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The Essential Teacher

 

The essence of Yogacharya V. Venkatesha and his teachings; a self-taught Master of Yoga living in Mysore, South India. 

My teacher in Mysore, India, Yogacharya Venkatesha, is still relatively young for his vast achievements and abilities. Today he is 38 years old, having started to practice yoga at the age of 13. After many years of intense training, self-study and practice he won many competitions for yoga. He holds the rare title of “Yoga Samrat” meaning the Emperor of Yoga and is affectively referred to as “rubber yogi” by his students. To date, he has taught thousands of Western students and certified many to teach his own style of yoga called AtmaVikasa. He is also the first teacher to offer specialized training programs in yoga therapy.

People often ask me how I found Yogacharya. Funny enough, had it not been for another student at the Ashtanga shala I probably would never have met him. This student was a writer with the New Yorker. She was working on an article about Ashtanga and Pattabhi Jois in Mysore that was later entitled, "The Yoga Bums." She had seen me practising bacbends in the "finishing room", which was a designated place for the closing series of Ashtanga. Yogacharya was quietly gaining a reputation as a renowned backbender and with many Ashtanga students taking his classes in the afternoon.

At the time my Ashtanga days were getting numbered due to a knee injury. As much as I had been determined to stick to the practice after 6 weeks of pain I finally looked around the room and decided this cannot be "yoga." Many Ashtanga students had told me my knee problem was ego-related. Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't. Nevertheless, I ended my Ashtanga classes and went to Yogacharya.

Yogacharya was a breath of fresh air. He was strict, but gentle. He did not believe in forcing or pushing, but listening to your breath and working from within. When I approached him about taking his backbending classes, he looked at me with the compassion of a parent, but the discipline of a teacher. One of the first things I recall during my initial meeting with Yogacharya was him stating that he did not give physical adjustments. This was a surprise to me. He talked about not wanting to make people dependent for which he felt adjustments were an addiction and externally based. He also stated his aim was to teach a student "how" to practice alone. His overall aim was to guide students toward inner realization.

And so my journey with Yogacharya began.

The essence of Yogacharya’s teaching lies in allowing the practice to guide the student. His approach while seemingly strict and demanding is unique to each student who studies under him. What is taught to one student is not taught to another. Students learn the practice posture by posture, which ensures that they learn it on their own. Classes are not taught as a mass production line of students streaming in and out of the class. The classes are small with students quietly practicing along aside each other. Perhaps surprisingly so, there is a lot onus placed upon the student to remember what they have been taught. Remembering what you had been taught comes with the reward of learning more. Not remembering what you were taught kept you repeating the same pose or mantra.

Yogacharya’s philosophy embraces guiding the student in becoming their own inner teacher. For him, this is not achieved by spewing out the instructions or handing out adjustments. It comes by learning to breathe, deveoping an internal focus and staying with any given posture for many breaths. The Sanskrit phrase, “Sthira Sukahm Asanam” means to explore what is and not what you are doing. If I had to say what single phrase sums up his work it would be this. 

For me, Yogacharya is the only teacher I have found who is teaching organically. Students explore and investigate the asanas (postures) on a purely individual level. Each asana in the beginning is practised 3 times. Later on, this is decreased with 20 to 30 breathings for each pose. Often he might just stand and watch saying nothing. For a new student this might seem intimidating. He might give suggestions but only where he felt it was necessary. He often made more observations than comments during class, which made it very difficult to tell what he was thinking.

It has been under his direction that I learned to build upon my own personal practice of backbends. During each of the years I studied under Yogacharya new asanas were added or eliminated to the routine. When he asked me, “What do you what to learn?” it was always with excitement and dread. I was excited because of the possibility of what was open to me. I dreaded it because I understood the long path that still lay ahead of me. Sometimes the asanas I learned were very simple while others were extremely difficult and well beyond my current capacity. The simple ones made me remember I am a beginner always while the more difficult ones never let me rest on my laurels.

The single most important thing I learned from Yogachayra is how to practice alone as well as how to practice under any circumstance. Whether it is a cramped hotel room, a stuffy basement or a small corner of the practice room, I learned to practice. Yet it has been the silent joy that came from practice that is truly the essence of his teaching. During my struggles in practice Yogacharya would often say, “When you return to your country it will come.” And whether or not this happened in my country or still in India, there was nothing more satisfying than merging into and with an asana. But more than this was the feeling I had of having developed the asana from within.

Not anyone can teach you this, but certainly Yogcharya has the unique gift in leading you there.         

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