… Your Yoga has Ever Had: An Interview with Bhakti Yogi Sara Ivanhoe.
A few weeks ago, just before the midday temperature in Central Park peaked at 104 degrees, I threw a suitcase and a sunhat in my trunk and headed for the Kripalu Institute.
As dramatic as it was to take off down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, The Black Keys blasting, this trip had been planned for weeks. I was meeting my mother. She was coming from Virginia to take a week long Journey Dance teacher training and I was swooping out of the city for a visit. I had signed up last minute, at her suggestion, for a weekend course. Something about Vinyasa? I was just glad to be getting out of town. Out of the heat. Away from the new job, the new Brooklyn apartment and a heartache with no apparent resting place.
By the time I arrived at the front desk that night, having missed the evening session, I still didn’t know the name of the program I was taking. It had been enough of a release to get out of the net of city traffic and see a smear of Massachusetts green. “Something about Vinyasa?” I said, as the woman at the front desk stared back at me.
Sara began that morning by telling us about the origin of the Sanskrit word Bhakti and its connection to the word Bhajan, or love song to God. This strange phrase struck me. Love song to God. “Bhakti is a tradition of yoga that allows us our desires on the path towards grace. In the Bhakti tradition your emotions are not obstacles, they are an integral part of the path of connection with the Divine.” Sara paused then added, with her unapologetic and enormous smile, “that’s why I chose it over Buddhism.” And that’s when I was sold on Sara Ivanhoe.
The Bhakti tradition insists only on two things: that you actively participate in your practice and that you bring your imperfect desires to the table every time you begin. Having been living with the loose ends of an ended relationship for months now, my imperfect desire seemed to be all I had, as I continued to reach out into the dark for something I couldn’t believe was gone. My heart hadn’t gotten the memo, I guess, though my mind was on a daily rampage to end this shit. Enough, it said. It counted on its fingers the number of days that had passed and what that should mean. It told me I was a sucker, an idiot, a lunatic- while my heart continued to reach out into the dark, aching to hold on to something it couldn’t name. I had pretty much stopped talking about it. I was claiming, for all intents and purposes, (not to mention a great deal of pride), that I was fine.
Despite this, I guess it will come as no surprise to you that at the mention of bringing unfinished desires to the table, every single one of mine lashed up like an uncaged flame. I was moved by the idea that my longing didn’t have to mean some kind of deformity. That the incomplete feeling that grief had given me was not necessarily the complete truth. That missing someone didn’t have to mean that I was missing something. What a beautiful concept: that my pain doesn’t have to mean that I haven’t yet found that one perfect piece, the one that would make me good again. Something fiercely thirsty was rising towards the idea that if I let it, my fumbling, fragmented heart could write its own love song and that that song could be part of my practice. Did it matter who I sent it to or how it was received?
We moved onto our mats. Weaving in elements of the Bhakti practice, Sara encouraged us to see what it was like to move through our asana practice with our eyes closed, acknowledging the interior origin of our practice. As I began to pass through each pose, I let them trace my breath, and closed my eyes when I could bear it. Then, there was a distinct moment when I made contact with what felt like severed tendons in my chest. There it was. The pain. And then there was a kind of full circle of it encompassing me and a release that flattened me into childs pose.
Ah, the crumple into childs pose. Oh, the pain, the agony. And yet it wasn’t the same twinge of numbness I had been carrying around for months now; it wasn’t the pain of trying to amputate my own heart, banking on the fact that it would hightail itself to Vegas, or fall out of some window in dream. There I was, holding it, holding myself, in my entirety. I was crossing boldly into my own most dangerous terrain, busting out of cages and tearing down walls, overcoming insurmountable odds– and all the while I looked like just another girl in childs pose, with fat tears rolling backwards down her sweaty face. But so revelation sometimes goes.
And there, curled up like a shell on my mat, I realized that inside my fear of letting go of another person, I had feared that I would be letting go of the love they held for me. If I let go of their vision, then how could I trust that I would still be seen? But in those moments, as that feeling of complete terror started sweeping in, it felt like my body was welcoming a re-shaping of what open space could mean. I felt that fear of emptiness begin to shift into a feeling of possibility. It was as if cavernous halls inside my veins were trying to become airwaves; what felt like a break in my heart was looking for a way to be unleashed into a different kind of highway, one that could carry me to higher ground. A huge part of me had wanted to be taken to higher ground, all along. I just didn’t realize I needed to get there by way of plummeting.
Leaving Sara’s class that day I had a feeling of strangely close to the feelings of first falling in love, where suddenly you have 1oo more rooms inside and you believe you can stride into any of them. But I hadn’t fallen in love. I had actually allowed myself to fall out of it, and to my surprise, my heart hadn’t gone off like a light switch. I hadn’t entirely lost face. I hadn’t forgotten my name. Or his. But I didn’t feel bad. I might even say that I felt good. Okay: I felt good.
When I ran into Sara outside of the ladie’s bathroom I was finally able to ask her for an interview, as part of the radioshow ‘Where is My Guru‘. Her eyes lit up. ‘What a cool name!’ She said. ‘Really?’ I replied. The word Guru was, and always has been, a little hard for me. ‘Yeah,’ she said emphatically, gorgeously, tapping her own collarbones and seeming to wink at me. ‘It’s in here, right?’
So the next day, after the workshop’s close, I met Sara for an interview.
Lilly Bechtel: I’m here with Sara Ivanhoe at the Kripalu Institute, after a beautiful weekend of Bhakti Vinyasa. So thank you first of all Sarah, on part of ‘Where is My Guru’, for letting me steal some of your time. I think I have a couple of juicy questions for you.
Sara Ivanhoe: Oh no.
LB: Well, juicy hopefully as in good rather than trashy.
SI: I’m open to both (laughing)
LB: Good, well we’ll see what happens.
LB: So Sarah, you mentioned in the workshop that one of the things that drew you to Bhakti Vinyasa was being able to channel your emotions into your practice rather than set them aside. I wondered if you had an example of that in your life- where you were able to create a practice out of something that was seemingly separate from your practice or an obstacle to it?
SI: You know, what keeps popping into my mind is my friend Krishna Das, many of you know Krishna Das, it’s through his beautiful chanting that he tours around the country and I met him 15 years ago, 17 years ago something like this, and I remember being like ‘what is this stuff you’re singing? What does it have to do with yoga? I don’t really get it- aren’t you and isn’t this kind of weird. And I think he explained it best so I’m just going to use his, explanation if I can. He said: It’s like when you’re a teenager and you’re suffering from your first heartbreak and you’re driving in your car and you’re singing that love song and you’re reminded of the person who broke your heart and you miss them and you have this longing and you remember the times together and you want to be close to them again– it’s that feeling of ‘aaaaahh!’
But when you’re having that feeling you’re so totally encompassed in it. And so much of Western philosophy has us trying to intellectualize our way out of it, think our way out of it, detach from it, and kind of force and maneuver ourselves to not be experiencing it. But what he (Krishna Das) explained is that Bhakti- the yoga of love, the yoga of devotion, states that we’re feeling, longing, loving beings and that rather than having that love be separate from our practice we can use that and to channel it back towards the divine and use that passionate strength of feeling to connect.
“The Yoga of love, the yoga of devotion states that we’re feeling, longing, loving beings and that rather than having that love be separate from our practice we can channel it back towards the divine and use that passionate strength of feeling to connect.”
And man, I don’t know about you but when I’m having that feeling it feels like there’s no other feeling as strong in the entire world—and not just the feeling of heart break love, but the parent’s love for a child or your love for a friend or your love of your lover, it’s absolutely the strongest force. It’s stronger than the separation force.
(Laughing) Sometimes when I’m talking about Bhakti I’ll say ‘it even shows up in the Harry Potter books!’ There’s all this black magic and there’s the evil forces of Voldemort and in the very beginning of the Harry Potter books the only thing that made Harry Potter survive, the only thing that was strong enough to combat this deep black magic was love. The parent’s love of a child. And that begins the whole premise of the book.
That the parent’s love of a child was the only thing that could vanquish these evil forces. You know? From the sublime to the ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m talking about Harry Potter (laughing) but it’s profound, and it’s universal and you don’t have to be a yogi, you don’t have to be on some religious kick you don’t have to learn anything special- everyone gets it.
LB: So would you say that one aspect of Bhakti is claiming your ability to generate these emotions, as divine? Even if these emotions are for another, longing for another, or something greater than yourself? Do you think that inward reach, the process of closing the eyes and going in is one way of acknowledging that it’s yours rather than for someone else?
SI: Yes, that’s well put—and that everything we have can be a path and is divine love rather than ‘oh this is something I need to get rid of.’ Yes, I like the way you put that- this is my love, whether they get it or not
LB: I’m feeling the groove of it anyway (laughing)
SI: (Laughing) Exactly, exactly, and they may not ever get it! How often does a parent feel such intense love for a child and the child rebels? Just because the child is not getting it, it has nothing to do with the parent’s love and it doesn’t make their love any less. God knows what kids do these days, I mean I know what I put my parent’s through. Every child has a moment of rebelling but it doesn’t shake the parent’s love. And I guess what Bhakti is saying is that’s not attachment, that’s not bad, that’s just love and that love is beautiful.
LB: So it is sort of a practice of non-attachment to experience your love, let it ride, without allowing the quality of your love to be dictated by how it is received. And to shift that a little bit to the idea of service– do you think that the inward practice of yoga, leads to a natural, maybe inevitable desire to look outward and give back? Or not necessarily. Another way to phrase that is how does the tradition of Bhakti view service? Is it an inward path? Does it have anything to do with our modern concept of charity or volunteer work?
SI: You know there’s a lot of different teachers and Gurus that teach that service is the first thing you do, that’s you out in the world, and that by taking right action out in the world, by helping others, by seeing yourself in others, seeing yourself as equal to those you serve, that you are able to start. I mean you can’t do anything until you’re sorted out out there, and just being a good person out in the world. Neem Karoli Baba said ‘Oh you wanna be enlightened? Go feed people. You want to grow? Go help people.’ And I have a Guru, this is her on my ring and her name is Amma. They call her the hugging saint.
And she’s all about hospitals and women’s shelters and I’m not sure if any other teacher has actually built as many services as she has I mean the foundation she’s created is off the hook: Universities, Hospitals, it is totally phenomenal, and what makes her really special to me as a Guru is that she sees herself in others. So she’s not really just raising money and telling people ‘go feed people’ or ‘give me money so I can go feed people’. She actually builds the stuff herself. On her days off you’ll see her out there in her white sari diggin’ a ditch. The Guru. She’s not like ‘oh don’t touch me.’ She’s hands on. She’s fully hands on.
And one other thing I’d like to touch on that we talked a little bit about yesterday, was this concept of what a Guru is and making that concept more accessible to people. The first thing is that the word Guru doesn’t literally mean teacher. The literal translation is dispeller of darkness or one takes darkness away or one who sheds light. So what that implies is that a Guru isn’t teaching you something that you didn’t already know. They’re just shining a light on what was already there and happened to be in darkness.
“So what that implies is that a Guru isn’t teaching you something that you didn’t already know. They’re just shining a light on what was already there and happened to be in darkness.”
And I think that’s a key distinction because it makes the concept of Guru a little more inviting. Some people are like “I don’t want a Guru” or “Your Guru is you” and yes, we do need to have inner guidance, but there are beings and there are teachers that can help, you know, shine a light on something that was previously clouded, and that’s why we have community.
Along those lines, there’s a beautiful Sanskrit word called Darshan and it comes from the Sanskrit root Drstr. Drstr is to see or to direct, and it’s connected to the word we use a lot, Dristi, or focus point and it’s also actually where we get our English word for direction, so it’s about directing our energy. And it’s all the same Sanskrit root, which I think is so cool, so the idea is what you’re looking at, that’s where your energy goes. So you’re seeing it, you’re focusing on it and you’re drstr, you’re directing your energy to that point.
So if you’re traveling then you will go see the Guru and have a Darshan. And what that means is “I’m gonna go see the Guru. I’m gonna have Darshan and go see the Guru.” But we’re actually not going to see the Guru. It’s not like it really matters that we’re going to see someone dressed in white, it’s not about that, it matters that we’re going to be seen by someone for who we truly are.
“It’s not like it really matters that we’re going to see someone dressed in white, it’s not about that, it matters that we’re going to be seen by someone for who we truly are. ”
Because we all want someone to see through all these layers of “BLAH” and to see all the way through to our true nature. And that’s what the Guru does. That’s why I think the name ‘Where is My Guru’ is so cool.
LB: So where is your guru? What has the answer to that question been for you?
SI: Well, the answer is obviously that the real Guru is within, of course, and that it’s easier to find when we’re around people who are seeing it, do you know what I mean?
SI:I try to remind myself that my job as a yoga teacher is to see people for who they truly are. Not for the layers of stuff. So I try to see it in others and I try to be around people who are seeing it in me because it helps remind me of that.
LB: Would you say that that’s a kind of service that you do as a teacher?
SI: Yeah (long pause.)
“There’s something about the word service that can really feel like an obligation or a guilt trip. And I don’t think that the yogic system or all of where we are going is all just wrapped up in that. I could say that it’s not a service but a game.”
And as I’m doing that, you know, maybe it helps some people, but I think that sometimes—I mean, it’s so amazing to be of service to people and to help them, but you don’t want to do it out of feeling guilt, you don’t want to do it out of that feeling that you have to, or that you’re only a good person if you do it, or that your somehow righteous or better than others if you do it. I mean we really don’t know what other people who are not doing any service, might actually be doing. You know what I mean? There’s many ways to be of service. I don’t know, I think as far as finding the Guru, I think we all have that being and that essence inside of us and we’ve all got these layers on top and you know, most of the time it just feels nice when people see us for who we really are. What a relief.
LB: Well thank you for your time, Sara and I hope to see you across the country sometime or the next time you’re in New York.
SI: I really appreciate it, thank you.
“Most of the time it just feels nice when people see us for who we really are. What a relief.”