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(Image Copyright by Richard Pilnick)
A sweet peace comes over me when I meditate on my time with Sri Dharma Mittra and the Dharma Yoga family. It would seem that the opportunity or desire to learn from this lineage would have fallen away as I moved from New York City to live in England back in 2011, just months after stepping into the Dharma Yoga Center on West 23rd for the first time.
Not at all.
Beginning my yoga journey as I stepped into my new life made the pangs of separation from my homeland bittersweet. I longed to keep a connection to my ‘roots, but knowing that my relational ties would dwindle due to life’s natural processes, the urgency I felt to keep coming back was to be close to my teacher and learn the lessons needed for the next stages of my life.
Sri Dharma gave me a reason to come back to New York regularly. He made it imperative for me to continue my spiritual training as well as maintain the connections with my family as best I could. Coming back home was always to delve deeper into my yogic practices and teaching pathway, and it was the antidote to the grief I slowly processed as my family, friends and past life began to fade from my daily experience.
If this isn’t an example of yogic philosophy, that nothing and no one in this life will last forever, then I don’t know what is. I can only wonder what it would’ve been like for me to start a brand new life in a new country without the deep understanding that yogic texts firmed in my being. The lesson of transience was a part of my life from the time I lost my mother at a young age, but the philosophy needed filling out with useful practices seasoned with time.
From the onset, I followed my desire to learn everything I could about Yoga and Yogic living and prepared myself for my future training by laying firm foundations from my 200-hour training in hot yoga. I had seen the Dharma Yoga lineage as one that was very attuned to the principles I believed in, but still more work was needed to adjust the way I was living.
Once I was able to afford the 500-hour Life of a Yogi teacher training in 2014, I returned back home every 2 years, sometimes twice a year! Being close to the Sangha whenever possible kept the fire alive both in London and New York. Each time we gathered together, to practice, play, sing and meet each other from all over the world, it felt like coming home.
Thinking back, I remember how I wanted to share this experience with my family, not knowing how or when to invite them if they weren’t going to participate in the practices before our certifications were handed out. We can never be too sure about who will support us on new ventures until we are firmly rooted in our new sense of self. This reflects that in all, much of the journey was mine alone, it was shared with those who were there with me in our precious spiritual community. Outward expressions of our spiritual practices may not always be visible, even now, as personal sadhana doesn’t always make it to social media posts. Still, the spirit of prayer and devotional ritual remains, stoking the fire of inner peace.
Insight into classical yoga texts. If I had not stepped into the yogic tradition after graduating with a degree in English Literature, I can’t be too sure that I would have stumbled upon some of the epic scriptures that have been brought to my attention since training with Sri Dharma. This intellectual pathway is right up my alley and delving into these greats has been a hallmark of my training experience.
The Atmabodha (Self-Knowledge), Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Sivananda’s Concentration and Meditation, and many other timeless texts, both old and new, have been the main bulk of my literary pursuits over the past 10 years. Of course some of the mainstream essentials, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Autobiography of a Yogi, by Yogananda, and Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar are still the basic foundation for any modern Hatha-Raja Yogi. As my thirst for this spiritual wisdom has always been quenched in these texts, and continue to call me back to reading ever more accounts of these divine whispers, I can honestly say that being in the presence of a yoga master like Dharma helped me to claim my space as a dedicated spiritual aspirant; someone who loves to muse, converse and be still in the presence of such lofty accounts of human experience.
Historical texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika may seem obscure or outdated in their instructions. Heavyweight champion of discipline, Sivananda’s Sadhana may make the modern reader recoil trying to value the benefits of such an ascetic lifestyle. The Mahabharata may be out of reach for Westerners who have not been exposed to these epic tales from a young age. Yet, stepping into the Eastern esoteric realm is a privilege that we, as Western readers and practitioners, receive immense value from, even at the novice level.
Personal understanding is for evolution and adaptation. Sri Dharma helps us remember that each individual incarnates onto their own path, in their own time and age, given certain conditions. Evolution occurs when we apply knowledge to our own circumstances, and given the nature of life, updates and adjustments are always essential. Wisdom, if we can see through its guise of character or packaging from different times or places, is always there waiting for us to see the light back to Self and Source.
To extract the benefit of yoga practice and travel the path of Self-Realisation means to find and know the Guru Within our own hearts. Dharma expects that we ‘use our intelligence’ to know what is right or wrong personally and relate that collectively with kindness and compassion. We are here to explore the potential of human imagination which is able to create infinite possibilities of harmony and oneness. With equal capacity for creation, sustainability, and destruction, seeking to uphold unifying values and beliefs that many of the world's spiritual traditions espouse is of utmost importance if we are to journey towards a vision of peace.
When I first came to the Dharma Yoga Center and practised among a 200+ strong sea of flowing lustrous bodies, I knew that something powerful was happening inside and beyond me. Despite the fact that Dharma’s classes were very rigorous at that time, with multiple inversions in each vinyasa, and binds in postures I didn’t even know could be bound, I found my body playing and exploring as it worked hard to feel into each posture’s strength and shape.
Although I had come to this particular class with a relatively strong yoga practice, this gave me the desire to find out what I could ‘really do.’ What I mean by that is not only physically, but what in myself (mental, emotional, spiritual) needed to shift and shape in order for that physical reality to manifest. Even 10 years on, that is still part of the great yoga journey! Knowing that I would really need to put sincere focus and discipline in place in order to participate in training at this level, this is how Dharma Yoga made me commit seriously to a dedicated personal practice, both on and off the mat.
Ethical veganism and high raw aspirations. Along with resonating with the principles of ethical veganism, which was an adventurous path to navigate both in my home country with close relations, as well as when moving abroad into a new culture, Dharma and fellow yogis also inspired me to eat more healthily by aspiring to eat more raw and vibrant foods. Superfoods were ‘all the rage’ in NYC and it was common to hear of yogis eating ‘raw mac-and-cheese’, ravishing a bag of kale chips, loving the kombucha, and kicking with the wheatgrass shots. Good times indeed! Sadly, moving to the North of England, this same kind of supportive and enthusiastic environment for my style of budding yogi was very hard to find, even among those who had been practising or teaching yoga for many years. It has become very apparent that Dharma’s priority of promoting a healthy vegan diet is still considered ‘niche’ in the world of yoga.
Self-discipline & compassion. In my early vegan days, every restaurant order was a triumph, trying not to make a fuss, but being particular about what and when I’d eat was one way I began to ‘claim my voice’, and honour the choices I wanted to make. Even though being the only person at the table who had a prior commitment to ingest liquids after 6 pm, to be able to enjoy my juice and the presence of my friends was teaching me the lessons I needed to learn about what really brings joy, contentment and fulfilment to this life versus the habits we have formed. Even though I had to play it cool sometimes and let comments slide, to my delight there were many times where I’d receive food envy looks from the others at the table for my special ‘veganised’ orders.
Over the years, I have found a radiant joy in eating a high raw diet, bringing the cold-pressed juice culture here to Sheffield at my yoga studio, and taking it forward as I help educate others on how to incorporate raw food and juices into their life for vibrance and longevity. Dharma’s love for green juices has surely passed on, and I know I can attribute my often excellent health to eating this way. What his value for a high raw diet (eating plenty of fresh fruit and veg) shows me is that he has been able to adapt the principles of yogic diet (which considers ethics of production as well as effects on the physical body) and ensure that these grow with consideration to the current climate of food production in which we live. Being vegetarian may have been the ethics of the time for past yogis, but in the last 50 years, many of the world's consumers may find it hard to swallow the reality of how animals are treated and handled in order to produce the animal products consumed.
Self-knowledge. To me, Dharma Yoga is all about learning the basic principles of yoga through Yama and Niyama. Everything else arises from these. Even as we train the body and mind through Hatha Yoga practices, we know that ultimately, progress in yoga doesn’t necessarily yield a physical result. Through all of these practices, our methods aim to lead us to the highest ideal, Self-Realisation - realising the nature of Atman, the Soul, the true Self within.
Despite being able to find ‘updates’ and perceived shortcuts to this end, ultimate bliss and understanding can sometimes create a fork in the road as we continue to live our human lives.
In Samadhi, I understand that I and the Infinite are One.
With this knowledge I can go about my life, living blissfully aware that all of this is a passing dream, so ultimately, what I do and how I act is part of my Karmic role here, so ‘everything is perfect,’ as Dharma says. So, if I make a mistake unknowingly (hurt someone, steal, etc.), I will eventually learn and unravel the Karmic debt as I move through life hereafter. I am only able to act from a place of conscious awareness to the extent that I have that capacity at any given time.
The other is that with the same realisation, we are capable of removing ourselves from participating in actions that apparently go against the principles of yoga, yet have free will to do so, or not. When we know the characteristics of a person who illustrates Yama and Niyama in action, these are essentially the natural result of such realisation, with years of contemplation behind them. Surely, as modern-day yogis, we are aiming to model these characters for a more compassionate world. I know much of my practice has been to query my actions and interactions in all areas of my life. It’s definitely the more challenging practice, but one I feel will make the most difference in the world.
Being self-realised, and employing free will to establish one’s own ethical/moral parameters is a topic I find most interesting. When living in the world blinds us to our own actions, how can we maintain integrity on a certain course for the duration of our lives?
Effective teaching methodology. One final, but very important lesson I’ve learned from being a student of Sri Dharma Mittra is how to teach yoga in a way that gives the practitioner room for their own experience and growth. Dharma is a traditional yoga teacher in that he maintains a basic structure for each class, and employs many of the same techniques in order to gain depth of experience from these sacred practices. He is modern in his approach in that he knows the niceties of playing gentle music in the background, and offering a variety of options for abilities, and showing off fun tricks of moving the body. Where he differs from many other traditions is his approach to physically assisting students. Massaging in Savasana and deep physical adjustments are not something you will always find in Dharma’s class unless in a training setting partnered with other teachers. Especially due to the history of rigorous and abusive schools of yoga, where the Guru may go way beyond appropriate consent boundaries, Sri Dharma makes it known that he is conscious of that boundary, and prefers to let students learn by example as he asks specific senior students if they would like deeper adjustments during class. New students may receive a quick technical body adjustment where basic alignment is encouraged. His main fear of hurting others has likely made this teaching technique emerge, which can be a very helpful angle for teachers of all experiences.
What I love about Dharma’s teaching style is that he keeps his instructions very practical, and verbally simple. While this helps to create a very Sattvic and steady atmosphere, he is, of course, a big joker! The main component to the way Dharma Yoga is taught is to ensure that we are not creating distractions for the mind through loud music, giving out ‘feel good’ assists that cause students to become dependent on us to ‘feel good,’ and to maintain the devotional energy of the practice itself without too much talking. When students feel the energy is getting heavy, or become discouraged or frustrated by a difficult posture, lighten up the mood and remind them not to take it too seriously. Being able to gather together to practice yoga is already a cause for celebration. With every pose an offering to God/Spirit/Consciousness, each breath becomes filled with grace and gratitude, and our practice, a visible form of prayer.
Thank you, Sri Dharma Mittra. For everything.
I will always be grateful for the light you've bought to this world.
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