THE BIG ONE – WHAT IS ASHTANGA YOGA?
Sharath began by talking about the, mostly western, misconceptions of ashtanga being purely physical, purely relating to asana. He said not many people understand what ashtanga yoga truly is. ‘Too many people say, ‘It’s too difficult for me’. This is crazy – anyone can do ashtanga yoga.’
‘It’s important to remember that ashtanga yoga is in fact the eight limbs of yoga: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Each of these limbs is connected. They are steps that need to be gone through before arriving at the final limb, samadhi… Samadhi is like a temple on top of a hill. You can’t just jump right up there, you have to walk up all the steps to reach it.’
There is a need to integrate the yamas (ahimsa – non-harming, asteya – non-stealing,satya – truthfulness, bramacharya – celibacy/continence, aparigraha – non-coveting) and the niyamas (saucha – cleanliness, santosha – contentment, tapas – heat/perseverance, svadhyaya – self-study, ishvara pranidhara – surrender to god/higher consciousness) into daily life.
‘Once you have awareness of the yamas and the niyamas, your actions are more conscious and you make better judgements.’
‘Ashtanga is how we live; how we change our life to embrace the eight limbs. So ashtanga yoga is not just about physical transformation. It’s also about mind transformation and increased awareness. But the asanas are nevertheless very important because they provide us with steadiness of mind and body.’
‘Yoga is becoming very popular these days. Yoga is not related to looks; it happens inside you… Ashtanga is the changes that happen inside you. You have to see the beauty inside you…. You should do yoga because you love it. There shouldn’t be an agenda behind that (e.g. authorisation).’
IMPORTANCE OF ASANAS
‘Without asanas we can’t reach higher levels of yoga, but it’s just the beginning. If you don’t embrace the other limbs you’ll get caught up in asanas.‘
‘If you’re caught up in asanas, you’re like a boat sailing endless circles of the world’s oceans; soon you’ll just think of the ocean as surface water. But as soon as you delve beneath the ocean’s surface, you see there’s a world of infinite beauty down there, that was there all the time.’
The joyous, piercing scream of a happy baby then filled the room. Sharath looked over to the baby and said, ‘You see, even he agrees with me!‘, and then, ‘I need to meet this little guy.’ The baby was passed to Sharath, where it sat on his knee contentedly playing with his car keys. He gazed down at the baby and said, ‘They are like gods, they don’t have any delusions in them.‘
After this little interlude, once the baby was reunited with its parents, he continued on the previous theme:
‘To bring stability to body and mind, we need to do asana first… A solid asana practice cures mental disorders and calms the mind.‘
PURITY OF FOCUS / DHARMA
‘If you try and do too many things it becomes a mess… You need to find the thing you’re good at and stick to it. It is not possible to do too many things… To be a yoga teacher you have to totally immerse yourself in and surrender yourself to this practice.’
He told us how he has been immersed in the practice and teaching since his youth; how he gets up at 12:30 to do his own practice before teaching; how he is totally focused on yoga and teaching.
‘Delusions, distractions and attractions can prevent you from realising what it is that you’re good at. Once you find it, you need to dedicate yourself to it.‘
Q & A
Someone asked a question about how to practise when you get older and find the asanas more difficult and painful:
‘Pain is there. No pain no gain. When the body is changing there is pain… You can hurt your body by trying to prove things, and by performing. Know your limitations… Don’t get so attached to the asana thing… Your body will change but your state of mind shouldn’t change. Become wiser in your thoughts… I used to be able to catch the backs of my knees. Now I can’t. So what?… Asana practice is just physical at first, until you develop wisdom… The yoga is what happens inside you – that should be alive all the time.’
Someone then asked what happens if you miss a practice, for example if you sleep through your alarm:
‘Early morning practice keeps your mind and body stable. If you don’t practise for a few days, your mind is all over the place. Much less stable.’ He retorted that sleeping through your alarm is not what he wants to hear as an excuse if you skip practice. But then he conceded that, it happens sometimes and it’s OK – we’re only human. He also helpfully told us to set two alarms!
Someone asked about when you can start learning pranayama:
‘Before you can teach someone pranayama, their breathing in the vinyasas needs to be very stable. Your guru tells you when you’re ready… You need proper guidance in pranayama, it’s very complex. Without guidance you can go crazy!… First you need a purified nervous system and strong lungs. You can’t just do it straightaway… If you don’t do it properly you can invite diseases.’
He followed on from this by reiterating his previous views on sticking to one system:
‘If you follow one system, you have to follow one system… Yoga has become like a buffet now, with so many teachers offering different things. But if you eat everything in a buffet, you will get sick… My grandfather only had one guru his whole life. Everything has a system. If you follow one system it generates positive energy, clarity and clear perception.’
He then elaborated on the importance of having a guru:
‘In every Indian family there used to be a guru who would guide the family. The guru is important, to keep you on the right path… The guru will show you the road but you have to put in the effort.’
Finally, he talked about the interconnection of all matter (and I’m definitely paraphrasing here, so am not sure I truly encapsulated what he was meaning, so any amendments most welcome!):
‘Everything is particles of supreme energy, therefore we are also part of the supreme energy. The ashtanga practice removes delusions, makes us pure and makes us recognise that we are supreme energy… The Bhagavad Gita says that we are all caught up in a mire of magic. Once we escape the mire we realise we’re supreme because everything is connected.’
And that is where my notes stop! So either I zoned out or that was the end – I can’t quite recall. Anyway, as a first conference experience, I really enjoyed listening to Sharath speak – in particular I enjoyed his creative and sometimes poetic analogies. As I said before, next time I will be a bit more diligent in note-taking, as I realise now there’s loads of stuff I missed out.
Until next time… 🙂
notes by Becky May