May 7, 2012

India vs. the Wild Wild West. ~ Chad Herst

Image by Bryonie Wise

 How We Awaken

It’s my opinion that the method of awakening for a traditional Indian seeker is not the same for Westerners. And so, as teachers in the West, it is critical that we translate foreign teachings not just to the language, but also to the culture of our students. Sticking to “doing it the way it’s done in India” is a form of laziness on the part of the teacher and can have harmful effects on students. It is our job not only to impart the method but also to distinguish the essence of the method from the cultural idiosyncrasies that the method is imbued with.

I teach Ashtanga Yoga. I learned the practice from my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who was what I consider to be a classical Indian. When I say classical Indian, I am actually making a distinction from that of the modern Indian, which still exists today, but is slowly getting lost as India grows economically.

One thing that distinguished my teacher’s classical Indian students from their Westerner counterparts primarily had to do with how they identified themselves. The classical Indian student tended to know him or herself in relationship to his or her role in society, whereas Westerners identified primarily with personalities, replete with likes and dislikes, confidence and insecurities. Much of the work of eliminating samsara (conditioned existence) for Westerners requires very different work. It is clear to me that while the game is still the same—overcoming our conditioning to discover who we truly are—the path of yoga in India is very different from the path of yoga in the West.

Duty or Authenticity?

In India, the sense of individuality and uniqueness is not valued in the same way it is valued in the West. From a very young age what is valued is one’s relationship to one’s role in society. If you are a Brahmin (priestly caste), then that’s what and who you are; that is the role you are to play out in society. Relatively speaking, life tends to happen to people in India compared to the West. It is not chosen there the way it is chosen here. And while that is starting to change now, the change is slow. For example, it was not until recently and in certain very small pockets of Indian culture that one would even think to choose one’s partner in marriage. That was determined by the caste of the young man and woman, the parents and often with the aid of a family astrologer.

One’s role is called dharma or duty. A major theme in The Bhagavad Gita (one of India’s most beloved and sacred texts) is performing one’s duty to caste. If that means fighting one’s family members for the sake of upholding the santana dharma (universal law), then it must be done, like it or not. The essence of the training of the yogi in India is the elimination of the asmita (overly identified sense of self or ego) and in turn identifying and surrendering to the role the society has put upon him or her. What we in the West define as the creative faculty of being able to choose how we live our lives is completely eliminated. Surrendering to one’s role—be it one’s role in society or in the family unit—is the transformational breakthrough that’s asked of the aspirant.

As Westerners, we learn not to completely identify with our roles as brother, mother, teacher or business executive. While this is a form of our identity, it doesn’t define us the way it does the classical Indian. In the West, we tend to move fluidly between our various roles. I may be a teacher of yoga a few mornings of the week but if I came home still playing the teacher with my wife I think she’d strangle me. We are not just our careers, our roles at home, our background or our socioeconomic status.

For the most part, we tend to identify with our personalities and preferences. For example, when a father asks his son, “Do you want to be a football player or baseball player?” and the child responds, “I want to be a make up artist,” then that child is exerting his separate identity through his wants. The same is true when we choose our partners or when we choose to have children (or not). The ability to make choices and choose what makes us happy is what forms this persona in the West we identify as “me.”

So, when a Westerner with a developed sense of ego goes to an Indian guru that’s rooted in a classical Indian culture and learns yoga, the guru does not and cannot totally recognize what he or she sees. The Westerner’s sense of self is strongly identified with his or her persona along with its various wants. Additionally, Westerners struggle mightily with issues of confidence, feelings of self-doubt and even self-loathing. While I am sure that plenty of classical Indians struggle with the same issues, a confident, outgoing personality is not as valued as the fulfillment of one’s responsibilities to society and family. And because the “come from” is so different, often times, the method doesn’t work in the same way. This isn’t to say that the method doesn’t work.

All Politics is Local…and so is Yoga

I remember it used to baffle my guru that we’d keep showing up at his shala (yoga school) year after year, still unmarried, still experimenting with various illicit drugs and covered with even more tattoos. I imagine that he would sometimes scratch his head wondering why the method wasn’t working for some of his students the way it ought to. He’d often say in his lectures that we needed to get married, have children and to essentially surrender to our dharma. I am sure that he saw that even though we came from comparatively wealthy places, we were equally spiritually lost. And yet I wish to argue that while the practice wasn’t working based on his cultural maps of dharma, it was, in fact working on us.

It is my belief that the path of illumination for Westerners has less to do with surrendering to our roles in society and has more to do with having the courage to trust what authentically moves us. And that’s what we were doing when we were saving all the money we earned as waiters or yoga teachers to go back to India to practice with our teacher. That’s what we were doing when we would show up on the mat day after day. We weren’t doing these things because society deemed them valuable. On the contrary, most of my parents’ friends thought I was a bit of a freak for waking up at 5 am to practice. We were doing this because it moved us. It resonated with something very individual within each of us. We used the practice to help strip away all the nonsense our parents, teachers and society had foisted upon us so that we could each find our own individual way in the world.

Brahmin Yoga

And that’s how I think the practice worked and continues to work on Westerners differently. So when I hear Ashtanga Yoga teachers insisting that their students practice exactly the way it’s done in Mysore today, that they never vary the sequence to meet their student’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs; that they alienate those that cannot practice six days per week, I cannot help but think that this is both arrogance and negligence on the part of the teacher. He or she is foisting a brahmin interpretation of yoga onto the student. As Westerners, our path is not necessarily to become more dutiful. For some it is; but for most the work is to strip away what is not true so that we can sense and choose life from our essence, the part of us that is authentic, awake and deeply resonant.



Chad started practicing Ashtanga Yoga with David Williams in 1993 and first traveled to Mysore, India in 1994 to study with his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Chad received Guruji’s blessing to teach the Ashtanga method and has been doing so since 1998.  Chad’s practice and teaching style has been greatly influenced by some of his early Ashtanga teachers, Eddie Stern, Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, Dena Kingsberg, and Rolf Naujokat.

In addition to teaching yoga privately, Chad teaches an Ashtanga Mysore practice in San Francisco three mornings a week at Mission Ashtanga with Devorah Sacks. As a teacher of Ashtanga, his mission is to facilitate his students in finding their individual and unique doorways into this powerful practice and to cultivate their growth and personal development.

Chad combines his yoga expertise with other mind-body programs at Herst Wellness, which he founded to help people find an authentic access to spiritual practice that evokes transformation, heals, and brings about a quality of aliveness. Chad is a licensed acupuncturist, herbalist and personal/leadership coach based in San Francisco, but he works with people around the world.


Editor: Bryonie Wise


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