You’ve probably got to do all the mistakes once
The devoted long-term practitioner and yoga teacher Olaf Gründel (49) tells Vertical Truths how yoga helped him escape the vicious circle of alcohol and drug addiction and take back control over his life and health. How do hallucinogenic substances potentially relate with yoga and influence the first yoga boom in the 1960s? Under which circumstances could yoga help overcome traumas? What are the most common mistakes often noticed in beginners? Olaf answers these and other questions in a brutally honest way and reflects critically about the role of nowadays’ yoga teachers, including himself, and about the path yoga and its scene has taken. Raising important, but often ignored questions, he discusses with us some of the controversial aspects of the spiritual scene.
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Jennifer: Imagine a child asks you: “Olaf, what is yoga?” – what do you answer?
Olaf Gründel: I’d tell the child that yoga is when you are trying to do something very concentratedly and consciously.
‛Consciously’ – that’s a good key word. What does ‛being conscious’ in life mean to you?
It means: you should try to be in the moment and live it fully. Because the moment is all that 'is'. All the rest is not real. If you mistake the future or the past for real and get stuck there with your mind, that would be a pity, because life is short, and just imagine – at the end, you were most of the time not really here.
“Without yoga, I’d have kicked the bucket.”
How did you start your personal yoga journey?
For me, yoga was a healthy alternative to drugs and alcohol. Without it, I’d have kicked the bucket. I had many problems and I noticed I needed something to balance me.
The substances were a means to distract you from your problems...!?
Yes, and no. I was surrounded by a certain type of friends which had an influence, and I was pretty much fascinated by hallucinogenic substances. I’d not say, taking LSD is something spiritual, but you recognize that all that you used to see as real can change. And that just by taking this substance, you can take a step into another realm while the reality you were used to is still there, only distantly. That probably is one of the reasons why yoga got more popular in the 1960s (the years of the boom of psychedelic substances). I think most of us need such an eye-opener to get a glimpse of a reality that is different from what we’ve been told all the time.
Psychedelics as a door step to yoga – reminds me a little of Ram Dass...
I’m not sure though whether his reputation is that good, actually. They are both well known, Ram Dass – an American spiritual teacher and former academic and clinical psychologist who is known among others for his travels to India and his exploration of psychedelic drugs – and Timothy Leary – an American psychologist known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of hallucinogenic substances. Dass and Leary may have started off with good intentions. However, in the end, both were not really sane anymore, I reckon, and they have lured quite some people on to destruction. Anyway – one particular day, when I took LSD with friends, I must admit that that was probably one of the most beautiful days in my whole life. I had a depression and then, all of a sudden, there was this feeling of oneness and wholeness. I believe, therefore, it is not quite correct to actually call these substances ‛drugs’ or to put them into the same category as heroine.
“This froglike semi-nude Indian man who did incredible things”
And then you tried yoga?
The hallucinogenic substances helped me to open up and I became aware I needed to do something. I was never much of a sports person, but when I felt I really should take care of my body and of my psyche it was pretty clear to me that I should try yoga. So, I got myself a bunch of instructional yoga books and began practicing at home.
Was there any outstanding book among them?
In the library, I discovered the book Light on Yoga by Iyengar [Olaf’s mind goes wandering through his past, then he laughs a little] – this froglike semi-nude Indian man who did incredible things. It gave off the impression to be a good and serious book about yoga and indeed it was fascinating reading it.
How do you do your self-practice?
I practice asanas, and also meditation for about one or two hours every day at home, if I can. Before my practice, I drink a cup of coffee. [He laughs. ]. It is simply stimulating. Funnily, Iyengar loved coffee too.
And you had learned yoga by yourself in the first years?
Yes, in the first years this was what I did. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but in the 1990s there were not as many teachers as we have today and to find an Iyengar teacher was even harder. At that time, the yoga from the 80s was still in. Predominantly, people of encounter groups, or from the bhagavan movement (an international movement based on followers of the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Bhagavan) influenced the yoga scene of that time.
“How far do we yoga teachers help people to stay sane enough to keep on going within the hamster wheel?”
Nowadays, yoga is more socially acceptable than at that time...
Yes. But I think, today it’s become sort of a lifestyle.
What do you mean exactly – what kind of ‛lifestyle’?
I ask myself sometimes: how far do we yoga teachers help people to stay sane enough to keep on going within the hamster wheel, within a system that is not sane? Yoga has become a lifestyle, but I wonder whether it’s going the right way... I’ve been thinking a lot about how we are able to live and endure contrasts, like this one between unhealthy life and yoga. For me and for many others, yoga is really great. But think of those people who are in a job and in relationships that make them sick and who realize that somehow their whole life is going the wrong way... and then it’s you in your role as yoga teacher who tries to help them on enduring that sick life. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better sometimes if we simply collapsed and ceased to function instead.
Do we have to change our lifestyle according to yoga or do we practice yoga and then our lifestyle changes?
I think it’s just one possibility out of these: if you’re really into yoga, you’ll be drawn into it intensely automatically at some point, or you will stop it. From one moment to the next, I believe it won’t work if you only wear white cotton clothes, keep on fasting and all those things.
“The reasons that draw people into yoga are actually contradicting the yogic philosophy”
The relationship between society and yoga is interesting to observe...
It is. Yoga has become very popular – and we should ask ourselves, why it is so. Because the reasons that draw people into yoga are actually contradicting the yogic philosophy. Yoga is used nowadays so that you can work more, achieve more and be more efficient – a form of self-improvement. The question: is this actually still yoga?
“Yoga, the hype about India and its ways of spirituality can also become a way of escapism”
It has nothing to do with enlightenment or aiming at becoming enlightened. Something I’ve experienced in very limited time – if that then is actually enlightenment.
Another question is: why should we be enlightened all the time? Honestly, even though yoga originates from there, I’m not actually this much of an India fan and of all its spiritual rituals. I’m interested in yoga a lot, yes, but I know that my life is here in Germany. I think it’s good to be aware about yoga and the hype about India and its ways of spirituality can become a way of escapism. What really matters at the end of the day is that you can find a way to live your life in a better way.
“We don’t need to have an answer to all these questions. It is important that we ask them”
Many interesting questions that are coming up here – and, as it seems, we are not able to answer them.
I guess we don’t need to have an answer to all these questions. It is important that we ask them, though. This is an important part of mindfulness. I don’t mean that we should overanalyse and brood over things – something I still tend to do sometimes – but asking ‛What am I doing and for what reason?’ is important.
What were the most profound positive changes around yourself you noticed throughout your yoga journey?
I was simply feeling way better than before. I remember thinking: ‛if I weren’t sure that I’ve been actively contributing to the results with the help of my practice, the transformation would have appeared surreal to me.’
You had quit consuming hallucinogenic substances then...!?
No, not yet. I guess I had really big problems which I was not aware of at the beginning of my practice, so I still did it parallel, and yoga just helped me being steady and more grounded. Certain things are easy to combine. [laughs] There are groups of people in the yoga scene who smoke a lot of marijuana when practicing. That’s not my cup of tea, though. And I guess, quite some of those sadhu people that you see around the kumbh mela in India for instance, are simply nuts ...
“Many people who are drawn on to yoga have a physical or psychological issue.”
That groundedness and maturity, that you had found through yoga – did it grow over time?
I’d say I still have my issues. There were multiple traumas of which some have not really been healed yet. But most of the times I can deal with them pretty well. I believe many people who are drawn on to yoga have a physical or psychological issue.
It seems you were lucky. Some argue that yoga and meditation can be the solution for all of your problems, I guess though, not everybody who has deep traumas is ready for help or ready for meditation and yoga.
Yes. I myself felt I needed to do something and it was me who took the initiative to try yoga. It was an intuition. And I believe we do know intuitively what is good for us, but we often have forgotten how to listen to our intuition. Yoga can help to relearn it, but it is a process. For some, a very long one.
“We have forgotten how to listen to our intuition”
Why did you become a yoga teacher?
I had done ten years of self-practice and in the meanwhile more yoga schools opened. So, I decided to try out practicing yoga with a teacher. I found a school, the Integrale Yogaschule Hamburg. Their teaching is based a lot on energy work, spirituality, meditation, Sri Aurobindo (an Indian philosopher, politician and guru). I remember how one teacher taught us how to see auras, as he sat in front of the wall, staring at it with unfocused eyes and concentrating on the crown chakra, so we could see a purple light then. I was not too much into this, however, the most important thing for me, was that they taught good hatha yoga. My interest in yoga continued growing and then, in 2003, they offered a four -year teacher training course, so I decided to go for it. Not because I wanted to be a teacher – I was working as a digital media designer –, I was simply keen on deepening my knowledge.
Apparently, your plan to not teach yoga did not work. How did you get into teaching?
My job situation got a bit complicated later, and I was unhappy. If I had continued working and living this way it would have made me sick. That’s when I began thinking about working as part-time digital media designer and part-time yoga teacher. My decisions are often not rational, but intuition-based. Rationally, it would have made sense to keep my old job, but as I was not drawn to continue working on it anymore, in the end I became a fulltime yoga teacher – it’s been eleven years now.
“You learn that there are different ‛right’ ways”
While you are passing on your knowledge about yoga in your classes nowadays, you have learned much about yoga by yourself, much through the help of books or CDs. Do you really think learning yoga through Youtube, Instagram or books alone is recommendable?
I think learning yoga with media like books or Youtube is possible. It is very different than being told what to do. I noticed that some students who have learned yoga only from one particular teacher tend to be less open for variations. And it can happen – and that can be utterly confusing for a beginner – that one teacher tells you that you should do a certain posture or technique only in one particular way, whereas another says that you mustn’t do it that way. [laughs]. You then have to learn that there are different ‛right’ ways and the ones which might be right for you depend only on yourself, on what you need or want.
“Finding what you are really looking for is like finding a needle in a haystack.”
Don’t you think it is confusing to get orientation within the massive choice of publications and info available?
There are good videos on Youtube, but yes, there’s a big amount of publications and information, which makes it more difficult to find what is good and right for you. So, I think you need to be well-informed and skilled enough to be able to select wisely and find the right videos for yourself. Even if you’d follow your intuition, finding what you are really looking for is like finding a needle in a haystack. This lack of limitations in information and other things in life nowadays can be overwhelming – so I think knowing one’s own boundaries and listening to one’s intuition is extremely important.
“You do yoga with your own body and not with the body of the person next to you”
What are the most common mistakes that yoga beginners do?
Some beginners are overambitious when practicing asanas. You can really notice in the yoga class that some people tend to transfer to their yoga practice the patterns they have adopted in daily life. They tend to compare each other, something which does not make sense as everyone has a different body. They want to achieve or prove something and at times they even forget to breathe. It’s a learning process to see that there are other people around you, but that in the end you do yoga only for yourself, with your own body, and not with the body of the person next to you.
“I can feel the pain just by watching what they are doing to their own body”
Should a yoga teacher in your opinion gently remind the students to stay focused on themselves when instructing?
When it comes to the degree regarding how attendees are able to feel their body and respect its signs, I must say varies a lot. Sometimes I can feel the pain just by watching what they are doing to their own body. A teacher can remind them every now and then to be careful and to go within, but you’ve probably got to do all the mistakes once. And this is okay, as long as you don’t get an injury during your practice. This too is a matter of knowing one’s own body and of having healthy boundaries. If we haven’t had the chance to learn about them and know them, we are lacking orientation both in the practice and in life. Good news is, though, that according to the neurologist Gerald Hüther, it is possible to catch up on the lessons that we have not learned during their natural development stage. And yoga can potentially help to reconnect with the body and discover the boundaries.
“Why am I getting angry when I am twisting my spine now?”
Some people believe that, no matter what traumas you had, you can find and realize yourself and be at peace just by meditating – do you think this is true for everybody?
Trauma means that parts of yourself are split, certain parts have developed normally, while other aspects and memories of you have been locked away somewhere deeply within you. Yoga can help unlock emotions. Sometimes one may wonder: ‛why am I getting angry when I am twisting my spine now?’ But certain hidden memories can be perceived as ‛life threatening’ and you never know when and in which asana or meditation which emotion may be set free. I believe it is better if it happened slowly and in a controlled manner, with somebody who helps on grounding you and processing the experience, like a psychologist, for example.
What characterizes a good yoga teacher in your opinion?
The ability to laugh about themselves and not to take themselves too seriously.
What role does the conscious use of the voice play in an asana class? Yours appears a little melodic to me and it is as if the vibration of your voice helps carrying me through the practice more easily...
I think it is important to know, when giving instructions, that there is melody and rhythm and it should be harmonious. This may help us to get deeper into the asanas, as if it is not harmonious, we may find it more difficult.
“There is a reason why the heart is closed”
You have received darshan (blessing) from Mother Meera today. How important is bhakti yoga (the yoga of love and devotion) for you?
It is important, though I’d not label it as bhakti yoga. This is too Indian for my taste. Throughout my teacher training we also studied a lot of philosophy, for example. It’s fascinating and incredibly deep, but at the end of the day it is still very Indian. To me, it was quite off-putting when they used to tell us: “You’ve got to open up your heart and open up to the divine.” And if you listen to this over and over again – particularly when you simply are not yet ready to open your heart – after some time it appears to be just a meaningless phrase. There is a reason why the heart is closed and it should never be forced to open. Often there’s also a risk that teachers project their reality onto the students. So, it is crucial to be mindful and watchful. I’m afraid, there are too many hobby psychologists at work, something which is in my eyes a reason to convert yoga teacher trainings into a study program at the university.
I hear some people in the spiritual scene argue that through the ‛law of attraction’, by using your will power and intentionality, you could create the life of your dreams, whereas the idea I get about ‛karma’ (from Sanskrit – 'action' or 'deed'; spiritual principle of cause and effect, seen also in continuation in different incarnations) is that many factors are determined already before you are born into this life - in other words, that there is not that much power in your hands in the end of the day. What do you subscribe to?
I think we are never really free, at any point. There are always influences. From society, marketing, from your parents, or even teachers. Later, you embody it, even though it is not really ‛you’. It’s something that people filled you with. And then you live it and pass it on to others. The goal of yoga and zen etc. is to get rid of these layers. A very high goal, and one extremely difficult to achieve.
Thank you for this interview.
Yoga was crucial for Olaf Gründel’s (49) survival, when he found himself in a critical phase of his life, which included the consumption of too much alcohol and drugs. The former digital media designer in Hamburg learned yoga by himself and practiced it on his own for many years, managing to find more groundedness and stability in life before he took his first yoga class with a teacher and decided to take his four yearlong yoga teacher training at Integrale Yogaschule in Hamburg. He has been working as a self-employed yoga teacher since 2008. Currently, he is teaching at Altonaer Turnverband and SportSpaß in Hamburg, Germany
More information: Olaf Gründel – email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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