First Sunday conference of 2014 and it was packed! This weekend is one of transition where many yoga students leave and new ones arrive and so there was some overlapping of people. Consequently the shala was full to the brim, with people sitting on the stage around Sharath and even out in the foyer. There was no floor space left and definitely not enough oxygen for all of us. I’ve never seen the shala so crowded for conference. But I guess that in the coming days the numbers will even out again and we’ll be somewhat fever than today (with emphasis on somewhat…).
Yet, it’s a nice to see so many devoted yoga students and although Sharath looked tired, he also seemed happy to see both new and old students. But he did specifically ask us at the end of the conference to not come and ask to prolong our stays at the shala. The shala is full until the end of the season, and as sad as it is to turn away students, Sharath said, he could not take on any more people.
This conference covered many topics including a demonstration of head stand by Sharath. I recorded a video, but I had a bad angle so there are probably better videos out there for you to see. So – I agree with what some say that conference notes cannot convey the whole picture, that they may miss out on transmitting the atmosphere or the message between the lines, and of course of facial expressions of the speaker as well as demonstrations such as today. But on the other hand they can act as a small glimpse into what happened and to what conferences may be like. The purpose is not to give a perfect account of what happened. That would not be possible anyway since everyone in the room will have a different experience and interpret the message in their own way. As I wrote in my last report, depending on where one is in life and what one needs, one will pick up on different things from what Sharath says.
To me the purpose of conference notes is not only for me to remember a bit better what was said but also to share with fellow yogis and students who are not able to be here in Mysore. I appreciate reading reports when I am back home – it makes me feel more connected. And so sharing my notes is also a way of returning the favour. So here we go – my notes and interpretation of Sharath’s first conference of 2014.
We breathe on average 21 600 times a day Sharath said. This happens knowingly or unknowingly (mostly the latter). There is a set number if breaths for a lifetime but by practicing yoga techniques such as asana and breathing exercises (including pranayama) we can lower the number of breaths we take per hour/day/year etc. In India there is a tradition to wish for a person to live a hundred years (in Sweden it’s the same – we always sing “may you live a hundred years” on peoples birthdays). But through yoga we can extend this timeframe. By breathing longer and deeper, we breathe fewer breaths per day and in that way we can extend our life span.
I didn’t ask but I assume that with this theory other types of exercise that fasten the breath and increase the heart beat would then shorten one’s life? I also reflected upon why we would strive to extend our life span. Why try to become 120 years old? Why would that be desirable? One thing is sure – it wouldn’t be sustainable when the population of the earth is growing at the rate that it is. Furthermore, it would be one thing to be 120 years old with the strength and vitality of a 30-year old, but generally that’s not the case…. So, I’m happy to practice yoga for my present health, but not necessarily to become super old.
Sharath continued to talk about the benefits of certain yogasana to prevent the ageing process. The finishing sequence – the inversions salamba sarvangasana, halasana, karna pidasana, urdhva padmasana, pindasana, matsyasana, uttana padasana and sirsasana – are particularly important. They purify the nervous system and prevent the amrita bindu (the nectar of life) from dropping. The amrita bindu is stored in the head and as we get older it falls down through the body and burns away when it hits Manipura Chakra – that’s how we age. We can stall this process by doing a lot of inversions and doing them for a longer time than the other asanas. There are also specific Kriyas (purification processes) to prevent the amrita bindu from falling. Like where the skin under the tongue is cut in order to make it longer. By folding the tongue into the back of the mouth one can capture the amrita bindu and prevent it from falling. “But don’t try that at home”, Sharath joked. Better to practice your inversions! For example if you don’t have time to do your full practice one day then only do Surya Namaskaras, the inverted postures and the three final seated postures.
BUT, Sharath cautioned – it is very important to do the inverted postures correctly. Since they are often done incorrectly there are many misconceptions about them. Doctors sometimes advise not to do these asanas as they claim they lead to injury or that they can make you crazy if held too long. This is not true. If done properly, Sharath said, sirsasana can be held for more than two hours. Even for people with high blood pressure sirsasana can be very beneficial. “I’ve taught many people with high BP and have helped them.”
Sharath proceeded to demonstrate head stand and he emphasised the importance of keeping the weight of the body in the tripod of the hands, lower arms and elbows – not on the top of the head. The body should be slightly lifted off the floor. If the hands were squeezed to tightly together there would be too much weight on the head and this would prevent the blood from circulating properly. Therefore the hands should be slightly apart for there to be space for the head. It is also very important to lift the legs slowly up and down when entering/exiting the asana. Hurrying in or out of the posture is dangerous as it makes the blood rush too quickly to the head. People with high BP would need to monitor their BP daily and initially not stay too long in inversions, but build up the time slowly.
Someone asked when one is ready to do variations of head stand and Sharath answered that one first should be able to balance properly in the “basic version”. He said that even many students who are in intermediate cannot yet balance properly in sirsasana. One should practice sirsasana at least a couple of years to become stable. Guruji said that to get perfection in an asana one would need to practice it at least 1000 times. But many students are attracted to teachers who give them many new asanas and promise to lead them to Samadhi in 15 days or less. But no teacher training or certificate will make you a yogi or lead you to Samadhi. Only practice will.
“First perfect what you’ve learned so far. Without perfection don’t even think about new asanas”, Sharath said. You have to practice for many years and face many obstacles on the way – sickness, laziness, doubt… “I’ve also had to face many obstacles”, Sharath confessed. But nowadays students have no patience – they just want more asanas. Some students doubt the teacher and walk from teacher to teacher. These students often end up very confused.
The obstacles you will meet in your practice are a mental thing. But practice will make our mind stronger. If we practice properly we will lay a good foundation and become strong and no longer bothered by the obstacles. If not, then our mind will be dominated by the obstacles instead. But, Sharath underlined, “Don’t think that a good practice is doing all asanas perfect every day. Getting up and doing whatever you can is sufficient. That is a good practice. Being on the mat and practicing is what is important”.
Q: What if we don’t have time to practice a certain day? What if we’re really busy?
A: It’s impossible to say that there’s no time for practice. One day has 24 hours and you always seem to have plenty of time to write on Facebook or chat with your friends online. So I’m sure you can find 30 minutes to spend on your practice! J The best thing is to practice as soon as you get up in the morning. If you have a busy day ahead then sleep a little less – five and a half hours instead of six. Then you’ll have time to practice. Your practice will energise you and make you more active in the day. It will give good energy to whatever work you do.
Q: What if we doubt ourselves and our abilities?
A: Only when you have doubt you can improve yourself. If you think you are perfect then there will be no progression. Doubt is necessary for development. But you need to put in the effort to learn things and to start improving yourself. Without effort nothing happens. Moreover, “Perfection in yoga comes only when you understand the yamas and niyamas”, Sharath said.
Q: How do you practice when having a family? Should one teach one’s spouse or children?
A: Do you stop brushing your teeth when you have a family? Do you stop eating? Of course not. So it should be the same with your practice – it should not stop because you have a family. Keep practicing! And don’t force the practice on your children or spouse. Let them develop the interest – let it come by itself. When I was little I wanted to play cricket with my friends, but Guruji used to come look for me to make me do practice. I used to hide and my friends covered for me. But in 1999 a major change happened in me. We moved to Gokulam, but Guruji and the shala stayed in Lakshmipuram. My mother (Saraswati) kept telling me to go and help Guruji. But I postponed it for many months. And one day I suddenly decided to go and I haven’t stopped the practice since. It’s been 24 years.
Q: Why do some students turn so that they lay with the head (and not the feet) towards the teacher when taking rest after practice? (This refers to led class as the finishing sequence is done in the changing rooms on mysore practice days)
A: In India we don’t show our feet or legs to God, elderly people or a teacher. The reason is that we walk on our feet and we don’t always know where we’ve put them. Sometimes we walk through bad energy. In India we always remove the footwear and leave it outside and there will always be a tap in front of the house to wash the feet before entering. When going to a temple we also never show the legs or turn the back to the deity as a sign of respect.
Q: Why do we always start with the right side in Ashtanga yoga?
A: “Energy flows from right to left and energy only flows correctly if we follow certain practices”, Sharath replied. To underline his point Sharath told a story of Krishnamacharya going to northern India meeting a man who sat in padmasana with the left foot first doing pranayama with his left hand. Krishnamacharya asked the man why he did like this? The man answered that God had given him two sides so he should use them both. Then Krishnamacharya replied that God has given you two holes – why do you eat with the mouth? (In India the left hand is used for toilet purposes and so it is considered not clean and it is inappropriate to use it for other things). Following certain systems/practices is necessary to make the energy flow the right way around. In astrology it’s the same Sharath said. When I wanted to do my housewarming ceremony last September we consulted an astrologer who advised us the precise time that would be the most auspicious to enter the new house. When doing certain ceremonies at the wrong time the result will be negative. For example – if you do the castor oil bath on a New Moon. Try it and you’ll most likely get a bad head ache. That’s why we also don’t practice Ashtanga on moon days. The energy on these days is either very high or low and it is likely to influence us negatively.
With that the conference ended and Sharath resumed taking on registrations from what seemed to be a never ending queue of newly arrived students. More to follow next week!