This weekend (23-25) ESY will be hosting Rama Vernon, a profound teacher and pioneer of yoga in America. Her workshop on resolving conflict and cultivating peace through the yoga sutras will bring you tools for self-transformation in your practice and in your daily life. Our teacher Melissa Spamer interviewed Rama for this workshop.
Melissa: When did you first begin to study the Yoga Sutras?
Rama: I first began in 1973 on one of my trips to India. I was studying with Mr. Iyengar. He told me I was to begin to study the Yoga Sutras and sent me to a special bookstore to purchase my first copy of the text. Even though I had previously attended courses on the yoga sutras before that, I had never purchased my own copy and delved into it. There was a lot of Sanskrit terminology I didn’t understand at that time. And so, I just had the book and slept with it under my pillow, thinking maybe it would reveal itself to me. Then one night I heard these sounds in my head and I went into my little study with my yoga sutra book. I began reading the sutras and discovered that the sounds I was hearing were in the sutras. So to me, that meant it was time to really delve into this text. When I decided that, teachers came. I then had a Sanskrit teacher that helped me with the sutras, with the non-sectarian verbal roots of Sanskrit. It was quite profound. And then we would chant the sutras. And I found that in the chanting, many times, the sutras meaning began to reveal itself. So that is how I started, and then I had many more teachers that I continued to study the sutras with such as Baba Hari Das, direct disciples of Swami Sivananda and others. Whenever there was a teaching on the yoga sutras I would be there.
Melissa: How has the text helped you personally resolve inner conflict within your practice and why is this particular text so important to your teachings?
Rama: Oh my, well …. No one taught me these things but I started to see how the Yoga Sutras related to the asanas. I was in England for a year, as Mr. Iyengar had me traveling all over England teaching to his senior teachers and their students on how the sutras related to asana. I didn’t even know it was that unique because to me it was so obvious the Sutras teachings are within asana – of course. Such as attachments (raga) and aversions (dvesha). We are attached to certain poses because they give us pleasure, which is what attachment is, to all things that bring us pleasure. And then how we try to avoid the poses that don’t bring us pleasure just discomfort. I began to look at this in my students and myself. Fear, abhinevesha the last klesha, is apparent in asana. We are dealing with fear all the time. It is said there are 84 basic poses and 100,000 variations on each. This represents infinite ways in which the mind expresses itself through the body. If the expression of the mind is through the body, and there are infinite ways in which we do that through asana practice, I saw that every time we went into a new variation, it changed our spatial relationship. Practicing asana brings up our fears because we have to face the unknown within a new spatial relationship. The variations of the asanas represent the unknown. For instance, when we are in a headstand it is a new spatial relationship to put the head on the earth and the feet in the sky, and it is very different for the ego, which is represented by the head. I began to see how all of this related, and how the yamas and niyamas related to asana, their direct correlation. All of this was considered unique then even though I just thought it seemed quite obvious.
I then began to see how the sutras applied to my everyday life such as imagination (vikalpa). We project our images onto another person, and when they don’t live up to those images that we project onto them (which leads to expectations) it can lead to disappointment. I saw how we may try, even as yoga teachers, to live up to the expectations of others, politicians do this, people in public service do this, teachers do this… We all try to live up to what we feel is expected of us, especially in regards to our relationship with our parents. I then saw how the sutras were not something that was ancient but it was everyday life. I began speaking to that and it seemed to resonate with people. It really began to show the reasons for, or the origins of, suffering in our life. These teachings go to the roots of the suffering; they do not just treat the symptoms of suffering. There is a big difference.
Melissa: Is that then how you began to incorporate the teachings of the Yoga Sutras into your global work with conflict transformation?
Rama: Yes, several years later, I was asked to go to the Soviet Union to see about putting on a yoga conference but when I got there I learned that the Soviet Union was jailing yoga teachers. It wasn’t exactly the time to put on a yoga conference! It was really threatening to think people could become such independent thinkers. I brought a suitcase full of yoga books and handed them out to people. They all made it clear they were interested in exercise but not the meditation because they were scared of what the meditation meant. They were afraid of going beyond what their political system called for, and that they might be seen as suspicious. I was very careful about that, and I realized that we can’t put on a yoga conference just yet but what can we do? I then put on conferences that brought in various professionals in specific fields such as economics, environmental sciences and so on, intending to bring Soviets and Americans together who were working in the same fields. We brought together human rights workers, and those working on the Star Wars Program (a missile defense shield) and it took a long time to develop trust between these groups of Americans and Soviets – about three years. But once the trust was established we were able to address the real issues like human rights, and help people get out of prison that were put there unjustly. We then went on to build schools and health clinics because their needs were so great then. I helped bring the Americans that could work with them, and then the Soviets could come to America – a kind of exchange program in different fields. It was just wonderful. We had about one thousand joint projects going on between the two countries. Just bringing individuals together that had a common interest or field of study. The intention here was to help end the stereotypes of warring nations.
I didn’t know that it would be so powerful. Gorbachev later said that it was groups like ours that ended the cold war not just the leaders.
I taught the sutras to the Russian Parliament, after the revolution. I never said it was the Yoga Sutras until I realized that some of them were the spiritual advisors to Russian leaders who were running for office. I then said to them, that this was based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and they became really excited. I said these teachings were very ancient, even beyond a thousand years old. This wisdom is even older then what they give it credit for, and they really loved that. They were able to identify with the sutras and they really understood it – they got it.
I was talking about the vrittis of imagination (vikalpa) and misconception (viparyaya), and how these two are the major ones that cause conflicts. I went on to teach on the ego (asmita), and what it means. We skew things from the lens of the ego. I taught on the individual ego, the family ego, the national ego and the global ego. When one national ego comes up against the other, it creates a territorial-ness and then that creates war.
I went on to teach on the origin of war, and show them how it is created from the stereotypes distanced from correct perception (pramana). When we go from correct perception and direct experience, compared to information that is not your direct experience, it is the experience that comes from another person who tells us of their experience. We then resonate with their experience as though it is our own, and we get further and further away from our own direct experience. This leads to us creating our perception by way of inference – this is our media that is being programmed within our countries. That is where stereotypes come from. We loose the thread of truth when we allow ourselves to drop into incorrect perception. When we couple the imagination and incorrect perception we have a mess! Both individually and politically!
This is all in the Yoga Sutras.
Melissa: Why do you think the sutras have survived all this time and why are they still relevant today?
Rama: The Yoga Sutras give us a road map on how to live our life. They give us a clear way to get out of pain.
This text outlines it very beautifully. As Patanjali, the author and compiler, took these teachings to preserve the wisdom, so it would be available for others in the future to know how they too can come out of pain, and realize their oneness with the universal. This was the original intention. Patanjali put them into very brief and succinct sutras, a form that could be past down as mantras, we could say, from one generation to the next in an oral tradition.
Many of the people today in our country who are teaching yoga and yoga philosophy, they are the ones that are preserving the teachings for future generations.