Yoga as an entry point to Indian spirituality

Sitting by the window overlooking the tea gardens of his home in the Niligiris, Raghu Ananathanarayanan reminisces to his student Gayatri Iyer on his years of intense study and teaching yoga with Yogaachaarya T.Krishnamacarya and his son, Sri Desikachar. While his life was spent in understanding the Indian mind and ways to be the best that one can be, we ask him about his experience with teaching many foreigners who come to India to learn yoga. What is it that they are seeking? Why India?

Gayatri Iyer: During your teaching experience, tell us how you perceived foreign students who came to India to study?

Raghu A: My experience started in the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram(KYM) where I observed and taught many foreigners. There are three sets of people who come to learn yoga-:

  1. The serious practitioners who have a deep philosophical enquiry into the idea of the self and duHkha of mankind. They have a critique of the West and are looking for newer frameworks like yoga or Buddhist meditation. Many of them have a background in psychology and philosophy that makes their questions and dialoguing capability very deep and interesting. These encounters were personally is very enriching for me. To illustrate, one of the students had understood that the idea of individuality and identity that is central to Western thought is a source of many problems that we face and they wanted to understand how yoga can help reflect on the idea of self that each of us holds?
  2. Next are people who have a strange romanticized idea of India, which is often distorted. For example, I had a student wanting to learn how can she can meet the “beings without body”? She was willing to pay me any amount to teach her that and was particularly interested in Asana/praNAyAma. There were many such cases, but mostly I feel that such people are running away from their own context where they feel out of place and want to find this paradise where you would be on a high all day.
  3. The last kinds are people who are looking for an alternative way of life or trying to deepen their teaching knowledge. I had a student from the US who was working in a meatpacking factory where they would insert some red liquid in the meat to make it look nice and juicy. He discovered that the liquid used was toxic! He was repelled by the extreme idea of consumerism that plagued the society and so he quit. He considered India to be less spoilt by the typical consumerist ideas. He came here to learn about yoga, ayurveda, organic farming practices and alternative ways of living. The freedom with which he could experiment with alternate sustainable lifestyles made India attractive. Thus, it was possible to steer him into deeper and more reflective paths of enquiry.

Gayatri: Reflecting on your second point, the number of hoardings advertising exotic schools of yoga with men and women in contorted postures or wearing orange robes in a place like Rishikesh makes me wonder why are they so popular?

Raghu: I guess the more exotic you dress up and fill the room with aromas the more number of people you will attract. Let me give you an example of how the “spin doctors” turn a concept of tapas into something very extreme and esoteric. I have seen documentaries and read papers where tapas is shown exclusively in the ways of aghori’s or the avadhoots or nanga babas. Yogis walking on a bed of fiery wood, naked people covered with ash or some out of body concept. Whereas the Yoga Sutra and Bhagwad Gita clearly mentions that tapas is a process of ripening oneself through right living and right contemplation. These are tantric practices or the remnants of the ajivika practices (a sect that believed in extreme self mortification) that have always been on the fringe. These are presented as iconic images of India and a distorted image is created.

Gayatri: What is the Western concept of the sense of self versus the Indian?

Raghu: In the western psychology the self is seen as a separate fragmented part of the world, and in yoga the idea of the self is not seen separate from the outside world. If I continue to hold on to a rigid aspect of the self, as a separate entity, it is called avidya and it is the cause all duHkha and, the whole practice of yoga is to be able to understand the dynamic relationship between me and the world at a very subtle deep level. The way to end duHkha is to dissolve the self. Western psychology has many strands and some of them like behaviorism are silent on the idea of self. William James who was influenced by Swami Vivekananda enquires into it but gives up at one point. The attachment to a measurable and tangible validation of a concept, the non acceptance of subjective experience as a validation and the debates about Consciousness are at variance with the essential ideas of yoga.”

Gayatri: Is it more difficult for foreigners who are deeply interested in these philosophies to understand the concepts mentioned in Sankhya or Yoga Sutra as compared to us Indians?

Raghu runs his hands through his beard and answers “I am not in full agreement with this observation because in India there are many people who call themselves Yoga teachers without spending enough time with good teachers like Sri Krishnamacharya and go for a 3 month yoga course to Thailand or Bali and open a studio. Many of us are educated in institutions modeled on Western Universities. Most of us use western frames of thought i.e., we are mind colonized! A few of us have had the good fortune to spend decades studying the Indian texts like Yoga Sutra, Sankhya and Gita with teachers who had a very deep understanding. This helped us to de-colonize our minds, drop Western frames of thinking and internalize the Indian ways of looking at self and the world.”

Gayatri: Don't we have to bridge the gap between the West and East so that we can be contemporary?

Raghu: Yes, that's important today. The issue is that we have great traditionalists who are well versed in Indian texts but may not be able to help bridge the gap between the current context and tradition. Unless we accept a new form of guru-shishya parampara along with an institutional anchorage say like a Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram(KYM), Ritambhara or Yoga Vahini people whether Indian or foreigners may not be able to appreciate our texts and the deeper meanings. Indians may have an advantage because we still are brought up with some traditional concepts. Many of us do have an inner struggle to reconcile the Western frames and our own ways. But, having said that many Indians display a lot of self hate, and want to desperately scrub off their Indian-ness! These people are the tougher to deal with than the westerners who come here.

Gayatri: How can existing schools like, KYM, Yoga Vahini or Ritambhara help in creating a pool of teachers or help people find ways to solve todays’ problems or improve their lives?

Raghu: I think the schools you mentioned and more like Sri Sri Ravishankar or Sadguru are already doing this. Current day teachers need to move beyond the common idea of yoga equal to Asana. It is very important to introduce people Western and Indian to true spirituality. Yoga offers a way, a sAdhana to end duHkha and live a life that is ecofriendly. It is a solution to today’s problems.’

Gayatri: What are the challenges and roadblocks in creating such environments for teaching and learning?

Raghu: Right after independence our education system has been Westernized and the emphasis has been on the Western scientific enquiry rather than the indigenous ways. Whatever little learning of indigenous knowledge happened is because of the curiosity and persistence of a few who sought out the true holders of this great knowledge. 10-20 years back, you may have found great Sanskrit or nyaya scholars but they were living in great poverty, so their own children were not keen to learn or be custodians of this knowledge. While a few seekers like us found some extremely good teachers but it is very sad there are only a few left. I feel that is critical for people who have a deep understanding of the current context to meet with and have dialogues with traditionalist in a way that will bring traditional concepts to bear on modern problems. Like, we are now seeing computer scientist learning Sanskrit, particularly the nuances of Paninian grammar to advance in their field. Some western researchers talk about the benefits of learning Sanskrit to cure speech disorders, and enhance memory. Dr. Anand Paranjpe is working in the field of psychology to help bridge Western and Indian psychology.

Desikachar and Krishnamacharya

So, institutions like Sadhguru’s Isha foundation, KYM, Shri Shri Ravishankar’s Ashram, Ritambhara or Yoga Vahini are in their own ways an institutionalized middle ground for people.’

What we need for people whether from India or the West to question the colonizing mindset of extraction and use and the idea that Western worldview and knowledge is universal, or in any case superior and valid. If we look at what the outcome of this mind is we can see that is destroying our planet. The colonizing mind set is responsible for genocides and blatant plunder of resources. It is inherently incapable of respecting the other which it sees only as some thing to exploit or kill. Yoga offers a great way to examine these views and look for alternatives because it insists on self reflexivity and taking responsibility for one’s thought feeling and action.”

Gayatri: You seem to be very clear and hopeful that a lot of people would sooner or later get on to this path?

Raghu smilingly says, “You know there is something beautiful about India…I truly believe that this land has and will produce great Gurus who will show us the way. As long as you are serious about your personal transformation and growth, this country will offer immense opportunities.”