Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. Often they come into clearest focus when reflected back at us, through the prism of another mind. This interplay between perspectives expands ideas to their fullest shape and deepens understanding.
Our friends at YOGANONYMOUS paired together Wanderlust teachers so you could absorb their discussions of topics we continually explore in our practice: alignment, happiness, transcendence, what it means to be present, and knowing when enough is enough. Through their back-and-forth we begin to define the edges of our own personal truths.
Sri Dharma Mittra & Noah Levine: What It Means to Be Present
Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher, author, and counselor. He teaches meditation around the country and leads groups in juvenile halls and prisons.
Sri Dharma: Presence requires self-knowledge. Otherwise you cannot understand this eternal present—this eternal now. We are the eternal witness of body and mind activities and we are always aware. That is the only reality.
Noah: My sense is that the human condition is ruled by survival instinct. We have biological evolutionary inheritance of fight-or-flight, and the mind is programmed to be thinking about the future, worrying and surviving, and/or identifying with the past. So mindfulness, or present-time awareness, is the practice and the skill of directing one’s attention to the present time, to experience the body’s sensations, emotions, thoughts, feelings, and all of the senses, and to actually establish and maintain awareness.
Through that process we begin to understand the impermanent nature of all things. From a Buddhist perspective, this leads to a deep inquiry into this witness consciousness, and of course, leads us to seeing more clearly. Once we can let go, compassion flows through us naturally and we become a refuge for all living beings.
Am I correct, Sri Dharma, that your practice is more Hindu-based than Buddhist?
Sri Dharma: I follow Ashtanga yoga—Patanjali’s eight limbs, and the science. I concentrate fully on the Yamas first. Compassion is the ability to see yourself in others. Perception enables us to see subtle things, listen to inner intuition, and make the right decision. Even to be the witness we need senses of perception in order for the mind to become enlightened. I think the ego is a combination of perception and being able to witness the ego.
Whatever moves, whatever has a name, a vibration, an ego—whatever the form—it is all part of the illusion. It is something that the mind cannot understand. So all my teaching of the yoga is based upon the essence of yoga being invisible—not available. It can only be imparted psychically.
Noah: I identify as a Buddhist, although I’m not keen on identifying with any religion. I began my meditation practice almost 30 years ago when I was sitting in a jail cell suffering from drug addiction. My father, who was a meditation teacher, said, “Are you desperate enough to try some mindfulness meditation?” I said yes. I was given a simple mindfulness of the breath meditation, and for the first time in my life I had the realization that I didn’t have to obey my mind. My mind had always had all kinds of terrible advice for me during years of addiction, violence, and crime. When I started to meditate, I got some freedom from the suffering that my mind was creating.
After a couple of years of practice, I discovered that the teachings of the Buddha resonated most deeply for me. But I think one of the things that stuck most powerfully was that up until that time I saw myself as a rebel, a revolutionary, someone who was rejecting the mainstream’s status quo of society. I had this deep sense that the material world was not trustworthy. When I read that the Buddha said the path to awakening goes against the stream—against greed, hatred, delusion—that was really the tipping point for me. Buddhism is a form of rebellion.
Sri Dharma: I found yoga and meditation because I was tired of pain and suffering. At that time I had only my mother, and I could visualize that soon she would be gone and there would be nothing left. And then I really was thirsty to find what was eternal. I was brought up Catholic, but when I started reading the Yoga Sutras, that led to a yoga book describing samadhi, and then I was ready to experience some of this spiritual bliss.
When I started practicing yoga I realized that samadhi was not a real thing. We still needed senses of perception in order to enjoy—we are not really learning anything, but just enjoying it like a drug. But I was still fascinated about self-knowledge and self-realization, so I found a guru. I learned that what we really are is eternal. That was the trigger, to find out about this reality, what God is, and what the self is.
Noah: I think different people start a spiritual quest for different reasons, but it always comes from some level of dissatisfaction. So you start looking for more, looking for a deeper level of happiness, of understanding, of wellbeing. People who aren’t looking for those things won’t show up in meditation, and won’t show up in yoga. People who are totally satisfied with the material world don’t go on a spiritual quest.
Sri Dharma: I believe that everything is happening perfectly according to previous conditions. Whatever is happening is moving perfectly and I am just the witness. You have to understand the laws of karma, and when you realize that, everything moves perfectly and we have no choice.
Noah: From the perspective of mindfulness there is no such thing as a distraction, because the ultimate practice is present-time awareness of what is. From a Buddhist perspective it’s not about creating a rarified peaceful experience, it’s about coming to a place of being at peace with the environment you find yourself in, whether it’s a loud urban city or peaceful rural area.
Sri Dharma: If you can overcome all the temptation in New York City then you are a real yogi!
Noah: There’s such a strong pull to be in the mind and to be addicted to the thinking mind. The initial practice is breaking the addiction to the thinking mind and taking refuge in the body through meditation or asana. Through that practice we don’t just ignore the mind forever, but we change our relationship to it. Through that introspective body awareness, our mind becomes an ally.
Jonny Kest & Tiffany Cruikshank: Aligning With Alignment, or Not
Jonny Kest is a widely respected Ashtanga Vinyasa teacher, known for his compassionate yet disciplined teaching style.
Jonny: There are two camps in the yoga world when it comes to alignment. One is about flowing, and the other is alignment-based: putting yourself in a posture in proper position. I grew up in the Ashtanga world with Pattabhi Jois, where it was more about linking breath with movement than being in a correct position. When I was introduced to alignment-based teachings it never really felt right—it was too external. So I wrote an article and talked about these perpetuating myths that a lot of teachers put out there, like “you’re going to get hurt if you’re not in proper alignment,” or that there’s “a perfect posture waiting to be mastered.” [This idea that] if you have the right alignment, all your energy flows perfectly throughout your body. I found these not to be true.
Tiffany: I think it’s a lot about your experience as a person, which is one of the pitfalls of having these specific alignment-based styles of yoga—you have one way that you apply to every body. For me, it’s a balance of trying to bring together the traditions and lineage of yoga, but to also look at the modern knowledge we have available to us now with anatomy and science. There are so many different bodies and styles, so there’s no one way for everyone.
Jonny: I understand anatomy as a form of self-acceptance—that everyone’s bone structure is different. There’s no way a yoga teacher, unless they have an X-ray machine, can tell you how your bones are spiraling. There’s no such thing as a straight bone in your body. Every bone spirals one direction or another, and there’s just no way you can tell which way the femur is spiraling, or how open or closed the hip socket is.
Tiffany: What’s safe for one person might not be safe for another. It can sometimes come down to a linguistic issue. Many teachers have experienced this while traveling—when you say something like “tuck your tailbone,” it could be interpreted differently from one person to another. Working with someone one-on-one allows you to see if their interpretation of what you said was actually what you wanted, and if it was helpful for their body. I don’t think yoga teachers need to be doctors, but a deeper, general understanding is helpful to the individual.
Jonny: Well said. It makes me think of pregnant women. They come to class, they make people nervous, and they’ve been told so many different things, like they should do this, and shouldn’t do that. My experience of teaching pregnant women for over 30 years is that everyone is so unique. Yoga is a science, and science is experimentation with observation. You experiment, you play, and you trust your own experience. These yoga postures are archetypes to be played with. They’re more tools of awareness than some kind of means to an end.
Tiffany: I’ve spent a lot of time in a cadaver lab, and it’s really interesting to see how the bone structure, the connective soft tissues, the fascia, even the way the nerves are positioned, varies in different people. So I love what you said about practicing with self-acceptance—anatomy and physiology can only get us so far.
Jonny: A big influence for me was meditation. After practicing asana for 10 years from age 12 to 22, I was introduced to Vipassana meditation. What became clear to me was that ultimately this practice is not about mastering the body, but mastering the mind. So my whole practice shifted from using my body to get into the poses, to using the poses to get into my body, in the deepest level of my mind. So when that shift happened, I lost the desire for it to become some kind of perfect posture.
Tiffany: It was similar for me too. I went to my first training at age 16, and I remember having to meditate—it was so hard and I hated it! But after 22 years of practice I feel that meditation is probably the most important thing, as much as I love anatomy.
Jonny: I don’t know that the answer to creating a safer yoga practice is necessarily alignment-based instruction, or more about finding a middle path. There are two types of students: the pushers and the coasters. Most of the pushers are at home with an injury, and the coasters aren’t really finding their edge. Isn’t yoga the middle path? Over the years I found that most yoga injuries really didn’t come from students over-extending in a posture, but from holding their breath and maybe being too ambitious, wanting to go further in a posture. Maybe it’s educating students that flexibility is limited by the shape of your bones.
So there’s a tipping point of being content with where you’re at, or wanting to be somewhere you’re not.
Tiffany: You could take all this anatomy knowledge and spend your life researching it, but ultimately it really boils down to a simple concept—taking that middle path. It’s tricky in terms of preventing injury, because different muscles have different responses in the brain. So it comes back to the general clichéd things that we say as yoga teachers, about being content and that more is not always better. There is an important place for balance and moderation—it’s easy to become exaggerated in a yoga practice and push ourselves.
I think it’s important as a yogi to remember there are healthy boundaries, and that the body is a vehicle for our minds. As a teacher, you can guide students safely into a spiritual practice with a lot of alignment and verbal cues, but you can also guide them there by saying almost nothing. There are benefits to both.
Jonny: For me it’s just getting them into the basic shape of the pose, the archetype, and then really giving them an opportunity to just focus on their breath and their bodily sensations. This ends up becoming an incredible doorway to spiritual transformation. Even all these new hybrid yoga and fitness classes are wonderful stepping stones toward stillness and meditation. For a lot of people, it’s another gateway into spirituality.
Maty Ezraty & Kathryn Budig: The Limits of Dedication
Maty Ezraty began teaching yoga in 1985 and has studied with Pattabhi Jois and many senior Iyengar teachers. She was one of the first women to complete some of the most advanced sequences of Ashtanga yoga. She co-founded YogaWorks, the first institution of its kind, in 1987.
Kathryn: Dedication is an interesting word to tackle as I’m sitting here with my teacher, who was a prominent figure in my life, who taught me exactly what dedication means. But it was dedication way beyond the physical practice, it was dedication to my teacher—to someone who saw the potential I possessed.
Maty: Kathryn, you were such a delight—a bright light. You have a depth to you—a big heart—and that is an important part of being a yoga teacher. When I’m in the classroom, it’s about teaching students to become the best they can be and supporting them in that way. And that’s the most fun part about teaching yoga.
Kathryn: When I first got to YogaWorks and did my training with you, it started with intimidation, but also adoration at the same time, which I think go hand-in-hand. At the end of the day it’s really about having that connection with your teacher. There’s a teacher for everyone, there’s a style for everyone, and when that comes together it’s this absolutely beautiful, synergistic moment that’s irreplaceable. So my dedication was very much to the Ashtanga practice, but maybe more to you, Maty. I wanted to make you proud.
Maty: When I sold YogaWorks it wasn’t because I wasn’t dedicated anymore—I was maybe just as dedicated as ever. But I felt it was time for me to devote myself to my own practice and spiritual growth.
I feel like my role now is being dedicated in a different way—to my students, and to helping teachers see the importance of their role in the community. So I’m committed to my practice, but also to living in the moment and really feeling what’s inside of me. I think of dedication as much bigger than my daily practice on my mat—I think I saw that too narrowly for many years.
Kathryn: It’s so personal. About a year ago I was feeling pretty burnt out from traveling, working, and teaching. As teachers, the only way we can be successful is by taking care of ourselves. In my early 20s, I quickly went from practicing for two and a half hours a day to teaching all the time and taking on clients and public classes, and then eventually getting on planes and leading workshops. I noticed immediately that I had to dramatically shift the amount of intensity that I put into my asana practice. I had to change my perspective, because for a long time I would tell myself that if I wasn’t practicing at least 90 minutes of yoga a day, I wasn’t really practicing. Now the blessing of just being able to do a few sun salutations or a couple of hip openers, or even just put my legs up the wall and do some pranayama or seated meditation—that’s a practice.
Maty: My practice has definitely changed: I’m older—I’m 52—and I do travel, although I don’t travel that much. I still manage to get my practice in for an hour, or up to two hours if I can, but I listen to my body differently now. I’ve had to work really hard not to judge the depth of my poses to indicate whether or not it’s a good practice. From being in a classroom with Pattabhi Jois, and being driven to the third and fourth Ashtanga series, it’s taken a lot for me to learn to slow down. So I think it’s continuing to listen to my body, and not associate the intensity of the poses with what yoga is really all about.
Kathryn: Not too long ago we talked about Instagram yogis who will continue to balance themselves on one pinky in full lotus upside down while taking a nap, and how that will continue to appeal to a certain audience. The younger yogis often see these fancy poses, and all they want is to be able to do them. But I went through that as a young yogi too—I didn’t feel strong about myself unless I could do a handstand. I’ve heard many people say, “Oh, I’m not strong enough to do yoga, I can’t do all those fancy poses,” but that’s not the point at all.
Maty: I would love to see some of the bigger yoga entities make an effort to have easier yoga offerings represented. And I think they do to some degree. I think we have to be diverse, otherwise it’s somewhat limiting. There are some really huge yoga teachers who teach easier classes, and there are a lot of people out there who would like to go to one. I think it’s very important to include more options.
Kathryn: We still have our senior teachers who have taken the time to train properly so they can pass on the lineage, and they will continue to make their offerings. I think we live in a world where it’s very common to think that if you train at one thing and become excellent at it, then it becomes your craft and you will stick to it no matter what. But I think there are so many passions and offerings in life, and ideally we are constantly evolving. Our perspectives are always changing. It’s important to show people that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. You just have to make sure you’re following what you’re passionate about and not necessarily what other people are saying you should be doing.
Maty: I LOVE that. I sometimes fall into that trap. The word “no” for me has always been difficult. I think I sometimes struggle with dedication because I’ve been a bit too hard on myself over the years. There’s something to be said about softening.
Swami Govindananda & Jonni Pollard: What is Transcendence?
Swami Govindananda (Swamiji) has been a teacher of Karma, Gyan, and Bhakti yoga philosophies for over 23 years. He is also the founder of Ji Living. He has studied philosophy and meditation extensively with one of India’s great masters and was accepted into the Swami Order after many years of intensive training. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
Jonni Pollard is an internationally recognized meditation teacher of over 20 years, sharing the knowledge he’s gained from some of the greatest living masters of our time. He is also the executive director and co-founder of 1 Giant Mind, a global nonprofit that teaches meditation.
Jonni: The simplest definition for transcendence and how it pertains to the human experience is going beyond that which is normal. The “beyond” is characteristic of being expansive, more dynamic, more interactive, less defined, and more abstract. Generally, the paradigm a human being is locked into is one of limitation. When we talk about transcendence relative to the current time and age, we’re talking about something that is themed with liberation, expansion, and the direct experience of a deeper self or reality.
Swamiji: There’s a huge difference between intelligence and understanding. Intelligence is something that can be learned; understanding is about the self.
A tipping point is when people stop running to achieve externally, and start to actually nurture and understand the qualities that make them who they are.
The mind, body, senses, intellect, heart, blood, and organs—from where do all of these derive their power? The Vedic philosophy of India puts all emphasis on the nature of the atman, or the soul. And when this soul power leaves the body, it is in a state that we call death. So the point is to understand our lives as part of a bigger picture, and it has to do with the nature of the soul. We practice yoga—which means yoke, or union—to unite with the atman, that soul power that gives consciousness to the body.
Jonni: Let’s define transcendence in a broader sense, as you’ve just opened up that beautiful can of cosmic worms. Vedic philosophy recognizes this as the mechanics of innovation—it’s the propelling force of creation. It means to transcend where you are, or be where you are not—from an unknown state into a state of realization. Transcendence is not just a human phenomenon, it’s a function of nature. Everything is constantly in flux. If we observe the patterns of the nature of the universe, the primary function is creation, innovation, and evolution. So the essential principle of transcendence is the perpetual drive of creation to moving toward more expansive states of itself.
Generally, we think of transcendence in the context of a meditative practice. But if we’re talking about it from a big-picture perspective, it doesn’t just pertain to moving from an ignorant state to enlightenment, but also describes enlightenment, which is our essential nature, moving into a state of ignorance. The Vedic worldview argues that ignorance is actually one of the most powerful forces in creation. If we recognize the principle that nature is perpetually in flux, and can connect with that thing that is the direct experience of flowing with life, we can be expressive of it.
Swamiji: This is a very complicated conversation. Thousands of years ago when the Vedas were written down, the author wrote a verse that said that everything you do has the singular desire to be joyful, happy, and blissful. This is why you participate in life, because you have hope that today will bring you joy. No singular aim is ever performed without the desire to be joyful. So where did this come from? It’s our natural instinct. So once again we go back to the atman, the soul, and I keep going back to this because it’s the heart and essence of who we are.
The atman has three very important names: sat, chit, and ananda. Sat is the eternal power. Chit is what causes the body to have consciousness—when the chit leaves the body, we have death or unconsciousness. The third is ananda, which means bliss and joy, which permeates through our mind all the time. We all have the atman within ourselves, so it transcends religion. That’s why this solid knowledge of the self is imperative.
Jonni: There is a sequence to everything—the way that nature expresses itself is sequential. When we don’t know a sequence, life can be very confusing. The infliction of the Western mind—the hyper-identification with intellect as a source of wisdom and knowledge—is actually the foundation of suffering and is a problem for those who desire a direct experience of self. What causes the incessant engagement of the intellect is the need to control, which has roots in fear. We need the daily sadhana of yoga asana, pranayama, or meditation to refine our instruments of perception, relieving it of the stress and fatigue of life’s demands and relieving ourselves from the impressions of the past, rewiring the hardware of our existence.
Swamiji: In yoga we have namaste, but it’s not just a handshake. It’s, “I honor and respect the divine energy that is within you, that is within myself.” These are profound words. We are so busy being critical, negative, and opinionated toward each other that we forget to honor the essence of who we truly are. But just by meditating on this simple point, you start to respect and value yourself. So how can you then not respect another? When you have humility everything can be achieved. When you are arrogant, you are limiting your perception. Once you start to see a natural joy in your eyes, the deeper inquiry will come naturally.
Jonni: When you utilize the virtue gained from your sadhana, there is greater insight and introspection to explore the internal terrain, with an understanding that you exist beyond what you think and feel. And through a devoted heart—bhakti—you orientate your awareness toward that which you sense to be true. Whether it’s through the framework of the Vedas, or some other religion—Buddhism, Christianity, Islam—whatever it is doesn’t actually matter. What we are seeking is the direct experience of what these beautiful systems actually lead us toward: our divine nature. When you give yourself permission to be with the divine, it squeezes out the impurities of guilt, shame, and unworthiness. Be courageous in facing the fear and discomfort of these feelings, and defy it—transcend it. Be powerful in claiming your spiritual heritage as an expression of the divine, as the divine.
Eoin Finn & Gina Caputo: Cultivating Happiness That Lasts
Gina: It’s a struggle for me to think of a genuinely unhappy time in my life, though I’ve certainly had peaks and valleys. As a teacher though, there was a point when my focus was on myself—on being accepted, appreciated, loved, or respected, and it was making me feel very stressed and negative about yoga. I think I was fearful, which is a potent ingredient for unhappiness. Eventually I realized the lens always has to be turned away from myself and toward service of others.
Eoin: I was always pretty happy. It doesn’t mean I haven’t had short dark periods, but I think it’s helpful to recognize that dark times are great opportunities for spiritual growth. When we get in touch with that struggling through darkness, we can recognize that our struggles are what really bind us all together. I’m not sure I got this lesson fully until my dad died. I remember standing on a beach in Vancouver overlooking the ocean with tears streaming down my face, and feeling completely plugged into the experience of what it means to be human.
Gina: There’s a certain amount of contemplative work that must be done to know yourself and others. I try to see the humor in doing the “shadow work,” the inward journey that is practicing yoga. Sometimes that’s hard—what you discover there might not be in alignment with what you’d like to think as a human being, a student, or even as a teacher. I remind people to relax around their process. There are times when it does get really heavy for people, but it’s such a wonderful opportunity for empathy and connection when we can laugh at ourselves a little bit.
Eoin: It’s about getting authentic with people. I think the work we do—this shadow work—is really similar. If we can think of humor as a spiritual tool for growth, we are able to lose our ego. We’ve all heard that comedy and tragedy are the same thing, depending on how detached we are from the situation. Humor allows us to have a healthy sense of detachment.
Gina: Humor is not just a mental or emotional experience. There is also something to be said about the magnificence of the physical movements we do. Whether it’s through sun salutations or warrior poses, one way to help people move toward authenticity and seeing humor is by giving them the opportunity to express their bodies. I really believe in the ritual movements, opportunities for people to experience a childlike freedom in their bodies.
Eoin: I like to call it the “joy-body.” I’m a big believer in quieting the mind and open-heartedness, but I also make sure we don’t forget about the joy-body. When you give students permission to connect with their inner child, the lesson is there instantaneously. Sure—if we only acted like children when we practiced we’d lose the benefits of the discipline, but when you bring in the humor and joy, it helps reconnect us to what it really means to be happy. I do yoga to be half as happy as my 4-year-old self.
Gina: I think it’s also about seeing things through a lens of wonder, like a child. It requires some discipline as an adult, because it’s easier to take things for granted, but it is possible to remind ourselves that we are not separate from nature. In asana we experience the power of nature in our bodies, like feeling the steadiness of the mountains or flowing like water. This is how we can return to that relationship to nature that was rooted in awe and wonder, rather than as something you just pay attention to when you’re on vacation. Adults just need some extra help polishing the lens.
Eoin: I’m crystal clear that nature is the greatest spiritual portal. Oftentimes, we are doing yoga in a 5,000-square-foot carpeted room with no windows, but I want to make sure that the nature connection doesn’t get lost. So I ask students to close their eyes and put themselves in a place that speaks to them—whether it’s the mountains or the oceans—and then I ask them to describe how they felt. They’ll say open, clear, peaceful, connected. Buddha reached enlightenment under a tree, Jesus went to a desert. They didn’t go to temples; they went out in nature and let it speak to their hearts. I always say get quiet and present out in nature and your deepest heart will become clear.
Gina: I think it’s a matter of making it a priority to connect with nature wherever you are. Even walking down the street in New York City, which feels nothing like the Appalachian Trail, you can look at every tree on the sidewalk and it’s like this heroic expression of nature. There are opportunities all around us, but it must be a priority to see them—it means fondling a leaf on the sidewalk in Brooklyn, or thinking of reverse warrior to extended side angle as the back-and-forth movement of seaweed. So it’s a sense of reconnecting, but that connection was never really severed, except for in our minds.
Eoin: This really is the work of yoga teachers. When we get our students’ bodies moving, we help move issues out of their tissues. The stuff that was in their heads that was keeping their bodies restricted gets released, and then we’ve opened ourselves up to this deep joy that’s always with us.
Andrea Rice is a senior writer at Wanderlust Media.
Posted on June 3, 2016