Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga-Live It

Beyond the Mat: Don't Just Do Yoga-Live It

September 9, 2018


My teachers often say that yoga is the science of living a healthy and peaceful life. Like a scientist, one takes the information, applies it, and finds out if it works. In my experience, it does; for me, yoga provides the answer to every question and the solution to every problem.

I took my first yoga class at a local YMCA shortly after my mother died of cancer, in 1997. As executor of her estate, I was not getting along with my sibling (or anyone else, for that matter), and I was racked with grief. Still, I had some time—and a lot of unstable energy after caring for her—and thought I’d give it a try. That first class changed my life; during it I didn’t think about my problems once and marveled at this new sensation. For the first time in my life, I felt real peace—and it lasted afterwards. So I signed up for every class they had.

But it wasn’t enough. Consequently, I looked in the phone book and found the N.U. Yoga Center (now called the Chicago Yoga Center). I bought a monthly pass and became hooked on the physicality of Ashtanga, a traditional and challenging system from India that appealed to my past as a triathlete and pulled me right into the present. I was in class every day—sometimes twice a day, and signed up for every workshop they offered.

Within a year, one of my teachers, Eric Powell, told me he was moving away and urged me to learn how to teach and take over his classes. I refused, insisting that I was happy being a student. He asked again, and again I folded my arms and said no. The third time he asked, I said I’d think about it.

I ended up taking Suddha Weixler’s teacher training at N.U. and loved it. At his request, I began teaching my own classes at his studio. More teaching opportunities soon followed. I had to quit my part-time waitressing job but continued to work as a freelance writer.

After studying with many senior Ashtanga teachers and hearing them speak about Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, I decided to “go to the source,” as my mother used to say, and find out for myself. I made my first trip in 2002, not long after 9/11, when India and Pakistan were amassing their troops on the border, preparing for war. I bought an open-ended plane ticket, thinking I’d want to turn around and come home as soon as I arrived.

Instead, I stayed five months, practicing with 11 other Westerners in a small, sweaty room in Pattabhi Jois’s house.

I made four more trips to study with the Jois family in India, chronicling each of them in my, “No Sleep Til Mysore” diaries in Yoga Chicago magazine. After each trip to India, I would come home to less journalism work and more teaching gigs. I became a full-time yoga instructor in 2004, while continuing to write for Yoga Chicago magazine and take on other occasional writing assignments.

Pattabhi Jois used to tell us to “Think God. Be God.” But it wasn’t until I took my first Life of a Yogi teacher training with Sri Dharma Mittra in 2007 that I understood what he was talking about.

Although called a teacher training, it was really a course in Self-realization. It consisted of 10 intense, 15-hour days of classes at Sri Dharma’s cramped old New York City studio and included instruction and practice in the complete yoga system. Each day began with chanting, pranayama (breathwork), and meditation, followed by talks on philosophy as well as instruction in anatomy, diet (vegetarian, mostly raw), kriyas (yoga techniques), Hatha yoga, japa mala (prayer beads), and other yoga practices.

It was nothing less than a blueprint for how to live a happy and fulfilling life, and Sri Dharma’s bliss, playfulness, awareness, and humility provided a living example of its efficacy. He answered all of the questions I’d never been able to articulate, all the while bombarding us with unconditional love.

Over the next several years I ended up traveling to study with him every three months and completing two more teacher trainings with him before I was kindly asked to leave the nest. Along the way, I quit taking antidepressants, received mantra initiation (and my spiritual name), and learned to love myself.

The pieces in this collection come directly from my “Beyond the Mat” column in Yoga Chicago magazine (2007 to 2018). Much of what I write about is derived from what I learned in the many classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, and one-on-one sessions I had with Sri Dharma; from my spiritual mother, Chandra Om; from my other teachers and trainings; and from my own experience.

Many of the topics were sparked by my own struggles trying to live a yogic life in a world that appears to reward exactly the opposite; the questions and concerns of my students were also an important source of material. I think of these columns as love letters—especially the more recent ones.

This collection is for anyone who wants to explore yoga in a way that goes beyond the obvious health benefits of Hatha yoga poses, or asana. Yoga’s universal and inclusive spiritual underpinnings are often missing from mainstream American yoga instruction, when, in fact, the poses are one small part of a larger system that outlines how to live a peaceful and healthy life (and can ultimately lead to enlightenment).

On the other hand, classical Raja yoga and related systems—on which I have focused my studies and writing enable one to delve into them as deeply as one wishes (or is ready for) and be rewarded with everything from a healthy body and calm mind to Self-realization.

What I love most about what I have learned from my study of yoga is how practical and logical it is. It doesn’t rely on blind faith but on direct, practical experience; the ancient yogis invited their students to try these things out for themselves, and see if they worked.

If they do, we keep them. If not, we throw them out. But this does not mean to give up if the results are not immediate. As the Yoga Sutras says, “practice becomes well-grounded when continued with reverent devotion and without interruption over a long period of time.”

That said, everyone’s path is different; what works for me may or may not work for you. I invite you to try it and find out.

What doesn’t help is a closed mind. During my first trip to study with the Jois family in Mysore, I remember apologizing to Sharath Jois in one particularly rough 4:30 a.m. class for being stiff and making his attempt to provide adjustments difficult. “Body is not stiff,” he said. “Mind is stiff.”

After many years of giving copies of Yoga Chicago to students and e-mailing links to individual columns, I realized it would be more helpful to collect them in one place. For the most part, I have not altered the text of the originals; when I did, it was to ensure clarity and timeliness and to make them less Chicago-specific.

Consequently, there is some overlap between the articles (in my experience, hearing things more than once helps make them stick). They’re arranged loosely according to theme; my idea was not that you should read them through from start to finish (unless you want to). Rather, I hope you will choose to read columns on topics that call to you at given points in time.

I find that weaving yoga concepts into my daily life helps make it more joyful and meaningful. I hope you will too.

One of the last things Sri Dharma Mittra said to me is, “You have to share the knowledge.” This is my attempt. If you find some of it helpful, it is due to the grace of God and guru. Any mistakes are on me.

Kali Om, September 16, 2017
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