The highest honor we can offer our teachers
Is not to preach what they preach
Or to turn their lessons into dogma
To be slavishly followed.
The highest honor we can offer our teachers
Is to think for ourselves;
To be critical, to be discerning
And to be progressive in thought and action.
Yoga is not Buddhism, but there is a belief in Buddhism that the journey is far more important than any personality or cult of leadership that may form. This is valid when applied to the practice of yoga, especially amidst all the "guru" scandals that have arisen in the past 100 years, not the least of which is Bikram. The practice and the journey are more important than any single teacher or personality.
"Throughout his life [Gotama, the Buddha] fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly deflected attention of his disciples from himself. It was not his life and personality but his teaching that was important... If people started to revere Gotama the man, they would distract themselves from their task, and the cult could become a prop, causing an unworthy dependence that could only impede spiritual progress."
- From Buddha by Karen Armstrong
Here are some things that Tony said during our week of Advanced Practice.
ON PERSONAL PRACTICE:
The positions need to be cultivated in a gradual way.
In the 3rd set you will be able to reach the maximum of your ability.
You will get a lot more benefit when you find that place of stability and hold it motionless.
When you have reached your limit [in a posture], it is important that you learn how to stop the world.
The only way to make your practice simple is by practicing a lot.
It's not just doing the practice, but also studying; increasing your knowledge.
The mind can be very, very effective. But for most people the mind is very, very lazy.
We are like carbon. We can become diamonds, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of work.
The idea is to keep practicing no matter if you achieve those things (like samadhi) or not. Devotion to your practice.
A yogi becomes transparent, almost invisible.
ON HIS PERSONAL APPROACH:
I'm so happy just doing my own practice and ignoring the world.
To me, sustainability is everything.
The power that I want is not human power. It is divine power.
For me, the hands and the feet are assisting the position; that is my spine.
When people do things a certain way because "this is how Tony teaches it," then it becomes dogmatic. I don't want it to be dogmatic.
ON BEING A TEACHER:
You have the responsibility to stay healthy. You are the role models.
At least half of your class needs to be the standing positions.
Your objective should be to cultivate what is missing in [your students'] bodies. (strength or flexibility)
ON THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF YOGA:
The standing positions are the most important for our society right now.
It is like practicing yoga in hell. (during a discussion of heated yoga studios)
Scientific yoga has to rely on all the other sciences.
We're in a big rush to get somewhere, but we don't know where we're trying to get.
Savasana is the most important posture in the whole class.
"Yoga is said to be the union of the individual self and the supreme self (divine)... These are the limbs: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Yama and niyama are subdivided into ten types. Eight asanas are important and among them, three are the most important. Dharana is said to be of five types. Dhyana is of six types; among them, three are said to be more important. Samadhi is one, but some think it to be of many divisions."
From the Yoga Yajnavalkya.
I just finished reading A.G. Mohan's book Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings. Mohan was a longtime student of Krishnamacharya and his book benefits from first-hand stories and a deep understanding of yoga. It is by far the best book I have read about Krishnamacharya. Here are some of my favorite parts:
"The purity of truth is often lost in unnecessary speech. To speak the truth, we would be wise to begin by practicing moderation in speech: to speak less and, when we speak, to do so clearly."
"He would say, 'What is this "boring" you all say? Nowadays even children say everything is "boring"! Nothing is "boring." None of you have control over your senses and so your mind becomes restless. Now some activity seems pleasing to the senses, and a little while later, another activity seems more pleasing. Because your mind is not able to stay steady and the senses pull the mind to different things, you want to keep on changing what you are doing. If you have sense control, there is never any question of "boring."'"
"In an interview, Krishnamacharya once said...'Group teaching is not good. When teaching asana we have to take into account the individual bodies since each body is different. One person may easily practice uttanasana while another cannot.'"
"Krishnamacharya used these broad categories to define purposes for the practice of yoga:
1. siksha: fitness - yoga for people who are healthy, to maintain their health or increase their wellness
2. cikitsa: treatment - yoga as therapy
3. upasana: spiritual practice or discipline - yoga for personal transformation
All quotes are from Mohan's book Krishnamacharya. Mohan's website is here.
The overnight train is brutal. It is cold and windy and we are unprepared. We brought no blankets, so I spend the entire ride curled tightly with my hands tucked in my armpits, head against a backpack, in and out of a restless sleep. We are jolted awake at 4:30am by the cry of "Chai pijiay! Chai chai chai!" from the vendors wandering from car to car.
We arrive at Yogananda's ashram in the middle of the morning "Energization Exercises." These are exercises designed to awaken the flow of energy in the body and prepare it for the coming meditation. It is all very friendly, so we jump right in to the exercises with curiosity and relief to be moving our bodies after a long night on the train. After a few minutes we head inside the Meditation Temple to sit for a meditation of about 40 minutes. It is lovely and refreshing. The energy of this place is at once strong and peaceful.
The grounds are immaculately kept, with flower beds, swept paths, alcoves for meditation, and a few monuments of incredible beauty. We spend an uneventful day on the lawn, surrounded by devotees walking and meditating in the gardens. We doze, discuss the developments of the book and start developing a handful of asana series for later use.
We join the devotees for tea and the evening exercises and meditation which is about an hour and a half long. I focus my eyes firmly on the candle at the front of the temple, choosing to practice Concentration (Dharana) instead Meditation (Dhyana). I actually have a hard time staying awake during he 2nd half. I am exhausted from missing last night's sleep.
We catch the 9:30pm train back to Kolkata. We have blankets this time. I sleep deeply the whole way.
This morning we are going to Yoga Cure to speak meet with Rooma and Shibnath De. Rooma is Buddha Bose's daughter and together they run Yoga Cure. We aren't sure what to expect after getting shunned a couple days ago, but we have been unknowingly careless with their family matters. Today we are hoping they will talk to us.
Rooma and Shibnath are gracious hosts. We discuss the manuscript and they tell us many stories about the past including BC Ghosh, Buddha Bose, Bose's sons Ashok and Arun, Yogananda, and Bikram. I will write more about the specifics at a later date.
After the meeting we head to the book district in search of old, rare and out of print books that are only available in Kolkata. I find a beat up, ancient copy of Yoga Hygiene Simplified by Shri Yogendra, another translation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and a translation of the Rg Veda among many other things.
Jerome is looking for copies of an old pamphlet the BC Ghosh edited called Byayam, so we scour the side streets and rare book dealers. Down one of the streets we stumble across a book stand that is displaying this poster from Das' school. The poster is yoga asanas, 26 of them, performed by girls. The instruction is in Bengali. They also have a similar poster of boys and one of boys and girls mixed. I get all three. Together they cost about 90 cents.
We return to the hotel to eat and shower, then head to the Howrah train station across the Ganges. Our train to Ranchi leaves at 10:30pm and will arrive at 7:30 tomorrow morning.
To recover from a long day yesterday that was more like 3 days, we stay around the hotel in the morning. Sleeping late is impossible because of jet lag, but we bathe, do some asana and pranayama practice and eat on the terrace. The food at the hotel is quite good.
We head to downtown Kolkata to arrange for train tickets for tomorrow's journey to Ranchi. The ticket office is in the business district, crowded with street vendors and businessmen. We go to the office for foreigners as it is supposedly much faster than the one for Indians.
We get fresh green coconuts from a street vendor, drinking the water through a straw and then scooping out the flesh to eat. We also get a pomegranate and eat it while overlooking the Ganges.
We wait two hours for them to call our number at the ticket office. Then they tell us we should just go to the regular office where there is no line. So we leave and go around the corner. There are no lines, but the building smells like an outhouse. The bureaucracy is ridiculous, the computers are from the 80s, and communication seems way too hard.
We visit the Ghosh Yoga College and ask Muktamala a few questions. The walls are covered with photographs of Biswanath doing strongman feats and standing next to movie stars. There is one photo of Bose, none of Tony. Many advanced postures are on the wall, performed by Prem Sundar Das.
We visit 4 Garpur Rd., Bishnu and Yogananda's childhood home. A small tour of the home takes us to Yogananda's bedroom and meditation room. We are accompanied by an old man and his family, devotees of Yogananda. His devotion is moving even though I feel nothing from my experience at the home.
To end the day we follow some narrow alleys to the door of Ironman Nilmoni Das' place. It is run by Nilmoni's son Swapan Kumar Das. They lift weights and practice yoga for general health and fitness. They have been publishing books and charts of exercises for decades. These charts are a big part of the reason why athletes would come to Kolkata to train, even if it was with someone like BC Ghosh.
Swapan Kumar tells us many stories of Ghosh and the yoga culture of the 50s through today. He also has charts that detail 26 yoga asanas. They are unmistakably similar to Bikram's 26, though far from identical.
Das, along with everyone else we have talked to, says that Bikram was a weight lifter not a yogi. He is kind, saying that we should talk about the good in people, not their dark sides.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga