PATANJALI'S CHOCOLATE ADDICTION (AND OTHER TEACHER ISSUES)
I was first introduced to Linda Sparrowe’s work in my 200 hour training with Frog Lotus Yoga, as her long essay in the lovely Yoga Journal book Yoga provided the basis for our study of yoga history. So many of my preconceptions and ideas of yoga were swept away and replaced; I was quite excited by it. Subsequently I got to know Linda’s writing better, and we met through Cyndi Lee at a Yoga Journal conference last year. The interview was conducted in Facebook chat.
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: You're in Providence yes?
Linda Sparrowe: I am in Providence and the sun is shining at last.
Nahem: I hear that! So what's the new book about?
Sparrowe: I'm writing a pre- and postnatal book for vinyasa practitioners.
Nahem: Why don't we start with you telling me something of your yoga journey? I know you've been focused on this for quite some time.
Sparrowe: Oh God, Ivan...seemingly forever. But I didn't really start asana practice in earnest until relatively late in my yoga life. Probably not until 1991 when I came to Yoga Journal. I had been a long-time meditator and my very first time on a yoga mat came when the Maharishi's folks handed me a little booklet of asana to do to ground my energy so I could sit quietly longer!
Nahem: How did you come to meditation? Through Maharishi? I know you studied the Vedas in postgrad work...
Sparrowe: My yoga background began as an undergraduate at University of California in Santa Barbara when I became interested in comparative religions, most particularly Buddhism and Hinduism
My first foray into meditation was through TM when I was 18. And because I came of age in the early 70s ― sex, drugs, rock’n’roll stuff ‒ I turned to TM to save myself!
Nahem: Did you come from a religious family?
Sparrowe: Not really. Good old Irish Catholic San Francisco family. My dad could never quite figure out what this meditation stuff was, but he always said he was really glad I did it. He figured it must be a good thing because it was the only thing that helped me stop biting my fingernails!
Nahem: Well that's a specific benefit to meditation I haven't heard before.
Sparrowe: I studied first with Raimundo Panikkar, who coincidentally was Gary Kraftsow’s graduate advisor. Dr. Panikkar took me under his wing. We used to walk in the gardens of Mission Santa Barbara and he would talk to me about the Vedas and Sanskrit; I was captivated. From that introduction, I knew I had to study Sanskrit and see where the real teachings came from and even what they sounded like.
Nahem: How do you think studying Sanskrit and the sacred texts has helped you in your practice?
Sparrowe: Well, not sure how Sanskrit helped me, except that chanting anything in Sanskrit ‒ even the alphabet ‒ can bring my attention deeper into my experience and I believe deepen the effects of the poses or the meditation I'm doing. I used to laugh that getting that job at Yoga Journal allowed me to use my graduate education! I could at least pronounce and then translate names of asana correctly!
Nahem: Learning Sanskrit is always a great career move, obviously.
Sparrowe: Being familiar with the sacred texts, though, has helped me immensely. They help me approach my practice with a different awareness, I think, than if I didn't know them. I think the asana would be relegated more to exercise for me unless I had a way of making sense of the deeper aspects and the deeper effects of practice.
Nahem: How would you say your practice has evolved over the years? In your books you talk about how one goes through stages with yoga...
Sparrowe: I think I'm more patient with the ebb and flow of my practice now that I'm older. As I say in The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health, yoga really is a companion for our lives... and it shows up in whatever guise it can be of most use. That is, sometimes I feel like doing a strong, physical practice and other times there's no way my wrists will support me doing a handstand. It's been hard accepting that both practices are perfect. That yoga begins right where I am ‒ not where I was yesterday or where I long to be.
One of the main reasons I wrote The Woman's Book with Patricia Walden was because we wanted people to understand that yoga supports us no matter what stage of life we're in. No matter what shape we are in emotionally or physically. If we can learn to be more flexible, kinder, and more generous with ourselves and others, then we're practicing yoga. Patricia used to say, if you can breathe, you can do yoga.
I went through a hard time for a while trying to figure out whether I could still be a good teacher, whether I still had a lot to offer my students when my right hip no longer allowed me to be in Half Lotus, or when poses that used to be accessible to me weren't.
Nahem: And is that something you still struggle with in terms of attitude or do you feel you've come to peace with it? It is emotionally tough to feel imperfect, even if we know we are perfect.... if that makes sense!
Sparrowe: Yeah emotionally tough to feel imperfect, especially when you teach students that we are all perfect just the way we are!
I think sometimes we're too focused on the tapas part of yoga in this country ‒ the discipline, heat, determination to do, and not so much on the self-reflection part. The noticing without judgment stuff.
Nahem: Indeed, and that's the impetus behind this theme about stuff other than asana. But before we explore that, let's talk about asana for a moment. I'm thinking it's important to choose the middle way here ‒ asana has a great place in our lives. We can do it too little, or with too much determination, right? It's something we need to incorporate gracefully.
Sparrowe: Oh asana is vital to the practice of yoga, quite definitely. Yoga is, after all, a body-based practice. It is through the body that we attain freedom. The body is our vehicle to move deeper into awareness. It's what we know, what we can touch, feel, and what we see tangible results from in our practice. Yoga uses the physical body as a doorway into self-awareness and surrender.
Nahem: So where are we going with our awareness? I know this can get rather abstract, but I always find it paradoxical that we speak in yoga about being perfect here and now, and yet there seems to be this state of "enlightenment" or "Samadhi" which we have not yet attained. Or have we?
Sparrowe: Well, I'm not quite sure how to answer that question. I don't know. I don't believe that yoga asks us to transcend or withdraw from the world. It asks us to awake up. When I think of yoga, I first think of the first Sutra: "atha yoga anushasanum"...now, the practice of yoga. The "now" is all we have, right? To practice yoga is not to hope for something more ethereal or better in the future, some intangible enlightened moment. It is to discover our now (not someone else's) and to let go of our hold on the past, which has ceased to exist, and to stop dwelling on the future, which has never existed. Maybe the state of Samadhi is the state we attain when we realize nothing exists independent of anything else.
Nahem: Yeah I also feel like I don't know the answer to that. Yet maybe I do, at the same time. To bring it back to earth (for a moment anyway), what sources of information about the practice of yoga have been most important to you?
Sparrowe: Well, obviously the usual suspects...the Yoga Sutras (I probably have 7 or 8 commentaries/translations on my shelves). I never tire of reading someone else's take on Patanjali's threads ‒ from the ever practical like Judith Lasater's to the deeper insights of Panditji from the Himalayan Institute. The Gita, of course.
But right now, I'm obsessed with B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Life. I can't get enough of it! Such a rich repository of yoga teachings. Some people complain that it’s too theoretical, but I find it so helpful and so matter-of-fact in bringing the deeper teachings to bear on student experience. As a Buddhist practitioner (and an OM yoga teacher), I also love bringing in the wisdom of the pāramitās (generosity, discipline, patience, effort, meditation, discerning wisdom), the brahmavihāras (lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity) — which are so similar to Sutra 1.33 — and the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chödrön.
Nahem: Completely agree about Light on Life. And those are quite a bunch of lovely usual suspects!
Sparrowe: Haha! Sometimes it feels like asana practice is this canvas upon which we can layer the deeper teachings and have students begin to understand them not as something theoretical but as something that can help them navigate the messiness of their own lives.
Nahem: Indeed. Speaking of Patanjali, I have a lot of reverence for that text, but I wonder sometimes if we do take it pretty far afield, especially in our culture. In truth it seems like it's a manual for ascetics, and if we were really to put it into practice it would be extremely difficult ‒ for most non-monastic Westerners, certainly. Just for example, I think we try to dilute concepts like brahmacharya to make it more palatable, whereas Patanjali really did mean celibacy.
Sparrowe: I was just thinking about that this afternoon. In some ways, the Sutras lend themselves to all kinds of interpretation because these aphorisms were consciously terse reminders for teachers to impart the true teachings to their students.
But I think you're right. I think we go way out there sometimes and we can justify almost anything by attributing it to the Sutras.
Brahmacharya is an interesting example. Brahmacharya literally means walking in the presence of the Divine. When we practice brahmacharya we gain vitality and focus and it leads to the cessation of cravings. Patanjali was talking to gurus, don't you think? Spiritual teachers or those aspiring on the path. Not householders. So how do householders embrace or practice brahmacharya? By making a commitment to be faithful in your relationship. To conserve energy and use that energy in the service of healing and transformation.
Having said that I do know very serious practitioners who have literally taken a vow of brahmacharya, usually in service to their guru, and have chosen to be celibate as a path toward liberation.
On the other hand I just read this hilarious (maybe not intentionally hilarious), but hilarious blog on the lululemon website about how practicing brahmacharya helped this young woman not to buy chips when she really wanted to buy chips. So there you have it!!
Nahem: And here I’d always thought Patanjali enjoyed chips but wanted us to resist the ice cream.
Sparrowe: No, no. Chocolate. He had a real chocolate addiction. Oh wait. Am I projecting??
Nahem: No, that's definitely documented in the commentary by Vyasa. All joking aside I agree that Patanjali wasn't talking to the layperson. Perhaps it's okay to cherry pick from the wisdom, as long as it's done consciously, would you agree?
Sparrowe: I do. And I also think we need teachers to guide us. And that's not really happening in this country as much as it should be.
Nahem: Speaking of the current state of yoga, are all forms of yoga “equal” or are there some you would consider “deeper” than others? Along the same lines, is there anything wrong per se with just using yoga for physical improvement?
Sparrowe: Without seeming judgmental, I would say that different forms of yoga touch on different aspects of us as living beings. BUT so much depends on what the teacher brings to the mat. Yoga therapy, for instance, is a proven and powerful way to help someone heal from physical and sometimes emotional challenges; does it harken back to the Gita or to the Sutras? Not usually, but that doesn’t mean that yoga therapy isn’t beneficial yoga. Certain styles lend themselves better to connecting us with deeper parts of ourselves. Yin, for example ‒ my goodness you’re in the poses (in stillness and silence) for three to five minutes! That gives you a lot of time to notice your mind, to reflect, and hopefully open up to parts of yourself you hadn’t connected with before.
But again, so much depends on the teacher. Iyengar Yoga, for example, focuses heavily on the physical aspect of asana. That doesn’t mean Iyengar yogis simply teach exercise with yoga shapes. I’ve had brilliant Iyengar teachers (Patricia Walden of course comes to mind) who bring me into my body in a way that helps me make friends with myself, notice my reluctance, my patterns, and embrace them anyway and let go of resistance or things that don’t serve me.
However, having said that, I’ve also had teachers who could care less about the rest of me and are focused solely on the execution of the pose. And I've gotten injured. Styles and teachers that don’t help students modify poses to suit their challenges can in fact make students feel worse about themselves than when they came into class. And there are definitely styles of yoga that don’t appeal to me. That are so focused on creating the perfect, sculpted body, celebrating those students who can perfectly execute harder and more complex poses, and dismissing or denigrating those who can’t. They have too much of a feeling of performance and ego to me. That’s not yoga to me. And is there anything wrong with just doing yoga for physical improvement? Yes and no. Depends on what you mean by improvement. Why not just go to the gym? Or attend an exercise class that has some yoga stretches in it? I don’t believe that yoga asks us to improve our bodies.
Yoga is about transformation of course, but it’s not about transforming our biceps, or flattening our abs. It’s about transforming our relationship to our body. Does that make sense? If we can learn to be more flexible, kinder, and generous with ourselves and with others, then yoga has “improved” us. That doesn’t mean that a strong practice isn’t beneficial, of course. By doing a strong practice, we cultivate willpower, determination, and focus. We become stronger and more flexible.
But all of this focus on the physical body is in service to the whole. Our posture improves so sitting in meditation (or moving through life) becomes easier; yoga opens up the channels so that prana can flow more easily. By becoming more determined, by cultivating our willpower, we learn to show up even when we don’t want to. But if we only focus on tapas — that fierce determination — then we burn up. We need svadhyaya, self-reflection without judgment, to help us notice what works for us right now; we need to engage our mind in the process, our intuition and our heart; and we need to let go of what no longer serves us and what doesn't belong to us.
I will say that I’ve seen wonderful things happen to folks who come to yoga to get more physically fit, especially when I was running the Mind-Body Center at a high-end health club in San Francisco. Many of them ended up learning so much about themselves, almost in spite of themselves. And yes, of course, I’m sure if you set the intention to show up mindfully and generously you may have those “aha moments” sooner, but still lovely things happen to people who do yoga. I remember years ago when someone asked me if she had to be a vegetarian to do yoga and I said no, no you don’t. However, you may find after you’ve done it for a while that you become aware of how your body reacts to certain foods; you may even become aware of not being comfortable eating animal products. But is there a rule that says you have to eat, think, be, and believe a certain way? Of course not. Yoga begins where you are, right now.
Nahem: So I just wanted to mention that I had an interesting experience with your Woman’s Book . It was assigned in my 300 hour teacher training. There were three men and about 35 women in the class, so for a minute I struggled against feeling a bit discriminated against! Say you were in a class where you were vastly outnumbered by men and given a book about men and yoga… On the other hand most American yoga clients are women, and it’s a really great book with tons of great information. Not to mention the fact that white men like me have ruled the world for so long it’s probably right that we get marginalized a bit!
Sparrowe: When I first pitched The Woman's Book to my agent there was nothing like it out there. No one had really written much about using yoga for specifically women’s “issues.” Of course teachers like Judith Lasater and Patricia Walden and Angela Farmer were teaching yoga that way long before I was writing about it ‒ and the queen of women’s yoga was Geeta Iyengar (still is). But there was a need not just for women to know how to use yoga no matter what their challenges were, but also a need to teach teachers how to show up for their students/how to adapt poses, sequences for males or females depending on their challenges. Back care, body issues, headaches, stuff like that. Male yoga teachers need to know that stuff, too.
But on a bigger scale, The Woman’s Book got us all talking about the feminization of yoga. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that we’re rallying the troops, kicking men off the mat and reclaiming our “rightful” place in the front of the room. It means we’re looking at yoga as a companion for one’s life. Not just as a physical pursuit. What happens, for example, if I can no longer do a strong practice? Does that mean I can no longer do and benefit from yoga? How can yoga help me come home to myself? And while that sounds like a squishy woman’s question, it’s really not. How can yoga help me pay attention to what’s going on? And on a practical level, how can I still do yoga if I'm pregnant, injured, sick, old, etc.
Nahem: Would you say there are pitfalls in terms of developing a yoga ego, a kind of holier-than-thou attitude (e.g. look at those poor fools who don’t know what yoga can do for them!)? And is there a danger of (perhaps particularly younger) teachers getting too far into a seated-on-the-dais transmission of wisdom mode?
Sparrowe: Women have a way of wanting to share whatever they're passionate about with the whole world. Offering up the fruits of our own yoga practice to benefit all living beings. We wanted yoga to help men and women see themselves as they truly are without judgment and to ultimately take what they've learned off the mat and into the world.
I think it’s human nature ‒ especially among women ‒ to want to share with the world what works for us. So if someone discovers yoga, it’s only natural that s/he’d want to teach it, shout it from the rooftops. Maybe because I’m so far into it, I don’t really see much “yoga is the only way” stuff out there. It’s more, “Oh, you don’t do yoga? Come I’ll show you why you’ll love it!” And I like that.
I also think that women teachers have brought yoga off the mat and helped us all see how practicing yoga impacts the rest of our lives ‒ the way we relate to ourselves, to our children, lovers, friends. When I do yoga, I make the world a happier place. Why? Because yoga makes me happier, calmer and kinder. So chances are the world I live in will be a happier, calmer and kinder place!
However, as someone who still doesn’t think she knows enough to call herself a yogi, I’m a little perplexed by young teachers coming out as transmitters of yogic wisdom and creating new yoga styles. Young teachers with only a few years of teaching under their belts creating teacher-training programs. Yipes. It boggles my mind. I feel like we all need to sit at the feet of our elders, who impart wisdom that has come from experience, from being in the world, doing the hard work, teaching in the tradition for a long time. These elders need not be gurus or swamis, but they should be those steeped in the tradition. It puzzles me that many students who go to these yoga conferences get much more into the outfits, the cool young teachers with the perfect buff bodies, as role models than they do studying with the old guard, like Patricia Walden, Angela Farmer, Cyndi Lee, Rod Stryker, Stephen Cope. The older I get, in some respects, the more time I want to take to learn, sit with what I know, experience it and deeply understand it (as much as I can anyway) before I pass it on. Of course, there's also something quite wonderful about sharing my journey with others but I'm quick to position myself not as an expert but as a fellow seeker. I don't see as much of that among some of the younger up-and-comers as I had hoped.
Nahem: Yes, yes and yes. Linda, thank you so much for your time and wisdom.
Sparrowe: Thank you SO much for thinking of me and believing that I have something important to add to your illustrious magazine.
The former editor of both Yoga International and Yoga Journal magazines, Linda has been teaching yoga and talking and writing about it for more than 20 years. Certified at the 500-hour level through OM Yoga in New York City, she leads the Courageous Women, Fearless Living retreats at Shambhala Mountain Center for women touched by cancer. Featured as a leading expert on yoga in the film YogaWoman, Linda is the author of several books, including A Woman’s Book of Yoga and Health and Yoga: A Yoga Journal Book. Join her in Louisville, Colorado May 2-4, at Yoga Junction, for her Yoga & Women’s Health workshop for teachers or online for awakeningaswomen.com’s four-week emotional balance e-course [Ed. Note: do watch the video on that page!].