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Growing up in India, Dr. Deepti Sastry started yoga at the tender age of eight. She is a deeply intelligent person, and self-proclaimed ‘philosophy junkie’, whose commitment to yoga and yoga philosophy pervade her whole life.
We are lucky enough to have her as the 500-hour Philosophy Module teacher here at YogaLondon, but that is just a small part of her achievements. Working full-time in the International Development sector, she is also mum to an almost three-year-old – but she always finds time for meditation.
1. What was it like learning yoga as a child in India?
I primarily did it because I didn’t want to go for a run in the mornings! At 6 am in the morning at the boarding school I went to we’d get kicked out of bed, and you’d either go for a run or you’d do yoga, and yoga seemed the lesser of the two evils. It was very pared back – the concept of a yoga mat didn’t exist, there was a big carpet and you brought a towel or a sheet and you sat yourself down.
The emphasis of the yoga was focused on cleansing the immune system and we also did the Sat Karmas [yogic cleansing rituals] and the six kriyas. As part of this immune-boosting yoga, we would also be expected to take cold showers and walk barefoot on the dewy grass on winter mornings, all things to build immunity. I loved it. I was eight when I started so we would also do fun things, more like gymnastics as well as performances of yoga, and at that point, it was just fun.
2. Did yoga teaching come naturally to you?
No! I never intended to be a yoga teacher.
In India, you’re either too skinny or too ‘plumpy’ and all my life my sister was the skinny one and I was the plumpy one. So when I was in my twenties I got into yoga largely because it helped make me feel good about my body, so I would do a lot of dynamic vinyasa flow. And that’s where I met Rebecca [Ffrench, Co-founder of YogaLondon] – at one of these classes. I loved her classes and hanging out with her. At that time, in 2009, she was setting up YogaLondon, and there weren’t that many teacher training schools around. She asked me if I wanted to train as a yoga teacher. I was interested because I felt I’d plateaued in my practice and, even growing up in India, I hadn’t been taught any theory.
So I signed up because I was curious, wanted to know more, and to grow my own practice. I was in the very first batch of YogaLondon graduates.
3. What did you do when you qualified?
At the end of my yoga teacher training, Rebecca asked me if I wanted to become an apprentice, which I did for a year, then I quit my job and started teaching full time. I did that for another year and then realised I didn’t enjoy teaching full time, so I went back to my job, but was still teaching yoga every weekend.
After a while, I realised working and teaching non-stop was ridiculous, so I stopped doing that. Now I teach 3 weekends, twice a year. I’ve finally got the balance right.
4. How does your knowledge of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali inform your practice?
My practice is completely based on the sutras – there is nothing outside of it. Most yoga teacher training, especially at the 200-hour level, is fundamentally about teaching asana health and safety. And while that’s important, that is really not yoga.
I think a year after I finished training I really wanted to know more. So in 2010, I went to study at the school of T Krishnamacharya and I did a month-long course on the sutras with them. And apart from this year, I go back at least once a year to study with them. For me, there is no yoga outside the sutras.
5. What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching the Philosophy Module for YogaLondon?
The most rewarding thing is when people have that ‘AHA!’ moment. When they realise why it is that they wanted to become a yoga teacher in the first place. It’s because you want to deal with the neurotic human condition, and you learn how to lead a peaceful human life – through yoga.
In his audiobook The Yoga Matrix Richard Freeman says it beautifully. To paraphrase – you’ve probably tried everything, from drugs through to therapy, and you’ve come to this room because you know something’s not complete. And that’s the bit that I find rewarding, when people acknowledge that.
6. How has yoga helped you cope during lockdown?
My yoga practice is a jigsaw puzzle, so my asana and pranayama practice have come from the Krishnamacharya tradition and the Bihar school of yoga, and my meditation practice is from Insight meditation and Buddhist practices.
However, during lockdown, I have stripped back everything because I have a full-time job and a young child at home, and something’s got to give! What’s been essential for me to keep me sane, and to keep my brain from getting anxious and busy, is my meditation practice. Normally I’ll do 40 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes last thing at night.
7. Do you have a pose that you love to hate?
I love to hate Utthita Hasta Padangustasana A, B, C, and D. I like it, but I don’t like it. I feel like it’s one of those poses, I never know how it’s going to come out. I suppose that’s the point of this pose that it’s a bit of a curve-ball, and throws you off balance.
8. Who are your yoga inspirations?
There’s a teacher of mine in the school in India where I go to study called Sangeetha. She’s this tiny, wiry, petite woman, who glows. I remember I was there doing a chanting course, and you get so caught up in the ‘doing’ – the meter, the rhythm, the precise pronunciation, that you forget why you’re doing it. And one day we were going into class and she looked at me and said, ‘Stop. Feel it.’ That’s the point, ‘feel it’, and it just helped to shift my perception – so I partly adore her, and am partly frightened of her.
I also absolutely love my meditation teachers –Martin Aylward, he’s been teaching an online sangha sitting every day since the lockdown started. Chris Cullen, a mindfulness-based cognitive therapist and he’s just unbelievable. And Martine Batchelor, who was a Zen Buddhist monk who disrobed and re-joined society.
9. How does yoga inform your views on politics and social justice?
Everyone just needs to calm the f**k down! I just feel like people get so caught up in their own view and what they think is right that there is no room for a conversation anymore. And honestly, there are no easy answers to any of this [what’s going wrong in the world] but at least you can have an empathetic conversation, which we are sorely lacking at the moment.
We need to start acknowledging that none of us is correct and that there is no correct. I think that’s why Utthita Hasta Padangustasana kicks my ass because every day there is a different way to do it.
10. Do you have a view on whether the West has culturally appropriated yoga?
If we have to think in terms of the binaries of East and West, then, yes, there is cultural appropriation, but I don’t necessarily find it problematic. I just think it’s strange that people find solace in things they don’t necessarily understand. However, I’m perfectly happy with people taking mantras and chanting and doing crazy things with it. If it brings you peace and you’re not hurting anyone else, then who cares?
However, one thing that the West has done with yoga is to make it much more physical, which I do have a problem with. With the West’s preoccupation with the body looking a certain way, I can understand why yoga has been re-framed to fit that narrative, but it’s not helpful, and hopefully, we’ll come out of it.
11. What advice would you give to a newly qualified yoga teacher?
Slow things right down. Take time to understand your body and your mind better, and then figure out what you want to emphasise in your practice. I know I didn’t! I went straight from qualifying to apprenticeship, to teaching full time, and then it’s taken me almost ten years to strip it back. I still find myself reaching for the next course, the next challenge, and it’s just not helpful.
12. What’s the essence of yoga for you?
If everyone can just stop for two minutes a day, and watch their breath, then that’s already amazing. Yoga is not about quantity, it is purely about intentionality. You don’t need to do four hours of kriyas and asanas and pranayama and meditation all in one day, nobody has four hours!
As yoga teachers and students, how important is it to know about the philosophy of the yoga we teach?
Yoga Philosophy is a vast subject; the Vedas, the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads, to name but a few. You could spend a lifetime studying just one of these. But yoga is a physical practice, so do we need to know about the philosophy of it to be fully-rounded yogis?
The answer is – why don’t you try it to see?
While we’re in lockdown, we have no choice but to become stiller. We can’t rush about, make plans and run into the future. We have more present moments. So let’s take this time as a gift to expand our mental and spiritual worlds, while our physical world can expand only as far as the local park.
Why study yoga philosophy?
Let’s look into the ‘why’ a bit more. In ancient times yoga was passed from guru to shishya (pupil). The knowledge of yoga was passed on orally, but most of this teaching is now lost.
What was retained is now written down in books. ‘It is difficult to learn through books, but they are our only means of progress until we come across that rarity, a true teacher or master’ says B K S Iyengar in his introduction to his ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.
The yoga that we practice is incredibly important but, once we add in the theoretical knowledge, there comes a deepening understanding of WHY we do all this stretching stuff in the first place.
It becomes less about how many likes we can get for our latest yoga post on Instagram and more about the deep-seated motivation for getting on the mat every day.
But it’s important to remember that knowledge without experience is meaningless. It is better to come to the philosophy of yoga once you have an established home practice; then the meaning of what you’re reading is illuminated by your own experience.
A (very) brief history of Yoga Philosophy
We don’t really know when yoga began, but the estimate is around 2,500 years ago. Modern Yoga is an amalgam of lots of different Indian forms, but the earliest mention of yoga in a written form is in the Upanishads and the Mahabharata.
The Upanishads are part of the Vedas (meaning ‘wisdom’) – ancient Sanskrit texts, which are a collection of spiritual teachings and the basis of Hinduism. The Mahabharata is an epic tale (the other one is the Ramayana), which tells of the wars between two groups of cousins, as well as lots of devotional and spiritual teachings.
Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna’s teaching is infused with yogic concepts.
Following on from these works is possibly the most important philosophy of Yoga; the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written somewhere between 500 and 200 BC, it is a collection of 196 aphorisms covering all aspects of a yogic life. It is called Yoga Darshana, which means Yoga Mirror, as the effect of yoga is to be like a mirror held up to show the seeker their true self.
In the 15th century, the sage Svatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), which is much closer to a manual than the other works and is more like the yoga that we recognise and practice today.
Where to start
But where do we start? As yoga teachers, the most obvious place to start is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. As an Iyengar yoga teacher, I start all my classes with the traditional chant to Patanjali, so it would be a bit remiss of me to chant away to some sage I have no idea about.
However, if you’re expecting a handy guide on how to do yoga, you’ll be disappointed. The sutras are a series of aphorisms that take you deeper and deeper into the heart of yoga.
First of all, it helps to invest in a good translation, as it’s not an easy text. The one that I go to is B K S Iyengar’s ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’, but there are other good versions out there.
There are four sections or padas of the book.
- Samadhi pada – on concentration, or contemplation
- Sadhana pada – on practice
- Vibhuti pada – on properties and powers
- Kaivalya pada- on freedom from attachment
The first deals with where you’re heading – samadhi. It’s an aspirational way to start and is directed at those who are already well on their way to enlightenment. The second sutra in this section is the definition of yoga that most of us have heard of:
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness
The second chapter is for the less spiritually evolved (so, most of us) and covers the eight limbs of yoga, as well as the three great paths of yoga; Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga. The third chapter is about the divine effects of yoga and the eight supernatural powers, or siddhis. These siddhis include the ability to change size, weight, to attain every wish and to gain power over all things – so eat your heart out, Marvel.
The final chapter is about achieving kaivalya when the sadhaka (seeker) attains liberation from the extremes of pleasure and pain and lives in a state of virtuous awareness.
Things to bear in mind
It’s not a religion. According to Patanjali, those who practice yoga can be of any faith, colour, creed, or sexual orientation (well, he didn’t say that, but I’m extrapolating). Anyone can do yoga, and their beliefs and values will be strengthened by the practice and philosophy.
Don’t be overwhelmed. Yoga philosophy was studied by sages who literally did nothing else, for their whole LIVES. Even in lockdown we still have a whole host of ‘things to do’. I return to the same chapters of my books over and over again. Sometimes, if I have 5 minutes, I just open the book at a random page and read what swims into view and just digest that one section.
Take notes. Have a notebook that you keep to hand, and then when something makes sense to you, jot it down. Or keep a handy guide of the meanings of some of the recurring words, like samadhi.
Where to finish
This is a tongue-in-cheek heading, as anyone who even delves just the tiniest bit into this vast subject knows that there is no ‘finishing’ this subject. Just as we never stop being students of yoga, we never stop being learners of yoga philosophy and where yoga strengthens body and mind, the philosophy of yoga brings spiritual health to enrich your yoga journey.
Everything is subjective. Yoga is highly subjective. Words are subjective. Even left and right is subjective. I know that ‘traditionally’ left is, well, on the left and right is on the other side.
But if you stand in front of a mirror, then magic happens. What was left is now right. So it’s wrong, because it is right. See? Subjective.
The subject of yoga is like Doctor Who’s tardis. Despite its apparent simplicity, yoga, once opened up seems to be as vast as the universe itself. Take, for example, the path of yoga. It’s the eight-limbed path, right? Well yes, but, no, wrong. There are actually three other yogic paths, that are also routes to the same end.
These four ‘routes’ all lead to the ultimate goal of Moksha, or liberation. They are; the path of action, the path of devotion, the ‘royal’ path of yoga (or the eight-limbed path), and the path of philosophy or knowledge. They are called, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Rajah Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.
The yoga that most of us think of us ‘yoga’ is Rajah Yoga. But we’re going to focus on the first of these paths, Karma Yoga.
Why are there four paths?
Just as all of us have our unique strengths and natures, there are different ways to find the path to bliss. For the intellectually-centered, Jnana Yoga, the path of philosophy is the route to take. For those that are heart-centred, they will be drawn to the devotional aspects of Bhakti Yoga. And the doers amongst us will find their route to self-realisation through selfless actions – Karma Yoga.
However, while some natures are better suited to one path or the other, they are not separate or non-interchangeable, and most of us can walk all these paths at different points in our lives.
What is Karma Yoga?
We already know the term ‘yoga’, and most of us are familiar with ‘karma’ too. Karma is the sum of our actions, built up over our lifetimes (and previous lifetimes too if you believe in reincarnation). If your actions are for the good of others, then you’ll accrue good karma, and if your intentions are greedy, lazy or selfish, then equally you’ll build up bad karma. Karma Yoga is about learning to act with completely pure intentions, without any motivation of reward or recognition.
The Bhagavad Gita also gives an explanation of the term Karma Yoga:
Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive, and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga.’
How do we do Karma Yoga?
Karma yoga is the active pursuit of good actions without thought for oneself. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” This doesn’t mean just be really busy. Most of us are pretty good at being busy already, without any further encouragement. It also doesn’t mean just being a doormat, rushing around and looking after everyone else.
It can be as simple as volunteering for a local charity and giving your time without any thoughts about how great it will make you feel or how good it’ll look on your CV. In the small, but perfectly formed book, Yoga, the author, Ernest Wood, explains:
When the actions of daily life are permeated by the buddhic devotion to life, those actions become yoga, karma-yoga. Every action can thus be yoga. Washing dishes with love is yoga. The actions going on in a dishwasher are not.
Here when he says ‘buddhic’, this doesn’t relate to the religion of Buddhism, but to the Buddhi, which is our intelligence centre.
Karma Yoga and Dharma
There is also an element of dharma, or duty, to Karma Yoga. Doing one’s duty, as our dear old Queen would say, is pretty unfashionable these days. Being dutiful is seen as being passive and dull. But having a sense of duty, or knowing one’s duty, can be part of acting in a Karma Yoga way.
The idea of duty as set out by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is that all beings are dependent on each other, and therefore, it is your duty to use your natural talents and abilities, as well as your position in the world (such as a position of power or responsibility) for the welfare of everyone around you.
In other words, it is your duty to be as wonderfully you as it is possible to be, not to show how wonderful you are, but because it will benefit the world.
Karma Yoga and Yoga
In Yoga, Ernest Wood writes that it is the duty of the yoga teacher, not only to teach yoga but to encourage their students to do ‘right actions’. This means not acting out of a desire for bodily pleasure or self-satisfaction, but acting with a sense of sacrifice, so that there is no personal attachment to actions.
How can we do this ourselves as teachers and students of yoga? We can spend a little more time on self-examination. How do we know whether our actions come from the ego, or from a place of intelligent sacrifice? We have to use our ‘buddhi’ – the intelligence centre mentioned above.
In the end, the purpose of Karma Yoga is not to label each action, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is that it gently encourages us to use the deep-seated wisdom that is already present inside all of us. To use this wisdom to move away from habitual actions and to really live our lives in as present a way as possible. As Ernest says:
Joy goes with the whiteness of the karma-yoga, because there is more life in it.