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Sharath Interview - Mysore February 2008
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GUY: What is unique about Ashtanga Yoga?sharath-3.jpg

SHARATH:  First I would like to say that Ashtanga yoga is totally unique. I’ve seen many other systems of yoga, which are not even close to Ashtanga Yoga: they don’t give any prominence to breathing or gazing (drishti) or all those things. In Ashtanga the main thing is not only posture but you have to do the breathing correctly, that is ujjaya breathing and vinyasa krama - that vinyasa krama I’ve not seen in any other form yoga.

This is a very powerful practice, which came from Krishnamacharya and it is unique in its effect on the body. So what I personally feel is that this type of yoga is more powerful than the other types of yoga I have seen. Mostly they do sitting in one posture and just relaxing in the posture, there’s hardly any emphasis on breathing or anything.

So this I think is totally different - it energizes your whole body through practice - you can feel the difference. In the philosophy also, if you take Shankaracharya’s books, they always say that with this you have to do mula bandha with the asanas.

Asana is the foundation from which we have to build up to Self-realization. When you do asanas correctly, then only will your mind and body transform, you will see them change.

It’s very difficult for someone to practice the yama and niyamas (the first two of the eight steps of Ashtanga Yoga), but through doing the asana practice you will be able to understand what is yama, what is niyama and all the other limbs of Ashtanga yoga.

Even if you are not able to do many postures (in Guruji’s and Krishnamacharya’s method we do lots of asanas as a way to change), you may still be able to understand what it (yoga) is through correct practice.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it says: without having a healthy mind and healthy body it is very difficult to understand what is Brahma-jnana - to realize what is god or to realize what is the divine, which is within us: this is only possible through practice. You can read many books but without practical experience it will be very difficult to understand what it is. Many people read  books, they may have lots of knowledge about yoga, but they don’t have practical experience, so their knowledge is of no use.

GUY: Do you have some insight into how asana practice creates transformation? It seems like there’s a big jump from doing asanas to knowledge of brahman. But what happens in between?

SHARATH: There are two types of practitioners. First, you can  see yoga as a sport just to be healthy but there is a limitation in that. When you see yoga in a big way, in a different way, if you see it as a spiritual practice, there is a lot of transformation that will happen within you.

When you start learning asanas you say, “Ok, I’m learning asanas now so I need to know more about this. I need to know about the philosophy or I need to know what is real yoga.” Yoga is beyond asana and asana is one limb of yoga.

Yoga is  citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, that means to control your sense organs and realize what the divine is, that is brahma-jnana (knowledge of brahman - reality). So you have that thirst in you: "What is that?"

But we are not all yogis, we are trying to become yogis.

GUY: What kind of changes do you see through practice?

SHARATH: Your whole personality will change and you become softer.

GUY: Is it a mechanical thing in the sense of a physical process or is it how you are using your mind in relation to your practice?

SHARATH: Yeah, it is the practice. For example, if you take a small piece of gold from the earth it is impure. You take that gold and then you have to heat it up and when you heat it up all the impurities, all the bad particles in the gold will go and you get the pure gold. Yoga is also like that. When you start, you have lots of impurities in you and slowly by practicing, practicing, practicing asanas, all this time reading philosophy, but mostly it’s the practical experience that you have to go through. Then slowly it’s like the gold, our body becomes more purified all the time and so you get more and more understanding.

GUY: You said there were two ways of practicing yoga: one is for sport and one is for spirituality.

SHARATH: No, no you shouldn’t think of it as a sport. There are many people who practice yoga in India also who think of it as a sport, they do competitions. They think it is just to have competition or perform better than the other guy. That is not yoga. Yoga has a different meaning - it’s a way of worshipping god. Nobody can compete with worshipping god.

GUY: I think many Westerners don’t have much concept of spirituality or a connection with god or divinity but they’re very drawn to the yoga, even though someone comes to practice and they just want to get fit, after a while the yoga really starts to work on deepening their interest.

SHARATH: Yeah, that is what I’ve seen in these many years. Many people, they come, they think, just to be fit: they just do yoga as an exercise. But when they go deeper and deeper, they begin to understand what it is, they want to know more about this. They come to know that there is more to what they are doing, more than asanas, more than exercise. And then I think slowly they will understand what it is.

GUY: What do you consider to be the most important aspects of practice?
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SHARATH: What I have experienced over eighteen years continuously studying with Guruji, I think not everyone can become a teacher; it’s very difficult. And even you can’t become a yogi. You should dedicate yourself a lot. You have to dedicate your whole life to learn the practice. It is not that easy. You have to sacrifice many things. Dedication is really important, sacrifice and dedication. And many times [laughter] you have to think about yoga all the time; think about your practice, what is it. There’s lots of things you have to think about, it’s not that easy.

GUY: When you look at a student, apart from doing the asanas nicely, what other qualities are you looking for? And what do you consider to be good qualities in a student that will help them progress?

SHARATH: Students who understand yoga, that is very important. Their body might be very flexible, they can perform all the asanas but they are not able to understand what is yoga. The student who understands what it is, who understands what is parampara, the lineage, that is very important. Lineage, and who are able to understand what is yamas and niyamas and try to perform them in their daily life - I think that is a good student. Many people they don’t understand what is yama, niyama, ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. Not all yoga practitioners, asana practitioners I should say, are able to perform these or to understand what these are.

GUY:  Those concepts are maybe a little difficult for Westerners to understand. Do you have any suggestions where to start?

SHARATH: It’s very difficult to understand it in the beginning. Many of them they say, “I’m doing yoga and I’m teaching yoga.” So many people, they want to teach yoga but they’re not able to understand what is yoga first. So, like long term practitioners, they should understand it. If they don’t understand this method and these things then I think it’s a waste of what they have been doing all these years. It becomes only for physical exercise.

GUY: Guruji is always quoting this one Sutra:
"yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhikśaye jñānadīptir āvivekakhyāteḥ"
- the process of Ashtanga Yoga transforms the individual until such point that discrimination between prakriti (nature) and purusha (soul) occurs. Is this just a process through doing asana, that everything will come, or is it important for the student to study? And if they should study, what texts should they study as most important?

SHARATH: There are many texts to study and they should understand, that’s what I’m telling. Practice should change them. By practicing and reading books they will understand what they are doing.  By doing practice you will understand what is philosophy; when you read philosophy you will understand what is practice. So both are there. Both are very important.    

GUY: In the beginning of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra Patanjali says: "tapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ" and it seems to me that the asana practice is really the tapas element.

SHARATH: Yeah, not only asana practice is tapas, which I told you. To be strict to your yourself, that is very important.

sharath-4.jpgGUY: What about the aspect svādhyāya (Self study)?

SHARATH: Svādhyāya is Self-study. Yeah, svādhyāya means you have to study yourself and the scriptures to try to understand the Self and the Ishta Devata (personal god). There are many books to read.

GUY: Can you list maybe what you consider most important?

SHARATH: Yes, Bhagavad Gita is there; lots of chapters in Bhagavad Gita. And there is Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Sutra Samhita...  so many books to read, it’s never-ending. Svādhyāya means Self-understanding, reading and self-understanding, Self-observing. Some people read the book many times but they don’t understand, for that I think you need practice.

GUY: It still seems to me that the way practice transforms you is really a mystery.

SHARATH: I think that, as I told you, if you follow yamas, niyamas in your daily life you won’t get lost. Some people practice for many years but they don’t understand what is yoga because they don't understand what is yama and niyama. You see everything is connected: yamas, niyamas then asana comes next: if you don’t understand those things you won’t be able to understand what is yoga. So that is why they put these first.

GUY: For you, I mean as somebody growing up in India especially part of a Brahmin family, yama and niyama is so much part of your culture... I mean, for instance vegetarianism,  brahmacharya, so many aspects of yama and niyamas are integrated into cultural life. Perhaps you don’t follow everything exactly... but in the West (and I notice it is happening in India too, so you can’t really say East and West anymore) for instance, violence is seen as entertainment. You go to see a movie and afterwards people say: that wasn’t enough fun, there weren't enough explosions, car chases etc. It seems impossible for us...

SHARATH: You can’t change the whole world. At least the practitioner, the yoga practitioner,  should follow all these things. Ahimsa, I mean you are talking about ahimsa, that is non-violence: even thinking badly towards someone is also himsa (violence). Not only should you not do it physically but also when thinking. When the mind doesn’t think bad things then you won’t act, you don’t do it physically. 

So yoga practitioners should practice yama and niyama, practice ahimsa in themselves. They should be an example to other people like Mahatma Gandhi. He said: ahimsa is my first dharma (duty). He said: I’m going to follow ahimsa non-violence, I’ll be non-violent. Many people got influenced and were inspired by Gandhiji, he had lots of followers.

So each person should be like Gandhiji. It’s very difficult to be like him; not everyone can be like him. But you have to, that is the real yogi. No matter if you read all the texts, if you are a big scholar, if you had read all these things, but if you don’t follow this in your daily life what is the use of reading so many books and getting so many degrees, becoming a scholar? … it’s useless. So at least yoga practitioners should try to follow this.

GUY: It seems to me that you’re saying, it is the yogi’s responsibility to educate others even maybe more so than himself. Do you think by giving an example or having an external motive for moral action it gives you more strength to be a moral person?

SHARATH: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was trying to say.

GUY: What do you think are the biggest obstacles for most people in practice?

SHARATH: Uh, you’re asking about an Indian practitioner or a Westerner?

GUY: I’m talking about Westerners.

SHARATH: There’re lots of obstacles. Westerners have lots of choice in their life and if they don’t want this, they can leave it and do something else. They are not committed to one thing.

I’m not talking only about practice, practice is one thing. It should help you to commit to one thing. It can be anything, like your family or your job or your karma - what you have to do. You have lots of choices.

GUY: Your duty?

SHARATH: Your duty towards the society or even teaching yoga is like social work. You’re giving this knowledge to many people and many people are getting benefit of this. And then, the yogi or a teacher, his karma or his duty is to teach his students properly what he has learned from his teacher. That is one thing what I’m telling. Everybody has their own different field – one is a yogi, one is a engineer, one is that – in that he has to commit himself. Whatever his work is, he has to commit to that. His intention, his work should be to serve people. 

GUY: From the point of view of the physical asana practice (most students coming here are very interested in that) - do you see that there is one obstacle especially, which you think is strongest in terms of its negative impact on the Westerners?

SHARATH: I think the main thing is the brahmacharya: committing to one person. That is very important. I think that is very less in the Western student. That is very important in life. When the mind gets distracted then your mind also becomes weak. You should be committed to one thing. It can be your family, your commitment to your family, to your wife and to your children and that’s all. You shouldn’t get distracted by other things.
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GUY: So I guess you’re saying mental distractions are the most problematic?

 SHARATH: Yeah mentally you have to be strong, if your mind gets distracted that is weakness of your mind. The strong mind is committed to one thing. If there is a particular direction you are going, say you’re going to Bangalore, and you’re going in a straight line to get to Bangalore. But there are so many other roads next to that main road where you should be going, which are not going to Bangalore and you can get lost by following them and end up entering a maze - you just get lost. The yoga should help the individual to go in a straight direction, which goal you should be reaching.

GUY: We talked about the same problem from a number of different angles in that respect. What is the goal? I mean when you read the books, when you connect with a teacher you understand, maybe you understand what the goal is. But for most people, they think the goal is the body. They think the goal is a healthy beautiful body.

SHARATH: Yeah, that is ajnana (ignorance) They think only, “Oh this is this world. I’m enjoying it.”

GUY: My question is then how do you let them know?

SHARATH: Through practice.

GUY: So you say just practice, cut off your head, practice, practice, practice, practice.

SHARATH: Yes, practice will change them otherwise there is no use of doing the practice.

GUY: But they don’t know what change they want. That’s the strange thing.

SHARATH: Yeah, I told you, when it comes to that, it depends on the individual. How you think what yoga is, or how I think what yoga is, is totally different than the way a Westerner is thinking. For me, as taking part in a yogic family and spending more time with my grandfather, I have learned what is yoga. So that is why you should try to spend more time (with a teacher).

In the olden days, when a student used to go to a teacher he used to spend his whole life with him so that he could learn something. When your teacher doesn’t know about yoga, then it’s very difficult for a student to understand what it is. So we have to spend as much time with people like Guruji who knows what yoga is, who have understood it, then we may also learn to understand what it is. When Guruji taught yoga he was representing Krishnamacharya, when Krishnamacharya was teaching yoga he used to represent his guru...

... at this point Guruji walked in and interrupted our interview
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link to sharath's website
photos: Tom Rosenthal
 
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