7 Surprising Things I Learned from Sirvatsa Ramaswami & Patanjali.

Via on May 31, 2011

Ramaswami was a student of Krishnamacharya for 30 years.  Last week I took his 20 Hour Yoga Sutra Workshop.  A treat.

Ramaswami studied with Krishnamacharya for 30 years

He has a story for each sutra, and a “my guru used to say” for each question anyone asks. He eats very little and lives his yoga, takes a walk during lunch, rubs his eyes when he needs rest, prays before and after each segment, and loves chanting, although we did not get to much of that—lack of time, lots of sutras!

What we did get to was the translation of the Sanskrit in the terms of the Krishnamacharya lineage, and in that I found many things that differ from the most regarded scholarly texts. Some of those differences surprised me, here the front runners:

1.- The goal of Yoga is PEACE

According to Patanjali and following the translation of Krishnamacharya / Ramaswami the goal is “peace” which is another translation of the root word -yoga- in sanskrit.  The interpretation of Patanjali is not union.  That was my first surprise, I had never heard that before, although I intuitively always knew that peace is what I want, so much so that I have began following Marianne Williamson’s advise and I often ask myself: Do I want peace or do I want this? before proceeding.

Of course eternal unbroken peace is not easily attainable, therefore there are some practices.

2.- Ashtanga is the Second Practice Mentioned on Chapter II

As you may know, chapter one of the Yoga Sutras is only for the very advanced yogi, not for me, and likely not for you either.  Chapter one is for the person that can go into samadhi (focus continuously in one object without distractions for a looooong time), again, not me.

For the yogi like me, or rather the “aspiring yogi” there is chapter two. What I did not know is that in this chapter there are two practices outlined with their corresponding results.

I was under the impression it was all the same, but actually one leads to the other which is only to be taken if you choose to dedicate your life to yoga:

  • Practice #1  Kryia yoga -with the three observances of : moderation (tapas) – study and observance of some kind of ritualistic form within life, has the only purpose of reducing the kleshas or the sources of pain (of which the most important is wrong identification or wrong knowledge)
Fascinating that Ramaswami uses the word “moderation” for tapas, rather than “accepting pain as purification” as Edwin Bryant translates.  Ramaswami talked about how moderation is on everything: what we intake for food, how much television we watch, what we hear, what we read, how we speak… anyway, I don’t want to go manifesto here.

Then, once a yogi has worked on that and reduced the kleshas -balanced the tendencies a little- and is ready to “dedicate her life to yoga”: we have: Ashtanga yoga! or Practice #2 which has the object to bring us, step by step, to eternal, undisturbed, detached, utmost, peace.

3. Without the Yamas and Niyamas You May as Well Forget About the Whole Thing

The Yamas and Niyamas -first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga play a critical part in calming the mind, – Ramaswami  puts a lot of effort into having us understand that we need to balance our tendencies, or gunas. See the day I stuffed myself with lava cake for deeper, if tempting, explanation of the gunas.

We cannot “force” ourselves to become Satvic (balanced all the time), but we can aim to create the conditions in our lives so that we end up being in a more satvic, conducive, environment, which in turn will make us more prone to focusing our minds. See this post on the 10 yamas and niyamas that Krishnamacharya mentions in the Yoga Makaranda.

4.- Asanas Reduce Rajas

Rajasic - over-exciting - Red Peppers

Asanas, -poses- (the third limb) are meant to reduce our overactive tendencies.  However after asanas sometimes we can feel sleepy.  I know I go into a coma of sorts after my own daily practice, where I do not even want to move finger.

Now this may sound controversial, but all the six series of poses in the Ashtanga Yoga system of Jois, I see now, are actually not necessary, they are flashy and they are beautiful and I love the practice, but once we change the goal of yoga to: just peace, then there is no need to over-excert the body.

Don’t take me wrong, I still think Ashtanga (Jois’ Ashtanga) provides -in my eyes- the best system of asana because it can apply to any temperament, (any combination of gunas) and it is a pre-determined routine which ensures people will get on the mat because there is no discussion, one KNOWS what has to happen.  However, this talk put the desire to reach the third series of that system in perspective.

5.- Pranayama is Meant to Reduce Tamas

Pranayama is meant to wake us up after asanas and a sweet rest leave us in a  state of “after practice coma”, which I tend to experience often.

Fried and heavy meals are Tamasic and make us sleepy

Pranayama awakens us so we can focus and therefore reduces tamas -or the tendency to be sleepy.  Pranayama can be taken as soon as “stira sukam asanam”, or when we can sit comfortably in a steady position for a relatively long period of time, which is really not that long… half an hour to an hour.

6.- Dharana is Focusing Intently

Dharana – the six limb as I was not surprised by the fifth which is still sense withdrawal- as interpreted by Patanjali is concentrating on an object, for example, a bottle, but not thinking of it, naming it, or bringing memories as we are looking at it, just looking at the object.  In other words, no imagination, just looking at the object as is.

For example, when you see a sunset, are you able to stop yourself from saying “wow that is beautiful”?

I live by the Hudson River and every time I walk to its banks that is all I can think, therefore I am “naming” it already, I cannot focus on it, heck I cannot even conceive of it without the word “river”.

The word “concentration” is an inaccurate English translation, it is best to think of it in terms of “focusing on an object for longer and longer periods of time uninterruptedly”

7.- Your Meditation Can Never Be: “Awesome” or “Amazing” or “Horrible”. That is Deluded.

Meditation, Dhyana or the six limb, happens when we can maintain that uninterrupted focus for the whole period of time we decided to sit for, can be half an hour can be an hour, two, or ten.

So when someone says, how was your meditation? the only acceptable answers are, either:

a) I was able to focus on the object sometimes, but my mind wondered, or
b) I was able to focus on the object without my mind wondering all the time

Any other answer is not real. And this is the only check we should have after meditation to see if we are making progress.  How cool is that?

7. Samadhi is Not Obtained by Divine Grace, it is Perfectly Attainable by Anyone Willing to Put in the Work

This is one that really surprised me, I did not think that it was within the power of our minds to attain samadhi -the eight limb-, perhaps because I had “wrong knowledge” of what samadhi is.

All samadhi is, is that we can hold our mind to that object, with full attention for so long we get lost and forget ourselves as well.

That is it, attainable, clear, in ordinary terms.


I am down the rabbit hole again.

See these too:

21 Things To Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice – Free Book

The Only Yoga Super Power We Are Allowed to Want

Krishnamacharya: 8 Short Stories that Reveal What Kind of Person He Was

How Eating Those Bad Marshmallows Actually Made Me More Centered

About Claudia Azula Altucher

Claudia Azula Altucher has studied yoga for a long time. Her only focus these past eight years has been on Ashtanga through which she studied at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India (three study visits so far), and at Centered Yoga in Thailand (focus on practice, philosophy and pranayama). Currently she studies at Pure Yoga in NYC. She has taught yoga classes in both Spanish and English. She is also the Author of: 21 Things To Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice (you can get a free PDF at her blog). She writes daily at ClaudiaYoga.com And you can follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ClaudiaYoga


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14 Responses to “7 Surprising Things I Learned from Sirvatsa Ramaswami & Patanjali.”

  1. Enjoyed this article, Claudia.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
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  3. JamesAltucher says:

    What a great summary Claudia. It was a great class to take.

  4. Sara says:

    I loved reading about your experience, and it sounds like you have learned some very powerful yoga teachings from Ramaswami and Patanjali. Thank you for sharing them with us!

    The only thing that sort of confused me/turned me off to this article was the picture that represented it. You're very pretty, but it seemed out of place to have your picture embody the article. If it were more deeply personal, maybe it would have worked, but as is, I think a different picture that had more to do with the topic would have been more appropriate.

  5. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  6. [...] 7 Surprising Things I Learned from Ramaswami and Patanjali [...]

  7. [...] a system of philosophy and ethics that can become a path to wholeness. Asanas are only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Other limbs include meditation, breath control and development of personal ethics. Photo: [...]

  8. jaimie says:

    thank you for sharing these precious teachings! i just love the way the holy texts are open to endless interpretation, how each interpretation informs & deepens another, how endlessly we can ponder the scriptures. ramaswami's book on patanjali seems to be out of print, tho. sigh. … (& too bad about the pic of meat — what was someone thinking?!)

  9. [...] of my western mind. As a man of the twenty-first century, my mind places faith in good science.As Patanjali said, knowledge comes from either direct experience, logical inference, or the testimony of someone you [...]

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