Sri K- Pattabhi Jois

The Power of 1%

I prostrate before the sage Patanjali who has thousands of radiant, white heads (as the divine serpent, Ananta) and who has, as far as his arms, assumed the form of a man holding a conch shell (divine sound), a wheel (discus of light or infinite time) and a sword (discrimination) OM

Most of us come to Yoga looking for something. Initially we come to get in shape or to calm down.  With time, however, we start to experience something blossoming within us that is powerful and we start to wonder what it is all about.  That’s where studying texts can often come in handy.  Unfortunately, Yoga philosophy is given tacit mention in many Yoga rooms around the world. Classes, teachers, and methods are often so preoccupied with teaching physical techniques that the deeper philosophy of Yoga often gets sidelined. My teacher often used to say:  “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.”  What he was implying was that you could read all sorts of books about Yoga, but until you actually put it into practice, you could not know what Yoga was.  Unfortunately my teacher’s statement has been taken too literally in most Ashtanga schools.  Instead, mastery of asanas has become overemphasized.  Not many teachers encourage us to stop and ask ourselves what Yoga is all about.

Translations that Don't Make Sense

Admittedly, I fell into the same trap.  Up until a few years ago, I ignored those peers of mine who raved about studying Yoga philosophy.  I stuck hard to my 99% practice and gave little to no thought to that 1% theory.  I was too busy trying to perform advanced asana sequences to have time for high philosophy. To me it seemed like my friends interested in sutras and Sanskrit were all too proud of their knowledge.  I never knew much about Yoga philosophy beside the bits and pieces I would hear from teachers or need to parrot off in Yoga classes, like the names of the eight limbs of Yoga.

One thing always sort of plagued me about Yoga philosophy.  It was the definition of Yoga I'd heard from my first teacher:

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind stuff.

That definition is one of many interpretations of the second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga’s seminal text.[1] The problem I had with the above translation was that in the many years I had been practicing yoga, I had never achieved an ounce of the definition. No matter how far I had advanced in my asana practice, I never stopped thinking altogether.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get rid of that little voice inside that yammers away at me.

I used to test myself to see how long I could go without thinking a thought.  As soon as the test began, I had already failed.  It was like trying not to think of the pink elephant in the room.  Using this interpretation as a benchmark for my success on the path of Yoga doomed me to utter failure, so I simply chose to ignore it and keep plugging away at my practice in hopes that one day, maybe in a very advanced posture, I would get it.

The Importance of Translation that Do

Only a few years ago, I found an access to Yoga philosophy.  As I was preparing for a workshop, I ran across a translation of The Yoga Sutras that not only seemed somewhat manageable for me to achieve, but it illuminated a vision of the practice that reached far beyond the mat and into my life.  It came from T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Inner Traditions; Revised Edition. March 1, 1999).  Desikachar interpreted the second verse of The Yoga Sutras as: “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.”  In other words, Yoga is the ability to concentrate.

What a relief!  Instead of ceasing to think, Desikachar's definition of Yoga was something I knew.  Granted, it wasn't always easy to focus for a sustained period of time, but it was possible and something I was familiar with.  I'd had the experience of being focused on something before.  I hadn't had the experience in which I stopped thinking altogether.  But I’d had the experience in which ancillary thoughts sort of diminished the more I focused on one thing. In short, Desikachar's interpretation personally helped me find a human, down-to-earth way of relating to the philosophy of The Practice.

A Definition of Yoga That's Wide Enough to Include All of Life

What also fascinated me was that this translation did not say, “Yoga means doing a yoga posture with mastery."  In fact, I’ve never come across a translation of The Sutras that says this.  The Sutras, in fact, say very little about yoga postures. Instead, it said that Yoga is concentrating on an object. The object could be anything. One could perform Yoga on something as simple as the breath, a sound, or an image.  The object could be a concept, like love, change, or life.

It is so easy to get stuck in the perspective that one life exists in Yoga class and another exists while having a drink with a friend, behind the desk at work, or while taking out the trash.  According to this definition, they are all opportunities to achieve Yoga.  We misunderstand when we think that we are better yogis if we can teach a Yoga class or perform advanced asanas.  If that were the case, then all Yoga gurus would be great circus performers.  How come we do not tend to consider mechanics, musicians, or designers yogis?  By this definition, the work they do, if concentrated, is, indeed, Yoga.

Seeing Things As They Are, Not As We Hope, Wish, or Imagine

What is the benefit of concentration, anyway?  The next two verses of The Yoga Sutras clarify this. Once we have achieved concentration on a particular object, we come to know the object as it is.  When we don’t concentrate, when we are not really present with what we're doing, we see what we want to see, hope to see, or think we should see.  In the end, we don't really see.  We project something from our imagination, and as a result misinterpret what we see.

Romantic relationships are a great and probably the most challenging example of this.  The moment of falling in love is a beautiful experience. All too often the experience causes us to imagine that our beloved is the answer to all our suffering.  Such a projection is disastrous for any relationship.  It puts undo pressure on the other and the relationship.  But if we stay present to what the true experience is and not the Cinderella story, falling in love can be extremely transformative.

The point of practice is to get the hang of seeing clearly.  If we narrow the definition of Yoga to a set of exercises that when achieved masterfully will somehow bring about tranquility, we totally miss the point.  The exercises practiced on the mat are simply metaphors for our lives.  We come to the mat to develop the skill of seeing, feeling, and sensing ourselves from moment-to-moment, breath-to-breath, vinyasa-to-vinyasa, asana-to-asana.  We’re often confronted by the fact that we’re stiffer than we were the day before.  That’s a great opportunity to just see this without guilt, fear, or judgment. Using our practice as a discipline for getting the hang of things as they are on a bodily, kinesthetic level can have vast ramifications throughout our lives.

Certainly, asanas practiced with the correct attitude can teach us a lot about ourselves; however, if we do not find an access to the rich philosophical framework on which the practice rests, we risk getting caught in learning a bunch of circus tricks that only prevent us from seeing things as they are.  One of the reasons we come to the mat is to learn how to wake up.  Source texts are an integral part of that awakening process.  They must speak to us, though, on our terms so that we can derive meaning that makes sense in our own lives.  Sometimes we have to struggle with those texts in order to get at that meaning.  But once we do, getting on the mat has the potential to be an enlightening experience.

[1] Essentially The Yoga Sutras are an ancient practitioner’s manual for Yoga practice and philosophy.  They were written as a grouping of 195 brief statements, or sutras, that express a principal.  The brevity of the each sutra, lends it to being interpreted in a wide variety of ways.


Yoga in India is Not the Same as Yoga in the West

It's my opinion that the method of awakening for a classical Indian seeker is not the same for a Westerner.  And so as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate the teachings of any method of illumination rooted in a cultural lineage different from our students.  Sticking to doing it "the way it's done in India" is a trap not only for the teacher, but more specifically for our students.  There's always an aspect to the teaching that is culture-specific, and as teachers of a method, we are also translators.  It's our job not only to impart the method, but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that that method is imbued with. I personally teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned 'the practice' from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  He was what I consider a classical Indian.  When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian. The classical Indian still exists today but is slowly getting lost in the shuffle of modernity as India grows economically.  One thing that distinguished my teacher's classical Indian's students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with where they were identified.  The classical Indian student tended to be identified with his or her role in society, whereas the Westerner identified primarily with his personality, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurity.  Much of the work of disentangling conditioned existence-also known in Sanskrit as samsara- for us Westerners required and still to this day requires very different work.  It's clear to me that while the game is still the same--overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are--the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Classical Indian Dharma versus the Western Path

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West.  From a very young age, what is valued is one's relationship to one's role in society.  If you are a brahman, then, indeed, that's what you are.  That's the role you are to play out in society.  Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West.  It isn't chosen the way it's chosen here.  And while that is starting to change, now, the change is slow.  So, for example, it wasn't until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one's partner in marriage.  That was determined by the caste of the individuals, the parents, and often with the aid of a family astrologer.One's role is called dharma, or duty.  A major theme in The Bhagvad Gita, is performing one's duty to caste.  If that means fighting one's family members for the sake of upholding the universal law, or santana dharma, then it must be done, like it or not.  The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of likes and dislikes, of the overly identified sense of self, called asmita in the Yoga Sutras.  And, in turn, identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her.  What we in the West think of as the creative faculty to be at choice in how we live our lives is completely eliminated.  Surrendering to one's role-be it one's role in society or in the family unit-is the transformational breakthrough that's asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to totally identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher, or CEO.  While this is a form of our identity, it doesn't define us the way it does the classical Indian.  A large portion of our identity is formed on our relationship to our personality and personal preferences.  So, when a father asks his son, "Do you want to be a football player or baseball player," and the child responds, "I want to be a make up artist,"  then that child is exerting his separate identity through his or her wants and wishes.  The same is true when we choose our wives and husbands or even when we choose either to have or not to have children.  The faculty of making choices and choosing what makes us happy is what forms this persona we in the West identify as, "me."

So when a Western person--with a developed sense of ego--goes to an Indian guru--that's rooted in a classical Indian culture--and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees.  The Westerner's sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants.  Additionally, us Westerners really struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and self-loathing.  While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issue, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one's responsibilities to society and family.  And because the "come from" is so different, often times, the method doesn't work in the same way.  This isn't to say that the method doesn't work.

Mistaking Cultural Maps for Spiritual Maps

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we'd keep showing up at the shala year after year, either unmarried, littered with more tattoos, and still experimenting with various illicit drugs.  I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn't working the way it ought to for some of his students.  He'd often say in his lectures to us that we needed to get married, to have children, essentially to surrender to our dharma.  I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost.  And yet I wish to argue that, while the practice wasn't working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It's my hunch that the path of illumination for us Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us.  And that's what we were doing when we were saving up all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to practice with our teacher.  That's what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day.  We weren't doing these things because society deemed them valuable or worthy.  On the contrary, most of my parents' friends thought I was a freak for waking up at 5 am to contort my body in odd shapes.  We were doing this because it moved us.  It resonated with something very individual within each of us.  We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers, and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Mistaking 'Correct' for the Truth

And that's how I think the practice worked and continues to work on us Westerners differently.  So when I hear Ashtanga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it's done in Mysore today; that they never vary the sequence to meet their student's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I can't help but think that this is laziness on the part of the teacher.  He or she is foisting a brahman interpretation of yoga onto Western students.  As Westerners our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful.  For some it is.  But for most of us, our work is to strip away what isn't true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake, and deeply resonant.  And for each student, that's different.  Overlaying a system of "ought to's," of "right and wrong," of "correct and incorrect" is just another system our students will, at one point, need to throw off.