Jul 13, 2012

Interview with Guy Donahaye by Elise Espat Part 2

Part two of my interview with Guy Donahaye on his book "Guruji: A Portrait".  And beyond.
Originally posted here:

Reflections on "Guruji: A Portrait" 
- Interview with Elise Espat - Part II

Everyone you interviewed spent time with Guruji in Mysore.  Why is making the time to practice in India so crucial? Or is it?  

If you want to go deep into a subject, you have to go to the source. Spending time in mother India is an incomparable experience and having the opportunity to study closely with a master such as Pattabhi Jois is a priceless opportunity. I believe that it is almost impossible to understand yoga without spending extended time in India, so for a deeper understanding I think it is necessary.

Practicing with Guruji, especially in the intimate setting of the "old shala" in Lakshmi Puram was a very powerful and transformative experience. Receiving the asanas from Guruji and being adjusted in them by him on a daily basis also has a profound impact. Beyond the effectiveness and beauty of the sequences he created, the nature of his adjustments and the way in which he engaged with each individual were teachings on a daily basis. Much more is conveyed through teaching asana than is at first evident.

He would observe our personalities, mental and physical states and engage with us accordingly - teaching us yama and niyama and other yogic truths indirectly or in a practical way. For instance, in some students he was always trying to curb ambition and break down an over inflated ego, in others he was pushing, encouraging, demanding more effort. For each individual on each day it was different. This often caused a lot of confusion, intense emotions and outbursts of anger - either in private or in the shala - one day you though he loved you, the next he seemed to despise you. This caused a lot of self reflection and self analysis.

Prior to 2002 Guruji's yoga shala was very small. In the beginning there was space for eight yoga mats - two rows of four. As the numbers grew we squeezed an extra mat in each row and then eventually there were two in the middle - making twelve. In '91, when I first arrived, Sharath was just beginning to assist, so there were two teachers and eight students in the room. Prior to this and during the summer months there were only a handful of western students, sometimes only one or two - they would get private lessons from Guruji.

With the new shala there was space for sixty students to practice at the same time so the teacher student ratio changed radically. By this time there were many of Guruji's students teaching around the world and students coming to Mysore already knew the practice, so the teaching in the new shala for most students was more about quality control and less about one-on-one teaching. At times there were as many as 300 students present in later years. However, Guruji's commanding presence continued to have a powerful impact on everyone present even though he did not necessarily engage with you directly. It was a common experience that when Guruji spoke to one student - he would shout "straight(en) your leg!" or "touch your chin" - other students in the room felt spoken to also and even though his prompts were not directed at them, they were able to use them also.

Much is made (with good justification) of the ashtanga sequences, however, it makes a huge difference who you learn from and the environment in which you learn. Some say the practice is the teacher. I feel the practice is more like therapy. The guru is the teacher. Even though the teaching may not be explicit, by investing the teacher with a real or imagined superior knowledge, he causes us to reflect on our own limitations. When you are in close proximity to the Guru, these reflections take on a much greater intensity. We used to call mysore a karma accelerator - we felt that enormous transformation was taking place.

How does Mysore influence the practice?  Or does it?

Going to India can help by making practice the central theme of one's day for a period of time. It is also an opportunity to allow the transformations which want to take place in the mind/body to unfold in an environment which does not elicit one's habitual (conditioned) responses. Somehow India has the effect of opening people to greater acceptance and transformation.

I believe it is easier for those who spend time in India to become less materialistic and to start to guide their lives on the basis of a spiritual purpose. While churches in the West are closing, in India every tree or road side rock is a temple to a deity. While many indians crave the same material rewards as westerners, the celebration of and devotion to the divine is everywhere.

The traditional Hindu culture as primarily propagated via the Brahmin caste is based on the same principles as yoga. Guruji's old shala was in Lakshmi Puram, a neighborhood hardly touched by the twentieth century, where people lived much the same way they had been living for hundreds of years. We lived simply without furniture other than a mattress on the floor, intermittent electricity and water. We went to bed when the sun set and got up long before it rose. All around us the local people were all also involved in their early morning rituals, chanting, cleaning, bathing, etc. The target of life for the Hindu is liberation, yoga's target is the same.

Yoga is only one of 64 arts, each of which can bring a practitioner to samadhi and Self realization. Many students learn a musical instrument or study Sanskrit or philosophy - these pursuits take one deeper into an understanding of the science of Self realization.

Guy Interview

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