Respects and Gratitude
Just as there are many teachers there are also many paths. While my main influence has come from my primary teacher in Mysore, India, Yogacharya V. Venkatesha, I have also been influenced by other Yoga Masters, Yogis, Swamis and Buddhist teachers. This section pays homage to them; giving thanks and deep respect. The work they have done has paved the way for my learning, continual study and steadfast pursuit along the path. Jai MA ! The force that pervades all.
"I lay down my efforts, action and work to the feet of the Guru (the blessed one) for without whom I could not have learned."
Yogacharya V. Venkatesha, a Yoga Master living in Mysore, India. When I met Yogacharya I had no foreseen plan to continue my studies and training under him. However, I have been blessed to have become one of his senior students by continuing to study under him for the last 11 years. My practice is greatly influenced by his approach, which focuses on alignment, extending the breath and controlling the mind. With Yogacharya I shaped my personal practice into what it is today. I had very clear intentions of how I wanted to progress and he took care in allowing me to meet those goals with him as the guide. Yet, Yogacharya is not just about asana practice but a "spiritual" guide/tutor. My lessons under him were not easy as he pointed out to me things I did not like and the areas I needed to work on. He encouraged me to meditate and to do more pranayama. He understood and accepted my resistance to these practices but never gave up on me. He taught me as I needed to learn. However, the way I teach has little to do with my own personal lessons. As Krishnamacharya (the grandfather of Yoga in the west) once said, "Teach what applies to others and not yourself."
Over a decade now of solid practice with Yogacharya he never allowed me to take it for granted. In other words, he was wreary that too much focus on the asana practice alone would build more ego and less spirituality. Because of his focus on the therapeutic aspects of yoga his teachings enabled me to work through countless limitations and mialignments in my spine, knees and feet. The greatest gift as well from my studies with Yogacharya lies in the fact that he does not provide physical adjustments. For the many years I have known him he only touched me once with his finger-tip. The rest has been up to me. He made it very clear that "I" as the student must learn to walk the path myself.
Yogacharya has contributed a great deal to the yoga community by developing intensive programs on Yoga Therapy and teaching it to a wide variety of people. He introduced yoga to over 7 different schools in Mysore. During the year I conduced my reserach thesis (re: yoga in the school system), Yogacharya was instrumental in helping me to pursue the research in local schools.
Since 1998, he has been the director of Atmavikasa, The Centre for Yogic Sciences; a yoga centre that he runs with his wife Hema. Studying under Hema is a delight in lessons on Sanskrit, the sutras and yogic philosophy. Together they form the force of their school and carrying the eternal flame of Yoga.
Other Yoga Masters
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 - 2009), dedicated his life to the continuous teaching and practice of Ashtanga Yoga. In 2000, I had the rare privilege of studying directly under Pattahbi Jois in his first shala (school) in Lakshmipuram. He taught me single-handedly the primary series; each posture was slowly added to my 4:30 a.m. practice. Embedded in my mind is him saying, "no rush...go slowly". And I would think, "I have to rush, I have to get there." During this time there were only 7 other students in the room and sometimes even less. There was no waiting line or rush to finish on tme because someone would take your space. Given that is was April the weather in Mysore was extremely hot. I have strong memories of being totally soaked with sweat and Guruji standing beside me not bothering with it at all.
It was my second time in India and I had many, many things to learn. I was given a very early time slot, which meant I had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to bathe, dress and get to class. I had no prior experience with Ashtanga having only practiced Sivananda-yoga. Guruji asked if I practiced and I said 'yes'. I was afraid he might not accept me if he had known I had no idea about the system. Hence, my studies with Guruji were intense and potent. I was clumsy and awkward in my practice and did many things which he would tell me not to do. Repeatedly he told me, "don't move hands" and using water to do the intense lotus posture was frowned upon especially because I got water all over the floor. Upstairs everyone else was doing the closing sequence. In my ignorance I had no idea about this either and practiced backbending. In spite of all this Guruji greeted me with a sweet smile and encouraged me to practice. When I returned to Canada my practice had taken a great leap forward.
My first day with him was truly a special time. It was my second trip to India so I did understand it was good to go immediately to meet your teacher. It was not the high season so I sat alone with Guruji for over 15 minutes. Since I was the only one there we sat a long time together in silence. It was my first experience with a 'real' Guru and looking back I am sure I really did not appreciate this fact. After several long pauses with me struggling to fill the empty space with whatever came into my head he told me, "You flexible body." Then he said, "You shoulders weak." He assured me, "You process quickly in primary, hm." He must have known as well that I had a weakness for coffee because he always said, "Coffee, no strength...tsk". At the time I spoke about becoming certified but he only smiled and said nothing. I didn't even know the primary series so this was pretty precocious on my part. I always felt that Guruji knew this because he did not focus on how little I knew (actually nothing) and saved me from making further blunders. It was obvious anyway when I stepped onto the mat.
During this time with Guruji many aspects of my body and mind were definitely realigned physically, mentally and emotionally. It was not, however, a smooth ride by any means. I suffered and struggled with knee issues and bruises. At the end of a 6-week of practice I took a break and went on a temple tour. My left knee was not following the program and I had to honour this. I know Guruji saw this because after the classes he followed me out and watched me hopelessly try to bend my knee. He seemed to know there was nothing to do but wait, watch, practice and carry on. But really, had I not studied under him I would not have excelled in many of the ways I did. Certainly it was a cleansing time even though I did not think of it as such.
For me, the vinyasas were not my primary goal of yoga even after mastering the jump through with sraight legs and lifting into handstand. On my last class he said, "come back soon" and thanked me when I told him it was my birthday (lol). I will never foget him watching me quietly at the end of each practice. And he'd ask, "Pain there?" I had come across a huge hurdle in my practice and it took a lot of time, effort and healing to get through. Overall, Guruji was a man of few words so whatever he did say meant something; of course, the fact that English was not his first language also made it this way. When he told me one day in practice that I had "no strength", I used to practice in addition to my morning routine another 20 rounds of the sun salutations A and B and 3 sets of 40 push-ups in the hotel room. But later I understood he told this to everyone.
Pattabhi Jois learned the practice directly from his Guru Sri T. Krishnamacharya who learnt it under his Guru in the Tibeten mountains. There is no question of the lineage involved in his teachings. There was a heat, an energy and fire in the practice room that was enlightening and wonderful. Coming back home from India I felt I had been internally realigned even though I was working through physical limitations with my knee and other parts of my body. It was not only the physical practice but my daily routine that made the whole experience. I walked back and forth from class (it was 7 kms one way), studied, read, went to conference, practiced alone and experienced other aspects of India such as the food, the people, the culture and the ancient temples. Certainly it has remained a pivotal point in my practice on all levels.
B.K.S. Iyengar (1918 - present), a living Yoga Master in Pune, India. In 2003, I travelled specifically to Pune in hopes of meeting the Old Lion (his famous nick-name). To my great dismay, I caught a glimpse of him on the balcony of the Institute wearing a pale yellow kutra (Indian pajama set). I went back 4 times one day and was told conflicting stories on how he was sick, not available or was available but busy. I knew it was a lie because a group of people fled down the stairs to the library and where he was located. Iyengar's secretary tried to encourage me to study with Iyengar teachers first in my country, but I was not interested. I had even brought with me a letter from Yogacharya Venkatesha but that did not help me either. To this day, I can still see Iyengar's bushy brows and silver unkept hair for that fleeting moment on the balcony; my only chance to see a star.
Iyengar is by far one of the most influential teachers of the yogasana practice today. His words jump out of the page on Yoga, life and practice. His books are numerous and his contribution to the yoga world tremendous. I consider his work of great influence on my practice today as I have read everything available by him or from his students. Iyengar states as well if you do not have a teacher near-by, read good books and use them as your guide. A good book is a good teacher and far better than a bad one for sure. I joke with a friend of mine who studies regularly with Iyengar that he should take me there and claim I am his long lost sister. Still, some paths are not meant to cross in this birth.
Swamis and Yoga
Swami Sivananda (1887 - 1963), was my first yoga influence. After living in Korea for 2 years and teaching yoga in Seoul, I returned to Canada and underwent several teacher training programs at the Sivananda ashrams in Grass Valley, California, Val Morin, Quebec and Trivadrum, India. For me, India was the next logical step. It was also the third training program called Sadhana intensive; a 3 week program with a wake-up of 4 a.m. , 6 hours of daily pranayama and 3-4 hours of formal meditation. My experiences at the ashrams were also filled with my karmic duties of watering the flowers and washing dishes. Often it seemed that someone else had beat me to it so I used to stand on the flower beds and admire the view.
At the ashrams I learned about the ethics of the practice (non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing). At the time, these were definitely competing with my personal goals of physical mastery. Everything was very condensed in the ashram environment so it was easy to see one's resistances and unconsious notions. At the ashram in India while I was preparing for the 2-hour pranayama session I was caught by one of the Swamis doing the dancer pose by the water. She told me frankly, "That does not look like pranayama." Years later I learned to understand this statement as a comment to the on-going saga in body attachment.
There are Sivananda centers and ashrams established all over the world and in honour of his teachings. I have continued to return to the Sivananda center in Toronto and the ashrams in Quebec as well as in Northern and Southern India. In 2005, I travelled the furtherest north in India to teach the first ashram in Gangatri, the Himalayan mountain region. My experiences were of being hugged by the mountains and blessed by the Ganga (the sacred waters of India). I had deep meditations in silence and long hours of study there.
Sivananda-yoga is the base camp for a good understanding of yoga in all its aspects (right thinking, right eating, relaxation, exercise and meditation). And like many places it has its own 'culture' of devotees. I say this because when I told them in the summer of 2000 that I was headed to Mysore to learn Ashtanga-yoga they said, "Ohhhh, they are crazy there."
Buddhism and Yoga
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939 - 1987), is an important teacher in the Kagyu lineage (one of the 4 schools of Tibetan Buddhism). He also studied Nyingma (one of the 4 oldest schools of Buddhism) and aspired to bring the teachings together from all the different schools to a large audience. His main teachings to Westerners were based on the notion that as people take up spiritual practices they often reinforce the ego rather than weakening it. He was not in favour of "spiritual trips" and addressed the concepts of self-deception, and delusion.
There are many Tibetian Buddhist monastries established throughout India. As a part of my sojourns to India, I travelled to Darjeeling and Dharamshala (located in Northern India) as well as Bylakuppe, Southern India. Each of these locations is the seat of monastries and Buddhist studies. Darjeeling is beautiful hill station and literally means the 'land of the thunderbolt'. It is located in the state of West Bengal and part of the lower Himalayan Mountain region. Dharamshala (meaning a place of 'spiritual dwelling') is the seat of Tibetan refugees and the Dali Lama. It is located in the Kangra Valley, the upper part of the Himalayans in the state of Himachal Pradesh. Bylakuppe is the place of the Namdroling Monastery. Located in the Southern part of India in Karanataka (a few hours from Mysore), it is the home to about 5000 monks. Each of these places have many special teachings. I feel fortunate to have spent time at some of the monastries located in these areas.
Swami Veda, a senior disciple of Swami Rama (1925 - 1996). He carries on the tradition of the Himalayan Masters in meditation. By coincidence (although they say there are none in life), I met with Swami Veda at a Yoga conference in Los Angeles and attended a 'secret' meditation in his hotel room. I later travelled to the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama Ashram to meet up with him again in 2009 and at a conference in July 2010, which included Dr. David Fawley (an Ayurveda/Vedic Scholar and Jyotish seer). In 2010, I was initiated into the tradition which includes a special mantra (Sanskrit chant) that is personal and used for meditation. Following this, I returned to the ashram in Rishikesh and attended a silent retreat for 5 days.
As a part of the Himalayan tradition, Swami Veda encourages people to sit together no matter where they are located on full moons. He states:
"Yoga Philosophy views the mind as Universal field, its waves passing through us and becoming our individual minds. This Universal mind is a radiant force and is also known as a Universal Teacher within. When we all sit together at the same time even in different parts of the world, they connect to the Universal mind and generate a strong field, like so many magnets being joined together and forming a much stronger magnet; the strength of each then equals the combined strength of all. Thus it is when we join together in meditation, and together enter the Guru-mind's Field. On certain days of the year the Wave of Beauty and the Wave of Bliss flows very strong. These are the sacred days. We have set special times on all Full Moon Days in the coming months to sit in meditation together. The true field of our individual mind is a wave of the universal mind. It is the purest crystal, the most beautiful place in the universe; nothing can be more beauteous, more glorious, more illuminated and calmer than this wave-field. It is closer to atman than any other entity in the universe."
Ajahn Chah (1918 - 1992), Thai Forest Tradition. This Thai Buddhist master is a wonderful example of living the Dharma and how to live mindfully in the world without going crazy. He taught that to know ‘real’ life you must know death. Some people have found this a depressing idea, but according to the teachings it is the only thing to be certain of. At his funeral in 1992, there were over one million people including the Thai Royal Family. He left behind a rich legacy of talks, students, dhamma and monastries.
Dipa Ma (1911 - 1989), a Burmese Buddhist Master. Dipa Ma had a variety of students who later became prominent teachers in America such as Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. For Dipa Ma obtaining one stage of enlightenment served as the core as her teachings. She felt strongly that if this was missed your human birth was wasted. I became very interested in her teachings when I read that the first thing she asked Sharon was, “Are you happy?” She had a deep and genuine concern for people, which is not commonly found today. As well, Dipa Ma was and is one of the rarest people who was not involved in meditation for money, fame or recognition.
In 2010, I travelled by train to Kolkatta (formerly called Calcutta) to visit her only living daughter Dipa. She still resides in the same small apartment where her mother Dipa Ma lived and met with many of her students. Dipa Ma left her body in 1989. It was a rare, wonderful and delightful meeting for which her daughter opened her home graciously as if she had known me all along. Finding her, however, was not a straightforward process as I connected myself with prior students (now meditation teachers living in the United States) who connected me to other teachers who connected me to Dipa Ma's grandson. Talk about a zig-zag to finally make arrangments to visit her. We spent a timeless afternoon over lunch and coffee and cookies. Dipa shared stories of her mother and presented me with a picture of her for my meditation room.
When we said 'good-bye' it was a moment now frozen in my mind with Dipa turning around to wave in the midst of a busy Calcutta street.
Yogis and Spiritual Guides
Ramakrishna (1836 - 1886) and Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902), have had a huge impact on Yoga and its integration into the Western world. Ramakrishna was a very advanced soul and his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, was the first to talk about Hinduism and spirituality at the world fair in Chicago in 1893. There is a beautiful ashram dedicated to Ramakrishna in Mysore. When I return to Mysore I attend the lectures on Vedanta given by the resident monks. These lectures on the Vedas are commenatries on the ancient texts discusing how human nature is essentially divine and the purpose of life to realize this divinity. Kirtan (chanting) has also been an integral part of my path and each night chanting takes place at the ashram.
In 2010, I paid my respects to the Dakshineswar temple in Kolkatta. Built in 1847, the temple has 12 Shiva cells (representing the aspect of destruction) and one central worship place devoted to Kali (the black one). Kali is associated with eternal energy having 4 hands that are symbolized as one holding an oasis, a cut demon, a necklace of skulls and a blessing for transformation. Ramakrishna made his home here after being been appointed as the head priest for 16 years. He went into deep meditative states (samadhi) and prayed to Devi (mother).
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893 - 1952), a beautiful Guru of yoga and inspiration. Paramahansa is a Sanskrit name that means "the Supreme" (Parama) and "Swan" (Hansa). The swan is the only creature who can separate milk from water after they have been mixed together. Symbolically this represents the abilities of an advanced soul who understands how life has two worlds (the material and spiritual); they do not confuse them and know how to interact in both. On a technical level, it also deals with the control of the breath (re: energy) they receive from others and the world itself. As an aside, I often laugh when people mistakenly see the above picture of Parmahansa and think ‘he’ is a ‘she’. It is funny because I never think of Parmahansa in terms of gender. His gaze has such a deep penetration and a look of unfathomable wisdom.
One of his greatest disciples is Eugene Roy Davis. A remarkable man who at the age of 18 knew he wanted to devote his life to the spiritual path. Mr. Davis is alive today and even in his eighties his style remains clear, straightforward and without dogma. He points out that it is important to: 1) wake up as soon as possible, 2) read only a little and, 3) meditation more. His teachings are from his direct interaction and close relationship with Paramahansa. He is the director of the Centre of Spiritual Awareness in the United States where retreats are heldly regularly. In addition, he is the author of The Truth Journal and has written many articles on meditation.