Fabio Andrico has been teaching Yoga internationally for over 30 years. He began his yoga career in the mid-seventies, when he studied Sivananda Yoga during a trip to India. In the following years, Andrico was exposed to many different yoga traditions. He ultimately met his teacher, Dzogchen Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, in 1977 and had the rare opportunity to learn the Tibetan tradition of Yantra Yoga directly from this lineage holder. Andrico is both a Hatha Yoga and Yantra Yoga instructor, as well as an authorized trainer of Yantra Yoga teachers. He teaches Yantra Yoga internationally to groups of up to 700 participants in venues on six continents.
"Yantra is a rhythm. It takes time to discover it"
Interview with Fabio Andrico
Ilya: How did you discover yoga and how did you start to feel interest in spiritual disciplines?
Fabio: I started in my hometown in Italy with a friend of mine who was doing some yoga. He used to show me something and I got interested. I was in my 20-s, already not so young. After a couple of years a friend of mine was going to India and didn`t want to go alone, so he offered me plane tickets and everything. I went with him and we ended up in an ashram in Bangalore with Shri Jyoti, who taught Sivananda tradition of Munger, Bihar school of yoga. So, I was learning Sivananda yoga in an ashram for 4.5 months. I was really practicing yoga 8 hours a day, fasting. Because in this system fasting is naturopathy, teachers were very strict to make students to practice naturopathy, cleansing procedures, kriyas. In fact I was very quickly to progress form almost nothing to lotus, because I had enough of practice each day. Shri Joti used to say that would do much more in Munger - they would wake up at dawn, perform 108 Surya Namaskars, go to Ganges to do purification procedures, chant mantras and then practice the session etc. Well, I was doing my best, one thing I know- if you practice you can progress very fast, but if you don’t practice nothing is going to happen. Forcing yourself won`t bring you any good, but practice is important.
But usually Sivananda is a soft style, compared to for example to Iyengar yoga.
Fabio: Yes, that’s true. Many years I went to a meeting of yoga-teachers in Barcelona as a Yantra yoga representative and met different famous yoga-teachers, most of them were Europeans, like Gerard Blitz. There were yoga-teachers of various disciplines, but still at that time there was not much of Ashtanga yoga or Power yoga going around, it was more, I would call it classic, classic in every sense. You know, Sivananda was sanyasi, long time practiced in the forest. He followed the four stages of life according Vedas precisely. I was kind of very traditional. The tradition is difficult to define, but I preferred a more classic approach to yoga.
So, when did you meet Namkhai Norbu and started practicing Yantra yoga?
Fabio: I think it was 1977. At that time I was learning and trying to apply my knowledge in a simple way in classes I led. I was actually teaching in Yoga Federation Centre, trying to do my best. And during that time I met with Norbu and I received a teaching of Yantra yoga from him. So, I also started practicing Yantra yoga and after some time I started to, not really to teach in a proper sense, I was attending a Dzogchen community centre in Napoli, because that was where I went to the University of Oriental Studies, so in the evenings I would go to that centre, where I would lead the practice of Yantra yoga. I was doing that for 4 years, every day in the morning I would teach Hatha Yoga and in the evenings I would lead Yantra yoga classes. In the meantime I was studying the “Book of Yantra Yoga”, to understand the underlying philosophy better. Actually, teaching and learning at the same time is the best way to learn faster and deeper. After some time people started to invite me here and there to teach Yantra yoga, and gradually I was becoming an official teacher of Yantra yoga. I got an official certificate of a Yantra yoga teacher. So, in this way I started to teach more officially and after some years we started to train other people to become Yantra yoga teachers, because the interest grew and with it grew the need in yantra yoga teachers.
But was it all inside of the Dzogchen community?
Fabio: Yes. The main reason is that all aspects of Yantra are more connected with the practices of Tsa Lung and should be kept with at least the minimum of control and understanding and also having transmission, otherwise it’s like the real life is missing. You can see the form and everything but its not enough. And if you are just doing it out of curiosity you are playing with some aspects of pranayama and energy, and it is not a very good idea unless you are following the path you are practicing under the supervision of an authorized teacher with deep knowledge.
The situation was the same with Indian Hatha Yoga until it became fashionable in the West.
Fabio: Yes, because the real Hatha Yoga should be practiced at that level. Practicing only asanas is not ‘the full package’. That’s why Patanjali divided yoga into so many levels, where asanas is only one of the steps. That’s why so many schools teach asanas for a long time before letting students to start pranayamas, because the body should be prepared. May be, they teach some simple pranayamas like nadi shodhana, but without going deeper in such aspects as retentions.
Let’s discuss your particular lineage of Yantra yoga. As far as I know, there are a few asana practice styles inside of Tibetan tradition under a general name Trul Khor, but they can vary depending on the lineage?
Fabio: Generally, when there is a series of teaching, when there is practice of Tsa Lung, practices dealing with channels (Tsa) and prana (Lung), there is also Trul Khor. It is a kind of support, preparatory exercises, to prepare the base and to maintain a certain condition. For example, there are eight movements in Yantra, which are very important in the beginning, because they help to reshape, to reprogramme the breathing patterns, the conditions of our energy. So in order to create correct practice you are practicing Tsa Lung. But while you practice Tsa Lung it is always better to keep practicing Trul Khor, because it refreshes the base.
So, do I understand it correctly that Trul Khor is more connected with physical exercises and Tsa Lung is more dealing with energy?
Fabio: No, I wouldn`t say so. I don’t know that much about other traditions to be able to say in general, I’ll be honest with you here. I doubt that a system of Trul Khor as articulate and rich as Yantra yoga even exists. There are only a few movements in Trul Khor, whereas there are 108 in Yantra yoga. But in our Yantra yoga there are already some aspects of Trul Khor and Tsa Lung, we have 5 different pranayamas, where the 3rd, the 4th and the 5th are already Tsa Lung practices, because they deal with channels and chakras. If you are an advanced practitioner of Yantra yoga you can take any Tsa Lung practices you want. There won’t be any problems if you have the right base, condition, understanding, knowledge and training.
Should you receive a certain initiation to take up this practice?
Fabio: You don’t really need that for Yantra. But for specific methods of tsa lung, it depends how you received it, in what tradition, then you need a special initiation.
As far as I know the source of Yantra yoga is Tantra written by Vairocana in the 8th century? As the legend says, he received these instructions from Padmasambhava, the teacher who brought tantric Buddhism to Tibet from India. The word ‘Yantra’ here is not a geometrical picture for meditation, like in the Indian tradition, but a variant of translation for the Tibetan term ‘Trul Khor’, i.e. ‘body movement complex’. Is there an uninterrupted lineage of Vairocana?
Fabio: Originally, there were three texts: The text of Trul Khor; the text with the description of medical benefits… what happens on the level of the five pranas, nerves and joints and these two books were published. And the 3rd book was about the practice of tummo and it was lost, there is no copy of the text. And it was a more specific aspect of Tsa Lung.
I know, that Tummo (yoga of inner heat) is one of the Six Yogas of Naropa.
Fabio: Yes, but this is only one tradition amongst few others.
So, Six Yogas is from the Kagyu lineage and Dzogchen has a different tradition?
I know that Milam (yoga of lucid dreams) is also included in Six Yogas of Naropa and Namkhai Norbu also teaches dream yoga.
Fabio: I think that the means are the same, but may be methods are different. I’m not an expert to explain whether there are differences and what they are, but not necessarily the same name means the same thing. Very often some terms that we hear according to different traditions can mean different things and it could be the same word.
I find it interesting that all exercises in Yantra yoga are dynamic and there are no static postures.
Fabio: Yes, except for sitting pranayamas.
Do you think it is due to a cold climate in Tibet or there are subtle reasons working with energy?
Fabio: No, I don’t think it is only due to the climate, it is the structure, the characteristics of the practice. I also thought about it. Vairocana didn’t learn in Tibetan climate, he brought a lot of things from outside. He was known as a great translator, he went to India and brought back many texts of various teachings.
Can you briefly describe the levels of Yantra yoga?
Fabio: These are not really levels. We can only talk about an open/close level for the reasons mentioned above. Because some things you can teach openly with a definite benefit from such practice and certain things have no sense to be taught without a transmission. But in the structure of the series there are no levels, in the sense that series of each of 5 groups (5 groups and there are 5 basic positions in each plus every yantra has two variations, so all together there are 25 yantra, each group covers five breath holdings, always the same sequence - open hold, directed hold, closed hold, pulled back hold and empty hold) are more related to the breathing aspect rather than to complexity.
But in the book I saw some postures, which looked very complicated, like ganda bherundasana, very advanced backbend. So, does the beginner do all “Eight movements” sequence, or begins step by step?
Fabio: It depends on the capacity of practitioner, but obviously firstly we teach the preliminaries. But my point is that in groups of yantra themselves, in the basic yantras – the position of contracted hold or directed hold in the first group for some people is much more complicated that one in the third group. There is no an escalation of difficulty when you move from the first group to the following ones, of course there are variations, which are generally more difficult than the basic position. It is true, however, than the first and the second groups are a bit easier. When the practitioner starts the 3rd group, added some advanced movements, it is the way of jumping. Of course if a person doesn’t practice with intent, there is no need to add it, however, if you practice it, then from there you start going more concretely in a certain direction. In Hatha yoga there are sequences of asanas, for example the sequence which i`ve studied in Rishikesh, where you have a certain number of asanas, balancing, compensating each other. Every Yantra sequence is also balanced within itself - if there is twisting to the right with a breath hold - there always will be twisting to the left, without hold, but just as a counter-balance. Then there will be a repetition for the other side, but again with a counter-balance. And the five yantras of the group counter-balance each other. The coordination and harmony of Yantra yoga is amazing.
Do you think it was created by Varaciana himself?
Fabio: I don’t think anything, I simply don’t know. I know that Varaciana compiled and wrote down it.
Are all of the exercises written in Tantra?
Fabio: Is it`s all in the text. There is the root text and the commentary. Of course, the root text is essential, but commentaries are important for clarification. That’s why you need Namkai Norbu Rimpoche`s commentary, based on direct and oral instructions of his uncle - Urgyen Tenzin, who clarified different aspects. And Urgyen Tenzin himself had been receiving direct instructions from great Yantra yoga practitioners for a long time in a place of retreat to refine and deepen his knowledge of Yantra, understanding and capacity. And Rimpoche received most instructions from him, based on which he took notes and after some time compiled the commentaries. Then, for many years he had been going through the book, making photos and drawings, clarifying different aspects. Later he would say, that he had never been so much into something than the book of Yantra yoga. In his commentaries he made sure that each and every point was coordinated with the root text, clarified through instructions and explanations he received from his teachers, and that is the commentary text.
Comparing to modern schools of Hatha yoga, in this lineage nothing has changed. People of this lineage didn’t bring anything new to it.
Fabio: It should be like this. One thing about Yantra yoga, if you want to change it, is how to change it? How do you change the fixed sequence of movements? One movement leads to another, if you modify one position it will be impossible to move to another, you would have to invent another yantra. Of course, in reality two different people would do the same thing differently, because their energy, body condition are different, but they still are trying to do the necessary position. It is very important, that they are not transforming or changing, sometimes people modify position automatically because their body is used to doing a certain movement in a certain way. You can see that different Yantra teachers are doing it a bit differently, it is also due to the fact that Yantra has not developed a biomechanics as modern yogic schools. These details are not in the text. I doubt that yogis, practicing in caves, worried too much about the position of foot or toes. It is more our Western paranoia. Yantra is working more on the level of prana and energy, so it doesn’t work in a same way with anatomy. For example, there is the Yantra of cobra – bhujangasana – generally it is taught to do with a chin tucked, in Yantra yoga it is totally the same, but also arms straight, arch back, whole body stretched and tensed and with breath hold - that would be a nightmare for Hatha yoga. Cobra trains what is called an open hold, where you keep the air inside, without blocking, forcing or directing it, just expanding. The tension (in Yantra called “tzunchel”) in body is at the point of trembling, but at the same time the breathing is completely open and relaxed. Its sometimes difficult to compare Yantra yoga with Hatha yoga, because they work at different levels of interaction between the body, energy and mind.
When comparing Indian Hatha yoga tradition with Tibetan tradition there are some things in common, but there are also certain differences. For example, in Tibetan tradition the main subtle channels are straight - central, right and left…
Fabio: I don’t think there is one point of view, I think there are different according to different methods. It’s just the potentiality, and then how can you strengthen this potentiality in many different ways, not just one. You can’t say that one description is true and the other is wrong, its not so limited. We have many people, coming from different yoga styles. Such people generally progress faster, unless they are not too, lets say “conditioned”. For example, those, who got used to ujjayi breathing, find it difficult to let it go. There is no ujjayi breathing in Yantra yoga, there is a smooth, direct breathing, without any kind of contraction or control. It is a very interesting and pure practice.
But is there anything in common in sitting pranayamas – do you have kapalabhati or bhastrika?
Fabio: No, not really. Trul khor, Tsa Lung is what you want to train for. In Yantra every single holding, every single movement works on its own, in its own direction, but always working with one or more of the five “Lung`s”, that govern every aspect of our existence: breathing, eating, digesting, thinking , giving birth etc.
Five Lungs like five pranas in Hatha and Ayurveda.
Fabio: Yes. So, it is working at this level, especially the aspect of holding the breath. If you put it together - it is part of the base, they all have separate, specific functions by themselves. But the overall focus, because that’s what it`s made for, is more at the level of the energy.
And preparation for more complicated practices is visualization?
Fabio: The aspect of visualization is not there…
May be visualization is not the best term… I mean practice of watching some subtle elements, like Togel, which was used, according to scriptures, for achieving “Rainbow body” (transformation physical body into light).
Fabio: As anything that can coordinate our condition, Yantra might be helpful for this also, but it`s not going that direction, at least what I know of. But if you look in the book- the chapter about what is supposed to be the manifestation of different aspects such as channels, prana, you read it and it looks like a miracle - walking on water surface, it is a part of our potentiality. It is not that you are focused on that, but if you manifest your potentiality it will happen by itself. For example Rimpoche`s uncle had manifestation, as far as I remember he was shot and nothing happened. He achieved the “Rainbow body”. But not because of Yantra, even though he was practicing Yantra every day, still to do such kind of things you need special teachings.
According to my own experience, in different Tibetan schools nowdays it is very rare to find Lama, who practices such things, like asanas or pranayamas.
Fabio: Yes, it`s true.
May be only among the Nagpa tradition.
Fabio: May be the Drugpa Kagyu.
Why do you think such techniques are not so popular in Vajrayana?
Fabio: I don’t know, may be it was kept in secret and we simply don’t know if they practiced it or not. I know that in different traditions there are different kinds of Trul Khor and there are different cycles of practices, related to Tsa Lung. And according to the tradition you have to receive an initiation first, and then you have the connection, the life of the teaching, then you can learn anything you want, but if you meet people without this understanding and this connection, then you can`t teach some aspects of Yantra, because there is no reason for learning it.
Now we teach openly all the 25 basic yantras and all aspects are being taught. It has always been open, Rimpoche always taught everything, but to a few people only who became his disciples. When you start to open up like this, then some of the aspects, which can harm, you don`t teach. When I was studying at the University, there was a man, who got a book about Kundalini practices, and without full understanding he was trying to awaken it. He ended up in a mental hospital. So, you have to be very careful what to teach and what to avoid. And that is the only reason, and not because of some sort of an enigmatic secrecy. But there is plenty to learn even within these 25 yantras. Yantra is also rhythm, and as much as I’ve seen yoga practitioners, being flexible can even become an obstacle, because they stop being present in what they are doing, they get distracted by the easiness of what they are doing. Sometimes they get the difficulty in coordinating the breathing with smoothness of the movement. In this training, even if you are an advanced asanas practitioner, generally it still takes time, it doesn`t come immediately. It is not only coordinating with the breath, but also coordinating the rhythm, coordinating how the movement starts and where it finishes with how the breathing starts and finishes, linking to the next movement and next breathing in the pace of the rhythm. In Yantra the rhythm is connected with the heartbeat of a relaxed person. And the rhythm of the heart coordinates the energy. Yantra is rhythm. It takes time to discover and appreciate it, but once you`ve done it then Yantra becomes very interesting and valuable.
What about the diet? Indian Hatha yoga prescribes practitioners to follow a pure vegetarian diet.
Fabio: There is no particular indication in Yantra, except for the certain conditions, under which you can relate to the Tibetan medicine to balance your health. If you practice in Tibet it`s not so easy to follow vegetarian diet, and in some situation there is not so much to eat anyways, so you don’t have to worry about vegetarian diet. You are thankful for a slice of bread with some butter on it.
This is true if you are practicing in the high mountains. We have recently published and interview with Chatral Rinpoche, who also belongs to Dzogchen lineage, and he is strictly preaching vegetarianism. He explained, that though in Tibetan high mountains there is indeed lack of food, in Nepal or India it is possible to lead a vegetarian lifestyle. He put an ethical underlying that one should avoid creating negative karma by eating flesh of killed animals.
Fabio: However, as I`ve said, in Yantra there is no particular indication of a vegetarian diet. As I know when Indian yogis practice a lot of pranayamas, they have to eat more butter, to balance the element of lungs. You always have to be aware of that and work under your personal condition.
And what is your opinion about tpopular book called “The five Tibetans”, which is claimed to be a part of Tibetan yoga, but being without any lineage.
Fabio: I don’t know. The only thing I can say, is that any movement exercice, if it doesn’t hurt you, will do you some good. I personally find this story strange. There was some lost monastery in India, which nobody knew of. Yantra yoga has lineage and all the characteristics that a serious teaching should have.
Did you study Yantra of this lineage only, from Namkhai Norbu?
Fabio: Yes. I once got interested in another tradition, but I didn’t have enough time. Being in a different tradition, required me to do “Nondro” (prelemination practices – 100 thousand prostrations, 100 thousand Buddha Vajrasattva mantras etc.) first, and it was so long that I didn’t have time for it, so I had to leave it.
As far as I know, it is not necessary to perform Nondro in Namkai Norbu`s tradition, like prostrations etc.
Fabio: No. That is a part of a Rimpoche’s teaching. As I` told you before Yantra yoga doesn’t require a particular initiation, so there is no need in specific empowerment, in order to practice it. The only thing that you need if you want to go all the way with Yantra is to receive Rimpoche`s transmission of teaching, that`s all. People can learn Yantra, it`s completely open. It is a very interesting practice that can be useful and helpful to people.
So, if someone starts Yantra, he/she can continue with Buddhist Dzogchen teachings. And if the person has no interest in that teaching, is it possible to continue practicing only Yantra exercises?
Fabio: Yes, absolutely, there are no limitations. Because every human being has the same characteristics - every one has a physical body, mind and energy. It’s not like if you don’t believe in Buddha you don’t have a mind, body or energy. Doesn`t matter weather you believe in teaching or not - body, energy and mind are there. If you work at that level, you work at that level, whether you believe it or not.