Aesthetics Of A Fuller Life: Becoming One With Two Sadhanas

 

Yoga and Bharatanatyam have been part of Sharmila Desai‘s life and consciousness from a very young age. An ashtanga yoga teacher, certified by KPJAYI, Sharmila’s teachings are grounded firmly in the wisdom that come from daily devotion to the practice over several years. The coauthor of Yoga Sadhana for Mothers, Sharmila has conducted several yoga therapy workshops internationally and runs a community garden at her children’s school. A long time resident of New York City, she plans to shift to her family’s ancestral home in Morjim, Goa, to teach yoga and hopes to create a biodynamic garden.

In an e-interaction, she tells Pratyasha Nithin about her life as a yogi, about Bharatanatyam and the healing powers of yoga.

Tell us about your childhood.

I was born in London. As children, my brothers and I had a very international upbringing. My father worked in finance for a bank that had offices worldwide. So, every three to five years, we would transfer to a new place – London, New York, Japan, Hong Kong, and India. My parents’ true passion, antiques, has manifested in me a respect for craftsmanship and a reverence for the old. They often took us on off-the-grid adventures, teaching us to respect different ways to live in this world. My parents came to the West by working hard in academia (my father was a graduate of LSE and Wharton; my mother of SOAS), so our studies were always greatly valued in our household. We were given the freedom to explore any endeavour as long as we maintained high grades, developing in us a diligent work ethic.

No matter where we were in the world, we would always spend our summers with our grandmothers in India. It became home. For several years now, I have been living in New York. I have also been spending more time at my parents’ ancestral property in Morjim, Goa, where I will be teaching soon.

You come from a lineage of renowned dancers. Tell us more about them. 

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was Hima Devi. She was a classical Indian dancer, a drama teacher, an arts writer for Mumbai’s newspapers, as well as a devotee of Sri Aurobindo. Her aunt was Madame Menaka, a pioneer artist, dancer and choreographer. Her philosophy was that art should not only embody an aesthetic quality, but also spiritually uplift us and be relevant to our everyday lives. She was one of the first women to travel internationally on behalf of India, representing Kathak as a dance form. She also collaborated with Anna Pavlova. In her later years, she resided in Tagore’s Shantiniketan, where she shared her art and knowledge among like-minded intellectuals, like poetess Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, an active supporter of India’s traditional arts and crafts. Damayanti Joshi wrote a beautiful book documenting her life. The book is in the Sangeet Natak Akademi library, New Delhi.

What inspired you to take up yoga?

When I lived with my grandmother in Mumbai, she would get up around 3 am and begin her prayers. I would drift in and out of sleep, smelling the sweet aroma of burning incense and hearing her melodic chanting of mantras. I also witnessed her practising simple yoga asanas as part of her daily ritual. Yoga, as a part of life and as an offering, became a part of how I understood the world.

Our mother would also take us to a yoga therapist, whenever we were not feeling well, to receive asanas that would strengthen our internal system. I grew up with the understanding that yoga was a healing science as well. As life and its complexities began to unfold, I sought that feeling of inner fortitude and shanti as a prism to experience the world.

How is ashtanga more than a mere set of physical exercises?

‘Ashta’ means eight and ‘Anga’ means limbs. The eight limbs are based on the knowledge given by Maharishi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras and refer to the various dimensions or stages the sadhaka must cultivate in classical yoga practice (sadhana) to attain awakening. If one likens the limbs to the eight petals of a lotus flower, the petals bloom in harmony. All limbs – external and internal – in ashtanga yoga must be integrated with one another and be given due attention. When practising yoga in its wholeness, the impurities of the mind and body are removed, clearing the path for us to realise the true nature of the soul.

The very name ashtanga implies a way to bring together the human body, mind and consciousness. Asana and pranayama transform us at the core of our being so we can access the other limbs of our inner and outer observances to lead a meaningful life. It is essential not to get attached to the fruits of the practice, but to keep focused on the eternal path of our sadhana.

I think, in simpler terms, what that translates into is that with the practice of yoga we should live a life of greater compassion and love, become better human beings in our day to day interaction with people and the world around us.

On the age criteria for practising yoga:

I have been welcoming my children – Asha, 9 years and Arjuna, 7 years, to join me when I practise, since they were toddlers, but I never push them. They are around it enough and the lessons are permeating naturally into them. They enjoy reading Indian epics like the Gita and the Mahabharata. Exposing children to yoga is a healthy experience for them so that they can create a positive relationship with their own body, mind and spirit. As their muscles and limbs are still growing and their intellect is developing, it is important to expose them to the discipline of yoga, but not push them in any way. The experience should be welcoming and healing.

Yoga in general is a helpful tool in life, no matter the age. There is nothing to consider before taking up yoga except to find a knowledgeable teacher. The rest automatically happens. A good teacher will individualise the practice, considering age, lifestyle and any ailments, so that the yoga process is therapeutic, joyful and brings oneness. Quite a few of my students are between the ages of 60 and 75; several are cancer survivors and others practice safely through their pregnancies and postpartum recovery. It is wonderful to witness that the practice continues to bring happiness and freedom, no matter what stage in life you are in.

How did you meet Shri K Pattabhi Jois? What were your first thoughts after meeting one of the most renowned yoga gurus?

In 1997, I was in India on a community service grant from Columbia University, when I heard about Guruji and ashtanga yoga. I took a train from Rishikesh to Mysore to meet him. I was not sure if he would accept me as a student, but I wanted to meet him and see if studying from the source was a possibility. One thing I learned from Bharatanatyam is that it is better to learn the correct method from the beginning. Otherwise, one spends a lot of time with a real guru just correcting all the mistakes before learning the actual form and being able to receive real knowledge. Guruji very kindly welcomed me into the afternoon class for Indian students and I started learning the practice from him as a total beginner. He and Sharathji taught me steadily through the advanced series, showing me the importance of teaching students with concentration and equilibrium from the very beginning.

Guruji had the real ability to dispel darkness with the light of his knowledge and for us practitioners of the form to experience deep reality under his watch is incredible. Being in his presence was equivalent to being in the grace of the divine. At the same time, Guruji was incredibly warm and down to earth. He always made time to ask after my family. He did that not only with me, but with everyone, which I believe added to how truly evolved he was as a human being. In transmitting the lineage of ashtanga yoga, today, Sharathji and Saraswatiji also pass on this unique quality of possessing great knowledge on the subject of yoga with a worldwide following, while also being relatable and inclusive to all students who come to study with them.

When do you start teaching yoga and what qualities do you seek in your pupils?

I started teaching when I began learning the advanced series in ashtanga yoga – directly from my Guruji and Sharathji. I was never in a rush to teach, and for years, I simply wanted to be a student. The longer I am a student, the more aware I become of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn. Although I have had many offers to do many things over the years related to my yoga practice, I have been clear on choosing to try to live the yoga and to see how it applies to real life. It took me a long time to shift my perspective to feel that if I simply taught what I had learned, it would be of value to others. With the encouragement of my teacher Sharathji and his mother Saraswatiji, I teach much more, especially since my children are getting older. I teach from my first hand experience of sustaining the practice through multiple pregnancies and life’s varied fluctuations, helping people bring yoga into the reality of their lives.

When I share the practice with others, I seek an openness to learn from those who come to study with me. Witnessing the dedication of so many practitioners over the years and seeing how they transform to become kinder and gentler people is inspirational. The compassion embodied by older students filters into newer students and the general ethos of the community. Being a part of that cycle of positive change is a blessing.

I have read that singer Sting and his wife Trudie were your students. Tell us about teaching them. 

When I met Trudie Styler and Sting, we naturally became family to one another. Sharing the practice with them for a span of 16 years taught me how the practice can be part of a multi-faceted approach to find the truth. Some of the other efforts include organic gardening/eating farm to table as much as possible, helping the earth, being environmentalists, raising a family with love, practising deep compassion, actively engaging in bettering oneself, staying close to nature and being the best creative version of yourself in all realms of life. They bring yoga and a sense of oneness into everything they do. Although I have taught them ashtanga yoga, they have taught me multitudes by way of example.

Tell us something about the healing phenomenon of yoga. You have conducted several yoga therapy workshops worldwide. How was your experience?

Over the years, I have taught yoga in domestic violence shelters, to factory workers, to youth in community organisations. I used to volunteer with a lot of these community groups helping with organisational and administrative duties. I found, that in addition to the need to live in better conditions, bodies and hearts needed healing, too. Yoga has the ability to do that. The process, slow and measured, connects people to the essence of who they are and helps release trapped trauma. One has to teach from the perspective of science as well as be open to research and give it a shot with a full heart.

In the ashtanga yoga method, the long and even breathing while moving the body, when practising asanas, creates an internal heat that warms and thins the blood allowing for greater blood circulation. Blood is able to flow smoothly in harder to reach areas such as the internal organs and the joints, removing impurities and pain. Purification happens as the toxins are released through the sweat that occurs in the practice. With dedication over many years, the body becomes purified and the internal systems (digestive, respiratory and immunity) are strengthened, with emphasis in later years on cleansing the nervous system and sense organs. The drishti – which is where you look while you practise – harnesses a practitioner’s concentration into a meditative state and fortifies the functioning of the mind. The body, mind and consciousness gradually unite creating a sense of long lasting peace and oneness within.

As a practitioner of Bharatanatyam and yoga, do you find a connection between the two?

The everyday discipline of Indian classical dance prepared me for ashtanga yoga. As sadhanas rooted in India, they share common elements. Both are steeped in Indian mythology, are expressions of devotion and connect the inner and outer worlds of consciousness. On a skeletal level, the forms simultaneously intertwine the laws of physics with the architecture of the body. Studying Indian dance requires tremendous self motivation with daily practice of two to four hours, outside of class. And much like ashtanga yoga, one could only move forward after mastery of the present lesson. The method to learn was slow and gradual, daily, with an emphasis on foundational expertise and it was not necessarily on a linear pattern. Only through precision in form, rhythm and rasa could the Divine be invoked. That took time, hard work and patience. The beauty of these spiritual disciplines is that although they both demand a unique level of commitment, the unadulterated joy they bring overshadows all else.

Have you thought about a life without yoga and Bharatanatyam? 

I equate devotional discipline with life itself, I do not really think about a life without it. On the most basic level, both taught me that by going inward I can connect to the outer world with a sense of reverence and gratitude.

When I was a high school and a college student, my spiritual practice was community service or seva. I placed all my efforts into helping others through teaching literacy, building childcare centers, working to help women in need and being active in the international human rights movements. At the same time, I was yearning for inner transformation which eventually led me back to yoga. Now, I am finally able to integrate both seminal aspects of my life.

Recently, I have been studying permaculture and ways in which I can continue to live in greater harmony with the earth. I work in the garden at my children’s school where together we study the nature of the world as we put our hands in the soil. My yoga practice has made me more in tune with the cycles of the Earth and I am always seeking ways I can develop this aspect of my life more.

The concept of ahimsa or non-violence in yoga has added depth to my everyday interaction with the world through years of sadhana. More than simply being a vegetarian, we try as a family, to lend our support to rescue animals. When we are in Goa, we spend as much time as possible at Atul Sarin’s greatly esteemed shelter, Welfare for Animals, in Goa. My children feel animals are sentient beings through their firsthand connection to them at the shelter and Atul educates us on the important issues like creating a humane society.

Advice to young yoga practitioners:

Practise with dedication and devotion without wanting to grasp anything from it. The process of yoga takes time, so gift yourselves the experience of being a student with patience and humility. Let yoga be sacred to your life.

 

sharmila
The beauty and balance: Sharmila Desai in practice

 

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