Those who have attended conference here in Mysore know it usually starts with Sharath speaking on a topic and ends with a Q & A session. This week he switched it up by opening it up for questions immediately.
The first question was if we should maintain silence before practice and the answer was a definite YES. Sharath went on to explain why: By talking to much we lose our prana and breath for our practice and our stamina will come down. Next there was a question about the hand position in headstand and Sharath answered that the palms should be open so the head can fit, not closed with the head behind. Then someone asked about the meaning of OM TAT SAT. OM means The Divine, everything. TAT SAT = That’s it. “God is everything. We think we are great, but we are not. We are small, not even a dot in this universe,” Sharath elaborated.
After that someone asked if the practice used to include full vinyasa, and if so, why we don’t do that now. Doing “full vinyasa” means instead of jumping through to sit after downward dog, you would jump forward and finish the vinyasa, ending in Samasthiti and then from there, vinyasa into the next pose or second side of the pose. This got Sharath talking. He said full vinyasa is not necessary when we are doing so many poses. He wanted us to understand that doing too much is bad, and warned that doing more than your body needs will cause you to become crazy. He stressed that we should be careful when doing asanas. He said that there are certain asanas that women shouldn’t do because they can damage the womb and reproductive system. There are also some asanas that are only for Brahmacharis. Brahmacharis have no attachments and no commitments to the world. If we try to do what is only meant for them, we will become crazy. Sharath explained that we were born into this life of maya (illusion) which makes it harder to go to higher levels, but once we give up attachments we can go higher, and even while we are here we can do our sadana (spiritual practice). We just can’t do everything. For example, there is a kriya (a purification) where you cut under your tongue to make it longer and then fold it back into the mouth. This is done to capture the Amrita Bindu. Amrita Bindu is the nectar of life which drops down from the back of the head and gets burned away as it hits Manipura Chakra. By retaining Amrita Bindu we can live a long time. Sharath said that people did come to Mysore in the 70’s and they did this kriya and others that they were not ready for. “They were hippies and they were smoking (pause) and they went crazy.” Again, he stressed the importance of studying the philosophy and having knowledge before rushing to complete actions which can be harmful when done incorrectly or in the wrong time. Sharath explained that Sirsasana (headstand) is even better for storing Amrita Bindu than the kriya he had previously mentioned. Sharath shared that headstand can be done for up to 3 hours at a time, but you have to build up slowly by slowly to that amount of time. When you do headstand for that long, you don’t do your other asanas. You can do it every two weeks or so. He also mentioned that head standing has other benefits like increasing blood circulation and regulating the nervous system.
Sharath went on to explain that how you breath also has a strong affect on your lifespan. He imitated the rapid panting of a dog and then made the point that a dog lives only 14 years. The Shastras say humans have a lifespan of 100 years. Humans breath on average 21,600 times per day. If we take longer slower breaths and reduce that number we will increase our life span. This is one of the reasons we do pranayama (when ready) The old saints and rishis used to live 5 or 6 thousand years and this is how they did it. Sharath added that breath control is not only to increase life span. It is also to control the mind. The breath affects the mind. If you are anxious, angry, even happy, the pattern of the breath changes. If you have anger or anxiety and you consciously relax your breath, those feelings will fade away. Breath in asana should be free and it is important that the inhale and exhale are the same in length and sound. We should also practice even breathing in life. Sharath recalled attending an asana event and watching a man take big gasps of air through his mouth as he practiced. He warned that you lose energy quickly that way and will only be able to do a couple asanas. If you breath properly, you can practice for hours. More importantly, when you take gasping breaths of air through the mouth as this man was doing it puts stress on your heart and your organs and you have problems when older.
There continued to be questions about head standing. Sharath spoke about the importance of going very slowly in and out of headstand so that the blood vessels aren’t damaged. If they are, it affects the nervous system, so you have to be careful and not stay long until you can stay properly. Then you can stay in headstand a long long time. This happens when the weight is only in clasped hands and elbow like a tripod for a camera (Sharath’s analogy). Someone asked if there were certain diseases which mean you shouldn’t do headstand. Sharath said if you have Spondylosis you have to be careful, but then again, if you’ve learned the asana previous to the condition and don’t put pressure on the head, you can do it.
With so many headstand questions, Sharath finally decided to demonstrate despite having had his breakfast not much earlier. He pointed out his open palms, the weight disbursement, the pose variations that make it impossible to do with weight in the head, and the part of the head that touches lightly on the ground. Someone asked about pressure on the head in Prasarita Padottanasana and he said it shouldn’t be full weight in the head, but that with that pose and the headstands at the end of intermediate, the amount of time in the pose is minimal so the affect of weight in the head not as drastic.
“Guruji would always say to perfect an asana it must be practiced 1,000 times,” Sharath said. “One main reason people get injured is they have no patience. It takes time. The body has to change day by day, month by month, year by year.” He said many people come to Mysore just to get more asanas, but the stability of the asana is what is most important. “If you are not stable, how can you do meditation, withdraw the sense organs, stabilize the mind?” Sharah probed. “If you just close your eyes and sit it doesn’t mean you are meditating. To be still the mind must become stable.” Overtime the practice becomes mediation. The senses are withdrawn and under control and the practice becomes more effective, meaningful, and spiritual.
Next a woman asked how Sharath was able to practice and focus when his children were very little. He said that since he had been doing it so long before marriage, he already had the ability to keep going. He said his wife is a big support and that it would be very difficult to go deeper in the practice without a supportive partner. Even his daughter, he mentioned, knows not to disturb him after his 8:30pm bedtime. He said keeping to a schedule over many years makes it manageable and normalizes it, though his friends did have the habit of calling him Dracula.
The final question was if all students can do all asanas if they apply the proper effort. First Sharath said definitely, then he said that it did depend somewhat on ability and also the age you start practicing. But if you put in effort, dedication, devotion, determination, and discipline you can do it. Sharath said he kept himself very disciplined not going out, and in regard to food. He said you have to sacrifice many things.
On the other hand, Sharath was clear that if you have lots of expectation around yoga it will not come. “It has to grow with in you…”When it grows with in you it becomes part of yourself.” If you force it, it will not happen. If you have goals like learning a certain series by a certain date, it will not happen. First you should have love towards your practice. Then you will want to come to it. Then as time passes you will feel uncomfortable if you don’t practice like if you didn’t brush your teeth. You will feel off and those around you will notice too.
“Sometimes you go to a level of practice…You don’t want anything. Someone could put 1 million dollars or a Mercedes next to you and you wouldn’t want it. You want to totally submerse in practice. Nice backbend feels so good, like 1,000 lotus flowers floating on you, especially if you have a guru like Pattabhi Jois. When you are sitting too. Your attention is only in The Divine. I hope you experience all these things”