Today I’ve had a chat with my teacher, David Collins, of Ashtanga Yoga Dublin (www.ashtanga.ie). Although I haven’t attended many classes with them (David and his wife, Paula) since I’ve been busy studying Ayurveda, I still see them as my teachers, as they are the ones I would go to if I needed help or advice in my Yoga practice.
So I’ve asked David a few questions that I thought would be interesting to you, particularly those of you looking for a course or teacher training. I’ve done the Heart of Yoga course a few years ago as a part of my Ashtanga Teacher Training and I still think it is one of the best courses Ireland has to offer. So make yourself a cup of tea and have a read.
Interview with David Collins:
You are teaching since a long time now. Tell us about what brought you to Yoga in the first place and what made you want to teach?
Ok, it’s quite a long story. You have to go back to the early 80s really, at that time I was studying science, doing a PHD in molecular science at Galway University. But I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted to do with my life. Although I found it fascinating, my real desire was to be an actor. At that time this was a difficult thing to pursue and as a result, I became quite unhealthy. I was suffering from stress related eczema and asthma. I got treatment from an acupuncturist in Galway, who recommended Yoga. That was my first contact with the idea of Yoga. The same day I bought Iyengar’s book “Light on Yoga.”
I just looked at the pictures and I read it but it took another year for me to actually take a class.
I finally decided to leave science and take up acting as a full time job in 19985 and moved to Dublin. There, I found a meditation and Yoga class and began to practice, on and off, while pursuing my acting career. After a few years, one of the students there told me about a residential Yoga weekend in Navan and I went. The teacher suggested I take up a place in her teacher training and so I did, thinking that it may be a useful way to supplement my income as an actor in between work, without having to work in restaurants, and being able to do something good and healthy at the same time, something I really loved to do.
So after completing the training with the Irish Yoga Association in the early 90s I began to teach part time. Thinking this would always be the case, little by little, as I slowly matured in myself, my focus on Yoga slowly increased.
I was working in Germany and England a lot at the time, moving around a lot and found the Yoga provided a good anchor. It helped me feel stable and healthy. When I began to feel the necessity to settle down a bit more, I took six months off to get myself refreshed and clear, moved to Dublin and practiced more Yoga and as a result I found myself teaching more.
In the summer of 2000 I decided to take a break from Theatre to focus on practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
I had been working by myself, from a David Swenson DVD and book, and had joined an informal practice group consisting of a number of people – but I was a bit daunted by them. They were all very serious practitioners, I was way off the mark with my flexibility and strength at that time and my comparative Ego was telling me I had to get better at this.
When I introduced this Vinyasa system into my teaching, classes really took off.
I decided to go to America for 6 weeks to attend a workshop with Lino Miele. It was the first time someone had explained what the nature of the Vinyasa system was. That changed everything for me.
I started to understand that it was a systematised thing and that there was a science behind it, which spoke to that aspect of my personality.
It was the first time I understood what I was actually doing.
The first thing Lino said to me was to do less. He encouraged me to understand that it wasn’t about just willy nilly pushing through lots of postures, but to practice appropriate to your age and conditions and what was real in the moment. That it was about being in the moment, being in the presence and accepting what was possible and not trying to push into something for the sake of it.
So I practiced with him, went to India with him a couple of times. I went to various places, Finland, Italy, I did a good many workshops. At this stage I had started to slip out of acting, as the Yoga classes were going well and I just kept turning down work from the Theater that was offered to me and after about a year or so of this, I realised that, without having intended this, I had a Yoga School going that needed my attention.
So I let it happen organically, as I felt I was being led to this, I told my agent I wasn’t going to look for work anymore and, apart from some voice over jobs every now and then, haven’t done any acting work since.
Then I met Paula and she joined me in teaching in 2004. In 2005, while we were in Mysore, in India, we created the Heart of Yoga course. We looked at what way we really wanted to teach Yoga, what Yoga really was and how we wanted to present it to people.
What was your experience in Mysore?
After we god married we went to Mysore again in 2005. We’d been in India a good few times but only twice in Mysore. We found it interesting to be in the Shala and to see Pathabhi Jois but he wasn’t really teaching at that time anymore, it was largely Sharath and Saraswati who were teaching.
The following year Paula was pregnant and in 2007 I went back by myself for 4 weeks, but I cut it short and returned home after 3 weeks as I didn’t like being away from my family. At that stage we had long since realised that we didn’t need to be in Mysore to do Yoga. And while there was certainly an energy there that was encouraging people to practice, there was also a kind of a craziness there that we realised we didn’t want any part of either.
There was a largely acquisitive nature to how a lot of people were practicing, it was all about the next posture. Not everyone was like that of course, but there was a lot of that about. We just didn’t feel a great pull to that.
But one of the greatest things of that trip in 2007 is that I met Dr. Jayashree and Narasimhan and through them I really started to appreciate the importance of traditional teachings of the Yoga Sutras, and the other texts. I had to open myself up to the deeper aspects of Yoga, understood that the Asana was an important and necessary aspect of the practice, but very much only the tip of the iceberg in what Yoga had to offer. Narasimhan and Jayashree opened that door wide for me. I had some exposure to it previously in trainings and had studied but never really had a guide into it and so this first meeting with them was really significant.
You were talking about the experience of reaching the next posture and the next… I’ve come across teachers who would be very strict in adhering to those particular sequences, not allowing people to move on without having mastered the previous one in the sequence What’s your approach?
I think the sequence is an intelligently put together practice regiment that covers basically all of the categories of postures. And that’s all very well, if you are particularly fit and healthy and have no particular issues. It’s like a prophylaxis. You do a little bit of standing postures, a little bit of balancing, a little bit of supine postures, some seated postures, a little bit of back bending, some inversions… in it’s original form it’s kind of a classical Hatha Yoga practice that involves moving the spine in all directions and doing something that’s going to maintain flexibility, strength and balance.
Now, when it becomes an obsessively strict thing that prevents people from being moderate in their approach, being able to say for example, actually, my back hurts today, I need to do things that will help strengthening and healing my back. Or I have bad knees and tight hips and I don’t want to be forced into Marichyasana D, it causes me pain.
That also was never the way Pathabi Jois taught. Everyone of his students had a different experience. He worked with people with paraplegia and all sorts of diseases. It was meant to heal.
Manju, his son, who was more our teacher than P.Jois ever was, always said that this rigidity of adherence to the sequence is nonsense. The practice has to be appropriate to everybody and has to be modified according to peoples capacity.
I would have a very different approach now than when I first started. Just because you can’t do those postures it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something that involves inversions or back bending.. especially with so many lower back issues, you may need to do more back bending. So, it makes no sense that an inability to achieve a certain proficiency in certain postures prevents you to practice others. We do whatever is appropriate to make your body – and your whole being – as healthy as possible. I have no time now at all for that kind of militant approach. There is no one way for everyone, it doesn’t make any sense, everyone needs something different.
It’s what makes it Yoga Therapy after all.
What do you observe in your teachings, are the needs of the average student changing? We are living in different times now, we spend more time seated and immobile than ever, does it show in people’s physical issues? What do you notice?
On a physical level, in the last 20 years I wouldn’t necessarily see a huge change. But what I would see that over that whole period, younger people are much stiffer then they used to be. If we had two people starting, one in their 50’s and one in their late 20’s or 30’s, certainly now we would find that usually the 50 year old would be more flexible than the younger one. Because of the largely sedentary working experience that people have, an awful lot of young people spend much of their day sitting in front of a computer.
But actually what was much more interesting to me are the psychological differences.
I think now, people are much more anxious, and have a lot more difficulties remembering things. There are also all sorts of other issues that impact their bodies, you have chronic stiffness and extreme levels of upper back and shoulder tension, tightness in the hips and hamstrings.
And many people are runners as well and that impacts on the body.
But in general, the sort of hypertonicity that we experience now has definitely increased and that’s becoming apparent at younger and younger ages. Their baseline is a much higher tension than it used to be.
When you are talking about the mental aspect, the higher levels of anxiety, etc, do you think that we need to bring back some of the other aspects of Yoga more strongly, like pranayama, yoga philosophy, etc?
Absolutely, when we are teaching, particularly beginners, they often have no idea what Ashtanga Yoga is, and have no idea what the word Ashtanga Yoga means and if you only do the Vinyasa Krama, the physical sequences that were developed by Pathabi Jois and Krishnamacharya, you may still don’t know what Ashtanga Yoga is.
But to answer your question, it’s absolutely vital.
There has to be a balance between the physical postures, to work on the body, breathing exercises, to work on the nervous system and the mind, and meditation practices of some sort to help the intellectual stability to be reestablished. And more importantly than ever are the first two aspects of Ashtanga Yoga that are often completely ignored, the Yama and Niyama. Basically the behaviour, that is conducive to bringing a greater level of peacefulness and stability and cultivating lifestyle habits that are beneficial, like diet, sleep patterns, how much exercise to do and how to approach it – all of these things become vital. You can have someone practicing full primary series every day, thinking this is Ashtanga Yoga, but they never sit and meditate or breath properly, or reflect on themselves, look after their sleep, their nourishment, inquire into how does the rest of the day go? Then the superficial stuff can’t ever get deep, it stays superficial, remains a self delusion.
That’s why the canon of practices exist – because we have to approach it from all these different angles: body, emotional mind and intellect.
When I did the Heart of Yoga course with you, one of the things I thought really stood out about it was that you and Paula were bringing us right back to the source, the original resources of yoga – you were guiding us through reading the texts, the Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and held discussions about them. It felt very relevant to me, I felt I was brought right into the Heart of Yoga and could understand it from there, not just from another teachers interpretation of it.
How relevant do you think these old texts still are in our lives today?
I think they are extremely relevant and extremely important. If we really are going to actually say that we are practicing yoga, we need to really understand what Yoga is, what does it mean, what is the purpose and what results should you expect. And all of that is very explicitly described in these texts. The key element is that the difficulties people face today are ultimately no different to the difficulties people have always faced. At it’s simplest, we have developed an addiction to pursuing what we think, what we believe in and what we think reality is, at all cost.
We have a situation in life and we either like it and try to repeat it again and again, or we don’t like it and try to avoid it in future. And we live completely in this world of likes and dislikes, of running toward likes and from dislikes. We try to be happy by fulfilling our likes and avoiding our dislikes. But that means we spend all our time caught up in the cycle of thinking, of pursuing, of aversions and attachments, constant striving toward something. Always thinking that if things were different, I’d be happy.
But Yoga teaches us that actually this thinking mind and emotional way of living is always doomed to failure. We experience something through our bodily senses and develop an emotional response to it and we think about how to either avoid it or achieve it. This is a life of activity, agitation, conflict and internal dialogue without peace, a constant stress.
Yoga says if you look carefully, you’ll find that there is a place underneath all of that where the actual you sits and watches it all.
The image I sometimes use is a swimming pool full of people. And everyone is splashing around. You’d love to sit on the bank and just be quiet but people are dragging you in and you get agitated, splashing about and you forget that you could just sit peacefully on the bank. Yoga reminds us that there is this other you, a quiet you that watches all of this, experiences all of the agitation, the feelings and thoughts and it watches all of it from this quiet place.
From there you’ll find that you can act in a more peaceful way, your emotions don’t overwhelm you anymore and you’re not prisoner to your thoughts all the time.
If we don’t have those teachings to remind us and explain it to us we might forget that this is even exists.
The first thing the Yoga Sutra tells us that if you quieten the activity of the body, mind and intellect, you discover your self as you truly are. Your Svarupa, your own form. The Drashtu, the seer, or the soul, the self, the inner pure consciousness, or whatever terminology you want to use – you’ll find that it was always just in there, if we just quieten the activities of the mind.
And when we do that, when we experience ourselves, we are never the same. We are always connected to that place of peacefulness and even when life gets difficult, we can always maintain a level of being anchored and secure and peaceful, even though the surface experience is turbulent.
The Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita talk exclusively about this – what the nature of the mind is, what the emotional tendencies are, why are we attached to things or averted to things. And if we start to look at ourself in this more objective way we discover that actually there would be different choices in life that would allow me to live more peacefully than I have been doing.
At the end of last years course one student’s feedback was “I’ve been introduced to a new me, one that is separate from my thoughts and emotions, a real me.”
I agree with the experience of your student. I think it’s pretty life changing to involve yourself with these kind of teachings.
The Yoga Sutra talks about three aspects of the practice, three things we need to do: we need to purify our system as best as possible, through the way we live and our physical practices.
And we need to study ourselves, to understand what is is to be human. That means self observation but also studying what has been talked about by people who experienced it at the deepest level, going to the richest sources available to us and those are the texts.
And we need to learn to let go of anything that isn’t useful and to surrender the normal level of functioning, the ego centred mind, the ego centred emotions and perceptions and to realise that there is actually a better way to achieve happiness and that’s to not desire to get somewhere but learn to be happy wherever I am.
These ideas are almost contrary to the way society tells us to live – buy this or that and you’ll be happy. Always striving for external things. But Yoga tells us that our deepest happiness lies within and has always been there and always will be there and all we have to do is find our way back to it and that’s where the texts point us to. And in terms of the physical practices, they are extremely beneficial, if we really follow the advise on how we should go about it. How can we avoid the pitfalls. If we don’t expose ourselves to that we never get the opportunity to appreciate and to learn it.
Has the Heart of Yoga course changed much since you’ve started?
Yes, it’s evolved in the last 15 years quite a lot.
Since Paula completed her Ayurvedic practitioner diploma, have you introduced this aspect to the course more?
Absolutely. Even from a simple level of nutrition and looking at how to live that is more conducive to balancing your dosha, Paula having this understanding now on a deeper level is fantastic, but also for us, because it changes us and we are able to work better on ourselves and hopefully be able to make our teachings that much clearer. So yes, absolutely, you can see how inextricably linked Yoga and Ayurveda are together.
Absolutely. The deeper I got into Ayurveda over the last years the more I feel I actually understand Yoga much more now.
It all goes back to the original intentions of Yoga which I think have gotten lost quite a bit. Even though it’s great we have a lot of new scientific findings, modern teacher trainings seem to focus almost exclusively on modern anatomy, which is a different intention then through the perception of the old Rishis. Through Ayurveda this original intention can be much better understood.
Even if you take the Vinyasa Krama Asana practice and think of someone with extreme Vata imbalance, a cold, dry body type, is pushing through a lot of quick movement, would be the wrong approach for that Dosha. Instead we need to understand how to balance it out and moderate it, making this particular body more oily and warm and then we can do so much more for that person rather than saying this is great, keep doing what you’re doing because just because you can.
All you’re doing is aggravating Vata more, causing more problems.
The maturing of our own understanding happens on all levels, not just asana but also through the practice of pranayama and ayurveda.
Those things have really changed the emphasis on how to create a supportive practice.
When you put all of these aspects – diet, herbs, asana, pranayama, etc. Together, you can treat the whole person.
Our whole reason for being is to help people find a way to live that brings about the original conditions – that they be healthy, happy, clear of understanding of their own mind and nature and can live life with less suffering. These are the precepts on which Yoga is based. If we forget those we can get lost in a self referential, superficial practice. We miss out on the real benefits we could be getting.
What expectations do you have of students coming to the course? Is there a particular level of practice they should have?
The only requirement really is that they have an open heart and mind.
There is no real prerequisite proficiency in asana. There is no prerequisite number of years of practice.
I’ve just had a conversation with a student recently. He has only been practicing for a few months and, although he felt drawn to it, wasn’t sure if it was too soon to do the HoY course. I asked him, what is your desire? If your desire is in terms of understanding yourself or how to use yoga to the best of your ability to bring about health, happiness and well being, if that’s your interest then that’s as ready as you’ll ever be. Most people come into it without even understanding this, even with a longer physical practice.
Even if you haven’t got that awareness but you have a feeling inside of a calling of Yoga, then I think that’s also a key element.
When we feel that call of Yoga, it’s really our own self calling to us. If we let ourselves be called then the world of inner awareness can open up to us.
To do that you don’t need to put your legs behind your head or any other physical capacity. But it does require the courage and openness to look closely at what you are and accept what you are and drop into it fully and be exactly where you are now and say, it’s ok to be exactly as I am.
Is there anything else you would like to say to people who are thinking about doing the course?
I suppose really what we need is a childlike openness to explore ourselves. There is no right or wrong or stupid questions.
The group you were in was a particularly strong one but usually it takes 2 or 3 weekends before people open up and I would really like people to feel that it’s a completely non judgemental, safe space, hopefully a fun one too, where we get to spend time looking into how to make life better for everyone.
I’d like to imagine that people see ourselves (Paula and me) as passionate and as compassionate, but not as too serious and earnest. The teachings are profound, but also joyful and I’d like that to be remembered.
Try to be easy and innocent in your exploration. We look openly and honestly and don’t judge ourselves. We let go of all that self criticism.
Our true happiness lies in being conscious of ourselves (as opposed to the english, slightly negative connotation of self consciousness), being aware of ourselves, and ultimately our deepest self is the same for everyone and it is perfect.
Can you tell us some practicalities about the course, when does it start, how much does it cost, etc?
It takes place over 8 weekends over the year, four from February to May and four from September to December, usually the first weekend of the month.
Costs are 1895 Euro. Right now we have about 5 spaces left.
Each month we send out an email about what to read and prepare for the next one so that we can work from there.
We usually start with some asana and anatomy to help to refine the physical practice. We have an asana practice, then we have a Satsang, where we sit and talk about the texts, a philosophy session, sometimes a bit of Yoga history through a movie we show, we do Pranayama, meditation and chanting, which is probably the most difficult for people but also one of the most beneficial practices.
Sunday starts with Pranayama and Asana practice, some chanting, deep relaxation and meditation.
It’s trying to expose us to the whys and hows of all of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, not just the physical, and so we bring in the lifestyle and diet and behaviour and attitudes, that come up in the discussions about the Yoga Sutra that make us some more fully rounded human beings.
For more information about the Heart of Yoga course, go to http://www.ashtanga.ie and contact David or Paula.