Ashtanga Yoga Q&A with David Swenson


Yoga International emailed questions to three top Ashtanga Yoga teachers—David Swenson, Richard Freeman, and Tim Miller. In this Q&A, David Swenson comments, often poetically, on K. Pattabhi Jois and his legacy, on the “unseen” aspects of yoga practice, and on the connection of the practices to Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (8 limbs of yoga) in the Yoga Sutra. He also talks about the importance of bringing yoga off the mat and into the world, and about transforming the sense of loss left by Pattabhi Jois’s passing. 

Ashtanga yoga in the West has come to mean a set of hatha yoga sequences taught by Pattabhi Jois. What were his main teachings and legacy?

K. Pattabhi Jois’s teachings and presence had a profound effect on the world of yoga! Though viewed from a distance the practice of Ashtanga Yoga appears to be simply a set of hatha yoga postures, there is truly a whole world of other deeper realms at play beneath the surface of this visible physical veneer. The asanas are merely tools with which we may explore the energetic and mystical world of yoga. The reason people think of Ashtanga as merely a physical practice of asanas is because that is what can be seen. The real yoga is what we cannot see! This system applies a series of elements which, when combined together, create what I would call The Five Elements of Practice.

The real yoga is what we cannot see!

These five elements are: bandhas (internal energy valves), ujjayi breathing (sound breathing), asana (specialized sequencing), drishti (a focused point of gaze), and vinyasa (the precise alignment of breath and movement). Through application of these basic foundation principles, Pattabhi Jois taught a holistic approach to yoga and living. He was a Sanskrit scholar and teacher and conveyed depth of philosophy through his vast knowledge of the traditional yogic texts. He also had an enthusiasm, joy, and positive energy that was contagious and inspiring. His teachings empowered his students by providing them with yogic tools for self-exploration and personal growth.  

What are the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga? Do you have a favorite limb, and what is the main limb your students overlook?

Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi—these eight limbs are the basis for Patanjali's structural view of yoga in the form of a tree. To choose one limb as a favorite is like gazing upon a beautiful, majestic oak tree and trying to choose one of its limbs as a favorite. The inherent beauty and wholeness of the tree depends upon the balancing effect of all of its limbs. For me to choose a favorite limb feels the same as the dilemma of choosing the favorite part of a tree or a parent choosing a favorite child. I take them as a package deal. Rather than viewing them as separate entities, I see them as integral and cellular components of one grand old tree. Pattabhi Jois taught us that the best way to water the tree was through application of the overall principles of practice.  

How can students apply Ashtanga Yoga to their daily lives, and how can they keep Pattabhi Jois’s legacy alive in the Western world?

Pattabhi Jois was fond of saying "99% practice and 1% theory.” Practice did not just mean flowing through asanas on our mat but rather the utilization of the beneficial aspects of the asana practice within the realms of the rest of our day. The goal was never to spend more time on the mat. The ultimate goal was to increase prana while practicing on the mat and then to take that positive energy back into our daily life and make the world a better place. What does that mean? Well, our mat can become a microcosm for the rest of our life. How do we deal with the asanas that are challenging and the ones we love? Breath, focus, and patience are the tools. When confronted with the challenges of daily existence we can draw upon the strengths we gain from our practice on the mat. 

There are many aspects of life that we do not have control over. For instance, the economy, weather, accidents, traffic, unkind people, and myriad other instances and situations we may confront within a day. Though we do not have control of these things surrounding us, we do have control over how we react to the circumstances, situations, and challenges that life presents to us. Through the practice of yoga our reactions, actions, and general demeanor are refined. The greatest respect that can be given to Pattabhi Jois is for his students to demonstrate the benefits they have gained through their practice by acting with greater compassion, patience, and overall integrity in their lives. In this way, the legacy of Pattabhi Jois and his teachings will carry on for generations to come and his positive energy will continue to shine through the lives of his students. 

What is the importance of breath?

Breath is life! We enter this world riding upon the wings of an inhale and depart while exhaling. Life is truly one breath. Each and every one of us is one breath away from death. We stop breathing and within a short time life ends. Breath awareness is the central hub of the yoga wheel around which all else rotates. In Ashtanga we create a sound when we breathe. This sound acts as a mantra upon which we meditate and focus while practicing. This meditation holds true whether we are in stillness during an asana or in motion while flowing through the rhythmic movements of a vinyasa. We continue to hear the sound of our breath and its soft texture. If our mind wanders elsewhere, we bring it back to the task at hand. 

Breath awareness is the central hub of the yoga wheel around which all else rotates.

Breath unites ALL people on this planet regardless of religion, culture, faith, language, or belief. We all breathe! Our planet is covered with a thin veneer of oxygen. It is a life-giving blanket that nurtures us all. This atmosphere is in constant motion, circling around the globe. It unites us all without prejudice or judgment. For me, breathing with awareness is a spiritual act transcending all bias. For these reasons and many more, I feel that breath is important—not just in yoga but in all aspects of life. Bringing awareness, focus, and presence to it is yoga.  

What does it mean to you to be a yogi in the modern world?

The definition of a yogi that I most like is this: “A yogi is one who leaves a place just a little nicer than when they arrived!” I like this statement for its simplicity and down-to-earth recognition of yoga being something that benefits not only the one practicing it but also the world around them. We may hear someone refer to another person or themselves as a yogi. But what is this statement based upon? One may practice asanas beautifully or know many Sanskrit texts or do much chanting, but those things in and of themselves do not equate to being a yogi. 

The act of practicing or following a path of regulation requires discipline, but that is only part of the formula. The sadhana, or our preferred practice system or method that we perform, is really nothing more than a gardener tilling the soil to create a fertile plot of earth. The more we practice the more fertile we become, but it does not mean that we are spiritual or a yogi. It just means we are fertile. The choices we make next are the seeds that we plant in this fertile ground. If we choose to plant an ego there, it will grow even larger than the average person’s due to our fertility. Practice itself does not determine whether one is a yogi or not. It is what that person does with the positive energy they gained from their dedication that will determine their maturity of understanding. When one applies the benefits they have gained in a positive manner, then the aforementioned definition comes to fruition and the world around them is benefitted. 

Practice itself does not determine whether one is a yogi or not.

I would say that some of the greatest yogis I know are very unassuming. Maybe no one else in their family does yoga. They rise early and do their practice and then get their kids to school or take care of their other responsibilities with a grace, peace, and power without grandeur. They do not wear their “yoginess” on their sleeve. They simply let their life speak for itself. There may be many faces of a yogi. Some are more visible than others, but the result is always the same. By their presence we all benefit. If we wish to ask ourselves if we are a yogi, I think the question could be this one: “Is the world a better place by our presence in it?” 

How is the Ashtanga Yoga community today with Pattabhi Jois no longer here?

Of course the physical loss of Pattabhi Jois was followed by a deep pain and feeling of loss for anyone fortunate enough to have known him. For me, as I sat with the sadness of loss and contemplated his life and the powerful effect he had on me and countless others, I came up with an image that made it more bearable and brought peace to my heart. The image is of a grand old tree in the forest. Pattabhi Jois was like one of those magnificent trees that stands taller than the rest with a commanding majesty, presence, and fortitude. We gravitate naturally toward these big trees. People gather there and bring family, friends, and loved ones to relax beneath the comfort and security of its massive limbs. The tree provides shade and shelter and also becomes the fulcrum of a community. People travel from far and near to be near the tree. 

One day we visit the forest and the tree has fallen. The tree is no longer. Upon first glimpse of this scene we are overtaken with a deep sadness and longing for the tree. Our vision sees only the absence of the grand old tree and the void it has left by its passing. It leaves a sense of emptiness—a hole in our heart as though part of the tree were growing in our chest. If, however, we can sit down and further contemplate the scene, we may begin to see it with new eyes. Of course the tree was not going to live forever. Look what the tree has done in its life and also in its passing. The tree brought us together as a family and community while it was alive. 

When the tree falls it creates fertile ground where it lies. The earth becomes incredibly rich and full with nutrients, and a supportive environment has been provided for new and young trees to grow. In its passing it also leaves a hole in the canopy of the forest. This hole allows light to shine down upon the forest floor. Light is life in the forest. All trees and plants struggle toward the life-giving rays of the sun. With the new open conduit for light, there is fresh life-potential provided for the many small trees on the forest floor. This was the plan all along! The great tree’s purpose was ultimately to provide potential for many more trees to flourish in its place. 

The great tree’s purpose was ultimately to provide potential for many more trees to flourish in its place.

The light pouring down is the light of knowledge that Pattabhi Jois so readily shared. Within the fertile ground of practice that Pattabhi Jois facilitated around the globe, he laid the groundwork for many more small trees to begin to grow and carry on the legacy. There is not one person who will fill the void left by Pattabhi Jois. It may take many, many small trees to fill the spirit that he encompassed, but that is his blessing, and the community that was formed by his presence will carry on and grow in his absence. The Ashtanga community is strong and full with the memories he left in our hearts and the realizations gained from the practice he so deftly facilitated, encouraged, and inspired.  

We have heard about the annual led by the top Ashtanga teachers. What can people expect at the Confluence? Why is it so important to gather as a community annually?

Yes, it is a wonderful event. When reading your question, these are the first words that popped into my mind: community, family, love, legacy, and joy. Participants may expect to gain an experience of these things through practice and through panel discussions about the challenges and reality of applying yoga in daily life. The Confluence is a place where insights and knowledge are shared along with memories of K. Pattabhi Jois’s life. The event is a beautiful and wondrous demonstration of unity through a common shared love of Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga Yoga. It is a gathering of his students, his family, and friends in a positive setting. 

For the next event we are fortunate to have Pattabhi Jois’s son Manju join in, along with Richard Freeman, Tim Miller, and Dena Kingsberg, as well as myself. It is a great mix of personalities, energies, and experience. For us it is important to remain connected with each other by coming together in this beautiful setting. It is also important for the community of Ashtanga practitioners, young and old, experienced and new to the practice, to see the cooperation, respect, and love we all share for each other, for the practice we hold dear to our hearts, and for our beloved teacher. Participants are certainly in for a treat. I think that all attending will surely head home with a smile on their face and joy in their heart! 

What do you hope people take with them into their daily practice? What does the yoga community need to do to take the practice of yoga to the next level?

Hopefully people will leave with a renewed energy and inspiration. Ashtanga is a lifelong journey, and one will move through many phases of relationship with the practice. By spending time with people that have been doing this for decades, they should come away with tools to keep them moving forward in their own practice. 

The next level really means the weaving of the practice into other areas of life off of the mat. The next level does not mean more flexibility or strength but rather a deeper understanding of the realms of yoga that cannot be seen. The subtle aspects and their applications are the real next level. This can be achieved through the development and fostering of patience, awareness of our actions and interactions in daily life, and the willingness to make changes in our life to suit the most current needs of our situation. Weaving yoga into everyday experience is the goal. When we can blur the lines between practice and daily life we are moving in the right direction!

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