Interview with Mark Darby and Joanne Darby
Ilya: First question is common but usually always interesting for readers - how did you start practice yoga?
Mark Darby: It started when I was young. I was interested in spirituality, I wanted to be a priest. I grew up in Australia. I went to catholic school, But after I became disapointed with catholic church - I could not believe that God let only catholics go to Heaven. I could not belive that people somewhere in a jungle for example in Africa or anywhere that God would not let such people go to Heaven. I could not believe that God could be so cruel and I couldn't understand some other ideas. This was strict religious dogma... During my first trip to India I realised that spirituality is everywhere - among people on the streets, in the temples. It was living spirituality. I left India but i decided to go back. I loved this country and especially as I had felt something that was missing in me. I thought that if I visit India I will do yoga, because yoga tradition came from India. But I had no idea what yoga was - I asked different people about this, but the answers were not too clear. It was May 1978 when arrived back in India, but at this time I was not ready to commit completely to yoga. As a traveller I had heard of Goa and the parties at Christmas. This was a seed I needed to burn before I would be ready to start on my yogic journey. I liked surfing so I visited Shri Lanka to do it, then came back to India in October. I came just like a tourist, I left my bag in Mysore and went to Goa, went to many psychodelic parties, had fun. And on these parties you can hear "Boom Shiva!", some mentions of Shiva. After Goa I went to Gokarna, a place on Karnataka coast connected with Shiva, to celabrate Shivaratri, a festival for Shiva. It was like piligrimage, I walked all the coast from Goa to Gokarna like an Indian pilgrim. I stayed in Gokarna during Shivaratri and after I decided that I was now ready for yoga. I had finished the parties. I've been blessed by Shiva`s grace - and I went to Mysore, where was my bag. In the hotel I was staying I met other man - Cliff Barber. And he said: “come to see my teacher”, and it was Pattabhi Jois. And Jois said: “watch the class”. I watched. And after I asked: “how much is it?” He said: “100 dollars”. I said: “Oh, this is too much, Baba, make 75 dollars”. He said: “no”, and I said: “no”. But next day i came back and said: “I want to do this”. He said: “OK, for 75 dollars”. And I started. The reason ? - I had no idea, I knew nothing about yoga, it just was something inside me.
Ilya: So ashtanga vinyasa system was your first system of hatha yoga?
Mark: I did not know about other systems. Someone gave me the book of B.K.S. Iyengar "Light on yoga", but Iyengar system I did not know. My first teacher was Pattabhi Jois. That time were only few western students - there was was Cliff Barber, for us he was an old man, 48 years old, one German man, an English man with French lady, and myself. Joanne arrived one week later. Mostly the group was about 6 students. I stayed there 3 months.
Ilya: Some people who studied in the 70-s told me that before, students practiced both 1st and 2nd series during one class. Some people told that sequence was different.
Mark: At first we learned Surya Namaskara A, B, Padangushtasana, Padahastasana, Trikonasana, Parshvakonasana - and then Baddha Padmasana, Yoga Mudra and Utpluthi - this was first class. And my friend Old Cliff said: "Oh, he likes you - he gave you a lot of asanas". Next day I got one more posture, next day - one more. So maybe for one week I was given one posture per day, and after two more postures per week. In three months we completed Primary Series. After three month I went for holiday - my body was tired. After one month I came back - and I started Intermediate, it took two months. An every day I did Primary and Intermediate. An then we started Advanced postures. So it was Primary, Intermediate, Advanced every day. So I did three series daily, and after two years my practice was 3 and half hours. Joan was doing 4 and half hours, because she was standing one hour in Shirshasana.
Ilya: So you started visit Mysore every year?
Mark: We stayed two years in Mysore, than spend one year in Australia, than came back again for two years. And you asked about sequence - Advanced series was different. But also he made series specific for each person - I know Nancy Gilgoff practiced a different sequence. When Joanne was pregnant he gave me different postures, more strength, handstands variations - he also gave Joanne different postures. More postures focussing on hip openings and more meditative postures.
Ilya: Somebody told me that Hanumanasana was in Primary series
Mark: He gave it to Derek Ireland - Hanumanasana and Somakonasana, it was individual instruction, but Derek gave this to his students. So only his students did this. But he was advanced student. It was not given to beginners.
Ilya: Did you studied with T.K.V. Deshikachar?
Mark: Not studied, but i visited one workshop in Montreal, some things i picked up. The pranayama - I liked his approach on how to teach pranayama for beginners.
Ilya: Deshikachar also use some vinyasas but his approach is individualization of practice.
Mark: Yes, and he uses breath retention in asanas. For example in Paschimottanasana you bend 30 degree you exhale for one third, Hold this position and the breath, then you bend 30 degree more, exhale another one third, hold and then extend fully into the posture as you complete the exhalation, so he is doing holding the posture with breath retention during movement in or out of posture. Its interesting and hard. After ashtanga its very different. Same with people from other styles - they try ashtanga and find it hard, but after some time of practice, ashtanga becomes easier.
Ilya: I know the story about one man from Belgium, his name was Andre Van Lysebeth, he wrote the book about pranayama. some people said that he was first western student of Pattabhi Jois in 60-s.
Mark: Yes, i know about him. I dont think he was a long time student of Pattabhi Jois, but he did visited him.
Joan: Jois accept him because he could speak sanscrit and was an advanced student of yoga already.
Ilya: In his book we can see photo how he is sitting with Pattabhi Jois and Jois teaching him how to do jalandhara bandha. But seems he was studying only pranayama because in his book no one word about vinyasa system. He had studied with Swami Shivananda before. So, did Pattabhi Jois teach pranayama for advanced students in early years?
Mark Darby: In those years not even to advanced students. When some American advanced students wanted to study pranayama, Jois started to teach them. At that time we had studied with him for about 6 months. So he invited us also, I guess he felt we were ready. But in later years he was teaching pranayama only to advanced students, people who new third series. One time Sharath invited one student to come, he was not advanced but a long time student, and Guruji asked him - why you here? He said Sharath invited me, and Guruji had discussion with Sharath and said to the man: “You sit and watch”. So he did not practice and just watched.
Ilya: He was very strict in this.
Mark: Because it's difficult. When you do pranayama with strong retentions it can be dangerous. Body should be prepared and Pattabhi Jois said that when you do advanced series you should be ready to pranayama. I teach pranayams which I learn't from Deshikachar - its simple approach, simple pranayamas.
Ilya: When old-school students of 70-s and 80-s studied with P.Jois in Mysore, Krishnamacharya was still alive and was living in Madras (now Chennai). Do you know that time he is living and teaching in the next state or you did not have interest to meet him?
Mark: I knew about him because Pattabhi Jois one time visited him in Madras, and he went with an american student to see him. And he was able to visit Krishnamacharya. It was the first time that we had heard about him. But it was a long way from Mysore to Madras and that time we did not have much money for it. We were new to yoga, did not have so much information about Krishanmacharya. Now if I have the opportunity I`m sure I would go to see him. We knew only Pattabhi Jois and he did not speak English well, so we did not have long conversations about lineage. I don't think that Krishnamacharya himself spoke English. And at that time I think he was not teaching so much anymore. Maybe by then he was teaching yoga-therapy.
Ilya: You also practise kriya yoga of Lahiri Mahasai tradition - how you know about it.
Mark Darby: From russian yogis I received the information how to get the practice of this from Shailendra Sharma. Before for me term kriya yoga was cleansing practices, shatkarmas. We knew Yogananda`s book, Autobiography of Yogi, but we did not know the practice like the way Shailendra taught us.
Ilya: I think Yogananda`s organization is quite popular in US and Canada.
Mark: I don't like any big organisations and try to stay away from them, especially from American. In America most of such organisation become kind of "capitalistic religions". Its more business than coming from the heart. So I dont have so much interest to this American organisation but the book was good.
Joanne: When I was reading this book - I found it very interesting but there was nobody to teach us that technique.
Ilya: We have also Yogananda society in Russia but they dont teach so much practice of kriya yoga, some important things like khechari mudra etc. They sing spiritual songs, practicng simple pranayama without kumbhakas. Seems they lost original sequence of practice.
Joanne: It's too big organisation...
Mark: We feel very blessed that we met Shailendra. It was magic story - we were sitting in a restaurant in Moscow and talking with our workshop translator Katya, and she was saying that she is disciple of Shailendra Sharma. And one guy from next table came to us, he recognised me because he saw my video on youtube. He was interested to talk with us because he heard the name of Lahiri Mahasai who was founder of Shailendra's lineage. This man was also disciple of Shailendra. We talked about yoga practice, and when he was leaving he said - I want to give you a gift from my Guru, and he gave us Bhagavad Gita with commentaries by Shailendra. For us it was a sign - we have to go and see Shailendra.
Ilya: I`m traveling in India from 2001, studied in different yoga schools, but i never met a man who can teach how to perform khechari mudra and some advanced level of yoga practice, till i met Shri Shailendra. Some teachers can give yoga-therapy, some - advanced asanas but not more. I was also very surprised than in 2005 i recieved kriya from him.
Mark: This technique is a gift which we got from Shailendra. You receive it and practice it - same in ashtanga also, you have a techinque that you have to work on. If you dont work - nothing happens.
Ilya: What I see looking to old-school ashtanga guys, like you or Swenson, or Freeman, or Corigliano - from my experience every teacher has his own approach, all of them teaching the same series but with own vision how to practice, own hints. What do you think about it.
Mark: First it should be your own practice. Pattabhi Jois said to us - you practice what I teach you for 20 years - after you can change something.
Joanne: It takes many years. 12 or 20, usually indians like sacred number of 12 years.
Mark: First you start asana practice more like gymnastic, stretching, then you start to realize - it becomes more powerful, more subtle. You discover different things. The same in martial arts - first you do like physical exersices, after you start to feel the motion of energy. So after just performing yoga posture you start to feel deeper what you are doing and you have experienced and things come up. I`m keeping the ashtanga system but put my own interpretation. An then I`ll go back and understand my interpretation and remember what Pattabhi Jois said - its the same thing! He said but we did not understand. When you do it for long time, you understand what he said.
Joanne: I think it also depends from experience. Darby was very intense, like Misha Baranov, but very brutal sometimes. He injured his knee, injured his back, and from experience he understand that its better to have a more gentle approach.
Mark: Now I keep more slow rhythm in practice. More softness in shoulders and neck, more emphasis on bandhas. I feel good after practice.
Ilya: On your workshops you are talking about opening, relaxation, flow of energy - for me it looks close to systems like taichi.
Mark: We studied taichi in Canada for about one year. Our teacher said "first you move your limbs, then you realize the movement connects to your core. After you move your limbs from the core”. Its the same thing with Yoga. Now we practice Kriya - no time for taichi.
Ilya: During your first class you gave very detailed description of each asana and I think about some influence of Iyengar yoga.
Mark: For sure some Iyengar yoga. Alinement its important but not only this. You have to use energy also.
Joanne: We have a friend who is Iyengar`s Yoga teacher. Sometimes Darby and him used to work together, exchange their knowledge. In old days there was a big battle - if you are an Iyengar`s yoga student - you don't practice with Ashtanga people, and vice versa. But now most practitioners understand - you need some alightenment but you need also the flow. It's two different systems but from one source.
Ilya: In modern times so many different yoga schools and yoga brands…
Mark: Too many!
Ilya: What do you think - its good, bad or just its our times and we should just accept it?
Mark: I think you should go back to tradition as much as you can. It's been in India for thousands of years. Today we have so many approaches - personally I think most of them are commercial. Of course every person who does yoga for long time has his own approach. I teach you my practice, it works for me, maybe it doesn't work for you. But if you say "This is the only way" - it's wrong. I don't think that ashtanga is the only way. Everebody is different, people have different bodies. Even inside ashtanga it can be different approaches depending on the body of the student.
Joanne: When Pattabhi Jois was teaching western students he was very tough, but when he taught Indians he was so soft, never pushed them. They could do only what they wanted, they would talk all - it was kind of a social club.
Ilya: I think because that students were just lazy. I think his western students mostly had warrior minds, the qualities of kshatriya, that's why he gave very hard practice to them.
Mark: Because also only westerners in that time wanted to do yoga. Indians wanted to have modern education, to find job. Pattabhi Jois could push you and next day you come again and he would again push you and you leave only after 3 months to take rest from it. Very hard. In the west I dont think it's possible to teach like this. I remember I was given blessings by Pattabhi Jois to assist him. I remember one time I was adjusting an Indian the same way that Guruji adjusted me and he said: “no, no, don`t touch”. But If we adjusted in a very hard manner and people had to work, they would stop coming. I remember one time in Australia I met with Shandor Remete because after two years I developed a very strong practice and we got to meet very quickly and he was leaving to India to stydy with B.K.S. Iyengar so he asked me to look after his school for one month. I had 30 students and after one month - 4. Because I was teaching the same way as Jois and people just did not come back. In 1980, when Pattabhi Jois went to America he asked me to teach his Indian students in his shala. It was a great honour, but at the time I did'nt realise it. He also had one of his senior student teaching, so there was not much for me to do. There was a race between us who was going to adjust. So after a few days we went to Kodailkanal until Pattabhi Jois returned.
Ilya: Shandor was teaching Iyengar style that time?
Mark: Yes, he was very much into Iyengar.
Ilya: But later he completely changed his approach. Also from his own experience.
Mark: Yes, from his own experience as well. He got into martial arts. He was working with energy, trying to bring energy and keep it flowing. He has a lot martial arts coming into his practice from what I can see.
Ilya: That’s very interesting. Even before you told that in India there were different schools, lineages but they have one thing in common - they were following traditional yoga philosophy, Yoga Sutras. Maybe they had different techniques but philosophical part, the main thing like to realize your soul, your Atman was the main goal for them.
Mark: Yes, yes.
Ilya: But what we see in the West a lot of “yoga brands” they don’t talk about this. They are only trying to sell some techniques, like fitness.
Mark: Well, ten years ago or may be a little bit more in the West it was very much fitness, yoga in health clubs. Suddenly yoga became a place where you get healthy. But I think people felt something else. There were not just running and doing aerobics they were doing yoga with … insights, some emotional things were happening, whether they understood or not. Now people are looking much more for meditation, and inner growth. Nowadays it has become much more easier to bring meditation techniques into a class, whereas a few years ago it was difficult, people just wanted “to do” physical yoga. But now they are looking for a deeper thing. They want more philosophy, to understand more and yet a lot just come to health class to look good. But it is still good, people are still going to learn yoga and those who want, they will progress in a more spiritual way.
Joanne: I don’t know about Russia but in America, the people who are interested more in philosophy, they would go towards Buddhism. Buddhism seems to attract them more, they don’t want to do a lot of asanas.
Ilya: Why do you think they took Buddhist philosophy and not Indian philosophy?
Joanne: Because Indian philosophy is very complicated. Buddhism is easy, there are rules which are structured and easy to follow. As Indian philosophy you can spend years and years of reading and studying to understand what its all about. It is very complex for a western mind to understand all these thousands of gods and thousands of different stories.
Ilya: But also I think it is because there is a system of Buddhist centres where you can come and get some practice, to do some workshop or retreat, like 10 days vipassana course. Whereas in Indian tradition there are a lot of schools which differ from each other, sometimes have contradiction, like Hare Krishna bhakti and Advaita Vedanta. It is not so systematic.
Mark: And I think to study and understand Indian philosophy you have to go to Indian community and Indian community is very closed. To get into the community you have to speak their language Hindi, Tamil… So its more difficult to learn Indian tradition in the West. But we have yoga asanas, that’s what most people want and thats how they connect to their mind. We make a living by teaching yoga asana. That’s how we survive and it gives us the time and the financial support for us to go into deeper practices.
Joanne: Yes, but even then, once they start their yoga practice, they start to read a little bit about it, a little bit philosophy and then it grows. Of course its not something that will happen overnight.
Mark: When we teach intensive yoga training, we introduce philosophy and then they want more. I give them homework and they are happy to read and learn more.
Joanne: Not so long time ago in America or Russia there were not so many books about Sutras but now in the internet you can find anything you want.
Ilya: Yes, before in Russia it was only academic books.
Joanne: Yes, very difficult to read and you had to be studying Hindu philosophy or Eastern philosophy to understand, whereas now it is very open.
Ilya: This is very interesting, because in the 70-s people hardly new anything even about Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, it was not a popular style.
Mark: Yes, Ashtanga didn`t get popular until the end of the 90-s.
Ilya: I think that first Power Yoga became popular as a kind of fitness style, sort of simplified Ashtanga Yoga.
Mark: Well, yes, Power Yoga was based on Ashtanga Yoga, Beryl Birch book of Ashtanga yoga, which was a book with Primary series. Because of the word Power people got interested, people realized they could get a good body through yoga, they could run better, because Power Yoga was made for runners. It got popular in California, and from there spread around. Madonna did it, but afterwards people realized that it was very hard, too difficult for people who only did yoga one or two times a week. Then came Vinyasa Flow which left out the more difficult postures, added posture from anywhere with many variations and later all other different things came out. Different people, John Friend for example spread vinyasa flow mixed with Iyengar system, he was friends with Richard Freeman who knew the ashtanga system and so they mixed and matched. Now the most popular Yoga is vinyasa flow, where people could do what they want, they can do advanced postures if they want. People in the West or I guess everywhere want variety. I want to do this posture or that, I want to do posture from the third series, but if I'm doing only primary series I will never learn that posture…
Ilya: Bikram yoga is now coming to Russia.
Joanne: It is very popular in America.
Ilya: It looks like commercial system, like McDonald`s.
Mark: And then you have Hot Yoga, which is a vinyasa flow done in a hot room, but they don`t follow the Bikram system, because someone who wanted to do Bikram yoga didn`t want to pay franchise. He took the idea of the hot room and teaches whatever yoga he wants, vinyasa flow, Hatha, anything and does it in a hot room. This is the most popular yoga now in Canada, partly because the weather is very cold in the winter and because people want to lose weight.
Ilya: Some people start from fitness type of yoga and later develop deeper interest in yoga and philosophy. They turn to more traditional schools.
Mark: Yes, many students start in health clubs but then they realize this isn`t really yoga and they come to yoga centres and are surprised to find that yoga there is with a different approach. In health club you get good air conditioning but in yoga centres atmosphere is different- Indian music is playing, incenses, different feeling.
Ilya: You are running your own TTC in Montreal?
Mark: Yes, im doing it together with my son Shankara.
Ilya: And which subjects do you teach except ashtanga series?
Mark: We are basing on ashtanga system but teaching the postures in a very detailed manner. We are also teaching philosophy, Ayurveda course, anatomy. We have a broad range but not so advanced, say Ayurveda is 6 hours, introduction only. For instance, when we are teaching we work with anatomy, but we don’t give names of muscles and bones, we work with biomechanics - system showing how the body is all connected, how the body moves with connections. It is a one year programme 200 hours, 1 weekend a month and then we do 1 week intensive in the summer. We also encourage our students to come and practice Mysore style and we give them very cheap price for a year, so that they can come and practice. The idea is to give students an opportunity to practice as much as possible during the year. And we see a great difference after one year between people who just came for the course and those who practiced Mysore style.
Ilya: What language are you teaching classes in Montreal - French or English?
Joanne: English. Darby is English-speaking.
Ilya: My next question concerns the length of ujaii breath during ashtanga practice. When we visited David Swenson`s workshop Baranov and I were instructed to shorten our breaths, since our pranayama practices increased lung capacity and our breathes were longer compared to other students. He also told us not to hold one posture more than for 5 breaths, but you`v told that before it was 8 breaths for each asana. Do you think that it is due to the number of students in class and time limit that counting became faster?
Mark: Yes, a lot of students come and time is limited.
Ilya: Then what is your opinion about individual practice? Is it possible to hold a posture more than 8 breaths and make breaths as long as possible?
Mark: Yes, and when David studied it was also 8 breaths. I don’t think there are any rules, if you want to make breaths longer you can, but there is such thing as vinyasa, and vinyasa becomes a movement which takes energy, and because of that we breathe faster, we need oxygen and then the breath during vinyasa become quicker, so you generally need to keep same rhythm in your postures. So that you don’t speed up to do the vinyasa and then slow down. So, I generally work with my vinyasa, but some days my breath is longer than in others, but some days I`m rushed because I don’t have time. I can make a very strong practice in one and a half hours and I can make it in 2 hours by making my breath longer. There is nothing wrong about it, but you have to keep the rhythm.
Ilya: You`ve told us before that Joanne was practicing one hour of shirshasana. Was it advice of Pattabhi Jois?
Joanne: Yes. He trained me to do that. Every day he would come and lift me up, slowly increasing amount of breaths - 10, 15 breaths; 5 minutes, 10, 15, 30... And I would only come down after he would come and lift me up. I was too weak to lift myself up and so he was teaching me how to lift up. I would wait for him to come and adjust me to come down. One time he forgot about me, he left and talked to his family, made phone calls. So, when he came back, there was no one in the room and I have been standing an hour in shirshasana. And he said: oh very good, now you do one hour every day. But he trained me to stay there for 1 hour so that I could do it by myself. But shirshasana is a special posture, it has a lot to do with nervous system. When I came to Mysore in 2001 and met with Guruji I asked him why made me to stand 1 hour in shirshasana, what were the benefits? And he answered: “You tell me, what are the benefits for you”.
Mark: Going back to the breath, if you see Jois teaching, in a way he teaches standing postures are slow, the breath is very long, when he comes to do the primary series it gets fast. And then it gets very slow again when it comes to finishing postures, because there is no vinyasa in standing and finishing postures so he makes the breaths longer. But as long as you have full breath and rhythm it doesn’t matter how long you breath.
Ilya: Not all postures in ashtanga are well compensated and when a beginner comes into this practice mostly for them the weak points are knees and low back. Why no one has ever changed the sequence to make it more balanced?
Mark: Its not the problem with the astanga system but with the individuals learning and the person teaching. In the west we do not have the same flexibility as in East. Too many chairs so the ability of movement in the hips is restricted which affects the knees.In the west we teach ashtanga to quickly, In Mysore there was no led classes, only Mysore style. You went 6 days a week and committed to 3 months of practice. Postures were given slowly. It took 3 months to learn primary series. This way the body has time to develop strength,especially in the core ( bandhas). Also many teachesr do not understand the alignment of the body and how the repetition of the vinyasa places strain on the body and nervous system. Ashtanga done well will be your best friend, ashtanga done incorrectly will be your worst enemy. We didn’t do revolving standing postures as beginners. We did trikonasana, no revolving trikonasana, parshvokonasana but no parivritta parshvokonasana, we didn’t do utkattasana and no virabhadrasana series as beginners. So, when you became advanced practitioner afterwards you put them in the standing postures. Why Pattabhi Jois changed this? Usually when students practice they copy teacher, and when beginners see advanced student doing most postures then they would put them in. So when they go to Mysore they didn’t learn from Guruji but from some students of Guruji in the west, so when they come to Mysore they`d be doing postures already, so he`d just let them do. Before, he never used to teach parshvokonasana, reversed parshvokonasana. If you look at Lino`s book, its not Sharath, its Lino is doing this posture. If you look the video of Guruji teaching in 1990 Richard Freeman, Tim Miller, Chuck Miller, he doesn’t have this reversed parshvokonasana, he only put this after 2000. And then I think he just gave up. See, if you are a teacher and you don’t want beginners to do this posture but they are still doing it after some time you give up and let them do what they want. So I think this is what happened to Pattabhi Jois.
Ilya: Individual approach is very important when working with beginners.
Mark: Yes, of course. Bodies are different, bone shapes. Many have no body awareness and some people come only once a week, so there is no need to push hard on someone who comes that rare.
Website of Mark & Joanne Darby Sattva Yoga Shala in Montreal, Canada sattvayogashala.com
Ilya, Mark, Joanne, Misha (Moscow, 2010)