As the year draws to a close I thought I’d share one of the most beautiful verses from Indian scripture which I have read. This verse comes from the Isa Upanishad, which is part of the Yajur Veda (the Vedas are the oldest of all Indian scripture).
All is perfect, so perfectly perfect!
Whatever being lives, moves
And breathes on Earth
At every level from atom
To galaxy is absolutely perfect in its place
Precise and choreographed,
Because “That” flows from the Glory of the Infinite
Awareness, Peace, and Love,
And is therefore perfect.
When you have surrendered your ego
You will find true happiness.
Never ever envy the place of
Any other man or woman
(Translation by Alan Jacobs)
I watched quite a compelling film yesterday evening; “TT: Closer to the Edge”. You can watch the trailer here but I can just explain the gist of it to you.
It’s a documentary film which follows some of the competitors in the Isle of Man TT races. The TT races are a series of five motorbike races which take place every year around the winding and narrow roads of the Isle of Man at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. A lot of the riders are injured every year and there have been a lot of deaths over the history of the races.
So why do they do it? Well, obviously, it’s thrilling to take your life in your hands. And of course it takes a certain type of personality to decide to dedicate their lives to the sport. But as I was watching, it dawned on me that the attraction these people have to the sport is not just for thrills. No doubt they are ‘adrenaline junkies’ but it goes much deeper than that.
There is certainly, to my mind, an equivalent here to the practice of yoga. On some level the riders are approaching Patanjali’s definition of Yoga.
Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind
Let me put it another way, thanks to a translation by TKV Desikachar; “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain focus in that direction without any distractions”.
Whether or not the riders would use that type of terminology is irrelevant. There is a level at which all thought is absent.
In the film “Senna” (about one of the greatest formula 1 racing drivers of all time) Ayrton Senna relates an experience he had in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988, in which he had built up an enormous lead over his closest rival, “That day I suddenly realised that I was no longer driving it… conscious, and I was in a different dimension. The circuit for me was a tunnel, which I was just going, going, going and I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding”.
Many sports require such an effort (whether it’s true sheer physical exertion or total concentration) that these experiences can spontaneously come about. The cyclist Sean Kelly comes to my mind, in particular his famous 1985 time trial in the nissan classic. And also snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan’s record-breaking maximum break in just over 5 minutes at the 1997 world championships.
My experience as a musician has given me glimpses of this level of absorption too. One can sometimes completely forget one’s-self and be momentarily caught-up in the in the act of creating something. Many artists, including painters, musicians, authors, playwrights and dancers are compelled to continue with the pursuit of their art in the hope that they can tap into this level of total concentration. It is the process of creating the art, rather than beholding the finished product, that drives the greatest artists.
So what is this state of consciousness?
It could be described as the seventh limb of yoga. Dhyana. That is ‘the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous’. The reason some of us are compelled to seek out these experiences over and over is that they are fleeting. If we could abide in total absorption that would be the blissful state of Samadhi. Through the creation of art or through focussing our minds via sport we are only ever going to get one step below the pinnacle of human consciousness.
The ultimate goal of Yoga practice is a continuous state of Samadhi. If we don’t know what we’re looking for that then how can we achieve it? The riders of the TT races may think that they are thrill seekers but I believe that, actually, they are truth seekers. They are, perhaps unwittingly, tapping into something of the truth about the nature of consciousness and temporarily stopping all conscious thought. They are willing, it seems, to put their lives on the line to do it.
Sometimes I wonder what people think when I tell them that I practise Yoga. I think very few of them would have a clear picture in their heads of exactly what it is that I do while they are all still sleeping.
It is my guess that the predominant mental picture that people have, is that I do a few stretches and maybe some deep breathing, sniffing incense, sitting serenely, buddha-like, on my yoga mat and chanting Oooooooooommmmmmmmmmm.
The truth is that, actually, that is a small part of yoga practice but it paints a much-too-comfortable picture.
Ashtanga Yoga is hard work.
It’s not all lavender-scented eye-pillows and getting-in-touch-with-your-emotions.
It is not for pampering yourself. The purpose of Yoga is not relaxation. Some days I feel extremely relaxed after practice, some days I don’t.
People tell me that they’d like to try Yoga but they prefer things that are more physical, or that make them fit, or that make them sweat. Let me just say, for the record, that I have run, cycled, rowed, lifted weights and done thousands of sit-ups in my time. Nothing I have done has been more physical than Ashtanga Yoga. Nothing I have done has produced a more profuse sweat than Ashtanga Yoga has. And nothing I have done has matched the physical benefits I have received from this practice.
This yoga method is a method of hard work and discipline, which is designed to result in the purification of body and mind, through the practice of physical postures and breath control. Purification of body and breath in this way leads to the purification of the mind. The ultimate goal of yoga is to escape from the constant mental chatter, which is going on in all of our minds.
Ashtanga Yoga differs from new-agey spirituality because it is based on something that is very real (we could even say mundane); the body. There is nothing wishy-washy about this practice. You either do or don’t do (to paraphrase Yoda). It is not escapism. You are forced to face yourself every day and observe your own reactions. In this way you get to know yourself a little more all the time. When it becomes clear what your habitual thought-processes are then you can begin to see through them towards the true Self (note the capital ‘S’). This, ultimately, is called self-realisation or enlightenment.
Ashtanga Yoga has great physical benefits but that is not the ‘point’ of the practice. Pattabhi Jois said, “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all”.
So the reason for the title of this blog is that I see that yoga is being marketed as the ultimate in relaxation and serenity, and yes that can sometimes be a pleasant by-product of the practice. But do not be completely fooled. In the Ashtanga practice we are encouraged to take the ‘no-frills’ approach.
You will not be told to ‘feel like you are floating like a cloud’ or to ‘feel like their is a rainbow coming out of your chest’ in a traditional Ashtanga class. But what you will receive is an extremely powerful method, which it is then up to you to practice. As Sharath is so fond of saying; “Anyone can practise”. Eddie Stern adds, “Not everyone wants to practise”.
I can only encourage you to get onto your mat every day and see what happens. If you feel like there’s a rainbow coming out of our chest then let me know. I know a good doctor!
The word Ashtanga in the Sanskrit language means eight limbs (astau means eight and anga means limb).
These eight limbs are
Ok, I know, they’re in Sanskrit too so that’s no help. Well, I’ll try to explain what each of these words mean without getting too technical.
There are five yama (or yamas, if we follow the incorrect custom of pluralising them using the English language ‘s’).
Yes, Sanskrit again!
Translated into English they mean,
- Not stealing
- Not coveting
I won’t go into any further explanations of yama here but as you can see they form a basic guide to living harmoniously with the world outside our-selves.
Niyama is also five-fold
- Study (self study and study of yogic texts)
- Devotion to a power greater than our-selves
Again, a detailed commentary is not what I’m going for here, so it will suffice to point out that niyama form a basic guide to living harmoniously within our-selves
Asana is what most people think of when they think of Yoga. Asana is the physical practice of yoga postures. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) recommended that we start our yoga practice with this, the third limb, because the first two limbs are very difficult. If we try to take even one of the yama or niyama and practise it in its purest form we will see how right he was. Mahatma Gandhi is an shining example of somebody who practised absolute non-violence (ahimsa) and he changed the course of history.
It is more realistic and practical for most of us to start with asana.
First we must make our bodies healthy. Otherwise, how can we think of purifying our minds and gaining enlightenment? If illness is in the body we are pre-occupied with that and there is no space for spiritual practice. When asana becomes firmly grounded then yama and niyama happen automatically.
The practice of breath control taught in many yoga traditions is pranayama. In his Yoga Sutras (the cornerstone of yoga practice and philosophy) Patanjali states
Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayor gati vicchedah pranayamah
That being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.
The word ‘that’ refers to steadiness in the practice of asana. So we should take it that pranayama is not to be practised until we have firmly established our asana practice. Guruji did not teach pranayama until the student had completed the second series of the ashtanga vinyasa method.
With reference to pranayama Patanjali also states
Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam
As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed
Dharanasu ca yogyata manasah
And the mind becomes fit for concentration
Pratyahara is the bridge between the previous four, external, limbs and the following three, internal, limbs. It can be translated as the withdrawal of the senses. In other words our senses turn inwards and our minds are no longer distracted by the outside world. All of our focus is internal.
Tatah parama vasyatendriyanam
Then follows complete mastery over the senses
Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi
The last three limbs are inseparable and follow on from each other. Dharana is usually translated as ‘concentration’ and technically it is the state of consciousness in which the mind is aware of only one object or idea. Dhyana is translated as ‘meditation’ and it is the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous. Samadhi is the state of consciousness in which the mind and the object of meditation are as one. The student in the state of samadhi ‘forgets themselves’. This is sometimes translated as ‘bliss’ and is the highest form of Yoga practice.
Above is a very brief explanation of the eight limbs. There are thousands of books written on the subject of Yoga from both a philosophical and a practical point of view and it is a vast subject. However, theoretical knowledge is useless unless we have practical knowledge. Guruji was famous for saying that yoga is “99% practice and 1% theory”. We can practise asana and, following that, pranayama. According to Guruji, if we do this, then “all is coming”. He was telling us that all of the other limbs will spontaneously happen (provided we are conscious of yama and niyama) and we will experience that state of yoga called samadhi.
To hear Guruji speak a little about this you can watch this video
So I decided to build this website myself and, well it was both easier and more difficult than I thought it would be. Having never done anything like this before I was daunted at having to “design a website”. I mean, where do you start? Well my fear was soon turned into curiosity as I realized, actually, this is pretty straightforward (thank you wordpress.com). If there’s anything I don’t know how to do I can just type it into Google and, as if by magic, I find that the answer is there. Somebody somewhere has already asked the question. So… easy peasy.
The actual designing was the easy bit (although error strewn and time-consuming) and I learned loads of new words (like “search engine optimization” – should it be mysorestyle.ie or mysorestyleyoga.ie or ashtangayogamysorestyle.ie or yogamysore.ie or……I’m sure we’ve chosen the wrong one).
I realized that, actually, I have to try to describe the vast area of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore Style, pay justice to Guruji, Sharath and all the other practitioners who have gone before us while trying to be as informative as possible and give any visitors to the site all the information, and encouragement, they need to come to a class (because once they come, they always love it). And of course writing about yourself is always difficult.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, this is our new website and we hope you like it. Having a website makes us feel very grown-up. If it means one person discovers the power of Ashtanga Yoga then it will not have been a waste of time.