Dr. Shriram Sarvotham, (PhD, E-RYT-500) and his wife Ekaterina Jeleva (RN, FNP, E-RYT-200 RYT-500), also an accomplished Yoga Teacher, founded the "EkaShri Schools of Yoga", a non-profit, in 2019. He has been practicing yoga since childhood and teaching yoga for over three decades. There are a number of insightful articles on yoga on his websites. Shriram’s prime focus is to share authentic and holistic yoga practices that are rooted in classic yoga texts. He has taught over 300 yoga workshops and retreats all over the USA, led numerous mega-yogathon events, and has given lectures and demonstrations at prestigious yoga conferences. He began his yoga training with Yogacharya R. Subramanian in Chennai, India, with whom he studied for 14 years. During this time, in addition to the thorough foundations on yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathwork), he also studied the classic yoga scriptures including the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika. After moving to the USA in 1999, he continued to deepen his study with Yoga Masters including Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswami and Swami Bodhananda Saraswati. He is a faculty of Yoga Teacher Training programs for several yoga institutions and studios, including Yoga Bharati, a branch of SVYASA Bangalore. He is a recipient of the “Exemplary Service Award in Yoga” given by the
Consulate General of India, and the “Yoga Service Award” given by ISKCON.
Learn More: https://ekashri.yoga
Interview by Usha Akella (2022)
“Yoga as Art”: Choreographing yoga with dance in the “Chitram” project
(prayatna = struggle, shaithilya = let go)
Teaching is not like pouring the contents from one container to another,
but to be a lit candle that lights up other candles.
Conversation with Dr.Shriram
Usha Akella: Thank you Shriram ji for conversing, as ever since I had the good fortune to do a workshop with you a few years back, I’ve hoped for the opportunity to highlight your work. Pov.com seems the perfect platform now to do so. Your passion, knowledge, commitment and conviction about yoga made the learning experience exemplary and unique. In the years since, your work has multiplied enormously. I am curious as to how and why you were ignited with a love for yoga so young, not all are drawn to their life’s passion or mission that early. I’d like to know a bit about your family and the environment that may have inclined you to yoga and spiritual practices, your childhood growing up in Chennai.
Shriram Sarvotham: Thank you, Usha ji, for having me on Pov.com. It is indeed a pleasure to talk about the
discipline that is close to my heart: Yoga. I have benefited immensely from the practice and wisdom
of Yoga and I feel the inner calling to share the joy of Yoga with the world. I grew up in a spiritually charged environment; a great blessing that I am incredibly grateful for. I have vivid memories of awakening to my father’s devotion-filled Sanskrit chants every day. I would sit on his lap as he sang the devotional chants. At the time I did not understand the meaning of the Sanskrit chants, but I was powerfully drawn to it. The tranquil experience listening to the chants made an indelible impression in my mind. Later in high school, I was very fortunate to study Sanskrit for five years. This helped me tremendously when I embarked on the systematic study of classic yoga texts. Perhaps the most visible part of yoga practice in the world today is asanas (yoga postures). Indeed, most people associate yoga with the practice of postures. My first exposure to asanas was in high school. I saw a classmate demonstrate a few advanced yoga postures. I was awestruck by the lightness, flexibility, and strength of the body to articulate such movements so effortlessly. This
inspired me to learn Yogasanas. I decided to meet his teacher, and I enrolled myself in the yoga shala, which was called “Yoga Alayam”, the temple of yoga. I studied with Yogacharya R. Subramanian, my first yoga teacher and guide, for 14 years. As part of the studies, we took up several yoga projects where we taught yoga and presented lectures and demonstrations at various schools and institutions. This is when I discovered the incredible joy of sharing yoga with others.
UA: Why are you so deeply convinced about the yoga path? I’d like you to highlight your answer with personal experiences about efficacy and transformation.
SS: My conviction about yoga is based on my own personal experience as well as the transformation that I have seen in others. I have noticed that over the years, my awe and respect for yoga has only increased. Even today, 36 years after I was initiated to yoga, I feel amazed by its power to transform the body and mind towards harmony. Indeed, the systematic, well-crafted practices in yoga unlock exuberant health and wellness. The system of yoga is built upon the insights of Yogis over an unbroken tradition that spans thousands of years.
I would like to share a couple of anecdotes where I was awestruck by the power of yoga. The first instance was way back in 1993, when I was preparing to write the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) to seek admission to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). The JEE is notoriously competitive and challenging, as many students from India can attest: the admission rate is less than 1%. The exam demands several years of intense study and preparation in math and science. The day before my JEE exam, I visited my yoga teacher, as per tradition, to seek his blessings. He immediately noticed that I was nervous and anxious about the exam. He looked at me
and said— “I want you to come to the yoga shala on the morning of your exam; we will do an hour of yoga practice together. Your mind will then be relaxed and your intellect sharp; you will be ready to give your best.” My initial reaction was “NO WAY!”! I thought to myself- I need the 1 hour before the exam to cram the last bits of math and physics. But thankfully I decided to follow my teacher’s advice. Indeed, his words were 100% true: after the hour-long yoga session on the day of the exam, my mind was free of anxiety; I felt super-charged, crystal clear in the mind, and confident. Not only did I succeed in the exam, but I also exceeded my own expectations. What I discovered that day was that yoga not only promotes inner tranquility, but it also helps one to be dynamic in thought and action. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji puts it beautifully: Yoga gives you IPOD— acronym for Inner Peace and Outer Dynamism. I attribute this success solely and absolutely to yoga. I also learned another important lesson: “I don’t have time to practice yoga” is not at all a good excuse; in fact, it is a horrible one! Indeed, yoga is a powerful tool that can be utilized during times of challenges and pivotal moments in life. In the words of my teacher, “do not forsake yoga when you need it most!”
The second instance I would like to share is from a yoga workshop that I taught in 2001 in a YMCA in Houston TX. We had a wonderful group of 40 enthusiastic participants from different age groups: the youngest was a 12-year-old boy and the oldest in the group was Mary, a cheerful, 82- year-young lady. To keep the practices accessible to everyone in the class, I was careful to select
simple postures and breathwork. As I always do, I ended each session of the yoga workshop with deep relaxation. Invariably, a few participants blissfully fall asleep during the deep relaxation – which is a wonderful thing. “Snoring during deep relaxation is like music to a yoga instructor’s ears”, my teacher used to say. After one of the deep relaxation sessions, Mary continued to be in slumber well after the class was over. When she awakened after 20 minutes, she had a beaming smile, and said to me, “this is the first time in 30 years that I was able to sleep without sleeping pills!”. This experience opened my eyes to the fact that even very simple practices in yoga are
incredibly powerful. I had a chance to meet Mary a couple of years after that workshop. I was delighted to learn that she did a yoga training program to conduct yoga classes for seniors and was actively practicing yoga and teaching yoga in her neighborhood.
The practice and wisdom of yoga has been built upon thousands of years of insights, intuition, and revelations by great yogis. There are a number of practices that are so unique to yoga, and perhaps not found in any other forms of health discipline. For example, the yogis have gone great lengths to discover and analyze the secrets of the breath and to harness the power of the breath. Practices such as bandhas (energy locks), mudras (hand gestures as well as whole body gestures), inverted postures, practices such as nauli (abdominal churn) to invigorate the vital organs of the body, concentration practices such as trataka, are all unique to yoga. Yoga also recognizes that ethics and living a life of integrity is a vital ingredient for exuberant health. In fact, the first two limbs of yoga as propounded by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras establish guidelines around ethics. There is a sacredness in yoga that engages the practitioner at all levels – physically, mentally, and spiritually. The combination of postures, breathwork and meditation in yoga is extraordinarily powerful. When
we introduce this combination in our life, it creates the foundation for exuberant health and enormous personal growth.
UA: Please define exactly what you teach as there seem to be many variations in teaching methods and paths.
SS: My personal mission is to share my passion for yoga and to ignite the same enthusiasm in others. I teach three types of yoga activities. The first is regular yoga classes and yoga practice workshops, with focus on postures, breathwork and meditation. The second is to teach yoga philosophy based on classic yoga texts such as Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, etc. Third, I lead yoga teacher training programs where we empower interested student to teach yoga that is holistic, rooted in the rich traditional ethos, and in a safe and compassionate manner. In the yoga classes and workshops, I lead a holistic practice of yoga that combines asanas (postures), vinyasas (movements), pranayama (breathwork), and dhyana (meditation). In the last few years, I have been primarily teaching the Vinyasa Krama system of yoga, pioneered by the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya and taught by his longtime student, Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswami. Vinyasa Krama is a systematic, step-by-step progression that involves carefully crafted sequences of yoga practices. Each step in this sequence serves as a preparation for the next step and therefore allows for a deeper, fuller expression of yoga. I have witnessed incredibly deep experiences in participants through Vinyasa Krama Yoga. I feel blessed to be able to continue my yoga studies with Srivatsa Ramaswami sir to this day, and to share his teachings in the role of a yoga teacher.
The in-depth study of yoga philosophy is an ongoing sadhana (practice) for me. I have had the good fortune and blessing to learn from numerous teachers who are eminent yogis and scholars. I also actively teach classes, workshops and courses on Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita (see https://www.hua.edu/product/the-yoga-of-bhagavad-gita/ and https://www.hua.edu/product/the-yoga-of-the-yoga-sutras/ for current courses with Hindu University of America).
I also lead regular chanting classes of yoga texts where we learn the meaning and imbibe the teachings through the practice of chanting, an integral part of “swadhyaya” or self-study in yoga. Learning and sharing about yoga philosophy has given me tremendous joy and deepened my respect and appreciation of yoga.
Our non-profit EkaShri Schools of Yoga has partnered with yoga institutions and studios such as Yoga Bharati and Downtown Yoga Shala (San Jose) to offer Yoga Teacher Training programs. Many of the teachers who graduated from our school are actively teaching yoga in yoga studios, fitness centers, corporate facilities, and schools. As part of our activities, we also publish regular podcasts and YouTube videos on different topics on Yoga. We have covered topics such as Ashtanga Yoga (the 8 limbs of Yoga), the four ingredients of a high-quality Yoga practice, the ten keys to meditation, the meaning of “Namaste”, introduction to Sankhya philosophy, the foundation of Yoga, and so on. The link to our podcast channel on YouTube is https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmHlHNkeW2FHQw-LLPOxJ-ZXnN52ap1T0 .
Apart from these regular teaching activities, I have given lectures, demonstrations and workshops at yoga conferences, health symposiums and wellness centers. While teaching the contents and information related to yoga is incredibly important, I have come to understand that there is something even more important than that: to invite the students to the experience of inner peace through yoga. I am reminded of a famous quote by the great poet Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”. Fortunately, yoga is an extraordinarily powerful system that can lead the practitioner to profound states of bliss. People remember such experiences as it makes an indelible impression on them. Most importantly, I believe that the primary role of a yoga teacher is to ignite the passion and appreciation for yoga in others. To give an analogy, teaching is not like pouring the contents from one container to another, but to be a lit candle that lights up other candles. This can happen even outside of a formal class or studio setting. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “the best way to inspire another is to become an inspiring role model.” (verse 3.21).
UA: Science, Spirituality or Art—what is yoga defined by? Is it a revelatory practice?
SS: One of the definitions of the word yoga is union. Sooner or later, a yoga enthusiast discovers that yoga is truly a harmonious union of all three: science, spirituality, and art. We see all three facets in the classic yoga texts. For example, in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali dons the hat of a scientist and presents a systematic analysis of the nature of the mind’s activities (vrittis), the eight parts (limbs) of a holistic yoga practice, the nine obstacles to the path of yoga and their accompanying symptoms, methods to transcend the obstacles, the precise definitions and roles of each practice (such as asana, pranayama, etc.) along with their unique benefits and how they perfectly complement each other, and so on. Indeed, such extraordinarily precise and thorough analysis demands a sharp intellect (“Paramanu” as Patanjali calls it – the intellect is sharp and can see the minutest of details).
At the same time, he underscores the value of beauty and gracefulness (“Roopa lavanya”) which evokes the artist from within. My teacher, Yogacharya Subramanian, used to say that for a devoted yoga sadhaka (practitioner), their practice becomes an experience and expression of art. When we see them doing asanas for example, there is great beauty of form and gracefulness in movements; their practice resembles a dance form more than a physical exercise. In fact, the word “Vinyasa” that has become synonymous with movements in yoga, is rooted in classical music and dance traditions of India. Vinyasa is the carefully crafted sequencing or placement – of musical notes in a melody, choreography sequence in dance, or postures in a yogasana sequence – that reveals the inherent beauty from within. (The word Vinyasa is made by combining the root word “aasa” – which means placement, with two prefixes. The first prefix “ni” stands for “nitaraam” which means stably: Ni + Aasa = Nyasa. The second prefix “Vi” represents “Vividha”—variety, or in some interpretations, “Vishesha”—special. Vinyasa = Vi + Ni + Aasa). Looking from this perspective, crafting a sequence of yoga postures is similar to composing music where the master musician creates a melody by sequencing a set of musical notes. It is no coincidence that in yogic mythology, the primordial teacher (adi guru) of yoga, Shiva, is also revered as “Nataraja”, the lord of dance.
One sign of health and wellness is appreciation of beauty in art forms. For instance, the same soul-stirring music that transports the mind to bliss, may sound jarring when the mind is troubled or the body is sick! No wonder it is said that in the experience of samadhi, the ultimate state of wellness, one sees beauty everywhere.
The legendary Yogacharya T. Krishnamacharya was a great master in “composing” asana sequences; he crafted nearly 800 Vinyasas that unfold gracefully in a step-by-step manner (kramas). This form of yoga was taught in Kalakshetra, the reputed dance academy and center for artistic excellence in India, by his disciple Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswami. Ekaterina and I have been fortunate and blessed to study Vinyasa Krama directly from Srivatsa Ramaswami sir.
At its core, yoga is rooted in spirituality. From my study and practice of yoga, I have come to understand that the state of yoga is about the experience of bliss and the expression of bliss. The classic yoga texts describe how this bliss can be experienced – by reposing in the self by way of inner practices such as meditation. In fact, yoga asserts that the Self is the only true source of bliss. When the bliss of the Self is then shared and expressed by way of thoughts, words and actions (karma yoga), we touch other people’s lives in profound and meaningful ways.
Circling back to the original question on whether yoga is defined by science, art or spirituality—I am reminded of the three main nadis (conduits of energy) described in the anatomy of the subtle body in classic yoga texts. These three nadis run along the spine, they are the pingala (related to science and analysis, left brain, right nostril), ida (related to art and creativity, right brain, left nostril) and the sushumna (synthesis and balance, communion, spirituality, and transcendence). It is amazing to see how yoga unites them together so beautifully.
Is yoga a revelatory practice? Interestingly, Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras talks about this in his exposition on Samadhi (mental equipoise, bliss). In certain states of samadhi, we awaken the latent inner powers such as intuition and creativity. He describes intuition as a process of revelation, where the truth is revealed in a flash of insight, in a quantum leap. The Sanskrit word that is used is rtambhara – the mind is filled with the revelation of truth. This is opposite of how logic and inference work, which is a more incremental and linear process. The knowledge gained by intuition is far superior, asserts Patanjali. These profound states of intuition are accessible with consistent practice of yoga. The yogi is also naturally and intuitively drawn towards actions that enhance health and wellness. The actions of a realized yogi become the practice for aspirant yoga practitioners. This is nicely expressed in a Sanskrit quote: “Siddhasya lakshanāni sādhakasya sādhanāni”, which means—that which comes naturally to a siddha (adept yogi) becomes the practice for a sādhaka (aspiring yogi).
UA: As your own practices deepened how did they alter your teaching methods?
SS: One of the roles of a yoga teacher is to be a tour guide who shares the amazingly rich and beautiful landscape of yoga. I seek primarily to share the yoga experiences and skills that I have strived to integrate in myself. I have noticed that it is easier to teach an asana that I practice every day. If I am requested to teach an asana that is not in my current daily practice, I either take a few days to integrate it into my practice first, or to refer them to other teachers who has mastered it in their practice. My teacher used to drill home this point: “The most effective teacher is one who teaches by personal example”. In fact, he required all of us to complete our daily sadhana (practice) before we start teaching a class. My teacher used to empower his students by giving them numerous yoga projects and teaching opportunities. I had the unique opportunity to teach for a variety of groups: in high schools, Universities, medical facilities, corporate offices, senior living homes, etc. I learned that I had to modify my teaching methods to fit the needs and temperaments of each group. For example, to emphasize the playful and lively aspects of yoga when teaching children, and slowly inspiring them to the deeper dimensions of yoga. One of the projects I was involved in was teaching weekly yoga classes for students at a school for the hearing impaired. I taught there for over two years. This was an eye-opening experience for me, as I had to completely transform my teaching methods. This was one of my most memorable experiences as a yoga teacher: I still remember the enthusiasm and the beaming smiles when they did yoga!
After the initial few years of teaching yoga, I discovered that to share profound experiences of peace, one does not need to master complex yoga postures. In fact, even simple postures that are carefully crafted in a sequence done with full awareness and mindfulness can lead one to far deeper states of bliss. Experience has also taught me that some postures that are seemingly very easy to do, can be very powerful at the same time. I remember in one workshop I taught to a group of healthcare professionals including Doctors and Nurses in a hospital in New York; the initial few minutes of breath-body synchronization practice of raising the arms up and down slowly in sync\ with in and out breath, had a profound impact on the participants. This gave me a newfound appreciation and respect for seemingly “simple” practices that I previously took for granted.
Over the course of several years, the workshops I teach include more wisdom from classic yoga texts such as the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. I remember that in the early days of my teaching here in the USA, I was reluctant to use Sanskrit words or share yogic wisdom beyond asanas and pranayama practices. I discovered that most of the students do indeed like to learn more of the deeper dimensions of yoga and to explore the foundational principles.
UA: You speak of the synergistic system that yoga is, do you feel there is a disregard to this as the way it is taught in the West as a mostly physical exercise? And, paradoxically in some ways, the West seems to be preserving the wisdom paths of the East.
SS: I feel that it does not really matter what the entry-point to yoga is. Sooner or later, almost everyone is led to discover that yoga is far greater than their original conception of yoga. My own study and practice of yoga started out with focus primarily on asanas, and I discovered later that it has much more to offer. The quote, “search for a trinket and find a treasure” aptly describes the yoga journey for a lot of people!
At the same time, when we use yoga only as a physical exercise, we are not harnessing the full power that yoga has to offer. Quoting my teacher, “By practicing asanas, we create the perfect foundation for deep meditation to unfold effortlessly. If our practice does not culminate in meditation, we are squandering the opportunity to soar higher in awareness and dive deeper in meditation”.
UA: I thought of ‘yoga as the flow or dance of breath’ and then happily read your article, Asana is a breathing exercise…
SS: In the Vinyasa Krama system of yoga, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on breathwork.Usually, yoga students compartmentalize the practice of asanas as body posture focused, and pranayama as breathwork focused. But in the Vinyasa Krama system, the primary focus is the breath even during asana practices. We use the ease of breathing as an indicator of the quality of the yoga posture. For example, if we push the body beyond the comfort zone, the struggle and discomfort will manifest itself in uneven breathing. So, we can think of asanas as practices for the body where we seek evenness of breathing in all the postures we do.
UA: Do you think yoga offers a framework for innovation and invention to broaden its scope and application? Should yoga be altered to suit cultural and social differences and temperaments?
SS: It is fascinating to see that despite the over 5,000-year history of yoga, it continues to be vibrant, alive, and lends itself to innovation. For example, one of the most powerful practices I have learned is the Sudarshan Kriya. I practice this every day, and it is the cornerstone of my yoga sadhana. Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji conceived the Sudarshan Kriya in 1981 and is practiced by tens of millions of people all around the world today.
The legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya adapted the yoga practices to suit the differences and temperaments of his students. Indeed, his students who went on to become great teachers themselves, such as B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, A.G. Mohan and Srivatsa Ramaswami taught very different styles of yoga practices. So yes, yoga does indeed offer the framework for innovation while being rooted in tradition. The legendary Yogi B.K.S. Iyengar gives the analogy of a tree, in his book aptly titled “The tree of yoga”. The tree draws its nourishment from its roots, yet the flowers that blossom on the tree are always fresh.
UA: What are some of the dangers when interpretation of practices is not grounded on the established rigor and science of yoga.
SS: As they say, anything that is powerful should be handled with care. In Indian mythology we read about examples of yogis who misuse their powers and fall from grace. Some recent trends where there is ruthless determination to master more and more advanced postures, may be detrimental and could cause injury. The key is to always keep in mind the first principle of yoga: Ahimsa (non-violence).
UA: I would love to explore a bit the relation of yoga to other Indian arts as dance, mantras and music.
SS: My teacher used to say that the ability to appreciate art, in any form, is a sign of excellent health. As mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to appreciate soulful music or enjoy poetry while experiencing a terrible tummy ache! Maharishi Patanjali talks about how physical health (which is the true wealth, as the saying goes) expresses itself as beauty of form, gracefulness in movements, and strength (yoga sutra 3.46). It is interesting to note how sensitivity and strength complement each other so beautifully in a state of exuberant health.
Shiva, in the form of the celestial dancer Nataraja, is revered both by dancers as well as yoga practitioners. Natarajasana, the “dancer’s pose” is one of the signature postures in yoga. The yoga school “Yoga alayam” (temple of yoga), where I studied with my teacher R. Subramanian for 14 years, was also (and still is) a dance academy led by accomplished dancer Smt. Jayanthi Subramanian (https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/dance/perfect-flight/article4630672.ece). Several dance students also enrolled themselves in the yoga classes and it greatly complemented their expression of the art form. One of the instructions that my teacher consistently gave in yoga sessions is to eschew mechanical, robotic movements and infuse aesthetic and graceful movements.
Ekaterina and I had the unique opportunity to collaborate with eminent Indian Classical Dance artists from Texas on the “Chitram” project in 2014. Chitram is a brainchild of Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, an eminent composer, scholar and musicologist. We crafted and choreographed a sequence of yoga postures set to music, with a team of 18 yogis. This was a fulfilling and memorable experience. I write about my experience on my blog post https://www.ekashrischoolsofyoga.org/articles/chitram-a-portrait-of-india . Recently, Ekaterina and I featured in the “Nada Yoga – Yoga of the sacred sound” video that was premiered on the International Day of Yoga on 21 st June 2022. You can watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAgk2E-GIMI.
The practice of Nada Yoga has been used to attain mystical yogic states by using the power of sound. Practices from Hatha Yoga, such as pranayamas, and mantra chanting have been used by musicians for voice culture. (For an example of this, see response to the next question). The path of Bhakti Yoga also uses music to experience and express devotion.
UA: Is yoga efficacious without the accompaniment of mantras? You also speak with great passion and conviction about the memorization of the Yoga Sutras and the remarkable purification effect you have felt in your practice and understanding. (https://www.ekashrischoolsofyoga.org/articles/yoga-sutra-chant). Comment.
SS: Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras talks about mantras as extraordinarily powerful tools (Sutra 4.1) in the practice of yoga. The father of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, considered chanting as an integral part of “swadhyaya”— self-inspired study of scriptural texts. Mantras are used in numerous ways in yoga. For example, mantras can be used for “japa”, repeated chanting either mentally or verbally of the mantra. Japa has the power to transform a habitually scattered or distracted mind to a focused mind. One intention in japa could be to contemplate on the meaning of the mantra on each repetition, to drill down and uncover deeper and deeper layers of meaning encoded in the mantra. In fact, one of the definitions of “mantra” is— that which offers protection upon repeated contemplation (mananaat traayate iti mantrah). Alternatively, the mantra can be used for the healing sound vibration it generates, such as in “bija mantras” or seed mantras. The power of sonic waves is used in modern medicine (for example, in lithotripsy to break up kidney stones); the yogis harness the same power using mantras to break the obstructions in the nadis (energy meridians).
Mantras are also used in Pranayama (breath work) to measure and regulate the duration of inhalation, retention, and exhalation. Specific mantras (such as the powerful Gayatri mantra) are chosen for this “samantraka pranayama” (mantra assisted pranayama) practice. Synchronizing the mantra repetition with the rhythm of the breath in this manner is a powerful way to supercharge the practice of pranayama. Mantras can also be used on postures and movements. A classic example is in the practice of Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutation. In the traditional method to practice the sun salutation, each of the postures in the sequence has an associated mantra that expresses gratitude to the sun, and it is chanted aloud while in the posture. My teacher Yogacharya R. Subramanian was a great master of this practice. Not only was he an adept yogi, but he was also an accomplished singer who was trained in classical Indian music. When he did Surya Namaskars, the whole neighborhood could hear his full-throated and resounding voice. Chanting in sun salutation creates a deeply spiritual experience, it also allows the practitioner to know whether they are breathing easily and comfortably in the posture. For example, beginners may find it difficult to chant aloud with a consistent tone in some of the sun salutation postures (especially the backbends). Indeed, this practice has also been traditionally used for voice culture by singers and chanters. My teacher was also very creative with this practice: he used to chant the mantras during sun salutations in various musical notes; this was a great joy to listen to! I believe it’s the chanting of mantras that profoundly elevates sun salutation from a mere physical practice to
that of a spiritual charged practice.
There are numerous other aspects of mantra chanting that I find deeply fascinating. To give one more example, the science of rhythm and meter (called “chandas” in Sanskrit) to chant verses is highly evolved and sophisticated. One of the greatest mathematicians of our times, Fields Medal winner Prof. Manjul Bhargava was inspired by the science of chandas from ancient scriptures and led him to devote his life to mathematics (see https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/the-musical-formula/article14090140.ece ). Chanting for 20 to 30 minutes in the morning is an integral part of my yoga sadhana. Indeed, this is one of the most beautiful parts of my yoga practice.
Going back to the original question: is yoga efficacious without the accompaniment of mantras? I would say that while yoga is effective with or without the use of mantras, we can profoundly elevate the quality of the yoga practice by using mantras. Why not use them if they are so powerful?
UA: What have been some of the exciting stages of your own research into yoga?
SS: I truly enjoy studying and researching about yoga – in fact the self-inspired study, or Swadhyaya, is a key aspect of yoga discipline. I have been deeply drawn to the classic yoga texts such as the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Yajnavalkya, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Rahasya, Yoga Makaranda, etc. The texts offer great clarity on the different elements of the yoga practice.
For example, the word “meditation” is often overloaded and / or misunderstood to mean many things. The Yoga texts define meditation (dhyana) in a very precise and clear manner, which greatly benefits a yoga student who embarks on a systematic study of yoga. Patanjali defines "dhyanam" (meditation) in sutra 3.2: "tatra pratyaya ekatānatā dhyānam"; meaning, the contents of the mind appear identical from one moment to the next. The flow of awareness is so peaceful and devoid of turbulence, that there is an experience of tranquility. This is not mental inertia or laziness; rather, Patanjali describes it as a "flow of peace" (Sutra 3.10: "tasya praśānta
vāhitā samskārāt). The metaphor of a gentle, continuous flow of oil (taila dhāravat) is often given. In this state, we do not unnecessarily expend the vital energy (prāna) on turbulent flow of thoughts; rather, we conserve energy. Meditation therefore rejuvenates the system, and reduces the wear-and-tear in the system. Furthermore, meditation awakens latent inner powers. The mind becomes highly creative and gains the ability to tap into intuition. Meditation transforms the quality of our actions too. Patanjali states that the actions inspired from a meditative state of mind do not bind us in the form of future misery (Sutra 4.6: "tatra dhyānajam anāśayam"); in other words, our actions are not sloppy or error-prone, they express excellence. We also find numerous other metaphors to capture the state of the mind in meditation, such as crystal-clear state (from Sutra 1.41 "abhijātasyeva maneh" -- flawless crystal) and brilliant (Bhagavad Gita
6.19 "yatha deepo nivātastah" -- bright flame in a windless place). Furthermore, the classic yoga texts delineate the benefits of each segment of the yoga practice (such as asanas, pranayama, meditation, etc.) and how these benefits complement each other beautifully. For example, it is said in yoga texts that the practice of asanas is highly effective in reducing the rajo guna (restlessness, anger, cravings and aversions), while pranayama reduces the tamo guna (feeling of heaviness, lack of clarity, darkness). When we combine the two practices together, both rajo guna and tamo guna reduce, allowing the satva (clarity, lightness) to come up. This is the perfect entry point for meditation. As I studied these wisdom nuggets, they all started fitting together nicely like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that reveal new vistas of yoga.
While studying with my teacher, I explored the different yoga texts on what they say about classic yoga practices. I wrote a few articles some years back on specific practices such as the shoulder stand (sarvangasana), posterior stretch (paschimatanasana), etc. I also learned numerous tips and insights that help in the practical aspects of yoga. For example, my teacher taught me how to determine whether the head is placed correctly in the headstand (shirasasana) by looking at the opening of the ear. In the correct placement, the opening of the ear is perfectly circular.
I am also drawn towards the study of yoga from the perspective of anatomy and physiology. I have attended numerous workshops with Leslie Kaminoff, the author of the bestselling book “Yoga Anatomy”. Furthermore, I am fascinated by the anatomy of the subtle body, such as the chakras, nadis and marma points that are detailed in classic yoga texts such as “Shat-chakra Nirupana”, “Yoga Yajnavalkya Samhita” and “Shiva Swarodaya”.
As part of my research project in Yoga Therapy accreditation that I am currently pursuing as a student with Yoga Bharati, I did a research study on low-back pain and how yoga practices can be effective in relieving the pain. One of the amazing features of yoga practice is that it systematically exercises the spine in all its modes of movements, such as forward bends, back bands, side bends, spinal twists, axial extension, and inversions. Yoga is perhaps the only health discipline that engages the spine fully in all modes of movement. Furthermore, many of the root-causes of physical ailments reside in the mind- they are psychosomatic in origin. So, the practices such as pranayama (breathwork) and meditation can effectively address the root-cause of illness wherever it is hiding.
One of my most favorite part of yoga study is to learn about the lives of great yogis such as Maharishi Patanjali (regarded as the father of yoga), Sage Kapila (propounder of Sankhya philosophy, the foundation of yoga), Yogi Matsyendranath (renowned Hatha Yogi), Sant
Jnanadev, Sant Eknath, Yogi Tirumoolar (contemporary of Patanjali and the author of the Tamil yoga epic “Tirumandiram”), to name a few. As well as Yogis of modern times such as Swami Vivekananda, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Sri T. Krishnamacharya (revered as the father of modern yoga), Swami Kuvalayananda (who pioneered modern research in yoga), B.K.S. Iyengar (perhaps the most famous Yogi and teacher in recent times), Pattabhi Jois (architect of the Ashtanga Vinyasa), Yogacharya Srivatsa Ramaswami, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Swami Ramdev and many many more who inspire the world through Yoga.
Conversation with Ekaterina
UA: Your bio mentions an interest in integrative approaches with your nurse training I’d love to know more.
Ekaterina Jeleva: I am a Nurse Practitioner, Yoga teacher and an Ayurvedic wellness counselor. My education in these three disciplines has expanded my perspective around health and wellness. I believe that each of these systems has something unique to offer and can complement each other nicely. I truly want people to feel healthy and beautiful inside out – not just at a superficial level. After a stressful day at work, most people use medications just to relax and sleep. From my own experience, the practice of Yoga is effective in relaxing and rejuvenating the whole system, at the same time I am able to bring excellence in my work. As a healthcare professional myself, I have witnessed the incredible stress that physicians and nurses go through on a daily basis. For example, many nurses have chronic shoulder pain and back pain. I have helped my nursing colleagues with simple yoga movements and postures. This inspired many of them to embark on a more committed journey into yoga. I also worked with people who were on depression medications and the practice of yoga postures, breathwork and meditation brought them great relief. It also helped them improve their relationship with family, and relationship with themselves. Yoga also helped them become more enthusiastic and upbeat about pursuing their careers and dreams.
UA: It must be extremely joyful to be able to share and disseminate your passion for yoga with your spouse. How has the journey as teachers together been, what are some of the highlights?
EJ: In fact, it was Yoga that united us together: we first met each other in a Yoga Conference in New Jersey in 2008! Shriram has played an instrumental role throughout my yoga journey. His teachings on yoga philosophy and the grounding in yoga tradition have especially shaped my yoga experience. I love to teach together with Shriram ji! Interestingly, our personal practices as well as our teaching styles are very different. Yet we complement each other with our contrasting styles. For example, while Shriram’s classes are introspective and deeply meditative, my teaching style is geared towards more dynamic aspects of yoga; Shriram calls it “Shakti power”!
We founded the “EkaShri Schools of Yoga”, a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 2019 with the blessings of our teacher Swami Bodhananda Saraswati (web: http://www.ekashri.yoga ). Our vision is to train yoga teachers and leaders and empower them to spread the joy of yoga in its authentic form. Many of the teachers we have trained are now actively teaching in Yoga Studios, fitness centers, high schools, senior homes, etc., touching the lives of hundreds of people. We have also partnered with numerous organizations such as Yoga Bharati, Sambodh Society for Human Excellence, “The 10” Youth Excellence Center, Downtown Yoga Shala San Jose, etc. It has been an incredible journey so far and we are eager to manifest more in the years to come!