This is a break from our regular posts about anatomy and asana in order to focus on another key element of a yoga practice - yoga philosophy. I don’t remember when I first heard about my teacher, Ramaswami, but as soon as I learned about him, I was interested in studying with him. He used to offer a 200hr Vinyasa Krama teacher training at LMU in Los Angeles. In 2015, he announced that it would be his last year. Although I didn’t have the money or the time, and I already had a 200hr and 500hr certificate, I somehow made it happen: I traveled to LA for 6 weeks to learn from this legendary teacher.
Srivatsa Ramaswami was a long-time student of the great yoga teacher and philosopher, Krishnamacharya. He began studying with Krishnamacharya as a teenager, and continued for the next 35 years of his life. In addition to asana, he learned all the great texts on yoga philosophy. Ramaswami is one of the foremost experts in yoga philosophy alive today. He has published several books (Yoga Beneath the Surface, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, and The Basic Tenets of Patanjala Yoga) and travels the world teaching.
As a yoga teacher, I was familiar with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and had read several different commentaries on the text. Even with all of my prior reading, it wasn’t until I took the course with Ramaswami that it finally “clicked” for me. I had a much greater understanding of the text as a whole, as well as how it fit into the history of yogic thought. Ramaswami took us through the text, sutra by sutra, offering his own commentary. He also encouraged us to simply read the sutra, think about it, and decide what it meant to us. His depth of knowledge about this, and other historical works, provided ideas and context that I hadn’t been introduced to before. He synthesizes all of these ideas in a way that made the philosophy come alive.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Ramaswami about the Yoga Sutras has to do with the definition of the word ‘yoga’. According to Ramaswami, this word is often mistranslated by yoga scholars. We commonly hear that yoga means ‘to yoke’, from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’. But it is actually a derivative of the word ‘yuja’ which means ‘peace of mind’, or ‘samadhi’, which is the 8th limb of yoga. This shouldn’t be a surprise - Patanjali himself defines yoga for us in the second sutra of book 1 of the Yoga Sutra.
Yoga citta vritta nirodha
Yoga is stilling the movements of the mind
Patanjali does not say that yoga means to ‘yoke’ or to ‘unite’. He clearly states that the definition has to do with stilling the mind. To me, this made immediate sense and helped me to understand the rest of the text.
I love teaching the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to my teacher training students. It gives us an opportunity to explore the deeper aspects of the mental work of yoga, to uncover our habits and patterns, and to begin to see more clearly, which is the ultimate practice of yoga.
Since my first training with Ramaswami in 2015, I’ve also taken additional courses with him: a 50hr course on the Bhagavad Gita and a shorter course on the Samkhya Karika, which is the the text behind the root philosophy of yoga.
If you are interested in studying with Ramaswami, check out his webpage for his upcoming schedule:
I recommend subscribing to his newsletter, which you can do via his website. He sends a monthly newsletter with a lesson about an aspect of yoga philosophy. He also maintains an active Facebook page, Vinyasa Krama Yoga.
In a world that holds up advanced asana practice as a sign of yogic skill, it is important to remember that proficiency in handstand is not what makes a yogi. It is an understanding of the self, and a desire to seek a clearer view of the world around us, and our place in it, that ultimately will lead us further down the yogic path. Ultimately, it is the patterns of our mind, and the actions we take because of them, that will bring about change.