David Swenson - How it all began…
Talks with students in Moscow, July 2010
Hot July 2010, David Swenson visits Moscow for the first time. Those were unforgettable seven days. A seminar in Moscow was the teacher’s training for Ashtanga Vinyasa instructors. It lasted from Monday to Sunday and was a cheerful mix of practical instructions, vigorous enthusiasm, performance of asanas with a partner, live dialogue, and, of course, a fair quantity of yogic humor.
From the very beginning it was amazing how David does all his best in classes, he managed to make the seminar very sated and humanly warm. Intensive information and exercises were alternated by laughter and jokes. David shared his long-term experience in correcting asanas of the first series of Ashtanga, he was showing techniques, checking quality of asanas and sometimes asked students to correct himself, remarkably simulating “a clumsy beginner” to the general joy.
Ilya Zhuravlev: The first question is traditional, but the answer is always interesting to know. How did you start to practice yoga?
David: My elder brother Doug introduced me to yoga. He found it in America. Do you remember, once, we have been talking about books, which inspired people in early years, books like “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Yogananda? My brother Doug was surfing near the beach below ashram of “Self-realization Fellowship”, the one originating from Paramahamsa Yogananda. Many guys called that surfing spot “Swamis” because there were many swamis living in that ashram on the top of the cliff, above the beach. And, after surfing, my brother could see these guys doing yoga, meditation, and things like that. So he became interested in the idea of yoga, healthy food and similar things. Then, he came back to Texas with all these ideas. He is my big brother, so I have always wanted to be like him. I started doing yoga and started to grow my hair long.
At that time, there were no yoga studios. There were no yoga clothes, there were no yoga mats. There was just yoga. And if you were lucky, you could find a book. We found books written by Americans. Those were “Yoga, Youth and Reincarnation” by Jess Stearn and “Yoga: 28 day exercise plan” by Richard Hittleman. Then, Swami Satchitananda came out with his book called “Integral yoga” and B.K.S. Iyengar with “Light on Yoga”.
“Yoga: 28 day exercise plan” by Richard Hittleman, 1969
«Integral Yoga» by Swami Satchitananda, 1970
With my brother we practiced outdoors under the trees. Usually we had karate-like pants made of white cotton. Or sometimes we put on little Speedo like bathing suits, as if we were doing swimming. And we would go into a park and put down a towel under a tree and did asanas from yoga books.
All this was in Texas, you need to remember this. One day my brother and I were in the park doing yoga. Suddenly, we heard approaching police car siren, the police ran to us and harshly asked what we were doing. We told them we were breathing and stretching, and kindly asked them not to shoot us. As they explained then, some people from the neighborhood had called them saying: “There are some hippies worshiping the Devil in the park!” At that time both of us had long hair, and on that day we were under a tree doing strange movements. This incident did not make us worried, we continued doing yoga.
David and Doug in the park
David, Laurie and Doug Swenson
In high school I was still growing my hair long. This was an average kind of school, not a private or a privileged one. School administrators, who were very conservative people, told me that “boys cannot have long hair”. I was thirteen and there were four years of studies ahead. Luckily, my father was a Defense Attorney, a lawyer, and after that message he went to the board of the school to give advocacy presentation to them. He explained them that “Jesus had long hair, Moses had long hair, Einstein had long hair and the Founding Fathers of America - they all had long hair! So my sons are in good company. I will not force them to cut their hair”. But still, for three years, I was carrying a wig with short hair in my pocket to put it on in case I see the Principal. My hair was hanging out from the back while the wig was on the top and they could not understand what was happening in fact. I became a vegetarian, I was doing yoga, I was growing my hair long, - and once one of my teachers looked at me and told me: “Boy, you seem like a pretty nice fellow to me, but I heard you are a communist!” But this is only the way they were thinking and this is what never bothered me.
I loved my parents, and after three years of studies, I wrote a letter to them: “Dearest mother and father, I love you. But I cannot go for one more year to this crazy school. I am leaving home. I am sixteen years old and I go away by myself”. I went to California which was 1500 miles away from Texas; my parents were very upset and worried. But at the end they acknowledged that they have raised their children to be independent thinking people, and did not force me to come home. Together, we agreed that I have to finish school and have to be able to support myself, because, if I wanted to live by myself, they would not send me money. At that time I was already working and supporting myself, so that was not an issue.
When I came to a new school in California, I was told that as I was only sixteen years old I needed to bring an adult who would be legally responsible for me, otherwise they could not accept me. This was a little bit of a problem, but then I found whom to ask for this. I asked the manager of my very cheap rented apartment, Rudy Olivares from Mexico, who was twenty two years old and also was a surfer. He signed everything and I went to school. That was the school that I had never experienced before. There, I had art classes, surfing classes, music classes. This was great, I liked that school. Once, I missed some days at school and they called my “legal guardian”, Rudy Olivares, to ask if everything was alright with me. And he answered: “Oh, well… well…David is sick… he is really sick... maybe he’s gonna die soon…” I was really enjoying that school.
Another day, my friend told me about some other yoga classes. In the early morning hours I came up a long path of wooden steps to an old church, opened the door, looked in - and thought that walls were breathing. But those were not the walls, but the people who were doing yoga like I had never seen before. I could hear the sound of their breathing, they were moving in a flow. That was a class of Ashtanga yoga, and I had never seen Ashtanga before that time. I was astonished. There was no heating in the room, early morning, and sun was coming through the window. I was watching people in downward dog and the steam was rising from their buttocks. That was terrific. There was a hippie couple, walking around, teaching the class. One of them came up to me, from his accent I could hear that he was from North Carolina, and he said: “Haaai, Maaay naaame is Daaavid”. Those were David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff.
David is one of the first Americans ever to study Ashtanga. He went to India in 1970 with Norman Allen, and traveled all over India, staying in ashrams. Once, they saw Pattabhi Jois's son, Manju, doing a yoga demonstration in an ashram and it blew their mind. So, then David started to go to Mysore to study and later came back to California to teach.
The first day he taught me Surya Namaskar A, Surya Namaskar B and the final sequence postures. I was tired, my body was hot, and when I laid down in Shavasana, I looked up and saw the steam. That was so unforgettable. Something special was happening to me.
David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Shami (granddaughter of P.Jois) and Sharath in Mysore, 1973
Pattabhi Jois and Roseanna Campbell, Mysore 1973
Those were very joyful people. The people doing yoga around that time were all just hippies. And it was fun to be with them. In 1975, David and Nancy brought Pattabhi Jois to America for the first time. David and Nancy explained who was coming to us, so that we were ready to give him respect. Pattabhi Jois arrived with his son, Manju. At that time Pattabhi Jois was nearly sixty years old and Manju was nearly thirty. Pattabhi Jois spoke English very little then.
When Pattabhi Jois came, he began to introduce his son and said: “This is my son, Swamiji” Manju looked at his father and said in proper English: ”I’m not Swamiji. My name is Manju and we came here to break your backs”. He was small like Micky Mouse, but very strong, he could walk up the whole flight of stairs on his hands. That time they stayed in America for four months and all this time they were teaching us. And we really had no idea what we were doing, but we loved it.
David Swenson in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
Pattabhi Jois liked it as well, because there were a lot of young energetic students, while in India nobody wants to do yoga. Young Indians want to be engineers, doctors, lawyers, and we just wanted to be yogis. And he thought that was great.
Clockwise, starting from P.Jois: Pattabhi Jois, Nancy Gilgoff, Brad Ramsay, Paul Danaway, Sally Woker, David Swenson, David Williams. Encinitas, California, 1975
During that long stay of Pattabhi Jois I was involved in one project for my school. I got David Williams to come with me to an elementary school and do a yoga demonstration there. We did that for children that were six-eight years old. When I was a little boy, there were no hippies coming to my school and doing yoga demonstrations. And in 1975 there was David Williams and me doing this.
So, Pattabhi Jois stayed for several months and during this time some interesting things happened. It is difficult to explain because some events had specifically American character. That state of America where we were, California, is located very close to Mexico.
A lot of people from Mexico come to America and stay. Many come illegally. That was year 1975 and the police in California thought that anyone who had brown skin was an illegal from Mexico. One day we were driving home from our yoga class. We looked like typical hippies. Our car was old, there were surfboards on its top, and Pattabhi Jois was sitting in the back seat. Suddenly the police approached us, and took us to the side of the road. They looked in and saw a man with a very dark skin and asked politely: ”Have you come here illegally from Mexico?” Pattabhi Jois smiled and said: “Yes, Mexico, very good!” We tried to explain that he is not from Mexico, but Pattabhi Jois was repeating all the time: ”Yes, yes, Mexico”. It continued for a few minutes. We were lucky that time. The police finally realized that as hippies we were not even nearly organized enough to do anything like illegal border crossing and they let us go.
Then, Pattabhi Jois went back to India and his son Manju stayed in America. Manju decided that he did not want to go back to India. One of the students marry him, and he could reside in America. And Pattabhi Jois had to go home and explain to his wife why their son stayed in America. I think his wife was not very happy to hear that.
It happened that after Pattabhi Jois left to India I returned to Texas again. Soon David Williams called me from Hawaii and offered to come and teach all of his classes. David wanted to go to India again. That was in 1976. I went to Hawaii to teach his classes.
We used to do yoga in a park there. Usually I taught for donations but not a fixed rate. And before leaving David told me that things are not very good with those donations. Students were mainly hippies with no money. There was a basket for donations. I have a class for many students and after classes I look into a basket and see one mango, one banana, and one half of a joint in it. I needed money a lot but they were leaving me just this.
And then some guy offered me to teach at his place. But there was no yoga room and we built it ourselves. We had no money. We’ve built a yoga room but the floor was ground and dirty. Later we put a carpet over it. There were many hotels at Hawaii, and when a hotel has remodeling, they throw away old carpets. We decided it could be a great yoga room floor! We cut rolled carpet into smaller pieces to make yoga mats. We built a room with eighth walls. Four walls were made of wood, where one could practice hand stands. The other four walls were made of screen to keep the bugs out. We cut down a small tree and put it in the middle of the room. It was supposed to be the central column for our roof but there was no roof because there was no money.
Hawaii: Danny Paradise, David Williams, David Swenson
We started to think what the roof might be made of. We took clear plastic and stapled it onto the roof. The roof was transparent and it was in a Hawaii city called Lahaina, which means a place with relentless sun. In a result we’ve got a yoga room with a clear plastic roof in a place called “Forever the sun!” Unless you went in really early, it was so hot. Now, when I hear in a class someone saying it is hot, I understand that it is not hot, it is even chilly. The floor was made of dirt; every time you jump back your feet hit that kind of a floor. There was fourty or fifty people coming everyday day for practice. Every day we had to roll down the carpet. Then, we filled in the holes in the ground, raked the dirt, and then put the floor back.
It was a great time. Every one leaved in tree houses. By the time David went to India, I had learned up the 3rd and 4th series of Ashtanga (in America they call it Advanced A&B). David Williams used to interview people who came for classes for the first time. Usually people just came and said that they would like to do yoga. And he said: “No you don’t.” A person would insist that he wants to practice. David would tell them: ”No, yoga is not for everyone, it is very difficult. I want you to think this decision through very carefully, before starting yoga. When you start yoga, it would mess up your whole life, because it would make you feel good. It may happen so that your wife or your partner do not do yoga, while yoga becomes very important to you. Yoga could ruin your relationships. When you start yoga you could probably quit your job and go to Mysore. This is why please think before starting to do yoga!” By the end of such speech people were giving him money and saying: ”We definitely want to do yoga.” Probably, for yoga studios promotion a sign should be put up saying: “You are prohibited to do yoga.”
Well, David Williams went to India, and I stayed as a senior. One of my students came to me once. He said that he likes my classes very much. “In a word, I have no money, but I would like a lot to continue to practice” - added the guy. And I told him: “Sure, no problem, come for classes”. Probably, in hot Hawaiian air information extends especially quickly - in two weeks everyone stopped paying. More and more people were coming for classes, but there were no money at all. Then I have decided that I need to find a job because financial issues were going absolutely bad. And I started to look for job.
I should tell you that Hawaii is such a place where basically it is not accepted to work. After many attempts, I found a guy who had a store of healthy food. The store was called: “Mr. Proper Food”. The guy was not absolutely proper - he was a drug addict. He told me that he had problems with the law in New York. He urgently should start doing something legal and consequently he has opened this store of healthy food. I came to him to know whether there is a job, and passed through the shortest interview in my life: “What is your name, guy?” I told him: “David”. He said: “ОК, you are hired, David”. I was hired at once. I was very much surprised, why he gave me a job right after I told my name. The trick is that in Hawaii party-goers have some type of names like “Star Child” or “Fiery Rain”… Well, the director of the store decided that as my name is just “David”, instead of somehow else, I would at least come to work.
I started to work, to earn money. Not a lot, of course, but sufficient for living. Then David and Nancy came back. And I decided when they return, I will go to Maysor. But I had not enough money for that.
I have borrowed money from one person. When David and Nancy came back, I told them, that the good news is that there are many people coming to classes, and the bad news is that no one pays money. David and Nancy said: “It is fine, no difference”, and the next day everyone again started to pay money. Later I have realized that people said that they have no money for yoga and at the same time they went for rock-concerts and did not refuse themselves in whatever.
Pattabhi Jois in his house in Mysore
It was 1977 and I left for Maysor. When I arrived there Pattabhi Jois had only two students besides me. Pattabhi Jois was sixty, but he was like a teenager. He was full of energy, but there were only three of us... And he was teaching us as though there were twenty of us. Every day he gave us three, four or five new asanas. Once he has decided what it is not enough to practice once a day and we began to practice twice a day. Then we have started to do the 1st and the 2d levels in the morning and the 1st, 3d and 4th levels in the evening. And we did everything he said. We came home, ate, slept, and then again went for classes. Then he has added one hour of pranayamas. Then he has started to teach us shatkarmas.
He was showing just two - nauli and neti. Traditionally neti is made of three weaved cotton strings, its tips are dipped in wax and after that the lace is inserted into a nose and is pulled out from a mouth. In general, it is not a funny procedure. Rubber tubes with wax ends were used sometimes. When it reached the wax end, it felt like a bicycle chain in a nose.
Once we have told Guruji that we want to do everything according to the rules, with a rubber tube. Then he asked us to find a tube from a bicycle pump. He sent us to a bicycle shop, and there we bought tubes for bicycle pumps. They were very dirty. For three days we were boiling tubes from the pumps. Then Guruji did neti for us himself.
We loved Guruji very much and allowed him to do with us everything. We were like dogs for experiments. In old yoga shala there was a small sink at the steps. We were standing next to the sink; he inserted a tube into one’s nose, pushed it to the throat, and then accurately with two fingers pulled it out of the mouth. Standing with a tube in his hands, he used to say in a terrible voice: “Next!” We tried to explain that an individual tube is needed for everyone, but he did not listen to us. Once he was pushing a tube into a nose, it was going further and further... but it was not coming out. Then Guruji said: “Something wrong is here” – and took the tube out. The second attempt failed, and the tube came out of a mouth only from the third attempt.
It has lasted for four months. By the moment I had to leave, I have studied all asanas and all pranayamas. Before returning to America, I went to have a rest on Sri Lanka. On Sri Lanka I was living in the cheapest room I could find. I got acquainted with one surfer, he gave me his board and I started to surf. But everything was going wrong: I cut my foot in a coral reef, and a very strong inflammation has begun. The place I lived in was really cheap: at first I was bitten by a tick, and then I got dysentery. I lost patience - I sat on a plane and left home. And here such monster arrived to America.
I came back home to Texas. And I got strongly confused. What does it all mean in my life? I lived in Hawaii and in India; I was doing yoga and was teaching the others. Somehow, gradually a joy from returning home became poisoned with problems: first, I needed to find a job, but the most important thing is that I did not know: What should I do further?
I went to a farm and started to look after horses; however lots of questions were constantly crowding in my head. Once, I could not bear more, I sat down and wrote a letter: “Dear Guruji, we were only doing asanas and pranayamas, and where is Samadhi? And here is a couple of questions:”Who is the God, who am I and, in general, what for I am on this planet?” And I sent him this letter. He never answered me. I was upset a little bit and understood that I should look for the answers myself.
So, I have begun my searches. I was studying palmistry, astrology. I was fasting. Once I did not eat anything for fourty days, except for grapes and drank only grape juice. I was meditating, reading books on philosophy. When I stopped to eat grapes too, I felt that I’m hungry. And I went to a temple of Krishna.
I went there because they were distributing free meals. I had lots of questions. And they have answered all my questions there and confirmed answers with various scripts and ancient texts. And then I thought: “Yes, I have to try”. I shaved my head but left a small tail behind and began to live as a monk. Complete celibate. For two hours every day: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna...” you should make sixteen circles: “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare...”
They told me that my yoga asanas are illusion - maya. Also they told me that these asanas will attach me more to a material world. They demanded that I refused everything and was involved only in Bhakti Yoga. I said: “ОК” and began to do that they say. I started to travel all over the world opening Hare Krishna centers, I became a monk. Gradually I have realized that they have a really big business worldwide. We had to earn money as much as possible, but business partners should not know that we are Krishnaits. What do you think I had to do? I had to carry a wig! I could not understand why do people cling to me with this wig?
One day I remember very well. I went to the street in Krishnaits clothes and with my plait. My mother came to me. She said that nobody will buy books from me, and that is why she bought one book herself. I came back to a temple, and there they started to shout at me, because I did not bring enough money that day. And I understood that something is wrong here. Some people in a temple seem spiritual enough, and some definitely do not suffer of spirituality. Some are nice, some are malicious, some are modest, and some are selfish. But whatever I did in my life only my parents were giving me unconditional love. My parents did not read any prays, they did not carry special clothes, but they gave me everything they could, and they loved me. And when I have counted a parity of spiritual people in a temple and spiritual people who live a usual life, I have left this Hare Krishna centre.
My God, I have spent five years for that! I left the centre; I did not have money because all the money I have earned, I gave to Krishnaits. I was supposed to look for job again. And I realized that again I do not know what to do in life. Unexpectedly I thought: “No, David, you know what to do, you have finished Krishnaits’ business school. They have taught you to sell. Think about it, David! If you could sell Bhagavad Gita to a cowboy in Texas, you can sell everything and to everybody”.
And I have opened a picture gallery. I thought that it is much easier than to sell Bhagavad Gita. And again I started to practice yoga. I was wearing imposing suits, carrying portfolio in hand and was trading pictures. It was successful enough. But there was something. After a while, I understood that I want to return to Hawaii.
I have left to Hawaii, to Maui Island and found a job in picture gallery. I began to visit classes again. Again those were classes of Nancy Gilgoff. Then there was a miracle. In 1989 Pattabhi Jois came to Hawaii. Twelve years have passed since I sent him the letter, and I did not see him for these twelve years. Nancy has invited Pattabhi Jois for a seminar. On the first day she brought me to Guruji and said: “Guruji, here David has come”. He said: “So many students, I do not remember all of them”. I have thought that for twelve years I have changed strongly, then I had long hair, and I dressed in another way, well it is not terrible that he does not remember. On the second day I was waiting when Guruji will come and will help me with bends. He approaches me, puts his foot between mine, and grasps me for hips. I start to bend back but as soon as he touched me, he shouts: “Ооо! David Swenson!” I made bends five times. And each time I was rising up I was very close to a face of the teacher. He had a huge smile, pink cheeks, his eyes were shining. He looked into my eyes and started to sing: “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama...” I still do not know whether he has received that letter from me or not. But it did not matter anymore. I made a huge circle and returned to the place where I have started.
It is like in a book by Paulo Coelho “Alchemist”. He makes a huge way and comes back to a place where he has found a treasure. Then I have clearly realized that everything that I was looking for was in front of me. I have understood that my parents were my teachers, those were they who taught me an unconditional love. My brother has opened yoga to me. David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff have taught me Ashtanga yoga and acquainted with Pattabhi Jois. And Pattabhi Jois has told: “Practice and all is coming!” I understood that what I was looking for actually lays in practice. All I have to do is to use practice as a tool that will help me to understand myself.
At that moment I have realized what makes one practice spiritual. I have understood that meditations, prays, asanas are just the tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfils difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. .
Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more, than an ego of a usual person. Therefore spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.
And the conclusion can be the following: there is a definition of a yogi and it sounds like: “A yogi is a person who after his leaving makes the place better than it was”. Nobody says, that yogi is a person who does certain practices or difficult asanas. Yogi is a person who makes this world better, simply being present in it. All our actions in this world create certain impulses of energy and these impulses can be either positive, or negative. And each of us can ask ourselves a question: “whether we make the world better by our presence”.
Next time when I come to Moscow, I will tell to you a true story...
What do you think now about Bhagavad Gita?
David: It is a good book. All ancient texts are good. The problem is different: people often take information from ancient texts and deform it. I consider that there is a difference between religiousness and spirituality. Message of Bhagavad Gita is good. But I do not understand how the message of Bhagavad Gita was connected with my selling the books in the street with a shaved head.
As in any religion, in sect of Krishnaits as well there are spiritual people. I heard very often how people say: “I do not do physical yoga any more, I am doing spiritual yoga”. I was asking:”What particularly are you doing?” “I pray” – they answered. But is it true that all of those who pray are spiritual? Someone can pray and someone can do exersises to show how strong he is. But this is not yet a certificate of spirituality. In the same way as people can do asana to get strong, or can do asana as an act of devotion. It seems to me, Bhagavad Gita is a good book. And it seemed to me even that Krishnaits initially had a good intention, but then something has gone wrong. Probably, you will understand now, why I teach yoga in this way. You should be very cautious not to transform Ashtanga yoga into a religion. People like to strengthen their importance, saying: Ashtanga Vinyasa is real yoga, and those who practices other kind of yoga, they have everything wrong. Actually yoga remains to be yoga. If you like Ashtanga it is very good, if you like the other style it is good too. It seems to me, the world of yoga would be better, if we would take out from all systems a word which goes before the word “yoga”. Then people would not say:”I’m doing Ashtanga yoga, I am doing Iyengar yoga”, they would simply say “I am doing yoga”. And instead of being involved in one system or another, you are simply doing the yoga which you like the most. But it seems to me, that sometimes it is very important for people to feel that what they are doing is the best system.
I love Ashtanga yoga. But there are different systems of yoga. And even Ashtanga is taught differently by different teachers. It is not necessary for everyone to be absolutely identical. But in Ashtanga yoga there are some borders, that people would know, what can be done and what is not. If you once were at classes by Pattabhi Jois, his son Manju, his daughter Saraswati or his grandson Sharat, you got four absolutely different experiences of practice. Irrespective of who teaches, the system remains the same. It is very important that we respect each other and it is very necessary to remember that there are various generations of people.
There is information that in due time Pattabhi Jois has changed several asanas in the first series. Probably, he as a keeper of the tradition had right for that. But there is a tendency that some teachers think they can change some asanas as well. Does David think that it is not absolutely correct and creativity in yoga should begin a little bit later?
David: Those teachers are not Pattabhi Jois. Here is what I think concerning this matter. I knew Pattabhi Jois for a long time, and the changes that he has brought I can count on fingers of one hand. It never happened that in thirty years the system looked absolutely different. The sequence had the same very asanas and changes were very insignificant. Pattabhi Jois was practicing according to this system for sixty years. It seems to me if in a couple of years of practice a person starts to change something it means that he has insufficient depth of understanding of the system.
Certainly, a person can do with yoga whatever he wants: to join the first and second levels, to do everything vice versa - really, what he wants. Do what you want but name your system differently, otherwise you confuse people. When Ashtanga Yoga tradition is being kept then coming for class in Moscow, in America or in Australia you will get the same very yoga. There may be some insignificant differences but there would not be a big difference. And if you say that you are teaching Ashtanga yoga in tradition of Pattabhi Jois you need to respect this tradition. If you wish to change something in yoga call it by a different name: “Vinyasa Yoga”, “Flow Yoga” or somehow else. Look at all systems of yoga which have come from Ashtanga. Everything that is called “Power Yoga” has come from Ashtanga. Do you know who used the term “Power Yoga” for the first time? Where does this name come from?
Two persons in the USA, one in New York and another in Los Angeles used this name simultaneously. The first is Bryan Kest from California. He was practicing Ashtanga yoga. Bryan has got Ashtanga yoga from two people: first he was taught by his father, and then he was taught by Pattabhi Jois. Bryan took the main principles of Ashtanga yoga and slightly changed the sequence and fixing time and named it “Power Yoga”. Beryl Bender Birch from New York was studying Ashtanga yoga with Norman Allen and then with Pattabhi Jois. This woman wrote a book, but the publisher told her that the name “Ashtanga Yoga” does not suit, it is not clear and she had to change the name, so it turned into “Power Yoga”. But they can be respected already for naming the system in another way.
The list can be continued: there is a well known teacher in America, her name is Shiva Rea, she was doing Ashtanga yoga. She has altered the system and named it “Vinyasa Flow”. You, of course, heard about Jivamukti yoga. David Life and Sheron Gannon are well known experts of Ashtanga yoga in the past. You have heard about Anna Forest, it in all photos she does handstands. Initially she practiced Ashtanga yoga, then she has created own system and named it Forest Yoga.
It seems to me that all systems of yoga mentioned above do not have anything bad. People who have created them change something in yoga and together with it they change the name and it is normal. I think that teachers of yoga should not spend their energy and time for saying badly about other systems of yoga. You should be simply devoted to the system, to what you teach and if someone's system is worse, just say nothing about it. What seems bad to you may seem good for someone else. Do you know what the most popular system of yoga in the world is? Bikram Yoga. In China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, America and in Europe. It is even more popular than Iyengar Yoga. You may agree with it or not, but many people benefit from it. Many people use Bikram yoga as fitness because it does not have any difficult asanas, it has no lotuses. People sweat, and loose excess weight. And Bikram himself is a very outstanding person.
In general, sometimes it is easy to judge other people. Take a detached look at yourself, and probably you will see that you have the same problems. It is very difficult to get rid of weeds in your own garden. It is very easy to notice problems in others, but not to solve your own same problems.
I have already mentioned that there are various generations of Ashtanga. Now we can speak about three various generations of Ashtanga, probably the fourth generation is already coming. Also there is an old school of teachers. And you will feel that teachers of old school have the same philosophy, the same life outlook, as I have. There is a question: if you wish to be involved in it till the end of the days then why should you complicate it? Simplify! Concentrate on breath, on locks; well, you cannot make a difficult asana – it is not so terrible.
There are young teachers who say that if you practice Ashtanga, you should do everything accurately. And in some sense I can understand them; people want the practice to be correct, supervised. But even Pattabhi Jois has slightly changed some things during these years. Pattabhi Jois was a very understanding and loving person. Though I knew him for a very long time, there are many people who spent more time in Mysore, than I did. But every time when I saw him, he started to shine and smile: “O! David Swenson! Veeery old student!”
I will tell to you about the most touching thing that he did in my regards. On his 90th birthday he invited me to his home, called me in his room and took out a beautiful silk shirt out of a wall case. He wanted me to put on this shirt for his birthday. Has looked in my eyes and said: “I want you never forget me. Do not forget me”. I said: “Guruji, how can I forget you”.
"Do not forget me" David and Jois
And it seems to me that concerning yoga each of us has a certain purpose. It was always clear that Sharat should become a successor of Pattabhi Jois. But Sharat knows that he cannot become Pattabhi Jois, he is his successor. After all Pattabhi Jois was the only one. As well as B.К.S Iyengar is the only one. When he leaves who will take his place? Pattabhi Jois was precisely the same person for Ashtanga. One thousand of teachers are required to take his place. To understand Pattabhi Jois you need to look at my generation of teachers, because we are parts of Pattabhi Jois.
Actually all this is very interesting, because there are different generations of students, teachers, people in general. When I was teaching Ashtanga yoga, I was always putting a lot of efforts to be something like Switzerland. In all wars Switzerland remained neutral. It was always interesting to be with Pattabhi Jois but when I was visiting Mysore, I was going to classes of Saraswati as well. Sometimes I could call Manju and go for his class. I was practicing with Sharat in Mysore and on his retreats in Goa. I am in friendly relations with everyone, I love all the family. And it seems to me normal that various teachers have different ideas, own opinions. It seems to be correct, it is natural. I think the system becomes more complete when students can think independently. But what the other teachers teach is not my business. My duty is to teach with my heart, to respect my teachers and to try to live keeping the integrity. And to say things I believe in. What other people do is a part of their way. And I try to respect everyone I meet on the way. It is an unusual time now because Pattabhi Jois is not here anymore and there are students of Sharat appear. It looks like a real family, in real family children not always are able to find the common language. Sometimes there are quarrels between them. But in the end of the day you understand, that this is your family and you love all of them. In a life it is very important to understand each other and yoga teaches that.
Ashtanga Yoga is more than a person, is more than a city. Ashtanga Yoga lives, when people are practicing it, instead of speaking about it. And it seems to me that the teacher has one main objective, one basic role is to inspire his students, to inspire them to practice. It is not necessary to influence people’s lives, it is important to show them how to use the certain tool and how it is possible to change their life by means of this tool.
I will tell you something that David Williams has told me. You probably saw my DVD which is called “Advanced A&B”, and in the beginning of this disk there is a small interview, and I ask him in this interview: “David how did you come to Yoga?” He says: “When I was young, I heard about yogis in India who become wiser with years. I looked around myself in America and have not found any person who became wiser with years. I have found only that with years they become more and more sick. Then I went to India and as a police dog started to look for the best, the most classical system of yoga which can only exist on the earth. When I found Ashtanga yoga, I have realized it is what I was looking for. I have decided to practice this yoga for 50 or 60 years and to look, what will be an effect. And it is true yoga needs to be given decades. We are the first outside of India who have started to practice it. Some time should be given to understand: whether we develop, whether we grow. In the end of life, probably, I will look back and I think: it did not worth this. But so far I consider that Ashtanga yoga is great”.
In conclusion of our meeting I want to tell you that it is a great honor and great pleasure for me to be here in your house. The best advice which I can give concerning the practice is the following: find a way to get pleasure from it. Sometimes people tend to complicate everything. Show them how to get pleasure from yoga and they will want to do it for all their life.
Thanks to Leonid Kutuzov and Dmitry Romanovsky (Saint Petersburg) for help in organizing the meeting.
David with his wife Shelly, Mysore 2009