Kallie Schut has a voice and she’s not afraid to use it. Through her role as a yoga teacher and her website Rebel Yoga Tribe, she is calling out cultural appropriation, racism, homophobia, misogyny (and all those intersections) where she sees it. And it seems that, now, people are starting to listen.
Jonathan Thompson is an Ashtangi, YogaLondon 200-hour teacher trainer, and a deeply sensitive and emotionally intuitive person. Here he talks to us about the impact of his father’s early death, the mutually supportive relationship he has with his mother and how, for him, yoga, coaching, and psychology are all different sides of the same coin. Oh, and he definitely believes in ghosts.
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!
In these strange times, many of us are struggling with navigating our normal lives. Everyday things have changed; shops have closed, exercise is limited, we can’t hug our parents or friends – and we can’t go to yoga classes.
As the weeks go by we have started to adapt, but every now and then the loneliness, uncertainty, and financial worries can hit home.
So here are some ways that we can look after our wellbeing during Coronavirus.
Limit your news intake
Be intentional in the way that you consume the news at the moment. If you have a news app on your phone, turn off the notifications. One news story can lead us to another, and before we know it, we’ve been pulled down into a dark spiral of fear-inducing news.
Yes, the world is dealing with a pandemic and, of course, there are things to be frightened of. But stoking our fear doesn’t help. It just increases our stress levels, which in turn reduces the strength of our immune system.
Connect with your body
As yogis, we know this. Doing a considered yoga practice when we’re stressed calms us down, brings us back from anxiety. But it’s easy to know this, sometimes less easy to do. If you’re working from home, as well as home-schooling young children, then fitting in a yoga practice will seem laughable.
But it doesn’t have to be a whole hour of practice. It can be as simple as sitting straight and tall on your chair; feeling the sitting bones and backs of the thighs on the seat of the chair, pressing the feet down, then stretching the arms up towards the ceiling.
This simple exercise will connect you to the earth, open the lungs and heart, and bring the mind into the body.
Think about others
This is a cliché, but a true one. The more we think about others, and consider how other people might be feeling, the less we focus on ourselves and how we’re coping, or not.
If you’re feeling at a loose end and it’s driving you mad, there’s plenty of ways to be useful. Check out nextdoor.com to see if you’ve got any elderly or vulnerable neighbours that need medication or shopping picked up and delivered. Or give your elderly relative a call every day to have a chat and see how they’re doing.
Get to know your family
If this situation has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t usually spend much time with our family unit. In a normal week, my husband and I have about 20 minutes a day to have a proper chat. Weekends were usually just as busy with yoga and work commitments, time away, kids’ activities, and so on.
Without all this frenetic activity, we are turning to look at each other, and now have the time and space to have proper conversations. On the daily walks there is a chance to really connect with our children and partners, with no distractions such as popping into shops or grabbing a coffee.
If you feel like you’re still more annoyed than connected to them, then try this exercise. Taking around 45 minutes, ask your partner these questions, and see how many surprises you get.
Do a daily meditation
Meditation has been proven to relieve stress and anxiety, calm the nerves, slow the heart rate, and increase feelings of contentment and well-being. If you already have a yoga practice, adding in a ten-minute meditation every day will come easier to you, as your body will be more receptive to sitting or lying still.
Why not choose a subject to meditate on? You can set an intention for your meditation, such as focusing on compassion for others, acknowledging your resilience, and being grateful for health, home, family, and friends.
If you’re not sure you’d know what to do, or might not have the motivation to do it on your own, there are plenty of apps out there, such as calm, headspace, Aura, and Smiling Mind – and we’re currently holding a free guided meditation on Friday morning, so why not join us?
We all take books on holiday, but as soon as we’re at home, we find we don’t have time to read anymore. With the uncertainty of how much longer we will be in lockdown, now is the perfect time to get back into that pile of books. Rather than buying a whole load more, check your bookshelves first. I found at least three books that I thought I’d read, but actually hadn’t – free books!
It could also be a time to release your inner yoga geek and do a bit of yoga philosophy reading. There is a vast wealth of knowledge out there, which deepens your yoga practice.
Write things down
I always think the word ‘journaling’ is really smug and slightly intimidating. You don’t have to keep up a relentless daily diary to do a bit of writing – of course, if you do, well done. But we all have a spare notepad somewhere, dig it out and start a lockdown diary. It doesn’t have to be every day. It could be just one sentence. Or you could keep a yoga practice notepad, and write how you felt before and after your practice.
If you’re struggling with your emotions, you can try ‘expressive writing‘, which is a safe way to express your feelings, and see them objectively.
Try not to compare
We all do it all the time, and it’s never good for any of us. But right now there seems to be some sort of ‘who can do lockdown life the best’ competition on social media – especially Instagram. Some people seem to be baking, gardening, doing DIY jobs, homeschooling, setting up new businesses, and making floral wreaths, all at the same time.
This sets up a feeling that we’re not making the most of this time and can trigger all sorts of self-criticism. But it’s important to remember that everyone who posts on social media is only posting the edited highlights, and that they too are having days when they feel scared, stressed, or angry.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s easy to forget to be compassionate and kind to ourselves. We are in an unprecedented time within living memory, and it will inevitably affect, shape and change all of our lives. Well-known author Matt Haig has a note to himself in his book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘, which includes these sentences that feel very apt:
Keep allowing yourself the human privilege of mistakes. Keep a space that is you and put a fence around it. Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep your phone at arm’s length. Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. Keep breathing. Keep inhaling life itself.
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.