A few weeks ago in Mysore, I had the opportunity to interview one of the city’s most well-loved Yoga teachers – Vinay Kumar, the founder of Prana Vashya Yoga – and one of the teachers BYC 2018 has in store for you. As someone who found Yoga rather early in life, he has several interesting insights on Yoga teaching and practice. Read on to find out more 🙂
Tell us a bit about yourself. About your way of Yoga and what you offer
I have been a practitioner from the time I realized that I am doing something. I started practicing when I was 7 years old, initially with Asanas. Practiced Asanas for about 5 years and then I was asked to teach. I began teaching when I was 13. Simultaneously Pranayam became the main motive for my practice and approach. I started Pranayam at the age of 13. So it’s been 20 years of Pranayam practice. So when I was on the 5th year of Pranayam I started to realize Asanas also need to have a bit of Yogic effect. Just being an exercise alone. So when we start to work using the breath, emphasize more upon the breath or highlight the breath’s part, it develops more focus. Apart from all the other benefits of Yoga Asanas like flexibility, strength, stamina, whatever. So our main target was to start giving a glimpse of Yoga to those who are within the limits of Asanas alone.
Beyond the physical Yoga, explore the breath?
Yes beyond the physical. As I was a very flexible practitioner and I started to realize that it is not going to help me calm down. So with Pranayam I realized breathing and its approach over the mind helps a practitioner more than being capable of performing various asanas or flexibility-demanding positions. Because flexibility is present in almost all physical activities but the state of mind, keeping the mind isolated from anything else, not dependent on anything, helping it to detach from whatever we do, is mostly gained during Pranayam. So according to one of the philosophical viewpoints, Yoga starts with Pranayam. Asana is preparation to do Pranayam. So I need to have a detachment towards the body, so I need Asanas. Over my appearance or my capacities or my feelings of the body or my representation, to get a detachment towards all of this we need Asanas. But the real Yoga starts after this detachment. At 17 or 18, I started to feel that there is a need for people, especially for someone like me, who are capable of doing Asanas and had more possibility of just finding a garden there and not moving ahead in the path of Yoga, to start emphasizing more on how the mind responds, what is the behavior of the mind, how is the response of the breath, how should one really work to integrate himself to continue to be in the path of Yoga and not get distracted anywhere else. So keeping all this in mind I started to work on a sequence for my own practice which would make a challenge over the psychological aspects rather than the physical part. So then I started to connect the breath, observe how a posture stimulates the breathing and how a sequencing of posture will make the breath respond to the practice. Based on all these things I could come across a sequence which could help me calm down, focus better, or bring at least a 20 % of influence of what I used to gain in Pranayama practice, during Asana workout.
So you created the sequence when you were 17. At age 13 you realized the value of Pranayama. So I would imagine your teacher must have had a big role in you realizing these things as a child.
He has. I was very fortunate that he was a person who would always support growth. It took him about a year for him to start seeing those qualities in me, start taking me closer. I started assisting him in the class when I was 8 or 9. His name is Jalendra Kumar. He teaches Hatha Yoga. I started with Hatha Yoga. Then after assisting him for some time, after training some people for shows, competitions, based upon what physical experience I had with Asanas, then – I don’t how to put this – he saw something in me and opened a branch for me where I used to teach people who were in their 30s and 40s practicing with me. He would assure them that if you think I know something then he also knows the same, don’t worry. His words gave me more confidence. I used to be a very strict practitioner, spending my day on the mat. Sleep on the mat, wake up and start practicing, eat on the mat.
At a Yoga competition at age 13, Vinay demonstrating an Asana alongside his 93-year-old student
And you had the kind of teacher who recognized the value of a student like that.
Yes and even today he is the same person. Through him there are many famous teachers who have reached international levels, it’s not just me.
I think it’s really fortunate to find a teacher like that and the combination of a student who is that sincere. But what would you advise someone who wants to teach Yoga as a way of life, as a career, but there are lot of teachers out there who are the fake ‘gurus’, who grow a cult around them, and just look at how they can abuse the position they are in and take advantage of a student. For whom it’s just about narcissism and making others pedestalize them. So how would you advise someone who’s new to the field to watch out and find the right teacher?
It’s an interesting question. It is very difficult to say who is a good or bad teacher. What I believe is that as long as the gold is not polished, it cannot shine. So as long as he’s not a practitioner, he may not be able to keep the values and virtues of teaching methodologies. So this particular concept of self-practice always reflects. So one should be keen on looking at the tone of the teacher, more than what experience he has.
You mean look at their actions, the way they live?
Yes. Naturally, if he is a regular practitioner there should be some qualities of Yoga which is already imbibed in them. It’s not only on the mat, the behavior is the main thing.
So people should be alert and watch out.
Yes and I would still say if somebody is trying to do something which is not in their limits, but still wanting to do for fame or whatever reason, it will not last for long. It will have its own limits.
It will hit a dead end
What in your view is the biggest challenge facing the Yoga community today? In India and internationally.
In general terms, with Indians, they find Yoga to be the fruit of their garden. There’s not so much of emphasis on it. And in a western perspective I would not say that they’re not holding it high, but I would say they are holding up the physical values more. So there is good and bad everywhere. They focus on the external aspects and how it is presented, communicated. You hear about concepts such as lunch Yoga, beer Yoga, etc.
It’s gimmicky and dilutes the seriousness of it?
Yes, it’s not a good feeling. It dilutes the practice.
And when you said for Indians it’s the fruit of their garden, you mean they take it for granted?
Yes, they take it for granted.
So even in your classes you have mostly foreigners and not many Indians?
We have divided the classes into 2 parts. My assistant handles the Indian classes. And I have been handling the Western classes for about 12 years now. And what we have realized is that most of time we have the Western classes full and the Indian class will probably be empty. So that’s a bit of disappointment.
If you could teach just one Yoga technique to everyone in the world, what would it be?
Okay, but can you be more specific. You know so many breathing techniques, can you share some with our readers?
I would say breathe with segregation of the breath into a few parts, say 3 parts on the inhale and 3 on the exhale. Keeping them equal. That alone is capable enough to make a person want to do Yoga. So if you find your breath to be one length of 3 cm, break it into 1 cm each – for the time and the amount of breath. And just practice that breathing for 10 to 15 minutes a day. Without one’s knowledge, one will be attracted toward positivity, Yogic lifestyle, sattvicness, everything. It affects you on a deep level.
What would you say to people who say that Westerners have culturally appropriated Yoga? That they’ve taken Yoga from our Indian culture and commercialized it, and made it a multi-billion dollar industry now. What would you say to that?
I would say at least in this perspective, our Indians are starting to know the value of Yoga. I would appreciate it because somewhere when there is a heat or light, it cannot be hidden. So another part of the world is observing it and supporting it. So my dream is one day our people, everyone in India would have a chance to observe it better.
What are the most important qualities of a Yoga teacher?
They should be flexible in the sense of how to approach an individual. Some may need a warmer approach, some may need a strict approach, because every individual is different. So based on their needs, some might need a tough practice, some may need an easy practice. So more than being an instructor who says I have learned this from my teacher, I have to teach you the same. Be more differentiating between people, their abilities, capacities, and trying to work upon what they really need.
Be able to individualize the practice?
What does living your Yoga mean to you? How does it spill over into other areas of your life?
In my perspective, living in Yoga has one major sense. People do things for desire. And people do things being duty-bound. These are the 2 different perspectives. So if one sticks to Yoga and works on Yoga, he looks at everything being duty-bound. And hence there won’t be much attachment and no disappointment. If he is doing things out of desire, there is more disappointment and more stress. So naturally a person who is practicing Yoga will be able to learn how to be duty-bound. Less attachment and more implementation of activities. Less fluctuations and more focus. So then the value of what work has been done will naturally be highlighted. And he will find the worth of what he is doing.
Is there anything else that you would like to tell readers, anything I might have missed?
Probably it has covered everything. You have taken all the information. What I would say is look for those particular periods when the mind says ‘rest’. Letting the mind idle is not a good idea. So being engaged in one practice or the other, even if we are practicing something physically like Yoga Asanas, it is somewhere touching our internal senses. It is somewhere reaching the deeper layers of the mind. Keeping things active is always a very beneficial way of living.
Right, but isn’t rest important?
Yes you need rest. The rest which is earned is a better rest than the rest which is looked for.
So let the rest happen on its own after you’ve done the work?
Because a lot of people don’t rest enough
They don’t rest because the resting time also they are in stress. So if they have to come out of stress, they have to engage in something which will not put them under stress but will make them endure stress. To cease stress. For example, you do paschimmottansana, and this asana has an effect of flexibility. Initially the practitioner will feel he has pain in his back, legs, everything. Over a period of time, the pain will go away. It doesn’t mean that the pain has gone away, it means the practitioner has learned how to overcome the pain. How to endure it and how to really transfer that particular feeling into his muscular system and make it open more. So in the same way that moves into the life. You’ll be able to endure stress, face things in a different way, which will naturally make him feel better. Feel good about his own life. Everything is observed in the form of residue, the mind always looks at what is the result of what I’ve done. It is manovyaparam. What am I going to get from this? Is this right or wrong. The mind always insists on looking into these kind of concepts. So at the end of the day the mind should not feel that I only thought, and there was nothing gained. The analysis should be – I have done something. So whenever you let the mind sleep with satisfaction, then you’re growing younger. When you don’t let it sleep with satisfaction, you’re growing older.
And to sleep with satisfaction, it has to have the activity?
One last question. As a teacher, it is something I wonder about. The philosophy aspect of Yoga seems to be the most neglected part of Yoga in general. Because we are all into the Asana, the toning of the muscles, feeling great and all of that. But the Yoga sutras are such a rich, deep resource with so much amazing philosophy there. How do we weave that into our classes as teachers? People may or may not be interested, but as teachers what initiative can we take to bring that element of philosophy into the experience?
First, by following them. And second, by making people really concentrate in the class. Regardless of whether you are going to teach them only sun salutation, or whatever you are going to do with them, make them start to learn the real power of mind. If a practitioner practices Asana for some time, he will realize that his mind is more powerful than his body. Only because of my mind I’m able to do these postures. So in this way there are a lot of segregations of realizations which are found in the practice alone. So that is why Yoga is one among the shatdarshans. It is a darshan, a realization. So it probably does not need a teacher alone to realize all this. The discipline has to be created, so I need a teacher. The goal is needed, so I need a teacher. As long as I’m humble and disciplined in my own work, the teacher within will start to unfold and speak to me. So probably someone who is more into education, will have the same realization. But he may not realize how high his intellectual level or concentration has reached. But we are fortunate enough to be in Raja Yoga to see it directly. We can see how the mind is, how many fluctuations are there. How we can focus. So all these are nothing but creating a gateway for the internal voice to speak and tell us many things. So being teachers what we have to mainly do is we have to create that discipline. And motivate them to such a level that they continue the discipline.
And the more we have the self-awareness in our practice, I think we are able to bring that in other people.
Yes it naturally happens.
Here’s to more self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and anyone we cross paths with. Looking forward to Vinay Kumar’s teaching in BYC 2018! Namaste 🙂