Interview mit A.G. Mohan


Q. You have spoken of clarity and rationality in the preface of this book. Why are they relevant? What is clear and rational in the field of yoga?

A. The currentexplosion in the popularity of yoga, while valuable in that it has brought some of its benefits to a large number of people, has come at a price. Questioning has taken a backseat to adherence to lineage and tradition, resulting in great confusion in the field of yoga. This situation is not a reflection on the yoga teachers in the West, most of whom display much commitment and sincerity in learning, practicing, and teaching yoga. It has resulted largely because they are not offered proper tools or access to question the views of their teachers. This is particularly counterproductive in these times. It is now necessary to be critical of conflicting presentations in the field of yoga and make a sound choice. Put simply, a rational view comes from a logical theory that is supported by observation. This applies to yoga as to any field. It is important to keep in mind that when there is a conflict between rationality and a source quoted as being authentic, more weight must be attached to rationality in most circumstances. This is because an approach based on suspect rationality is much less likely to yield expected results than one with sound rationality backing it, regardless of the source. The only undeniably authentic and rational text on yoga is the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali. There are at least ten published commentaries and subcommentaries on this text, in Sanskrit, currently available. It was customary for these commentators to question their own statements and provide answers. The point here is that in the past blind adherence to tradition was not demanded of the student in the study of yoga. Likewise, today’s yoga students must be offered the proper tools for inquiry, as well as the right to question the views of their teachers. It is important to bear in mind that the future of yoga is not served when teachers advocate methods that will not stand up to unbiased scrutiny. Popularity is not a substitute for evidence, and faith is not a substitute for sound method.

Q. You made a statement in the book that the benefits of the postures are usually greatly exaggerated in ancient yoga texts, for example, that several asanas are able to ‘cure all diseases’. Can you expand on this? Are you saying that the ancient texts are not a reliable or accurate guide to asanas? How can you contradict the ancient texts on yoga?

A. The Yoga-Sutras are the defining text on yoga, and they do not deal with the practice of asanas in any significant detail. Therefore, when speaking of asanas in ancient yoga texts, I am not contradicting the Yoga-Sutras. There are several other texts on yoga, like the Yoga Yajnavalkya, Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, Siva-Samhita, Gheranda-Samhita, and the Yoga Upanishads. They contain descriptions of asanas—not the method of doing them, but simply the body positions. The descriptions are very similar across texts and it possible that some of them are borrowed verses from the Yoga-Yajnavalkya, which is thought to be the oldest of these texts (and is also the most organized of them). One important reason for the confusion surrounding these other yoga texts is their mixed content: they contain everything from tantric sex practices and cutting the frenulum of the tongue, to useful guidelines on pranayama and standard descriptions borrowed from non-dualistic philosophy. This simply reflects their varied sources and the wide scope of the information, ideology, and beliefs included in these texts. The point I am trying to drive home is that these yoga texts are not like the Yoga-Sutras, in which every word is chosen with care and precision. They are to be interpreted cautiously, not taken literally.

Q. You studied for many years under Sri T. Krishnamacharya who was undeniably an authentic teacher of yoga. Has he written anything on these ancient yoga texts?

A. Sri Krishnamacharya wrote a book called the Yoga Makaranda in 1934. The book, his wife has said, was written in just two days at the request of the King of Mysore (one of the kingdoms then existing in Southern India). This book has long been out of print, but copies of this book are still available in libraries. The first half of this book discusses a wide variety of topics ranging from the mudras and kriyas (cleansing techniques) to meditation, all presented largely as is from the ancient yoga texts. The second half of this book deals with the practice of asanas. The descriptions of the ideal form of the asanas, along with lists of conditions that the asanas are useful for treating, are also mostly presented as in the ancient yoga texts. Many of these practices like the kriyas were not advocated by Sri Krishnamacharya. During my studies with him in his later years he pointed out that some of these practices could be harmful and others were inapplicable in the context of modern lifestyle. However, some significant features of this book are:

  • The book details a step-by-step wise sequential approach to many asanas, accompanied by photographs. You can see that many of the sequences are a simpler version of some of the sequences taught now as ashtanga-yoga.
  • It emphasizes the importance of breathing and clearly describes the breathing patterns to be followed.
  • It does not propose a therapy based on cakra theory, but instead uses Ayurvedic terminology to describe diseases, just as the old yoga texts did.

There is also a video of Sri T. Krishnamacharya doing asanas, filmed in the 1930s. It was included as a part of a video on his centenary celebration called “One Hundred Years of Beattitude,” produced by CNRS Audiovisuel in France. I was the convenor of his centenary celebration. In this video, you can see him demonstrate the principles of movement in all three axes.

Q. In summary, how would you suggest that an approach to asanas be judged?

A. The validity of an approach to asanas is not to be judged by rigid adherence to the form of the posture as described in assorted yoga texts, but by the method of doing them—most important, whether that method makes sense. It is only logical that we should adopt a structured, progressive, and personalized approach, not just in asana practice but in any form of exercise or therapy. In fact, if you choose to reject such an approach, it follows that you should ask yourself if your asana practice is sound and if so, on what basis.

Q. Yoga therapy is gaining in popularity and acceptance. What is the basis for yoga therapy in the ancient texts?

A. This is a question that is gaining importance. Regarding the foundations of yoga therapy, it is essential that you be aware that there is little in the way of a separate yoga physiology on which to base treatment. As we have said, the yoga texts describe diseases using terminology borrowed from Ayurveda. They only add general references to the “flow of prana,” which should be understood as indicating the proper functioning of that body part. There is no technique possible to feel or see the flow of prana, or manipulate it like a physical entity. When yoga texts like the Yoga-Yajnavalkya speak of focusing the prana somewhere, it is not during the practice of asanas but during the practice of pranayama, and even then it means only the focusing of the mind. In Ayurveda, the three dosha theory is used practically everywhere as an approach to understanding physical health and disease, and the three gunas as an approach to mental health and disease. This can be verified by simply browsing through any translation of any major text on ayurveda.

Q. Can we base yoga therapy on the cakra model?

A. In classical texts on tantra which speak of the cakras in detail, the cakras are conceptualized as ‘knots of bondage’. The path is usually presented as piercing, opening, dissolving or untying each cakra in turn, which essentially means transcending the mental constructs binding you to that aspect of your existence and thereby moving one step closer to freedom. The methods suggested are mostly centered on meditation in a seated position. They do not suggest methods for treatment of physical disease. Not do the yoga texts link the cakras to specific diseases. Furthermore, there is no mention of the cakras as a basis for diagnosis or treatment in the ancient texts on ayurveda. The cakras are linked to the five forms of matter and emotions, but this is a method of meditation and eventually transcendence and not a therapy. If there is a sound basis for linking specific diseases, using contemporary medical terminology, to the ‘misalignment’ of particular cakras, I would like to know where it is.

Q. What about treatment based on the five koshas?

A. The ‘five koshas’ or ‘sheaths’ (annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya) are not linked to the treatment of disease, either in the yoga texts, ayurveda or the Taittiriya Upanishad (in which the five koshas are detailed). The Taittiriya Upanishad is a presentation of the psychology behind the path to freedom and fulfillment. There are commentaries on it written by many extraordinary luminaries of ancient India, like Sankara and Vidyaranya. It complements the psychology of the Yogasutras elegantly and is quoted by commentaries on the Yogasutras. The Taittiriya Upanishad does not present a method of therapy. The practices mentioned under all the koshas are meditative practices. There is no practice under the anandamaya kosha—rather, it is the description of the experience that results. This point is stated, for example, by Sankara in his commentary.

Q. How do you link diseases as explained in modern medicine with the terms used in Ayurveda?

A. It is not easy to link ancient and modern medical systems. Diabetes, for example, is usually compared with prameha or madhumeha, conditions when the urine output is increased or the urine is sweet. These are symptoms of uncontrolled diabetes. However, an increase in quantity and frequency of urine output can also be seen in disorders of the urinary system and in other body systems as well. It is important not to draw direct correlations between Ayurvedic terms and modern disease descriptions on the basis of single symptoms. Furthermore, Ayurvedic concepts like the doshas should be considered conceptual and not physical entities, as we have pointed out after the case studies on menstrual disturbances (refer p.).

Q. You have not spoken about sound and chanting in this book. Aren’t they useful tools in yoga therapy?

A. Sound is certainly useful in yoga therapy. However, we have spoken little of the use of sound or chanting in this book—and with good reason. They need to be dealt with separately in detail because, in the areas of sound and chanting, there is thorough analysis and extensive literature available in classical Vedic texts on phonetics. The effect of pitch and other characteristics of chanting on the mind and the reasons why it should be done in a certain way have all been explained clearly. There are deep psychological analyses available in ancient texts of why chanting can help in progressing towards greater freedom and tranquility, and how the rules are related to this goal. Sri Krishnamacharya considered Vedic chanting very important, and continued to chant even when he was 100 years of age (to hear Sri Krishnamacharya chanting, please visit www.svastha.com). The branch of the Vedas that he traditionally belonged to is chanted using three notes—udaata: the middle note, anudaata: one note lower, and svarita: one note higher. These rules have been clearly stated in the traditional texts like the Taittiriya Praatishaakya. It is important to make no mistake in this, because when words are juxtaposed or separated in the Vedas, their notes can change, and, to understand how these changes occur, it is essential that the basic notes be understood correctly. This is not important only in chanting, but in meditation as well, because all the Vedic mantras used in meditation also have notes.

Q. What about yoga psychology?

A. Unlike other areas of yoga, there is absolutely no room for confusion in yoga psychology. This is because it depends only on an understanding of the human mind—which has not changed at all since the time of the ancients, and for which we require not advanced technology, but undisturbed tranquility and awareness. Consequently, in the area of yoga psychology, there is extensive, clear and unambiguous information and analysis available in the Yogasutras. The Yogasutras are exquisitely logical, and the psychology explained in the sutras stands on the strength of its logic alone. Unfortunately, many well known, widely recommended contemporary books on the Yogasutras and the psychology of yoga are not consistently rational or authentic—they contradict themselves or major commentaries on the Yogasutras. We will write further on the Yogasutras and Yoga psychology in a separate work.

Q. You seem to be against many authors on Yoga!

A. No, not at all. I am simply pointing out that contemporary teachers and authors on yoga have the responsibility to present their own ideas as their own. They should not claim to represent the views of a respected and valuable ancient text when in fact their views do not reflect the explanations of the major commentaries on the text, nor stand up to rational enquiry. This only does disservice to the many great people in the past who have devoted great selfless effort into explaining the text. Also, these commentaries have been carefully questioned and validated by many other individuals over many centuries and we stand to gain much by reading and understanding some of these works.

Q. You seem to be critical in your views. Why?

A. I am not being critical, merely factual. Intellectual honesty is an essential quality in a sincere yoga teacher or practitioner. It is better to leave the things that we do not understand alone, rather than act as if we did understand and thereby mislead others and, in the process, stray from the path ourselves. The issues I have raised above have been stated strongly but truly and with reason. You and I will pass away, but the message of the Yoga-Sutras is timeless. It delineates a path to freedom from unhappiness, a way to become more complete in yourself. Countless people before us have spent a large portion of their lives exploring and later explaining this path to others. They did this, not because it would be published and they stood to gain materially from it, but because they found the teaching valuable and felt that it was their duty to record it, so that someone at some later time might benefit from it.  The integrity and content of this message must not be misrepresented.

Svastha Impressionen

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