by Ali Valdez
Photos by Wari Om
Yoga is in constant expansion mode in our modern times. As a fitness phenomenon, yoga has officially uprooted sports, dance fads and the gym to be the number one most popular ‘workout’ for Americans. So are we seeing expansion of consciousness as a result, or are we suffering contraction in yoga’s potency, purpose and meaning? What can we expect or observe from a thousands year old yoga tradition when many of us are relatively new to the practice, and most of us just understand and conceptualize it through the lens of asana, limb three on a ladder of eight?
Although the scions of the old guard have passed away, leaving a momentous gap at the top and to some degree, heightened ambiguity as to where yogis can direct their drishtis towards the future, one esteemed yogi does not appear too worried, nor too attached to systems of old or fear of the future state of yoga. This wise man, legendary teacher and yoga community leader is Sri Dharma Mittra, who first encountered yoga as a teenager before meeting his Guru in 1964 and beginning his training in earnest. Sri Dharma founded one of the early independent schools of yoga in New York City in 1975 and has taught hundreds of thousands the world over in the years since. This is a man with perspective, having witnessed the ebb and flow, evolution and convolution of popularized yoga for over fifty years and here are his thoughts on why yoga today as always remains beneficial for all.
Q: Can the true essence of yoga be compatible with the current direction yoga in the West is headed?
SDM: “Well, I’ll be able to describe just part of the essence, because the true essence of yoga is indescribable. The essence of yoga is to realize that an eternal portion of this all-pervading Supreme Self is the inmost self of all beings. It’s imperishable, omnipresent and ineffable. The essence is Self-realization is to realize what is beyond form, name, movables and of even intelligence itself.
I think the true essence of yoga is compatible with the current direction yoga in the West is headed, but this direction may affect the speed of progress overall. An enlightened yoga teacher can easily adjust the yoga practice to fit the lifestyle of the West.”
We know in the West that part of the yoga studio gestalt is fueling the fires of pulling everyone into a yoga teacher training. Most programs in the US tend to be mostly women and of Caucasian background which is a big contrast to traditional Eastern yoga and shows no signs of losing momentum. There has recently been press about the adaptability of the eastern practitioners and teachers, many of whom have targeted Western teachers in their criticism for culturally co-opting their sacred practice, even white woman shaming. I inquired on his perspective, being a Brazilian man studying an Eastern science,
Q: The yoga movement in the West continues to grow, much to the scrutiny and criticism of traditional Eastern schools and the Indian community. What are your thoughts on the continued fascination and enduring interest in yoga in the West and notably amongst women?
SDM: “Here in the West, we have a different lifestyle and conditions than in the East and the yoga practices are constantly being adjusted and adapted to fit everyone as a result. The results of the yoga practice are amazing: radiant health, mental powers, self-control and lots of bliss. Almost everyone is looking for these benefits and not for the essence of yoga, and this is the cause for lots of interest in it. Many of the students (most are women) are really busy with postures, breathing exercises and even meditation just for the sake of what? They do it to improve their figure, health and mental powers so that they can reduce their pain and suffering, feel really good and enthusiastic and to perform better in life.
“Rare indeed are those who are seeking the essence of yoga and, among them, very few will truly realize It. The Ineffable One, the Supreme Self, is hard to attain.”
Self-realization can only be achieved by psychic means. That’s to say, by tuning your mind with another mind – that of an enlightened Guru or the Supreme Teacher within, because spiritual knowledge can only be imparted psychically.
Yoga poses (Asana), breathing exercises (Pranayama), meditation (Dhyana) and all the rest of it are just a preparation to achieve yoga: the settling of the mind into silence.
I believe in upgrades, because we are a few thousand years from when yoga was first introduced to us. So, we have to get out a little bit from traditions. Unfortunately, many of us are too much stuck in traditions and this may cause some discomfort. Eventually, everyone will go beyond the Samadhis.”
This summer we saw the passing of one of the greatest contributors to the exploration and evangelism of yoga, BKS Iyengar. Several years back, with the passing of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and the recent health challenges of TKV Desikachar, the shining lights of the Krishnamacharya lineage have extinguished which has caused some unrest in the yoga community in search of its next northern star. But even in the passing of the great yoga masters, a natural cycle of life, Sri Dharma stays pragmatic, grounded and optimistic about the future.
Q: We have recently seen the loss of the lineages bearers for Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga. What does this mean for the emerging and next generation of leaders in the yoga community?
SDM: “Their passing did cause some sorrow to many, but, in reality, no one dies. Be happy! I believe that Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga will continue to grow. The way I see this situation is like when a tree dies, it leaves countless seeds. These seeds, for example, are represented by thousands of Iyengar’s disciples or teachers. Iyengar planted his seed often through teaching many students and many are just like Iyengar, almost!”
In the era of Instagram and other self-promotion vehicles, there may lack distinguishing between what constitutes seed and what constitutes chaff and what makes a great teacher vs. a beautiful practitioner in a world where the images are clear but the message they’re sending seem blurred.
Sri Dharma, a man ahead of his times, could be considered the first poster child of photographing and sharing perfection in asana. He is the model and creator of the “Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures”, and the author of ASANAS: 608 Yoga Poses. For him, this was an act of bhakti in devotion to honoring his teacher.
Q: Marketing vehicles like Instagram have created yoga superstars literally overnight for their phenomenal yoga asana techniques even in spite of lacking real understanding of teaching, technique and safety. In many respects you were one of the first models of advanced asana technique. Your Master Yoga Chart is an incredible resource to practitioners worldwide. Do you view this movement as beneficial or deleterious to the real teachings of yoga? How did the yoga community at large respond to your poster and books when they first were published?
SDM: “There are all kinds of students. Some are seeking physical and mental powers and some see yoga as a way to make money. Others are seeking enlightenment, name, fame and prestige. Many are victim of distorted yoga instructions that results in injuries and also missing the Way.
“There are also all kinds of teachers to fit to the above mentioned, so this movement is beneficial. Eventually, everyone will be lead to enlightenment, so, perfect!”
Remember, the results of our decisions are due to a specific condition that is present in us at that time. That condition is the result of our previous actions. In reality, everything is governed by absolutely perfect Divine laws.
Now, let’s talk about the effects of the poster and the 608 Asanas book. The yoga community at that time (1984) responded very favorably to the 908 Asanas Master Chart. Lots of yoga centers purchased a copy and, after just a few years, I began to be invited to offer many out-of-town workshops and to participate in yoga conferences. The 608 Asanas book was also a success and it really is a help for the Hatha Yogis.”
For many, yoga in the West is evolving certainly past basic asana. People are seeking more. Increasingly, meditation, pranayama and the psychological aspects of yoga are being validated by medicine and seekers are delving into the more broadly available once ancient studies of Tantra and raja yoga.
Q: As practitioners move past Hatha yoga practices and begin more earnestly exploring raja yoga and Tantra, what advice would you offer them?
SDM: “Concentrate on Self Knowledge and rest your thoughts on it alone. Constantly try to see yourself in others and be extremely respectful, compassionate and reverent to all, most especially to your Guru. Thus, you will surely succeed.
To go deeper into practice, how one from traditional school may go about exploration may be quite different from modern day methods. But is one more effective than the other especially when the cultural discrepancies are so vast.”
Q: American yogis tends to stay away from the guru/disciple relationship we see in the East. Westerners tend to pick and choose, a la carte what aspects of the practice interest them, and hopscotch about between teachers, trainings and workshops. Can one accelerate on the path with this approach as effectively as they could by taking refuge under one teacher and seeking mastery in one system?
SDM: “Due to our lifestyle here in the West, most of the students do not possess good virtues such as obedience and respect for their teachers and they are not steady with the practice.
“I don’t blame them. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to find a Self-realized teacher.”
Technology is great and helps a lot, but it also causes lots of distraction and attachment, despite all of the apparent benefits. The students are making progress and, when they get ready for the next step, the Guru will appear. I myself prefer to serve one master only and wholly concentrate on one thing, but everyone should follow their own dharma (tendencies). So, everyone is accelerating toward enlightenment in accordance with their own karmic conditions.”
Fifty years into his practice and still going strong, Sri Dharma continues to disseminate the complete traditional science of yoga through daily classes, workshops and his “Life of a Yogi” Teacher Trainings at the Dharma Yoga New York Center and around the world. If it’s happened in the yoga world, chances are he has seen it.
Q: If there is one primary shift in the yoga world that you have seen in the past almost sixty years of practicing yoga that has excited you, what is it? How do you feel it will overall benefit the community of practitioners and advance the science of yoga? If there is one thing that raises concern, what would that be?
SDM: “I believe that it was the rapid change from yoga’s traditional form to the present one, the variety of styles, teachers and comforts all easily available at your fingertips. I love the technology of today, especially the Internet and the cell phone.
“I really like Google. For me, its name is Swami Googleananda. Swift and smart, and I can get answers even before I finish my question. We are blessed indeed to have all this comfort. But, watch out!”
It may cause lots of attachment that will result in distraction and some suffering. Due to this shift, millions and millions of yoga student are rapidly improving their health, mental and ethical qualities, but, of course, almost everybody is missing the Way because they are not really ready yet.
Eventually, everyone will reach the final stage of yoga – the settling of the mind into silence, thus realizing the essence of yoga. In reality, everyone is benefited by it. The yoga techniques that I learned and that I teach are part of the Ashtanga or 8-limbed of yoga of Patanjali. It has nothing to do with religion – it’s a science. The results of its practice are amazing and, in just a very short time, one can perfect his ethical conduct. As a result, more mental powers come followed by self-control, then radiant health, and, finally, the realization of supreme knowledge that’s followed by exceeding bliss. Thus, with excellent health, mental powers and stuffed with lots of understanding, love and enthusiasm, one can, without any effort, perform better his or her vocation, religion and Self-realization, too.”
So what are the next steps on the path for a yogi in the modern age? People are incrementally embracing tenets of the path of the yogi, gradually seeing transformations in their daily lives and interactions with others. Can some of these changes be more productive than another for Self Realization?
Q: Everyone seems okay with selectively practicing yamas and niyamas, exploring vegetarianism, being less critical, etc. But few people want to even acknowledge or discuss brahmacharya as a critical tool for evolving in the practice and accumulation of ojas. As a sannyasi and brahmachari, how do you counsel practitioners in this area?
SDM: “Just do your best and don’t you worry about the results. Due to our present conditions – the results of our past deeds, there is no choice but to be acting like this. Young souls are not able to realize that Brahmacharya is important and, thus, they have no enthusiasm for it. Remember, real Brahmacharya is an inside quality.
“There are many men who never touch a woman or watch any pornographic movies, but, inside their minds, they are constantly raping every pretty lady they see or think about. On the other hand, many are desperately trying to keep Brahmacharya, but can’t outwardly due to their karma. But, inside they are keeping it.”
Everyone passes through all these stages. Those who are able to observe Brahmacharya surely develop Siddhis or psychic powers and have always lots of energy. Use your intelligence. Men should see and consider every woman as their own sister or mother. Be nice to your guests and pets. Don’t miss your meditation and be extremely respectful, compassionate and reverent to all. Meet your spouse with moderation.
“As we get more spiritually civilized, sexual enjoyment becomes outdated. I believe that as long as the essence of yoga is not realized, we have to rely on happiness and love from the sense objects.”
Advocates from other fields are also starting to embrace aspects of yoga and yoga teachers with aligned interests are bringing yogic themes into other fields creating convergence in healing, of bodies, minds and spirits.
Q: Yoga is evolving, merging with Western concepts such as social justice, psychology, recovery, medical science and addiction, etc. Do you believe yoga has a place in these arenas, or should it be kept contained as a separate area of study?
SDM: “Yoga practice is to get the body and mind to a point where they are performing at their best and, with this firmly established, you can be an amazing doctor, scientist, householder, president and even achieve success in Self-realization.
“Sometimes, I keep imagining in my mind, the Pope and Mr. Obama standing on their heads and drinking green juices. Yoga can be an answer and help for almost anything.”
Sri Dharma is the model and creator of the “Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures”, the author of ASANAS: 608 Yoga Poses, has released two DVD’s to date – “Maha Sadhana” Levels I and II, and the Yoga Journal book Yoga was based on his famous Master Chart. For more information on all things Dharma Yoga, please visit: www.dharmayogacenter.com.