A conversation with Swami Gyandharma…

This is the final interview in the series I have been doing connected to my research on bhakti yoga. It was great to spend time with Swami Gyandharma and if you haven’t come across him, i highly highly recommend the courses he runs at Mandala Yoga Ashram a few times a year. These courses are rare gems of simplicity and wisdom.

Definition

I started the conversation asking what Swami Gyandharma’s definition of bhakti is:

“Surrender. That is how i would define it. It means trusting. Trusting that everything is exactly the way it is meant to be. Knowing that is always the case, regardless of how difficult the situation or the circumstances are. It has little to do with any formal kind of approach. That is just decoration but it is not essentially the item.

Bhakti is an expression of love. We all know love from our human love affairs, it is the same thing on a bigger scale. The attraction you feel towards the object, and the belief in the perfection of the object and the goodness of the object. Bhakti yoga is the same but on a bigger scale. In one way or another you begin to relate to all of life that way. We are not worshipping something abstract you understand that god is the decider of everything that happens in your life so you accept it.”

Religion

We discussed if it is important to have any kind of religious framework to work with bhakti and Swami Gyandharma explained “I grew up completely without it, in an atheist family. I never went to church and i was never talked to about god. But i grew up in an environment that had strong human values and morality. But not in an overdone way. The basics of be good, do good, be polite and friendly. In my early twenties, one Sunday afternoon i started praying to god out of absolutely nothing. It was completely spontaneous and I was very surprised but it felt like the right things to do. It is quite inexplicable even if i think about it today.”

He clarifies:  “Bhakti yoga is a path where there is a destruction of the little you, but it is done voluntarily. It is an urge to unite with something to become vaster. It comes out of a realisation of this restricted life of littleness and the pain that accompanies that littleness. It is a search for a bigger version of yourself. But in bhakti yoga you just give up the little self, and the result is the bigger self.”

Being present

Swami Gyandharma describes bhakti as being a very mindful almost taoist practice: “What you’re looking for, the object you want to merge with, whatever you call that, is always there right in front of you. It is not some other place or time. It is always right there; even if right there is totally empty, or totally full, or totally silent or totally noisy. So your practice is always right there. Practice is not something very specific for a bhakti yogi. Every time you reject something you are rejecting your loved one. Love and hate are just two of its faces. That is the difficulty with bhakti yoga it is not confined to one thing but it means embracing everything, totally. It is a complete rejection of rejection. Where you accept everything is a gift, from the divine, everything- including your worst moment, including the most painful moments.”

Kirtan practice

We talked about personal practices of chanting/ kirtan. He said: “I sing hanuman chalisa every morning but i would not describe myself as a hanuman devotee. It moves people, even when people don’t know it and can’t sing it, it still moves people. I have chanted it thousands of times and i have seen that. It is about loyalty, surrender, courage, devotion and trust. It’s all hanuman, captured in that sound or that chant. You don’t need to discriminate too much, anything that makes you feel like sitting down every day and chanting it then you should do that. With any sort of practice, the important thing is doing it.”

Ecstatic States

I asked about the dangers of different states that may be created through chanting. Swami Gyandharma responded: “It is a very matter of fact path in some ways. There is the expression of love and the need to experience of union, or to step out of the limitations of littleness. But it also deals with the realities of life. It is not an imaginary thing: it is not about sitting there thinking you love god. Be present, bhakti yoga without awareness will get you nowhere.

It requires great level headedness. But if you express yourself in an ecstatic way for a moment that’s not a bad thing but it’s not essentially what you’re trying to do. You are trying to meet life with both eyes open and acceptance. You are not trying to forget yourself, to drift off on some pleasant cloud into some blissful dimension. It is not somewhere else… but right here. You have to find it here, in the realities of day to day life. You have to find it in everything, in everybody and every situation, otherwise you still remain separate.”

Emotions and chanting

A big area of interest for me is the how chanting can affect our emotions: “We live in society and situation that are very restrictive emotionally and we are not allowed to express ourselves emotionally. Through song emotional expression is possible, without causing any offence to anyone. People sing out their sadness or they sing out their happiness. It is an expression of something that needs to be aired or recognised in yourself or being ok with who you are. The social restrictions around us, makes it not ok to be a lot of things; you can’t be depressed, you can’t be angry, you can’t be jealous. When we sing we can be all those things and it is perfectly ok, everyone accepts it”

Trust

Finally I asked Swami Gyandharma to say a few words about trust. “Shraddha has got to do with the external world and your relationship to it. It is the belief that you will find a way through the darkness of your life. That is faith. Knowing that you will find the way through your own darkness. That darkness is always reflected in the world outside and so that is where we meet it. Thats where we learn to let go. We can get depressed and that’s a dark time or we can get sad or grief. But it also has to do with the world outside. It’s like how we relate to that outside world.

Faith is something that arises when we accept that the outside world is not something different to us. Most people live their lives thinking it is. Faith means you stop complaining about things, stop blaming others, stop reacting. You know you’re responsible and you accept that. It’s very empowering that way because it puts the solution to all this in your own hands.”

Bhakti project: interview Raquel Alves

raq

In the second post in this series of interviews on Bhakti I talked with Raquel Alves, sometimes referred to as ‘a teacher’s teacher’ due to her role supporting the development of student yoga teachers through British Wheel of Yoga, Yoga Campus in London and mentoring from her home in Surrey. We talked late into the night but I have pulled out a sprinkling of excerpts here.

 

Bhakti and asana

We tend to think of bhakti as linked to specific practices such as chanting but Raquel started by discussing how bhakti influences physical practice: “ With asana practice i always feel quite devotional, but that might be my personality. Sometimes I forget to keep the duty of devotion and the special essence of that practice. I find it more challenging if I’m doing somebody else’s class. But if I can get out of the head of being a teacher and just do the class… even bikram yoga can be extremely devotional. I’m looking to feel the infinite or spaciousness. When Pantanjali talks about experience the infinite – that’s the bhakti that happens in asana classes. It can be a little bit more challenging in a fast vinyasa class.”     

Kirtan

We also talked singing and kirtan: “I think there is embarrassment to sing, perhaps difficulty pronouncing the words. But the biggest resistance, is to being heard. I think it is cultural, if we were in Spain perhaps it would be different. It brings up a lot of fear – to be in tune, to do it right. To open your mouth and start making sounds is scary. In our traditions it is more structured and formal in choirs, so someone saying open up and it doesn’t matter if you stay in tune is quite strange for most people.

When I went to a native american reservation years ago, they were playing music of a traditional chant being sung by this woman and it’s very emotional. Kirtan is like this, people are not prepared for that emotional element.”

Attraction and aversion

We talked about what the obstacles to practice and the attraction to it were: “Once I had a woman who covered her ears when there was chanting. It was clearly creating a response but it was unclear why she did this. I often remind people that they may not like it, they have permission to feel that way. But it is still good for them. It’s like when people say ‘i hate this pose’ – why? where does that come from? what has the pose done to you? You literally get people who are like I can’t stand that [chanting].  

People don’t seem to hang around after asana class, but they do after chanting. It does seem to slow people down. Life has so many distractions. So it’s not because people don’t want to connect, they are hungry for the sangha. But there are too many distractions.”

Mantra and kirtan

There are different traditions of using music and reciting the names of god in yoga. “There is mantra and there is kirtan. They are two different things. Mantra is never said out loud, unless you are teaching it. I have never sung Gayatri or Mrityunjai as part of kirtan. It has a different effect.”

Faith

Finally as part of my research I am exploring the term Shraddha which is often translated as faith. “My practice is my life. For me shraddha is a knowing. That there is something driving the Leela**. Even when things are not going the way I want them to go. There is a constant awareness of that something bigger than myself. Shraddha is inside yourself.

Sometimes we have a faith that things will go wrong, as that is our faith. That’s a strong faith if you look at it.  

I have had moments of very strong faith. I go through phases when that faith is very much inside me and other times it is expressed externally through ritual. Like when we light a candle.”

Find out more about the chanting groups, retreats and yoga classes Raquel runs on her website here. My final interview is planned with the wonderful teacher Swami Gyandharma and I plan to publish some supporting bhakti practices from my project over the coming months – so keep an eye out for those treats.

* – Transcendental meditation

** – Leela is a sanskrit term that is often translated as the inherent playfulness of life.

Dealing with your stuff

kd-quoteRecently I have been really inspired by how a friend has dealt with the unexpected shock of his brother taking his own life (read his excellent blog here). He has found his own method to process the emotions through cycling. As he says on his blog part of this has been allowing there to be a level of unconscious processing, or creating space from an intense situation like this. But also in the act of dedicating /offering up a part of his life that is sacred to him, in memory of his brother.

Yesterday I attended a Bhakti yoga workshop with Rajesh David entitled ‘through love to the self’. He described how heart based practices must give us more than just temporary distraction to our difficulties, practices should help us really deal with the root of the problem. Distractions and diversions will only ever satisfy for a short time, like too many sugary sweets that seem nice to begin with, before quickly turning into a sick feeling.

In the yoga community sometimes there is an impression that everything is about light, rainbows and smells of roses. I often see on social media dogmatic positive intentions, that just don’t ring true for me. I think this is exactly the same thing, when we use our yoga practice to distract and paper over the cracks, it will never really satisfy us.

I have attended many yoga class that has made me cry, to the outsider there may be no apparent reason for the tears. Max storm writes and talks about the close connection between our emotions, breath, and physical tension in the body. So yoga can be a powerful tool for helping us deal with our stuff, assuming we’re not denying the existence of it, or frantically avoiding our problems.

This may be precisely why it can feel really hard to get on the mat somedays. For me when I’m more anxious I find myself subtly finding excuses to myself not to practice meditation. In meditation there are (hopefully) none of the external distractions of daily life. We see the fluctuations of the mind at work, and every now and again, there is that rare pause between thoughts. A moment of space. Yogis believe this is a return to our true nature.

I get up from practice and my problems are still there. But that little bit of space can make a huge difference to my perspective or how it feels in my body. There is no one way of dealing with our stuff. For other people cycling, surfing, painting, playing music or countless other activities will be how they create that space and process what’s going on in their lives. Yoga can provide a highly effective toolkit but only when we are real, and we have the bravery to turn towards our challenges, rather than trying to hide away from them.

Is singing part of yoga?

copyright tempo de florescer kirtan

Copyright Tempo de florescer- kirtan  (creative common licence)

 

As I take a step away from teaching again, I allow a bit more space to practice and explore yoga. A pause is always a useful space to look back on what has happened and perhaps start to imagine some different possibilities for the future.

 

In my personal practice, my idea of yoga has broadened over the last nine months or so. I am currently studying a course at Mandala ashram in Carmarthen. Every weekend spent there involves physical yoga poses, the bread and butter of what most people think of as modern yoga. But there is also time spent working on meditation, philosophy, karma yoga (selfless service) and chanting. Chanting has become a really cherished part of my daily practice, so I thought I’d offer a few words about this for those less familiar with it.

What is it all about?

Mantra is the singing of sacred chants passed down through generations and typically, but not exclusively, sung in Sanskrit. Often it involve repeating the same short phrase over and over. Sometimes a mala is used to count out 108 repetitions of a verse. Other times groups come together for kirtan and chants can increase in speed raising to a crescendo, before dropping back into a slow rhythm again. Have you ever lost yourself singing, perhaps in your car when you think no-one is watching, or at a gig lost amongst the swelling energy of the crowd singing? When we chant we harness that feeling and embed in it the energy sacred phrases which are designed to do things like promote peace.

Meaning

When we’re new to chanting there is a difficulty as some want to fully know and understand the meaning of the chants before singing them. It is possible to track down translations for many of the chants but Sanskrit is a unique language that often has many levels of meaning within a single word so it can be difficult to truly express those subtleties in translations. Ideally chanting is done without intellectualising. For me I find when I become absorbed in it, my mind almost turns off and it’s much more a process of working from my heart sense of feeling the chant, rather than knowing it. We can also get caught worrying about mispronouncing the sounds that are unfamiliar to our western minds and tongues – but Krishna Das describes in this article how intention is more vital than precision in kirtan.

Religious beliefs

Many chants are directed towards traditional Hindu gods and goddesses. So you might feel  it is irrelevant to you if you don’t hold these religious beliefs. But many esoteric thinkers argue that we can work with these ideas as archetypes of characteristics we would like to embody. Such as the power to remove obstacles or grow through our challenges (Ganesh), playful energy (Krishna) or fierce protective energy of the ultimate mother (Kali). I thoroughly recommend Sally kemptom book ‘Awakening Shakti’ for an exploration of the characteristics of some of the goddesses in Hindu mythology.

Fear

Chanting can bring up a lot of fear and anticipation. I vividly remember the first teacher who ever introduced it to me and feeling this huge contraction, it felt like as I looked around the room other students had the same sense of mild panic and desire to slip out post haste. I wonder if some of that is a cultural thing. British people certainly have a reputation for being a bit repressed. Excuse the generalisation, but in my experience we don’t always like to express ourselves. Chanting isn’t just a whisper either, it is singing with gusto and intense passion, which some may feel uncomfortable with, particularly when you are new to it. Perhaps many of us feel we don’t have the best voice to sing and fear is about imperfection or embarrassing ourselves. Lastly I have found that chanting can be incredibly powerful and often brings up emotions, which may be another reason why they can make people fearful.

Where to start

If you’re intrigued by chanting and mantra -it’s good to start practicing with a good teacher and we are fortunate in the UK to have some brilliant kirtan leaders. You may find your regular teacher uses Om and/or other simple mantra, this is a good place to start.

In South Wales Louise Thorndycraft runs fortnightly kirtan and regular workshops. She has also just released a really beautiful album which I can’t stop listening to! In Cardiff there is the option to go to the Hare Krishna cafe on Friday evenings. A little further afield  Nikki Slade, Tabla Tom, Bhavana all appear to run regular workshops. Just across the bridge, you’ll also find Tim Chalice running regular events in Bristol and Bath. There is also a course coming up at Mandala Ashram in November from sound to silence, with the wonderful Swarmi GyanDharma.

But if you’re not feeling brave enough to go along and sing just yet you can always start by listening to Krishna Das, perhaps the best known kirtan singer in the world. As well as variety of music available online, he also posts regular podcasts discussing chanting.

Right now I’m off to take my own advice, pick up my neglected guitar and literally sing until my hearts content.

 

 

Is that pose swan or a child pose?

copyright reserved jack dorsey

copyright reserved jack dorsey

In yoga classes there is a lot going on: breathing, moving, relaxing, as well as taking on board a whole range of names- dogs, cats and cobras galore. It takes time to gets to grip with it… and even after years sometimes a yoga teacher will throw something totally new in the mix. Point in case my lovely friend and ex-yoga student text me the other day to say, that when she finished chuckling to herself, she’d very much enjoyed a new pose ‘cosmic egg’ that appeared in a class she was in. I tried to get more info on what this could be but Google and my trusty textbooks have drawn a blank so I can only assume it is a new adaption by her creative yoga teacher.

 

The question of names also cropped up when i attended a class from someone who teaches in a different tradition to me recently- what I refer to as child pose, was called swan pose. These changes can be very confusing, particularly if you’re relatively new to practicing. So which is right? Typically for a yogi I’m going to sit on the fence – by saying that both are right.

 

Let me explain. Some of these differences are due to the simple translation differences from the original sanskrit terms such as uttanasana, ardha mukha svanasana and bhujangasana. But there are also other reasons for these differences. It is said that in yin practice deliberately has different names to asana that might appear to be very similar to asana that appear in other more dynamic styles of yoga. This is partially because the emphasis and approach to the practice is totally different so masters of Yin such as Paul Grilley encourage students to approach these new poses (with their new names) in new ways.   

  

This also links into the question of which is the ‘right’ way to practice yoga. There are many traditions often depending on the lineage or the origin of the yoga school: from dynamic practices of vinyasa and astanga which are linked to Pattabhi Jois, to other traditional forms of practice such Viniyoga which is linked to T.K.V. Desikachar. These are just a few strands, if I started to describe all the traditions and many variations of yoga we might be here all day (I’ll spare you!).

 

At my old studio Yoga Fever there is no one form of yoga taught in the studio by the regular and visiting teachers- you can encounter teachers taught in Astanga, Power, Viniyoga and other traditional Hatha schools. So the teachers encourage students to experiment and try new things. If you’re interested in understanding the history and underlying philosophy of yoga to start to gain a deeper understanding of these different traditions there are some great foundation courses and workshops around (take a look at BWY Wales). 

 

So for me I guess the moral of the tale is to try not to be too rigid and dogmatic in yoga about rights and wrongs. Instead as students we have to keep a careful ear out for the teacher’s instructions and if the asana names are different to what you’re expecting give a little raise of the eyebrows and then dive right into it, enjoying the pose irrespective of whether it’s a child or hare or a swan or even good old balasana.

 

The beginners mindset

Start finish at john o groats by Ilike

image copyright of ilike Flickr

This year I was asked to teach a beginners class at Yogafever, which in just a few months in has turned out to be as much of a learning journey for me as (I hope) it has been for the students who attend classes. I started practicing yoga 12 years ago so I scarcely remember my first experiences of yoga classes. But i do remember arriving in London in my early 20s and being somewhat mystified why the yoga teacher I approached suggested I did her beginners course. In my mind I knew my dogs, from my warriors, so what business would i have in a beginners class? I was wrong and I’m glad I took her advice. The beginners course gave me time and space to really experience what yoga was about for the first time.

Perhaps one of the feelings we least like as humans is the embarrassment of having to say I don’t know or I don’t understand. But actually turning that on its head being totally open to the beginners mindset can be useful for all of us. As a teacher beginners ask me more questions and that forces me to continually question my assumptions, practice and teaching.

Yoga teachers can be guilty of speaking another language (and not just the old Sanskrit names). So when I come to teach beginners groups I have to think how do I distill the beauty and exquisite depth of yoga into something accessible, without scrimping on the best bits. Recently I was doing some training with US teacher Jason Crandell when the same question came up. If students leave the yoga room with one thing what is it? There are an infinite number of important and correct answers to that question. But for me these are themes that come up again and again:

1. Relaxation

Everyone deserve time and space for themselves to really relax. For me and pretty much everyone I see around me, carving out time for relaxation in the midst of busy lives doesn’t happen as often as it should. If you can get that sensation on the yoga mat, it’s a valuable thing.

2. Embodiment

We live in a very ‘cognitive’ or thinking world these days. That can lead us to habitually live in the mind, largely ignore the body until out of the blue an injury or ill health comes along to remind us how important it is. So it is valuable to be able to reconnect with those sensations in the body. There is an important link between body and emotions (think of the physicality of gut instinct, heartache or joy). For me being connected to this body also helps me feel more aware and connected to my emotions

3. Integration

But it’s not all about the body. In yoga we typically think of three core elements-breath, body and mind. When I attend a good yoga class I walk away at the end of it feeling whole again. I’ve integrated these pieces of me back together.

4. Acceptance

Enjoying (or somedays just accepting) where you are at today. It’s almost certainly different to yesterday or last week. And it’s different to the person next to you. So being able to drop the comparisons and see if you can play with where you’re at now is a useful experience.

For those of you new to this blog there is a longer post on intentions hereWhilst yoga is something that’s been a significant part of my life for over a decade, I do have a little bit of understanding of how daunting it is to start from scratch. I recently started dancing so became a beginner student in that. There are some interesting parallels here – embodiment, focus, relaxation. It’s not easy to step into a room full of people you don’t know and try something new as a total beginner.

Yoga is also a vast subject to study. Thousands of years of development and even now  creative new forms are constantly emerging. So even when we’ve been practicing something for a long time it’s useful to be open to new ideas. I love the days when I can recapture my beginners mindset in yoga – to go woah that’s a new pose for me and to enjoy the process of exploring it.  So whether you’ve done one class, or five hundred classes, the beginners mindset can serve you well. Just as I have learnt so much from my beginners group, so too can more experienced students use the beginners mindset as a tool to stay open to new things and get a fresh perspective on old practices.

Philosophy corner three: Why do you practice yoga?

So this blog was started by an innocent question from a friend of mine. He casually asked one day: ‘Why do you practice yoga’?

On the surface it was easy for me to list the obvious things; I think it’s good for my body, it helps me feel calm and centred, its nice for me to be part of a wonderful community. But actually yoga in it’s fullest expression has an incredible depth and richness that goes far beyond those things. The truth is that yoga has profoundly shaped how i see the world and it helps me view my thoughts, words and actions with clarity.

However I recognise that when i teach yoga that room full of people in front of me will all have their own individual answer to the ‘why do yoga’ question. For some they will have stumbled across the practice at a gym or nearby class and not really think about why they like it. Others will have been recommended it by a professional as a tonic for everything from anxiety and depression, to sciatica and high blood pressure. Then again the person on the next mat along may see yoga as a profound spiritual practice and care little for the physical benefits of practice.

So with all those different ideas in the yoga studio how does a teacher cater to everyone’s needs? Well actually i don’t aspire to cater to absolutely every possible yogi aspiration. For lots of reasons a student might suit a different type of practice to what i teach. For example its not appropriate for pregnant students to attend a flow based class in a hot studio. Equally some students might find they are in a class that doesn’t feel dynamic and challenging enough for their needs.

My regular students will know that I like to start classes by asking students to spend a moment or two reflecting on what their aspiration, dedication or intention is for that day’s practice. If you’re confused about setting intentions there is a lovely blog on this subject by Kathryn Budhig here. As students stand side by side in tadasana at the start of the class they may look similar from the outside but their individual experience can be infused with intentions that make the practices completely different.

Yoga is personal to each individual. Last week I had a magical day when I watched a child with autism engage in yoga helping them with their sensory needs and to make sense of the highly confusing world around them. On the same day I discussed with a student who works in the police how she feels yoga helps her in difficult confrontational situations. Worlds apart but valid and useful in both contexts.

There is no right or wrong answer to ‘why do yoga’ question. For me I don’t think there is a hierarchy of aspirations that makes spirituality for example, any more worthy than the goal of physical fitness.  As Max Strom says everyone must “start where you are, with what you have, do what you can”. We might also find that aspiration shifts from day to day, or in bigger ways as months and years go by. Whatever intention you use, knowing why you’re on the mat and what you want to get out of the practice will give you a different experience. It might be your reason for exploring that asana a little bit deeper, having a go at a difficult pose or simply not just hanging out in the pose whilst the mind drifts elsewhere.

One of my favourite teachers Katy Appleton used to talk about ‘IKEA yoga’ like flat pack furniture we might sort of follow the instructions we’re given but without being present to what we’re doing maybe we end up with something a bit half hearted, that is not quite right. It’s not necessarily about finding that picture perfect pose, but rather by working with a clear intention, we use our mind’s fantastical power within the practice of yoga.

I’d love to hear your thoughts… why do you do yoga? what is your experience of using intentions?   

setting intention