Practice Not Philosophy

There is a fundamental precept to practicing yoga, which is that the mind exists in a more correct state while it is not disturbed by temporary thoughts. So, it may or may not be exactly correct to say that the sutras tell you not to think, but there is no doubt that the goal of yoga is to eliminate the disturbances of consciousness. If this is the case then we can assume then that ignorance (avidya) is itself caused by disturbances of mind, and thus the correlating of the purusha with prakriti another extension of this one malfunction of our existence. 


If avidya is the only source of suffering, and this suffering comes from a fundamental miscomprehension of a dualistic reality, then removing the ignorance through correct comprehension can only come through a placid or “clear” mind. If this is the case, without adding or subtracting anything from the statements made in the sutras, we can then assume that yoga has something of a “utilitarian” vibe to it. In other words, yoga sides slightly on the “zen” concept of enlightenment, and away from the “attainment” concept that is common in most religions. 


I say this because logically if we have a “mind” (or, more appropriately a “consciousness” or a piece of consciousness attributed to our locale which we exhibit some control over) by which karma enacts itself upon us, then this mind can produce “good” or “bad” karma depending on whatever kind of ignorance it is seeing. A mind, supposedly, which is seeing correctly, or in a way which is consistent with the teachings of yoga, does not create new suffering. The sutras alludes to this as well. This state of being is not something which we attain all of a sudden and then never again have the need for practice, but rather it is an aspect of ourselves which exists at all times, underneath the guise of ignorance which shields us from our experience of ourselves. It is thought, then, that defines what we are not, rather than what we are; according to yoga. 


Practicing yoga through philosophical inquiry has been done for centuries by great yogis in the east, but it may be debatable for it to be an effective method of transmission to people in the west, for a few reasons. First of all, sanskrit is an entirely different language than English. While it is related to Latin, Sanskrit definitely has a methodical rhythmic system to it, meant to convey not only through the literal meaning but also through the “feeling” of the words. As someone who has spent hours on end chanting in Sanskrit, I personally vouch for this being the reality. You somehow learn through chanting sanskrit in a visceral way, which seems to be exactly the opposite from the very cognitive and intellectual roots of English speaking people. Understanding yogic concepts purely intellectually, would be only to add to the issue which the sutras is alluding to; clutter of the mind. 


Yoga may not directly forbid us from learning, but certainly there are things which can jade the mind in one way or another. Is it simply a matter of giving up on thinking all together? I think this is a viable argument, especially considering how many people are living up in the mountains doing nothing but meditating; but for the rest of us, it’s just not possible. Enter the Ashtanga method. 


Ashtanga Yoga is a rebellion against conventional philosophy, and in its furthest reaches, it is even a rebellion against modernized structured religion. I’ll explain why. 


Ashtanga deliberately encourages you to practice without fail, and not due to blind faith. Actually, Ashtanga’s credo is to believe in the visceral quality of the practice to awaken more primitive aspects of our physical being, which gives us increased ability to expand our awareness, our perception, to every aspect of our being. Think of our body in terms of neurological patterns. A brain is made of neurons which are not easily distinguishable (mostly) from neurons in any other part of the body. There is simply a concentration of these neurons inside our skulls. While these neurons certainly exist here for a reason, there is consciousness in the rest of our bodies. Practicing asana expands our ability to interpret information through our sensory perception by removing the “static”, by removing the clogged channels of intellect which pervade our bodies. Through the purification of the channels of awareness, energy, et. al. yoga seeks to find within us a very real human which is capable of understanding the truth of our existence. In the case of Ashtanga this truth can be found amidst (we assume) the daily life of a householder, not simply limited to those who can forsake everything and practice yoga in a cave for decades. 


A rebellion against the mind is to acknowledge the power of something else, while not necessarily defining it. Again, this isn’t necessarily a blind faith. People who practice yoga can feel the presence of this power, but at times we fail to be able to define it. Therein is exactly the power of yoga. The intellectual mind fails to grasp things outside of its realm of capability. There is no reason for it to have ever been designed by evolution to be able to perceive something beyond itself; most notably, the brain, the thoughts within it (per se) were designed to keep our bodies alive; this is how evolution works. It goes without saying then, that the mind will seek to keep its home alive at all costs. This is an entry point to the concept of “ego” in a yogic context, and the complex issue of self preservation while one takes on a practice that so obviously seeks to destroy aspects of the life form (those which hinder the exploration and realization of the self/purusha). 


Practice, not philosophy. It is a key point to understand, but without a teacher it can be treacherous. All students of Ashtanga are advised to take practice and not to talk. There is a reason behind this which goes much farther than just being bossy, gruff, traditional yoga teachers. 

What Makes a Yoga Teacher

Life is Short. 


When I first considered taking a yoga teacher training, I was in my early 20s. It became a very real goal for me in my life at that time, although I do not recall having a deep desire to teach the public. 


In 2005 I made a decision to eventually take the teacher training at Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle with David and Catherine Garrigues, two certified Ashtanga teachers. I eventually fulfilled that promise to myself in 2007, and my life would never be the same. The change from “student” to “teacher” however, was not what I had imagined. There was no change, actually… rather, I found new difficulties. I actually can recall becoming more injured in the months following my teacher training than ever before. Further personal complications made living in Seattle impossible, and through some sort of serendipitous action I ended up running a small yoga studio somewhere else. 


2008 was a tough year for the Seattle Ashtanga contingent. In 2008 our school disbanded. One of our teachers was sick with cancer (we would lose her in 2010). In 2009 we lost Pattabhi Jois, and through this whole time David Garrigues was teaching on the East Coast. Essentially, we were left to fend for ourselves… which was exactly what I personally, needed. 


In 2006 while I was studying daily at the Ashtanga Yoga School, I can remember being very fed up with yoga, with Ashtanga, and with life in general. I was dedicated to the practice, to an undeniable fault. Yoga was, essentially, ruining my practice of yoga. I petitioned and complained to my teacher, but to no avail. I can still remember after class, although he rarely, if ever, came out of the Mysore room to speak to anyone, on one particular day he followed me into the entrance area.


“You’re all I’ve got” I said to him, pleading for him to understand how important the school was to me, how important Ashtanga was to me, and how important it was that he remain my teacher and that I continue to study under him.


“No. You’re all you’ve got” He replied to me. I took his words incorrectly. I assumed he was backing out on me, somehow neglecting me as a student. My sensitive feelings couldn’t see anything other than a teacher abandoning me as a student. Somehow I imagined that I was just trying too hard, and he was unwilling to teach me at the pace which I wanted to learn. And, maybe, in some respects, that was accurate, but it definitely wasn’t the whole story. 


David went on to explain to me. He even emailed me (which was very rare!). He essentially explained to me that he himself was a student, that he was not someone to be relied upon, but rather, someone to observe and enjoy and share the path with. He explained that he understood the pain and endurance required to undertake Ashtanga in a real way. He explained to me that he felt that this was where I belonged, and that I should keep going, but that I needed to get a clearer picture of the role he had in my life as a teacher. 


It was this day that I began to realize that there were no teachers. 


David Garrigues, to anyone who knows him, is not just a yoga teacher, he is a master. I’m sorry, but I don’t care who is teaching what style of yoga. David is absolutely absorbed in yoga… being around him is like being next to a nuclear yoga reactor. The guy just IS yoga. And David was saying that it’s not really about teachers, it’s not about students, it’s about evolution, it’s about progress, it’s about sustaining a practice for a long time, and really and truly learning from it as a human being on this planet, with this body, with this amount of gravity. 


David taught me how to be a student, by explaining to me how to be a student. Teacher Trainings have now popped up all over the country, in so many forms. Some of them disgust me. I have been a part of many of them now. To this day my favorite yoga classes have been for credit college classes, and my program for people with Multiple Sclerosis…. and the reason for this is that they are the most research based classes I have ever taught, they were also the ones most distinctly not group fitness. 


I do not hold a 200 hour training to teach you to be a group fitness instructor. I hold the 200 hour training in Bellingham to teach you to become a student. Like me. 


I am a bad student.


Let me tell you. I have heard a lot of stories of the “bad man” saying that Guruji used to use. David has occasionally called me “bad man”, but he was always smiling when he did it. He’s also went on since to elaborate on what he was talking about. 


Everyone has a style to their practice, and you have to uncover that or you are no good to anyone.


There is a story in yoga that you are a beginner for your first 7 years. I think that makes sense. You should learn to be a beginner first. 


Now days, most people begin teaching yoga before they have practiced for a good 7 years. This is a troubling mistake. The world is full of bad yoga teachers. I can say this because I am a yogi and understand my subjective opinion. I am not saying that they are bad people, but there is a certain legitimacy to time when it comes to yoga. There’s no doubt that some of these teachers are amazing and they have reincarnated from their previous life as a great yoga guru, but I really think we should slow down on the class teachings. Look around you; who is really worthy of being called “yoga teacher”? If my teacher, David Garrigues, called himself into question when I referred to him as “teacher”, perhaps we should all do the same. 


Yoga is beautiful in its ambiguity, yet so direct and poignant in it’s simplicity. I have taken the 200 hour curriculum which started at Ashtanga Yoga School in Seattle, the program which I graduated from 8 years ago, and I have tried to make it accessible to regular people. I have tried to make it so that I do not ever have to have some long conversation about what “style” of yoga I teach. Rather, I have attempted to make it inclusive. 


During the course of study I am sure that we’ll disagree. The important thing will be to take a good look at your own personal convictions, line them out, and see if they hold true for you during your course of study. Furthermore, you can always refer back to the syllabus… if at any time you are feeling distant from the teaching, or at odds with what I appear to be teaching, let us reference these materials from distinguished authors, and keep ourselves on track. Opinions abound, but we needn’t stray too far off, because yoga truly is a science, it is not here for us to wander around aimlessly, instead, we simply can follow the path we are on to the place where we are today. Moving forward, we can then be more empowered as students on our path, with the support of the lineage, the science, and the application of past and contemporary students of the art. When you get your 200 hour, then, you should be proud of the accomplishment… because through research and perspective we evolve as practitioners. 

Together or alone

In yoga there is a lot of talk about "unity" and oneness, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about what exactly that means. It's definitely not an easy topic but here is the basics from my point of view. In Samkyha "yoga" philosophy there are two undeniably separate entities which are mistakingly mixed together (yoga sutra 2:23-24) through deficiencies in our perception, leading to and/or resulting from ignorance. The practice of the eight limbs of yoga (yoga sutra 2:28) reveals the distinctness of the purusha and prakriti and thus leads to the ability to pierce through avidya (ignorance) and realize the self, or "atman", as it were. 

There is a lot of talk in yoga about yoga sutra 1:2 that "yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of consciousness", but the practical aspect of yoga in removing these fluctuations is entirely tied to the notion that without these fluctuations (or disturbances if you want to call them that) you would exist in a more authentic form, and the self would be revealed to you. So it is one and the same thing, and in layman terms we're just saying that our minds impede our ability to perceive the truth, so we must find a way "behind" that type of misperception, if you will, and that method is called yoga. 

So there is a lot of talk about how all human beings are actually parts of a larger whole, and that is backed up by the Upanishads, at least to some degree, that the concept of an egoless self exists. Obviously if you were not a human being then you would take some other form; the question then is wether or not that form is unique, or wether or not it is separated from "other" such forms. There would be little argument within the yoga world that the purusha without a body would not be able to perceive itself, at the very least not as we do as human beings. The bigger argument comes when people try to interpret togetherness and separateness. 

Brahman is the "one without a second" concept talked about in yoga philosophy, and it is constant in the Upanishads. The Samkhya philosophy shows clearly that the Brahman, like explained in the Upanishads, exists in a realm that is somewhat beyond our perception, so trying to define it is extremely mundane and a waste of time. In a tree of Samkhya (shown to the right) we can see that Prakrit manifests through the "matter" or physical realm, the more quantifiable aspects of our reality. The purusha remains distinct from the prakriti and sort of "hovers" there. It is sometimes regarded as being superior to prakriti, but that is, if anything, only implied in the sutras and never actually stated. The purusha tends to be difficult to perceive in our daily lives due to the constant attention we give to the grosser, more mundane aspects of ourselves, at the same time the two don't necessarily exist in a hierarchy. 

In my opinion we are separate beings all the way up the ladder to Brahman, but I'm open to suggestions there. I see the purusha as something that carries karma along with prakriti as long as the two need each other, which could be indefinitely or permanently. Assuming that they're permanently intertwined then its logical to assess that we are not "all one" until we consider it from the perspective of Brahman, or unless there is a way to remove yourself from the cycle of birth and death, and thus no longer "having" a purusha/prakriti, and then defining that existence as our more validated form, so then it would be true to say that we are not separate, simply because the form in which we are separate is an illusory form, or isn't the form which defines who or what we are.