Find the Eastern Roots of Yoga in the West

Ashtanga yogi, R. Sharath and his views on western yoga

While its roots stretch back in time to an ancient sage named Vamana Rishi, nearly 80 years ago the Ashtanga yoga system was passed to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois from the legendary yogi, T. Krishnamacharya. Since 1948, this Jois has been teaching this disciplined style of yoga from his Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, located in Mysore, southern India, instructing many thousands of people worldwide.

R. Sharath is the Assistant Director of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois's grandson. Sharath is also Jois's only student to have mastered all five series in the Ashtanga yoga system, and is currently studying several asanas in the sixth and final series. He resides and teaches yoga in Mysore with his wife Shruthi and daughter, Shraddha.

The Sanskrit word "ashtanga" literally means eight limbs, which, according to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, correspond to eight distinct practices designed as a means to control the mind and purify the internal being: Yama (moral codes), Niyama (self-purification and study), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense control), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).

Asthanga focuses first on a daily asana practice to strengthen and make flexible the body and sense organs, the fundamental physical state for steadying the mind. Asana is assembled into six different series: Primary (Yoga Chikitsa) detoxifies and aligns the body; Intermediate (Nadi Shodhana) purifies the nervous system; Advanced A, B, C and D (Sthira Bhaga) integrate strength and balance and are curative for many deep diseases.

We spoke with Sharath in New York City who, along with his mother Saraswati, was recently in the US to assist Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in a series of yoga workshops.

What is the difference between how you were taught yoga and how it is taught in the west?

My grandfather has been teaching western students for the past 35 years. When I was a child, foreigners started coming to Mysore, in India. So from that time on they have been learning yoga from him. What we are teaching is the same for Indians or for foreigners. In the same way that my grandfather has taught me, he has been teaching to the foreigners as well.

What is missing from western practices?

Many people think yoga is like a gym, or like going to a work out, but that is not yoga. Nowadays, it has become a trend to take a yoga course for something like one month, and then you are able to say that you have become a teacher. But that is not yoga. Yoga is spiritual. You should consider it a spiritual practice, not just exercise. Spiritual.

Asana (posture) is only one step on the path of yoga. Yoga really means self-consciousness, self-realization — that is the ultimate meaning of yoga. Not just doing postures. This is only one aspect, but it is the foundation for you to realize what you are. To realize the source, what we are inside, that is real yoga.

I think it is good that yoga is growing everywhere, that people want to do yoga. But people should look for authenticity. Find an authentic yoga method and go to the source to learn. For example Ashtanga Yoga came from Mysore, from Pattabhi Jois; and you have to go there, to the roots, to learn the yoga.

Many people come for one or two months and then become very big teachers in the West, but they don't ever learn about themselves. Their self. This is also the roots of the yoga practice. To learn this, it is very important to find an authentic yoga teacher: someone who knows the real meaning of yoga. This is very important.

Is there anything that we in the West are getting right?

Yoga is so powerful that even if you practice without thinking or believing anything — you will benefit. If you are thinking that yoga is only exercise — still you receive benefits. But you can also dig deeper, research further, and learn about yoga philosophy, a process that is never ending. You can keep learning your whole lifetime.

It also depends upon how you think about yoga. Some people think it is only about asana, exercise and practice. Yet still they receive the benefits to their health. Problems will solve. They become concentrated.

Many people have come to me and said, "I started practicing yoga and my life has been changed." People can improve their whole lifestyle.

Yoga changes your life. It doesn't matter what or how you think. It has already changed so many lives, that's why it is getting more popular.

Has there been a change in the type of Western students, between the early ones and those who come now?

Now there are more dedicated students. They want to learn more. Many students are getting deeper into Sanskrit, yoga philosophy and the Vedas. Not all of them — maybe twenty percent of the yoga practioners that we see. But that twenty percent, they really want to know: "What is yoga?"

Indian culture it is totally different. I would say that Western culture is opposite.

How?

There are many ways that we are born to family, caste and tradition. Yoga was born in India, so it is easier for an Indian to learn about yoga, but it is still hard to learn yoga. And nowadays the westerner is starting to understand yoga, at least that twenty percent. This is really good, because the culture is totally different. And yoga does not impose religious preferences. It doesn't say only these people who think this way can practice — anyone can practice. It's universal. Anyone can enjoy the benefits of yoga.

But we must "go to the source" to learn?

This is called guru parampara. In Indian culture, you go to a teacher and learn from him, like you in the west go to a school and learn the ABC's. But we devote everything to this lineage, from the teacher's guru through to you. It transfers like that. And then, after many years, a guru says, "Okay, you have learned what I have to teach you, now go out into the world and teach." Only then can you teach. It's not like doing a two week teacher's training course. You have to be a student before you can become a teacher. You have to be a student before you can realize "What is yoga?"

You have to experience it before you can teach others.

What do you think about the fact that nowadays there are more yoga teachers in the West than in India?

It's a market. That's why. Everybody wants to become a guru immediately. Fifteen days, one month, and then they want to become a big star, be in the magazines ... [laughing] All the [ancient] yogis, they didn't come in magazines. They never advertised themselves. They didn't say, "Hey, I'm a big yogi." That's just ego. You have follow the yamas (moral codes of conduct) and niyamas (self-purification and study).

We get so many calls from westerners. They call, "How can I become a teacher?" They write to us, "How can I become a teacher?" You have to become a student first. For a long time. Maybe ten years.

Teaching is very difficult. And unless you really want to understand what yoga is, how can you teach?

Do you have any closing words about yoga?

You have to be a student your whole life. Yoga is never ending. It's like the ocean and what we have learned is like a small drop. There's a lot to learn and for our whole life, we keep learning.

 

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