Tim, what was your background before yoga?
Before I began practising yoga I was already into working this body of mine. From approximately six to sixteen years, I was a competitive swimmer and at around my seventeenth year I fell in love with dancing. As we had no state run dance school in Denmark at the time, I moved to Holland and began a formal training in contemporary/modern dance and choreography.
How did you find the practice?
I had just finished my training in dance & choreography and couldn’t get to New York City fast enough to study and work in this legendary mecca of art. My hero, friend and mentor, David Zambrano, invited me to Caracas to join his Festival de Danza Post Moderna. Exploring the grand Avila mountains outside of Caracas with some friends on a Friday afternoon, unfortunately I slid off a ridge. It seems fair to say that I should have died that day yet I only ended up with a good bit of broken bones, shattered joints, snapped muscles, scratches, bruises and you name it (the “handsome” tilt of my nose to the left comes from that fun experience!). I was pretty beat up but in hindsight
I actually had surprisingly limited damage compared to the severity of the fall. One goal in mind, it took me two years to get back on my feet and back on stage in New York. Upon my return a friend took me to the pre-hipsta Jivamukti Studio in East Village where I got to do Warrior IIIs next to Willem Dafoe, Joan Jett and Baryshnikov’s dancers. It was hip and fun, I loved every inch of it and my body, still recuperating, couldn’t get enough of this controlled, detailed set of healing, opening and strengthening movements. It quickly became my main modality to ready myself for the hard, physical work in rehearsals the rest of the day. A few years later, now living, choreographing and practicing this early Jivamukti style of asana by myself in Copenhagen, certified ashtanga teacher Lino Miele threw a workshop in the local Iyengar studio. Lino moved with more grace and power than almost any dancer I had seen and I knew instantly that I had to study movements with this man. Lino always talked about Guruji and after five years as his devoted student I had built up the courage to go meet this big spiritual ashtanga Guru in Mysore and I have gone almost every year since.
I’d like to go back a moment to your recovery period as you healed yourself. It sounds as if the initial asana movement captivated you. Did you find any healing benefits in the concentration-mental aspect?
Well, narrowing down my focus, concentrating, was not new to me. Getting absorbed in an object whether mental or physical was a very familiar process to me from my previous training in the arts, in dance. The creative process has a way of dropping you into a place void of time and space at its most potent while learning advanced coordinations of one's body limbs flying around in all different directions simultaneously, require a severe sense of focus on finding a commonness where things connect. Without it you just won't get through the rehearsal nevermind the show! Yet what I did actually experience on my first days of practice, was this strange urge to ask for forgiveness combined with a sense of gratitude and wanting to bow down my head. It was kinda abstract for me, the sensation and emotion so strong while my head was asking what was going on. Deeply interesting experience! A type of deep reverb inside of me which was something else than my mind and body, beyond my emotions and certainly beyond my idea of logic; and it felt really good and, for the lack of a better word, right! It felt really right. I wanted to go back there, back to class, back to these new fun movement sequences and back to that sub-reverb.
What was your first impression like of Guruji? Can you share with us what it was like to practice under him?
Joy. My first sense of him was that he was really happy to be doing what he was doing. He sat up there on the stage, walked around between us, yelled at us, laughed with us, corrected us, encouraged us. I found him simple, joyful and straightforward. He had this amazing thing, he would flick from moment to moment between tangible excitement for one practitioners momentary success, viscerally upset by someone else who perhaps was working incorrectly, grunting at the mediocrity of most of us, etc. Sort of like a child, happy one second and utterly upset the next. I found it deeply inspiring to see this grand human being flick through emotions with the purity of a flame yet remaining untouched and unrattled at the same time. Like the analogy about the waves rippling on the ocean, that we can call each individual ripple a wave, but they are all just ocean, all returning to ocean again at the end, that all is in perfect balance on our second look. The same with Guruji, perfect balance while allowing his mind to ripple a bit. As if he was enjoying a little bit of dancing with samsara, with the world and nature itself, taking pure delight in what prakriti offers for a moment of time. I enjoyed his presence very very much though, I feel I learned life lessons just being around him, just doing asana under his eye.
Guruji always emphasized that we “practice..practice..practice..” How does a student ensure that he or she doesn’t become too asana-focused but utilize asana to create room for spaciousness to exist where one can taste consciousness?
Well, Guruji was in my view, it seems clear that Guruji was simply referring to yogic sastra when he used this main tag line of his. “Abhyasa” and “the path of effort” is repeated practice over long time with no breaks, as Patanjali phrases it. Without the “tapah”, the daily grain of sand in our machinery, the disciplined surrender to a particular principle of effort sastra claims that we will get nowhere. Guruji was teaching traditional yoga according to such pretexts. The aim of these efforts was to begin a personal passage, guided by sastra and guru, towards a better under knowledge of ourselves. The practice and its asana building blocks is the method by which we meet ourselves, in all our colours and facets, all the stuff we like and all the corners we’d rather forget or hide away.
But yes of course it is easy to get hooked on the fancy of another asana, but hey, then we learn that about ourselves! Then we see that is who we are, that is what we embody, that is what moves us. And even such a simple, rudimentary realization can lead us to many new discoveries, that is, if we have the curiosity and courage to ask and inquire! But perhaps we are just interested in calling ourselves part of the club and when we get that leg back there behind the head we have achieved that objective. And it is somehow OK too, I’d say. Yes, it is cutting the yogic path a little short and shallow but now we know who we are.
Anyhow, seeking out what yoga really is, by putting in some effort to try to understand the primary texts and taking the time to actually cross reference it with our life choices and attempts on the mat, that could offer a fair shot at remaining honest and awake within ourselves.
Can you share with us your Mysore experiences studying with Sharath and how being a student and being immersed in the culture of India changes you energetically?
Well, learning is at the heart of teaching. I like the concept of teaching simply being sharing what you know. We teach people who have not had the opportunity or good fortune to stumble into the knowledge before. The knowledge is the knowledge and I share the parts I have picked up and try to leave alone the parts I have not yet met or understood. I go back to learn more.
So, Mysore is for me to self reflect and breathe in knowledge. I practice asana under Sharath’s masterful eye and within that equation much more follows. Sharath’s guidance works very well for me. The beautiful void of extra words, of most words, the serene group setting of dedication, movement, focus and committed mindful effort is so nurturing to me and pivots me into a seed being which I consider a healthier, more noble and aligned way of living my life. It connects me with a part of myself where I gain a tangible sense of self respect and faith in what moves within me, who I am and can be, connects me with a hands-on experience that I am more than just what I think I am. I suppose it is a feeling of connecting, belonging and relating… hmm, I suppose those words are pretty close to the basic notion of yoga being “yoking”, the activity of bringing parts together.
Mysore to me, is also the opportunity to create interface with the rich culture of knowledge seekers which the south indian classic Brahmin tradition embodies. I study yogic texts there with old men of lucid minds. It’s a remarkably exciting affair for me.
Oh, and India herself, has become a beloved dominion of color, chaos, contrasts, craze, matter and spirit which I welcome and require as an integral part of my life.
I would like like to shift your interview to the art of teaching. We have a singular 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?
Let me see if I can offer anything there. Now and again I take my motorcycle to the mechanic and these days the first thing he does is to hook it up to a computer to see how it is doing. I know not much about motorcycle engineering but it seems evident that a trained mechanic can pull out information like that which is not visible to the eye as I drive the thing into his shop. As I see it, the ashtanga practice is the same. The practice is a measuring stick, a digital tool with which we can take assesment of what goes on with a person, within a person, not visible to the eye. In the hands of the right (wo)man there is an infinity of information which you can derive from applying the practice to a body, to a person. So, we take this person, hook him/her up to our central computer called “the practice” and run some tests in the attempt to diagnose and treat potential problems while cultivating whatever works further. The body begins to speak, the mind to reveal itself. Now, I know where to start with this human being, which is his/her downfall, which is his/her virtues. Now I begin to make my requests - more bending, more discipline, less determination, more steadfastness, less passion, more softness - whatever it is, we log it into the mode of the asana activity, slowly modulating the ground towards fertility towards yoga itself. Without this canvas which the practice provides, we would never detect the reality within a student and we would not know what to do or where to begin.
What principles do you keep in mind when you offer modifications for individual students and maintain integrity in the overall practice?
Theoretically speaking it is really very simple. In actuality, it is not always so easy.
Say, we work with Marichiasana C, the objective is Marichiasana C. The student and I both have a clear picture in mind of what we set out to accomplish. If the student can do it, say grab her hands around her back, then all is simple and easy. We can begin to look at detailing the pose for optimal benefit to her little by little. Finding ways she can use this asana to weaken bad and nurture good through-out her body and mind, perhaps even coming to a place where spirit can soar. Now, if she cannot do the asana, say she cannot bind her hands, it is still very rudimentary. We simply need to move her from where she is to what she is supposed to do. It is not science .. yet!
The issues starts when we have to define how to move her from where she is and towards where she is supposed to be. In my view, this is where teaching starts, this is where art can happen, where creation begins. No two teachers are alike. Priorities vary, knowledge vary, experience vary and therefore methods vary. The area which lies between where the student is and where we define she should be is one big grey zone, one big unknown. How are you going to move her from point A to point B? What is the best way? What route provides maximum learning? What route provides appropriate learning? What do you actually want to teach her? Classic asana and hatha yoga? Physical health and how her body works? Raja yoga and how her mind works? Bhakti yoga and relation to a deeper sense of selfhood? Kriya yoga and the meaning of tapas? Are you intending to expel a physiological or psychological tightness? What is your focus, interest and objective as a teacher? This is where things can get a little complicated. This is also where it helps tremendously if you have done your homework and know why you are into this whole yoga thing, what yoga is and what yoga actually means to you.
Yet, there is, in my mind, one underpinning factor which always comes first: keep the student safe from bodily harm. from mental harm. from my own potential ideas, desires and ambitions. Also called ahimsa or loving kindness. Keep the student safe!
Why do you think many students find a spiritual element to Ashtanga after a sustained and dedicated period of practice?
Because it works! Because that is what it is set up to do (..was that an arrogant answer?)!
But, let’s take a step back. What does “spiritual” mean? Is it a warm and fuzzy feeling, a deeply satisfying loosening of anxiety, an esoteric experience which stimulates eye, ear, kinesthetics, our sense of longing and so forth at a moment in time? A felt moment of such power that we cannot describe it with a sentence composed of logical words and known concepts? Is it experiencing God or the absolute? Or is it momentarily touching the seed of the seed in notions such as surrender, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, caring and love? Is it beginning to not carry wishes, thoughts and emotions which at their core is to our own and other people’s detriment? Is it reciting or singing a poetic chunk of text in a foreign language? Is it putting our body into shapes which has auspicious names from another culture? Is it taking ourselves out of the frame and looking at what calls to be done?
I apologize if I sound cynical but I find these questions relevant. Of course I do not have the answers but I really subscribe to the idea that we all need to define what it means to us and then begin to read up on our definition, because most of the time there are a bunch of dudes through history who has had a similar thought/definition (yeah, we are rarely that special!) and who has even managed to think a few thoughts further ahead, finding even more clarity and more usefulness. I suppose it is the classic yogic paradigm of the threefold KriyaYoga - Tapas, we put in the work; Svadyaya, we reflect and study what other people say about our findings; IsvaraPranidhanani, we muster up the faith in which we find belief in basic goodness as a choice. I’d say that trinity, that Patanjali proposition, is a pretty good formula to a spiritual life.
But let me get back on question.
In my experience, everybody who engages in yoga talks about a spiritual connection. From Patanjali to your local hatha yoga teacher to the girl who just walked into class and hears “namaste”. So, on one hand perhaps we create this mystical grail which everyone then begin to look for however subtle or direct. On the other hand the whole asana system inclusive of the word which Guruji chooses to describe it (“Ashtanga”), comes from a thousands of years old lineage of seekers and believers. It is considered the method to deeper knowledge, realization of self and living and all that. You know, it’s hard to avoid tuning into this information after a while of doing asana, hahaha! of course it is possible not to, but if we for a moment accept the premises that the asanas are a method to such a profound type of knowledge then perhaps we can also accept the idea that perhaps it works? You move your body this way, you focus your attention like that and you allow for new thoughts, sensation and the in-between and voila! you have some pretty astonishing, subtle but full-system flash-throughs, experiences about yourself and the world around you. Try that a few times and most people cannot shake this deep home-coming sensation and slowly the exotic movements begin to have a new dimension, a dimension which might mark some of the suggestions in my first paragraph.
Tim, our practice is unique in that parampara holds such importance. What is it like studying under Sharath?
The classic indian definition of a teacher is that he/she is holding the light. The teacher is mortal of course yet it is not the part which is considered most relevant in the relationship. The teacher is the one within whom the great Truth stands. We, the students, go to the teacher for that. There is something about it which is inherently simple and therefore very attractive to me. It’s like the “zen” of relationships.
Sharath comes out of this tradition directly. He was born into this tradition, he lived this paradigm his whole life under the wing of Guruji and the south indian Brahmin community. Now, when he teaches he expects this paradigm from us. It is genetic to him and it makes it very easy to apply yourself to .. I suppose I should say apply myself to. It is a great gift to me.
Of course this gift is based on the fact that I trust Sharath. When Guruji died things got a little messy in the community. It was a cut-off point for many, disunity flourished in the ashtanga community for a while, lines were drawn up, sometimes harshly. Bridges were been burned and many poor decisions put forward. It was rather uncomfortable and confusion reigned. It took about two years before things quieted down a bit again. For my own part I could only pursue by taking a step back from the frenzy, observe and reflect and see what would stand and what would fall within me. I did not take a side, I did not put my tokens on one plate, I did not take a strong decision, because I couldn’t. I was as uncertain as everyone.
I did though decide not to cut my relationship with AYRI (now KPJAYI). I went back to Mysore, put my mat on the floor in the shala I revered so much, felt the void of Guruji while allowing myself to experience Sharath in his new role, as the #1 instead of #2. I needed to see how I felt about it all and the only place to get to the center of my own uncertainty was to go back to Mysore. It was my first trip without Guruji, my first trip practicing under only Sharath and it led to the next which led to the next and here I am still coming. Along the way I have had the pleasure of seeing Sharath coming out from under Guruji, carving out a path from his own pandemonium, seeing him put into words the twenty plus years of practicing under Guruji in his own clear voice. I never took a decision to become Sharath’s student but I have come into being so. Slowly slowly, as Guruji used to say all the time. I suppose it just sprouted little by little till this place where being in Sharath’s presence gives me a special kind of joy. Sprouting.. hmm yes, I suppose that is an accurate word. It has just sprouted!
Your career was shaped to be a professional dancer. Your dharma was actually destined to share the Ashtanga method of practice to students from around the world. Students know you as a teacher to incorporate knowledge of anatomy gained from years as a dancer. Do you find that you have found a happy medium between both spaces and passions? In reflection, are you surprised that your life took this turn?
In one way there was a turn, yet in another way there wasn’t. Let me see if I can explain that.
Before art and dance got a hold of me I was interested in zen and tao. I dabbled in Tai Chi and Aikido. I was a late teenager. I would party all night, then go home and get lost in texts such as Tao Te Ching, Ki Aikido in Daily Life, Zen and the Art of Archery, interviews with zen masters and so forth. My first experience in dance/art was with Kim Eden, a Danish artist who had just returned from a year of study under the legendary Kazuo Ohno in Japan. Art and philosophy went hand in hand in this avantgarde physical expression called “Butoh” at the time. I was hooked in a split second on the whole package though I had no idea what was going on! In retrospect you could probably argue that I was introduced to a variation of the eight limbs wrapped in avantgardist white powder with only an old school jock-strap covering my privates!
Now from there I ended up in a school which was looking for the essence of dance. We were using experimental and academic structures in the attempt to strip down decades of added extra layers. We were stripping off showbiz, theatre and illusions; virtuosity, tricks and dogmas - to unravel dance on its own premises. From there I went on to work with choreographers who were involved in pushing boundaries rather than audition for paid positions in established companies catering to Status Quo. I was young, idealistic and a romantic, as passionate as a blue flame and I saw a new world order rising! You see, art was for me then what Isvara is for the Yoga Sadhaka, a sacrosanct essence for which we reach. These almost twenty years that I spend with art/dance has formed a certain method of pursuing, understanding and connecting with such other worldly notions as we are introduced to in the theistic paradigm of Patanjali.
So, yes at some moment I jumped ship, let art be art and let yoga rock my boat in full, but for myself I see it as a continuation.
One more thing about that, a generalization: In art emotion is, if not The driving force then at least a principle driving force. I’d risk claiming that almost all art is derived from emotion one way or another. In the Yogic paradigm we acknowledge emotion, but consider them potential downfalls which needs to be skillfully learned and harnessed. You could say that where artistic expression utilizes emotion in search of art itself, yoga attempts to transcend emotion in search of spirit.
So, perhaps you can see my proposition, that in a certain way the “turn” feels more like finding my way back to my origin, coming back home.
Editorial note: For additional information on Tim, please visit: http://timfeldmann.com
*photos provided by Tim
*Ashtanga Parampra thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampra thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance