On Ashtanga Yoga, the yoga path, and the meaning of life: An Interview with Santiago Pinto Doublet

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Photo credit: Terese Andersson Heart

In the past 15 years that I have been on the yoga journey, the past 6 I have practiced Ashtanga Yoga with great dedication. Although I have tried just about any serious yoga style out there, this specific method has proven to be the most powerful. I’m not saying it is THE yoga method, nor do I wish to imply that other yoga styles are somehow inferior or invalid. I do however, want to share with others what it is about the Ashtanga method that is so compelling.

For this reason, and for the purpose of introducing to you the teacher who will be teaching Ashtanga Yoga at the Barcelona Yoga Conference 2017, I present to you the interview with Santiago Pinto Doublet. Please read carefully what follows below: it is a beautiful and thoughtful reflection on Ashtanga method, the yoga path, and the meaning of life in general.

Upon my request, Santiago sent me three photos to go with the interview. On the first one you see a laughing, open, and friendly face of a person who despite the expressed joy has no doubt felt also his deal of the sorrow, enjoying both the smooth and the rough parts of the yoga ride. On the second, Santiago is stoically taking the full weight of John Scott’s body on his right thigh in the warrior II pose – an intimate moment of contact between a student and a teacher is thus captured. The last photo features Santiago in his milieu – teaching the Ashtanga yoga at his shala in Barcelona, Spain.

A: Given the idea that the modern Ashtanga Yoga community is very big, vast, and quite heterogeneous, where do you situate yourself in it? Who are your major influences, teachers, and why?

S: Yes it’s getting bigger and bigger so it seems. A fad? To answer this question, let’s look at some of the terms asked: modern and heterogenous.

I believe the first or second big wave of expansion of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga started in the years after I took my first class (early 2002) and Guruji’s passing away (2009). Bigger waves came later with the rise of Generation Selfie through social media and YouTubers. At any rate, by “modern” I understand from the days Sharath took over the reins from Guruji.

If by “heterogenous” you mean that before (say before the above mentioned Big Bang of Ashtanga Yoga) the practitioners were solely dedicated to Ashtanga, whereas today the practice is part of the arsenal from the Cocktail of Practices offered to practitioners of all walks of styles. Perhaps by heterogenous you also mean that not all teachers are necessarily certified directly from Mysore according to the traditional way, but also arise from the TT that are spawning and rocking all over the place.

According to the Merrian Webster Dictionary, “heterogenous” is defined as consisting of dissimilar or diverse ingredients or constituents. This diversity may be seen in more women at the forefront of the international teachers and with ages ranging through let’s say three generations: from senior teachers like Richard Freeman, David Williams through David Robson, up to Day Christensen.

A kind of secession happened after Sharath took over, from perhaps mainly long-term students from Guruji. The practice was so well defined by then, that no significant change happened to the sequences themselves. So even if unavoidable and necessary changes in the series happen here and there, the spirit of the system as delineated by Guruji remains untainted. There has not been an Ashtanga 2.0, but rather minor updates. Seems like we are in version 1.2.3 at this point 🙂 If any major changes happened, they did so in the off-springs of the original system, as seen in the myriad of dynamic styles derived from it.

So to answer your question: I’ve never been to Mysore, nor I’ve met Guruji or Sharath, and yet I remain as faithful as I can to the system. That fact combined with my level of practice, it’s obvious that I will never get any kind of official certification, nor that I wish or need to. Any personal practice and teaching is somehow like talking broken English. I am not a native speaker but yet I speak English. I will make my own personal interpretation of the series according to my understanding, my possibilities and influences. Latin will not turn into Spanish or French it will become more like Spanish from Spain and Spanish from Latin America.

I have a vast array of influences: in and out of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system, both in practice and theory. My major inspiration apart from my own practice is John Scott. Dear John is John, but he also is the direct link to Guruji. John passes over the teaching according the way Guruji taught to him. Thus Guruji is the original influence. To me, John represents inner joy, surrender, dedication and an extreme focus on the present moment – all combined with a deep sense of humanity, knowledge and the love of sharing. I did his TT level 2.

Gregor Maehle is also a defining point in my teaching. He has a deep knowledge of the ancient scriptures combined with the western methodology that sip through his teachings. His personal journey is also something I look upon as a light that lights up my path. Gregor has climbed many ladders and is today in the Bahkti Yoga step. As 2017, I am about to finish the translation into Spanish, together with a friend Begoña Eladi, of Gregor’s first book: Ashtanga Practice and Philosophy.

David Robson. David represents the second generation of well-established international teachers. He has a gritty sense of humour combined with a flawless practice who knows how to share the most incisive and elusive details that may escape us during a dedicated practice. David is also is a direct link to Sharath and thus helps me in closing the gap of pre-modern and modern Ashtanga. I’ve been hosting David in Barcelona since 2013.

Other Ashtanga influences: David Keil, Peter Sanson, Elena Figarola, Lotta Bertilson.

Lotta was my first teacher during the first few years on the mat and comes regularly to teach in my Shala.

Outside of the Ashtanga community, Godfrey Devereux is another deep influence with his uncompromising, relentless search on self-inquiry and questioning of any of our given assumptions and / or dogmas. He pushes us to thinking outside of the box and invites us to investigate through our unique somatic experience and not to get caught in the form nor the performance. His books and ideas get more and more refined as time goes.

Also professor Douglas Brooks and his “Beyond the Mat” talks.

Finally. I also work as a structural integrator (aka Rolfing or Rolf’s method), and thus I am in great debt to the teachings of Dr. Ida Rolf and her approach to the structures of the human body as transmitted to me through my teacher Nilce Silveira. It does play a major role on the way I perceive dynamic and static movements within and without the Asana practice.

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Photo credit: Andrea Bourget Dorado Guerrero

A: How long have you practiced yoga and how long have you been teaching?

S: I took my first Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga class on 2002 in Amsterdam with Katiza Ivulic and started to practice regularly ever since. After a period of assisting and a 200 hours Teacher Training with Brian Cooper, I opened my own studio in Barcelona 2011. So as today (2017) I’ve been practicing 15 years and teaching during the last 6 years. Weekly I teach a little over 20 hours a week. I also took John Scotts Level 2 TT.

A: Why do you find the Ashtanga Yoga method, out of all the other ones, the most suited for yourself personally?

S: To put it into words will never be able to convey a clear or true answer of my inner feelings.

It’s a love affair. 

It’s an art expression. Drawing or sculpting in space (to paraphrase Tarkovsky’s sculpting in time). Reciting over and over the Japa Mantra of the Ujjayi breath, combined with the precise number of movements (expressed as the Vinyasa counting), thread into the inner intelligence of the sequences. It’s like meditating while drawing over and over with bodily strokes. The paper is the space, the pencil is the body and the ink is the breath. A prayer. A yantra that we build everyday and blow away as we take rest at the end of it. The fragility of the present moment disappears and nothing tangible is left, really, just the energy (body, mind, emotion) of what has been experienced remains.

It’s a fractal story.

The search of Samasthiti representing the Mandelbrot geometry found throughout the sequence in each asana.

It’s a meditative enquiry.

The silent practice and the support created by a Mysore style gives a beautiful setting to do a work of introspection both physically, mentally and emotionally. The combination of this trinity yields a fourth state. This intuitive state could be what is understood as the spiritual path. A mystery.

In some sense another sequence or set of postures under the same framework (i.e. a silent practice) could kind of give the same support. Nevertheless even if I’ve been enjoying other kind of practices and yoga styles, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga method of all others, is the one that has provided me with the most enriching and stable support on my personal journey. The asanas are not the goal but a certain state that is hopefully reached through their practice. Thus, which set of sequence you perform is not as important as how you perform them, it’s about the depth not the form.

Yet a complementary seated meditation practice is a sine qua non. The flip side of the coin. Its value being the end result.

A: Regardless of the method, what would you say the yoga path is about? What is the ultimate goal of yoga how you see it?

S: Is it one question or two? Path and goal? They could be the same. Caminante no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar to quote the words from the poet Antonio Machado. There are different approaches whether yoga is the method, the means, or the goal. Check the “roots of Yoga” from James Mallinson and Mark Singleton.

To be honest I don’t know the real answer, meaning the Holy Grail, the vritti nirodah, the kaivalya, the prana nirodah as delineated by the Rishis or defined in the Mandukya or Katha Upanishad. I would argue that it seems very hard to reach in the Kali Yuga Age and it surely is for me.

But in the context of seing life as energy, living an embodied experience, the way I see it, yoga is the way to transcend the triviality of mundane existence. It is a way to clarify our own self-deception by softening the possible barriers build up by our mental and bodily limitations. It is there to make every moment a sacred moment: “There are no ordinary moments” (Dan Millman).

Among many definitions that I can relate to, I can quote this one from “The roots of Yoga”: The attainment of liberation…by means of prescribed psychophysical methods…”

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Photo credit: Santiago Pinto Doublet

A: What do you find the most challenging on the yoga path as a practitioner? How have you learned to deal with these challenges personally?

S: There are and have been many challenges, and new unknown ones will certainly arise. The most obvious one has been the shift from the head to the heart – work still in progress. Another obvious challenge is the fact that I started in my early forties after a life of playing soccer, biking, running etc… A stiff body and a stubborn personality with the ensuing tensile tension. A pragmatic mind denying anything afar from the obvious earthly materialistic world and carrying the western worldview of a French laic, cartesian upbringing. So the body, the mind and the spirit had to evolve in slow and sometimes painful ways, permeating in catalytic and sometimes troublesome personal decisions, particularly in the early days. Once again, work still in progress. That same stiffness, bodily, mentally (that I still can carry with me) has been also helpful in the acceptance of a less favourable ground to make any quick progression or to reach an advanced physical practice. But at the same time it has been a blessing in the understanding and in the acceptance of working slowly while pursuing a knowledgeably base of the yoga practice in many of its facets, and less on the physical side. It has ignited a questioning and a constant vigilance on what this life is all about. I read classical texts and some from the plethora of the emerging academic works popping up. Authors like Mark Singleton, Matthew Remski or Sir James Mallinson, David Gordon.

A: What difficulties have you encountered as a teacher? How did you manage to overcome them?

S: Not to fall into complacency, self-righteousness, not proselytizing about Yoga. I try to be mindful and self-critical, and listen to the criticism to the the ashtanga vinyasa yoga. A funny video (although a little unnecessary irreverent) called the ashtanga police was interesting to understand how things can be perceived outside of the Ashtanga community.

A: What words of wisdom would you like to give first to the yoga students and then to the yoga teachers?

S: [Laughing] Words of wisdom? I can only venture into my understanding of my own role encapsulated in those two nouns (nama), is that we are both teachers and students at the same time – the one does not exist without the other. They are the same and yet are not expressed in the same manner at the same time. I’ve been learning to teach on my mat and learning to practice (rupa) while sharing and offering to other practitioners, who in the meanwhile by offering and sharing their own practice are teaching me. It is my joy and duty to share what has been giving to me.

Santiago will be teaching the following classes at the BYC 2017:

Ashtanga Yoga on Sturday July 22, 2017 1:00pm – 2:45pm

Ashtanga Yoga on Sunday July 23, 2017 10:15am – 12:00pm

Download PDF of Santiago’s Ashtanga workshop at BYC here

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