Sunday, August 15, 2010

YOGA: The Architecture of A Trojan Horse, An Interview with Ravi Ravindra, Phd

Yoga is like a Trojan Horse. You can do yoga simply as a physical practice. Some people do yoga because they believe it will increase their sexual potential...or make them more beautiful. All this is ok. But eventually the practice will generate its own effects.” (Ravi Ravindra, Phd)

 “Do not rush through the book”,  read the email.

Fair enough. There are times when it’s worth following instructions. I read Ravi Ravindra’s cogent and lucid translation of the text that is the spiritual cornerstone of yoga practice entitled, The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, with 50/50 contemplation and leisure. And, because I was suffering from minor wrist strain at the time, I had the fortuity to immerse myself in the book’s inquiring momentum for a few hours at a stretch, and then follow it intermittently with lazy august naptime; only to get up and digest some more. It was lovely summer afternoon reading, rich and elastic in its depth of insight culled from sources as diverse as Sufi mystics, Christian theology, Puranic lore, threads from Rainer Maria Rilke and British artist William Blake. For someone supine, slightly injured, and looking for yogic transformation through a good read, this book was a no-brainer. 

(The Wisdom of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Ravi Ravindra)

Ravi Ravindra, PhD is a spiritual visionary, scholar, and leading international speaker on religion, science, and spirituality who has written fourteen books; several of them on the practice of yoga. He is Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada, where he was Professor and Chair of Comparative Religion and Adjunct Professor of Physics. Known for his ability to communicate with and inspire students, he is recipient of several awards and research grants and author of more than 100 papers in physics, philosophy, and religion. The latest of his many books is The Wisdom of Patañjali's Yoga Sutras. Ravi’s spiritual search has led him to the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, G.Gurdjieff, Zen, and a deep immersion in the mystical teachings of the Indian and Christian traditions. He shared a personal friendship with J. Krishnamurti about whom he has written several books. He has also received blessings and instruction from Sri Krishnamacarya, and studied with Sri TKV Desikachar at the Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai. 
(Jiddu Krishnamurti)

In this first post for the Examiner, Ravindra has been kind enough to chat at length about the roots of his own personal practice, and how he came to study with, and later befriend Sri TKV Desikachar. In addition, he talks about his personal choice to renounce the practice of teaching yoga in the 1960’s, his upcoming work in October at the Yoga Crib in Ojai. And, he describes the enormous transformative potential of yoga through the metaphor of the Trojan horse; a weapon of stealth, as it pervades a person's interior battleground, despite anyone's best efforts to resist. 
•      •      •      •      •      •      •

(The Spiritual Roots of Yoga, Ravi Ravindra)
I had the idea about a month ago to do some writing about yoga. It seemed to make sense; I had just finished up my yoga teacher training and had a few discernible ideas rattling around in my head about why I’d wound up in this new world filled with my daily homage to elastane as the miracle of contemporary yoga wear, anatomical prescriptions for the perfect chaturanga….and a mat lightweight enough to trek for miles through Toronto’s downtown smog.

And so it goes, the sublime and the mundane co-exist as seamlessly in my practice, as the opposing poles of  “ha” and “tha” in Hatha yoga. But I knew there was alchemy to be had from right there where I was standing; and I would not be spineless.

It was around that time that I picked up a copy of Ravi Ravindra’s, The Spiritual Roots of Yoga. And when I put it down I said,

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could talk to this guy and start thinking about this stuff aloud…maybe start a blog or something??”

So the next morning I was sitting with a coffee at the dining table when I saw my hands typing out a quick email to Ravi asking for exactly that. Some time to chat??? My reasons were vague at best; except that I had loved his book; and I was trying to transform after what had been a difficult year.
Luckily, this seemed to be enough for Dr. Ravindra to comply, and graciously advise that I call him in Idaho the following Thursday.

I picked up the phone, still staring at the clumsy Garage Band record button, and said,
“hello may I please speak to Dr. Ravi Ravindra?"
The voice said:
“Is this Priya?”
 “Wonderful to meet you”,  
“And you too”.

He immediately asked for some details about my life; which I mumbled and stumbled around….but I managed to sketch out the basic outlines of why I was starting a blog about yoga. He listened and then said,

“Ok. You can ask me anything you want.”
•     •     •     •     •

PT:  How did you come to begin practicing yoga?
(Albert Einstein, 1933)

RR: "First of all, growing up in India, I was 16 or 17 years old and you would look around and everybody would be doing yoga anywhere and everywhere. So I would also do yoga. Then maybe earlier than 16, but certainly around 16, I was very drawn to Vivekananda. Of all the people I heard or read about, he seemed to me to be not particularly interested in the orthodoxy of things...the priests and the pundits, or rituals…
He communicated a feeling that yoga and spirituality was a matter of power and of force - and not just some wishy-washy thing about the yogic mind.

(Swami Vivekananda, Parliament of World Religions)
That appealed to me very much as a young man.

In fact, i was asked some years later about what my ideal was or my wish in life i used to say: “I wish to be a combination of Vivekananda, Einstein and Tagore". That's probably because i never felt, even in my later academic life, that any one field of inquiry has any monopoly on the truth. And so for me Vivekananda represented a whole line of inquiry that we may call religious, Einstein represents not only physics but the whole of science in a matter of speaking; and then Tagore represents the poetic, literary side. So it has always made sense to me that we need not intentionally impoverish ourselves...saying,  “I am just this...and nothing else interests me”.

(Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacarya)
PT: Wow that’s quite the combination to aspire to! It does makes good sense to me to not quarantine oneself…How then did you come to work with Krishnamacarya and Desikachar? Did physical practice evolve out of your philosophical interests?  

RR: Well that has an interesting story attached to it. In 1987 I was going to teach a course in Chennai on Krisnamurti at the International Theosophical Society; and on the way maybe through changing planes in England, or possibly because of some heavy suitcases i was carrying, I ended up having severe back pain. So I arrived with this severe back pain and somebody at the Theosophical Society said, "oh you know, the best yoga teacher around here is a man named Desikachar - why don't you go see him?"

And you probably know that Desikachar is the son of Krishnamacarya, as Iyengar is his son-in-law. Of course, Desikachar had started something called Krishnamacarya Yoga Madiram, where he was meeting lots of people and training teachers etc. So I appeared on the scene there hoping to see him. While i was waiting for him, i was informed that he was not taking on any new people to see, but that someone else would come out to see me and discuss. Then at that point someone came and they were trying to get a bit of my life history. And i mentioned that I was there teaching this course on Krishnamurti, and that i had known him, and i had many many meetings with Krishnamurti and about 5 minutes later, Desikachar comes out to meet me himself.  He said:

"any friend of Krishnamurti's is a friend of mine"

Then of course he took me on, initially, as kind of a patient; very soon after that we were really very good friends. He and his wife have visited me in Halifax; whenever i am in Madras we make a point of having dinner or lunch and he has interviewed me for Mandiram as well.

PT: Would you say there was a specific spiritual guidance associated with the practice when you studied with Desikachar in India?

RR: No I won't necessarily say that. One need not be too occupied with making a radical distinction between spirit and body. This is a philosophical matter...I think my practice with Desikachar really had to do initially with my severe back pain. So he had said, 

 "Oh we'll put you through some of these asanas and this will actually increase your back pain, but then will later take care of it!"(laughing)

PT: Oh…ok (laughing)….And is that how it worked?

RR: Well that's exactly what he did. He (Desikachar) put me through some asanas and it actually became excruciating pain (more laughing), but then after that it left completely. In fact two days after that he said to me,

"You actually have no particular problem with your back at all"

And then he invited me to be a yoga teacher. 


At that point I decide to ask Ravi about his experience teaching classroom yoga, or “on the mat” yoga, as he calls it... And even before he begins his tale about the day he decided to renounce teaching classroom yoga, you can sense the elephant-in-the-room nature of what he’s about to say. 

"I realized at that time that i had such a STRONG experience of power at that moment – that was encouraged by the setting; that i was only one walking around. everybody else was lying there...and that day i decided that until I can be free of this ego-power, this underlying sense, I should not be a teacher."

Ravindra describes the illumination to renounce teaching almost as a “bright-light on my way to Damascus moment”; as a revelation meant to stay him on course. That this revelation had to do with the mechanics of the ego in the classroom context would not be surprising to anyone familiar with the concept of asmita, also known as obstacle of the ego (or as Ravindra defines it, the I-am-this-ness). Yet, despite yoga being a multi-billion dollar industry the world round, with all of the illumination and opportunity that it brings, the concern Ravindra addresses casts a necessary glimmer onto one of its blindspots.

Ravindra’s insight is equally relevant in terms of one’s personal management of the ego, and a person's negotiated relationship with one's own power. And, the relationship between the ego and power, (specifically as it pertains to one’s personal process), is what is paramount in the story of his teaching career. As speaking to him reveals, he considers there to be as many relationships to that power, as there are instructors. And, that there are no simple prescriptions for self-knowledge and its consequent decisions.

RR: I used to be a yoga teacher, much before it became fashionable - in 1966. I offered a course at Dalhousie University to anybody who wished to learn yoga. So we used to have a class of 30 (made up of mostly students but also some university professors) So i used to teach yoga.
But gradually I realized – through a  shocking experience actually that happened one afternoon in the late fall, when the sun begins to set early..

The sun was about to set, and there we were on the top floor of the student union building with 25 students in the room, and we were ending with savasana just before people get up and go you can well imagine, there were many women there, young and beautiful, in their tight clothes lying down all around me. I was the only one standing. I realized at that time that i had such a STRONG experience of power at that moment – that was encouraged by the setting; that i was only one walking around. everybody else was lying there...and that day i decided that until I can be free of this ego-power, this underlying sense, I should not be a teacher.

PT: Wow that's quite a decision. It's not very often you hear people say that. It’s actually a bit surprising to hear it said out loud…

RR: Well,  I have to say there are thousands of priests and teachers, and every one has a different relationship to their own power; everyone is not the same, and would not make the same decisions. But I think to imagine that the issue of power does not arise in that context is a bit naïve.

And, matters of spirituality are very delicate. There is nothing more dangerous than a sense of spiritual power. So that was the last time I taught yoga in any kind of a "class" sense. Now, occasionally when friends ask me, as in when Robert Webber from the Yoga Loft in Halifax used to ask me to come and speak, we would hold some pretty lively workshops on yoga for aging, or yoga for contemplation.

This is why I think Hatha yoga is a very good preparation for serious yoga. Patanjali is very clear about this - the ultimate purpose of yoga is the removal of ignorance.

PT: So what would you say about the emphasis on asana in contemporary practice?

RR: I often feel that yoga, at whatever level people connect with it, gradually becomes like a Trojan Horse. Because you can begin with physical yoga, soon inevitably you will find that you have a more flexible body - and you CANNOT have a rigid mind in a flexible body.

PT: Ok I suspect there may be some truth in that. But then, what do you make of the people who have incredibly flexible bodies, who don't appear to have moved beyond certain obstacles?

RR: Oh but you see flexibility is always of different kinds. You can have a gymnastic kind of flexibility, but if you actually look at someone with this kind of flexibility, there is an extreme amount of tension visible in the body, as well as an emotional tension. Yoga gives a very different kind of flexibility.

PT: Does that overlap at all with the notion of "bearing" in the definition of asana? For instance,  I'm specifically curious about one particular idea you present in your book regarding Christ and the "yoga of the cross". You speak of the bearing of the cross as a practice  -  as a you think this idea of “learning to bear” is at the heart of yoga practice? Is this bearing related to the flexibility you outlined? For instance would it be fair to say that asana, - in its etymological sense of "to be established in" or "to sit", could be taken to mean one “learns to bear” one's own weight...or one's own being?

RR: Actually, I had not put it that way myself; but i am rather interested in what you said about that. And I think it would be very difficult for people who do yoga to become, or to remain fundamentalists in a religious context. Therefore, I often say, it doesn't matter what one's motivation is. Let people do you yoga simply as a physical practice. Some people do yoga because they believe it will increase their sexual potential...or make them more beautiful. That's ok. They can do yoga with that....but gradually it will have other effects. Yoga is practice. You can begin with a totally selfish notion for more beauty, more sex, more flexibility, more money, whatever...but the practice itself will actually help your heart. 

It is also true, that your practice can strengthen your ego - as is clear with the example I gave earlier about the dangers of teaching and the ego.
Then people can lord themselves over others, and exploit them...this we know, this is true of all the gurus and all the priests for all religious traditions. Yoga is not exempt from that.

The practice itself though, - generally speaking-, actually gradually shows us how little one actually knows, how little control one has over others, or should have…

•       •       •       •       •       •      •      •

PT: At one point in your book, The Spiritual Roots of Yoga, you narrate the words of a Sufi master:

"If you die before you die, then you do not die when you die".
It's a lovely passage that follows, in which you talk about the necessity to "die while living" in, die to all the things that constitute "I-ness"... and to die to oneself daily, in order to be reborn continually with new passion and innocence.

Now, as I understand, the physical practice of savasana (corpse pose), can be used precisely to remind oneself of "dying". In Malayalam, (as in Sanskrit) "savam" means corpse; and so I'm always aware of that underlying intention.  However, I was chatting with some yoga students the other day who mentioned that they considered it inappropriate and, well, a turn-off,  if a teacher made mention of death while explaining savasana during a yoga class.

So from that, I understand that the concept of "dying to oneself" is not well-tolerated amongst those who inhabit a culture that largely hides from the realities associated with the end of the physical body. If it makes people uncomfortable to think of savasana as "a small death", can you think of ways that it can be made palatable. And, is that necessary; or is the point, in fact, to raise the discomfort and have people deal with it?

RR: Well, both approaches are required. Every teacher has to take the particular student into account. Ie. where the student is…Even the profoundest teachings (which is what one is ultimately aiming at), need to be approached with care and with caution.

For example, in this particular case, it is necessary for everybody to face the question of death. It’s important to understand the cultural restrictions and hang-ups and psychological blocks people might have, as well as what one might call the emotional maturity of the student involved…
From there, one may begin by referring to savasana as a way of deep relaxation… of the letting go of various tensions.

Gradually, if the students have a slight inward look at that themselves (which is essential for any kind of self-knowledge) - After all, Patanjali speaks of "svadhyaya", literally meaning self-study -, then one can gradually begin to see that all of our tensions are actually an expression of ego. If the student is willing to see this or to face this, then one can introduce the idea of death. I don't think, however, that one would begin with this idea of dying in order to introduce savasana.

So both are required; meaning,  begin by avoiding mentioning death if it is making somebody uncomfortable. On the other hand, know that what you wish to lead them to, is really more or less having a direct understanding of death. Or if you like, staring death in the face. 

PT:  I'd like to ask about transformation as pertains to teaching...In the book, at one point you write that transformation is not just any change; it is intentional change.
When you narrate your first meeting with Krishamurti, you say you did not have anything specific to ask - but just had a sense you could learn from him simply by being around fact, by looking at him...Was it a kind of transcendent seeing that you experienced?

RR: Seeing is the power of transformation. There are two different kinds of forces of transformation; though ultimately, they may be the same. One is the presence of people, and everybody has a presence. This is an influence on us. One only has to go to a lunatic asylum to find out how soon your mind becomes agitated, scattered, confused and internally contradicted. Or if someone nervous sits next to you, you can start to feel tension. So if you sit next to someone like Krishnamurti, a kind of quietness or an internal order emerges. And that is because everybody including you and I, are always emanating certain vibrations. And it influences the atmosphere around us. 
(Jiddu Krishnamurti)

It's what every parent recognizes - whatever you can tell you kids is one thing, but how you ARE affects them much more.

Great people like Christ or the Buddha, Krishnamurti or Ramakrishna or Aurobindo, they have larger presence, and more people come into their contact. So that transformation is not something that really, strictly speaking, I know anything about.

But on the other hand, thousands of people heard Christ - from what we can gather from the Bible - but only a dozen followed him. Meaning, transformation is not only exclusively dependent on the source, or on this emanation - but also on the receiver. For example, the London Philharmonic may be playing great music right now, but if i don't have a properly tuned radio, I can't hear it.
So transformation depends on both the source and the receiver.

But if I start to really “see myself”, and I start to see that I am tense, then tension subsides. This is one of the easiest things to observe. 

And this is a principle that Patanjali maybe doesn't put into so many words, but certainly implies: that is, whatever i pay attention to, changes in its quality, and in its relationship to me.

The easiest example is - and you can do this right now on the phone - is to pay attention to your breath. You cannot not breathe; you do it all the time. But if you pay attention to your breath, the quality of your breathing will change. 

If you pay attention to a child, the quality of that child changes…and its relationship to you also changes.

What I say to my friends is that the quality of my seeing needs to become more and more cleansed, more and more impartial, and more and more steady. Steady, impartial perception is really the direction of samadhi.


It was 2pm, one full hour since we began our phone conversation. I had not run out of questions. But I figured I had asked enough for that day. It occurred to me though; that it’s usually the simple solutions that matter; it’s the simple things that you manage to remember long enough to make substantial change in your life. It seems to me yoga may be one of those simple solutions. Ravi Ravindra has simple suggestions for how to actually observe ourselves, and practice observing continually. He translates for us again, what Patanjali had codified so many centuries ago. Direct observation of the self is not news, it’s as old as the earth.  But, it is a nervy and continually radical practice. I mean, any self I can directly perceive has some serious power….it has real spine.

Just before I got off the phone, I threw out a quick question about whether yoga has made life easier. As he paused and reflected, I just knew the question was wrong. It was unusual of me to ask about the easy road. But I asked it on behalf of everyone, including myself, occasionally smitten by an effortless happily-ever-after:

“I don't think it has made it easier. it has made it richer. To know something directly is not necessarily easier.”

 And I persisted,

“but really, doesn't having developed subtler energies that enable direct perception make life more even?”

The reply,
“Yes, but it also increases a sense of general sorrow. Awareness does not necessarily mean life is easier or more comfortable, but it does promise a richer inner life.”

Was I expecting a snug elevator pitch for this weapon of stealth we call yoga? If so, this wasn't it. But it was an interesting point to make; that awareness increases one's sense of general sorrow. I suppose that in the soil of that non-particular kind of sorrow; the one that looks beyond the microcosmic self, may lie the seeds of resourcefulness... of creative change...And, maybe there is no compassion without that general sorrow. And, as Ravi cited the smug disparities, the customary injustices, routine atrocities and all of the needless suffering around us,  I saw that any new-age notions of a yoga that accrues only happiness would inevitably go up in smoke because it misses the mark.

•           •            •           •          •

For more information on Ravi Ravindra, visit:

Ravi Ravindra will be teaching at the 2010 Yoga Crib in Ojai from  October 21-24th
along with Erich Schiffmann, J.J. Gormley, Saul David Raye, Patricia Sullivan, Jason Crandell, Laura Tyree, Noah Maze, Uma Goswami, Jill Miller, Sean Johnson, and Kira Ryder.
Teachers at Yoga Crib Ojai, October 2010


  1. This is really good stuff, thanks for posting it. There's an entire yogic anthropology, for lack of a better word, that's missing from western philosophy.

    I have trouble thinking about a politics that does not begin say from silence, or on another ground altogether, If I don't begin prior to language, I am somehow lost. Surrealism attempted a way though-certainly worth thinking through (Aurobindo did automatic writing before he had his awakening in Alipore jail).

    --still working through my problems with Aurobindo. The way some of his writings reproduce 19 th century discourses on race...and his seemingly antimuslim remarks, same as Vivekanada.

    In another post, you start to think through the effect of yoga on language, a thought which I found fascinating...

    This notion of presence that you both speak of reminds me of that wonderful and eccentric book "The Practice of the Presence of God." I guess I'm a bit conservative in this regard: I know that presence is always situated in a tradition, a cosmology. And if I happen to feel Christ, does this make me a Christian...a dilemma when one starts to open up to presence...

    What does a politics mean that refines presence - a calmness upon which action is based. Politics and alchemy. I think of Cesaire.

    Or working on the basis of what Aurobindo and the Mother once called the psychic being...

    -what Aurobindo called 'psychic sorrow' in 'letters' It seems to be what Mr. Ravindra speaks of...a sadness which comes when what Aurobindo and the Mother seem to suggest that the other parts of the being can't be properly organized around the 'psychic being' -- an empty center, so to speak, not to be mistaken with 'psychic experiences' (i.e. occultism).

    I'm so far from this now, it's good to read up on it again from an intelligent person. This is refreshing stuff...!


  2. Hi
    It is great to have this post, especially for one who has listened to J Krishnamurti for almost three decades and a yoga practitioner who does a low key yoga teaching.

    Chennai 88