At an international yoga conference, a tall, imposing guard stood at the threshold of the ballroom where Sri Dharma Mittra was scheduled to lead a class. Inside, staff members bustled about preparing the stage, sound system, and lights.
I was smiling at his repose when someone said to the guard, “Excuse me, that’s Dharma.”
When Dharma approached, the guard told him to wait outside with the others. The teacher nodded, turned, and took a place among some two hundred people waiting to receive his teaching. Folding his hands, Dharma stood contentedly with his students. I was smiling at his repose when someone said to the guard, “Excuse me, that’s Dharma.”
The guard apologized, but Dharma simply bowed his head and responded with a smile.
“Dharma is a yogi, not just a yoga teacher,” says Krishna Das, who holds kirtan (chanting) whenever he can at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City. “He’s really special. He’s facing the light, and everything he does is aimed in that direction. He’s not looking to make a fortune or for name and fame—he’s sharing his knowledge and wisdom and the fruits of many years of practice. It’s a beautiful thing.” Few American students have the benefit of studying under a true yogi. My neighbor, for instance, stopped going to her yoga class because she felt she wasn’t “good enough” to do a handstand. She experienced yoga as a physical endeavor in which she could not compete successfully. And competition is so ingrained in the American way of life that as yoga mingles with the forces that shape our culture, it often becomes part of the package.
We want to look better; we want to feel better; we want to make more money. Most of us were taught to compete and conquer. It is easier for us to think of yoga as a series of exercises than it is for us to understand its deeper meaning.
Commercialization has created a yoga industry, replete with competition. But commercialization has also distorted yoga, obscured its meaning, and reduced it to a type of exercise. It disregards yoga’s fundamental aims and values, and ends up perpetuating some of the very things classical yoga instructs us to release—greed, egoism, attachment.
Some people argue that the various “popular” forms of Americanized hatha practices aren’t even yoga. Yoga, after all, means “union,” not “move the body around on a rubber mat.” And the process of unification is internal. In other words, the aim of yoga is to help us purify and still the body, breath, and mind so that we can see for ourselves what lies beyond our egocentricity.
Some people argue that the various “popular” forms of Americanized hatha practices aren’t even yoga.
So do those at the forefront of commercial yoga impart yoga’s true meaning and messages? Sure, asana is taught, and maybe even a little pranayama, but many students are not receiving guidance in meditation, the yamas (restraints), the niyamas (observances), and the contemplation of God and Self. And as yoga is diluted and demand drives expansion, it becomes increasingly difficult to find true spiritual leaders on the path. Precious few of today’s teachers have received classical yoga instruction from living masters or undergone years of training in the ancient tradition of service, meditation, contemplation, scriptural study, and initiation.
Amid all the growth and mutation, Sri Dharma Mittra is a rare treasure. He has remained steadfastly focused on classical yoga for over forty years, but he also accepts the variant American forms. “Let’s say a student goes to a yoga center where people don’t talk about God or teach the yamas and niyamas,” he says. “If this is the case, then it is just a preparation for yoga. A yogi without the Sutras is nothing. But people are attracted to these variant forms according to their readiness—they are not prepared yet to face the real yoga. But don’t worry. They are getting ready for higher things. All yoga centers are divine. They fit different types of students.
“Every student has his karma,” Dharma continues. “If they are dishonest and suspicious, then they attract that type of guru. But eventually, they will start looking for answers. If they are thirsty for the truth, and they’re in the wrong place, they will change the place. If they’re really looking for God, they will find the right guru.”
Had he ridden the wave of commercialization, Dharma would surely be among today’s yoga celebrities—but he avoids recognition. Humility and aparigraha (non-greed) have kept him out of the media spotlight. It is word of mouth that has brought tens of thousands of students to his door.
“Dharma is humility—he is the virtue itself,” says Pam Flynn, who studied with him for thirteen years. “While some teachers promote themselves, Dharma simply remains true to the tradition.”
He adapts to his students with seeming effortlessness; after class, he will often stay an extra half hour (or more) just to answer questions. “Sometimes I see students who are asking very high questions,” he says. “If they’re interested in spiritual stuff, I go high, and we’ll talk about it. If I see they’re just interested in the physical level of things, then I go to that level.” And if he feels that students have not enjoyed a class, he’s been known to follow them out and refund their money.
“Though he’s a hatha yoga master, Dharma knows that people have different abilities, and he allows you to be who you are,” says Arlyne Ziskind, who has studied with Dharma since 1981. “He has always had students who come just to be in his presence even though they can’t do half the postures. And because he accepts that, you can have a class with an advanced student alongside someone who is just starting out—and both benefit.”
In addition to asana, Dharma teaches meditation, advanced pranayama, kriya cleansing techniques, japa (mantra repetition), and chanting. He often interprets scriptural passages and stresses codes of proper conduct, the importance of a healthy diet, equanimity, forgiveness, God’s equal presence in all life forms, being receptive to grace, and surrendering expectation. Satsanga (the company of the wise) is held about once a month, and Dharma is available by appointment to help students with personal problems.
In addition to asana, Dharma teaches meditation, advanced pranayama, kriya cleansing techniques, japa (mantra repetition), and chanting
Born in central Brazil, Dharma first studied yoga from books that he “snuck” from his younger brother in the 1950s. Although his family was Catholic, he was fascinated by the concepts of karma and reincarnation. He says he was worried about where we go when we die.
In 1963 Dharma’s brother moved to New York City and became a disciple of Yogi Gupta. Dharma followed as soon as he could. “I was desperately looking for some answers,” he says, “and a guru was almost impossible to find in Brazil at that time. So as soon as I arrived I started private classes with Yogi Gupta. My brother had to translate because I couldn’t speak a word of English. But I never missed a class.”
For the first four years Dharma shared a Village apartment with his brother, working as a porter in a city-maintained hospital for drug addicts. He spent the rest of his time practicing karma yoga at Yogi Gupta’s ashram and trying to improve his vocabulary so he could teach.
By 1968 Dharma was able to lead his own classes at the ashram. He lived in a five-foot by seven-foot “room,” which he made by dividing a larger room into seven spaces for live-in disciples, and for the next seven years he fixed whatever needed fixing, built whatever needed building, prepared food for everyone, and taught thousands of students.
Adjusting to renunciation wasn’t easy. “Sometimes I suffered,” Dharma says. “You get very depressed and lonely when you abandon everything—no family, no money, no entertainment, no going out. You can’t feel the presence of God so quickly. Some people can’t stand it. You have the temptation to leave every day. But the pain was just attachment. Deep inside, I was happy.”
Dharma’s goal was self-knowledge. “I think karma yoga is the best way to purify the heart and to remove all selfishness,” he says. In other words, karma yoga is about surrendering the ego and serving something greater than ourselves. It has to do with releasing our expectations. It doesn’t mean that we won’t receive the byproducts of our actions; it means realizing that we don’t own them.
“A perfect action is one with no strings attached to it, no expectations—not even of spiritual progress,” Dharma continues. “But it’s very hard to know if people are really doing it, because they may still expect some spiritual benefit from their actions. There was a student who used to work at the ashram during the day and then come to class that night expecting not to pay. Selfless work has no credit.”
Dharma opened his own yoga center in 1975 after he left the ashram. In the early 1980s, he took up residence in a space on west Fourteenth Street and created a yoga sanctuary in a neighborhood crawling with drug dealers and addicts.
“Dharma was always the same, even with the crazy people,” says Ziskind. “He lived and breathed yoga. I’ve seen him under the most trying conditions, and he always remained centered in the quiet within.”
In late 1983 Dharma started planning his famous poster of 908 asanas, which he dedicated to Yogi Gupta. Now, it hangs in ashrams and studios around the world. “The idea came quickly,” he says. “Every pose brings a state of consciousness according to its shape. I wanted students and teachers to see the angles of the poses and to have it all in one place for easy reference.”
Only after public demand approached burgeoning heights did Dharma put his name on the poster and begin charging for it to cover printing expenses.
So Dharma took inventory of all the poses known at the time; he gathered books and talked to every guru he knew. He then mounted a camera in his studio, and every morning he shot 72 black-and-white photographs of himself in postures. In less than a month he had photographed all 908 poses. It took a few additional months to lay out the poster by hand. Dharma then printed five thousand copies and gave most of them away (along with wheatgrass and sprouts) to his students. Only after public demand approached burgeoning heights did Dharma put his name on the poster and begin charging for it to cover printing expenses. Thirty thousand have been printed to date.
Ziskind says it was phenomenal to see him work on the project. “He was pure energy effortlessly emerging into beautiful form,” she says. “There was no struggle whatsoever. Just perfection.”
Dharma is clearly an asana master, and in his mid-seventies, after over four decades of teaching, you can still find him leading some of the most challenging hatha classes around at his center on Third Avenue at Twenty-third Street. But that is only the beginning.
“There is a full experience of yoga in every class,” says Andrea Cione, also one of Dharma’s students. “For so many years I’ve watched Dharma live in his simplicity, showing us that yoga is about how you live your life and how you behave toward yourself and others. The yamas and niyamas are a part of everything he does, so we really understand—not by intellectualization, but by experiencing someone who embodies them.
“Through asana, meditation, and pranayama,” she continues, “you can have an experience that is as deep as the moment will allow you. Dharma’s purpose is to give each of us the space to understand the deepest part of our own being. And if we have enough moments like that, we will eventually grow and gain realization. Once we connect to that, we take it with us wherever we go.”
The many forms of yoga we see in the U.S. today are simply the latest buds on the branches of a practice that reaches back at least five thousand years. It is unlikely that their growth can be sustained unless these buds draw from their roots and empower students to do the same.
Yoga trends may come and go, but Dharma remains—firmly rooted in the tradition. “To see everything equally—the same—that is yoga,” Dharma says. “Make your mind even and steady and have the ability to hold like that under any circumstance. Like an anvil, remain always the same, no matter how much hammering.”