A Teacher’s Journey: Sri Dharma Mittra
Sri Dharma Mittra is known as “the teacher’s teacher” a great yogi who is revered as an elder, a sage. He was born in the remote village of Pirapora, Brazil in 1939. One of five children, he and his brother Satya became enamored with yogic studies via books.
At 19, Sri Dharma Mittra enlisted in the Brazilian National Airforce where he served for six years. During that time he practiced bodybuilding, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In 1962 he won a national bodybuilding contest, and placed second in power-lifting. This same year, Sattya traveled to New York City to meet
Sri Swami Kailashananda (also known as Yogi Gupta).
Two years after arriving in NYC, in 1964, Sri Dharma Mittra met Yogi Gupta in person, and dedicated his life to the practice of yoga. He took every possible class with the Swami and his disciples. Three years later, Sri Dharma Mittra himself became a Sannyasi (one who renounces the world in order to realize God).
During the 1960s and 1970s Sri Dharma Mittra offered yoga asana lessons in the hotel ballrooms and public places where Yogi Gupta was giving discourse. With his teacher’s blessing, Sri Dharma Mittra opened “Dharma Yoga Center” in New York City in 1974.
For more than 50 years, the center has served as an international hub for classes, teacher trainings, and devotional study. Known as “The Teacher’s Teacher,” Sri Dharma Mittra has affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of yogis in America (and beyond).
When asking one of those students what they most loved about their time studying under the master, the student responded, “He would start every class reminding everyone to make every pose an offering to God.”
A Conversation with The Teacher’s Teacher
Amy Dewhurst: What is yoga? Or what does yoga mean to you?
Sri Dharma Mittra: Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence. That’s what Patanjali tells us in the opening of the first Pada [book] of The Yoga Sutras. We have all of these beautiful techniques that we have received to help us in this process: the ethical rules, the Yogic practices, the physical exercises, the breathing exercises, meditation, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, et cetera. Patanjali outlines the main ones and, if you have the karma to have a nice yoga teacher, they will instruct you in the practice. The secret though is constant practice. Practice, keep acquiring Self-Knowledge and keep trying to become firmly established in compassion. This will help to settle the mind into silence and put you on the path to Self-Realization.
Amy: How did you come to the practice?
Sri Dharma Mittra: When I was a teenager, my brother gave me a copy of a book he found called Days of Peace that described the state of Samadhi. It was exactly what I had been searching for all of my life up until then. Where I was then in Brazil, there were no yoga teachers available, so I had to be patient.
Eventually, my brother went to New York City and met there an Indian Guru named Swami Kailashananda — the American students called him Yogi Gupta, because that was his family name and it was easier for them to pronounce and remember.
My brother wrote me a letter and said I’ve met the person we’ve been searching for. Come here as soon as you can! I asked my mother’s permission, sold my business, left the [Brazilian] Air Force, and bought a one-way ticket to New York. The day I arrived, I met the guru. For me, it was like meeting G-d. I knew I had found what I had been searching for all of my life up until then. I committed myself to his teachings and the practice, and for me, that was it.
Amy Dewhurst: How did you become a teacher?
Sri Dharma Mittra: I met my guru in 1964. I then took every class every day with him and his swamis. In 1967, I was asked to begin offering classes at the Yogi Gupta New York Ashram both to the residents and to the students that visited for classes. I taught classes concerning the third and fourth steps of yoga: Asana and Pranayama. In 1974, I asked the guru’s permission to leave the ashram and start my own school. With his blessing, I opened the Yoga Asana Center in New York City in 1975 that eventually became the Dharma Yoga Center. I have been sharing the full practice ever since.
Sharing Inspiration with Students
Amy: You’ve been teaching yoga asana since 1967. When students come through the doors, what do you hope to pass down to them, inspire in them, invite them to ripen into, to become?
Sri Dharma Mittra: Even if the students only arrive wanting to learn a little bit about how to make the physical body healthy, strong and more flexible, I try to make sure they leave having always learned some other things as well.
For many people, Asana is what gets them through the door and often keeps them interested, but so much of what we need to understand is that we are more than this physical body — this pile of bones, flesh and blood, that is born, lives for a while, and then dies.
Asana is wonderful for helping us to cultivate a radiant state of health, but Asana is only one eighth of yoga. If our practice begins and ends with Asana, then we are not really practicing yoga.
What is most important is that the students can come to see themselves in all living creatures. That they can come to understand there is something behind all life that allows us to experience everything, but come to know that we are so much more than the body and the mind.
Sri Dharma Mittra on Teaching
Amy Dewhurst: In all of those years do you have a favorite memory of teaching, or a moment when you really saw the impact your teachings have had on the world?
Sri Dharma Mittra: What gives me the most pleasure is to see people of the world behaving better and better — to see the compassion steadily increasing.
I told a story to the students online just this morning how a couple of years ago, I pretended to have my dentures fall out of my mouth while I was teaching (I dropped a set of plastic novelty teeth on the ground). While most of the students were disgusted, one of them leaped forward to grab what they thought were my false teeth to hand them to me.
This person had developed wonderful compassion and reverence for the teacher — good qualities for the student of yoga.
Amy: Your famous 908 yoga postures poster is can be seen in almost every yoga studio on the planet. Can you tell us how this happened?
Sri Dharma Mittra: I had an idea in the early 80s to do something to honor my teacher and to try and provide a tool that would help people to make progress in Asana; where they could see all the main poses and many variations all in one place.
I bought a video camera, a monitor and a regular camera with a squeeze bulb trigger. I would assume the pose, check the position in the video monitor, think of G-d, squeeze the bulb sometimes in my mouth, spit it out, and five seconds later, the camera would take the picture.
I eventually had over 1,300 pictures. I cut them all out so they were just the image of me without the background and over time began to arrange them on vertical wires I had hung for that purpose with clothespins.
Eventually when I had 908 of them arranged in the way that seemed right, I went to a special shop that could print large images and spent most of my money having copies made. Most of the original copies, I gave away or plastered on bus stops to promote my classes. Whenever I went back to check on them, they were gone! People kept taking them because I think they liked them. We keep printing them ever since and people keep buying them, so that’s good.
Amy Dewhurst: How has yoga changed in America, and in the world, since you first started teaching?
Sri Dharma Mittra: With technology, everything is constantly improving — getting better and better. In the beginning, if I wanted a certain book, I had to write to an ashram in India for permission, then send the money and sometimes it was months before I could finally hold it in my hands. Today, every yoga book is for sale on the internet and it can be delivered the next day. The main ones, you can read for free online anytime.
In the 1960s, there weren’t too many people who knew much about yoga even in New York City. Today, there is a yoga studio on every corner and if you don’t find the teacher you like there, you can go online and find thousands more everywhere.
If you have a question today about anything, you ask Swami Google-ananda. Before you even finish entering in the question, he already gives you many choices for answers.
We have yoga mats today — all these things to make the practice comfortable. I can’t wait to come back next lifetime and practice yoga in a space station!
Amy: If you could impart upon young aspirants one word of advice, or one thing you would hope they would learn, what would it be?
Sri Dharma Mittra: The action of compassion is to place yourself in others. I would tell them to learn to see themselves in others — that’s a master key to everything.
Amy: This is a question I ask everyone, so thank you for your thoughtfulness in answering. Where do you think dharma meets free will? How much is predetermined, how much is in our hands?
Sri Dharma Mittra: Dharma is the Divine Plan. If you accept and believe in the Laws of Karma, then you see that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; that everything we are currently passing through is a result of our deeds from the past. If you accept this way of seeing things, then free will is not part of the equation. We are here making decisions, taking actions, experiencing emotions, but we are doing this according to the Divine Plan. “Not even a single blade of grass moves without the will of the L-rd.”
If you believe this to be true, then every action you take is according to your Parabda Karma — the karma of this lifetime, and everything there is set, so the decisions we make, even the thoughts we think and emotional states we pass through, it’s all part of the larger process of purifying the heart and mind so we can eventually achieve Self-Realization, the goal of all life.
Amy Dewhurst: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sri Dharma Mittra: Without Yama and Niyama, there is no yoga. It’s like spaghetti without the sauce. I have been saying this for many years and people usually laugh when they hear it the first time, but it’s true.
There are people in Cirque du Soleil who can do Asana better than any Yogi and there are pearl divers who can hold the breath longer. There are even people who can learn to concentrate the mind on one point without wavering to make great breakthroughs in science.
What transforms these actions into spiritual practice is a firm foundation of Yama and Niyama. Find a nice yoga teacher who can teach you these, who knows also about the main poses and breathing exercises and who can teach you how to sustain the concentration so it becomes meditation.
If we add the compassion full force to all of this, keep the diet, we are practicing yoga, and this will have the effect of transforming the way we experience life. Be kind to your guests and your pets. That is yoga.
Amy Dewhurst: Thank you for all you have done! I’m honored to interview you. Pranams.
Sri Dharma Mittra: Thank you for this great opportunity to share a little bit about the yoga!