Monday, 1 August 2011

August 2011 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami

Yoga TT Program, What I Learnt.

The 200 hr Vinyasakrama Yoga Program at Loyola Marymount University in
Los Angeles, California went off well. Like the earlier years, I had
the good fortune of having a very nice group of earnest, talented
yogis. I was reminded of the famous vedic prayer of a teacher:

“May earnest students from all directions come to me!
May earnest students with varied capabilities come to me!
May earnest students with exceptional capabilities come to me!
May earnest students with self-restraint come to me!
May earnest students with peace in heart come to me!”

After I got my permanent residency in USA about 5 years back, I
started to work on programs that would give a comprehensive treatment
of my yoga  related studies with my Guru. I always thought that as the
wider perspective that he gave appealed to me, it would appeal to a
few others who may have a similar temperament. While I liked asanas
when I was young (that was what attracted  me to him) I also liked
vedic chanting (I started learning chanting when I was about 10 years
old). Soon thereafter I started wondering about other things that we
wonder when we are young like God, creation, relationships within
extended family and with friends, etc. I found some of the texts like
the Gita, Ramayana and others, all of which looked at life from a
higher and different perspective, very useful and refreshing. So the
natural desire was there and I was fortunate to find one teacher, Sri
Krishnamacharya, who could cover all these in one (w)holistic

I found when I started teaching here in the USA that there were two
main streams of practice-- one the asana stream the other the
meditative system.  But they  appeared to be completely separated.
Asana practitioners were practicing asanas alone passionately while
the meditators by and large appeared to take little interest in
physical exercises-- I mean in general, there are glorious exceptions

My initial opportunities in USA were limited to an evening talk here
and a weekend workshop somewhere else. I confined myself to
introducing the rather sedate paced vinyasakrama with the slow
synchronous breathing. While it appealed to a few, the majority
especially at conferences found it to be rather at odds with the fast
paced  workout yoga, the in-thing.  Light-hearted comments like “ this
vinyasakrama, it is not sexy or it is boring” were not  exceptions. I
felt a bit puzzled. Krishnamacharya was so famous but what asana
practices I learnt from him for decades did not seem to cut any ice.
So when the opportunity arose to offer a Teacher Training Program, I
decided to  include in the syllabus as many aspects of
Krishnamachara's Yoga as possible, not just confine it to asanas. I
thought somehow the asana part would be ok, mainly because Vinyasas
were getting to be popular and also a few  people gradually  started
finding the slow paced breath oriented asana practice helped them to
look at their bodies more intently, feeling different parts of the
body including the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic organs. But what
about other aspects, like the paradoxically “lifeless” pranayama,
meditation, chanting and the weird Patanjali's yoga philosophy? How
would the asana oriented yogis react to the other aspects of Yoga. I
was not very sure.

Then, during the last four years of offering this program at LMU, I
have tried to learn how people would take to these aspects. And since
every group is new there is no way of knowing how they would react to
the varied contents of the program. In the 60 hour vinyasakrama
segment the ten major sequences were gone through starting from
Tadasana. The participants were slowly introduced to the deliberate
mindful synchronous breathing with the vinyasas, taking anywhere from
5 to 10 seconds for each inhalation and for exhalation. This itself
was a new experience for many people, but they quickly settled down to
the practice. The vinyasakrama asana practice looks very slow to those
who observe it from outside and feels  too slow for their racing
minds.  But  the practitioner  finds that the mind quietly settles
down to the slow pace. Since the mind of the practitioner keeps
observing/following and is with the breath it does not get agitated
but calms down and does not share the anxiety and boredom of the
onlooker. The only way to understand this is to practice vinyasa krama
for a few days and find how the mind feels. In these programs the
participants learnt hundreds of vinyasas and several scores of asanas.
There was a 20 hr program on Visesha or specific sequences like the
breath- oriented- mantra- interspersed Surya Namskara routine, again
ding-namaskara (dik in a sandhi/conjunction becomes ding)-some are
tickled when saying ding namaskara or salutations to all the
directions with vedic mantras dedicated to each direction; then
anjaneyasan, vasishtasana, khagasana, halasana-paschima-uttanamayura
routine etc. The course also included learning  long stay in static
poses like inversions, paschimatana  and others. Guidelines for
designing individualized programs for varied requirements were also

Perhaps the more challenging subject was the 20 hour pranayama
routine. Though my Guru considered it to be a very important aspect of
Yoga, there is considerable reluctance to practice and much less teach
the subject in the west. Either it is touted as a potentially
dangerous practice even by some Yoga teachers or teaching of it is
postponed to a very distant future or sine die. In the program the
participants started the practice with simple steps like long smooth
exhalation using sounds like “OM”. Then slow inhalations. Once these
two were in place then breath holding after inhalation and finally
they had the option to hold the breath out for a short period of time
say about 5 seconds. Thereafter many participants were encouraged to
introduce the bandhas during bahya kumbhaka. Of course some found it
difficult to hold the breath out but over a period of time they also
found it possible to hold the breath out for five seconds. Then we put
all of them together to develop a simple pranayama routine of about 5
seconds inhalation, 5 seconds holding, 8 to 10 seconds exhalation and
finally a 5 second bahya kumbhaka.  They also learnt kapalabhati.
Starting with about 12 rounds almost every one was able to do about
108 times kapalabhati. They also learnt different vinyasas of
kapalabhati. Then they all practiced different types of pranayama,--
nadishodhana,ujjayi, anuloma, viloma and others. In about four days of
practice (there were 10 classes of 2 hrs each) they were ready for a
longer stint of pranayama.

They started doing 40 pranayamas at a stretch and during the last week
they could do 80 pranayamas at a stretch almost every day. I know some
were not able to stay or maintain the ratio or sit for the 40 minute
period, but many were able to do it. Their asana practice with long
inhalations and exhalations in vinyasas and postures helped to
develop  a healthy kinship  between the mind and breath.  During one
session, I opened my eyes to see if everyone was still on board and
except 2 or 3 almost everyone was doing the viloma ujjayi pranayama
and appeared to be at peace with the practice. Of course there may
have been some discomforts like sleeping legs but they quickly learnt
to change the positions of their legs. It was overall a very sincere,
disciplined and, equally important, serene practice. Many appeared to
be at ease with the simple and enjoyable pranayama practice.
Then we had a 20 hour course of mantras and meditation. Following the
steps of meditation as detailed by Patanjali in Yoga sutras the
participants learnt a mantra as an object and used it to focus the
mind. The practice invariably followed a stint of pranayama and some
asanas and a few minutes of shanmukhimudra (pratyahara). They also
learnt a few chants like atma sudhi mantras, pranayama mantra and
others. I found that most of them liked to chant. One day all
participated in a mantra chant cum suryanamskara practice. There is a
one hour vedic chant called, Aruna Parayana or Suryanamaskara mantras.
I used to chant this with my guru on Sundays for several years. In
this exercise I chanted the entire chapter interspersed with the group
doing one sun salutation (approximately 1 ½ mt for one namaskara,
following the vinyasakram routine with slow breathing) at the end of
each of the 32 sections (anuvaka). In all it took about 2 hours and
though next day almost everyone was nursing some sore muscles and
joints none complained about this unique procedure of  combined mantra
and breath oriented asana practice—samantraka suryanamaskara.
There was a 20 hour study of the Yoga Sutras. Even though the thought
process in the YS is very logical, the recognition of an eternal Self
and the need to and the desirability of identifying with it are new
ideas that can take a while to sink in even if one is open minded. But
then many students were willing to listen, absorb and contemplate.
They also had an opportunity to chant the Yoga Sutras.
As I have mentioned, even though Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, I
am afraid his teachings are not that well known. So I  thought it
worthwhile to include the study of two works of  his viz., Yoga
Rahasya and Yoga Makaranda. In a matter of 20 hrs the participants had
the opportunity for a  reading of the texts with discussions. They
also had a first hand view of Krishnamacharya's Yoga.
Apart from “Yoga Business” and “Anatomy &Physiology” there was a
course on subtle anatomy and Yoga for Internal organs. The Internal
organs program was based on Sri Krishnamacharya's approach to health
by maintaining the health and positional integrity of the internal
organs, like the heart (hrdaya kosa) and the circulatory system, the
lungs (svasa kosa) and the respiratory system, the stomach (anna kosa)
and the digestive system, the uterus (garbha kosa) and the
reproductive system, the brain, the nadi chakras,  nervous system and

How did the participants find the varied programs? I thought that
there was considerable interest in these yoga related subjects. I feel
that those who have spent years of their time studying yogasanas and
would be making it a life long practice should be given the
opportunity to look at yoga in a wider perspective, in all its glory
and splendor. What I have learnt in these few years of conducting a
comprehensive Teacher Training Program is that there is inherent
interest in many people who have come to Yoga for studying, practicing
and experiencing the different limbs of yoga and not asana alone.
After all Yoga is a perfect adhyatma vidya or the study of oneself in
its entirety-body, mind and the Self.

I also mentioned to some of the students the need of expanding their
interest and study of yoga and yoga related subjects. There is scope
to develop in three different areas in Yoga. One is the  classical
yoga practice, made up of asana, pranayama and meditation, the
traditional Ashtanga Yoga. The vinyasakrama method of asana practice
affords tremendous scope to expand and adapt yoga to different health
conditions and stages of life. Consistent practice of pranayama and
meditiation has a transforming effect on the physiology and on the
mind. The second area of emphasis could be the study of the
fundamental texts that Sri Krishnamacharya thought we should study.
Those who are intellectually inclined can think of studying several
texts like the Yoga Sutras with the commentary of Vyasa and other
traditional commentators, the Bhagavat Gita, some important and
exquisite Upanishad vidyas, Samkhya philosophy and others apart from
hatayoga works like hatayogapradipika, yogayayavalkya, gherunda
samhita  suta samhita, parts of Tirumandiram and others. Then the
third area of interest would be health related yoga. My Guru made many
original contributions to health. He was a master healer too. The
present day therapeutic yoga studies/experiments are tilted more
towards the musculo-skeletal system. While these are essential there
is a lot Yoga can offer to the integrity and health of the internal
organs. Several of the esoteric yoga procedures like the inversions,
bandhas and mudras, long stay in unique poses like paschimatanasana ,
pranayama and meditation have a very powerful role to play with
respect to health. Hence there is a lot that can be got by using Yoga
appropriately. Since many people seem to spend their entire life
practicing and teaching yoga they should try to learn, practice and
teach a broader range of yoga so that we can go beyond the fringe
benefits to substantive and enduring benefits of yoga.

I learnt a lot in these programs. The reason why yoga is presently
skewed towards ekanga (or ardhanga without the breathing component)
and not ashtanga is because by and large teachers do not teach the
other angas. When I was in school I heard a quotation which runs
something like this “If a pupil has not learnt, the teacher has not
taught”. Yoga is a rich subject. Considering its popularity there is
no reason why practitioners should not endeavor to go beyond asana
practice while still having a very firm asana base. I am beholden to
all the participants who have completed the 200 hour program for their
support and enthusiastic participation. I learnt a lot by observing
their practice and the comfort with which they learnt many other angas
of yoga. Almost all appeared to like the other angas of yoga as much
as they liked asanas.
STOP PRESS! Here is the writeup (received at the eleventh hour) by
Fábio Sayão, from São Paulo, Brazil, who participated in the recent TT
program and whom  anyone would like to meet and watch his beautiful
asana execution I am happy to reproduce  it in toto.

Course Feedback
About a year ago I got my hands at a translation into Portuguese of
Krishnamacharya’s book Yoga Makaranda, first published in Kannada in
Mysore 1934. That translation into Portuguese was possible only by the
efforts of a dear friend of mine that found a Tamil edition of the
Makaranda (1938) some years ago and luckily got the help of a Tamil
speaking Indian here in São Paulo that made most of the job
translating it to Portuguese. Since last year my friend and I started
to revise the Portuguese translation to make it someday available to
the general Portuguese speaking public, a task we unfortunately
haven’t completed yet…
Well, that only to say that reading the Yoga Makaranda completely
changed my life and the way I understood and practiced yoga, something
I’ve been studying and practicing daily for about 16 years.
Though I had a copy of that Tamil edition of the Makaranda for about 5
years, it was something that I looked at from time to time, saw the
pictures and got some curious about it’s content, but looking at the
pictures alone made me think it wasn’t something very different I’ve
been doing for some time, despite some intriguing forms of asana that
I haven’t seen in other places, but somehow I took them for granted. I
was practicing a form of yoga that was allegedly taught by
Krishnamacharya himself, but little did I know that the parameters for
the asana practice laid down at the Yoga Makaranda weren’t being
followed at all at the form of yoga I was familiar for so many years
of consistent practice.
Among those parameters one could note for instance, deliberate long-
slow ujjayi breathing throughout the whole asana/vinyasa practice; the
practice of kumbhakas, or breath restraint, together with the
engagement of bandhas (some muscle locks), again throughout the whole
asana/vinyasa practice… Those two parameters alone were something very
different I was used to, which really caught my attention and made me
try to experiment with them in the practice I was familiar with to see
what they were about.
The first day I experimented with those parameters I knew I couldn’t
go back anymore, the whole practice I’ve been doing for many years
scattered down to pieces on the ground and I couldn’t put them back
together. This only happened because I felt the powerful immediate
effects of such a practice following those principles, effects that
are unique on their own and in the same time aligned to the one’s
described in the various ancient texts of the Hatha Yoga tradition,
that were somehow a mystery to me, something not tangible or something
only to aim to… I felt that such a practice really prepared oneself to
the pranayama and prepared one’s mind to meditation, these last two
became so easy after an asana practice following those two parameters
What to do then? I had to explore more in depth the Yoga Makaranda,
which I did, but soon realized that work itself wasn’t intended to be
exhaustive. I was trying to figure out a routine coherent to the Yoga
Makaranda and went back to study the work of some of Krishnamacharya’s
students. I was among those that believe Krishnamacharya modified
drastically the way he taught asana throughout his life, which might
explain the so many discrepancies in the way different students of his
taught or still teach. But after reading the Yoga Makaranda one may
question if what we think we know to be his earlier teachings are
truly his or merely deviations or misinterpretations of his teachings.
I had already read some articles of Srivatsa Ramaswami but never paid
too much attention before reading the Makaranda, it was only then I
decided to read his books and realized he was being very coherent to
his guru’s earlier teachings, even though he was a student of his at
the “Madras period”. In my view he was the most generous student of
Krishnamacharya in the sense of putting down to words a great amount
of valuable information on his guru’s teachings, I had the sense his
books were the best available companion to the one book I was trying
to decipher. It was that feeling that made me come to his course at
LMU, and it surpassed all my expectations. I could also say it was
only after reading the Yoga Makaranda and learning with Ramaswami that
I understood what Krishnamacharya meant with vinyasa in yoga. It is
true there are many styles of yoga that borrow the term vinyasa out
there, but sadly almost none of them follow the principles given long
ago by its developer.
Fortunately Ramaswami is a living link to Krishnamacharya’s teachings
and I feel privileged to have studied with him. Among many things he
taught us, he showed us the importance of slow breathing and slow
movements; he gave us a huge array of asanas and vinyasas to be
practiced in a gentle way and how to incorporate kumbhakas and bandhas
during the asana practice; he gave us the necessary tools to design
our own practice and stressed the importance of keep changing the
asana routine to make our bodies healthy and fit for pranayama and
meditation throughout our life. It was always an inspiration to me
looking at Krishnamacharya’s asana pictures at old age and made me
wonder in what manner he was practicing so that I could emulate and
reach that age with some of that grace, I can say that now at least I
have some clues about it. We learned how to have a well-rounded
pranayama routine and how it’s important even for the beginner in yoga
to practice pranayama. We also learned some meditation techniques and
practiced and listened to some of the chants of the beautiful Vedic
tradition. We went in detail through each yoga sutra of Patanjali, and
some other texts, including the Yoga Makaranda, which made us relate
what we were doing at the practice room to traditional yoga.
I have to thank with all my gratitude for Ramaswami being in the
countercurrent of today’s yoga scene, for his courage to keep teaching
a traditional form of yoga without making it more attractive or
appealing to the western public, for being faithful to what he learned
from Krishnamacharya and to pass it on to the interested. Thank you
Ramaswamiji! I look forward to the opportunity of studying with you
Fábio Sayão
I spent a couple of days at the beautiful Ananda Ashram in Monroe, New
York State, teaching an introductory workshop (12 hrs) on Pranayama
and Vinyasa Krama to a group of very talented and enthusiastic Yoga
practitioners. Thank you Jyoti Chittur and David Hollander for all
your kind efforts in arranging the program and affording me another
nice opportunity.

I also would request once again my friends who have studied with me to
make a short video of one of the asanas like Marichyasana, uttita
parsvskonasana or just the hastavinyasas, running for less than 5
minutes, and post it on  Youtube. The breath may be made audible and
at the normal speed of performance. There are more than a hundred
asana subroutines to choose from in my book  “The Complete Book of
Vinyasa  Yoga”. Call it Vinyasakrama Yoga— and include the asana name
and your name with it.

Anthony Hall is very well known for his great blogs on Ashtanga Yoga
at Home. He was at LMU last year in the 200 hr TT program and has been
a tremendous support to Vinyasa Krama Yoga Practice and has posted
several blogs and tons of videos on Vinyasakrama practice.. He has
started a new Blog “Practicing Vinyasa Krama Yoga At Home” . Here is
the link
Please visit the site and I guess you may also post your comments.
Thank you
Asana- to keep the body still (sthira) for a while
Pranayama- to keep the breath still (sthambha) for a while
Praryahara- to keep the senses still (vasya) for a while
Samyama (Meditation)- to keep the mind still( ekagrata) with an object
for a while
Yoga- to keep the chitta still/quiet (nirodha/Kaivalya) for ever
And the Self is still (aparinami) eternally

Thank you
Srivatsa Ramaswami
P S My earlier newsletters can be accessed by visiting my website and opening the newsletter tab. I request you to
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  1. Dear Grimmly!

    "Perhaps the more challenging subject was the 20 hour pranayama
    routine. Though my Guru considered it to be a very important aspect of
    Yoga, there is considerable reluctance to practice and much less teach
    the subject in the west. Either it is touted as a potentially
    dangerous practice even by some Yoga teachers or teaching of it is
    postponed to a very distant future or sine die."

    Do you have a proper explanation on this belief (pranayama=dangerous)? Or maybe I should address this question to Ramaswami directly? (I really like pranayama, but only doing it on a basic level.)

  2. hi K. the 20 hour Pranayama course was fine, nice gradual build up. I think what made the 80 rounds such a challenge was just the length of time sitting, a forty minute meditation sit is quite a challenge for many. There's a line in the HYP about taming the breath being like taming a tiger and I think that was lifted from one of the early yoga upanishads. Krishnamacharya taught it early on so does Ramaswami, jois used to supposedly I thin manju still does. Seem to remember Ramaswami saying something along the lines of it being fine as long as your not silly about it and try holding your breath for five minutes or being real extreme about it.
    I think in the next couple of years we'll be seeing people teaching it a lot more.It's great for stress and that's the biggest killer in the west today dont they say.