I don’t think I love God more than I love music. Why would a European sitting there, who doesn’t know the difference between Krishna and Rama, listen to this music for two hours?

Why are instrumental concerts so popular? Do we know if the performer is playing a kriti in Kannada or Telugu, or if that kriti is talking about this lord or that deity?

Our music is not about religion. It’s about bhakti to the music. If I do my music well, I feel one with whatever we call divinity or spirituality – much more than if I sit and read the Lalita Sahasranamam for twenty minutes. – Bombay Jayashri

I am often asked why I don’t lead the traditional opening and closing mantras in my Ashtanga Led and Mysore style classes.

When I read the above quote from Indian classical vocalist Bombay Jayashri, I was reminded of some of the reasons for this.

This quote from a musician reminded me of my yoga practice because Indian classical music and Ashtanga vinyasa yoga share some common features: An Indian Classical raga has strict structural rules that need to be followed by the performer, just as there is a strict vinyasa count and sequence to be followed in the Ashtanga system. In both practices surrender to this structure is essential to access some of the aspects of self-encountering.

Yet, Indian classical music also strongly emphasizes the ability of the performer to improvise within that structural framework. Similarly, each practitioner of the Ashtanga sequences must eventually develop their own unique style and way of performing the postures and vinyasa of the sequences. Without fully discovering one’s own individual expression of the structure, there can also be no authentic encountering of the self.

When a practitioner of either system is able to surrender to the structure, and simultaneously go deeply into a full expression of their unique felt experience of the performance of that structure, the result can be a divine experience, as described by Bombay Jayashri above.

My reasons for not leading the Ashtanga opening and closing mantras in my classes are certainly not due to a lack of respect, devotion or reverence for the tradition. Bhakti is a huge part of my life and my practice. Without bhakti, life is empty and the ability to go deep in practice is seriously inhibited. However, I don’t feel any particular bhakti towards a possibly mythical figure named Patanjali, nor to a system of philosophical conjecture called the Yoga Sutras.

I have observed that most people who exhibit strong displays of bhakti towards an idea or concept are using that as an escape from confronting and experiencing the reality of their own present experience. It takes them out of relationship with themselves and causes them to give away their personal power and authority.

When I say “an idea or concept”, I refer to anything that has not been directly experienced in the framework of one’s own body, nervous system and sensations. This would include philosophical ideas about attainable (but not yet attained) states of consciousness; deities and gods (which are usually just abstractions or idealizations of some aspect of the human experience); deceased or mythical human beings or any human being that one has never actually met and interacted with (such as Buddha or Patanjali or Sri K. Pattabhi Jois – for those who did not meet him).

Whether we consider it religious or not, displaying bhakti towards any of these concepts becomes an opiate. The nature of an opiate is to numb. It stops us from feeling ourselves. In my opinion, this is the exact opposite of what practice should do for us.
When we revere an idea, we reduce our personal authority and the power and validity of our own inner experience and we give our authority and power away to that idea. To me, this is the ultimate form of ignorance. We deny that which is real (what we experience inside ourselves) and worship that which is not real (ie. the abstract concept of a person, god or state of consciousness). This weakens our relationship with ourselves, weakens our ability to trust ourselves and reduces our sense of empowerment and self reliance. We become dependent on an often hierarchical system based on abstract concepts to tell us what to do and how to live and how to be in our lives. This is the stuff that cults are made of, and it is the reason why so many systems of spiritual practice become dangerously cult like.

Our own inner experience, at the felt level of sensation, should be our ultimate guide and authority in life. If we base all of our decisions on how we actually feel inside, we’ll experience much less inner conflict and disparity and become more whole and balanced and confident in ourselves. This will directly reflect in our actions in the world and interactions with other beings.
Yoga practice, or any authentic spiritual practice should increase our sensitivity and ability to feel the actual reality of our own bodies and minds in each and every moment. It should empower us and help us to trust ourselves by helping us to feel more accurately what the reality within actually is.

The Mysore method of the Ashtanga vinyasa system is one of the best ways I know to accomplish this. So, I have immense bhakti towards the Ashtanga practice. It brings me deeply into authentic relationship with my own inner reality for several hours every morning, while most people are still sleeping. I then try to bring this essence to the room when I teach. There is no need to perform a puja, as I have already done that through my own asana practice, alone with myself. This empowers me and gives me the strength to teach from a place of felt experience. As Mr. Iyengar once said, “the body is my temple and the asana are my prayers”. I want my students to experience the same thing.

My bhakti is towards my sadhana, and towards the teacher who directly enables me to use that sadhana to its highest potential. Ultimately, however the teacher and the sadhana are just vehicles to deepen my relationship with myself, and this is the ultimate recipient of my bhakti.

Any actions which strengthen and harmonize my relationship with myself are recipients of my bhakti. Any actions which cause me to give my power away to an external authority (usually a conceptual one rather than a real one) and weaken my relationship with myself are dangerous and should not be given reverence.

I won’t deny that for some people, chanting or prayer could be a method to help them encounter and feel themselves more deeply. However, for me this is not the case, and as a teacher I don’t choose to share anything that I have not actually experienced for myself.