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This is part two of the two-part interview with Surendra. If you haven't read part 1, click here
We continued our morning talk with the backdrop of the Ganges, diving deeper into Surendra's teachings and entry point from electrical engineering to the Yogi for path.
Laura Heggs for YOGI TIMES: What brought you to Shiva Yoga Peeth? You’ve been working there almost a year, yes?
Surendra: Almost a year. I joined as a meditation teacher. And then took on philosophy and pranayama, and cleansing classes because I am trained in these different subjects.
LH: For 300-hour and 200-hour students?
Surendra: Yes, for both groups.
LH: What do you find challenging about teaching yogic philosophy to foreigners? Like a foreigner being a person who really may have no idea about the background of yoga or misinterpret a lot of it?
Surendra: We know that these classes will not teach you everything. It is impossible to teach the goal of yoga in just 200 hours. Whatever we can teach, it won’t be helpful unless you experience yourself. And one month is not enough for that. Our effort is to plant seeds in the students. We plant small seeds in the students so later, in coming years, they can grow. And they do grow. We get feedback from these students. I have taught students 7 months ago, and they send me messages telling me they realize the beginning of it. So you may be here and feel like you are getting nothing out of it. But the seeds are there, they have been planted in you, and as the time comes and you work yourself, slowly you begin to understand the teachings. So this we can do in 200 or 300 hours. We give the map of yog. You are here, start from here, this is the destination. Now it is up to you to decide to what level you take it, practice it. This is the tool, the airplane. You can run it on the runway or fly it- it is up to you. It depends on you. So we give them this understanding. At least they know what the goal is, but it is up to the students to make something out of it. Most students grasp this.
"We know that these classes will not teach you everything. It is impossible to teach you the goal of yoga in just 200 hours. Whatever we can teach, it won't be helpful unless you experience it in you."
LH: I have to ask- does it worry you as a teacher and yoga professional, that you are giving this information and you don’t really know what is going to happen to it? It is like saying “go for it”, pushing a baby bird out of the nest and hoping it flies, but it may not fly? Are you ever worried students are going to do something wrong with it or not honor it in a certain way?
Surendra: They experience what they get. It is not only the experience of a particular school in Rishikesh, not only an experience of how the teacher is teaching it, but the experience of being here. Spirituality is in the air here in Rishikesh. So many things are here that we don’t teach. People absorb so many things. Our hope is that it cannot go wrong. That yoga cannot harm people.
"Our hope is that it cannot go wrong. That yoga cannot harm people".
LH: So let’s say I return to the US where I am from and start my own yoga studio- not focused on asana but focused on the other limbs, and doing classes in philosophy and meditation. But, I’m not really qualified to teach those things. What would your interpretation of that be? Do you think people need to learn from a specific kind of root? Like the seed- does it need to come from somewhere or can it come from anywhere?
Surendra: Yes. We have the experience that students don’t usually teach meditation or philosophy unless they have prior experience. We get students here who are teaching from a long time- 10 years, 8 years. They are already yoga teachers. But some people come here to understand the Indian perspective. Some people come to find their track again. They have gotten lost in the teaching and just want to practice. So there are different objectives. Out experience is that newcomers go into teaching asana.
LH: Right, and then they may change or adjust that into philosophy or meditation as time goes on?
Surendra: Yes. It is not only in the West. In India also, the understanding of yoga is also very limited. The idea that this physical posture is the real yoga is common. There is no real understanding in India, at least for the common person. People in the yoga industry obviously know what it is.
"It is not only in the West. In India also, the understanding of yoga is also very limited."
LH: Why do you think that is? Why do you think asana in India and around the world is more dominant than the other limbs?
Surendra: Because these are the tangible things. What I am doing in meditation, I cannot show you. Nobody can see what I am doing in pranayama or meditation. But in peacock pose, wow! You can see.
LH: True, you can’t put pranayama on Instagram easily, can you?
Surendra: Right! You close your eyes in meditation and take a photo- but how many times can you post this photo?
LH: I think you should start an Instagram of meditation poses, all the same!
Surendra: Yes this is the most tangible part of yoga. Now it is becoming more oriented to health, not spirituality. And when we consider health, the body comes first.
LH: Do you think in India it is more based on health now too? Like more people are drawn to it by the health benefits vs. the spiritual?
Surendra: Yes certainly. Now they are also doing research on yoga therapy, how these yogic practices can help you manage and even cure different diseases. This is becoming a trend.
LH: Do you find that interesting?
Surendra: Yes it is. Helping people who have disorders helps plant the seeds. So if they see their health is getting better, they may get curious and that helps plant the seed too. So its good.
LH: I see that. Do you see yourself staying in this yoga industry? Or do you think you would go back to corporate world?
Surendra: No, I would not go back. Now I am working on sound therapy. This is my next step, because I have found that it has huge potential. And healers think that sound healing may be the future. Yoga also believes that our bodies are made of sounds. So if we can put those vibrations, rhythms and sound sin areas, many things can happen.
LH: Are you just starting to study that?
Surendra: I did one course in October and am going for the next course that is more therapy oriented.
LH: And you could have your own practice where people could come to you for treatment?
LH: And what do you hope to do as a professional in the yoga field? Do you hope to grow personally, or do you hope to, in 5 years for example, have your own yoga school and be business-focused?
Surendra: This is all personal. I came into this field because of personal growth. And this teaching, it all came later. I was focused on my personal growth. But of course, when you have this feeling of well-being in you, you want to share it with other people. That is the reason I came into the teaching. But I don’t have specific ambitions. Like I have to grow this and start that. I am just growing.
"This is all personal. I came into this field because of personal growth. And this teaching, it all came later."
LH: I was wondering because a lot of yoga tourism has changed Rishikesh. Even 10 years ago, this place must have been very different?
Surendra: Yes it was a totally different place.
LH: In a way, that is kind of cool, because it’s a new economy, right? People have different opportunities with the tourism industry now. How do you feel the yoga tourism industry is affecting yoga?
Surendra: You know, we are grateful to the West because actually they have brought yoga tourism to the forefront. People know yoga because of the West. Nowadays, yoga is coming back to India. But it is very difficult to practice it in its true essence. Until you are not interested in self-transformation at all levels, you aren’t really there. The actual yoga starts when you realize that something is missing in your life. You have done, achieved or obtained most of the things you have wanted in your life. You now have attained a lot. But there is still some void that is not getting fulfilled. Then you start to learn, you start to think, what actually is this? Then, the practice of yoga in its essence starts. Yoga totally transforms you from the inside out. Of course, you have seen all of these postures here at the yoga school and you want to do something with your body, and that is ok.
"The actual yoga starts when you realize that's something is missing in your life. You have done, achieved or obtained most of the things you have wanted in your life. You are have attained a lot. But there is still some void that is not getting fulfilled. Then you start to learn, you start to think, what actually is this?"
LH: I just have a few more questions relating to your opinion on how you think yoga in the West has been harmful to the tradition or roots of yoga. What do you think has been the most harmful thing?
Surendra: The many types of yoga. You can develop your own style of yoga, but if the objective of yoga is not intact, that is harmful. You need the essence of yoga so you can teach it to students. If you are not doing that, you are harming yoga.
"You need the essence of yoga so you can teach it to students. If you are not doing that, you are harming."
LH: So in like goat yoga, that is maybe not the best way to honor yoga? Or yoga with beer- also not the best? Yoga as a social event is really big because it gets people out and then people try yoga. And maybe the practice goes from there. So if it’s getting people to try something new, and maybe even spark an interest in yoga, do you think the harm is worth the potential that someone may start their own yoga path?
Surendra: If you are practicing yoga as an exercise, then you have many other systems to work on your body. Lots of systems work just on the body and give you a certain physical health. But why add the word yoga? It adds a different value. Beer yoga, goat yoga, this yoga, that yoga….. you are using just the name. But you don’t have to do anything with the essence. So yes, do it, create something, your own style, but why add yoga?
LH: So maybe it could be called “Goat Stretch”?
Surendra: Yes. And where is the yoga in goat yoga? Yes goats are there and you are doing physical postures, but where are the postures? When you are talking about the definition of yoga, it is about transcending the mind. Is it happening there? Is the goat helping you transcend the mind?
LH: Probably not, because you are distracted by the cute goats, I would imagine.
Surendra: Maybe they are like "something new is happening, let’s go play with goats," but you can do this anywhere, this is not yoga. Maybe you can have movie yoga. Go for a movie and you feel relaxed. You feel something good, but that is not yoga.
LH: So with Shiva Yoga Peeth, or any yoga school with primarily foreign clients, how do you help enforce these rules to promote yoga? Like dressing a specific way or eating certain things.
Surendra: We have a very soft approach at the school. But all these guidelines are given because you are here for yoga. Practice it for 1 month. Just try. You have been eating many things before, just try to adjust for 1 month. Be here in this 1 month, and follow the guide. You will feel the difference. The effect of following these rules and doing yoga will be deep. To get the real effect, you have to follow some rules. But we cannot force people. Transformation does happen, especially for people who follow these guidelines.
LH: Do you feel that you did force the rules a bit more, and it wasn’t catered to the comfort of students, that it would benefit students more?
Surendra: It may benefit and it may not. Because the Western mind is complicated, and giving a command like “do this” can put them off. This would stop an opportunity where they could have learned something.
LH: So being gentle with the hopes that a message with be felt or get through.
Surendra: We don’t want to do anything that takes away the opportunity to learn. Sometimes is very difficult, because we have not lived in that society and there are cultural differences, but we want to keep it open to learning. You are not here to get culturally immersed. You are here to get the science of yoga, and you learn it. There may be discomfort, and differences of opinion. But these are just for 1 or 2 months. No one is forcing you.
LH: Good point. Do you have advice for someone who is just getting started with yoga? Something you wish you had known, or something you have found works well with Western students, especially to become more interested in the philosophical
Surendra: You should at least try meditation for 15 minutes a day. Then you get to know what is happening in your mind, in your psyche. Then you will be more interested in the philosophical part. Once you realize something is not right there, you can use all these tools: asana, meditation styles, to calm down mind fluctuations and then you have the goal and can measure to what extent you have been successful in yoga. Because you can see the problems inside. After you practice yoga for a few months and you are able to sit calmly, then this is the signal that you are moving in the right direction. Meditating for 15 minutes a day is very, very important. Nothing else will decide your success. Not the followers in Instagram or videos in yoga asana and all that. This thing: sitting, observing what you are doing, this is the criteria to be a good yoga student.
"Meditating for 15 minutes a day is very, very important. Nothing else will decide your success."
LH: Awesome, I haven't thought of it like that. Anything else you would like to add?
Surendra: I think that is it.
LH: Great thank you.
On a final note, I want to extend my gratitude to Surendra for being a wonderful teacher and so candid and open about his yoga journey. Thank you Surendraji!