Yoga continues to gain influence in our culture and inspires millions of people every day. It’s also a thriving multi-billion dollar industry. Yoga isn’t just about the color of Manduka mats and expensive stretch pants. Real yoga is about personal transformation and cannot be commoditized. This is a deeply internalized process, an unspoken journey that oftentimes starts at the studio but then loses steam when it fails to find its way into our daily lives.
Amidst all the marketing melee, how do people truly plug into the guidance and wisdom that yoga provides? There’s only so much introspection a public class can provide the individual practitioner. At some point a segment of the yoga community will go seeking but may lose their way for lack of guidance. Since we don’t maintain traditional Eastern student guru relationships in the West, how can “normal” people with “real” lives develop their yoga practice in a substantive meaningful way.
In yoga, there are many paths. Not all of us are called to brahmacharya or an ascetic lifestyle. For many people in the United States practicing yoga they are considered householders. These are people that hold down jobs, marry and have families. The pursuit of yoga starts as a fitness option that over time and with the cultivation of tapas, encourages you to dig a little deeper under the surface.
Sri Dharma Mittra, founder of the Dharma Center in New York City, provides simple wisdom for cultivating an authentic yoga practice for householders. According to Mittra, the yoga happens in the small steps of daily life and the discipline to prioritize those activities.
Q1: Millions of people are enjoying the practical benefits of yoga asana today. What do you advise as a next step when your students come to you seeking more?
Sri Dharma Mittra: Asanas mostly purify the physical body and promote radiant health overall. The next step on the journey is Yama combined with Pranayama. The Yamas make us ethically civilized. We must become extremely respectful and compassionate to all living beings. Thus, automatically, we build amazing enthusiasm towards the practice of Pranayama and towards the next step of yoga: Niyama, mainly gaining Self Knowledge and engaging in other purification processes.
By keeping Yama, we gain one of the Siddhis or psychic powers: the ability to find out what’s important and what’s not.
Also, through this process we become reverent to the teacher, which leads organically to obedience. This is a very important part of the journey because without obedience to the teacher, there can be no success in the practice.
Q2: Do you see the eight-limbed path as a progressive one? Do people need to start at the Yamas and work their way up, or can they start a path with Samyama or Raja Yoga?
SDM: There are few who are fit to start with Samyama. These are rare cases where the souls are old and already have the qualities of Yama and have mastered Niyama in previous lives. Remember, Yama is the foundation. Without it, there will be no enthusiasm for achieving Self-realization and no appetite for spiritual matters. The goal may be achieved without Asana and Pranayama, but, without good health and some mental control (concentration), the process will be more painful and will take much longer.
Q3: The modern yoga student in the west is a householder. They work, have children and a busy lifestyle. Can the four margas apply to Western practitioners?
SDM: (a) The margas can be practiced by those who are fit to practice them, regardless of whether they are a householder or a renunciate. Everyone has their own dharma or tendencies. In order to do our spiritual practice, we must be comfortable, eat the right food, have appropriate clothes, housing, means of transportation and enough money to pay the bills. Without all these, how can we meditate? How will Samadhi be possible? For example, without all these comforts, we may end up in a homeless shelter, and, under these sort of conditions, finding equanimity to be able to practice is almost impossible.
Q4: If there is just one practice that is the best way to get started, would it be something foundational as thoughtfulness about diet or more contemplative such as seated practice?
SDM: I would say reading some Yogic scriptures such as The Yoga Sutras, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Light On Yoga, etc., is the easiest and best practice to start with.
Q5: Can you share the time in your practice when you felt a rapid acceleration of growth and what was your life like at that time?
SDM: I had knowledge of the Laws of Karma and reincarnation for years – since 1955. Then one day in 1980, I suddenly realized: “That’s it!”
For me, it was like winning a 100 million dollar lottery jackpot. Wahoo!
From that day on, everything started falling into place. The knowledge of the meaning of life became clear in my mind and doubts, fears and delusion were mostly gone from that time on. In 1980 prior to thisperiod of realization, I was feeling really alone after living alone for almost 16 years. I was depressed and was without strong enthusiasm for the practice. But, due to lots of reverence to my Guru, I realized that I had to just do it and then good results were inevitable.
Q6: What was the best piece of advice you received from your guru about developing your personal spiritual practice?
SDM: He always recommended constant practice and lots and lots of Karma Yoga.
Q7: How do you measure success in a practitioner with a consistent practice?
SDM: It’s their ethical conduct and the amount of spiritual enthusiasm that can easily be noticed in them. Ethical conduct is the foundation of the practice. Without it, you go nowhere. Becoming established in the practice, always gaining knowledge of the Self, leads to a burning desire for liberation.
Q8: What advice do you share with your students as they are about to complete your advanced training program about their practice, their role as teacher and their place in addressing the needs of society?
SDM: I am forever telling them that Yama, the ethical rules, must be observed and a vegetarian diet must be adopted, except for some dairy in moderation. They must encourage the students to practice Yama and Niyama. From Niyama, especially to work to acquire Self Knowledge. I tell them to totally renounce name, fame and prestige, and to share the Way. And, never let your students see your faults.
Q9: Is there anything in your personal yogic journey that you regret or in hindsight felt was not as productive as perhaps initially thought?
SDM: I should never have missed my Asana and Pranayama practice because at present, I feel a little weaker than I should. But, I’m trying hard to return to full practice. I didn’t listen to my Guru: “Constant practice!”
Q10: When you walk into one of your students’ yoga schools or studios, do you come in with any hopes or expectations? If so, what are they?
SDM: Yes. I hope to see a picture of Lord Shiva and the Sanskrit symbol of the Om.
About Sri Dharma Mittra: Legendary yoga teacher Sri Dharma Mittra 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. 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 recently captured classes are available for streaming via YogaVibes.com and Yoginit.com. 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. For more information on all things Dharma Yoga, please visit: www.dharmayogacenter.com.
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