Yogacitynyc.com interviews David Life
2012 is shaping up to be an important year for spiritual texts—several new translations of the Bhagavad Gita have appeared, New Yorkers have begun chanting the Sutras formally, and more and more yogis are taking time from asanas to study the classical texts of yoga with academics from universities in the area, like Professor Edwin Bryant at Rutgers.
But how does this ancient knowledge make its way into everyday yoga classes? Yogacity’s Lisa Dawn Angerame sat down with David Life, who is not only a yoga scholar but also the co-founder, with Sharon Gannon, of the Jivamukti Yoga School, one of New York’s largest and oldest yoga schools. They talked about the three books Lisa has been studying recently—the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita—and how these three ancient works fit into his practice and his school’s methods.
David Life: Svatmarama Svami compiled the Hatha Yoga Pradipika from other texts and oral traditions in the 15th century CE. It describes sixteen asanas, along with pranayamas, chakras, kundalini, bandhas, kriyas, shakti, nadis and mudras among other topics. The translation of pradipika means “light on,” or we could say, “the low-down,” the “secret teachings,” or the “real thing.” It is the low-down on how to yoke, or join the sun and the moon. The aim of the practices of hatha yoga, according to the Pradipika, is to be able to hear the subtle sound—nadam.
The author of the Shiva Samhita is unknown. Various experts date it from the 16th-18th century CE. It contains eighty four different asanas (only four of which are described in detail), prana, pranayamas, yogic philosophy, mudras, tantric practices and meditation. It emphasizes that even a common householder can practice yoga and benefit from it. The term samhita means a full collection of Shiva’s wisdom on this subject in a concise form.
The Gheranda Samhita author is unknown as well, but a teacher named Gheranda in the 17th-18th century CE taught these one hundred practices to his students. This approach is called Ghatastha yoga or yoga approached through the body. It is approached in 7 steps including kriyas, asanas (there are thirty two here), mudras, pratyaharas, dhyanas and samadhis.
All of these texts have influenced Jivamukti Yoga directly or indirectly.
LDA: Overall, are they relevant to yoga practitioners today?
DL: Well, they would not be on the top of my reading list. The top two spots have to be reserved for the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita of Vyasa. For one thing, these texts significantly predate the others, they explore the subject of yoga more thoroughly, and their study alone could involve many years of dedication.
All of the three above—the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Shiva Samhita and Gheranda Samhita—are more clinical or practical, and focus on techniques. They are totally appropriate for some yoga practitioners and completely inappropriate for others, but relevant to all.
What would make them relevant is how an experienced teacher chose to use them as the focus of attention while you were studying yoga with them. If the technical manual arrives with a teacher, it changes everything.
LDA: Can they be taken seriously with admonitions like practice pranayama in a hut made from cow dung or that a yogi should avoid the company of women?
DL: As far as cow dung goes, don’t knock it if you have not tried it. It creates an antiseptic and dust-free zone for sadhana (especially important if you live in a hot, dusty and buggy place). Let us put this image in context; we are talking about ideas that emerge from the time BCE, and represent common practices at that time. Sure, it sounds strange to us, but how would it sound to BCE’rs to roll out a thin piece of plastic or rubber yoga mat on which to perform your sadhana? Dried cow dung slurry creates a mat-like covering over the earth providing cushion as well as sanitation. I have tried it, and would prefer it to dust, bugs, and stones. However, I do not support the enslavement of cows for their dung, or anything else.
Many of these ancient texts are male-centered. I do not feel inclined to argue or defend this—it is a fact. Beyond that, modern commentary demands a modern lens. That commentary is in the realm of the teacher. The enlightened mind will help us to discern between the essence of the teaching and the outer garments that may sometimes distract or confuse the unguided student.
LDA: What are the most beneficial practices passed down to us from these three texts?
DL: Short list: asanas, meditation, nada yoga, kriya and pranayama.
LDA: Are the purification practices relevant to yogis practicing today (i.e., some practices may be considered extreme like hrid dhauti and basti)?
DL: Actually, those two are not the most unusual or extreme. The word hatha is translated as “force” and hatha yoga historically was regarded as a path of force and extremism. The Natha Yogis, of whom Svatmarama was one, were naked mercenaries looking for super powers but finding samadhi instead.
Each of the kriyas has a mundane and elevated level of action and meaning. The true value of the micro-experience is it’s cosmic revelation—more than the sum of its parts. All of the practices yield fruit according to degree of intensity, so Guru selects your poison (or, should we say, your amrit?). Then it is our choice to act upon it.
LDA: Can you tell us about your daily practice, i.e., which kriyas you do?
DL: Perhaps your readers would benefit to know how kriyas fit into my daily life. When a dosha is imbalanced, the kriya has the power to rebalance it. Simply put, that means that when my nose is running I can use a kriya as remedy, and when I have gas a different kriya can relieve that.
We have found that the gradual constipation and contamination of the physical body through diet and stress is best dealt with by retreating from the world, that is, not working—or even moving around much, unplugging the internet, electric lights, computers and telephones. We create a very simple dietary fast with no stimulants or other drugs and a daily routine of sadhana practice. We perform various kriyas of a colon cleansing nature and spend a lot of time sleeping and meditating as part of that sadhana. We maintain complete silence and this all may last from several days to a month in length each year. You could express that as living in a cow dung hut…without the cows!
What I can say for sure about my practice in general is that it has been neither long enough nor extreme enough…yet.
LDA: Where did all of the “other” yoga asanas come from if not from these three texts?
DL: Well, these texts do talk about at least eighty four different ones and that is quite a lot of them! Certainly many more than most people practice in a day, a week, or lifetime. How many asanas there are is an existential question that deserves the answer that Patanjali gives—“It is One, and it is happy and still.”
Remember that all three texts that we are talking about are both derivative and reductive in their presentation of a vast, mostly unrepresented, oral tradition together with archives of thousands of banana leaf treatises that still sit rotting on dusty shelves, neither read nor translated, perhaps soon lost. Where is Lara Croft: Tomb Raider when you need her?
LDA: Is it ok that there are translations of these texts out there if these practices were supposed to be kept secret for success?
DL: Sure, they are good to have, and to keep secret. Translations are merely one person’s idea of what was meant in the original language. They are both blessing and curse. All of these texts are shrouded in ambiguity, code, vernacular and metaphor. They are riddles that you cannot solve without the secret decoding ring of guru. Even when you read the descriptions of kriya or asana in the original Sanskrit, they do not make a lot of sense without the commentary and presence of the enlightened mind to illustrate the text for you.
But let us just say that someone does embark on the practices with ill intention or ignorance and “luck.” It is doubtful that they would have the endurance to achieve mastery…and part of the course of mastery would be a rejection of lesser motives and the removal of ignorance. Yoga Vasistha tells us that “luck” only exists to the deluded ones, and that actually we only get exactly what we deserve according to our own actions.
That’s a win-win or a lose-lose, depending on how you look at it.
Lisa Dawn Angerame is an Advanced Certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, a Senior Certified Baptiste Power Vinyasa Teacher, has trained with Jonny Kest and Paul Grilley, and is certified to teach pre- and postnatal yoga. In 2010, she co-founded NavaNYC, a company dedicated to bringing yoga and meditation into the workplace. Lisa Dawn is currently studying yoga philosophy with A.G. Mohan. She lives in New York City and Northport with her yogi husband and yogi baby. She publishes her vegan food blog Lisa’s Project Vegan and is currently at work on her first book about practicing yoga while pregnant.