Interview with Yogi Amrit Desai- I: Hatha Yoga is integrated into Ashtanga Yoga

Yogi Amrit Desai speaks to Rajiv Malhotra, well known scholar of Hinduism on a number of issues related to Yoga practice.

Editor’s Note: Yogi Amrit Desai is the pioneer who brought Hatha Yoga to America. When he first came to America (5th February 1960), there was hardly any yoga anywhere. There were other teachers, who had brought Yoga, but unique quality was that he came from the lineage of Lakulisha and was trained by guru Swami Kripalvananda. In 1966, he gave up everything and started teaching full time yoga. From 1966 to 1970, it grew so big that he had 150 yoga classes taught in all over Philadelphia, New Jersey. He was also the first one to start a formal Yoga Teacher Training Academy. He trained more than 8-10 thousand Yoga teachers teaching in 40 countries around the world.

Here is a transcript of an interview in which Yogi Amrit Desai speaks to Rajiv Malhotra, well known scholar of Hinduism and author of books like Indra’s Net and The Battle for Sanskrit, on a number of issues related to Yoga practice. The transcript has been given as it is with minimal modification.

Rajiv Malhotra: I would like to talk about the actual practise itself that you have developed and how it is unique. Because if we talk about history, it’s not just that you were first and you were the largest and made a huge impact, but also in terms of the actual, the substance and the content of the practise. You brought in lots of innovation.

Yogi Amrit Desai: When I was teaching Yoga in the beginning, I did not know what Yoga’s yogic depth (was) yet. I had an awakening in 1970 and that awakening, I was taken to whole new dimension from where I saw Yoga practice to be so completely different. So, I had read Patanjali Yoga sutra and Yoga of Bhagavad Gita, before that I just read Bhagavad Gita as usual. But after awakening when I read Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga sutras, I saw completely new teachings that were subtler than what I used to see before the awakening. So, out of that, I developed the whole new approach called Kripalu Yoga and now Amrit Yoga or I Am Yoga. Today (in) most Yoga centres, they teach Hath Yoga and then Patanjali Yoga sutra philosophy separately.

Patanjali says, “Yoga means witnessing the modifications of mind.” And so he did not put any Yoga postures in his book because yoga can be practised while you are cooking, while you are shopping, while you are driving.

RM: You could be a yogi and you are supposed to be a yogi doing all kinds of things. Not just sitting on the mat. Whatever you do, you bring the yoga posture with you.

YAD: Then Patanjali also brought, in the later part – Ashtanga Yoga. So what he is saying – Ashtanga yoga, cannot be practised, if it is not combined with meditation from the very beginning.

RM: Because meditation and asanas and pranayama, yama and niyama are all the different angas. They are the different parts, the different limbs.

YAD: They are the limbs of one body called Yoga. That’s why he calls it 8 limbs of Yoga not 8 levels or 8 steps.

RM: It’s not a chronological thing.

YAD: Exactly. Therefore, the yoga that I created is called Meditation in Motion because that’s what Patanjali says. So, it became so popular.

RM: So, I want to hear, say something anecdotal. The first time, I ever heard this principle was from you and I want to say that this is like over a decade ago. In one of your classes, which I was taking right here you mentioned that the 8 parts/limbs of Yoga have to (be) practice simultaneously. In the posture is also the breathing, also the Pratyahara. So, tell us about it because I think it is very fascinating that it’s not that ‘OK, today the class will be on Asana, and tomorrow will be on this one and then on that one’ It is not sequential.

YAD: Right

RM: Like this morning when we did Yoga here, style of doing is very different than in many places. So please tell us, how that is so?

YAD: Because Patanjali calls his Yoga 8 limbed Yoga. Body has limbs, tree has limbs and all the limbs are connected with energy. So, you cannot practice one limb and isolate it with all other limbs.

RM: And what you are saying is none of them can be separate from the other. They have to be kept together. This is an integral unity of Yoga.

YAD: You can practice yamas and niyamas. Let’s say you are practicing a non-violence or you are practicing Brahmacarya, and then if you fail, if it is not practiced with witnessing the modifications of mind, you will feel guilty. You will say ‘I missed it’ ‘I failed’ ‘I’m wrong’ ‘I should not have done this’ ‘my Guru is right’.

So, because they practice Yama and niyamas from the mind and ego, when they fail they get upset. So, witnessing modifications of mind should be practiced even with yamas and niyamas. Otherwise, when people fail in their practice, they reject themselves, they feel guilty, and they think ‘I made a sin’.

RM: So, one of the most profound and you know…Yogi Amrit Desai’s teachings is not sort of theory, lectures, but experiential. He will teach you, how to chant OM, how to sit in a posture, breathe in, all of that. So, everything is experiential and this is what I like about it.

YAD: This is what I said. What is the meaning of the word Yoga and what is the purpose of practice of Yoga. The meaning of the word yoga is integration, unification of atman with parmatman, individual soul with cosmic soul, and that’s the purpose and that’s the meaning of the word Yoga. So what I have done is when people are practicing Yoga, they begin with integrative intention. So, whenever the mind comes in and says, ‘I’m wrong, I’m not good enough, I’m too stiff’. That is called self-concept. They are practicing ego mind internally and externally they are practicing Yoga posture and there is conflict going on. What you are doing and what you are thinking are not in harmony. So this yoga when it is followed through the medium of Yoga and meditation – what you are thinking, what you’re feeling and what you are doing moves in one direction.

RM: One of the most interesting things I heard when I’ve been in your classes is the way you explain prana and the importance of prana. And how with prana, you can break down some of these locked up energies. So, can you explain a little bit on the importance of prana in your teachings?

YAD: The purpose of yoga is how to return back to the source that I am. The soul being that I Am. So, what is in your way is your karmic memories of reactively processed past and that is what lives in your memories. So, when you are interacting with life situations and relationships you are acting through the reactive perceptions and that is living in you as an energy block that comes out as emotional block.

RM: It’s physically inside us.

YAD: It’s physically inside us. For e.g. if I’m frustrated, angry at my performance of yoga or my interactions with my family life, work life or social life all those things, those reactions in the mind get replicated in the subconscious energy fields.

RM: Is that samskara?

YAD: That is samskara.

RM: So, the samskara we are creating by all the things we are doing and we are carrying this huge baggage of samskaras.

YAD: In the form of what you call the shared persona or the ‘mask’.

RM: It’s like you may say ‘we are programmed’. And the programming is driving us.

YAD: So, that means most people who do not know ‘who they are?’ are disconnected from “I Am” and identify with the self-image that they are not. So, that self-image lives in separate from the self within in the form of karmic unresolved impressions and reactively processed memories. So when they identify with it they see problems where there is none. So, because the reactive perceiver has no eyes to see what is as-is.

RM: So basically it is to de-program.

YAD: Deprogram.

RM: It’s to deal with the samskaras. So, how do you (do) in your method, how do you approach prana in such a way as to address this issue? You addressed the problem. So, how did you solve it?

YAD: So, this is very important part that hasn’t been properly explained. This is very unique part that I have brought to explain some of the secrets of scriptural teachings of Tantra Yoga. So, when the soul enters the body through the medium of breath. It remains as I AM divine potential, but breath manifests in the body.

RM: So, in our terms you would call it Jiva-atma. Would you say it Jiva-atma.

YAD: Jiva-atma

RM: When the person is born, is that…

YAD: yes, the jiva-atman enters. The jiva soul, the individual soul is inborn as a potential, but manifests in the body through the polarity of the autonomic nervous system. So when the child is born this autonomic nervous system, I say that we are born with animal body, human mind and a divine potential. So we have animal body which has similar biological appetites, survival instincts as animals. But we are born with “I Am”, which is so unique. So, this “I Am” is superimposed as soon as the child gets to age 2-3, it superimposes ‘I am my thought’ ‘I am my likes’ ‘I am my dislikes’ that gets superimposed over sympathetic nervous system.

So, once the “I Am” is identified with “who I Am Not”, my thoughts, my reactions my reactive perceptions – these thought form into physical chemistry. If you have toxic thoughts it creates toxic chemistry in the body. It creates energetic blocks in the body. So the practice of Yoga includes meditation so that you can see these blocks going through your mind, your body and how to dismantle these. Yoga means witnessing modifications of mind. So, if you do not, if you cannot get rid of it then from your emotions, from your reactive thoughts and from the body, you are not doing real yoga to return back to the I Am, that I Am.

RM: So, another concept which I like a lot is the posture of consciousness. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Because you make us create the tension and back off and let go and then… so tell us the posture of first creating the tension and letting go?

YAD: Right

RM: How this works in every ASANA… So, you are doing this in the physical asana. When you are doing the physical aspect also you are practicing this consciousness.

YAD: Consciousness manifests internally and externally. So, externally it manifests through the body and through the mind, and internally it manifests through the autonomic nervous system in the body. So this autonomic nervous system is the divine dance of Shiva and Shakti in our body. But when we identify with ego mind, the dance is between Ego Mind and the energy. So that is the conflict. This practice of I Am Yoga, how to withdraw (is) the Pratyahara and witness of the reactive perceptions that rise in the mind while you are practicing yoga.

RM: So the Pratyahara is not just physically blocking of your eyes and that. But you are withdrawing the reactivity because that reactivity is reinforcing and creating new samskaras.

YAD: Reactivity means you are reinforcing the past over the present and moving further and further away from the source of love, peace and harmony. So that is I Am.

RM: So, withdrawing no longer means – you are no longer doing action but…

YAD: You are withdrawing from the past. Withdrawing from the karma.

RM: So, you are a witness, you are detached but your action continues.

YAD: That action is now guided by higher powers, the Consciousness rather than the Ego-Mind superimposing sympathetic nervous system in the body.

RM: So, what I found is… until I attended your class, which is long ago and you might not remember that you were actually teaching that thing and I was learning that thing, I had been taught and been practiced detachment, nothing to do with yoga but as a purely meditation exercise, like Ramana Maharishi’s witnessing method. Ramana Maharishi also had this witnessing method and so on. And Adi Shankara wrote a short piece, one of his shortest pieces, explaining this method. So, you did something different which is to put it into your asana practice.

YAD: Right.

RM: So, you put it in the asana practice. So, now we are sitting there, we are actually doing some asana, we’re reaching a certain point of tension, we don’t want to go too much, we don’t want to go too little, we want to go just right and then we have to do something to get that idea of letting go.

YAD: Every spiritual practice is about detachment from the possessions. So, actually every religious tradition has something of renunciation of the monk and the swamis. So actually that renunciation is not complete because what I see, what Patanjali says is renunciation from all the memories of the past which is your karma body. Only when you witness, right on the practice… during the practice of yoga, what you are renouncing is all the karmic impressions of good and bad, success and failure, for me and against me that is built into our memory centre. That’s real renunciation that you practice through the meditation.

RM: So when a person is doing… has a muscle and he is doing something to create a tension… so tell how do I use that moment as an opportunity to do what you want?

YAD:  That is why the I Am Yoga practice is built into 2 parts – make it happen and letting it happen.

RM: Please explain that because I think that is very important.

YAD: Making it happen means you are the performer of the postures because you have a physical body.

RM: So, at the stage of Hath Yoga, I am making it happen; I am making this posture and I am reaching a certain point.

YAD: Right

RM: Ok.

YAD: So, when you are making it happen, you want to go to letting it happen. Making it happen usually happens through the medium of the Ego-Mind doing postures.

RM: Will power, disciplines

YAD: Right, discipline. But that will not prepare you (to) go into surrender, of letting it happen.
So, making-it-happen is done with integrative intention. You are doing it to let go off the internal conflicts, hesitation, doubt, self-judgement, comparison, competition. All that happens in the mind while you are making it happen.

RM: So, you have some intention so that when you are making it happen you are making it happen for a certain cause. And then what do you do?

YAD: When your making-it-happen part is accompanied by integrative intention you are moving towards the surrender and then second half of the posture is totally letting go.

RM: Letting it happen

YAD: Letting it happen. That means you go back to the energy of prana. So most people don’t know that surrender is to be practiced in order to return to the “I AM”.

RM: So, when Krishna says, “do the action and surrender the results; don’t be the doer”, actually you are showing this in Hatha Yoga.

YAD: Hatha yoga, I have built it into the practice.

RM: So this idea is not just karma yoga in the sense of ‘I go and do some seva. I don’t give them my name. I do it anonymously’. That’s one way of doing it but what you are saying is when you are sitting on the mat doing your Hatha Yoga, practicing the same thing in the sense of ‘Am I the doer or not’ of this particular posture.

YAD: What you are doing is you are cultivating connection to consciousness through the medium of the Yoga postures and Pranayama. So that is the whole purpose of Patanjali. That is why he is saying – meditation is the only way you can enter the integrated dimension that Yoga is.

RM: So, when you are doing an Asana, actually that Asana is a microcosm of world of actions. So, in that Asana is the actor/doer and then you have to surrender this actor/doer so that he doesn’t feel that I have done the action. So in that asana you are practicing the doer posture – the posture of making-it-happen and letting-it-happen. So, when you achieve letting-it-happen, then the posture is happening without being the doer.

YAD: Right, Right

RM: And then you can take this into your world of actions.

YAD: That’s the purpose.

RM: That’s the purpose. I remember a movie that you showed us long ago of your guru Kripalu. He was doing some asanas, he was so spontaneous, so fluid that clearly there was no intention, no plan, no will, no discipline, no ego involved in doing it.

YAD: Right

RM: Can you explain that?

YAD: Yes, this is called Tantra yoga (or) Kundalini yoga. These are the different names of same yoga. So this tradition is how to… this is the most unique part that I teach and makes people so free from all the conflicts they’ve had within them. Therefore, when they go home, their relationships with their parents… they never talked for 15 years and now they feel so open with their children, with their ex-wife, with their husband, with their family opens up. Why? Because they learn to let go of the reactant perceiver that had the preconceived ideas about people, places and things. About their parents who ‘abused me, violated me’ because these are all false impressions reactively processed in your memory-body. Learning to go beyond it through meditation-in-motion. As a result you are letting go. You are not just renouncing the material possessions but all the past that is destroying your present and the soul connection. So they learn how to be in the present moment so they can be in connection with reality.

RM: So, learning to be in the present moment without the doer-ship is part of what I have to do in my asana practice. In the physical world or practice I have to do that.

YAD: And that is what Patanjali says in his first Sutra. He says, ‘now the discipline of Yoga’. Most people interpret as ‘Now, let us start the discipline of Yoga’. Patanjali never uses any word at that superficial level. When he says, ‘Now the discipline of Yoga’ means discipline of Yoga can only happen in the present moment, NOW.

RM: So, Hatha Yoga is much more profound than the physical exercise because Hatha Yoga is the starting point where you experience the Now under a different way, and the sense of doer and non-doer in a different way. And then you can move it further. That’s the way you are combining all the Ashtanga limbs together.

YAD: So, when the Ego-Mind is practicing Yoga, it internally says,”I feel like this is too difficult a posture’ ‘I hate this’ ‘I don’t like this feature’ or ‘so and so is doing it better than me’. That means mind is doing something else while the body is doing so called Hath Yoga posture. That is called body-mind conflict. That means the conflict is practiced by Ego-mind. So, I call it Ego posture. It is so completely different from the Yoga posture. So how to bring mind in tune with the body? So I teach ‘how to practice Pranayama to disengage from the mind and reconnect with the prana’, ‘how to use Pratyahara to withdraw from the reactive perceptions that arise in my mind and bring it into responsive interaction with who or what is present’ and then ‘bring witnessing presence’. So I don’t believe any that my mind says and then my mind becomes progressively calm. So, while I’m doing Yoga postures, I am dropping into deeper and subtler levels of relaxations and that means I’m getting into deeper and subtler levels of integration experience that Yoga is. So, there is experience of yoga combined with the practice of Yoga. In popular practice, there is practice of yoga but there is conflict, internally there is conflict going on.

RM: They are making your body better but making you worse in samskaras, the ego. Building up more ego. And with all this business about Yoga competition, ‘I have to win the Silver medal’, ‘I have to win the Gold medal’ ‘I’m jealous of this guy and I’ll beat him up’. That competitiveness in Yoga is counterproductive.

YAD: Completely counterproductive.

RM: So, this whole International Federation of Yoga Competition that they have setup in the US, I think is actually causing harm because this is anti-Yoga.

YAD: It is anti-Yoga. But what I say is, if it is for the kids who can only be interested in Yoga… being brought in as a player in competition, that’s fine as an introduction, but not for adults. Not for people who want to do authentic Yoga. So, I don’t condone…

RM: But if they convert that into an Olympic sport then people will not (know) the real Yoga. They’ll just go for medals and turn it into an ego competition.

YAD: So that is why the yoga that I teach is very different from the popular approach to forms of Yoga.

RM: This is very interesting.

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