Tim Miller - Mysore 1999 and Encinitas 2000
Tim Miller padmasana.gif

GUY: Can you say what first attracted you to Ashtanga Yoga?

TM: I was fortunate when I moved to Encinitas in 1976 that it was the one place in America that Ashtanga Yoga was being taught. It took me a little over a year to discover it, but I was fortunate enough to live half a block from an Ashtanga Yoga Center when it opened up early in 1978.

I just happened to be walking down the street one day and saw there was an old church that had been vacant since I’d moved into the neighborhood. It had been freshly painted and the yard had been cleaned up; there was a new sign out front that said “Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam” and a picture of a dancing hermaphrodite. I said, “Well, this looks interesting.” And there was a gentleman standing in the yard doing something, I think he was eating blades of grass or something like that.

So I stopped and started chatting with him and he started telling me about the yoga, saying that it was a very rare and powerful form of yoga that was taught only in a couple places in the world and that in two months he would make me as limber as a gymnast. So I asked him about the class times and came back, I believe it was the next day, to an early evening class.

I was working at the time at a psychiatric hospital and had a little exposure to yoga during my college years. Based on that limited experience, I was teaching a yoga class to the psychiatric patients. So, realizing that I really knew very little about yoga I was thinking it would be a good idea to try a yoga class, so. Once I discovered this place it seemed fortuitous.

It was a rather primitive set-up there was no electricity in the building or anything so when I arrived it was kind of dark inside and people were lighting candles and this gentleman walked over to me and asked me if I was there to take some classes. And I wasn’t really dressed for it you know, I was wearing like a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt and I thought I was just going to come in and watch or something so I was trying to sound noncommittal, I said, “Well, I guess so.” Not really meaning then at that moment.

He said, “Ok, well come on over here.” So I went over there and he started showing me Surya Namaskara, which I was doing in my flannel shirt and blue jeans and so I proceeded to become very hot and wet within in a few Namaskaras. Anyway, he took me through roughly the first half of the primary series in that first.
It was quite a mind-blowing experience, really. It took me to a place that felt very familiar, very deep, peaceful, and it felt like something that perhaps I’d done before or something that I definitely wanted to be doing again. So I was hooked from day one on the practice and kept coming after that. That was early in 1978

GUY: How did you become interested in studying with Pattabhi Jois?

TM: Well, I was working with a couple of American teachers who had been students of his son, Manju. I had been studying with them for seven or eight months. And they raised enough money to fly Pattabhi Jois and his wife, Amma over and he taught right there at this little church for three or four months back in 1978. So he was the big guru. I’d been reading all these books about Eastern philosophy and what not, masters of the Far East and heard stories about this man. I thought that when he arrived he would sort of materialize in the center of the room in a ball of light or something.

It wasn’t quite that way, you know, when he opened the door in black loafers and white shirt and glasses; he looked quite ordinary until he came into the room and started teaching. It was obvious that he wasn’t at all ordinary. So again, it was just fortuitous that I was in the right place at the right time when he came there. That was his second trip to America, second trip to Encinitas.

GUY: How was it studying with Guruji at that time?

TM: When I first studied with Guruji in ‘78 his command of English was fairly limited and these first couple of trips to the States he was teaching all Mysore style. So this was a fairly good size room and there were probably thirty to thirty-five people who were all practicing at the same time Mysore style. So him just being one man and trying to cover such a large room and so many students, basically his geographic presence, his proximity to you would inspire you to 200% in the asana for fear of being adjusted.

He was quite a powerful man at that time. He was in his early sixties at that time and his adjustments were quite strong. Although he had a good sense of humor and seemed quite light he still inspired a certain amount of terror when he came close by, so it was quite interesting.

I was just learning the second series at the time and after classes, after savasana he would arrange those people who were doing second series or beyond in a big circle and teaching us pranayama. So that was quite an interesting experience.

The first time he sat with us in a circle took his shirt off, took that first deep breath and his chest kept expanding sort of like a bullfrog, like Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks when he plays the trumpet or something. So he gave us a rather radical introduction to pranayama, long retentions of the breath; lots of trembling and sweating, it was quite interesting. He was also teaching theory classes at his son Manju’s house three times a week.

Again,  because of his limited command of English that was a little difficult to understand but Manju was trying to act as his interpreter. So he would go on quoting scripture and laughing and crying and on and on for several minutes then he would turn to Manju for the translation and Manju would give us you know, ten words, and obviously we would be missing a little bit in the translation.

On that first trip we didn’t really get to know each other very well. There were a lot of students there, a lot of old students who had worked with him on his first trip to the States a couple of years before – David Williams and his crew of people from Maui were all there.

I continued with the practice and when he came again in 1980 he spent a couple of months in Maui and I went over there and worked with him then and it wasn’t actually until early in 1982 that I was able to save enough money to make that first trip to Mysore so at that time I’d already been doing the practice for four years and you know already learned the first three series and it was then when I went to India that we really got to know each other for the first time.

GUY: How was the yoga shala in Mysore different? Could you describe the yoga shala?
Tim Miller with Guruji.gif
TM: I first came to Mysore in 1982. It was just a much more intimate experience being there in Mysore. At that time there were very few foreign students, I think there were maybe three or four foreigners at different times. Part of the time I was the only foreign student in the class. But I also met Norman Allen there at that time, who was Guruji’s first American student.

It was obviously quite different from the situation now. Now we have 70 to 75 students here and a long queue to get into the room.  So his focus was still teaching his Indian students many of whom had been referred to him by their physicians for various medical problems, heart problems, diabetes, asthma this like that.

So they weren’t the young strong athletic types like the Westerners you see who come to practice the yoga, you know they were generally older and not necessarily that fit. Also, their approach to the yoga was – how can I say this kindly – it was maybe not as exacting as the Western students have come to practice it. They would move fairly quickly through the poses, and they were all busy, getting it in before they went to work.  A little different situation that us Westerners who basically have the yoga and then the rest of the day to recover and then come back and do it again.

So I stayed three months. You know, we had a nice rapport and I had an amazing experience in India just shedding layers and was convinced that after the experience maybe I should teach yoga. So I asked Guruji at the end of the time there if he would be willing to give me a teaching certificate and he kind of hummed and hawed and he finally agreed to do that. So I was unaware at the time he had never given a teaching certificate to a Westerner before so I didn’t quite realize the significance of that event until sometime later.

GUY:  Did he give you some kind of examination?

TM: Well the certificate actually states that I passed public examination and the only thing I could think that was something like an examination was a yoga exhibition that was done at the Lion’s Club in Mysore back then in ’82. It was a long involved thing involving many lectures and a yoga demonstration that consisted of Indian students men and women separately.

Saraswati, Guruji’s daughter did a little demonstration. Norman and his girlfriend Porna did a demonstration and I came out and did the whole third series of Ashtanga yoga with Guruji talking me through the whole thing so he was pacing me through the vinyasa very quickly. You know he would say the name of the asana count it out and I would have to follow all the way through in front of three hundred or so Indian people. So I guess that may have constituted my public examination.

GUY: So you would say the atmosphere today, the energy in the room is quite different than what it was before?

TM: Yeah, the energy in the yoga shala today is decidedly different than it was then just through the Western influence. I really think it’s the Western students who have brought out the best in Guruji as far as presenting the teachings and the way they were intended to be. The Western students, since they are here to practice the yoga and basically can devote all their energy to that, can be quite zealous in their practice and it’s much different than the way I saw the Indians practicing when I first came here.

GUY: What would you say is the essence of Guruji’s teaching?

TM: The essence of Pattabhi Jois’s teaching – well there are a few things I think that come to mind. One of course is the element of tapas – of purification through a fiery ordeal, that certainly we all have a lot of purification that is necessary, but to go through that process in an atmosphere of support and love and humor. So even though he’s a tough guy and he makes you work very very hard and doing the practice intensely takes you to some interesting places, not all of them good but all of them educational. I’ve always gotten the feeling from him that he’s right there with you. He’s very generous in his support and very loving and very interested in each student.

GUY:  You talked earlier about techniques of yoga as a kind of method but at the same time it’s a spiritual practice. Can it be both a technique and a spiritual practice? What is the relationship between those two things, do you think?

TM:  I think yoga is a very scientifically based technology that is giving us certain techniques by which we can awaken or uncover our inherent spirituality. So I think the idea in yoga is that we are inherently spiritual but that there are some perceptual blocks to our realization of that fact. I look at yoga as a way of removing those obstacles to the perception of our true essence.

It’s what Patanjali talks about in the Yoga Sutras: yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ - yoga is a cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness. When that happens then: tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe'vasthānam - then the true nature of the seer, the inner being is revealed. So yoga is all about techniques for removing the blocks to our true perception of ourselves. So it’s a scientific method for the realization of the fact that we are spiritual beings. So in that sense it’s obvious a spiritual practice.

GUY:  This is one of the principles that Guruji emphasizes again and again and comes back to this second sutra. Do you have any perception as to why or how it actually happens? And would you say that this particular technique of Ashtanga yoga with vinyasa works particularly well for controlling the mind?

TM:  Well the technique of Ashtanga yoga has worked particularly well for me. I’ve dabbled a little with other schools of yoga just to get a sense of what they were about - some styles that emphasize the techniques of yoga, you know, the biomechanics of yoga. And it was interesting and I certainly learned some things.

But for actually working toward the state of yoga for that state of cessation of fluctuation of consciousness, Ashtanga yoga has been the most effective path for me and I think the reason is the element of breath, how breath is emphasized in the practice, that breath is the real connection to consciousness. That breath, in a sense, is the vehicle of consciousness.

And many of the techniques of Ashtanga yoga are oriented around breath: how to make our breathing a more conscious process? We add the audio quality with the ujjayi breath, we add a kind of choreography to breath with vinyasa, we have the idea of an energetic root of the breath with the concept of bandhas. By using the breath as the main focus, it seems to be a very powerful technique for stilling the mind. So I’ve found that practice influencing my consciousness much more strongly than other things that I’ve done.

GUY:  The other aspect that strikes me that Guruji emphasizes is prayer, devotion to God. And personally I’ve always found it very difficult and I think a lot of people find it difficult because we don’t have that connection with God in the West that it’s so immediate in India. What is your perception of that?

TM:  Guruji often says that Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga and in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, the chapter on practice (Sadhana Pada), in the first Sutra Patanjali gives us three crucial ingredients for success in our yoga practice. The first thing he mentions is tapas literally meaning to burn, to burn away impurities, so there’s that heat element of the practice, which is very helpful in removing impurities and he goes on to say in the Yoga Sutras that through tapas one purifies the indriyas, the organs of perception, which lends itself to greater capacity for discrimination and self reflection.

The second aspect is svādhyāya (self-inquiry) and he says through self-inquiry we come to recognize what he calls the ishta devata - our personal deity that we have, our own individual connection to some aspect of the divine that we can come to know through self-inquiry. But that the predecessor to that is this process of purification: so it’s a process of physical purification and then mental purification through self-inquiry, which ultimately lends itself to the realization that you have help from unseen forces. And that there is an energy or entity referred to as iśvara, you know, that universal internal teacher who exists and is there for us if we’re receptive to the guidance coming in.

So the last part of that equation, iśvara praṇidhānā - literally bowing to God or recognizing in awe and humility that there is a timeless eternal teacher working on our behalf and that a way of connecting to that teacher is through the lineage of yoga teachers. You know, as begin the practice we say: “vande gurūṇāṃ caraṇāravinde” - I bow to the lotus feet of the guru. The guru is the lineage of teachers who’ve passed down this knowledge as a way of embracing the living teaching to help connect us with this timeless universal teacher – iśvara. This is what they called śiva in Mysore.

So, you know, they say that humility attracts the divine and egotism repels it. And I think the problem that we as Westerners have is we are reluctant to surrender the ego. I remember having a conversation with Joel Kramer about this one time. He wrote a whole book about the guru/disciple relationship, The Guru Papers. Basically his point of view is that you should never surrender to another human being. I said well, “Why not?” And he says, “Why surrender?” I said, “Just to see what’s on the other side of surrender. If you never surrender, you never go there, you never find out what is on the other side of surrender.”

My own first experience with this was soon after I first met Guruji. I would watch after class some of the older students go and do the traditional gesture of touching his feet and traditionally touching the feet three times and applying the dust of the guru’s feet to the eyelids as a way of taking the understanding of the guru and using that to further your own awakening. I was kind of put off by it initially as most Westerners are.

Then one day I was feeling a bit more vulnerable and perhaps more grateful and I went and I clumsily attempted to do what I saw other people doing. And as I touched Guruji’s feet I just felt this overwhelming emotion of gratitude engulf me and I looked up at Guruji and he was just beaming down at me and he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh, very good, very good.”  It was like “Ah, you’re starting to get it.” That’s when I began to figure out why surrender works.

GUY:  Do you see this as a spiritual practice?

TM:  Absolutely, absolutely I see Ashtanga yoga as a spiritual practice; that was apparent to me from day one. You know in the Yoga Sutras in the first chapter Patanjali first gives the definition of yoga, “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ” - Yoga is a cessation of the fluctuation of the mind. Then he goes on to say, “tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe'vasthānam”  - then the seer is unveiled in its true form. So I had something of the experience in the very first class that I took. Through the practice my mind really shut off and underneath the mind there was just this presence that felt more like me than anything else, that this was the seer, that grounded being, that was my essential self and I suppose it could be referred to as the spiritual self.

Tim's website www.ashtangayogacenter.com

Article by Tim: The Alchemy of Yoga

Yoga Journal Interview with Tim
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