This post originally appeared on Five Tattvas.
My guest in this episode is Gabriel Halpern, who is an Iyengar yoga teacher based out of Chicago. I first met Gabriel a few years ago, when I took his workshops at Kula Yoga Project in Williamsburg, NYC. Gabriel’s therapeutic approach to asana was intelligent and illuminating, but what I found most inspiring were his elegant and thoughtful dharma talks, which drew heavily from mythology and philosophy. I immediately admired Gabriel as the kind of teacher that I myself would like to be someday.
We had a wide-ranging discussion about his beloved teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, about various features of the contemporary yoga scene, and his very interesting views on the need for a return of the “Ritual Elder” in contemporary society.
Gabriel’s path started in a way familiar to a lot of seekers from his generation: with psychedelics. His mind was opened through these experiences and in 1971, he moved into an ashram that focused on training teachers to teach yoga, although he did not have any thoughts toward teaching as a career at the time.
He spoke about how, over the years, the renunciant model of the yoga practice showed itself to be outmoded for our current cultural climate. He calls the “yoga of relationship” the alternative for those who are involved in the world—or, what is sometimes called the “householder path.”
On this path, each person, however ordinary, is extraordinary, but you have to be taught to look at your own life in a symbolic, meaning-filled way. This is where the importance of the philosophical teachings comes in and the practice of svadhyaya, or self-study.
Gabriel speaks of a distinct calling that initiates the spiritual path, one that often asks you to separate yourself from what you know to go on this journey of awakening and transformation. However, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be successful. If you stay the course, your ontological status will no longer be the same after this journey.
Gabriel celebrates this newfound approach to spirituality that no longer requires the imagery and trajectories of organized religion. He quotes one of his teachers as saying, “Organized religion is the banana peel, and spirituality is the banana.”
I thought Gabriel’s thoughts were interesting about “not getting attached to the light.” He remarks that, in the West, we don’t have representations of the divine that include the darker aspects of existence, and so we often repress those darker qualities. Shiva, for example, is the god of yoga but also of destruction.
I asked about how Gabriel’s practice has changed since Mr. Iyengar left his body last year. He spoke affectionately about his teacher and shared that, in a deep sense, nothing has changed, because his teachings continue to live on in his own practice.
Gabriel spoke critically about the “organization” of Iyengar yoga and compares the need to answer to the central India school for the standard of Iyengar yoga to needing to answer to Washington, D.C. for the standard of what constitutes effective socio-political perspectives. He urges teachers to find their own inner source of authority, creativity, and inspiration.
When our discussion turned toward the idea of the Ritual Elder, Gabriel told me that he hopes the community moves away from what he calls “Yogic Apartheid”: this idea that you or someone else is more enlightened than someone else. These ideas divide us from others, whereas the point of the practice is to unify. If your practice alienates you from someone else, then something is wrong.
Gabriel believes that we need to cultivate a relationship to Elders again in our wider culture. Elders are all over, he says, but we don’t recognize them as such, because the matrix for this kind of relationship has largely dissolved in our current culture. Finally, we chatted about mortality and how our yoga practice can prepare us for the final stages of life.
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