A Lifetime of Practice: Conference with Sharath in Mysore December 2011
I arrived in Mysore one week ago and I am so thankful for the chance to be a student of yoga. As a teacher it is a true blessing to let go of the seat of authority and just relax into an open heart and mind that receives the teaching. In addition to our morning classes with Sharath at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute here in Gokulam I am also taking classes with Jayashree and Narasimhan in Lakshmipuram, near the area where KPJ ‘s old shala used to be. Although I was sick for the first week I am recovering now. I think my body just needed to rest and after a few days where I slept for 10 or 12 hours I am feeling so much better, ready for my full practice of Third and Fourth Series next week.
Last week Sharath spoke at conference on Sunday to a large group of students. As I looked out into the group of Ashtangis gathered I could not help but think of the first conference that I attended with KPJ in Mysore in the Old Shala. There were maybe 40 students sitting in foyer of that humble building and KPJ was reading the newspaper. It’s hard not to romanticize the past, but that would do a disservice to how amazing the present is. I think it’s possible to appreciate the special quality of past experiences without denigrating the beauty of the present. I honestly love the experience of being in Mysore, of practicing at the shala and embracing the full bodied taste of India. When I look into the eyes of the students here there is a timeless embrace of the practice of Ashtanga Yoga that is transcendent of any one generation. But one thing that has changed is technology. If you wanted to take notes in the Old Shala you had to write on pen and paper. But last Sunday I had my iPad so these are perhaps the best notes that I’ve ever taken at conference before. I wish I could have recorded every conference that I attended with KPJ or at least taken really good typed out notes.
Sharath started out by talking about the journey of Ashtanga Yoga. He said “When we start practicing in the beginning we don’t have much flexibility, body is tight, then you keep practicing and your body gets more flexible, smooth, light.” In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is states that “When we are working out, by putting effort into the asana we get sweat out. Means you have to work hard in asana, sweat will come out. That sweat has good and bad qualities in it. Rub the sweat back into your body and it will become light. Poisons are leaving the body.” Gurui would often talk about leaving the sweat on your body. Sharath added that for face it’s ok to take it off, the sweat runs into your eyes and you can’t see. I also remember once that KPJ said that the type of sweat that comes when it’s really hot outside and you sweat while walking down the street is not of much use and you can just take that off.
Sharath continued by stating that changes should happen within the body after much practice. When you devote yourself to the practice body changes. Asana practitioners are more active and have increased stamina. Out of the 72,000 nadis or energy lines in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the way to balance them out should be by holding inhalation and exhalation for the same length. When you are more relaxed while breathing then it goes deeper and comes out. Sharath said that free breathing can heal the pain, especially back pain. He also said that if you’re overweight the spinal cord cannot handle the extra weight and you’ll get lower back pain. If have previous injury then the extra weight will bring that out. One important point that follows is that if you get pain while practicing asana then asana will cure that pain. But we have to be careful when you’re practicing. Sometimes the mind is not concentrated when you’re practicing and at these times when you’re not fully present injuries can happen. Once you come to practice place your mind fully on the asana like a meditative practice, then the feeling is totally different. Then it doesn’t matter if you’re doing primary or half primary, just because you’re doing advanced asana doesn’t mean you’re a good yogi.
Perfection in asana means you should have your nervous system purified. One thing that can sometimes indicate this is that you can sit in padmasana for a long time and perhaps at least practice primary and intermediate. Then that means you are probably stable enough to do pranayama according to the Ashtanga Yoga method. Everyday we breathe 26,000 times each time unknowingly without you realizing it keeps happening. The breath can be the regular breath or fluctuating based on the emotional state. Often the breath reflects the state of mind, for example, with anxiety the breath becomes irregular. If you have anger the breath is totally different than when you are calm and happy. When you have any strong emotion your breath is totally different. Too much emotions, for example, during the asana practice means that some students will cry when they go into asana. That means that before doing pranayama they first need to stabilize the mind. Sharath said, “Life is like that, sukha/dukha happiness and sorrow is part of our life. How we can handle these things is very important. Nobody can escape this in life. If you want to relish sukha you have to go through much dukha.” When doing asana practice the asana will bring out the previously held dukha and then the breath also goes in different, irregular ways. In order to purify the body we first need to stabilize all this through the breath. That stability comes from a strength and steadiness of mind.
Sharath continued by stating that once we get that in our practice, asana practice should just be asana practice and you can totally submerse yourself in asana, dive inside that. Once you get grounded in asana with a strong stable mind the next step according to the Yoga Sutras is to let go of unnecessary effort. Yoga Sutra II:47 Prayatna Saithilyananta Samapattibyham: Such firm posture of body and mind being attained, relax all unnecessary effort and concentrate your mind of the infinite. For me the question of this Sutra is really like the chicken and the egg. Do you get a strong steady mind by relaxing unnecessary effort and concentrating your mind on the infinite or do you have to have a strong and steady mind and body in the asana before you can let go of unnecessary effort and concentrate on the infinite? Probably a bit of both. Sharath continued his discussion of this Sutra by stating, “Submerse yourself in the practice, then all the nonsense going on around you will not bother you. Once you develop that it will get stronger day by day then when you do pranayama you will see just the effect of pranayama. If your mind is not stable or correct then it is very difficult to do pranayama. We have to go step by step. This yoga is not one year or two years, it is a lifetime.”
Sharath said that when he first stated yoga he thought it was just physical, but through years of practice he stated to understand a glimmer of why we practice. He said, “Happiness means you should be happy with whatever you are. Once you get connected with the one God then true happiness comes. Happy from getting what you want like an iPad is just desire. Asana is a foundation for spiritual practice. Asana is the perfect foundation, then a structure will be there. Read the sacred texts and then the practice will become stronger. Don’t think that the advanced yogis are more connected, we are all equally connected.”
Here’s a link to a clip on YouTube where I talk about the spiritual path of yoga: