Talks in Chiang Mai (Thailand) with Jonas Westring
Ilya: Jonas, how did you start your yoga practice? Do you remember your first yoga lesson?
Jonas Westring: I will start from the beginning. I clearly remember my first yoga lesson, because it was 14-day yoga retreat at Scandinavian yoga school in Sweden. That is a direct lineage of the Bihar school of yoga. I did a 2-week residential course there when I was 19 years old. That’s where I started and then from there on there’s been a lot of different styles of yoga, a lot of different eras and times in my life where I have explored different types of yoga practices, but I was originally trained in very classical styles through the Bihar school.
Ilya: Do you remember your first impressions, first practice in life?
Jonas: Those 2 weeks were like one practice for me. It was my first experience and very profound! I felt completely changed coming out of that retreat. I had opened up new perspectives of looking at myself, who I was, and also the world around me. It definitely opened up some new doors for me.
Ilya: What practices you did? Meditation, asanas, pranayama?
Jonas: I believe the Scandinavian Yoga School still to this day teach exactly the same program as at that time. They have not changed anything, I think. It’s based on kriya and tantra yoga with a lot of kriya and meditation techniques, pranayama, deep yoga nidra practices and of course classical asana.
Ilya: Asanas were in Sivananda style?
Jonas: Yes, from the same lineage. Not so informed about the physical alignment of the postures, instead more focus on the subtle body. Little information about the biomechanics of yoga. But I think the strength of their practice is the visualization techniques, meditations, the kriyas, pranayama, the inner work, shat karmas, shankprakshalana (the drinking of salt water). “Hardcore” classical yoga practices that we don’t see so much today in the modern yoga world, but in India they are still very vibrant and practiced.
Ilya: Yes, it’s common practices in India, but rarely we find teachers who can teach such practices in western yoga centers.
Jonas: That’s true. But the Bihar School of Yoga and it’s centers around the world teach classical yoga often called the Satyananda style. Swami Janakananda Saraswati, my first teacher, a Danish yogi, went to study with Swami Satyananda for a couple of years and when he came back started the Scandinavian Yoga School in 1970, so that’s like 40 years ago now. He’s till running it with many branches through Scandinavia and also with extensions in countries like Germany and France.
Ilya: Which year did you visit it?
Jonas: It was back in 1981 I started and I was 19 years old at the time. At this time yoga was only done by “strange” people.
Ilya: Was it popular in Sweden?
Jonas: It was not popular at all, only very few people had interest, especially in this type of very traditional classical hatha yoga. All the teachers were wearing orange clothing, you know, it’s Swami based. Very, very different from now, it’s almost 30 years ago. Yoga evolution has changed in modern time. After having done Satyananda yoga for many years I moved to the States in 1995. There a encountered the big “buffet” of yoga. It was in the mid-nineties that yoga was starting to get popular in the USA and around the world, it was the very beginning of the yoga-boom. I was exposed to all kinds of yoga there and has the opportunity to study many different types. I was living at Kripalu Center for a full year and was exposed to many different styles of yoga there and met John Friend and Anusara yoga, and many other teachers and styles. I met many competent teachers and I studied many different approaches including Ashtanga vinyasa, Iyengar yoga, Jivamukti, Vinyasa, Kripalu, Sivananda, etc. So I’ve been exposed to many different practices, but for the past 11 years Anusara yoga has been my main focus.
Ilya: John Friend, as far as I know first was Iyengar yoga teacher, and then he created his own style.
Jonas: That’s right.
Ilya: In 1995 Anusara yoga already a style?
Jonas: No, Anusara started in 1997. John Friend was part of Iyengar Yoga and it’s certification committee, so he was quite involved in this yoga system. But as usually happens, some people need to go their own way. He learned a tremendous amount of things from the Iyengar system, but he had a different vision of some things and did not agree with everything. He understood that it would be more appropriate to create his own system instead of trying to change the system he was in. This gave him full freedom to create whatever he wanted and this was in 1997, so that’s 14 years ago.
Ilya: Lets talk about understanding of yoga in the East and in the West. What about the Western idea of progress, of creating something more new, more effective, and Eastern idea of preserving tradition, keeping practice the same during hundreds of years… Creating new systems instead traditional lineages some people can consider degradation of yoga, some people can call it development.
Jonas: Well put. I like that. The way that we look at it at Anusara yoga perspective is that classical systems of yoga are vertical. They have a teacher, a guru, a swami, a particular philosophy, a doctrine, a founder that may still be alive or have already passed away a long time ago. Regardless, it’s a vertical system. These systems are authority oriented, managed from the top and quite powerful, and everything else is following in a vertical line below. It’s the traditional Indian Guru-discipleship paradigm.
Jonas: Yes, exactly. In Anusara we think of it as horizontal system instead. So we do not have the kind of hierarchy found in traditional Indian systems. We take a more modern (Western) approach of creating equality between people. I often take the seat of the teacher, yet also remind myself that I am a student and will always be a student of yoga. So we change our hats from student to teacher on-goingly, while it seems like in traditional systems the teacher is always a teacher. And they take that role and they may not acknowledge to be at the same level as a student. In Anusara yoga many different teachers take the teacher’s seat at different times. So it’s really more about equality and a more modern way of applying yoga in the year 2011. And it’s worldwide. Anusara yoga is spreading all over the planet and it penetrates into different cultures, even here around Asia. Especially here in Asia it’s quite interesting because people here are used to a vertical system. The educational systems all over in Asia are based on a type of hierarchy. We do not elevate the teacher to the place where classical schools of yoga often do.
Ilya: But anyway some vertical system exists, if John Friend is founder who controls certification system, who can check the quality of authorized teachers…
Jonas: Of course John Friend is still the main person, the president and founder of the organization, so he is certainly making a lot of the top decisions. But there is a certification committee, a curriculum committee and so forth, who are involved in making decisions together with and under the supervision of John Friend… I’m not sure how many people are working at the Anusara office, probably 15-20, and there also many certified teachers who are involved in committees, making decisions at some level. But of course there is a founder and things are going a lot according to how he would like them to go. But one of the things very interesting in Anusara is that as the system evolves as it spreads around the world, it takes new shapes, it keeps on growing and changing. So the system is continuously adapting itself to the evolution of yoga in the modern world, and the evolution of the Anusara system itself. So there are changes within the certification program, it keeps evolving, it’s flowing and changing. Very different from the classical way of yoga where things tend to be quite fixed in an old fashioned ways, that can easily turn dogmatic. So we see les dogma and fixed ways in this modern system. I think there are pro’s and con’s about both classical systems and modern systems so it is not about looking down at other approaches. All we want is to try our best to apply, teach and practice yoga at an effective, practical level. We see a lot of quick fixes in yoga these days and a lot of yoga teacher training programs are happening around the world, especially in the West.
Ilya: Sometimes it seems that there are more teachers than students.
Jonas: You’ve taken a few classes and you want to change your life, have a new career, and there is 200-hour yoga teacher training right there. Students with very little background can take these trainings and become a certified yoga teacher with certified the Yoga Alliance. This is happening and is becoming a big industry.
Ilya: In some popular schools like Iyengar yoga or Ashtanga vinyasa there are some particular sequences of asanas quite hard fixed. What bout Anusara – should you follow in your teachings some fixed sequences or you can modify sequence as you wish?
Jonas: The whole system of Anusara yoga is based on principles. We also have principles of sequencing. There is a certain progression and we have a format for how to structure an effective yoga practice. I see it like playing music. You play within a certain frame. If you understand the principles of music and can play, you can jam with any musician, such as in blues or jazz music. I look at it like that. So we have a framework, we know where we start, we know where we end. What’s going to happen inside we may not exactly know. So there’s a lot of creativity that goes on between the beginning and the end. When I teach, I respond to what I see and have to stay present with what I observe, what I feel, in each moment. I have to be able to respond effectively and quickly to the group and to the students. See where they are at, what level they are at, read the energy happening in each moment. And I have to be so immediate and so aware of that I can change or flow with that in my teaching.
So Anusara yoga is really about balancing polarities. And we can say that one of the fundamental polarities we apply in Anusara is the polarity of stability and freedom. We do that in our asana practice, we talk about stability and freedom in the body, we need to create balance between the two. The whole system of Anusara yoga, the methodology is about creating balance between stability and freedom. There has to be something firm enough and clear enough so there is no doubt about what we are doing, yet to prevent getting stuck in dogma or in fixedness there also need to be plenty of room for creativity. And that’s what makes it very stimulating to teach this system and to be involved with the system. There’s a lot of room for creativity. But of course not too much creativity. You have to know the methodology, the philosophy so well that that you can flow with creativity and flexibility but still stay within the framework of the philosophy and methodology of Anusara yoga. The philosophy is based on a Tantric view.
Ilya: From traditional point of view Indian tantra is kind of spiritual practice which belong mostly to Shakta branch of Hinduism, some lineages of worshipping different forms of Goddess. Do Anusara have connection with some Tantric sampradaya (lineage)?
Jonas: This is also something that’s evolving. Over the 14 years that Anusara have existed, the philosophy hasn’t really changed, but at the same time it’s still evolving. So what John has done, he has taken a broad tantric view. It’s not as specific as any of the coined schools of Tantra. There are a handful of very specific tantra schools such as the Trika school, founded by Abhinavagupta, and we have Kashmir Shaivism, and then we have the Tantric Goddess tradition in the South of India. Those are the main streams of tantra. Instead of following one of the already established schools of tantra, Anusara are creating a new form based on Tantric philosophy, which is already there, but applying it in a new way that is adoptable and workable for the modern person in our modern society, for the householder person who is living regular life in this world. So it’s not so extreme in that way. And for those interested to go deeper into philosophy, there are a number of skilled scholars of Tantric philosophy supporting the Anusara system, with whom you can study individually.
Ilya: They are Western or Indian?
Jonas: They are all Western, most of them have PHD’s in comparative religious studies and are professors at different universities in the United States, with long-term experience of spirituality and yoga. So there is a handful of very skilled scholars, who are also teachers of John Friend, that provide a profound Tantric base behind the philosophy of Anusara yoga. For those who’d like to go deeper and study individually, some of those people are Paul Mueller Ortega, Douglas Brooks, Carlos Pomeda, Bill Mahoney, and Sally Kempton. Ant there are a few more coming, stepping in that place. So we can talk about easier form of tantra that is not very extreme, but some points of the philosophy behind Anusara yoga: it’s life affirming; we always looking for what is lifting people up; what elevates their life; basically we want people to feel better about themselves when they leave the class than when they arrived. We create community, we do some partner work in most classes, to make people connect and enjoy themselves. The two highest reasons for practicing yoga we say is Chit, the power of awareness of ourselves and the world around us, and Ananda, the power of joy and ecstasy. If this not happening, the yoga is not really working. If you don't become more generally aware and if you don’t feel more happy from the yoga practices, maybe you should look for something else. Or, look at how to do the practice in different way. So this is very basic philosophy on some level. The system of Anusara yoga is very approachable, we all can learn 5 principles very quickly, but then when you keep applying them, you go deeper and deeper through the same 5 principles.
Ilya: What are those 5 principles?
Jonas: These are the 5 Universal Principles of Alignment. The first one is called “foundation and opening to grace”. The second one is “muscular energy”, third – “inner spiral”, forth – “outer spiral”, and the fifth is “organic energy”. And of course I can talk about what they all are as well. In brief, the first principle is called “Foundation and Opening to Grace”. Foundation on a very physical level is obviously means how we place any part of the body that is contacting the yoga mat. In standing poses the feet. In handstands the hands, in sitting poses the seat and legs… we never compromise that. What happens a lot is that you take full pose in some way or another and often its foundation gets compromised, you may have your feet not turned optimally - we line up and place the foundation carefully and clearly, we know exactly how we want it, it’s part of the system. So that’s the first thing and we do not compromise. If you loose your foundation as you build your pose, it’s like you’ve lost the foundation while building a house. If the foundation of your house is not square or level, something not optimal is going to happen. That’s the same kind of idea. Foundation comes first. The other aspect of the first principle is called “Open to Grace”. This can be difficult to explain. What it really means is to open oneself to something bigger then our limited individuality. We can call this the Universal. The big sky. To release the limitations that we place upon ourselves. To open up to the possibilities that anything can happen anytime. To be wide open like the sky. A very open, soft quality. If we do the second principle first, applying Muscular Energy and drawing power into ourselves first, we tend to block something on some level. So we start by an open, soft attitude. Being open to the possibility that something extraordinary can happen at any moment.
Ilya: Can you compare it with Bhakti in Indian tradition?
Jonas: There are some ingredients of bhakti in it. But it’s really the tantric view, to be wide open to everything. To stretch and dissolve ones limitation and boundaries.
Ilya: Without connection with some form of God, just became open to the Universe? Is it a type of perception?
Jonas: It becomes very personal. It can mean different things to different people. If you like to use the word God, you can use that. If you don’t like it, you can use “the big sky”, “Nature”, or something else that takes your breath away when you think about it. You go out at night to look at the stars. If you are sensitive, it’s going to hit you in some way, it will bring your awareness and feeling somewhere. Your jaw is going to drop: Wow! This is amazing! So what we try to do is to remind the students about the magic of life itself. This is an extraordinary life we have, which we tend to forget in the business of the things, in the craziness of the modern world. So that is the first principle. Foundation and opening to grace. It’s how we start, we are setting the foundation, both physical and attitudinally, spiritually. Then comes Muscular Energy, as drawing power into the core of your being. There are specific components in it but let’s not going into this here, it gets technical and is better experienced in a class. But it’s drawing power into yourself, to hug the muscles into the bones, to the core, to the midline.
Ilya: This is more close to Iyengar approach?
Jonas: Yes and no. Iyengar Yoga certainly also do some of that, but not as a principle. They do certain things like “lifting the knee caps” or any other precise work. But we do it globally, through the whole body. We have very clear focal points, to where we draw in power, directing the movement of energy. That’s the second principle of Muscular Energy. We integrate, pull in, affirm, we become more clear about where all the parts of ourselves are, who we are. And then from that place we do refinements, and the main ones are called the spirals. First “Inner Spiral” which is a broadening, a widening, an opening. A liberating, expanding spiral that spirals from the Earth towards the Sky. Then into that, to create balance, we apply the “Outer Spiral” which is a manifesting, rooting spiral, from the Sky to the Earth. They are mainly applied to the hips and shoulders. And the final step is called “Organic Energy”, which is exactly opposite to Muscular Energy. Inner and Outer Spirals are opposite, complimentary forces that balance each other, and the muscular and organic energy principles are also complimentary forces. Having drawn into the core at the beginning, the last thing is to expand fully outwards. From the core, shine out, stretch out, radiate. Vibrate all the energy out from that integrated place. So that is the five principles of Anusara yoga. Very easy to teach, you can teach them quickly to people. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and still experience how the keep on being revealed. They become more and more powerful. And they apply not only to the asana practice, they carry over into life and that is what makes them so interesting, really. That it’s not only what we do on the mat – that’s fine, that’s great, and that’s a wonderful practice to have - but if it doesn’t translate into the rest of one’s life, it’s a limited practice.
These 5 Principles carry over into life itself and you can look at any given situation in life through the eye of the needle of the five principles. That’s how the framework of Anusara works. Instead of having a lot of different details we have an overall framework, primary principles, but of course there are many details and sub-principles as well. The 7 loops belong to the secondary alignment principles. That’s all about refinements of the alignment of the physical and energetic bodies. And there is a certain amount of other sub-principles. We always begin with the 5 Principles and then refine and deepen with the secondary principles.
Ilya: Do you teach some other practices?
Jonas: Anusara yoga is very open to that. An Anusara yoga teacher is certainly welcome and encouraged to bring in other aspects of yoga and related practices within the framework of the philosophy and methodology of the system. If it fits within the 5 principles and one can do it skillfully, it is most welcome. Unfortunately what is happening today, in most of the modern yoga, is that it’s to a very high degree focused on yoga asana. Because that’s what people want, it’s what they are mainly after to a very large degree, so we give them what they want. And then we also try to give them what they need. They might not know what they need. From a yoga perspective they need to get more connected and balanced. I do teach some meditation, pranayama and some chanting, and other practices have been brought in. But not as much as in classical yoga styles such as the Bihar School, as I used to practice. But I can bring in practices from what I learned at Bihar school of yoga and teach it within the context of Anusara yoga. That’s fine.
Ilya: So teacher can use his own experience?
Jonas: Yes, you can. Within reason again. To get certified in Anusara yoga takes a long time. Once you get certified, John Friend and the certification committee have seen that the teacher fully understand the framework of Anusara yoga, that they can hold the space for the students and apply the integrity of the system. Still there’s a lot of room for creativity within it. That’s a fine balance, it’s a great balance. I’ve never seen any system with so much freedom as Anusara, but the more freedom we have the more the system needs to firm up. If you wonder off too far, if you get too creative, then you are not really teaching Anusara yoga anymore. So if I teach pranayama for example, I would use the alignment principle of Anusara yoga to place people in proper position for the pranayama. Use the shoulder and skull loops, applying principles and sub-principles like Inner Body Bright, we have a handful of these concepts that are very clear. So if we apply those first, then we can go ahead and teach classical pranayama. What can we say is that Anusara yoga is still evolving, which means we haven’t seen where it’s going yet. If one of our teachers specializes in Aurveda, they can use Ayurveda components to blend in with the Anusara teachings, so there is room for it all. You can co-creative with different teachers with other different specialties. Live music is involved quite a lot. Live kirtan, or live classical Indian, fusions, or whatever. Music that would fit into asana practice, during practice, John Friend has used this a lot, Krishna Das and many other well-known chant masters. A handful of thoe well known Kirtan walla`s.
Ilya: It is like a form of Western Bhakti?
Jonas: Exactly, it’s more like devotional rock-n-roll in a way. We get people together, get them ecstatic, sing and chant together. And the good Kirtan walla`s have great stories to tell between the chants that bring in some more contents into the practice. Vibration itself has its own power.
Ilya: Do you study classical texts in Anusara?
Jonas: The Bhagavad Gita is important. We study the Yoga Sutras, some selected sutras that are mostly relevant to the system. The Yoga Sutras, but also Siva Sutras. If you study with Paul Muller-Ortega he will certainly teach a lot of Siva sutras. And there are a handful of other traditional texts. There is a higher, deeper level of the system that’s not required but available. And for the teacher training there is Anusara teacher training manual. For the Immersion Program there is the Immersion manual. All the classical texts can be studied and if they can be brought in under the context and vision of Anusara yoga, then they are valuable. There is a process of taking something, making it meaningful to yourself, then deliver that message through the teaching. Another text is the Spanda Karikas. Spanda is a key concept in Anusara yoga as well. Pulsation and vibration. Yes, it can be complicated but again we want to make it simple and available. We take the essence of it and try to convey this essence for the students, to make it meaningful for them. It talks about how everything is pulsating, the heart pulses, the breath pulses, how the glands and organs and every cell in the body pulsates. The stars in the sky are pulsating, and this pulsation is in everything that is living in this creation. When we get more in touch with this vibration or pulsation, we feel more alive. We feel more connected. We start to become more sensitive to that pulsation energy that is everywhere. Which is really coming from one pulsing Spirit, one essence?
Going back to the One again, which you do not necessarily call God, but call it the Absolute, the Universe, the one Energy, the one Nature, and if you like you can use the word God. All the Goddesses and the Gods of the Hindu mythological system can be brought in. This is being done a lot in Anusara too. There are a lot of teachings of the different deities. It’s a matter of preference. I would never teach anything that does not feel grounded in my own experience. Then it’s not real to me. People can take a lot of information and deliver it and that’s wonderful. I see my own teaching as quite simple, what I put out is grounded in my own experiece, there is some weight to it. It’s something that I feel clearly myself.
And that is how I see the teaching should be, good teaching. To be authentic and real is to be powerful, so that the students feel that authenticity in the teaching. Often, to me the more basic, the better. Really grounded and authentic teaching is really powerful. But then if people are interested in philosophy, if they have interest and inclination, they can study very deeply profound complicated texts, if they want to. Anusara should be available for everybody, it should not be like: oooh, it’s a very complicated system, it is highly philosophical with strange Tantric base, you know. It should not be like that. It should be available for everybody. We welcome everybody to come and practice with us. May be some people don’t like what we are doing. We are not missionaries, we are not here to convert anyone, we’re just trying to create a good vibration in the world. And we’re having a good time while doing it.
Ilya: What about yogic diet?
Jonas: Anusara yoga does not have a guide for eating, for food preferences, for diet. Instead it’s completely free, completely open. Of course I’ve experimented myself with my own diet, and food is always a very popular topic. People eat quite different things, in different cultures and climates. If you want to eat only raw food you should not probably live in Stockholm or Moscow. Better in Hawaii or Chiang Mai, more conclusive for raw food, because of the climate. People get fixed in one mind frame about food, for cultural, ethical, healthwise or any other reason. If you transport a diet idea into some part of the world, it’s probably not going to work. I grew up with plenty of dairy. In Northern Europe, in Scandinavia we eat dairy like mad. If I go to Japan, I would not eat dairy at all, I go for amore macrobiotic diet, no dairy. Of course in India lots of dairy too, they are cow-based, the cow is holy. So for me I feel dairy is still a part of my diet. I grew up on it. It doesn’t mean I can’t change it, I can change it if I want to. So this is an individual choice. There is nothing in my perspective or Anusara perspective that we have to be vegetarian for instance. We do not have the belief system that we need to be vegetarian to purify ourselves. Things like ahimsa or non-harming could come into this discussion and then it gets complicated of course. Certainly looking at the yamas – niyamas. This is also part of the yoga framework that we look at but we also want to be practical - in this day we have to be practical. Life is complicated, amazingly complex, we have millions of choices to make. We grow up eating eat food from the place we live. This is our natural diet. Part of our nature. We do not have to question it. The problem is in the West, we do not have any clear guidelines anymore and too much information and propaganda. People need experiment, maybe see what is it like to eat meat every day. And what it’s like not to eat meat at all. To be open to change and explore more options. Personally I think there’s a lot of interesting information from the Aurvedic system of diet. Also it is very culturally based sometimes, and doesn’t fully apply to us, I think.
I think that the dynamic idea of Aurveda is very good, that different people need different things, based on the constitution. Aurveda is the sister science of yoga. I recommend yogis to have a look at Aurveda, but don’t take it too literally. Draw some of the ideas from Aurveda and see what feels right, what feels good. The last time I was in India, I was in Rishikesh, and went to an Aurvedic doctor for a consultation. He stared into my eyes and said: “You are 90% vata. I want to give you a goat meat enema for 21 days”. I replies: “No, thank you, I don’t think I need that”. So that was his perspective. Strong minds, like Indians are. Such a wonderful way, we love it, but we might know ourselves better after having met a doctor me for five minutes. So diet is not really a big discussion in Anusara yoga. This is part of Western evolution of yoga and balance and health. People have to find their own way, really. An open choice!
Ilya: What are your favorite books, music, personal choices not only in yoga but in culture in general?
Jonas: I play the guitar. I have a couples of guitars here and I like to play. I like to listen to classical Indian music, meditative, transcending. Sitar, voice ragas, Drupal - slow, very meditative. And I listen to various folk music and of 60-70s music. There are a lot of yoga books. But it’s also good to read books that are not particularly yoga. One of the latest books I read was the Millennium trilogy. They become very popular last year, you’ve might seen these books around. By Swedish author - Stieg Larsson: “The girl with the dragon tattoo” or “The Girl Who Played with Fire”. It’s a trilogy. Three books. He died before they were published, from a massive heart attack, only 50 years old. He became the second most sold author in the world.
Ilya: In Russia Astrid Lindgren`s books about Carlson were very popular.
Jonas: I grew up with that, of course.
Website of Jonas Westring http://www.shantaya.org
Classes and workshops in Thailand and all over the World.