How any place can become a spiritual place and the power of one-on-one practices.
If you have practiced any form of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, or Power Yoga, you have practiced the teachings of the late influential teacher Sri K Pattabhi Jois, who brought the Ashtanga Yoga tradition as we know it today to the West. As a devoted student in this lineage, I just ventured on my eighth trip to study Ashtanga yoga in Mysore, India, with his grandson, R. Sharath Jois. Back in 2005, I first studied with Sharath in his mother, Saraswati’s house across the street from the “main shala.” The living room had been repurposed into a shala and held a small number of students. Pattabhi Jois,had set the course of yoga’s direction and its future thirty years before. In preparation for Sharath’s U.S. tour I sat down with him and talked about yoga in Los Angeles and throughout the world.
Leslie: Many spiritual leaders built centers in Los Angeles to spread yoga. Do you think LA is a spiritual place?
Sharath: Only practices make it spiritual. If there are many spiritual people, it becomes a spiritual place. Why are the Himalayas spiritual? Because there are many spiritual people there who experience spirituality and who have spiritual experiences. That’s why many gurus went to Los Angeles because there were people interested in spirituality. When there are interested people who want to know [and develop] spirituality …it makes them spiritual. It becomes a spiritual place. So, maybe there is a connection there.
Leslie: Southern California was the first place your grandfather, Sri K Pattabhi, known as Guruji, visited in the United States.
Sharath: In 1975, Guruji went to Encinitas. That was the first place he went in the U.S. to teach Ashtanga yoga. Paramahansa Yogananda [also] set up his center there. People started thinking about spirituality and yoga. They wanted to learn about yoga and to discover what it is, so gurus started traveling.
Leslie: Now yoga has been re-interpreted many times. Do you see yoga as classical and modern?
Sharath: Definitely. Nowadays, it has become more physical, like how to do handstand. There is no spirituality in that. It’s just physical, how to bend your body and how to align your body, but classical yoga is about how to bring the discipline to your body and your mind, and how that discipline leads you towards spirituality. That is called yama and niyama. These are very important limbs in yoga practice. Not many people are putting attention to these. They are putting attention only to the physical aspect of yoga….there is no breathing, no vinyasa, no gazing. All these things, what we call tristana, are very important to our asana practice.
In [some forms of] modern yoga, it’s mostly acrobatics. No one knows where they are inhaling, where they are exhaling, how the posture helps our body and mind. They don’t know how our breathing helps our body, nervous system, and mind. But this is very important. Yoga is getting popular all over the world, but there are only few people who have understood yoga well, who have gone to the roots of yoga. Everything is all like a circus, just bending their bodies but that doesn’t mean that’s spirituality. I go to lots of places but there are only few people who really know what yoga is.
“Practices make [a place] spiritual. If there are many spiritual people, it becomes a spiritual place.”
Leslie: What is Mysore style?
Sharath: Let me explain a led class: where we call the asana names, count the vinyasas and every student is practicing the asana at the same time. This is to improve vinyasa and have proper understanding of the system: where to inhale and exhale, and to follow the vinyasa properly.
Mysore class is where we are not counting. We are [monitoring and] trying to help the student improve in different postures. It’s not Mysore style it’s like a one-on-one style. Students are doing it at their own pace. This is called Mysore style because it started in Mysore by Pattabhi Jois.
Leslie: Practicing at the shala in Mysore reminds me of the United Nations of Yoga. Students might not speak the same language but when we do our practice together it creates beautiful energy. What do you think about the growing global Ashtanga world?
Sharath: Yoga doesn’t have any language. When there are 60 students practicing in the shala, there is no common language but there is a common thing, which is yoga practice. They are all doing the same practice, the same asanas, and even they know which asana this is, how many vinyasas. They are all doing simultaneously the same asana, in the same sequence, and that is the language that brings so much peace. Your energy, their energy, everything is mixing up and generating this huge ball of energy in the shala. So, that is very important, and that is the only language.
When they are silently doing practice, it generates a certain energy, which makes the whole environment peaceful. Silence is the only method to bring peace. Once your mind is silent then everything becomes silent and serene. The whole concept, the purpose of doing yoga is to bring silence, to bring peace to your mind.
In Mysore there are different nationalities speaking different languages, but in the practice no language is used but the energy is so high. When the energy is so high, and no one is talking, you only see equality in each and every student. It’s not that you are American, Japanese, Korean, or Australian. When this equality happens, everything is one. Yoga is also one. SAMATVAM YOGAM UCYATE (Bhagavad Gita 2:48). Where there are no emotions, no happiness, no sadness, no caste, no creed, no nationality, no discriminations, that’s also called yoga. So, becoming one is called yoga.
“Silence is the only method to bring peace. Once your mind is silent then everything becomes silent and serene. The whole concept, the purpose of doing yoga is to bring silence, to bring peace to your mind.”
Leslie: What is s Sadakha?
Sharath: A Sadakha is a practitioner who dedicates himself to the practice and the lineage. Yoga isn’t that which can be practiced by watching videos or reading books. Yoga has to come from a parampara, from a lineage, and you have to devote to that lineage and try to learn yoga. That is how the yoga should come.
Leslie: The “one-on-one” approach, done with little talking, does it help us better learn our true nature?
Sharath: In our lineage, you can’t teach in masses. We can teach, but we can’t connect to many people. We can’t understand our students unless we are teaching one-on-one. When there are too many students, we can’t reach everyone. Your voice can reach, but you can’t give personal attention to each student. Everyone has different body structures, mindsets, and flexibilities. Only when you are one-on-one can you understand the students and give what they need.
Leslie: Does this help their spiritual path?
Sharath: Spiritual path is when you get connected with your guru. When you give personal attention to a student, there’s lots of energy that flows through your student. He can feel the energy. When people come to practice in Mysore, there is certain energy here. That energy is generated by a guru. When that energy is generated by a guru, everyone will follow him, everyone will connect to him, everyone can feel his energy and try to practice in that energy. In a mass, you can’t have that same energy. It’s like going to a rock concert, you are just hearing but you can’t get connected to the singer.
Leslie: How do you see Ashtanga yoga making an impact in the world?
Sharath: There is no particular place it will make an impact. There is no one place for yoga. Many places yoga has reached, many countries, many nationalities. Yoga doesn’t belong to one culture. Everyone should practice yoga for their own well-being. Once that happens, the whole planet becomes a spiritual place. The whole planet will become totally different. Everyone will realize their own responsibility in their life towards this planet, towards humanity, so that’s what we have to think about. Yoga will give you that kind of knowledge. It’s not just physical, it’s overall how to keep your own well-being, and keeping others’ well-being. So, that is called yoga.
For more information about R Sharath Jois’ teaching schedule in the US (May 22 – June 24) including his Los Angeles workshops (May 29 – June 3), visit sonima.com/sharath
Leslie Hendry is an advanced Ashtanga Yoga practitioner who lives in Los Angeles and is also rooted in India and her native Texas. A former New York attorney, she designed the #3-ranked kids app “Everything Has a Home” and is working on her second book.