Soon Harmony Slater, a KPJAYI (K. Pattabhi Jois Astanga Yoga Institute, Mysore) Certified – which is the highest level of qualification – yoga teacher is going to visit Hungary for the first time ever. Because of this, we conducted an interesting interview with her. Eight questions and eight answers about the eight limbs of yoga – about belief, doubt, Gurus and so much more.
BW: From reading your biography one can see that you already have gone a long and exciting way in your yoga “career”.
From an ashtanga point of view is it an advantage or disadvantage that you have first started in mediation practices and got degrees in religious studies and philosophy, prior to getting on the eight limbed path? These seem as the other end of the path compared to what you teach now.
Harmony: I believe that it was an advantage in some way to come to the eight limbed path of yoga the through my interest in philosophy and Buddhist meditative practices. I understood early on that the asana practice is a part of a larger lifestyle discipline. That these “exercises” of body and breath that the Ashtanga practice gives us is a method leading towards Self-Realization or a complete unveiling of Pure Awareness within ourselves. This is actually very much inline with what I teach now, and how I try to impart the inner workings of the asana practice to my students.
BW: Traditionally ashtanga yoga is thought in a parampara (guru-shishya tradition) system of study.
Can this ancient method of teaching be effective in today’s world, when there are many students but only a few Gurus?
How is your relationship with Your Guru, ParamaGuru Sharath Jois?
Harmony: This is a great question!
Definitely there is a great benefit in learning yoga from a teacher within a lineage.
If you cannot reach the Guru of this tradition personally, practicing and learning from someone who has spent time with him assures that you are learning the method correctly.
Paramaguru R. Sharath Jois spent 25 years learning with this grandfather Sri K Pattabhi Jois (Guruji), who spent 25 years learning with Sri T. Krishnamacharya, who learned from Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari.
Each of these Gurus spent years practicing within the tradition they were taught, and claim to transmit the teachings and practice in the way they were taught.
Sharath Jois has a few Senior Students that he publicly recognizes as teachers who able to transmit these teachings in a way that he endorses. If you cannot leave your job, or your family, or your home to practice with him directly, spending time learning from a teacher who has committed a lot of years practicing directly with him or his teacher (Guruji) will give you a very authentic experience of this practice.
These senior teachers are teaching within the lineage. They are a part of the line of transmission – the parampara.
My relationship with Paramaguru Sharath Jois has grown steadily for over thirteen years.
It has not always been an easy connection or relationship, like most relationships it has had periods of tension.
I came to Mysore because I wanted to learn from his grandfather, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, so in the early years of my practice Guruji was the prominent figure. It took me a few years after his death to really accept Sharath as my teacher and our student-teacher relationship really solidified after this conscious choice on my part.
You cannot impress Sharath with your physical abilities or charm. He does not seek to gather students around him or make people like him. Many times I have gone to him looking for approval or guidance, and he has always pushed this responsibility back onto me. His methods of teaching have made me stronger, and have given me more confidence in my own abilities as a teacher, a mother, and in my capacity to make important life decisions.
These days I feel that our relationship is very sweet and filled with mutual respect. I am ever grateful for him and his grandfather. Paramaguru Sharath Jois truly transmits this practice and teaches it in the most authentic way, as it has been taught directly from his own Guru. He has had a very deep personal experience with the practice which he is able to transmit with clarity. It is an honour and a blessing for me to have been able to spend so much time in Mysore in his presence and to be recognized as a Certified Teacher within the Ashtanga Yoga Parampara.
BW: The other day I was asked and interesting question by one of the students: How does someone become a Guru?
How do you see this? I would extend the question by adding how does someone become Paramaguru? What exactly does this title mean?
Harmony: Guruji (Sri K Pattabhi Jois) always would remind us that he never called himself a “Guru” but that it was us, who were his students, that named him as such. He would say, “I am a student, you call me Guru”.
So I think this lends itself to the fact that it is the students that decides who they want to take as their Guru, and the teacher himself, or herself, has very little to do with such pronouncements.
For me, a Guru is someone who has the ability to awaken my awareness. Who can help me grow spiritually, and figuratively can open my eyes to see those hidden realms of ignorance or areas of blindness. In India, there is a saying: Your Mother is your first Guru. I would agree. As a mother, I can see how important it is to lovingly and patiently instruct, teach, and help my son to learn, grow, and discover the world around him, while imparting values and lessons on how to be a good human. Most of this teaching is non-verbal.
Really, this is the role of a Guru, to illustrate through his or her own life, how to be a good human in the world, and point out the areas within ourselves where we still need to do the work to grow; and interestingly, this teaching is often also non-verbal.
Parama means “supreme” or “highest” and Guru refers to the “teacher.” It points to someone a little more significant then a mere instructor of science or art. It is a name given to someone who acts as a spiritual guide or inspiration, a special person to whom the student wishes to emulate in some way.
The Advayataraka Upanishad states in Verse 16:
“The syllable gu means darkness, the syllable ru, he who dispels them, because of the power to dispel darkness, the guru is thus named.”
A Guru then is someone who removes darkness or ignorance in another to reveal the light of knowledge that was always hidden within.
The one who is exalted or praised by the many, comes to be seen as one who is worthy of this recognition.
When Sharath Jois visited the Himalayas a couple years ago, he was given the title of “Paramaguru” or “Great Teacher” by the Holy Babas (renunciates) living there, as he was teaching such a large group of so many students who all looked up to him as their guide.
BW: We can hear of major changes from Mysore. Its seems that Paramaguru Sharath Jois is moving to a new shala and that this year -after manny years- there will be no ‘season’ in Mysore since the new shala is not completed yet. Is there any further information about these changes?
Harmony: As far as I know, Sharath has said that he is taking next season off from teaching to help his daughter with schooling and to spend more time with his family. So in this way, I don’t believe he will open for a “regular season” in 2017-2018.
He has made some comments about needing to build a new and bigger shala space for all of the students coming to learn from him, but there is no news about if this project has been started or when it would be completed. Anything more on the subject is simply speculation, as he has not made any definitive comments about his plans or whether or not he will be returning to teach after this season.
BW: Asthanga vinyasa yoga is a very intensive practice. We practice asanas 6 times a week mostly in the very early hours of the day. In many cases this takes serious commitment from the practitioners. We have to go to rest early, its important when and what we eat etc… For many practitioners there comes a moment when they start to have doubts about the practice. Did you have such a moment in Your life? What is your advice to practitioners who start to have doubts?
Harmony: In the Yoga Sutra chapter 1 verse 30, Patanjali lists doubt (samshaya) as one of the nine obstacles that arises for a practitioner of yoga.
It is a very normal tendency of the mind to have doubts about why we practice and whether it is sustainable or not. Doubt acts as an obstacle to the growth of yoga within you. It can however, be a good place to start from, or to take a step back to become more clear about your motivation for practice.
This Ashtanga Yoga Method is a full life-style discipline. It demands a lot from the students that practice.
In my experience, many things just naturally fell-away from my lifestyle. I didn’t have to force myself to change or let-go, this transformation of my personality, my desires and habits started to manifest spontaneously from within. After a few years, life looked very different. This process hasn’t been a one-time shift, but rather, it is a constant gradual shedding of the past to embrace a new space, or a clearer understanding, and a deeper experience of yoga.
In moments where I have wondered whether all of the sacrifice and renunciation has been worth the painful processing I have undergone, I am comforted by the fact that I know at a cellular level that my life is better today because of this practice. I am a happier, more well-balanced person, healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically. My son gets the best version of his mother on any given day, and without this Ashtanga Yoga method I may not actually be here to express this message to you.
Sometimes we have to relax our insistence upon the rules to make space for our lives to unfold. This goes for too much insistence upon the “rules of practice” as well. We have to learn to integrate practice into a full and abundant life, filled with people, activities, and things that we love. We are not to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of sadhana, but rather, joyfully we learn how to simultaneously give and receive again and again, as the the benefits of making time to surrender daily to a power that is beyond our own understanding, start to color every experience.
BW: In the ashtanga vinyasa yoga tradition the practitioners first study asanas and than the yamas and niyamas will follow. How about the rest of the limbs, when do we practice pranayama, meditation? How does this tradition work?Harmony: Guruji would always talk about entering the Ashtanga Yoga Method through the practice of Asana. He would say that only after students start to more consciously inhabit their own bodies and increase their awareness of sensation, can the Yamas and Niyamas be practiced. The mind will naturally be drawn towards behaviour that is not-harmful, truthful, not-stealing, restraining one’s energy, and not-hoarding.
The results of a mind and body aligning more closely with dharma (the cosmic law of the universe) is that one abides in a state of naturalness, contentment, discipline, introspection, and seeing oneself a part of something greater then just the individual experience. These are the Yamas and Niyamas – the first two limbs of yoga.
Within our Asana practice we become aware of how we are breathing. We start to deepen and lengthen the breath through the vinyasa and this is the beginning of pranayama – the expansion of the prana or breath. Paramaguru Sharath Jois is now teaching students to practice a simple alternate nostril breathing exercise at the end of Primary series.
This pranayama exercise is an excellent starting point for the fourth limb. More advanced pranayama exercises with longer Kumbhakas (breath retention) is introduced at a later stage of practice, usually when the student has completed Intermediate Series or Advanced Series.
There is no formal meditation technique prescribed in this method of yoga.
Sharath often tells students that one of the most effective ways to calm and focus the mind to prepare it for the experience of deeper states of concentration is Japa (mantra recitation). Students have been told to recite a mantra of their choice or one recommended by their teacher for 108 repetitions. This practice is an excellent starting point for directing and concentrating the mind, which can start to shift the focus inward.
Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois teach that the experience of Dhyana (meditation), as it is defined in the Yoga Sutras, is a state that transcends the mind and arises spontaneously when the practitioner is firmly established in the first four limbs.
It begins with Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, which is a complete withdrawal of the mind-stuff from the senses and culminates in seeing all things as One. Dharana, a deep state of concentration is followed by Dhayana, an unbroken stream of meditation, and Samadhi, the complete absorption of the individual into the Supreme Self.
BW: Ashtanga yoga is primarily a self-knowlagde system and not a religion. In this light what is the significance of the 5th niyama -“Ishvara pranidhana”- surrender to the higher being? So practitioners need to believe in something? How should this be understood?
Harmony: This is a really good question. The Yoga Sutras do not talk about “God” or needing to believe in a God or Personal Deity of any kind. Interestingly, Patanjali is quite scientific in his approach to Yoga.
However, as a practitioner of Yoga we need to believe in something. We also need to cultivate the qualities of humility and graciousness through our practice.
One might believe in the power of the practice itself, or the interconnectedness of all consciousness or all beings. Alternatively, it might be a belief in a universal energy or a primordial vibration, or it could be called God or a particular deity. However, regardless of what one chooses to believe, the practitioner has to correctly see herself or himself under the immensity of something beyond their complete understanding or control.
There are many other options of course, and Patanjali himself writes in chapter 1 verse 27 that “Om is the syllable that best represents Ishvara” and in verse 28 he writes, “the repetition of Om with contemplation and feeling brings about deeper states of concentration.”
So, you see in the Yoga Sutras, it is feeling of being connected to something, a part of the primal sound Om that comes from repeating Om as a daily practice of Japa (mantra recitation) that is prescribed as the method for cultivating Ishvara Pranidhana.
BW: As a Certified teacher you travel around the world to share the teachings of ashtanga yoga as you have learned it in Mysore. Do the teachings have a similar effect everywhere or, are there local differences? What is your experience?
Do people have similar questions and doubts or, this varies according to the local cultural environment? Could you give an example of the most interesting question you have been asked in the topic?
Harmony: The teachings of Ashtanga Yoga pretty much have the same effects on all humans, as there is more similarities in our experience of being human then there are differences.
If the student is open to allowing their deeper hidden emotions, memories, and beliefs to come to the surface for examination using the practice as a tool for this revelation, then this method will work. If a student is more inhibited by their culture or background or fear, then it can take longer to work, so the rates are variable between individual students.
The questions and doubts that people face are very similar.
Life is fast and busy and in my experience mostly students ask questions like, “is this practice sustainable?” “is this practice for me?” “how can I get up so early in the morning?” “how can I maintain my practice and raise a family?”
The answer to all of these doubts is “yes – where there is a will, there is a way.” Sometimes the way isn’t linear, and sometimes we have to alter our notion about what it means to “practice” or what it looks like to “practice”. The Ashtanga Method is about learning how to become flexible, not only in our bodies, but in our approach to practice also. Sometimes, too much insistence upon the rules is actually the obstacle.
One of the most interesting questions I have been asked was, “will this practice make me enlightened?”
I responded, “keep practicing and you’ll find out.”
BW: Thank you very much Harmony! See you soon in Budapest!
This interview could not have been completed without the contribution of Évi Farkas and Dani Dobai.