Sunday, October 21, 2012

Conference Notes 10/21/12

Sharath started by reminding us that yoga is not new.  It's been practiced for many thousands of years as we can see from the numerous manuscripts where it is mentioned.  He gave the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads as examples.  Later many rishis began to practice yoga as a science to control the mind and to achieve higher consciousness.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sharath explained, Ajuna is confused and upset because he has to fight his grandfather, uncles, and cousins.  Krishna tells Arjuna that the cause of his confusion is the fact that he has forgotten his Dharma (duty), which is to be a warrior and fight for truth.  Krishna tells Arjuna that he will teach him about yoga again.  This, Sharath points out demonstrates that even then yoga was not new, it had only been lost over time.

Even up to twenty years back, Sharath said, not many people were practicing yoga.  Most thought it was for saints and renunciates.  People were afraid to practice yoga thinking it would turn them into priests.  It was only after Krishnamacharya started to teach that people began to realize that anyone can do yoga.  Sharath said that this was because Krishnamacharya taught everyone, men, women, and children.  In fifty years everything changed.  Krishnamacharya taught and then only when he gave permission did Pattabhi Jois and his long term students start teaching.  Sharath emphasized that then yoga teachers were simple.  They were not "hifi".  For them the goal of yoga was self transformation and higher consciousness.

Sharath said that Guruji had no idea how famous he was.  He was focused on these goals and daily did his chanting, teaching, and chanting again.  Sharath warned that now yoga is everywhere but it has changed.  Modern yoga is like aerobics.  He reminded us that our goal should be for self transformation.  If our goal is only to learn asanas and to be a teacher we will get that, but we won't go further.  If we keep in our mind that the goal is higher consciousness, there is no end.

Then Sharath said, "I can't become bigger than yoga.  Nobody can own yoga.  Nobody can copyright yoga.  Yoga is what happens in you.  You can experience it, but you can not own it." He went on to compare yoga to the sun which gives energy, solar power, good light, and a healthy body, but which we can not own.  "We don't own anything in this earth." Sharath said,  "We don't even own this body.  How can we own yoga?"  "Clothes, body, you can wear for some time.  After life goes, this body goes back to nature."  He reminded us that everything we have one day we give back.  "We are like tenants."

Sharath's remarks moved toward nature and particularly the importance of clean air.  Since we are practicing yoga which is harnessing the mind, and the mind is controlled by the breath, having air to breath is particularly important.  Sharath said that each human needs about three and a half acres of land to breath properly.  He expressed concern about air pollution, excess carbon dioxide and lack of trees, saying soon we will have to go to zoos or special conservatories just to look at a tree.  He mentioned that instead of having a third child he was going to plant ten trees. (Three are already planted.)  Sharath said that planting trees is yoga.

"We have to care for everything: plants, animals, each and every living being on this earth.  They have the same right what we have."

Next Sharath told a story of a village where people used to sit outside on a platform under a Peepal tree.  He explained how a young boy wanted to cut it down thinking it of no use, but how an old man explained that this tree gave the purest oxygen changing the boy's mind.  Sharath used this to illustrate how we need some fresh air when we practice and should leave a window open so we aren't breathing in other people's exhaled air.  He also pointed out that at that time, people sat and conversed with each other instead of sitting in front of the TV only speaking to comment on soap opera characters.

Sharath explained how before recent times, a student had to search hard to seek out a yoga teacher and the teacher would check first to see if the student really wanted to learn.  He shared a story that Guruji told him about Krishnamacharya's experience finding his guru, Ramamohan Brahmachri who was up in the mountains.  When Krishnamacharya got there, Ramamohan didn't even come out, but sent his son to see who this visitor was.  His son asked him some questions and Ramamohan came out to give Krishnamacharya two rotis and telling him to be on his way.  But Krishnamacharya had come to Ramamohan to Learn yoga, not to Try yoga.  He would not leave, and when Ramamohan saw that he could converse in Sanskrit, he let him stay and took him on as his student.  Together they studied many yoga manuscripts including the Yoga Korunta which our system is based on.

The texts all explain yoga as withdrawing our senses to see our inner soul - inner purity.  Yoga is described as putting our vision inward.  Sharath said a yogi is not bothered by what is happening around him, but wants only to realize the purity within.  To do this he must first get rid of the 6 impurities that we all carry, known as the six enemies.  They are: lust, anger, attraction, greed, pride, and jealousy. Sharath described them as six shells incasing the pure soul which is like a pearl.  He said anyone can break through the shells and become enlightened if he uses proper effort in the right way.  But sometimes we have delusions which won't let us go higher.


Then Sharath took Questions.

One student asked if at home she should do self-practice or practice with a certified teacher.  Sharath asked what it was she wanted to get from the teacher.  He wanted to know if she wanted more poses.  He ultimately answered by saying she could study with an authorized or certified teacher or do self-practice.

Another student asked if Sharath lost his friendships as he got deep into his disciplined practice in his youth.  He said no, but that friends have moved on due to marriage and life change.  He said that when he started his practice he had only himself to think of.  Then he got married and he had to think of two people.  Then he had his children and his concern was for four.  Now it is for six.  The fifth is his mother and this sixth is all of us.  Sharath said that he didn't mind because it is his karma.  He said, "This is my karma to teacher others, to help them how I can.  I try to teach what I can, what I know.  I don't say I am a master.  I have no Ph.D.  No Masters."

Then he told us a story of two big scholars who were in a village of thousands of people.  The scholars had studied all the yogic texts.  In the village a boy sat down under a Peepal tree.  He just sat quietly and closed his eyes.  All the people from the village came and also sat in silence in dhyana.  The scholars saw the boy and couldn't believe all these people were sitting in silence around him.  They decided they were going to expose him by asking him a bunch of questions to see how much he really knew.  They went up to the front, but when they got there they could not remember any of their questions.  They sat in silence.

Sharath explained that it is like that when you are around someone who has immersed themselves in yoga.  You feel it.  Then he said he had told too many stories.  He said Guruji's conference's were one sentence because all the philosophizing in the world could not make a person experience yoga:

"Practice and all is coming." 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conference Notes 10/14/12

Those who have attended conference here in Mysore know it usually starts with Sharath speaking on a topic and ends with a Q & A session.  This week he switched it up by opening it up for questions immediately.

The first question was if we should maintain silence before practice and the answer was a definite YES.  Sharath went on to explain why:  By talking to much we lose our prana and breath for our practice and our stamina will come down.  Next there was a question about the hand position in headstand and Sharath answered that the palms should be open so the head can fit, not closed with the head behind.  Then someone asked about the meaning of OM TAT SAT.  OM means The Divine, everything.  TAT SAT = That's it.  "God is everything.  We think we are great, but we are not.  We are small, not even a dot in this universe," Sharath elaborated.

After that someone asked if the practice used to include full vinyasa, and if so, why we don't do that now.  Doing "full vinyasa" means instead of jumping through to sit after downward dog, you would jump forward and finish the vinyasa, ending in Samasthiti and then from there, vinyasa into the next pose or second side of the pose.  This got Sharath talking.  He said full vinyasa is not necessary when we are doing so many poses.  He wanted us to understand that doing too much is bad, and warned that doing more than your body needs will cause you to become crazy.  He stressed that we should be careful when doing asanas.  He said that there are certain asanas that women shouldn't do because they can damage the womb and reproductive system.  There are also some asanas that are only for Brahmacharis.  Brahmacharis have no attachments and no commitments to the world.  If we try to do what is only meant for them, we will become crazy.  Sharath explained that we were born into this life of maya (illusion) which makes it harder to go to higher levels, but once we give up attachments we can go higher, and even while we are here we can do our sadana (spiritual practice).  We just can't do everything.  For example, there is a kriya (a purification) where you cut under your tongue to make it longer and then fold it back into the mouth.  This is done to capture the Amrita Bindu. Amrita Bindu is the nectar of life which drops down from the back of the head and gets burned away as it hits Manipura Chakra.  By retaining Amrita Bindu we can live a long time.  Sharath said that people did come to Mysore in the 70's and they did this kriya and others that they were not ready for.  "They were hippies and they were smoking (pause) and they went crazy."  Again, he stressed the importance of studying the philosophy and having knowledge before rushing to complete actions which can be harmful when done incorrectly or in the wrong time.  Sharath explained that Sirsasana (headstand) is even better for storing Amrita Bindu than the kriya he had previously mentioned.  Sharath shared that headstand can be done for up to 3 hours at a time, but you have to build up slowly by slowly to that amount of time.  When you do headstand for that long, you don't do your other asanas.  You can do it every two weeks or so.  He also mentioned that head standing has other benefits like increasing blood circulation and regulating the nervous system.

Sharath went on to explain that how you breath also has a strong affect on your lifespan.  He imitated the rapid panting of a dog and then made the point that a dog lives only 14 years.  The Shastras say humans have a lifespan of 100 years.  Humans breath on average 21,600 times per day.  If we take longer slower breaths and reduce that number we will increase our life span.  This is one of the reasons we do pranayama (when ready)  The old saints and rishis used to live 5 or 6 thousand years and this is how they did it.  Sharath added that breath control is not only to increase life span.  It is also to control the mind.  The breath affects the mind.  If you are anxious, angry, even happy, the pattern of the breath changes.  If you have anger or anxiety and you consciously relax your breath, those feelings will fade away.  Breath in asana should be free and it is important that the inhale and exhale are the same in length and sound.  We should also practice even breathing in life.  Sharath recalled attending an asana event and watching a man take big gasps of air through his mouth as he practiced.  He warned that you lose energy quickly that way and will only be able to do a couple asanas.  If you breath properly, you can practice for hours.  More importantly, when you take gasping breaths of air through the mouth as this man was doing it puts stress on your heart and your organs and you have problems when older.

There continued to be questions about head standing.  Sharath spoke about the importance of going very slowly in and out of headstand so that the blood vessels aren't damaged.  If they are, it affects the nervous system, so you have to be careful and not stay long until you can stay properly.  Then you can stay in headstand a long long time.  This happens when the weight is only in clasped hands and elbow like a tripod for a camera (Sharath's analogy).  Someone asked if there were certain diseases which mean you shouldn't do headstand.   Sharath said if you have Spondylosis you have to be careful, but then again, if you've learned the asana previous to the condition and don't put pressure on the head, you can do it.

With so many headstand questions, Sharath finally decided to demonstrate despite having had his breakfast not much earlier.  He pointed out his open palms, the weight disbursement, the pose variations that make it impossible to do with weight in the head, and the part of the head that touches lightly on the ground.  Someone asked about pressure on the head in Prasarita Padottanasana and he said it shouldn't be full weight in the head, but that with that pose and the headstands at the end of intermediate, the amount of time in the pose is minimal so the affect of weight in the head not as drastic.

"Guruji would always say to perfect an asana it must be practiced 1,000 times," Sharath said.  "One main reason people get injured is they have no patience.  It takes time.  The body has to change day by day, month by month, year by year."  He said many people come to Mysore just to get more asanas, but the stability of the asana is what is most important.  "If you are not stable, how can you do meditation, withdraw the sense organs, stabilize the mind?" Sharah probed.  "If you just close your eyes and sit it doesn't mean you are meditating.  To be still the mind must become stable."  Overtime the practice becomes mediation.  The senses are withdrawn and under control and the practice becomes more effective, meaningful, and spiritual.

Next a woman asked how Sharath was able to practice and focus when his children were very little.  He said that since he had been doing it so long before marriage, he already had the ability to keep going.  He said his wife is a big support and that it would be very difficult to go deeper in the practice without a supportive partner.  Even his daughter, he mentioned, knows not to disturb him after his 8:30pm bedtime.  He said keeping to a schedule over many years makes it manageable and normalizes it, though his friends did have the habit of calling him Dracula.

The final question was if all students can do all asanas if they apply the proper effort.  First Sharath said definitely, then he said that it did depend somewhat on ability and also the age you start practicing.  But if you put in effort, dedication, devotion, determination, and discipline you can do it.  Sharath said he kept himself very disciplined not going out, and in regard to food.  He said you have to sacrifice many things.

On the other hand, Sharath was clear that if you have lots of expectation around yoga it will not come.  "It has to grow with in you..."When it grows with in you it becomes part of yourself." If you force it, it will not happen.  If you have goals like learning a certain series by a certain date, it will not happen.  First you should have love towards your practice.  Then you will want to come to it.  Then as time passes you will feel uncomfortable if you don't practice like if you didn't brush your teeth.  You will feel off and those around you will notice too.

Sharath concluded with a very heartwarming and generous blessing:

"Sometimes you go to a level of practice...You don't want anything. Someone could put 1 million dollars or a Mercedes next to you and you wouldn't want it.  You want to totally submerse in practice.  Nice backbend feels so good, like 1,000 lotus flowers floating on you, especially if you have a guru like Pattabhi Jois.  When you are sitting too.  Your attention is only in The Divine.  I hope you experience all these things"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Do Less

I remember it was at Boston University that I was first exposed to the idea of doing less and achieving more.  It was my Alexander teacher, Betsy Polatin that spoke to us about this concept and it was a complete paradigm shifter.  Even though on the surface we were talking about the body, I understood immediately that there was a deeper connotation and I was floored.  All my life I was raised with the mantra- work more, get more.  It was completely unheard of to me that one could WORK LESS and GET MORE.

The kind of working less I am talking about is not about sitting around watching TV and clipping your toe nails 10 hours a day.  It's a way of life in which you do less and what you choose to do is smart and effectual.  Since the day I heard of this concept I have been working to incorporate it more and more strategically into my life and undo the conditioning that it is cheating to know how to WORK WELL and to conduct work from a place of calm and relaxation.

Some people work day and night but GET NOTHING DONE.  Still they fall back on the time and energy they put in as "proof" they've done their best and an EXCUSE to complain about the futility of their work.  I was one of those people, but once I understood there was another way, I had no more excuses.  I had to accept that I had the knowledge of how to DO BETTER and therefor the OBLIGATION to myself to do just that.  Now I get satisfaction out of WORK that WORKS.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about retraining the brain.  In fact there is a very serious retraining that happens as the yoga practice develops.  So many people who come to the Ashtanga practice are A-type worker bees.  They try to apply that sensibility in class and soon find out it will only take them so far.  There comes a point in the practice where only UNDOING will take you to the next place. This means getting into the asana and then remaining STILL, looking inside for muscles you can release and finally simply BEING a shape in space.  This means investigating what it is you're doing that is NOT NEEDED and DOING LESS.  This is a life lesson.

We have so much POWER inside us but we WASTE so much each day chatting, and fidgeting and running our mind around things we can not change.  Try BEING STILL when inclined to sway or fidget.  Try BEING SILENT when inclined to chime in.  Try being present in the FEELING of the moment without the looping commentary.  Do this by relaxing your jaw, noticing your breath, and accepting the support of the ground beneath your feet.  DON'T make yourself crazy trying to reverse all your habits and trying to change everything at once, but DO come to OBSERVE and UNDERSTAND yourself better at least during the time you are on your mat.  You might just find out you hardly knew yourself at all!

*Betsy is seeing private clients this week in New York.  You can contact her through the link above.  Purchase the life changing book Body Learning to learn more about Alexander Technique.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Conference Notes 10/7/12

Sharath and his son Sambhav in Podmasana

Sharath gave a beautiful and demo filled conference today on the theme of the 8 limbs of yoga.  He started off saying how when people think of Ashtanga yoga they often think of asana because that is how they were introduced to the practice.  They hear the word Ashtanga and they react by commenting on how hard it is.  Sharath said he agrees, "it is very difficult" but "it is difficult because it is NOT only asanas.  It is anushtanam."  Anushtanam means the total absorption of the qualities of yoga.

We develop the qualities of yoga by observing the outer limbs (Yama, Niyama, and Asana) and then over time there is a transformation that happens within us.  Sharath went on to explain that Yama, Niyama, and Asana are the pillars of spiritual practice.  He likened them to a tripod holding up a camera (Sharath's an avid photographer) or to the foundation of a building which must be strong, for the upper levels to survive.  Sharath said he's often heard there are two kinds of yoga: yoga in the east and yoga in the west.  He frowned on westerner's obsessions with asana details such as jumping through with straight or crossed legs which put too much emphasis on the physical aspect of yoga and leave out the spiritual.

Sharath said stability in asana is important, but as a support for the spiritual practice.  Each individual should watch and observe how the asana practice helps him as a spiritual being.  After years the practice will become like a meditation.  Sharath explained how in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika only 6 limbs are mentioned. He said this is because Yama (restraints) and Niyama (observances) should be practiced while doing the asanas and went on to give some examples.  Saucha (cleanliness) has two parts, internal and external.   Inside we should practice keeping our thoughts clean, being good to others, and keeping the internal body and mind purified.  External saucha refers to keeping your body, clothes, and environment clean.  You should bathe before your asana practice like you would before going to temple, because it puts your mind in a clear state for asana practice which is like prayer.

Santosha, the second Niyama, means being content with what you have.  Some people have everything but internally they are not happy.  Santosha is a joy which can come only from the inside.  Tapas means to live a strict and disciplined life.  Spirituality doesn't happen with out discipline.  When the body and mind develop discipline, spirituality will come naturally.

Sharath emphasized that when the external limbs (Yama, Niyama, Asana) are practiced regularly over time, all the internal limbs will naturally come.  Samadhi isn't something you practice, it's something that happens to you.  Even the lower of the internal limbs, Dhyana, can not happen unless you give time and effort to nourishing your mind and your practice with the Yamas and Niyamas.  The amount of effort is different for each student, but over time the change happens inside you.  Otherwise if you try to control the mind forcefully before you are ready you can create more harm than good.  When the mind is unleashed it will jump around more than before.

Ashtanga yoga is more than a practice.  It is a Sadana.


Students went on to ask some questions:

*One student wanted to know why Pranayama (technically an outer limb) is not taught.  Sharath replied that he teaching Pranayama but only to the students who are ready.  First the asana practice must be very stable or you can cause illness.

*Another student asked about Sharath's diet.  He explained that he keeps a vegetarian diet and eats only one big meal a day.  He doesn't have a taste for western food, but he does like pizza when on tour which his children have turned him on to.  He also mentioned that he reduced his eating in conjunction with his 40th birthday, siting a slowing down of metabolism as we age.  Sharath warned of the danger of excess eating on the organs since they have to do extra work to process excess food.

*Students also asked about pain in the body.  Sharath explained that there are different kinds of pain and you must come to understand which can heal through slow attentive practice and which need more attention.  He also remarked that age is a factor.  We heal more easily when we are young.


Sharath began to reminisce about his youth and playing cricket with friends.  This was the catalyst for a question about engaging in sports or other physical activities like running while doing the yoga practice.  Sharath answered simply that it wasn't advisable.  Running and other sports create swelling in the joints which causes excess stiffness in practice and problems later in life.  Yoga is all that is needed and the only thing that makes one more active and energized in old age.  Going for a swim or playing a sport once in awhile with a friend is okay, but it shouldn't be done regularly.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Life After Mysore- Allison reflects on how her first trip has changed her

As most of you who have been following know, for the first time, this year I took a student with me to Mysore.  Having Allison with me was so special.  In some ways it was like coming full circle since I was fortunate to have my teacher bring me for my first trip.  Her instant reaction upon walking into the shala was a clear indicator that this decision was right.  I documented Allison's experience during her time here and asked her to write once more about how she is feeling now that she is back home.  Here's what she had to say:

Before I left for Mysore I was admittedly a little nervous, not really knowing what to expect being so far away from home.  However, sometimes in order to grow you must step into the unknown and face your fears.  While in Mysore I was simply immersing myself in my new environment, local culture, and my practice (of course); I didn’t really think about how the trip would impact me.  Only after I started settling back into the hectic NYC lifestyle did I fully appreciate and miss the yogic lifestyle of Mysore.  

It’s as if my ‘batteries’ have been recharged; I feel rejuvenated from the rest, yoga, and freshly made Indian food.   As a result, my under eye circles disappeared, skin cleared, and I have a slight glow from the warm Indian sun.  Not only do I feel refreshed mentally, but also physically I feel different.  Previous to Mysore I was able to easily practice in the evenings after work without a problem.  After three weeks in Mysore my body became used to 5:00 A.M. practices on a completely empty stomach.  I now find myself in need to make the switch to early morning practices.  Will I become a ‘morning’ person?

While I am blessed to live & love in a beautiful city with ample hot water, comfortable beds, reliable power and seatbelts, one thing is certain: I miss Mysore.  NYC was simply a shock to return to, three weeks of yoga and relaxation left me in a new state of mind.  The first day back was just spent ‘catching up’ from being away…so much to do with so little time (at least it felt like this).  Going back to work was a major shock, so fast paced and productivity based.  Experiencing the yogic lifestyle in Mysore reminds me how important our daily practices are at ‘home’, wherever that may be.  Since, I have returned everyday to Land Yoga with pure happiness and appreciation for the Ashtanga practice.  

Making the journey to Mysore has certainly allowed me to grow as a person; I am stronger and more adventurous than I realized.  Even the practice in Mysore changes you.  You have to be strong and self-reliant in the Shala, it can be intense at times.  I’ll always remember my experiences I had during this journey, even after my post-Mysore glow disappears.  The practice, people, and the place stay with you.  I am already dreaming about the next trip!