Yoga is her life. Rama Jyoti Vernon, a practitioner since the age of 15 and a teacher for over five decades, is known as one of America’s yoga pioneers. After gaining a deep understanding of the yoga philosophy, and practicing meditation and breathing techniques for years, she learned the asanas. Vernon was one of BKS Iyengar’s first students. Since then, Vernon has taught locally and internationally. Her continuous work, deep knowledge and wisdom of the practice has led her to impact many souls all over the world.
Vernon is a bold leader and a peace activist who has dedicated her lifework to extracting the principles and philosophies of yoga and applying them to real life situations. She empowers people and communities through yoga and works on having a positive social impact. She possesses a diplomatic approach and she isn’t afraid of the unknown and feels obligated to share her knowledge with the world. Her goal has always been to bring yoga to those who need it the most. Even though she has been “criticized by some members of the yoga community,” as someone who is not seeking just her “own salvation,” this did not stop her. Vernon has done work overseas in places such as the Soviet Union, where she has organized over 200 Soviet-American Citizens’ Summits and has traveled to The West Bank where she has led conferences and participated in events that promote peace and aim to establish stronger international relations through dialogue. (“Nearly ten thousand Soviets and Americans have participated in CIP sponsored programs which have produced over 700 joint projects which helped catalyze policy changes between the US and USSR.”- website) Vernon is also one of the founders of the Yoga Journal, and it all started with a newsletter written in her kitchen.
To learn more about Vernon, her work and her vision, we asked her a few questions:
SYN: Rama, you’ve practiced and taught yoga since the 1950s, when “people confused Yoga with Yogurt.” What do you think about the evolution of yoga in America since that time?
Vernon: In the beginning of yoga in America, the handful of teachers throughout the U.S. integrated yoga into their everyday life. It was a lifestyle where we supported one another in our continual process of learning and teaching. Today, yoga studios exist every few blocks in every city of the U.S. which can, unfortunately at times, contribute to a spirit of competition rather than cooperation. There was little information available on yoga in the early days and now there are books and writings for students of every phase of development and interest. It is wonderful to see so much available now but it seems to require more discernment than ever before. I am now witnessing a longtime dream of yoga in schools, inner cities, prisons, community centers, hospitals, churches and every phase of society. I am overjoyed that this is now happening. Yoga is now being used in many therapeutic healing modalities and is successfully being taught to our veterans returning from war. This is what comes to mind when we speak of the evolution of yoga. Perhaps it is the evolution of societies that now recognize the value of yoga. Some of us are working internationally to train teachers in the Middle East to continue to help people who are living in war zones where adults and children are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
SYN: In your article “Bring breath back to yoga” you said: “If our lives are not evolving from the practice of yoga, perhaps we need to change our practice and our teachers.” What are the signs/how do we know? Please elaborate.
Vernon: I have said in the past, “If our practice of yoga is not changing our life, perhaps we need to change our practice.” Wherever I travel and work with teachers, I am finding both teachers and students with injuries that they think are a normal part of their evolutionary unfolding of yoga. More than anything, I am trying to remind the yoga world that breathing is the most important part of yoga. It is a protection on so many levels. When we allow the pose to follow the breath and honor our Svadharma (what is right for us) that will reflect in the expansion of consciousness within our practice. When there is competition in a class and in an individual, we transgress what is right for us at the time, and subject ourselves to potential injury. It saddens me to see teachers ignoring the breath and emphasizing, “getting to a goal” in the pose. According to commentaries in the yoga sutras, this is not yoga. Rather than quieting the waves of the mind, practicing asana without breath can create more restlessness of both body and mind that can lead to injuries. This could be an example of what Dr. Albert Einstein says about insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Without breath, there is a tendency to close down the inner spaces that can open our consciousness to vast new universes. Some of the signs of a practice that is no longer right for us would be injuries, increasing pain rather than its elimination, increasing goal orientation and competition with others in the class, and a sense of contraction, physically as well as emotionally. This contraction can be seen as anger, frustration and growing impatience where the senses reach outward rather than turning inwards. Our practice is meant to contribute to a sense of expansion, calmness and inner atmosphere of peace in any situation. It is meant to bring us to a still point of understanding both within ourselves and within others. Instead of self blame or blame of others, our consciousness keeps transmuting to a more expanded vista like the view from the top of a mountain. If we still feel that we are in the emotional valleys of self blame or blame of others in our life, perhaps we need to deepen our practice or change our methodology if it is not serving our own higher good. Every area of our life through yoga can become more grace-filled and compassionate. Every action we learn through Asana reflects in the postures of our life, “the way we do the pose is the way we do our life.” Life becomes easier when we are in the flow…and that flow is guided by our breath which is the invisible link between mind and body. Through our inspiration, we take in spirit. Our expiration is the giving of spirit to the atmosphere around. This is our communion with Iswara, the Lord of this world that is invoked by the sound of aum, a symbol of Yoga. Our breath that is greatly inhibited in our modern society is our connection and communion with that Lord or with our higher Self. If we don’t feel that connection in our practice, and we want to deepen our yogic experience, perhaps it is time to change the way in which we have been practicing. That doesn’t always mean changing our teachers.
SYN: What prompted you to write “Yoga: The Practice of Myth and Sacred Geometry,” and what do you hope people will take away from it?
Vernon: Yoga Teachers and students for over 40 years have asked me to write a book. A group got together and for one week asked me questions that were transcribed with the intent of turning the transcripts into a book. A few years later, Kathleen Bryant, a yoga teacher and editor who helped with the transcriptions, took everything I wrote and shortened it for publication. She found a publisher on the third try. Shraddha (Ruth) Hartung, owner of 7 Centers Yoga Arts in Sedona, Arizona, was the motivating force behind the book. She arranged photographic shoots and interacted with the editor and publisher making sure the book came into fruition. As she said, it took a village to do this book. All I did was write it. I have been reluctant when asked over the years to put my teachings into writings. I thought, I keep exploring greater depths of yoga each year, and if I put my experiences and insights into the written word it would crystallize my experiences, freezing them within a limited time frame. After teaching in Kosovo and Afghanistan, I nearly died from heavy exposure to depleted uranium in the areas. My students, who are mainly teachers and are now training teachers, were intent on having me leave a legacy of my many years in yoga and being with teachers who are no longer on the earth plane. I finally committed myself to completing the book as well as a future autobiography.
The title “Yoga: The Practice of Myth and Sacred Geometry” was not intentional, it seemed to grow out of my writings where I compared the alignment of asana to the geometric patterns of the universe. When I was working with Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar for eight years in India and in the U.S., I began to see why he stressed equal polarities and alignment in the poses. I found in the alignment, that we were rearranging the molecular structures around as well as within our bodies. I began to share with the students that the upward and downward facing triangles in Trikonasana were the ascending and descending triangles in Sri Yantra where the two meet in the heart center. I thought every practitioner could see and feel that this pose was the joining of Shiva and Shakti, the upward and downward or the ascent and descent of spirit. I began to feel the flow of energy in other poses such as Utthita Parsvakonasana and how we created an angle with the bent knee, which is considered to be static energy in Sacred Geometry but when we take the arm up behind the ear in a diagonal line, it transforms the static energy of a right angle into a wholistic dynamic energy field. I began to discover over the years that each pose had a force field of energy and when we entered into those force fields, it was a communion with the presiding deity of the pose. This energy field in yoga is known as Yantra. The names of the poses are powerful remembrances of how and why we are doing the poses. The mythology of the poses came to me through their practice. When I was writing about Shiva, I called Shiva forth to guide and direct me. When I wrote about Rama, I felt the presence enter into the room. Writing the book was not an easy project. Sometimes, it took a week or at times two weeks to write about one pose. As I was writing, the pose seemed to envelope my consciousness and taught me as I was writing. It was a lengthy and profound project that has heightened and deepened my practice and experience of yoga. It is my sincerest hope that the reader will find something of value that can be incorporated into their practice and into their lives that will bring them closer to the deeper essence of yoga.
SYN: If you could practice with anyone dead or alive, who would that be and why?
Vernon: My life has been blessed with parents who were my first teachers and a mother who went to study with Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, as well as the Vedantists who were founded by Swami Vivekananda. It was my mother who introduced me to my first yoga teacher, a great Sikh master, Sri Bhagat Singh Thind who was 85 years old when I studied Pranayama with him in 1955. At this time of life, if I could study with anyone living or dead, I would probably choose Master Sivananda, whose disciples have been in my life and in my home. Even though Master Swami Sivananda Saraswati never left India, it was his disciples who brought yoga to these shores and built yoga centers that continue to grow.
I would also love to know Master Parahansa Yogananda because he was a mystic, a Bhakti (lover of God) as well as a Gnani Yogi, with great intellectual understanding of all aspects of yoga. I was a child living near his Pacific Palisades Temple when he was alive but was not ready to study with him at that time. He died when I was 12, otherwise within a couple of years, I would have sought him out. His books have guided and inspired millions of people throughout the years. I would also choose to study with Swami Vivekananda, disciple of Rama Krishna, who came to this country in 1893 to speak at the World Conference of Religion and built Vedanta Temples and study groups throughout the U.S. Swamiji was an intellectual giant as well a true lover of God. He captured the mind and hearts of America’s intellectual thinkers who were the leading edge of the cultural creatives of those times.
SYN: If you had one piece of advice for yoga teachers and for yoga practitioners what would that be?
Vernon: You are not just teaching postures, you are ushering in the Divine presence through your teachings. You are an instrument. The teachings do not come from you. They come through you. Trust your intuition and inner guidance. In the guise of your teachings, you are ushering in the lineage of the masters that illumine the mind and hearts of your students. Remember your breath, and continually remind your students throughout the class of their breath for the breath is the gift of spirit. In the course of practicing breath with asana, you are allowing “spirit” to guide your teaching. Each student will be lifted to new heights through the invisible spirit of the presence that silently enters into the room to give each student what they need on all levels of existence.
It is helpful to remember that when we hold a pose we are not just holding the pose but we hold the mind through the pose. We hold the breath in Pranayama not to hold the breath alone but to hold the mind through the breath. It is important to keep the mind as calm as possible, whether moving in or out of the pose, or moving from the simple to the complex movements. Lastly, it is so important to remember that yoga is not just a business, it is not even a profession…it is a way of life, a privilege. Honor that privilege and be grateful for its presence in your life.
(Rama Jyoti Vernon’s book, “Yoga: The Practice of Myth and Sacred Geometry” was recently released by Lotus Press. The book, a combination of visual and written instructions, compiles many therapeutic benefits associated with the asanas. Vernon will be visiting Seattle on Mar. 28. to lead a workshop at one of 8 Limbs Yoga Centers.)
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