By Scott Johnson
The thing I love most about being involved in the world of yoga is people. I’m always so fascinated by the many reasons people come to practice yoga, why they start, why they continue, the struggles they have, the victories the feel they’ve achieved. All are part of a key that makes up the intricate nature of people’s lives and the discoveries they have about themselves. For me this interest is wide, whether they are practitioners at SYL, personal colleagues or senior teachers who I look up to. I see that the study of yoga in our lives allows for the play of the world to open up to us, then the practice of yoga is how we play. How people play intrigues me so much and there are some people I’ve met through the play of yoga who really stand out in my memory. Anthony ‘Prem’ Carlisi is one of these people.
Prem began practising ashtanga yoga in 1978 and was part of the first waves of western practitioners who spent a lot of personal time with Sri K Pattabhi Jois. I met him in 2008 after reading his book The Only Way Out Is In, a meditation on his life as an ashtanga yoga and Ayurveda practitioner. It was a great read which inspired me to contact him and connect as a yoga student. As a result I ended up hosting him and his wife Radha for a UK workshop in 2008 and then again in 2009. They came to stay with our family – myself, Louise and our three boys, Herbie, Noah and Ethan. The boys were young and I remember he spent a long time just chasing Ethan, who was then 4, around the house. There seemed something quite vital about him, childlike even, that perhaps years of practice had honed. When I see this in people it fascinates me.
Prem and I have been friends ever since, taking an interest in each other’s lives from afar – me in London, he in Bali – and between that time and 2012 we regularly kept in touch. Then in the summer of 2013 he sent me news that his daughter Shanti had died in a car accident. You can never be ready to hear information like that from a friend. All I could do was send our condolences and offer love and support. We lost contact for a while after that. SYL was busy and Prem, with his wife Radha, was growing his Ashtanga Yoga Bali community. But I would continually check in every now and again to see how he was.
We reconnected last year, in 2016, and I asked him if he would talk about his life in an interview for our blog. Importantly, I wanted to ask him about how yoga has shaped his life from the beginning to where he finds himself now, after nearly 40 years of practice. Also, being one of the first western practitioners of ashtanga yoga, how he has seen the evolution of the practice as more people have taken it on in that same 40 year time frame. And in a very tender way, with a little space now since Shanti’s tragic passing, if and how his yoga practice has helped him with grief.
What transpired – and what now follows – is Prem’s very personal, very passionate view of the world of ashtanga yoga and all its intricacies. He shares how he is navigating the changing nature and evolution both of the teaching of ashtanga yoga and how it is playing out in his own life. Enjoy…!
– Scott Johnson
I was not interested in yoga at the time. I was 21 and fresh out of university, wondering what was next. I was approached by some friends of mine saying that this “Ashtanga Yoga” they were doing was the best thing ever. They knew I was athletic and very physically oriented, so I went to appease them. I walked into a full room of people practising. It blew my mind watching them flow from one pose to the next with such grace and ease. I was hooked the moment I entered into this sacred space.
I began practising the day after observing my first class in the autumn of 1978 and I haven’t stopped since. I radically changed everything in my life from that point on. I became a vegetarian and cut out all drugs and alcohol. Three months after I started, Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) came to the US from India and began teaching at our Yoga Shala in Encinitas, California for around 6 months. The following year I travelled to Mysore, South India, to be with him for 3-4 months in the autumn of 1979. I made an annual pilgrimage to study and practice with him for years until I got married. Once my kids came into the picture it was more difficult for me to get away for extended stays. I did, however, see him on subsequent tours of California and Hawaii during the 80s and 90s, where he would stay for months at a time. When the kids were older I began to go regularly again to Mysore.
I had a very close connection to Guruji and he treated me like part of his extended family. He gave me the name “Raghava” on my first trip to Mysore in 1979. From that moment forward he always referred to me using this name. It’s another name for the revered king Rama from the epic tale, the Ramayana. I was always given preference over the hoards of students who came. Needless to say, he was like a devoted father figure. He helped me tremendously in those critical developmental early years. He kept me inspired and enthusiastic during the hardest of times.
What has also kept me practising for decades is the tremendous physical benefits that I have received. I’m now at the ripe age of 61 but I certainly don’t feel or look that age, and I give most of this credit to yoga. Along with this has been the deeply gratifying pleasure I’ve had in sharing it with thousands of others. It has been and still is a rewarding experience, offering one of the greatest gifts to humanity… radiant health.
The early years with Guruji were magic! He was so personal. I got to know him intimately in the Mysore yoga shala and in his home. I spent numerous hours just hanging out with the family – his wife Ama, daughter Saraswati and grandchildren Sharmila and Sharath. I shared with him many things about my life. I asked many questions and he told me what he could in broken English. He knew me inside and out. He addressed me differently than others. He made a point to connect with me as an individual. He knew when to be stern or gentle. He respected me for who I was. He would make me repeat the most challenging poses, the ones I hated the most. He knew when I was truly weak or just plain lazy. He was a master at reading the human body/mind. He was the ultimate “coach” or teacher in the true sense of the word. He of course pushed all of us to our limits. He was altering things all the time to test us. He knew how to get the most out of us. From his teaching in this way, I learned for myself what was a real need and when my mind was messing with me. This was one of the greatest gifts he gave me. He empowered me and gave me the strength I needed to discover on my own what is real. From this direct transmission I have been able to carry on the tradition with his blessings. If I did not have this direct experience it would have turned into a “religion”.
This is what I see now happening to this method. Students who are becoming teachers are merely imitating what Guruji said in the past, or what Sharath is repeating now, as “the way” or the “gospel truth”. It is not something they know deep within themselves. It does not come from their experience. It is mimicking like a parrot. This is what I mean by “religious”. It has become dead. There is no life to it! Even now you see it in the current name of the yoga shala in Mysore – it is called “Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute”. The original name was “Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute”. There was no ownership over ashtanga yoga or authoritative demand put on you. You didn’t have to memorise or do it like he did. It was ongoing research which he did and we did along with him.
Also, please note that not everyone in the “old days” became teachers. There was not necessarily a desire to teach. We all started with a passion to learn more about ourselves. Some had the propensity to teach and Guruji saw this and encouraged it. He was not handing out certificates. He personally told people to teach back then. The concept and business of “Teacher Trainings” in all traditions is complete non-sense! This is where everything in the yoga world went downhill. It is the biggest money maker in the yoga business. Everyone wants to be a teacher. And almost every yoga studio around the world is advocating their teacher training programs to pay the bills. The advent of teacher trainings became the downfall of the integrity of teaching and passing it on. It has diluted the ashtanga method as well.
Guruji did go up into his office every day and write notes about our classes (asana/pranayama). He was formulating research for his institute (the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute). He did not write on a pad in the room but he went upstairs into his tiny office. Manju Jois (Guruji’s son and rightful heir to the kingdom) reaffirmed this and said he had stacks of notes that he wrote over the decades. He also told us that Guruji made up the sequences or series (Primary/Intermediate and Advanced) according to how he saw fit. I can attest to this, as the “original” way in which he taught students pre-70s/80s was quite different than today! We never had a led class in the early days; he only taught “Mysore style”. He introduced the led class after the numbers of students grew on his tours. He varied the order and method as the years went on as well. It was not written on banana leaves and eaten by ants! This was a myth that he perpetuated for years to keep it mysterious. It gave the allure of this ancient method from the yogis in Tibet. There are many sources to back this. You can do your own research or talk to Manju and any of the other older students.
This does not take away the potent energy around the method of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Asana practice that was created from Pattabhi Jois. Look at how BKS Iyengar and TKS Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son) taught asana practice – completely different to Pattabhi Jois, yet they all refer to Krishnamacharya as their Guru! They all took what they learned and made it into their own method – based on sound Hatha Yoga principles (bandha/breath/chakras, etc.) – but arranged as they saw fit. This is why I’m bringing it up now. We need to approach this scientifically and look at how all these yoga asana geniuses in their own right taught us various tools for health. Nothing more and nothing less. Asana and pranayama practice is for your health! There is nothing spiritual in it! They deal with the chakras (energetic centres) below the eyes. We miss the mark if we take the physical as spiritual. It is a foundation for a sound body/mind in the eyes of the yogis. The spiritual path begins from the eye centre, the third eye or sixth chakra. Guruji wanted to teach more but he never felt we were ready for the higher limbs of ashtanga yoga.
Manju told me directly after Guruji’s death that he wanted to teach the other limbs of ashtanga but we westerners were obsessed with the exterior, only asanas. We wanted more and more of the gymnastic asana stuff. We were good at it, just like many are now. Just a note about pranayama as well: He taught only the most elite of the asana crowd the method of pranayama. Only those of us who had completed the advanced asana series were allowed to practice pranayama under his guidance. What is important here is that we learned only the foundation of ashtanga yoga. The main method of yoga is an inner journey. We missed the boat! This is why I explored other aspects of yoga, since I knew deep inside this was not the only way. I felt stuck with only this method.
Meditation is the key that unlocks the mystery within. Intuition is seated at the eye centre, the sixth chakra. The sixth centre is where we enter into the spiritual realm. We make contact with the seat of the soul here. The soul force is what animates the mind/body complex. Asana and pranayama, along with yama/niyama, are preliminary steps to focusing the mind/body to go within! Guruji emphasised the first four limbs. The higher levels of ashtanga were not encouraged until these were mastered. He felt if you did not still the restless body/mind it would be impossible to sit. This is true to a certain extent but we spent way too much energy on cleaning the vessel instead of filling it up.
The focus needs to be elevated by withdrawal of the senses and concentration (pratyhara/dharana). Dhyana is the stillness obtained by the pull within. Samadhi is the effect of perfecting your concentration and locating yourself behind the eye centre. From there it is all grace. We then travel home. The entrance into the realm of spirit is at the tenth gate or door, the eye centre. Jesus Christ has even said, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22). He also said, “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matthew 7:7). The nine doors below the eye centre are the opening to the world (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, mouth, genitals and anus). Again, this deals with all the chakras below. Asana and pranayama work with these energy centres. The entrance into the spiritual realms lies at the eye centre! When we sit and withdraw our attention to behind the eyes we leave our physical body. We go through a process of dying while alive! Again, don’t just believe me… discover for yourself if what I’m saying is true or not. Never believe anyone! You must be able to verify it. This is why I have a problem with the current teaching. Everyone is just “following the leader”. Instead we must open our third eye to truly see. Unfortunately the “re-search” has stopped in Mysore! Some of the brave, courageous souls continue on with the tradition as it was meant to be. The rest follow the herd… BLINDLY! Third eye blind!
Over the years I was more and more reluctant to go. The number of students swelled to unmanageable amounts. Guruji could not possibly handle everyone. His original room in the Lakshmipuram area of Mysore held only 10 students. When I first went there were only 7-8 of us at any one time! Then slowly more and more people came to Mysore. He would start class at 4am and sometimes continue until 12 noon! So students would be lined up the stairs of his three-storey house all the way to the rooftop, waiting for hours to get in the room. Again, I was fortunate to get preferred treatment. He always gave me a first class slot which meant I got him fresh with no waiting! When he moved to Gokulam it became a showroom of exhibitionists. The energy in the room became less respectful of the practice and more about how good you looked. Everyone started to lose sight of why we were there. It became a circus! The most advanced students – the ones who could do advanced postures – were looked upon as Gods. Everyone aspired to be or look like them. If being able to perform advanced poses is spiritual then we all need to go touch the feet of Cirque du Soleil acrobats. People were also fighting to get in the room! There was only enough space for 70-80 students. You got little or no help with anything! My last trip to Mysore was just before Guruji passed in 2009. I hear it continues to be run the same way with Sharath. Everyone seems to be chasing the pose and the piece of paper you get to teach.
When Guruji died Radha and I were teaching in Hamburg, Germany. I knew he was not feeling well. I told Radha one morning I had a vision in the night of him passing. I checked my email and it was confirmed. The evening I felt him leave his body I got this profound feeling of responsibility to uphold his teachings. A wave of energy surged in me that morning and afternoon teaching in Hamburg. I somehow felt Guruji working through me from that point on.
I continue to share with students what I have learned from him. I also add to this by sharing what I have learned from my own extensive research into this practice and beyond. I have not altered the essence one bit! I have, however, added my own insights into what I have personally experienced over almost 40 years of study and practice. I have had the rare opportunity of working with thousands of students as well. I know this method works if you administer it correctly. It is like being a true doctor. Someone who respects each individual and gives them the appropriate medicine if needed.
In ancient times yogis who taught asana were attuned to their students. Now most yoga classes have become merely aerobic stretching with music. A far cry from its origin. Most practitioners are not practising what they preach. It has become a watered down version of its true form. Back in the day when I learned, we practised for the sake of deepening our consciousness. Now it is a goal-oriented, outer chase for more. It is a sad but true direction modern yoga has taken. Even within the ashtanga world it has become a rarity to enter a class with respect for the student as the number one priority.
Yes I am considered an Ayurvedic doctor in the eyes of my teacher Dr Vasant Lad. Dr Lad is world renowned in the field of Ayurvedic studies and has authored many books on the subject. He also has an institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Ayurvedic Institute. I studied with him closely for almost 4 years back in 1983. I have since then incorporated the wisdom of Ayurveda in everything I teach. Guruji was very fond of Ayurveda and we discussed it over the many years we were together. He had studied it in school as well. Krishnamacharya was also an advocate of this science. Guruji mentioned it many times in his sessions with us, saying how important it was to study it. I was one of the few who really took him up on it. I feel it is very important as a “Mysore style” teacher to understand Ayurveda. It gives you the ability to address each student individually and appropriately according to their dosha/age/enviroment/season, etc. If you don’t understand Ayurveda it becomes “generic” medicine and a one-size-fits-all method. This is not how it was taught to me from Guruji! Nor is it the way yoga practice was taught in its original form. You do not need to become an Ayurvedic doctor to apply the basic principles to your own life and living. I do feel it is a prerequisite to learning this method of ashtanga yoga, especially for teachers. If you cannot distinguish the difference between individuals and their specific needs, how can you possibly expect the results to be positive? Please enquire within and notice if this resonates or not.
I have had the opportunity to build many communities of ashtangis over the years. One of my first was in Phoenix, Arizona. I helped build a thriving community there when I left in the mid 90s. I went on to help my brother Eagle with Pineapple Yoga in Kauai, Hawaii. Eagle is now in his 15th year of teaching there. I had a retreat centre in Sri Lanka which was opened in the year of the Tsunami! It was not a good start to what turned into quite a story (read my book for more on this). It was, however, a rewarding experience on many levels. From the standpoint of growing a Mysore yoga community in Sri Lanka, it allowed people to come and practice in a setting like a resort. We provided everything. Not recommended, though, as I felt like I was running an adult day care centre most of the time! I had too many duties around other things that I was not interested in (food, housing, entertainment, etc.)
My centre in Bali, Ashtanga Yoga Bali Research Center (in honour of Guruji), is set up very much like his was. Students come from around the world and stay for around one month. We have that as a minimum requirement. We have many repeat students learning and growing with the centre. We are doing our own research on the practice. We are using the techniques we have learned over the decades to help students in their understanding of personal challenges. Everyone has unique issues so we address them accordingly using the method of ashtanga yoga and Ayurveda. When they leave us they feel empowered and ready to return home with renewed vigour for continuing on. We want everyone to experience how it can be done when they return home. We are not a retreat centre or vacation yoga centre. We help people recognise the importance of daily practice when they go home.
This is where centres like Stillpoint Yoga London keep the flow going and support the local community. It’s like what going to church was meant to be – a place of worship within that transforms you. You actually did something that made a difference. Hence the most famous saying from Guruji, “Practice and all is coming”. It is all about the actual practice, done regularly and consistently, when change happens. It is not a wish or a dream. It is participating fully to unravel the layers of ignorance held in our body/mind. Part of the prayer that we do at the beginning of the practice states Samsara Hala Hala (the poisonous nature of the mind loop). Really it is a “mind” practice and the body is the mechanism with which we play to shift the mind. All the tools we use in the practice are to get the mind to co-operate with the body. The breath is one bridge to this connection. Bandha is another. Dristhi is yet another. Guruji spoke of this a lot! This is why his emphasis was so strongly physical and asana oriented. He told us to start here. Our main laboratory was the body/mind. Change your breathing and the way you shape shift your body to change the nature of consciousness. It laser focused our minds to then be able to enter into the higher stages. For, without a calm body and mind, there was no way you were going to be able to sit still. From there he wanted us to do our own research on the other limbs.
The loss of my daughter Shanti has been the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me. I was completely and utterly unprepared for this. I had two wonderful daughters who I loved and cherished. I was at the top of my personal and professional life. I had just gotten married to the most amazingly beautiful woman, Radha. I had successfully built a thriving ashtanga/Ayurveda centre in Bali with her. I had all the money I needed. I was healthy beyond my wildest imagination. I had everything anyone could ever want in life.
Then I received the news… Radha and I had just returned from California after being married on June 21, 2013. It was July 18th, 2013 when we landed at our home in Bali. I opened my computer and my youngest daughter Mira had emailed me with the subject line, “CALL ME IMMEDIATELY”. The pit of my stomach dropped and I immediately called her. She answered and told me the tragic news that Shanti had died in a car accident. Needless to say, I have been deeply affected to this day.
Has my ashtanga yoga asana and pranayama practice helped me with my grief and loss? Yes and no. I have had to go through hell and back! It forced me to look more deeply than I could possibly ever imagine. It left me naked and feeling alone. I got severely depressed at one point. I have had to come to the absolute bottom of myself to rise up again. Thank God I had this practice to keep me relatively healthy through the hardest thing any human being can possibly endure. Everyone has told me over and over again that it is the most horrific event that can possibly happen to anyone. I would agree!
My meditation and spiritual teacher, Ishwar Puriji, has helped me the most. He came into my life when I was ready to give up and quit. I was sent a link to watch a Youtube video of him. I watched several talks that he gave about meditation and life. He touched me deeply and I had to meet him as soon as possible. He helped me by initiating me into the path of Surat Shabd Yoga (Yoga of the Soul Current). This soothed my aching heart and fed my soul. It attached me to the healing balm within. Of course, my mind still tries to sabotage my discovery but I have Ishwar there with me all the time. I believe everything in our lives is pre-ordained. This was orchestrated perfectly for me to awaken inside the real meaning of this life and where my true home lies. I’ve now explored more intensely than I could ever have done if this had not happened. Now I can look at it as a gift whereas before it was a living hell!
It has changed gradually as I have aged. In my early 20s I was very enthusiastic about the postures and accomplishing the advanced series. I did this quite quickly and easily. I was extremely athletic so this was a great challenge for me. I had been a star athlete in school and was an avid surfer. My attraction was purely physical at the time I learned. After I had mastered many of the advanced poses I was left with “now what?” This led me to explore more of the mental and spiritual aspects of the practice, but this did not happen overnight! As I’ve said, the most profound awakening came from the loss of my daughter Shanti.
Of course, the wisdom of being an “older” practitioner/teacher has given me the added benefit of being able to give the proper perspective for beginners to advanced asana practitioners. I can see the overly enthusiastic young up-and-coming practitioners getting obsessed with the form as I did. It is only natural and part of the process. I can encourage them to move on, but also know they have to go through their own process to figure this out. It took me years to see how ridiculous all the gymnastic poses are for any deep realisation/ spiritual gain or better health for that matter. I “wasted” so much energy in chasing this! But again, it was part of my growth process, being young and ignorant.
Now in my 60s I have an asana practice that fits and suits my age. I am not busting out advanced series poses, nor do I have a desire to do so. I have an appropriate set of poses consisting of Surya Namaskara, standing and seated poses from Primary and Intermediate that work for me. I am feeling great! I just recently went through a complete western medical exam in Bangkok, Thailand. I had every possible thing tested and the results were positive. The doctor was impressed with my results. I laughed to myself and chuckled out loud as we went through the lab results together. Every organ was working perfectly and all blood results were in order. Although I must admit, these last few years have been the hardest on my overall health, I can attest this clean bill of health is down to my ashtanga practice, along with a good diet (healthy but not obsessive) and a good sense of humour.
I have learned and proved to myself that this practice works if you use it correctly. Correctly means according to the principles of Ayurveda (dosha/age/environment/work/family life, etc.) You must address the person as a unique individual! It is out of deep respect and reflection to honour each human being with the utmost care. Most teachers have no idea what they are doing because they are not aware of their own needs. How can they be sensitive to their students? It is in epidemic proportions the amount of himsa (harm) to the individual using this tool of ashtanga yoga incorrectly! My job as an elder in the tradition with wisdom about this ashtanga yoga asana/pranayama practice is to share what I know from my experience. What is being proposed now is a generic, robot-like version of the practice. It serves the overall population poorly because of the insensitive nature in which it is being taught. Hence, the emphasis I put on the Ayurvedic approach in using it as a tool for enhancing balance for each individual. This is the most appropriate way to address each unique human being in a group situation. Mysore style self practice was devised as a method to teach groups of people while still adhering to individual needs. There is no other way to do this in a group! This is unfortunately not the case at most ashtanga shalas around the world.
We live in a different time and place than the origin of this system. It must be adapted to suit the current situation and individual. This asana practice is a “householder” practice. It was taught by men (Pattabhi Jois/Krishnamacharya) who had families, not wandering monks or sadhus. It is based on sound principles that can be done every day on a regular basis to help you live your life to the fullest. To be better at whatever you have the propensity towards. Whether you are young or old, male or female, there is a way to do this posture practice. This yoga will keep you strong and resilient beyond your wildest dreams. I can again attest to this from my own experience and from teaching thousands of students. I have seen the effect it has on them. I know of no other form of exercise that addresses every organ, muscle, tissue, bone, blood, etc. It is by far the best there is. It is keeping the body temple clean and clear for the higher practices of worship within through meditation starting at the eye centre. If you know of something better please tell me!
My mission at Ashtanga Yoga Bali Research Center and abroad is to teach this method appropriately with wisdom. I know I can pass this on in the most beneficial way if I take the time to explain and demonstrate to the world how this can better serve them in their lives. I want people to benefit as I have for almost 40 years but there must be wisdom applied to this very powerful method, otherwise more and more people are going to be damaged inside and out.
I’m committed to keeping the research alive! Religions are dangerous! Help me to keep ashtanga yoga alive! Please do your own research and help me to keep this method from dying completely. There is still a spark left. If you explore with an “open mind” you will see if what I’m saying is true or not. The real work begins from the inside, not out. You are merely cleaning the vessel when doing only asana and pranayama. If you’re stuck only on asana you’re making an ass-ana out of yourself! I wrote a book that is perfectly titled The Only Way Out Is In. There is no other way out of this rollercoaster ride of a life we have all been given. We came for an experience in the physical realm. I’m done with it. Are you? Again, see if what I say is true or not.
The true meaning of life awaits you right behind the eye… not the ego “I”. There is a battle between the dark force and the light. The positive pole at the eye centre and the negative pole at the root, muladhara centre. The force is with you if you move towards the light. I encourage each and every one of you to use your inherent “common sense”. My spiritual teacher Ishwar Puriji has said, “Common sense is very uncommon”. I agree wholeheartedly. Cultivate your intuition which resides at the eye centre. It is a built-in bullshit meter. It is the override within the Matrix. It is beyond the body/mind. It is rising to the level where you witness and observe clearly how to use your vehicle. Our mind is running the show and it is the negative power. The soul is the witness. It is Krishna steering our chariot, holding the reins of our five senses. Let Krishna steer and sit back and enjoy the ride! Otherwise you are doomed to repeat over and over again the same mistakes. This is the real meaning of Samsara Hala Hala.
What I have shared with you is my own personal experience. I know this information is contrary to popular belief but I’m okay with being a rebel with a cause. Are you?