Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sharath in Sydney: Conference

As promised, here's my little report on his conference last night. Some of you are chomping at the bit to hear about it... I will try as much as I can not to mangle what he said (though I'll be paraphrasing all of the time). Will try to follow Susananda's lovely reporting style on his recent UK conference since I enjoyed it very much.

He started with an opening chant (I have no idea what!), and then a talk on the practice of yoga. Umm... yes, I took notes (I have to, otherwise it's in one ear and out the other!).
[Update] This was the Opening chant: "Agnyaana Timiraandhasya Gnyaana Anjana Shalaakayaa Chakshuhu Unmeelitam Yenam Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha"

A Guru can save us from the pangs of ignorance (darkness) by applying to us the balm of knowledge or awareness of the Supreme, I salute such a Guru.

The talk kinda sorta touched on the following:

Yoga came from the rishis in order to help them attain higher consciousness. He talked about the importance of the 8 limbs of yoga - where Ashtanga gets its name. We must follow the Yoga Sutra's 8 limbs step-by-step, building from the foundation up.

Hence, starting with the Yamas & Niyamas (guidelines on how to live your life), before progressing onto asana, pranayama, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi.

Asana is the foundation - we use this to purify the body and the mind, then the next step is pranayama and so on and so forth. By doing so, your organs come under your sense control. The purpose of doing asanas is so "the practice should change you."

This is why the Ashtanga system is complete in incorporating asana, pranayama, drishti, following the 8 limb path.

People say things like "I only do meditation, but not asana"... but how can you sit still with your mind if you haven't learnt how to control it through asana? Doing so is just sitting, not meditating [this might rile some people up!] Asana is one limb to connect to the rest. All the limbs are important, you can't practice only one without the rest.

An interesting point he touched on when talking about the Niyama "Svadhyaya" (self inquiry) is it's important to think about "what is yoga"... get more knowledge from the practice, to sit, think, read about it. He talked about Guruji's famous quote of "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory"... this "practice" does not refer to just physical practice... it refers to your self-inquiry of svadhyaya.

Then he spoke of the importance of lineage/ the role of the guru (don't freak out! "Guru" here simply means teacher). For everything, there is a way to do it. To fully understand and learn, you must stick with the same teacher and have faith in his/ her method. There are exercise videos & books you can learn from, but energy doesn't transfer if you just watch.

Even Krishnamacharya read many books but couldn't find any teacher to learn yoga from. He finally heard of a yogi, Ramana Mohan Brahmachari (let's call him RMB from now), who lived at the foot of a mountain (or was it a forest?) but when he went to see him to ask him to teach him yoga, RMB refused to see him for a few days, only sending his son out on the second day with 2 chepatis (flat bread). Krishnamacharya said "I'm not here to eat chepatis, I want to learn yoga". [giggles ensue] So he passed the test and learned from RMB for the next 7 years.

His point was that these days people learn a few months from this teacher, then another few months from another teacher, then after that coming up with their own "system"... there's no depth to their knowledge when they don't stick to one lineage/ method. People can offer teacher trainings for a few months, claim to teach you pranayama or meditation in one class, tell you you can reach samadhi. People go to different gurus to learn different things, but this will only confuse you. Go to one teacher.

He related a story where he sat next to a lady on a flight and he asked her what she did. She said "I'm a yoga teacher". Everyone burst out laughing. Someone chirped "What did you tell her what you did?" Sharath replied "Nothing, she didn't ask me."

Question & Answer session.
Q: Do you find Westerners different, more easily distracted?
A: You are more distracted because you have more distractions in the West. You go to different gurus. Ultimately it's up to you to decide. But follow the rishis, who followed one teacher. India has a more disciplined life, but there are different kinds of attachments/ non-attachments. Many Western students have been able to adopt a disciplined life too.
[This reminded me of something I read somewhere (Heart of Yoga?) where Krishnamacharya refused to teach Western students for the longest time, thinking they weren't disciplined enough. This kinda makes sense why now, looking at it from the 8 limbs point-of-view]

Q: How long should the primary series take to practice?
A: 1 hour 30min, 1 hour 35 minutes. Anything more and you'll be tired.
[No wonder we've been more tired so far... each led class had averaged 1hr 45min!] :p

Q: What do you think about the use of props?
A: No props! For chikitsa, to cure diseases, if you can't walk, then yes OK for props use. But all of you are healthy and physically able - why do you need props
[Hmm... I smell a debate on this one]

Q: What's the best time to practice? / Should you practice at the same time every day?
A: Early morning is the best time. Less distractions, the mind is pure. 3.30am - 5am is best. I had to practice with my grandfather at 1.30am. If you wait till later in the day, your mind will be distracted by what has already happened that day.

Q: Is there such a thing as "positive attachment"? Isn't any kind of attachment bad? What if I am too attached to my yoga practice?
A: Attachment to your practice is good. It's a different kind of attachment. Can you survive without food? This is just like how you need yoga. If you don't practice, you get distracted and you get sick mentally.

Q: Do you feel a burden having to carry on your Grandfather's work?
A: There's no burden if it's not a burden. [what an awesome answer!] I was on my way to getting my electronics engineering degree. But my mother called and said "please come and help your grandfather, he's too busy". I planned to be there only for one month to help him, but once I started, I knew I was to be a yoga teacher.

Q: I love yoga and I know this is my path, but I don't want to teach. Is this wrong?
A: Yoga is for your spiritual knowledge. Yoga helps you in your work. Yoga helps you in your life. You don't have to be a teacher. The teacher's path is hard.

Then we closed off with a chant honouring Guruji.
[UPDATE] Thanks, @Ashtangikali for what both chants were, including translations:
"Om Sahana Bhavatu, Sahanao Bhunaktu Sahaveeryam Karvaa vahaiand
Tejaswee Naava Dheeta Mastu Ma Vidvishaa vahai Om Shanti Shanti Shanti"

I pray that you help me teach, you help me learn. May our study be brilliant and may we not misunderstand! Om Peace, Peace, Peace!

And we also chanted the also the Closing Prayer again, wishing peace & happiness to all beings on earth.

I was struck by his matter-of-factness. There was nothing high-faluting or esoteric at all about how he explained things. It was a "this is just how it is" manner about it. He's got a quiet calm about him, is earnest and serious in his discussions, but also cracks the odd joke (I like!) and he's soooooo down to earth and humble.

A very inspiring teacher. When's the next flight to Mysore again?


  1. Sharath is still a young man; the responsibility of carrying on Guruji's work through Parampara (lineage) will be difficult (especially given the temptations arising through the popularity and global proliferation of AY) but i am sure he will be steady and prevail. I like that he has humour: as a matter of fact, any guru/teacher or allegedly spiritually accomplished person who doesn't, isn't, in fact accomplished. Humor is enlightenment to a degree. I am sceptical about people who take themseleves to seriously-there is a inherent lack of humility in that type of person. The Yoga realm is actually full of them.

  2. I'll apologise now for commenting on every one of your posts but I can't help myself...

    I LOVE the story of the lady on the plane and it seems typical of his manner that he didn't respond. I also really like the question about not wanting to teach. It's funny that non-yoga people seem to think that as soon as you start getting seriously into yoga, and go to India, and practice every day, that "of course" you are going to become a teacher now. Maybe for some, yes, but not for all. Thanks so much for this J, it's great to be able to share the experience with you Aussies from the other side of the world. :) xx

  3. Hey Nick! A friend who has practised with him regularly in Mysore, went to Bali and also here in Sydney says she's really seeing Sharath come into his own, especially as a public speaker. His talks are getting longer and he's got more confidence. I guess becoming a guru takes time, even if you were born to be one! ;p

    Mel - pls. don't apologize for commenting! It's lovely to know people (other than my mother) read this blog. HAHA! So pls. keep commenting. I learn so much from the comments too. Plus, even if you have a difference of opinion, it's always good to know what the other school of thought is.

    Hugs to you both! x

  4. oooh, I'm catching up this weekend...
    Great notes! Thank you. Really interesting questions and great answers.

  5. Hi, I'm High Over Happy's friend here in California (and a fellow Singaporean) and have just started revisiting Ashtanga after a few years' hiatus. I'm blown away by the Mysore approach, which is worlds apart from how I learnt Ashtanga in Singapore. Reading your posts about Sharath's workshops is really enlightening, so thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I haven't caught the bug to visit Mysore yet, but I'm pretty sure it'll happen soon enough! Happy practising and looking forward to reading about the rest of the workshop :)

  6. Hey Danielle! Yeah, she told me she'd send you to this site. Welcome!

    I started learning Ashtanga in S'pore too - there are many good teachers there who follow the traditional approach too (there are a few authorized teachers). It's just while Sharath's on tour, he's only giving all Led classes, no Mysore-style practice at all. If you want that, you have to go Mysore!

    Like you, I also took a break from ashtanga for a few years, and was a yoga whore, trying out all kinds of different styles... coming back to it again about a year ago. I see it in a whole new light now and appreciate the depth to the system I didn't understand before. But that's a story for a whole new blog post. :)

  7. And Danielle... I've just been onto your blog. Can I just say: DROOOOOOOL!!!!

    (Warning for people who are staying off sugar: Danielle's blog might be your downfall. Yes, that means you Liz! Stay away!)

  8. I would love to read that post when you have the time to write it up! Like most activities requiring serious commitment, I think where you are in your life (work, relationships, etc) affects your level of engagement. I've always been partial to yoga, but never felt as enthusiastic about it as I have now, wanting to read more about it. A very good spot to be in :)

    And thanks for your kind words about my blog! Not exactly a yogi's diet though :p


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