This is the first in a six- part series about the experiences of Sarvesh Naagari while he lived in a Yoga ashram in southern India for 6 months in a 2,000 hour teacher training program. The series focuses on what it was like to practice Yoga in a Gurukula environment and to learn about and experience one of the oldest and most respected lineages in the Yoga world, Gitananda Yoga.
Sarvesh is the owner of Ripple Yoga in Seattle, WA and the author of the newly released novel, 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, an inspirational true story of the spirit that follows Sarvesh on his journey in India while recounting his near death experience 7 years ago and the courage of the spirit to come back to life and flourish. Sarvesh was in India from October 2015 through the end of March 2016.
Part One: I Sat on the Floor
Sit on the floor. This simple request back in October seemed mundane enough. So I sat, and realized within about 30 minutes that this benign request was going to become my yogic challenge for the course. I was unaware of both the length and consistency of floor sitting required not only in practice where we utilize Vajrasana and the seated variations (Padmasana, Sukhasana) but the class time spent in this position. During the first couple of months, I was usually in tears by the time Satsangha was 20 minutes old.
When I arrived at the ashram I was in very good physical condition for a 46-year old male. I was athletic and had the hard formed muscles from the primary sports that I played. These same hard muscles were quite inflexible and the fascia tissue around them was stagnant from years of lackadaisical stretching before and after playing these sports. In addition, my joints were stiff and toxic from years of abuse, primarily due to sitting at a desk in front of a computer for 20 years and a diet where while I tried to eat healthy, was toxic from years of Western influence. In addition, the mental and emotional tension that I carried with me were a burden on opening up and relaxing due to the tension it created up and down the nervous system.
As we began detoxification, I went through a series of processes in my body that built the foundations of the changes that would be necessary to allow me to sit on the floor. This process was one of pain in the back and hips for 4-5 days followed by an intense itching for 12-16 hours with the process completing with a purge from the digestive system in the form of diarrhea. This repeated itself 6 times from October to the end of November. This detoxification and mental cleansing would require me to raze who I was physically to the ground and start over. I would have to reconstruct my musco-skeletal system at the cellular level, and this is just what we did. The practice of Shanka Prakshala, the diet at the ashram and rhythm, repetition and regularity of the Hatha practice began the physical process. But what really moved the needle was the Pranayama practice, expanding the size and surface area of the lungs to allow for a quicker detoxification of the joints utilizing Hathenas and the sectional breathing. This awareness and use of the lungs significantly detoxified my body, mind and emotions and then I believe that the Eka Dasi practice fine tuned the grosser level practices.
As we moved into the study of Yama and Niyama it occurred to me that sitting on the floor was my own personal practice of Yama and Niyama. I had been committing Himsa to the self for years by not treating my body with care by sitting at a desk for 20+ years and not stretching and maintaining mobility in my athletics. I was now paying the price for that in this transformation which also was correcting 30 years of poor posture! I had been lying to myself for years about the condition and not practicing Satya. I would tell people that I was in such great physical condition that I didn’t need to stretch. This was clearly both the Kleshas of Avidya and Asmita in play only I was so attached to my body that proper discernment of what I was both doing and saying escaped me. The result of this behavior was stealing future happiness from myself as I would surely have ended up stiff as a board as the aging process marched onward and this would have effected my mobility and happiness. Asteya comes in many forms and this more subtle form was stealing time from myself, and the ability to be mobile in comfortable as I aged.
It is an interesting perspective that by breaking these three Yamas in floor sitting, I found they were tied so deeply into my mental and physical well-being. I also see that if we look at life as a being part of the problem or being in the solution that breaking against the Yamas is the problem and applying Niyama is the solution. And to be part of the solution we also must change the behavior that produces the Yamas. Pratipaksha Bhavanam is practiced on the behavior that is leading to conflict of the Yamas, or the practice of the opposite. When we practice the opposite, these actions eventually change our thought processes which eventually change our behavior. When we change our behavior, we become something different because our behaviors make up who we are, not what we have as is so commonly misperceived in this world. These practices become our new primary nature.
I realized that the ashram life had put the practice of Saucha in place for me to help me accomplish the goal of sitting on the floor. I realized this sometime in late October and that this was part of the solution. I have known great pain and suffering on my spiritual path, all of it self-inflicted. I understand on a deep level that pain is a necessary touchstone for spiritual growth and also recognize the difference between pain for pain’s sake and the pain that is growth. Despite the intense suffering of the body, I was intent on moving forward and with my daily practice of Isvara Pranidana (last of the Niyamas), I used that great will to march forward. When faced with an obstacle that I know in my heart is there for my growth and needs to be overcome, I channel this willpower as my own and with it, so long as it has good intentions, I can move mountains. It provides me with an intense ability to concentrate and to focus my mind in Dharana (focus) on the goal at hand and to overlook the discomfort of the moment.
This became my Tapas (heat) for the first 3 months of the program. My fire, my discipline. I started to name each class by the level of floor sitting required, much to Rahul’s delight. If the class was short and earlier in the day I would call it beginner floor sitting. As the day wore on or if the class ran long, it became intermediate floor sitting all the way up to advance floor sitting which was usually the Satsangha. There were many occasions where the Tapas of this practice brought me to tears during the Satsangha but with every tear I could feel the growth and the strength building in me, both mentally and physically. I told myself that this had to be done, not solely for me, but for the students who would come to me. They all had the same issue with floor sitting and I would need to experience the fire of this Tapas and get through to be able to teach it both effectively and empathetically.
There could be little Samtosha in the higher practices unless I could sit comfortably and have as Patanjali states in 2.46 of the Sutras: sthira sukham asanam. Ease in the state of being.
As with everything, this practice of learning how to sit on the floor was a beautiful exercise in Swadiyaya (self-study), both in looking at my past and realizing how I had treated my body and in the present finding that balance that we seek as Yogis to make the required changes in the body, mind and emotions, but not to push it too far; to not go into an extreme practice. The ashram was a perfect environment for this as we were being carefully monitored through all our practices.
As we continued with the physical practice, there were two Hatha sequences that were particularly beneficial once the detoxification and change in the muscle structure was complete. My muscles were now soft and supple, the muscles of a Yogi, but with strength. And what strength was lost I could feel returning daily. The Loma/Viloma practices and the Hip Opening sequences were key in the continuation of the opening the physical body as leg lifting was improving the strength of the hip flexors and muscles on the front side of the body. They had no strength because I had either not been using them and they had atrophied or the other muscles in my body had been overcompensating for them. I know that when I had practiced leg lifting in the past my core was doing all the work and the hip flexors were idle. And for people that are not naturally flexible like me, it is not a matter of getting flexible, it is a matter of getting strong. It is with strength that flexibility comes. Each day the leg lifting via these two sequences I could feel the strength building in those parts of my body that had been idle for so long.
One day in early January we were sitting in music class and sitting on a pillow with my hips lifted a mere one inch from the floor I crossed my legs and my knees relaxed to the floor with ease. I lifted my head and my heart and straightened my spine and felt no pain in the muscles up the spine that support the back muscles. I closed my eyes and listened for a moment to the beautiful and enchanting sound of the music teacher’s voice and felt gratitude in my heart for this place, these people, this opportunity and the love of life’s second chances. Because for me, every day is a second chance at first opportunities, and for that I am truly grateful. And by the grace of the Divine, I did it.
I sat on the floor.
Please tune in next week for Part Two in Sarvesh’s journey to India series. If you would like to learn any of the practices outlined in this article, please stop by Ripple Yoga where Sarvesh teaches what he learned and practiced in India. Sarvesh is also the author of 20,000 Oms and a Cup of Chai, a true story of inspiration that follows Sarvesh through his 6 month journey in India and recounts his past brush with death and how his spirit found the will to live. Sarvesh is also a life coach helping people to reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotions that tear at the fabric of our health and happiness. His proven methodology utilizes actions to change perception.
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- Journey to India – Part III: I Became a Deep Breather - May 6, 2016
- Journey to India: Part II – It’s a Lab! - Apr 28, 2016
- Yoga Journey to India – Part One: I Sat on the Floor - Apr 21, 2016