May the Lord fill your mind and heart with purity and devotion.
What is Yoga?
Chandra: Yoga is the science of Self-realization. It is much more than what is thought to be the physical postures, or even the breathing techniques or concentration. Yoga begins first with the moral and ethical precepts (Yama and Niyama). It is most important to be nice, be kind, don’t hurt anyone, and don’t participate in violence. Watch the thoughts, and remember it is just the body and the mind, it is not you. You are actionless. Whatever you do in life, whatever roles you put on, you must ultimately return to the real Self—so why not just abide in the real Self full time. Yoga provides a science of how to do this. Meditation is your true nature. You may say, “I am going to practice meditation now”, because there are thoughts distracting you. When the thoughts are dispelled, you will remain alone. In this state—free from thoughts—that is your true nature. The techniques of Yoga help you to uncover this.
God is the inmost Self of all creatures, sitting in the heart as the real Self. Formless and incomprehensible for the mind. Beyond all conditions, immutable, eternal and action-less. Eventually as the mind gets purified enough, one goes beyond all forms and names and becomes ready to enter into Samadhi.
How does one put together a personal practice?
Chandra: First and foremost you must remember every moment is your practice. The real Yoga happens off the mat, out of the classroom. When you think no one is around, how are you behaving, treating others? What is going on in the mind? But if you are speaking of the physical practice, it is good to attend some public classes, under the guidance of a qualified teacher who will hopefully instruct you in the postures, the breath work, some methods of concentration. Then you may begin to use that as a template for a home practice. If you know you have areas you wish to work on (strength, balance, flexibility, etc), you may choose certain poses that help in those areas, and if you are unsure, ask the teacher. You should always warm the body up first, before moving into deeper poses. I always take students through the Shiva Namaskar to warm the body (this opens the body very quickly), then move on to more opening and strengthening poses. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher, they will guide you.
I’ve heard of pranayama, but what is its purpose and how to begin a practice?
Chandra: Pranayama is the conscious regulation of breath. The goal is to unite prana and apana in the navel, bring them up the shushumna, and stimulate your chakras, so that your consciousness will open. You can achieve this with pranayama, devotion to the Lord, or a combination of the two. You can make progress very fast, but you must be very careful. Don’t go too fast, you can open too quickly. Pranayama should be taught by your Guru. Never stray from the practice, or alter in any way.
How do you choose a teacher?
Chandra: Well, first remember you do not choose the teacher, you simply stay receptive. It is all based on karma. If you have a karma to be with someone based on your deeds from the past, you will encounter that being, and that being may be in the role of the Guru or the teacher. If so, you will know. Sometimes you know, but are a little afraid, you think you’re not ready, so you pull away, but in the heart, you know. It is great fortune to find the Guru in this lifetime, to be blessed with the spiritual knowledge and be fully charged with the aura and grace of a preceptor. Many people these days are not studying in this way any longer.
What are the aspects of a good teacher?
Chandra: You must observe the teacher. You must watch to see if they are living Yoga or are just interested in posing as a Yoga teacher for name and fame, or worldly gain. Watch, but be respectful. My Guru always says, ‘Yoga is complete obedience to the teacher’. So you come to class, observe, be respectful and then if you trust them, if they exemplify the qualities the scriptures describe (compassion, truthfulness, humility, fortitude, determination), and they are inspiring that in you, then you may approach them for the deeper studies. Again, many people these days are not interested in this, they just like to come and do the postures, some breath work, that is okay, they still feel nice and get benefits. It is a question of how high you want to go. The teacher should be a shining example of the qualities espoused in the scriptures.
You speak so much about Yama and the need to follow that. Why is this an essential practice for a Yoga practitioner?
Chandra: There are five Yamas or ethical restraints. Part of the discipline of Yoga is to cultivate these as part of daily action as well as during formal practice. Not only toward humans, but every creature. The Yogi respects everything. Without practice of the Yamas, the mind will never settle, due to impurities in the psychic channels, due to improper conduct. It is not safe to enter into deep meditation if the heart and mind are not clean. Without Yama, you will never reach Samadhi. The rules have to be kept in order to build harmony between each other and then the love starts expanding everywhere, to all beings. By keeping the ethical rules, gradually you purify your heart and become fit for higher consciousness, as the prana travels up spine. Then, you become like a child, full of love, but a Divine love, born of purity. You become incapable of hurting anything or anyone.
Why should Yogis give up meat and animal flesh?
Chandra: Well, there are several reasons for this. First, if you are eating meat, you’re breaking the first rule of Yoga, ahimsa, non-violence. You are involved in cruelty. Someone has to kill the animal for you to eat the meat. You would never see a Yogi eating animal flesh. The animals are our inferior brothers and sisters—they are made to be loved, not eaten. Another reason is that this animal material is not good for you. After 90 days or so, that material turns into your physical body, and the mind will never settle. You will never enter the state of Samadhi. Your health will be lost, very soon your kidneys will fail due to the intake of flesh, and your meditation will go nowhere.
What about Yoga education? Teacher Training programs, etc?
Chandra: When I decided to offer a teacher-training course I had a general idea of the material I wanted to cover, the format it would be presented in and the overall quality of education I was looking to provide. The very first thing I knew; however, was that I was not interested in merely giving “certification” but imparting a true study of the science of Yoga—for those who were interested in applying Yoga to their own lives, becoming Yogis and then serving humanity through these ancient teachings. With all due respect, I am bewildered at teachers and training programs that are claim to teach Yoga when they have no real Guru, whom they have been taught and initiated by to carry on the teachings of this ancient and deeply sacred science.
For centuries, Yoga was taught in a one on one setting between a teacher and a student. The student would seek out and approach the teacher hoping to be accepted for education and initiation into the teachings of Yoga. If the student proved to be truly dedicated and respectful, they were initiated into the moral and ethical precepts of Yoga. Only when the teacher felt the student had mastered these qualities was a physical practice introduced.
In this country, teacher training has traditionally been taught in ashrams or under the guidance of one’s teacher, generally as an outgrowth of one’s own practice. A student of Yoga, after practicing for several years would perhaps feel the pull to dive into the deeper dimensions of Yoga and would seek out teachings in the appropriate lineage.
The link between both of these approaches is not only years of dedication to one’s own practice before even beginning to think about teaching, but the constant guidance and watchful eye of the teacher. Teaching Yoga is merely an extension of one’s own practice. Today, Yoga teacher training programs are popping up all over the place. As the need for qualified Yoga teachers grows with the popularity of Yoga, this can be a wonderful thing. But only if the program is taught by qualified instructors offering deep Yoga immersion over an extended period of time, with constant support and guidance from the director or lead teachers. From what I have seen, programs that offer a weekend or week long intensive, with a teacher you do not know, and may never see after that, do not cut it. Too much goes on inside someone during yogic study to not have a community as a home base. And for someone to think they were qualified to teach a 6,000 year old tradition after a few days of learning some basic poses is potentially unsafe. These ancient postures and the breath techniques activate and stimulate nerves and open planes of reality that shift awareness…this is not to be taken lightly nor taught without first-hand experience. Careful attention to diet and lifestyle must be applied when exploring Yoga in depth (which a teacher training should do). Guidelines are of paramount importance. Yoga is not meant to be used as a technique for enlightenment unless you are doing it in a very protected environment. My teacher trainees go through life altering transformations during their course of studentship—on every level. Some more physical, some more mental, more psychological, more emotional—all based on individual karma. I am constantly available for them. It seems irresponsible and reprehensible to trigger, both physiologically and psychologically, so much within people without understanding what you’re doing and offering continual support and guidance. In Europe, the certification process for teaching Yoga is five years. In Finland, eight years of training are required for INITIAL Yoga teacher certification. I have had students apply for my teacher-training course who have been practicing Yoga for 3-4 months. I know teachers who teach Yoga and have never heard of the Yoga sutra or the proper way to pronounce asana. To the programs around the country who are dedicated to offering in depth yogic education and continued community for students and graduates, I salute you. As our market-based society abandons integrity for economic and societal gain, we must not allow the spiritual science and tradition of Yoga to be merely another casualty in the commoditization of our world culture.
What is a sangha?
Chandra: A sangha is a spiritual community. Ramakrishna once used a beautiful analogy to show the need for community. He likened the spiritual aspirant to a young tree. He said when a tree is young, it is helpful to have a fence surrounding it to protect it from the elements around it. In time, as the tree becomes stronger, as it’s roots grow deeper, that tree will be able to provide shade for others. When the spiritual aspirant is young, it is helpful to have a supportive fence around to protect against unwanted elements. With time, the fence can be removed because the aspirant is firmly rooted in his/her own truth. I think community is vitally important in the early stages of spiritual development. It’s not essential, but it is a blessing and can help alleviate so much confusion.
Is Yoga a religion?
Chandra: Yoga is not an organized religion but it is often thought to be one and this precludes some people from stepping into a Yoga practice. So many of us were raised in hypocritically organized religious households that we need to take extra care not to be smug or cavalier of people’s belief systems. Religion can be defined as belief in a supernatural power regarded as creator. From this perspective, I can see how Yoga could be seen as a religion. But Yoga does not demand that the practitioner subscribe to any particular dogma. True success in Yoga is seen as union with God. So, the practice of Yoga inherently means one is seeking that connection, consciously or unconsciously. Yoga is a method, but it is not THE method for everyone, so I say practicing Yoga can be done in conjunction with one’s secular beliefs. If you’re striving for union, connection or the remembrance of God when you’re practicing asana, pranayama, meditation or any other ‘yogic’ activity, it’s no different than being in a church, mosque or synagogue. Yoga seeks to put you in direct contact with God and the God-like nature within each of us. So you, (or I) take our version or concept of God into our practice and use it as an act of devotion. See how simple?
What are some of the things a Yoga aspirant should watch out for when they start to go deeper?
Chandra: The Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross, originated the phrase “the dark night of the soul” and it is a VITALLY important concept for a spiritual aspirant to be aware of. I frequently have students who come to me confused about their place in the world; feeling as if they started doing Yoga loving what they were doing and how it was making them feel, but suddenly finding themselves confused, lost and fearful. The dark night of the soul speaks to the period of time when one has begun to live with a new awareness, generally of a higher vibration, but is not yet drinking deeply enough to feel sustained by this new awareness. The pull of the world is still strong, yet you have awakened to such an extent that the rushes of the world—the things that used to get you high—are no longer as appealing to you. So you can feel as if you’re left with nothing, because you’re not yet living fully enough in the new awareness (because it’s new and you’re still coming into it) and this can lead to a feeling of grief (over the loss of what once was and who you thought you were) and fear over who you will become because it is such a mystery. You’re not yet firmly rooted enough to feel secure. The pull of the world is strong, but the dichotomy is this—once you’ve awakened you cannot go back to sleep. You can pretend. You can go back to the rushes and highs of the world, but you can never truly forget. And sometimes this is one’s karma. You cannot push the rushes of the world away prematurely. You’ve got to be WHO you are—where you are. This is karma and it cannot be ignored. Because in Yoga, we’re not looking to REPRESS aspects of ourselves or deny that they exist. It becomes a falling away. A process. And you slowly begin to come into an awareness that you authentically want to clean up your act. You no longer run away from your work—you sit in the purifying fire of it. This is where tapas can be extremely useful. Have faith…everything is all right.
What should one do to have success in Yoga?
Chandra: Surrender oneself to the Lord. It is important to remember the Lord is dwelling inside of you, right there in the heart, as the real Self, as the Supreme teacher. So when you say you are surrendering to the Lord, you are truly surrendering to the higher Self. You are eradicating the ego, the lower nature, by continual practice of the Yamas and Niyamas, by constant practice and detachment. This is key. You must move from the mind to the heart. The mind is only a temporary phase, only an instrument of knowledge. Investigate what the mind is, and it will disappear and duality will cease. There is no such thing as mind apart from thought. Mind leads to doubts. But there is no end to doubts, so don’t focus on trying to remove them or ‘figure things out’. Seek the source of the doubts, the “I” or “ego”, and you will find they are truly non-existent. Only then, doubts will cease.
You must move from the mind to the heart. When the mind gets absorbed in the heart there is not the slightest trace of “I” thought. Remain without distractions. The heart is the only reality. Your real Self is dwelling in the heart. To remain as one’s Self is to enter the heart. Self-surrender will lead to Self-realization. Surrender can only happen when the mind is done trying to comprehend or understand what true surrender means. Surrender is to give oneself up to the origin of one’s being. But remember, this original source exists within you—not outside of you. God Bless You.