under the tutelage of Gayatri Spivak, Ayesha Jalal and Gauri Viswanathan. They stood as great examples that as women erudites from the Indian subcontinent you could define yourself as you chose and hopefully that choice included intelligence, subtilty, following your heart and being fearless.
As an accomplished dancer, did you ever find a spiritual connection between both pursuits?
When I studied Bharat Natyam my favorite dance on a philosophical, imaginative and physical level was the Natanam Adinar, Shiva’s cosmic dance in which he performs 108 kharanas or yogic postures. Learning the dance was my introduction into the mythological beginnings of yoga and to asanas of varied geometry. Being drawn to this particular dance planted a seed that eventually blossomed into my singular commitment to Ashtanga yoga as taught by the Jois family.
The everyday discipline of Indian classical dance prepared me for Ashtanga yoga. As sadhanas rooted in India they share common elements - both are steeped in Indian mythology, are expressions of devotion and connect the inner and outer worlds of consciousness. On a skeletal level the forms simultaneously intertwine the laws of physics with the architecture of the body. Studying Indian dance required tremendous self motivation with a daily practice of two to four hours outside of class and much like Ashtanga yoga one could only move forward after mastery of the present lesson as the Guru saw it. The method to learn was slow and gradual, daily with an emphasis on foundational expertise and also not necessarily a linear pattern. Only through precision in form, rhythm and rasa could the Divine be invoked. That took time, hard work and patience.
The beauty of these spiritual disciplines is that although they both demand a unique level of commitment the unadulterated joy they bring overshadows all else.
How did you find the practice?
In 1997 after completing the Henry Evans Fellowship from Columbia University teaching dance to the young girls at the Vatsalya Home for street children and setting up a long-term program for movement in the shelter, I moved to Rishikesh, Uttarkashi. One day towards the end of my stay, during my early morning visit to a temple I witnessed a gentleman practicing yoga on the white marble floor facing the deities. It was a sublime illuminating discipline to witness – one asana woven into the next led by the sound of the breath. One could feel the molecular quality of the breath at the heart of the practice. He practiced the discipline with humility and detachment, gently mastering the form while also sublimating the ego. I knew right away that this is what I had been looking for, and in the spirit of my grandmother, would be my form of prayer.
Eventually I worked up the courage to ask this gentleman, Richard Spahn [one of Guruji’s early European students], what form of yoga he was practicing and from where he learned it. He patiently told me about Guru Shri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore India. Shortly thereafter I took the two day train from Rishikesh to Mysore with the hope of learning yoga from him but unsure if and how it would unfold.
Meeting and learning from Guruji was everything I had been searching for and more - a heightened amalgamation of all the dancing, prayer, study I had done previously. I began learning yoga from Guruji in the afternoon class for Indian students in Lakshmipuram. Sometimes there was another older gentleman also practicing and/or a ten year old girl. Sometimes I was the only student with Guruji. I did not own a yoga mat at the time so I practiced on the carpet and I learned very slowly. I remember practicing just suryanamaskar and sitting in padmasana for a long time. Guruji slowly added on a little more at a time and I am so grateful for that very gradual growth. It properly established the foundation of the practice and then everything since has gently flowed from that base.
From the moment I met Guruji on his doorstep I was in awe of him and humbled in his presence. The Shakti he emanated when he taught Ashtanga yoga was palpable and immediately transformative. His ability to have me fully harness a one pointed concentration (ekagrata) and feel the divine (ishvara pranidhana) as I practiced often left me without words by the end of our class. I would walk out into the early evening glow feeling a boundless sense of gratitude and stillness.
Very rarely did students have the blessed opportunity to practice one to one with Guruji. Most that have shared their experiences, including yourself, reference how Guruji manifested a direct, palpable, energy...as you mention, Shakti. Can you delve further into this for us?
Natural sunlight streamed through the windows of the Lakshmipuram classroom making artificial light unnecessary in the afternoons. I would walk in, touch Guruji’s feet, pray and then from the moment ekam began my focus would be directed. The discipline as taught by Guruji called me to attention.The passage of time temporarily suspended. Adjustments were direct and simple and as mentioned earlier full of Shakti. I tried to make an imprint of them within so that whenever I did an asana that had been previously corrected through an adjustment I found that alignment naturally, intrinsically.
When I first came to study with Guruji I was not aware of the huge international following that would come in the morning. I didn't have any frame of reference or relationship to a pre-existing culture around the practice. There was little if any distraction and time felt as if it stood still. Guruji was present sitting on his stool (sometimes with the paper) and the power he emanated from all the study and practice he had done filled the room. While the tone of the class with Guruji in the afternoon was serious there was also a sweetness and lightness that permeated the experience.
Because I thought of Guruji as all-knowing and truly mighty I did also fear him. Within me was the desire to do everything correctly, maintain a high quality of action, be told what to do just one time and be as quiet as possible internally as well as externally while focusing on the discipline. Through his teachings I found the freedom in discipline in my muscles, bones, joints, organs, sweat, heart, brain with the tapas of daily practice. Drishti, the gazing point as one practices, was an especially important tool for building concentration, awakening the spine and connecting to the Divine. The ancient saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” resonated with that moment. I was acutely aware of how precious this opportunity was because of the incredibly sattvic, omniscient essence he emanated and I was keen not to waste any of Guruji’s time.
Finding a true teacher or Guru to guide you in this age-old practice is essential. There is a certain sacrifice, a surrendering and an inner seeking that happens as you search for someone who can lead you on a spiritual path and molds your relationship to the Sadhana. I do realize there are many resources out there these days which is wonderful but that should never replace the search to find a true teacher who you can have a real connection with, be your mirror and guide you in the spiritual discipline with their lived wisdom as yoga is so much more than a physical adeptness. In addition developing a home practice also cultivates self-knowledge and gives you the opportunity to be honest in order to grow. Yoga is something we experience within our whole being and finding a true teacher or Guru can direct you towards that experience.
You have spoken in the past about the practice being an amazing tool in preparation for giving birth and being a mother. Can you please elaborate?
In preparation for birth, I continued to follow Guruji, R. Sharath Jois and Saraswati Rangaswamy’s recommendations on how to practice, taking the first trimester off and then practiced a form of Ashtanga yoga healthy for pregnancy as well as prenatal yoga. All along my pregnancies I kept faith that the traditional practice would come back in some form after giving birth, perhaps not in the same way, but it would be there. And truth be told, the depths of the practice were still present, guiding me along even though the form was modified to suit my pregnancy.
During the water births the experience of going inside myself was a familiar one from the years of daily practice and I was comfortable in that intuitive space. For natural birth there has to be a letting go as the mind retrieves and the body leads the innately known process of bearing a child. Daily practice of Ashtanga yoga had already taught me how to really listen and to surrender to an energy larger than myself.
Through YogaAsana practice I have been able to access the first two angas or limbs of yama and niyama, important ethics for a mother to engage in. Breathing with sound offers clarity of mind creating a gateway to reflect on how to become a good person - a meaningful reflection for any human being and especially so when entrusted with the duty of raising children in the world. In the practice we learn to relate to ourselves which in turn teaches us how to relate to those beings around us, particularly our loved ones, which helps in developing a harmonious home environment. Creating a balanced happy home needs regular reassessment and refinement as we consider everyone's feelings, pursuits and growth changes. Having a toolbox such as the practice based in kindness, self improvement and positivity helps manage all the worlds together making a home truly nourishing.
Ashtanga yoga as a way of life requires dedication, resilience, patience, introspection and a whole host of helpful qualities to being a parent. We make mistakes (again and again) and learn from them with compassion and reflection. I particularly like that together as parents and children we are engaged in experiences of wonder, discovery, humility, empowerment and we are all searching for ways (me as a student of yoga and them of life) to better ourselves.
There is a fine line between egoic asana work and utilizing the asana as a vehicle to access the divine; the divine being knowing oneSelf, nature, Brahman, et cetera. How do you ensure that the latter becomes the intention?
Finding the right teacher who keeps the intent centered on the eight limbs and connects the practice to inner spiritual development helps. I rest my focus on what Guruji said when he was alive and what Sharathji shares with his students now. Their words philosophically resonate with me as a student; I try most of all to follow as they lead by example. They center the intention of yoga to be sattvic. Under their tutelage the practice is clear and simple, grounded by their steadiness of mind and their direct connection with the ancient tradition.
My grandmother used to translate “Namaste” as “the God in me welcomes the God in you”. The practice has the ability to connect you to that inner God, whomever or whatever that individually may be, and allows you a way to cultivate who you are in order to align with it. When practicing the correct method the form itself can also teach, invoking a unity between the anatomical and spiritual rather than remaining on the exterior shell. Over time you learn to listen to what is within. There is a great deal of knowledge in the silence and if you stay with it a shift can occur towards an inward experience. Most of my learning about the practice in and out of class has occurred in silence.
Reading the scriptures also helps. They too settle our intent and direct our mind to support the path of the practice. These days I try to also incorporate this when I read with my children. We have read together the Gita, the Ramayana and we are now delving through the Mahabharata. They imaginatively assure us of why we practice, help us clarify our intent and guide us so we do not become attached to the fruits of our work.
Why do you think Guruji and Sharath consistently emphasized devotion and surrender as essential components to the practice?
I think they emphasize the simple message to practice. Inherent in living the practice over a period of time is being devoted and surrendering to parampara.
You’re the only Indian woman Certified to teach this method practice of practice. Can you please share how that experience unfolded?
Guruji and Sharath always said that they would let us students know when it was time. I respected the system they set in place focusing on the love of learning. I honestly never made Certification an objective especially in this meaning-of-life endeavor; at the time it seemed antithetical to work towards something concrete amidst a seeking so sublime and eternal. I had a great thirst for studying yoga - understanding what it truly means, experiencing the layers of purification, so my journeys to Mysore were just about practicing under their guidance.
In retrospect, one of the gifts of beginning the practice with Guruji in the afternoon class was that there was no sense of measurement either within the series of the practice or in comparison to other students. There was instead a feeling of heightened concentration and moving stillness. Years later when Guruji and Sharath started teaching me the advanced series in the mornings at Lakshmipuram I would continue to stay in places for months simply appreciating yoga as they taught it since there always seemed to be aspects to the practice I was trying to figure out that pulled my attention both on a gross and subtle level.
I finished learning Advanced A from Guruji and Sharath around 2002-2003 when the new school in Gokulum opened. My practise went through many transformations after that point as the learning curve in the other facets of life were steep. I viewed my duties as a wife and mother including creating a nourishing home life as an important part of the path of yoga, making myself fully present for the children and their needs. We live a makeshift homestead life in New York. We cook all our meals, clean, work for a living, garden, offer our harvest to the local soup kitchen, immerse ourselves in creative projects. When the children were babies I also nursed them for three years each and tandem nursed for one which was demanding in many ways. And of course there was and is the need to be emotionally available for children too. My daughter Asha especially likes to discuss philosophically complex questions that force me to ponder before I answer. Life was/is abundant with yoga at the root.
Amidst this householder life I kept returning to Mysore to practice whenever we could find the resources and maintained a committed home practice working on the lessons I learned at KPJAYI. Being in Mysore with the family was also a balancing act because I wanted the children to also have an enriching experience while I did. I enrolled them in an excellent elementary school in Yadavagiri [academics being tantamount] and in the afternoons after some fresh air we would sit and do homework together. I stayed one-pointed in my own path while helping the children along in theirs. One day at the end of practicing in Mysore Sharath raised Certification with me. I was genuinely moved in that moment as I had never taken it for granted that this was something meant for this lifetime.
You have taught well known artists, musician Sting and his wife Trudie, for example. Do you find that "famous" students who face constant societal pressure find the practice beneficial as a sense of grounding?
A lot of the people who I teach and who excel in what they do have a depth and seriousness in their professions that spills into their yoga practice. That silence, dedication, quality of attention that has lead them to success replicates in their practice and creates great stillness.
I think the practice in turn brings them closer to the life-force prana and to a sense of connectedness to all that was, is and will be. Ashtanga yoga has the potential to connect us to our true essence something I have found that great artists and visionaries sincerely appreciate on their journey as they can channel that energy into their creativity.
When I met Trudie Styler and Sting we naturally became family to one another. Sharing the practice with them for a span of sixteen years taught me how the practice can be part of a multi-faceted approach to find truth. Some of the other efforts include organic gardening/eating farm to table as much as possible, helping the earth/being environmentalists, raising a family with love, practicing deep compassion, actively engaging in bettering oneself, staying close to nature and being the best creative version of yourself in all realms of life. They bring yoga and a sense of oneness into all they do. Although I have taught Ashtanga yoga to them, they have taught me multitudes by way of example.
I’d like to shift your interview to the art of teaching. We have an asana practice with an infinite multitude of expressions through different bodies. As a teacher, how do you meet the student where he/she is at and maintain the integrity of the practice? How to teach Ashtanga yoga in an inclusive manner?
Ashtanga yoga can indeed be very inclusive - there has to be the inner desire and dedication to learn on the student’s part and compassion as well as true insight from the teacher. When teaching the practice, each practitioner’s personal needs and history should be considered in order to welcome in the healing qualities of the discipline. The asana may appear the same on the outside but how it is practiced can change honoring the individual and creating a true experience of yoga.
If one slows down awareness flows into every asana with each breath allowing the practice to be therapeutic and embody integrity. When a student is genuinely trying to weave the facets of the practice together (breath, bandhas, drishti, posture) on a regular basis the transformation and alchemy happens. It takes time and patience to integrate all these facets of the form with every person having their own trajectory and karma. The journey is about the relationship with the Self no matter the limitations.
I have been teaching most of my students for about ten to fifteen years. Quite a few are in their 60s with physical limitations and a few are cancer survivors. Others are younger with chronic illnesses or come to me with previous injuries. Sometimes I teach children and the physical nature of the practice comes so easily; what needs to develop is concentration and stamina - something that happens with patience and warm encouragement over time. Same goes for the various cycles in a woman’s life especially during pregnancy and postpartum when the body as a whole system is engaged in the internal tasks of building and repairing. The practice adapts as life shifts and continues to be therapeutic as well as magical when taught in a supportive aware environment. The important thing is simply to practice, and more importantly, to practice respecting the nature of the body.
In led class, a vinyasa count by the teacher connects the room to Guruji and Sharath. Direct transmission with no deviation. What does parampara mean to you?
In 2003 after an especially rigorous period of study in Mysore with Guruji and Sharath I went on a solo hike to the glacier Gomukh- the source of the Ganges River in Uttarkhashi. It was brutally cold and the rawness in nature was breathtaking - literally and figuratively. But I was determined to make this pilgrimage to the source of the spiritual river that has brought so much purification, healing, meaning and elation to millions of people in India from time immemorial. When I finally made it there at 5am on a May morning I thought of Guruji and Sharathji - how they too as the source of Ashtanga Yoga are beyond generous and tireless in passing on the pristine knowledge of this age old tradition. How from them the knowledge of this ancient tradition flows in such a beautiful plentiful way to us students and how they maintain it as a living breathing practice today.
The moving stillness of the ashtanga practice is what originally caught my attention that day twenty years ago in Rishikesh. That quiet is at the root of how Guruji and Sharath have taught me - thousands of hours of practice with my teachers and almost all of it in total silence. I try to teach from that place of quiet allowing the method to teach– making an effort not to add or take away anything as most of what I learned was from experiencing and witnessing the teachings. And the form in its pure essence was made available for me to experience and to benefit from. It is through the passing on of this uninterrupted transmission of knowledge that practitioners can create a relationship with the Self and invoke Unity.
I hope that whenever I share this sacred practice that I stay close to the Glacier where the water that flows is pure, clean and full of potent energy as I owe so much to the lineage that the Jois family so generously and auspiciously imparts.
Editorial note: For additional information on Sharmila, visit: http://www.sharmiladesai.com/
*photos provided by Sharmila
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance