Union is the realization that nothing is separate
My 52 years old yoga and philosophy teacher Sunil Kumar Ramachandran (“Guruji”) from Kerala, explains misconceptions of yoga, shares his opinion on goat and ganja yoga and reveals how his life in an ashram not only enabled but also limited his spiritual growth. He also tells us how acceptance becomes an important game changer on the yoga path and that we should not underestimate comfort in an asana (yogic body posture). Furthermore, he reflects on the differences between yoga in the East and in the West, as well as on sexual harassment in yoga classes, and explains why obstacles are both part of the evolution and a sign for progress.
Read the INTERVIEW
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Jennifer: If a child asked you what yoga is, what would you say?
Sunil Kumar: I would tell that child, that yoga is an exercise which is good for the body and for the mind.
Yoga is 'in' and the more popular yoga becomes, there seems to be more confusion around it. What is or are the most common misconception(s), in your opinion?
The emphasis often is on the asanas (yogic body postures) alone, which is only one of eight limbs of yoga, while the other parts are forgotten. This is a common misconception. It is like showing only the arm and saying “this is the body”. Partly it is true, but it is not complete.
Do you mean that philosophy also plays an important role!?
Not philosophy alone. Also pranayama (yogic breathing techniques), meditation and particularly the yamas and niyamas – number one and two of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga, the code of ethics and personal obligations to live well in the relationship with others (yamas) and with oneself (niyamas) – are very relevant. But this is a 'discipline' rather than a philosophy.
Your personal yoga journey is a long and diverse one, including ashram life for twelve years, a spiritual pilgrimage through India and many years of practicing and teaching yoga. What were the most profound changes you felt?
The main thing that changed for me in my life throughout these years is the acceptance of unfavourable circumstances or facts that are not in my hand to transform, and which I can’t do anything about. As long as I can change things, I try my best, but if I can’t, I accept life as it is, without resisting unnecessarily.
“My father used to know many yogis. But my brother and I used to be sceptical about them.”
What contributed the most in your yoga journey so that you could develop this kind of acceptance?
Life in the ashram and my background at home helped a lot. My father was very much interested in learning about yogis and spiritual life. So, it was not a sudden change when I became more accepting.
You were actually already half way of becoming a yogi...!?
Not half way. Some influence was there from my family. My father used to know many yogis. But my brother and I used to be sceptical about them. Only when I went to the ashram for the first time, I got more interested, however I was still quite selective.
“I felt that the ashram institutions were limiting us”
If you were so sceptical, how did you come up with the idea of going to an ashram?
It was related to my Sanskrit background, and not a sudden incident. My aunt, my brother and I learnt Sanskrit at school. After my preliminary degree at college I saw the advertisement of a seven-year course in Sanskrit and Indian philosophy at the Sivagiri Ashram in Varkala. I then decided to apply for that and got selected. So, when I came to the ashram, I actually did not have the intention to become a monk, just to learn things.
What was your biggest challenge on your personal yoga path?
After I spent so many years in the ashram, I felt it became an obstacle for my further spiritual growth. I felt that the ashram institutions were limiting us and I found that people who are very much interested in the ashram are diluting the essence of yoga or spirituality. So, I decided to leave.
“My desire for women was an obstacle.”
The ashram as institution was an external obstacle for you. Were there also inner obstacles that you were facing?
About the sannyasa (life stage of renunciation within the Hindu philosophy), there is the renunciation of three things: fame, wealth and women. So, we can say, my desire for women was an obstacle. [slight chuckles] I was not feeling as if something was wrong with me, I simply felt I should accept it. As long as I have this feeling, I should live with it. I had a strong desire of fame when I was a teenager. But when I met some famous people and knew about their lives, my longing for fame faded away. When it comes to wealth, I must say I never felt a really big attraction, but my desire for women simply persisted.
Hatha yoga suggests people to be abstinent for some time whereas tantra – where hatha yoga derives from – embraces all the energies, including sexual energy. Is there a contradiction?
If you are capable to control your sexual energy without suppressing it, you can choose this way and channel that energy somewhere else, into creativity for example. If you can’t control the sexual energy without suppression then you should fully embrace and consciously be with it, this would be the tantric way.
Why do certain people feel the desire for sexual energy and ease at controlling it, whereas others don’t? Does this have to do with our ayurvedic constitution?
It may have to do with our karma (from Sanskrit - 'action' or 'deed'; spiritual principle of cause and effect). For example, if a person has a strong karma (from their past life) to have children, this person will feel strongly attracted by the opposite sex and have children. So, karma is one very important fact. It can also be the karma that explains the fact that when two individuals meet, they are supposed to meet and to connect to complete their karma. For instance, when my wife saw me the first time in the ashram, as I was sitting next to the temple reading the newspaper, she felt intuitively and seemingly without any reason that she wanted to talk to me, even though she did not do it straightaway. After it was only more than a year later, when we happened to encounter each other once again, that we felt an immediate connection.
“We misunderstand our identity and just remove the misunderstanding.”
The goal of yoga, if we can talk of something like a 'goal' here at all, what would that be?
The word 'yoga' itself means union. And it doesn’t mean that something new is coming together, but something that is already there - 'union' here means to realize the Self. We misunderstand our identity and just remove the misunderstanding. The internal space, this is something we cannot really tell that is different from the external space . It’s got a shape and that’s why we think it is separate. In reality, though, it is never separate. The ego, the thinking of the 'I' and 'my', that is the reason for the separation. Once the 'I' is gone, only the 'we' remains. Union is not like two entities coming together, it is the realization that nothing is separate. That is the goal of yoga.
I am I, and you are you, and still, we are the same – is duality and non-duality a contradiction?
It is not. It is like as if we were on a boat in the ocean. The space inside the boats is different and our experiences on the boat too, but if you look at the whole, both belong to the same bigger space. The boats have their own shape. In the same way we identify with our body and mind, and we feel like they’re separate. In the yoga philosophy duality exists by distinguishing between prakriti (Sanskrit: 'nature'; primal matter) and purusha (consciousness) as being something different. If we identify with the qualities of prakriti we are bound and limited, if we disidentify with these qualities though this is liberation from this false state of separation and limitation.
“When you work without your ego (...) you can do the best.”
'Identification' is an interesting keyword. Let’s take this example. There’s two people that enjoy what they are doing professionally and one of them feels 'identified' with their job. The other one, on the other hand, is only following his or her purpose without this feeling of ‘identification’ - How is it possible to distinguish between the two?
When you work without your ego, without being too bothered with the result, then you are not identified, and you can do the best. Everything else is going to follow it. For example, if I hold a speech here and I am too worried if the audience is going to accept what I’m going to say, this is going to have an impact on my talk. Whereas if I simply enjoy to share my experience with people, it comes spontaneously from the inside; it’s most likely to be a connection between everybody, and people can simply enjoy it. Many social workers, NGOs and other people expect recognition and they do charity and/or help others for getting that recognition. However, it is when you are sincere in your actions, that you will feel that recognition, even if you did not plan for that to happen. For example: one lady from a village in India once planted banyan trees on both sides of a four kilometre long stretch of a road. When the trees had grown bigger, they attracted many birds and now they give so much shade to animals and humans. After some time, the president of India awarded her for that, but she was in full surprise. She did not only not expect it, but she did not even know that something like this could happen. There are many examples like this one.
Why are there seemingly more women teaching and practisng yoga in the West than in the East?
The body of women is usually more flexible and in the West many men think “yoga is something for women. We need muscles, so we have to go to the gym.” That was the notion, but it is changing. Women can be more patient than men and this quality is needed when you are a teacher. That is why in the West many women are yoga teachers. In India, it is different. The gender segregation is quite strong, that’s why you cannot easily teach a mixed group. Women often don’t go to asana classes because male teachers are very often there, something they themselves don’t care much about, but their husbands may not be too happy about it. So, nowadays, there are more lady teachers for female students.
“You can’t expect butter not to melt when you put it near the fire.”
What do you think about the separation of women and men in yoga?
I think when yoga is practised more as a physical exercise, there is no problem. For the spiritual part I think it would be better not to have men and women come too close, because you can’t expect butter not to melt when you put it near the fire. I’m not meaning that men and women should not come together at all, it depends on their intention.
I’ve heard about cases of sexual harassment in asana classes in Rishikesh. How is something like this possible to happen?
The yoga teachers are from society, and all of what is going on there can influence them. How one approaches yoga and the students has to do with the intention behind becoming a yoga teacher. Some become a yoga teacher purposefully, knowing that in this profession one is interacting closely physically with people and hey take the chance to hook up with somebody whenever they can. However, who has such interest, does not follow the rules of the old scriptures in which is written what it takes to be a real yogi.
For some in the yoga world there seems to be some confusion on how to behave properly and on how to prevent being suspected. That’s the reason why some teachers don’t touch their students, but adjust them only verbally or with a pen. Do you think this is the right solution?
I believe there is no need for extreme solutions. In general, I don’t see anything wrong in touching a 'normal' (e.g. not traumatised) person when a small correction is needed. I guess people can feel the intention when the teacher is touching. Only if a touch during a correction affects some student negatively this should prevent the teacher from doing it.
“In the West, we can say yoga is very much reduced in its meaning and adapted to people’s individual needs.”
What are the main differences in the way of teaching and practising yoga in India, where it originates from, and in the West, where it has grown so popular?
In the Western world the practise of yoga is often more physical. There are some people who are genuinely interested in the spiritual aspect, but for many, yoga is like just another option at the gym. Whereas in the East, especially in India, most people are aware about the spiritual side of yoga. Many might do it wrongly, but they know that yoga is a spiritual practice. In the West, we can say it is very much reduced in its meaning and adapted to people’s individual needs. Perhaps after some time people will practise yoga in a more profound way, not so superficially, but in the beginning it is like a mere dilution of the sense of yoga. That is also why you can find beer yoga, cat yoga, goat yoga, and so on.
“There are goats who climb over you while you are practising asanas”
Cat yoga? Goat yoga? Please explain this!
It really exists. Kittens are put on your back or people meet somewhere outside in an open area and there are goats who climb over you while you are practising asanas, or during beer yoga people have to drink beer in different positions. [We both are laughing.] Of course, that is a distorted form of yoga, there are many distractions.
Beer might not be too healthy, whereas when it comes to yoga with animals, I could imagine it has to do with the connection with another being, with beingness...
I think yoga and connecting is better to be done separately. The same for couples’ yoga (acro yoga). If it is a real couple, perhaps to some extent it is ok, but if you practice something that needs more introversion, there shouldn’t be the interference of external stimulations. I’m not completely against it, but it is better not to mix it or mistake it for yoga, because in yoga we need to go within.
There is also ganja yoga. What do you think about the use of substances that may expand our consciousness? Can they be helpful in the process towards enlightenment, or are they rather counterproductive?
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he refers to the siddhi - supernatural abilities. They can happen because of four different reasons: janmam (rebirth), matram, aushadham (medicinal herb), tapas (asceticism). Even though Patanjali has mentioned aushadham, he is not especially advertising about it, because these are external substances and stimulants - so the effect is not coming from within. A person can become dependent or addicted to the substances and as it is an induced state, that is not coming the natural way, in some cases the risk of depression is higher when the substance is not available. There are some yogis who know how to use them and only the people who really know the use of the substances well, can use them, but only if they are used as a catalyst for a deeper purpose. If you don’t have any experience and don’t have a guide, I would not recommend doing it.
“It is like digging a well. The speed of digging may vary according to the soil. If there is some hard rock, then it takes more time and more effort.”
Have you ever tried any (of those) substance(s)?
I haven’t. I know that even just experiencing it, can be harmful, so I never felt the temptation to try it. However, if I felt it strongly, I would try it, yes.
It is said that yoga, if practiced properly, is the path to self-realization, positive self-transformation and happiness. Do you believe that asana practice, breathing exercises and meditation alone help in the case of deeply rooted trauma such as sexual abuse during childhood, for instance?
It can work, but maybe not to the same extent as with other people who don’t have such a trauma. It is like digging a well. The speed of digging may vary according to the soil. If there is some hard rock, then it takes more time and more effort.
So, do you think that an additional psychotherapy or self-therapy is advisable?
It is not contradicting yoga – it belongs to the svadhyaya (self-study) in the second part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the niyamas.
How important is it, in order to balance our different qualities in yoga, to know and understand something about vedic astrology and our own nakshatra (star sign)?
It can be of support, if you know a bit about it. But if you don’t believe in it, then there’s no need. If you believe the stars have an influence on you, this will influence you and you can learn something more. But it is important to find a good source. Otherwise it can be misleading and confusing.
“If you focus on what is positive only and avoid the negative part, you probably also miss something.”
The law of attraction is very popular in the spiritual world, many refer to it or use it to create the life of their dreams instead of dreaming their life. How do you define the limit between creating a dreamlife and running away from reality?
Ignoring or avoiding something that we should face is not the right way. No need to purposefully search for a negative aspect, but when it comes along our way, we should face it. If you focus on what is positive only and avoid the negative part, you probably also miss something. I remember a German lady who was in my yoga class a few years ago. She was young, it was her first time in India and all the shop owners came running towards her, telling her “come and visit my shop.” So, she used to close herself away, trying to keep her energy, when she walked by the shops. One evening, I happened to pass her in the street, so I greeted her friendly, but she was looking over to the ocean and did not respond. Later, she said she did not notice me, and I said I understand that she was trying to avoid the shop owners by looking into the ocean, but because of that, something on the other side may be missed. Nothing is totally negative as also not everything is always positive. It is good to keep a balance. In her case: instead of turning away from the shop owners, she could have also looked on the shop side, no need to speak, when the shop owners call you. Just smile and walk by.
“With acceptance, I don’t mean that you have to take it when somebody is going to hit your head”
What is your opinion about and your experience with synchronicities (omens, signs from the Universe)?
When you are in a mode of acceptance, you can experience synchronicities more often. With acceptance, I don’t mean that you have to take it when somebody is going to hit your head, I mean trusting and surrender to the divine. I have one simple example of my own experience. When I just moved into a new room in Varkala a few years back, I was doing some laundry and then wanted to dry it. So, I went to the roof top and there was nothing where I could hang my clothes. I noticed the two uneven sides, the higher end at the staircase roof and a smaller wall on the other side. So, I wondered how to fix a rope. When I went downstairs again, surprisingly, I found one rope, one nail and a piece of rock that I could use as a hammer. I went up again and fixed the rope on the higher staircase side. On the other side, when I looked across the roof top, I saw a coconut tree, but my arm was too short to reach it. It was just in that same moment that a man appeared with a ladder and he was going to climb up that tree and I asked him to kindly tighten the rope around the trunk for me, what he did happily. After all, I could dry my clothes, right in time.
“You will continue where you have stopped, and often it is just for a limited period, like a cloud which is momentarily covering the sun.”
What do you tell someone who is on their own yoga journey, keen on progressing, but facing a difficult time and lack of motivation? How to get back on track?
Patanjali wrote also in his Yoga Sutras that sometimes in the progress of yoga we face obstacles and an obstacle may be a part of your evolution, a sign of your progress. You have to overcome it. And after some time, you just continue your practice. Arjuna asked also the same question to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita – he was asking about half way stopping. Arjuna was listening attentively to Krishna, but suddenly he thought: 'if a Sannyasi renounces all from this world and dedicates himself to yoga and then dies without having reached the state of enlightenment, what happens if he doesn’t have neither the worldly life nor God?' Krishna said: “Don’t worry. You will continue where you stopped, in your next life.” The same I’d say to the yogis who are facing lack of motivation and stopped their practice. You will continue where you have stopped, and often it is just for a limited period, like a cloud, which is momentarily covering the sun. After some time, it moves on and light will come again. You don’t need to feel guilty. If you don’t feel like practicing, then don’t do it. Accept the way it is.
If a posture is very powerful, but not comfortable, I may not be sitting in it.”
What is your favourite asana? Siddhasana (see Sunil's photo) is my favourite asana. Even though I would not really say I have a favourite asana, it is just the most comfortable one to me. I can sit a long time in this position, if the clothing is comfortable.
Only because it is – 'comfortable'? The benefits of the posture were not what convinced you?
It is perhaps the most powerful sitting posture, it is helpful for conserving the sexual energy and channelling it, something which has to do with the respective chakra. But to me, personally, the fact that it is comfortable is in this case the most important thing, because even if a posture is very powerful, but not comfortable, then I may not be sitting in it. So, the comfortable part is what matters to me.
Do you also have a favourite mudra (energetic seal)?
The dhyana mudra. It makes me feel very relaxed and therefore it is easy for me to meditate this way. Also, in most of Buddha’s pictures, you can see him sitting with this mudra.
If I apply the dhyana mudra, in comparison with for instance the chin mudra, I feel more grounded and receptive. Do you have any particular sensation during the different mudras?
In the chin mudra I feel I need to be more conscious to keep the thumb and index finger together. Sometimes they come apart if we are not consciously keeping them together. In the dhyana mudra, though, I don’t need to make a conscious effort.
How would you describe your diet in a few words?
I like sattvic (balanced light) vegetarian food, which is not too salty, spicy and oily.
“I knew I was not the right teacher for them”
What is it in your philosophy or asana classes that makes you happy when you are teaching?
When people in the class – no matter whether it is a big or a small group – are open and receptive, I feel very energized after the class. And one particular experience made me happy. A French man once took 135 individual yoga classes with me. He was 60 when he began practicing and his body weight was around 90 kilos. He felt very shy at the beginning, his back was hurting, and he could not do many postures. After a period of 2 years, though, he managed so many postures, even headstand, that he had lost weight and his back felt much better. He had a lot of patience and determination to achieve this. It was a pleasure to see such a positive transformation.
Was there any challenging teaching experience?
It is more exhausting when students are not receptive, but resisting. When one student in the group is resisting, I can immediately feel that. I had once two young women in my hatha yoga class who came from an ashtanga viniyasa background and were apparently expecting that. They did not express it verbally, but I could feel it in their energy. I knew I was not the right teacher for them and that’s what I told them later. This can happen and is not a problem at all – sometimes it has simply to do with the connection.
Thank you for this interview.
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About Sunil Kumar Ramachandran
Sunil Kumar Ramachandran (52) is a master of Indian philosophy who speaks six languages, one of which is Sanskrit. He has acquired his learning and knowledge over a period of 12 years at the Sivagiri Ashram, and at universities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, India. He has been teaching yoga in Varkala for the past 15 years, currently at the Krishnatheeram Resort. Sunil is a master of asanas, or postures, and is happy to demonstrate these and more challenging anatomical variations to his students without leaving any sense of inadequacy in one's own abilities, only with the desire to progress within oneself. In the book Guruji and his Pearls of Wisdom one of his disciples tells the parables and real stories about the deep truth of life which Sunil has shared with the author during his yoga classes over the years.
Email : email@example.com
Instagram : ramachandransuni
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