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yoga as a path for an earnest practitioner.

Manish Vyas interviews Arpit Agrawal, a Yoga Teacher from India, being this the transcription of a Poscast published on 21 June 2021 in our Podcast channel.


Arpit is the coordinator and Ashtanga yoga teacher at Sri Yoga Ashram, Rishikesh, India. Arpit got the chance of learning yoga at the most famous Bihar School of Yoga, Munger. He is also the direct disciple of Swami Niranjanananda from Bihar School of Yoga and Usha Mata Ji, the famous Iyengar style yoga teacher in Rishikesh. Bihar tradition of yoga is known for the extensive use of Tantrik techniques in the practice of Hatha yoga for the self refinement. Arpit has taught in numerous schools of Rishikesh and received great appreciation from the students from all corners of the world. “Yoga is an effortless and gentle way of life. Initially it challenges your body and later it changes your body and mind to reach in the state of calmness peace and effortlessness.”




Manish: Namaste Arpit, welcome.to this podcast…


Arpit: Namaste Ji


Manish: You learnt at one of the finest places in India for yoga training. So could you tell us a little bit about how was that experience, how was that journey.


Arpit: My schooling was like the Indian traditional school system, so we had classes sometimes, not every day; after that, after my schooling I chose yoga as a profession and then I started my journey in the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India.


Manish: Can you tell us how was your experience with your training there, how was the kind of program they had scheduled there, the whole teaching?


Arpit: Basically, it was more like spiritual teaching, more like a mental yoga. It was not talking about the postures, it was more talking about the yoga as a lifestyle – how you can implement yoga in your daily life, in your daily work. Or “how to live a life of yoga,” instead of just finish it in one classroom. So basically, we had the class early in the morning, which is 4,30 then we had breakfast and then we had meditation classes or sometimes we had some library hours, followed by lunch, then we have the lecture classes, then the dinner and then in the end we end our evening with chanting, sometimes with Hawan ceremony, so that also depends on the day and then turn the lights off.

When we’re talking about the yoga asana or yoga class, mostly we’re focusing here only on the joint movements. It’s not like we’re making any advanced postures, standing on the palms, or making a complete back bending… so they’re not teaching us to bend ourselves like a robot. They are saying, while maybe doing a side bend or neck rotations, you should focus, you should be aware what you are doing. That’s yoga. It’s not like yoga is bending yourself in any way. Same when we’re talking about the meditation. So it’s not like they’re directly asking us to enter in the practice; all the preparation of those things is most important, which I think most of us we skip here… we just want to maybe liberate in one day, instead of following the steps. So basically, step by step, they’re teaching us, guiding us. Many books we can also find in the yoga market, which come from the Bihar School of Yoga – they have many, many famous books published from them.


Manish: Yes, I believe some of the best yoga literature which is available around the world and followed by many yoga practitioners comes from this very place, the Bihar School of Yoga.


Arpit: And then we have lecture classes, so the lectures are also by those yoga teachers who are really living in that lifestyle many, many years, maybe more than twenty, thirty years they devoted themselves to the ashram and now what they learnt and their experience they were teaching us there.


Manish: When we met many years ago, you were also mentioning about ‘karma yoga.’


Arpit: Yes, so that ashram is also most famous for the karma yoga. So karma yoga means we’re doing some work without expecting anything back out of that work. So every day we need to do karma yoga, that maybe it can be clean your room, it can be clean the ashram, making the food, doing some office work… so they don’t have the staff and every work is done by the students or the volunteers, who are present at the time. So through that they are teaching us also how we can manage our life by our daily routine actions.


Manish: I think this has been a very important part of the Gurukul, which we have in India. For those who may not know about this ancient tradition of India, Gurukul was a certain concept, where students who learn any particular thing, whether it is yoga, normal studies, or music, or arts or dance, even war techniques… any particular expertise – they would go to the ashram of that particular guru and spend many years under his or her guidance and apart from the normal learning, they would be requested to do all the other works which Arpit just mentioned as karma yoga, and the whole idea behind that was that one melts one’s own superiority complex, “I don’t clean toilets, that is not for me…” and in Gurukul one was supposed to do everything, and that removes all your likes or dislikes or prejudices. And of course thanks to the british many of the Gurukuls in India disappeared, they destroyed many of these Gurukuls, but still in some selected places they still function and Arpit has been lucky to go to one of these gems, where one is taught yoga as a dimension of life, from every aspect.





THE ASPECT OF ASANA


Manish: You’ve been yoga teacher for many years and you have been teaching in many yoga schools in Rishikesh and now in your own proper school and I believe that being in Rishikesh, you receive a lot of students from the west, as well as India. So you may be knowing that primarily that when people talk about yoga, they more or less think that it is asana. That’s why they say, “ok, let’s do yoga,” which mostly understand that, “let’s do asana,” while as a student of yoga, what I have understood is that yoga is an eight dimension path. So even if one is focused on asana, according to you, how the asana can bring a certain understanding or a certain dimension of life through its practice?


Arpit: Asana is for sure important, to keep yourself healthy. And we need some kind of flexibility as well, as we say the higher purpose of yoga (asana) is to sit in meditation for longer time, and those things come by the yoga asana. So it’s important only for that purpose. But yoga asana is one limb of yoga, it’s not everything. Yoga tells you how to live, how to eat, how to walk, how to practice… everything comes from yoga.


Manish: So, to bring a certain level of consciousness in every function.


Arpit: Yes, it’s like developing the awareness on how to do any action.


Manish: So that means, is it so that apart from asana, the other limbs are also important to grow in this journey?


Arpit: Yes.


ABOUT THE WORD YOGI


Manish: And in that way, according to you, what is the definition of a yogi, really?


Arpit: Any person who gets liberation or a very high state on the spirituality – that person we call a yogi.


Manish: Somebody who has really attained a state of union would be known as yogi by others; the person himself will never claim, “I am a yogi.”


Arpit: Yes. Nobody really claims to be a yogi, if he has reached the higher state. Other people tell him yogi, because his life is following the discipline of yoga.


Manish: People who practice yoga, don’t you think it would be important for them to understand that no doubt practice of yoga, asana, pranayama, everything is great; but to create this label for themselves, that just because they’re practicing yoga they are ‘yogis’ – I think that from our Indian learning and Indian perspective it is a little strange, don’t you think?


Arpit: Yes, it’s a little strange, but some things got modernized, you can say…


Manish: Yes, that is the problem with modernization. People bypass the years of learning and training and practicing. Also, because you where in this ashram where yoga is taught very, very sincerely, sometimes even for years… now of course like you say sometimes modernization has changed everything and has also compressed everything. What used to be maybe twelve years of training is now maybe twelve weeks… Yes, because of that compressed format we see that there are so many yoga teachers coming out from these short programs of training.

Now, you having been a teacher for many years, which also must have come out after years of practice before you started teaching, what is your suggestion to these yoga teachers who come out of these trainings? What would be an ideal way to carry it forward?


Arpit: You can say that due to the time demands, everybody has limited time, so we have some courses which finish in one month or two months… so I mostly tell to my students, “You are here only for the learning, you’re not here for the practice. We are just telling you the techniques. We’re just informing you that this is the way you should practice yoga or these are the guidelines, these are the rules you should follow when you will practice. And when I say practice, I am not talking only physically. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. So at least for one or two years, they should practice every day without any breaks, once they finish the training from here. Or if they have the time, they can join the one year or two years schools and maybe after that they can start teaching because they get at least the two years’ experience from here.


Manish: Yes, I think that makes sense because just like you’re a yoga teacher, I’ve been learning music for many years and now since many years I’m teaching also. In our field, it would take us ten, twelve years of learning and then practicing before we would be eligibly to start teaching. This is minimum that I’m talking about, sometimes even longer; and that is only an only when our (music) guru tells us, “Ok, now you are ready to perform or now you’re ready to teach.” And second thing is that even after ten or twelve years of learning, we don’t call ourselves ustad or pandit (highest musical titles) or maestro – that comes after many years of performing and maybe at some point the students or the audiences or the lovers of your art, start calling you a maestro, ustad or pandit. We never start calling ourselves pandit or ustad! And I think it makes sense that in the same way, in the field of yoga, you just remain a student all your life, and maybe once you arrive, people will recognize you as a yogi.


TYPES OF YOGA AND THE TRUE ‘KUNDALINI YOGA’


Manish: You have learnt in one of the very best places in India and you have understood the branches of yoga, could you describe a little bit the difference between the Ashtang yoga, the hatha yoga versus kundalini yoga? (Note: Kundalini yoga does not refer to what Yogi Bhajan taught in the US, but the real practice.)


Arpit: Hatha yoga is one of the oldest yoga, specially if we’re talking about the physical postures. In the name of physical activity, what we used to practice, everything comes under the Hatha yoga. But in the modern times, they started differentiating, “this is the Hatha yoga, this is the Ashtanga yoga, this is the Vinyasa yoga, flow yoga, kundalini yoga, and so on. Like basic practices of the Hatha yoga in the modern times, which come under the Hatha yoga practices, started differentiating and started calling some parts as kundalini yoga, where the practitioner practices asana, adding the pranayama with kumbhaka (the breath retention) and applying the bandhas (energy locks.) Once we practice yoga, we get some energy, so it’s important to lock the energy inside you, otherwise there’s no much benefit of practicing yoga. And then you apply the mudras. Mudras give the direction to that energy, where to go; if you do not give direction to that energy, it can take you in the wrong direction.

These practices, like when we talk about the yoga asanas, pranayama, mudra and bandha and we group them in one practice, then we started calling that as kundalini yoga. Same as you ask about the Ashtanga: so, Pattabhi Jois took some asanas from the Hatha yoga and made a fixed use of those asanas, which is known as the Ashtanga yoga.


Manish: So, that means, kundalini yoga has a very ancient and deep connection with Hatha yoga.


Arpit: Yes, we used to practice many, many years, as I said asanas or physical practice which comes under the Hatha yoga, and advanced meditation practices, which is known as the kundalini yoga. But because of the separation in the modern times, they started separating the physical practices too. So the simple basics, like the ones we’re just practicing the asanas, pranayama, meditation – which we call Hatha yoga – when we add the bandhas and the mudras, the same practice is what we call as kundalini yoga.


Manish: Ok, because we’re referring a lot to kundalini yoga here, and having understood from you and when I was there in Rishikesh with the training, since then my interest in the whole dimension of yoga grew. Many years ago, I was traveling in the US and here also in Europe, where I see that the ‘kundalini yoga’ which they teach and how they present it, it always looked to me completely or very much different than how it is understood and taught and practiced in India. I think that whole kundalini yoga movement started in 1970s and it was brought by one Sikh person from India to the US, and it was told to people that, “this is a very secret practice and until now nobody was knowing it” and he’s the first one who is sharing this with people… this was like ten years ago when I met this (US-kundalini) community and I saw their practices and their yoga classes, and it looked something different from what I had known as the kundalini yoga or the Hatha yoga.

Because you have more expertise on this subject, do you know what is the real thing versus what is taught in the west as this ‘package’ of kundalini yoga in combination with Sikhsm and all these things…?


Arpit: First we talk about what you said, that this is a secret knowledge. When we became the slaves of the muslims and then after that the british people, many people in India didn’t get the chance to practice yoga. Specially some people who were in the Himalayas, where nobody could reach easily, some of those people were practicing yoga. So that’s how this knowledge is kept within some limited people, maybe that’s why they call it as a secret knowledge in the modern times. If it’s now known by everyone, it is a secret, but secret doesn’t mean that people were not aware about it. If we look at our traditional texts and scriptures, we can find that from the beginning they were talking about the kundalini yoga. So for sure, in the west it just got modified: how maybe we can reach to the people, or how they can sell to the people as a business. So, they just checked there, what kind of demand did people have. As people were talking about physical activities there (in the west) but not talking about it as an energy; so they brought (the yoga) in the form of “energy” and they tried to sell it with the name “energy” or which we are talking about, the “kundalini energy.” So they just modified it in the way that they could sell it easily…


Manish: So, you’re saying it was a commercial re-packaging to sell it…


Arpit: Yes, for sure they’re using some traditional concepts – asana comes from the tradition and pranayama comes from the tradition, but still it was modified.


Manish: I think my point is that if somebody takes a responsibility, “Look, this is my style, I am introducing a new style and I take the responsibility of whatever good or bad comes our of it…” but maybe some people don’t have that courage and they would use the old label but still try to give it to people as their own creation. Like, Bikram Yoga, he said, “this is my thing, he took full responsibility of introducing that hot yoga and all that.” Because I see in these ‘kundalini’ classes, they do these kriyas where there is a lot of movement, which is not really part of the tradition of hatha or kundalini yoga, am I right?


Arpit: Yes.


Manish: Ok, so in the original kundalini yoga, these movements are not really part of it, it’s more like holding a posture.


Arpit: Yes, it’s more like holding a posture, specially with the breath work, and breath work means, not like inhalation / exhalation, but breath work means adding the kumbhaka, the retention, which Patanjali also described as the gap between the inhalation or the exhalation is the kumbhaka or is the pranayama.


Manish: Also, there are two things that I want to ask you, because you’re more an authority in this subject. Was there any connection between Sikhism and kundalini yoga?


Arpit: They (Sikhs) don’t have anything directly in their scriptures.


Manish: So basically, there is no connection between kundalini yoga and Sikhism?


Arpit: No, as I know.


Manish: Also, practically there is a whole industry of what is called ‘kundalini mantras’ and when I heard them, for people like you and me who have grown up in India, where we also visit many times the Gurudwaras and we’re around Sikh people; so for us is like they are singing basically the Gurbani, the sacred text of Guru Granth Sahib, “Ardas Bhaee Ardas Guru, Wahe Guru Wahe Jio, Guru Ramdas Rakho Saranai…” so you will agree with me that these are basically the Shabads from Guru Granth Sahib…


Arpit: Yes, there’s nothing like the ‘kundalini mantra.’ There is no text that claims that there is something called kundalini mantra. There are only some mantras, but not specified kundalini mantras in our original texts.


Manish: So that means there’s nothing like kundalini mantras…


Arpit: There’s nothing like kundalini mantras. There’s only the Mantras.


Manish: That means maybe this whole thing was like a compromised situation and like you said, modified…


Arpit: Yes, you can say that if you want to ‘attract the people’ maybe you need to plan some kind of a package. They sold it as a package, so nobody could easily copy it and it looked very different from the things that people already are practicing. So now you say, “Ok, these are the mantras, you need to dress up like this…” so you’re creating the environment – so it means you’re playing with the mind of the person – they made the environment in such way so that people would automatically would be attracted towards the package.

Manish: Yes. And it’s not that one should not sing the texts from Sikhsm, I also sing, and I am sure you also enjoy listening to that, even though we’re not Sikh people. It is ultimately the highest wisdom, you know, like Bhagavad Gita is a great wisdom, Guru Granth Sahib is also a great wisdom, bit one should know what is what… a Mantra is a Mantra, a Shabad is a Shabad, a Gurbani is a Gurbani, and then you sing it! There is no problem. But one should not misguide people, I think.


Arpit: Yes, for sure.


Manish: Actually, when you know that it is not a Mantra, why would you tell people that it is a kundalini Mantra? (laughs) Well, I’m glad that you clarified it because many people, specially who are following kundalini yoga, believe that this whole thing: kundalini yoga, kundalini mantra is so-and-so and I think it would be important for them to connect to the actual source – what is the actual kundalini yoga which people like you are teaching.


Arpit: When I was studying with one of my gurus, when I went to him, I’d always say, “I’ve found this on google, I found that on google… so one day he got very angry. He said, “Who made the google? People fool like you! Have you found any yogis or real practitioners that post something on google? And that’s very, very true. We have the Swargashram (a well known ashram in Rishikesh), where there are the small Kutias (huts) of the Babas… they are really practicing but they are not on the social lists. So the people that know nothing, they come on the top (of google,) it is hard to promote a good thing.


Manish: So then what happens when some people who come from outside India, who may be thinking that kundalini yoga is ‘all this,’ kundalini mantras, and the turbans and white clothes and these kriyas with a lot of movements, and this and that… when they come to you and when you show them what is the actual kundalini yoga, what is their reaction?


Arpit: For some people is easy to digest, but some people react a lot. But with the time, as we pass some days, then they understand. In the traditional kundalini yoga practice, you really don’t feel the energy only within the class, you also feel the energy outside of the class – you get like freedom, wisdom, happiness… in your life, outside of the class, not only while you’re just on your mat there. So as they start experiencing these things, they start feeling and understanding the difference and that what they’re practicing is the real thing. Maybe some people take a little longer than others, sometimes due to their work routine and lifestyle. I’m not talking about somebody specifically, but maybe an alcoholic person, for example, these practices are really not recommended for them.


Manish: Yes, I think one time you mentioned, that they can be even dangerous.


Arpit: Yes, they can be even dangerous because of the energy, you need to know when to stop, and when you get the energy, how to use it in the right direction, not in some wrong direction.


A PATH OF PATIENCE AND TRUST


Manish: So in one way we could say that the whole practice of yoga as such is a whole long journey of trust and patience where one should focus on the practice, not too much on the result but dedicatedly practice and slowly-slowly it starts showing – it’s not an instant coffee… after one week…


Arpit: Yes, the results take time here.


Manish: And I think this has been the backbone of all Indian wisdom, that no matter what we’re learning, one has to be very-very patient, we have to have full faith in the practice or the wisdom and then slowly-slowly the results start appearing, but our focus should not be on the result. In Bhagavad Gita, also it is said, “Focus on the karma, focus on the functioning, but not on the result.” That is Sankhya yoga, actually…


Arpit: Yes, all of them are connected.


Manish: So, this is also interesting because that would also be important for all of us to understand; that yoga is pure wisdom and asana is just one small part of it.


Arpit: Yes, for sure.


Manish: And all the paths lead to the same point. We just have to choose our path according to our personality.

Of course, I want to again mention that Arpit is based in Rishikesh. Actually, with my wife Sa we were really fortunate to be part of a yoga teacher’s training about five years ago, where Arpit was teaching the asana part, and Arpit’s elder brother (Yoga teacher Gaurav Agrawal) was taking care of the philosophy classes and we really enjoyed both of their sessions because they both come from and authentic training and teaching, so they really reflect this authentic aspect of yoga and the wisdom from the philosophy of India.

Having been born and brought up in India, I have met many people and sometimes almost everybody is a philosopher (laughs) but it’s rare to find that somebody who really talks sensibly as far as the philosophy of yoga is concerned. So Arpit’s brother is doing a wonderful work in that area also.

To end this interview, could you say briefly the purpose why you and your brother are teaching and why it is important?


Arpit: Actually, when we started our school, we started more as meditation courses; but we couldn’t get much success in that, so we started something where we could also add the asana, because when somebody came to us, the question was, “How many asana classes do you teach?” So, we started adding some things where we could teach the asanas too. So that’s also why we started teaching here the (real) kundalini yoga. And in yoga, we cannot make it fixed, because your body is different, my body is different, somebody-else’s body is different and if I make something fixed, “You need to practice just these ten asanas,” it is not working. So it is one of the aims to teach the people what is the authentic which comes from the Indian tradition, what is our roots.


Manish: Arpit is conducting also yoga Nidra, which is his speciality and he does a wonderful guided yoga Nidra meditation. His sessions can be also accessed online. Thank you so much for all your insights, your wisdom, your sharing of this journey… and I think it will benefit a lot of people all over the world, and I wish you and your brother all the very best in this continuous work in this field spreading the light and spirit of Yoga and India with the rest of the world. Thank you once again. Namaste.


Arpit: Thank you so much, Namaste.





Contact Information: Arpit Agrawal, Sri Yoga Ashram, Rishikesh

@yogawitharpit / sriyogaashram.com



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