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Swami Shambhavananda founder of Eldorado Mountain Yoga AshramSwami Shambhavananda interviewed by Ravi Dykema

The fruits of a deeper practice are insights and contentment, according to Swami Shambhavananda, founder of Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram in Eldorado Springs and Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in Rollinsville. He created Shambhava Yoga (see “styles,” page 28) over 40 years ago and oversees 3 ashrams and 7 centers around the country that teach it. We spoke with him at his Ashram in Eldorado Springs. An interview by Ravi Dykema

RD: When people talk about yoga these days, it’s usually in the context of fitness-club yoga or exercise-oriented yoga. But one aspect of traditional yoga that is historically considered essential is a relationship with a guru. Why is that so important?

 SS: I think it’s incredible that so many Americans are participating in what we call Hatha yoga (the physical postures). But I also think the definition has gotten a little lost. Hatha yoga was traditionally something you did to fine-tune your nervous system so you could meditate, so you could have a deeper spiritual practice. It was a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Today’s yoga has become more exercise oriented, which certainly has positive benefits; it’s good for flexibility, it’s good for core, it’s good for strength training. But that was not the original purpose.

We’ve been doing Hatha yoga teacher training for 30 years at our ashrams. We’re certified with the Yoga Alliance, and we try to maintain very high standards, offering a classical yoga training rather than just teaching students a few postures. And while the yoga most people experience in health clubs and yoga studios is very productive, there’s a lot more to it than what they get.

RD: So if someone is interested in taking their yoga practice further, beyond just the physical exercise aspect, is it important to have a guru?

SS: A good certified teacher, someone who has gone through a comprehensive process and training that really gives them a good foundation, is important. You’ll even see that in many Western sports and physical practices. Think about those ice skaters in the Olympics; they had coaches who were their gurus in a sense. They take them through a specific process.

And as one begins a spiritual discipline, it’s essential to have a teacher – and I mean a qualified teacher. Not just a Hatha yoga teacher, but someone who’s gone beyond that, and who can really share from their own experiences. Taking a course online and reading a few books on Hatha yoga does not a teacher make.

Having a guru is a special kind of relationship. A guru plays a role in a person’s life when they’re ready to move beyond just Hatha yoga, and to begin a meditative discipline. Of course, anyone can just sit on a cushion and start meditating, but you can save yourself a lot of trouble if you have the guidance of someone who’s been there before.

I think part of the problem is the term “guru” has been kind of abused. There are a lot of people who’ve had a few experiences, decided they were enlightened and call themselves “guru.” But they were never really challenged or, in a sense, confronted by someone who was truly enlightened. And that makes a big difference.

RD: Let’s talk about enlightenment. Typically, “enlightenment” and “yoga” are not used in the same sentence these days because, as you said, it’s more about the physical practice. Enlightenment used to be central to yoga. What does “enlightenment” really mean?

SS: I think “spiritual realization” is a good definition: discovering the spiritual aspect of yourself, and having that fulfilled. It’s about recognizing your true nature. In the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition (one of many Hindu philosophies/teachings), which we’re a part of, they say you already are at that state; you just haven’t recognized it because of your external life. Everything that is you is usually defined through your five senses, and there isn’t much happening on the inner level, as a kind of an inner awareness.

My teacher talked about conscious awareness: you’re totally conscious, present in each moment, and you’re not projecting. You’re not in the past, you’re not in the future, you’re right here. And your consciousness is, in a sense, both totally relaxed and totally expanded. I’ve met a few people who had attained that in yogic, Buddhist and Zen traditions, and they all have different personalities. They all have different forms. But there was a quality about them, a presence, a state of awareness that was definitely very different than what you run into with most people of any tradition. I would call it a state of being.

A lot of people claim a lot of spectacular things, but, for me, spiritual growth has really brought me peace of mind, loving compassion for my fellow human beings, and the ability to confront my life and the challenges of my life from a place of openness and kindness. I think it’s the way we’re all supposed to be. The culture we live in is oriented totally opposite of that. It’s all about technology, about everything outside of us, about things. We’re all looking for fulfillment and happiness in things. Certainly things are fun, but they don’t bring about spiritual transformation. That happens inside.

RD: You said open and kind is “the way we are supposed to be.” Can you talk more about that?

SS: I think it’s the way that we inherently are. Once you strip away all of the stuff we’re attached to, we discover that inside of us is this connection, this fulfillment that is indescribable in a lot of ways.

It develops like this: In the process of meditation, you become more and more aware of the absolute perfection that exists in you. A lot of people think turning your attention inward, and in a spiritual direction, makes you unaware or dysfunctional out here. But that’s not true. The more clarity of mind you have, the more expanded your consciousness is, the more aware you are of stuff “out there.” Many times, people meditate and they say, “I think it’s some kind of trance state.” That’s not meditation. That’s a “trance,” or “sleeping” or “day dreaming.” But I think a high state of yogic meditation is one of clarity, one of being totally present as a conscious human being. And we all have that potential existing inside of us.

RD: Have you attained that state?

SS: (laughter) I refuse to answer that question, because how would you know if I was telling you the truth?

RD: I guess I wouldn’t!

SS: Let’s put it this way: compared to where I started, I’ve come a million miles. But I think I have a million more to go. And to me, it’s not like this one state that you reach, a “place” you get to. I think it’s a process of refinement; it just keeps going on, even after you leave your body.

My practice has taken me through all sorts of stuff in the process of finding this inner self, this connection to the consciousness that resides within our being. There have been times when it comes and goes, but as time has gone on, I feel more established in that state, and more functional in it. It’s kind of like you’re meditating, you’re practicing, and you get glimpses of it. You get an experience of it, and it’s like finding home, a sense of where you came from and where you belong. But our karma drags us back into this mundane world. Then as you keep practicing, you become more and more established in the awareness of your true nature, the inner self which is pure consciousness. And when you become permanently established in that, I guess that would be enlightenment.

RD: Please tell me about your teacher?

SS: I was with Swami Rudrananda (Rudi) for a relatively short time – less than two years. But the impact of my time with him has been going on and on and on. He taught me a lot of things, but not by sitting me down and telling me; he just had me tag along with him.

I would roam around Manhattan with him, watching him and listening. He was fascinating. He was a very down-to-earth, practical person. He was totally, in every sense of the word, “normal.” And he taught me how to be in this culture, in this world, and still have a very deep spiritual life.

Rudi had an art gallery, and I’d go around to all the big galleries in the city, carrying priceless works of art, doing stuff with him. And he had friends from all walks of life who weren’t part of his community – James Beard the famous chef, Milton Glaser, and the editor of Village Voice. I remember one dinner party. I was just sitting there watching, and layer after layer of things kept changing; I was seeing a little deeper, then a little deeper, then a little deeper.

So that’s how I got trained – I learned how to function in the physical world with a very deep spiritual practice.

RD: So what happened after two years?

SS: He left his body. It was a strange experience. We got a phone call at the ashram in Indiana where I lived: “Rudi died. He’s gone.” And everyone was freaked out. I said, “What would Rudi want me to do?” I somehow connected, and I got ecstatic. I went into this blissful, expansive state and I was there for hours, cruising on the release of all this energy. I felt wonderful. I didn’t feel a loss; two or three days later, I went, “Oh, God, he’s gone.” But in the meantime, I was intoxicated. I figured he had made it, and I was grateful to have spent time with him.

RD: Could you tell me a little bit about the importance of yoga’s morals and ethics? We’ve all heard stories about the yoga teacher or the guru who took advantage of their students.

SS: I think morals and ethics really just come down to being a fundamentally good person, especially in a teaching situation. To use or to misrepresent yourself, and to use somebody else in a negative way, is detrimental to that person and to you.

But, people make mistakes. People have their own issues that they have to work through. I also feel we shouldn’t dwell on these things. We should look at a broader picture of what’s going on in the world around them and circumstances. Often, in a relationship between a teacher and a student, a lot of deep tensions are being released, and a lot of deep emotions are stirred, and I think sometimes this gets very confusing and conflicted for both the teacher and the student. The teacher really needs to be solid in themselves about who they are and what they’re doing. Sometimes, circumstances get a little out of control, so what do you do? You re-group and get back to work.

But would I try to impose my own morals, values and ethics on someone else? Would I say “you’re going to burn in hell for doing this?” No. I think people should really be careful what they do, but as far as laying down a bunch of rules for them, I can’t do that.

I’ve had issues in our community, where I felt things got way out of balance energetically between two people, and I would intervene and say, “Look, this isn’t right. We have to fix it.” I give them an opportunity to work it out; that’s important. Otherwise you don’t learn. You just go somewhere else and do what you were doing before.

So that’s another good reason to learn how to meditate: It keeps you from being swept away by emotions or desire, and teaches you how to deal with your mind.

RD: How would you like to see the exercise-oriented world of yoga evolve?

SS: I think we need more classically trained yoga teachers who have a foundation in meditation. Introducing meditation into hatha yoga programs would be great. We do that at our ashrams. Part of the training our students get is a basic instruction in ham sa meditation, a simple practice that mirrors the sound of the breath – “hum” on the inhale, “sah” on the exhale. Our students don’t just learn the physical postures of yoga; they learn how to follow the breath, how to release the activity of the mind, how to find that point of balance in themselves where they don’t have to follow every impulse or every thought.

I think yoga needs to go there. The hatha yoga practice you see in most fitness centers, health clubs and even yoga studios are not traditional practices. They have Tai Chi yoga, Kung Fu yoga, all these different things they’re mixing together, and it’s not really yoga. I think it’s that the people out there who are running the studios are trying to figure out how to pay their rent.

RD: Yeah, they have to adapt to the market. So maybe a health club offers a yoga class with weights, or yoga combined with something else, like martial arts or dance moves. And people come. But sometimes when a yoga studio offers a meditation class maybe only three people come.

SS: That’s right. But you don’t have to have a class that’s focused only on meditation; maybe you just introduce a little bit of meditation during a yoga class just to say, “Look, this is the next step if you’re interested.”

RD: Why do you think learning the meditative side of yoga is important for a teacher who is going to be in a studio teaching the exercise-oriented yoga?

SS: I think if you want to get the best results, even from a purely physical practice, meditation is important. Let’s say you’re going into a challenging posture. What does it take? It takes focus. It takes the ability to put your attention somewhere and keep it there. It takes breath control. It takes being totally present with the posture.

As people do these postures they react on their nervous systems. And a lot of the tensions that people carry are at that level. So if they begin to learn how to focus their attention, how to breathe correctly, they’ll start releasing all this stuff, which is very good.

So it’s not just about the physical stretch. Doors will open for people who do yoga that way. And that’s the really special thing about Hatha yoga.

RD: I agree with you. I think what distinguishes yoga from step aerobics or any other kind of physical activity is the meditative or mindfulness-enhancing quality it offers.

SS: That’s right. Now, exercise is great. I workout five days a week. I belong to a health club. I do water aerobics. For somebody my age, it’s very important. But it’s not always spiritual. If you just stand on a treadmill and listen to all the conversations, you know that no one is focused on what they’re doing. They’re not present. They’re reading a book, they’re watching the news, and I’m doing mantras.

RD: Do you have any final advice you’d offer to yoga practitioners, meditators, seekers of the truth?

SS: My advice to all seekers is to find a teacher who you can connect to and trust, and learn how to meditate. Meditation can solve a lot of our problems. We have a wonderful, expansive culture with many distractions, but a solution to most of the things that bother us, the things we have difficulty with, dwells in our own minds. And developing a meditative practice is the highest thing I can possibly suggest for anyone to do. It doesn’t have to be any particular practice; find something you can connect to and do it. It really works.

And find a teacher. Every day I wake up grateful that I met someone like Rudi. The quality of my life is so great compared to what it might have been if I hadn’t met him or done what I’ve done.

RD: Do you have advice on how to find a teacher?

SS: Find someone you can connect with, who really does his or her practice. With Rudi, I admired and respected him, but I also knew him as a person, and I think that was the coolest part of it. Sometimes teachers are so removed that we build up a lot of illusions, instead of seeing this humanity: this guy sweats, this guy works.

Once, Rudi gave a talk in Bloomington, Indiana in front of about 1,000 people, and every time he would make some quote or something, somebody in the back would ring a bell. Rudi laid into them; he said, “Look. You’re just trying to draw all of the attention to you. Will you stop ringing the bell?” People loved it.

Afterwards, we went and had Baskin Robbins, and Rudi said, “You know? I’ve never enjoyed an ice cream cone as much as I’m enjoying this one right now.” And you could see him. You could feel how much he was totally enjoying and totally present and how much love was in him. It was amazing. My time with him was short, but very intense, and it’s kept me going for a long time.

RD: Yeah, they have to adapt to the market. So maybe a health club offers a yoga class with weights, or yoga combined with something else, like martial arts or dance moves. And people come. But sometimes when a yoga studio offers a meditation class maybe only three people come.

SS: That’s right. But you don’t have to have a class that’s focused only on meditation; maybe you just introduce a little bit of meditation during a yoga class just to say, “Look, this is the next step if you’re interested.”

RD: Why do you think learning the meditative side of yoga is important for a teacher who is going to be in a studio teaching the exercise-oriented yoga?

SS: I think if you want to get the best results, even from a purely physical practice, meditation is important. Let’s say you’re going into a challenging posture. What does it take? It takes focus. It takes the ability to put your attention somewhere and keep it there. It takes breath control. It takes being totally present with the posture.

As people do these postures they react on their nervous systems. And a lot of the tensions that people carry are at that level. So if they begin to learn how to focus their attention, how to breathe correctly, they’ll start releasing all this stuff, which is very good.

So it’s not just about the physical stretch. Doors will open for people who do yoga that way. And that’s the really special thing about Hatha yoga.

RD: I agree with you. I think what distinguishes yoga from step aerobics or any other kind of physical activity is the meditative or mindfulness-enhancing quality it offers.

SS: That’s right. Now, exercise is great. I workout five days a week. I belong to a health club. I do water aerobics. For somebody my age, it’s very important. But it’s not always spiritual. If you just stand on a treadmill and listen to all the conversations, you know that no one is focused on what they’re doing. They’re not present. They’re reading a book, they’re watching the news, and I’m doing mantras.

RD: Do you have any final advice you’d offer to yoga practitioners, meditators, seekers of the truth?

SS: My advice to all seekers is to find a teacher who you can connect to and trust, and learn how to meditate. Meditation can solve a lot of our problems. We have a wonderful, expansive culture with many distractions, but a solution to most of the things that bother us, the things we have difficulty with, dwells in our own minds. And developing a meditative practice is the highest thing I can possibly suggest for anyone to do. It doesn’t have to be any particular practice; find something you can connect to and do it. It really works.

And find a teacher. Every day I wake up grateful that I met someone like Rudi. The quality of my life is so great compared to what it might have been if I hadn’t met him or done what I’ve done.

RD: Do you have advice on how to find a teacher?

SS: Find someone you can connect with, who really does his or her practice. With Rudi, I admired and respected him, but I also knew him as a person, and I think that was the coolest part of it. Sometimes teachers are so removed that we build up a lot of illusions, instead of seeing this humanity: this guy sweats, this guy works.

Once, Rudi gave a talk in Bloomington, Indiana in front of about 1,000 people, and every time he would make some quote or something, somebody in the back would ring a bell. Rudi laid into them; he said, “Look. You’re just trying to draw all of the attention to you. Will you stop ringing the bell?” People loved it.

Afterwards, we went and had Baskin Robbins, and Rudi said, “You know? I’ve never enjoyed an ice cream cone as much as I’m enjoying this one right now.” And you could see him. You could feel how much he was totally enjoying and totally present and how much love was in him. It was amazing. My time with him was short, but very intense, and it’s kept me going for a long time.