A Journey Towards Peace and Inner Awareness

I moved to Mysore around six years ago to study Ashtanga Yoga, and being at the centre of this practice, I have met and interacted with students and teachers of the practice from across the world. The concept of the ‘celebrity yoga teacher’ is especially rampant in the Ashtanga community and I found little balance and humility in a majority of Ashtanga yoga teachers and students (both in the West and in India). But, is it really fair to become disillusioned about a practice based on its representatives? Like with any spiritual or religious practice, there are those who use it for propaganda and agenda, and then there are authentic, dedicated students and teachers who remain true to their practice and their Self. I’ve been blessed to meet such Ashtanga teachers, too. Recently, this experience came when I did a Zoom interview with NYC-based yoga teacher and author, Eddie Stern.

Eddie has been practising Ashtanga for over 30 years but doesn’t restrict his knowledge of yoga to one system, and has the courage to talk about both the benefits and problems with any yoga system or spiritual organisation that does not encourage growth and self-enquiry. His analysis is refreshing, original and among the most valid observations I’ve heard because they come from a place of experience, logic and rational thinking. His views and teachings are not based on criticism or praise that’s personal but rather, they come from an informed study and years of both practice and teaching. Life and experience are the greatest teachers and Eddie Stern has spent most of his life living, practising, and teaching yoga. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

How It All Began:

Eddie: I first did yoga at a summer camp when I was 15, and I had profound experiences of deep silence and nothingness. I thought the things that I experienced were things that the teacher was guiding us into and out of. After the two weeks of camp, I was afraid to try those on my own cause I thought I might get lost in the void if the teacher wasn’t there to guide me in and out of it. So I didn’t do any yoga till I was around 18 even though it was still in the back of my mind. In the meantime, I had an English teacher, in 9th grade, when I was also 15, and we did a reading of the book Siddhartha as one of the first books in the course that year. She said the three most important questions that you can ask yourself are, ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘What am I doing next?’ And these questions really spoke to me cause I was a little bit lost as a human being at that time, and this gave me a lot of guidance internally that started me on a spiritual quest even though I didn’t have the language for it and I didn’t know that is what I was on. When I was around 18 or 19, I met a guy who was working in a record store in Greenwich Village, and he had done yoga with Yogi Amrit Desai in the 1970s in Pennsylvania, and he taught me some of the things that he had learned — it was not really asanas but more meditation and some breathing and some chanting. Actually, the first thing that he said to me was that I needed to become a vegetarian. So at 18, I became a vegetarian and that was my first practice of yoga, really, to learn to be vegetarian. We were reading books on enlightenment and kundalini and my understanding was that the whole purpose of yoga was to attain enlightenment and still at that point, I didn’t know anything about asanas. Then six months later, I managed to find a yoga class in New York and this was in the 1980s. I walked into this class and that’s how I started doing yoga poses for the first time. Shortly thereafter, when I turned 20, I felt a strong calling to devote myself to practising yoga and then I went to India and took the Sivananda teacher training — you know, I didn’t know I could be a yoga teacher cause there wasn’t really a yoga teaching industry at that time. I thought you had to have raised your kundalini to be a yoga teacher — that was my understanding from the books I was reading — that in order to teach someone, you first have to experience enlightenment. And I thought how can you just pay to go become a yoga teacher? That is ridiculous, but my teacher at the time said, ‘Why don’t you go take the Sivananda teacher training and when you come back, you can teach at our school.’ So that’s what I did but it was a little strange for me because I didn’t see this whole yoga thing as a transactional process. I was still waiting for my Kundalini to rise (laughs) — that was in 1988 and in 1989. But then I started teaching and that’s all I’ve been doing since then.

Finding Ashtanga:

Eddie: I moved towards Ashtanga because in 1991 I went to Mysore and did a one-month practise with Pattabhi Jois. I didn’t really take to the practice completely at that point, and a year later, I went back again and tried again. Then I decided in 1991 — only three years after I started teaching, not to teach anymore. I just wanted to go back to doing sādhanā and work on that for a while and see what happens, so for another two years or so, I stopped teaching and I just did Ashtanga yoga and that felt like a good practice for me at the time. In 1993, I got back into teaching again, which probably, when I think about it, I should not have started teaching again for a while, and I say that because as soon as you start teaching, and if you’re a young teacher, which I was, you begin to give your energy away. There is this important idea that we read about in Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Gheranda Samhita about Ghata — about making your path strong so there are no holes in it, so your prana doesn’t leak out. Through sādhanā we want to make our vessel strong, so we can hold the prana we are developing, and it takes a long time to do that. You don’t make the path strong in an instant — not only do you not make the path strong but you don’t have enough time to fill it with prana and with experience. So very quickly, you give away the energy you’ve built — your vessel becomes weak and you start to lose touch with your practice and you may even backtrack a little bit from the gains that you’ve made. We see this in the Yoga Sutras as well — this is one of the Antarayas — where we fail to maintain the level of practice we have achieved. So that’s what was happening to me, it happened twice. It happened in 1991 when I started teaching Sivananda Yoga and then it happened again when I was teaching Ashtanga Yoga. But with Ashtanga, it took some time cause I spent a couple of years doing a lot of dedicated practice. But then little by little, my practice started to not be where it could be if I hadn’t started teaching. So my only advice to teachers is really take a long time before you start teaching. I wish that I had waited a good six to ten years before I started teaching. Now, yoga is a profession so people want to become teachers and while that is a noble aspiration, practically speaking, we should really think about it like getting a BBA and then going to graduate school and maybe taking another master’s course, so you have six years of education under your belt before you actually start trying to teach anything. A 200-hour training might give you a nice introduction to yoga but not more than that, so you might get a nice intro, but you don’t learn anything until you make it your own through practise. If you follow the Vedic traditions, it’s around 12 years of study before you even start to see any of the benefits but if you start giving your energy away before those 12 years, it will take a lot front you and that’s what happened to me — and that’s what I see happening to a lot of people.

On the Systematic Organisation of Yoga and Spirituality:

Eddie: When something gets very big, when an organisation or a methodology grows, it becomes difficult to manage and procedures will get implemented that are going to make it easier for the authorities to manage how things spread to reach more people, and in that, dilution always occurs. Systems will be put into place for large groups of people to follow because it will be easier to teach large groups one specific thing than to teach large groups many individual things that might be more beneficial for them. So there is always going to be a give and take between growth and dissemination. I think people need to make their own choices about what they value in yoga teaching and in yoga practice, and then that’s what they’ll adhere to. If they choose something that is simply systematised that will reach a lot of people and have variable benefits, then that’s definitely one approach and it can bring benefits to the world but it has associated problems as well. On the other hand, we will find people who aren’t comfortable with very big groups but they’re more comfortable with non-systemised forms of practice, where they can pull from a variety of different tools to help whoever is in front of them, and those people are happier, and more effective in that type of a setting so that’s what they’ll do. There’s going to be room in the world for both of those approaches and there always has been. There’s generalised and then there’s specific. The generalised is for people who just want a topical thing — they don’t want to think about it. The specific is for those who are the real intrepid investigators and they want to go a little bit deeper. In fact, deeper is not a great word. I would say such practitioners want to go a little more subtle. So those are some of the things I have observed. But when it comes to reforming a system, I think many people have tried to reform systems in the past whether it is a political system or economic system or whatever it might be…systems are very hard to overhaul once they get put into place. The only person who can reform a system is the one who is on top and in charge of it and that person can say, ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ and then makes the effort and has the dedication to make sure the system changes. So whatever kind of yoga methodology we’re talking about — if it is a system that falls under the headline of a specific lineage, then the only changes that are really going to come is if the person at the top agrees that those changes need to be made. But if the head likes things the way they are and they don’t see that there is a problem, then things will stay the same. Often when this happens, other groups will splinter off from that larger organisation and then there will be conflict. This happens a lot. It happens in spiritual organisations, religious organisations, political organisations — this is the nature of the world.

In fact, today (14th December) is Gita Jayanti — this is the day that Krishna spoke the Gita to Arjuna and one of the things that Sri Krishna said to Arjuna was that, ‘No matter what, we are bound to action. Even though we should do our action without our eye on the outcome, we should act in a way, which serves as a demonstration model to the world. Act for the good of mankind, even though there is nothing to gain from your actions.’ This is something that I think about quite a bit especially looking at the growing world of yoga commercially and essentially, I think, ‘What do I want to do?’ I want to do good things. I want to do good things that do not necessarily make the world a better place because the world is the place that it is. Whenever someone tries to make the world a better place, they’re going to meet someone who has a different idea of what a better place means.

Look at people like Ramana Maharshi or Anandamayi Ma, Nisargadatta Maharaj — they didn’t try to make the world a better place — the world was the place it was — they just came in and said, ‘Who are you in this place?’ So doing good things to me doesn’t mean making the world a better place. To me it means, ‘Is it a good thing?’ ‘Is it worthwhile?’ ‘Is it a good thing to practise and teach yoga?’ I think it is. ‘Is it a good thing to build a temple in Manhattan?’ I think it is. It’s going to provide a quiet sanctuary for people. ‘Is it a good thing to take care of my health, and the health of my family and the people around me?’ Yeah, it is. So I’ve really simplified my whole approach over the years.

Yoga and Social Media:

Eddie: The social media world tells us we need to create a lot of content and put ourselves out here. So whatever this social media tells us to do — that’s just stressful, honestly. And most people who operate in that world get stressed out by it, or maybe they don’t. I have no idea. But I know that that world doesn’t make me very happy, and it makes me feel inadequate and I don’t particularly feel that I want to feel that way because I know that I have dedicated more than half of my life to yoga and to practising it. There’s no reason why a modern, commercial, consumer yoga industry should make me feel inadequate about my passion — not my skill, not my learning, not accomplishments — just about my passion. And nobody should ever make anyone feel inadequate because they’re passionate about something. That’s what a lot of social media imagery does to people. It is extremely harmful and not just to yoga people but even to young girls and to kids and teenagers who are getting either bullied or shamed or feeling that they’re not popular enough. Earlier, we used to have bullying from people face-to-face but now we have bullying online which is much more harmful because it’s not possible to fight back against it, and it just avalanches so quickly. It’s a lot meaner. The online yoga world is very mean at times. I don’t think these tools are necessarily bad and I have made some great friends over Instagram over the past year, and specifically I’m friends with a lot of Indian yoga practitioners and a lot of good friends through Instagram so I like it but there’s a darker side that we’re all aware of. So what is the solution? Well I don’t really have one except that we always need to remind ourselves of why we do the things that we love to do, and make that the most important thing. If you came to yoga thinking, ‘I want to make money off this,’ you’re in the wrong field. You might even make a lot of money off it but you are not helping the field advance. But, if you came to yoga thinking, ‘I really love this practice because it makes me a better person, it makes me a conscious person, it makes me a kinder person,’ then even when the need for making money comes up or survival issues come up or inadequacy issues come up, we have to remind ourselves that, ‘Why am I doing this in the first place?’ And when we remind ourselves of why we’re doing this, then those other issues become less primary and the passion comes back up. Everyone is going to need to do that at one point or another.

The Science of Yoga:

Eddie: I am currently enrolled in a master’s programme at Vayu — The Vivekananda Yoga University, which is the American wing of S-Vyasa in Bangalore. I study with Dr Nagendra and Dr Nagarathna, and the whole crew…I’m doing a Master’s in Science that’s geared towards yoga research and I’m enjoying that course very much. The idea behind a scientific experiment is that it’s repeatable and you get the same results, and people have been practising yoga asanas, and mantras, and all the things that fall under the umbrella of yoga for a very long time with the same generalised results. So we have the test of time for a couple of thousand of years, at least, that if you sit down, and just be quiet, whether in an asana or with your breath of whatever it might be, that you will have a deeper experience of yourself and the things that emerge from that are similar whether you do it in the Hindu tradition, the Buddhist tradition, the Jain tradition or any of the traditions that have risen from India. These ideologies and practises have been tested. But then when it comes to the Western scene, they like measurements — even if it is psychological, there will be a self-reported type of measurement which is going to give some kind of numbers…

So how can you measure things that you can’t see? There are ways of going about that even in scientific methodologies. Swami Kuvalayananda at Kaivalyadhama in the early 1920s was a pioneer of that and he was the first in Indian to use Western apparati to study yoga with kumbhakas and bandhas… and this research is also being done at S-Vyasa and the Patanjali Yoga Research Institute in Haridwar. One of the reasons I became so interested in the science of yoga is that people seem to be very obsessed with alignment and yoga anatomy, and I always thought that was very peripheral to the underlying benefits of yoga asanas. Yes, anatomy is important and that is why it exists and alignment is important, too, so that you don’t get hurt — but you can still do a yoga pose and be poorly aligned and still get a lot of benefits from it, and not hurt yourself. So I thought this idea of yoga anatomy was a little bit of a strange way of looking at yoga and to be speaking in Latin terms about muscles and bones was a little too topical for what the asanas were primarily doing, which is affecting your physiological functions — your immune system, your endocrine systems, your reproductive system, your nervous system, your circulatory system, etc. Even some of the indications in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika — which only describes 15 asanas — when it talks about the benefits of asana, it usually has something to do with a physiological function or it might say ‘It will make your back strong,’ Or ‘It will give you lightness in the body.’ But lightness in the body is also a mental thing. So, the science aspect of yoga seemed to be a way for me to look at potential benefits of yoga practice that addresses what the asanas are geared towards. At the same time, I don’t discount anatomical knowledge. For example, if you have pain in the body or scoliosis or some other condition, sound anatomical knowledge and a good teacher can help you. But that’s not all there is to an asana and I didn’t hear enough conversation about the extended benefits. That was the conversation I wanted to have and sometimes, we have to create the conversations that we want to hear.

Teaching Ashtanga Yoga:

Eddie: I know that for the most part, people identify me as an Ashtanga yoga person but that’s not entirely the case. I was doing a lot of yoga before I came to Ashtanga and those early learnings gave me structure or a format for my spiritual searching. I’m still on that same quest for knowledge and I happen to do Ashtanga yoga but I do other things, too. I teach other things as well. I don’t think Ashtnaga yoga is better than any other yoga and I don’t even think it is that particularly unique in terms of a yoga system because every yoga system that has inspired people is unique in itself. And when so many things are unique on their own, that’s not really unique (laughs). They’re all just systems and ways of doing something. Ashtanga yoga has its roots in Krishnamacharya’s teachings and if you read the early books on the system like Yoga Makaranda, all of these things are in those books in slightly different formats. I’ve tried the practises in those books and they’re equally effective. They made me feel the same way as following the way the sequences are laid out now. In the past few years, I’ve gone back to a lot of the earlier Hatha Yoga practises that I used to do, and I have gone back to a lot of the texts — and those are primarily what I do now as my daily practice. I’m 54 years old and I am not interested in doing all the sequences like I did for 30 years and in the same type of way. Especially over the past two years, I have been investigating some of the things I used to do earlier and they make me feel very peaceful in my mind, which is essentially what I am looking for in yoga — a peaceful mind so my awareness can move inward. I also like to have a healthy body so that as I continue to get older, I’m mobile, I’m independent, and when I’m in my 70s, 80s or 90s, (should I live so long), I can still get around and do stuff and my body is healthy.

Ashtanga yoga is something that I would like to have my public identity to move away from because as the years go by, I realised it is too much of a pigeon hole for me to live in and it is not satisfying anymore. My interest is in science and yoga or doing different kinds of social work on experimenting in yoga therapy — those things are important to me and I want to feel that it is ok to do something different. There’s an idea within certain spiritual organisations or yoga organisations that may not be all that spiritual is that don’t change anything and insist on only doing it one way and if you do it any other way, it is incorrect and bad things will happen to you… And you hear that a lot not just in the Ashtanga world but in other spiritual circles as well.

So why does this come up? I think it comes up because of the misunderstanding about what it means to not change something. When should you not change something? A good example is Vedic mantras — you shouldn’t change the intonation, you shouldn’t change the pronunciation. Why? Because it not only connects you to the unseen world of sound and vibration, it’s also a very challenging practice to do. To listen and repeat with total precision is very difficult. Your mind becomes very focused, in fact it is tiring. But the effect this has on your mind and intellect is profound. So when you are learning from a guru, it is about how well you can follow instruction or precision and not think ‘you know better,’ which is when you don’t change anything. But, at a certain point in time, you might become a teacher and at that point, you should know better. Your experience should have given you something new that you can then bring into the world. For example, even in the Upanishads, there are various points of view and realisations that these rishis and gurus had — based on their practice and teaching and this inspires us to have our own, too. Whereas if we live in an entirely fear-based modality that is based on ‘this is the correct method and all methods are incorrect or this method is better than the rest,’ then that’s not going to put your mind in a happy place. If that is what you sincerely believe then how do you live with harmony in the world when you think you’re better than everyone else? You can’t. You live in judgement of the world. You might pretend you don’t judge but actually you will be judging and that’s not a yogic frame of mind. So in terms of Ashtanga, there are a lot of benefits in Ashtanga yoga but there are also other things and they are also useful and people should experience these. We have to be careful of extreme points of view.

Studying Yoga In India:

Eddie: I’m taking this master’s programme with Vayu because I want to learn from Indian teachers about yoga, about yoga texts, about Hinduism and about the cultural perspective on yoga that comes from being Indian and having yoga as part of the landscape of Indian culture and Hindu culture. My advice is to learn from Indian teachers. That’s not to say that every Indian teacher is a good teacher or someone with sound knowledge but you have to seek out sources that are authoritative and that you trust and that want to teach you. Start from there. When I suggest teachers or promote teachers, I primarily suggest different teachers in India. If I am going to send someone to a teacher, I will send them to India.

For example, I study chanting with Shantala Sriramaiah, I study Sanskrit with Sampadananda Mishra, who is affiliated with the Aurobindo Ashram, so if you want to learn authentic yoga, learn it from Indian teachers. You might be able to learn ‘tricks’ and ‘drills’ and ‘techniques’ from Western teachers but if you want to learn yoga in-depth, I think you have to look at India. I think that if Westerners want to continue to understand yoga, they have to keep looking towards India. You can only get the Indian flavour of yoga from India. If you’re a Westerner who thinks you know as much or know everything about Indian culture and yoga, sooner or later, you will find yourself in a conflicted space. For the deep roots of yoga, you have to look to India. You can’t even learn that from me and I don’t want people or students to expect that they will learn that from me. What I can teach and what students can learn from me (and it’s also up to you what you learn from me) is my own experience of yoga and my sharing of my love for it. I don’t represent anything beyond that. I can’t represent India or Hinduism. Inside of my being, I identify spiritually as a Hindu practitioner but I cannot represent Hinduism to the world.

But regardless of all that, just do things and do them with your heart and try not to overthink it too much. The only people who should represent Hinduism and Hindu culture are people from within that culture. The rest of us who want to be engaged in it, we have been told that we are free to practise it and we should do that with respect and humility, and that should be our guiding light.

For more information on Eddie Stern, visit https://eddiestern.com/