M.S. Viswanath, better known as Masterji, is a senior yoga teacher in Mysore. He trained directly with Shri K. Pattabhi Jois for more than 15 years, and he has been teaching the theory and practice of yoga for more than 40 years. In this interview he talks about the real purpose of yoga, the difference between hatha yoga and ashtanga yoga, what is pranayama and a lot more.
My dear friend Jessica, from Italy, describes here her first encounter with Masterji from whom she learned ashtanga vinyasa yoga, starting from zero:
« When I first entered Masterji’s yoga shala the only thing I knew about ashtanga was that it was a strong style of yoga and I wanted to learn it. That’s it.
I’ll never forget that moment, few people were already there, focusing on different asanas, so I thought I was late. He looked at me and said, « You can start your practice. » I astonishingly looked him back, asking what I was supposed to do. Disappointed, he shook his head and began giving me brief instructions for surya namaskara.
From that precise moment he became my guru. For the next three months every day I practiced asanas and pranayama under his guidance. He drove me throughout the primary series, step by step, like a father teaches his daughter how to ride a bicycle.
Masterji is not a chatty man, but when he speaks he always says the right thing at the right moment. He’s able to understand where you’re stuck on your path and helps you to go over without giving too many useless notions. He is definitely the wisest man I’ve ever met and I can’t wait to go back to Mysore and learn as much as I can from him.
His compassionate eyes and huge smile still help me during the difficult moment of my practice. I can say I’m lucky enough to have met my MasterJi! »
I called Masterji on a Tuesday morning but nobody answered the phone. The same day however, around 8 pm, he returned my call. That was the first time that I had the opportunity to talk with him. He was very friendly and approachable on the phone. I told him that I wanted to interview him for my blog and he asked me to come the next day at 5 pm.
With a bit of excitement, as I had not done an interview in a long time, I came to see him the next day, but once I met him I realized that he had not really understood what I wanted to do. When he received me at his shala he said, in a typical Indian fashion, « What you want?! »
Once I explained him my purpose he said, « Oh, there are many good teachers in Mysore, why don’t you interview them instead. » I answered, « I already have, and I know you are a great teacher. Many of my friends have recommended you. »
He seemed very humble and didn’t like to talk much about himself. Not feeling very happy about the interview he agreed and allowed me to continue with the questions.
During the interview he actually said that about six years ago he wanted to stop teaching because it was enough for him, but somehow destiny is keeping him in this position.
He used this word, « destiny » several times during the interview. I liked that he was using this word. It had a special meaning to me as I had been experiencing it in my life in different ways, and I had been hearing about it and contemplating a lot on it while listening to the audiobook of the Mahabharata, India’s greatest epic.
Well, I hope that after this interview he will feel even more compelled to continue fulfilling his destiny, teaching and sharing his wisdom and everything he knows about yoga. I’m sure his students will appreciate that.
I also liked that he was very clear about not seeing yoga merely as asanas, physical postures. He doesn’t give too much importance to them. His vision was constantly way beyond the bodily exercises, and although in his website it mentions that he teaches ashtanga yoga and hatha yoga, these are simply labels to him. In his view yoga is much more than that.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get started into this path?
Actually it is my tradition not to say how I got into it, why I got into it. If it comes we go, this is our journey. I don’t know what made me come here. I don’t know why I am still here. I don’t know. It’s all destiny. We are traveling in that direction of the destiny.
Would you mind telling us what motivated you to get involved with yoga?
Actually there was no idea, understanding or thought of yoga. When I came to this path the age was so small. It was not like nowadays; when people have a fair knowledge and understanding of everything they think of yoga, but that was not in my case.
It was just like a play. Just like a child plays with its toys in the house, or imitating what others do. It was like that to me, nothing more than that.
You study with Pattabhi Jois for 15 years. Is that correct?
Longer, longer. He is the only one teacher for me. What I’ve learned, I’ve learned from him.
So longer than 15 years?
Oh maybe some more years (laughing). We don’t count how many years we stay with our teacher. We are not supposed to know all those things. We simply go and practice. We are not supposed to know.
That’s why if you ask anything about our teacher or our practice I don’t tell you. It is our tradition. We are not supposed to take the name of our teacher.
Would you like to share anything about your experience studying with Pattabhi Jois?
It was a great experience. When I was studying with him the teaching was pure, direct, deep. He had a lot of time; lot of things to give and a lot of interest to give, in detail. He had the time on those days.
Any special anecdote that you might like to share with us?
Oh, there are so many things because he was a great narrator. He was explaining, telling everything; moral stories related to yoga. Great things. There was no one or two, there were many, many things.
He was a Vedic scholar. He was not an ordinary man. We call him vidvan, a man who has completely mastered the vedas. He was a very high scholar.
When you have the modern students they don’t know nothing about him. Simply they say this and that, all rumors and stories. He was totally a great scholar.
Why did you decided to start teaching yoga
I already told you, it is destiny, it is destiny. I want to stop, yet still I continue, I don’t know. I thought of stopping long back; six, seven years ago. I don’t know why I’m still teaching
Why did you want to stop teaching?
Enough is enough! How long? Enough teaching, but still it is going on. I don’t know when it will stop.
What exactly do you teach? I see there are a lot of classes offered on your website: ashtanga yoga, hatha yoga, pranayama…
See, what you say about ashtanga, what you say about hatha, I don’t consider those are the practices. They are all the marketing names, business names. But when I say I teach hatha or ashtanga the students who come here they know and they practice.
When I say I teach ashtanga, pranayama is a must. All the values and all the other related practices, it will all be going on in the classes.
I’ve noticed also something about mantra recitation
Yes, that is very important. Reciting mantra helps for concentration. Mantra is just the beginning of concentration. So, after pranayama we have to control our desires, pratyahara. For that there is a need of some support. Mantra reciting, what we call japa, that helps.
And when you teach meditation, do you mean mantra meditation?
No, meditation is more based on pranayama and fixing the mind. That is ashtanga technique. Not modern day ashtanga. Modern day ashtanga has no meaning at all. What they are going telling, talking, teaching; today this modern ashtanga is meaningless.
I’m not thinking, it is the truth (we both laugh).
Why do you think it is meaningless? What is missing?
Everything of yoga is missing. Basically when you want to do yoga mind should be controlled. Where is the control of the mind? And it is an internal experience. We have to experience what is happening. It is not a show business.
It is not a show, « Oh I’m doing this, I can do that, I can do this. How he is learning I should also do. » This is not in yoga. People think that this is yoga. When in Mysore the students come here I explain them and they slowly change their attitude, they get involved in the traditional practice.
In your website it is written, « The main aim of Masterji’s classes is to help students improve their practice in an environment which is free of rigid ideas and misconceptions that occur in some of the contemporary Ashtanga approaches. »
Yes, this is what I’ve just told you. Contemporary ashtanga is nothing, it has nothing
I also read in your website that you teach a Vishwanatha Paddhathi style of yoga.
That’s the Brazilian who branded my technique, what I do in my class, as Vishwanatha Paddhathi. It is not me, the Brazilians they are calling it this.
According to Masterji’s website Vishwanatha Paddhathi is for students who require a more relaxed approach to yoga, either due to their age or physical disability. Masterji has specially designed this style of Yoga from his experience of teaching many students who are less agile due to their age or due to some physical challenges or illness.
And you teach ashtanga vinyasa according to Pattabhi Jois method?
We don’t say ashtanga vinyasa. It is only practicing asanas in vinyasa, pranayama, chanting, and all those things.
What would be the difference between hatha yoga and vinyasa yoga?
Huge, huge. Vinyasa yoga is only confined to asana. Ashtanga yoga has eight limbs. All the eight limbs you have to practice, not merely the body movements.
Hatha yoga is not body movements. It is a very deep practice. You have to practice the five limbs of ashtanga yoga in hatha yoga. That must come.
People, they don’t understand. They hear something here and there, they add their own imagination, and they call it hatha yoga. Hatha is not that.
Very clearly you can read what hatha is in our texts. Union of sun and the moon, surya nadi and chandra nadi. That is breathing in sushumna, that is the aim of pranayama. Hatha yoga is the practice of pranayama. Is not what you see in the modern day classes.
Very clearly our scriptures has told us, the ancestors has told us. Only the modern people, everything they want to make a business, that changes everything.
So for you is not like teaching different styles of yoga but only teaching yoga itself?
There is only one yoga for me, that’s what I’m teaching. You want to drink coffee. Coffee is one but you prepare in different ways, that’s all. Yoga is one, techniques are many. That’s all.
Can there be any conflict for a teacher or for a practitioner to teach and practice different styles such as hatha yoga or ashtanga yoga?
For me there is no conflict. The conflict is in others mind. I know what is this yoga. I know what is this vinyasa. I know what is this hatha. There is no conflict in me. And those who come to learn from me they don’t have any conflict to learn, and they practice.
Only those who are marketing in that name they may have a conflict of hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga. I don’t have any conflicts, neither my students who come to me have any conflicts. We are very clear. We practice. We have a very clear definition of yoga. We have a very clear view of what doing yoga is.
When it comes to asanas, isn’t it all included in hatha yoga?
Hatha is not body. It is not the vigorous movement of the body. Hatha means that you achieve without caring for the obstacles, or facing the obstacles you keep practicing until you achieve your goal. We have that determination. That determination comes under hatha.
Understand? There is a very strong determination. You want to do one thing but you cannot do smoothly. There are so many obstacles. Somebody brings a thought disturbance, he will be distracted. Conquering all those things, what you want to do you keep doing. That is hatha.
Everything comes under hatha yoga only. First hatha. You will do what you want to do.
How does this relates to the solar and moon energy that you mentioned before.
Solar, Ha, right nostril. Moon, Tha, left nostril. Breathing in is rising the solar energy. Breathing out is activating the lunar energy. That is natural, natural phenomena. We are activating, we don’t block any of the energy.
Ultimately we neither breath in the solar, not in the lunar; neither Ha, neither Tha. Combined together, everything. That is the state when you are practicing hatha yoga. Once the air enters the sushumna nadi, that means that you have entered the hatha state.
How does this relates to what you mention before about the power of determination?
Can you see where the sushumna nadi is? No, you have not seen it. So, when you are taught the series you need to have that determination, « I should see what it is, where it is. I should know. » If you have that determination then only you can see. If you don’t have determination, « ok it is there, » then this is not the right attitude.
So, like that. That is determination. Knowing that so many blocks are there, so many distractions are there, still continue removing all those things. With my thoughts, with my moods and movements, with my conditions, I still try.
You are doing asana, but if the pleasant smell of coffee comes to you, you think, « Oh what a nice aroma of coffee, I should drink. » Then you forget you are doing the asana. That should not be there. Even with the distractions of the senses you should remained fixed, mind should remained fixed. That comes in hatha yoga.
It’s a gradual process, step by step. It won’t come immediately. We have to conquer a lot of the body weaknesses.
Can you explain briefly what is pranayama?
Controlling the breath. Regulation of the breath.
We are breathing short. When we have a short breath we are sick, we don’t have sufficient energy. The air that you inhale and exhale, that is responsible for your body energy. So, when you regulate it, your health increases, your body energy increases.
So regulation of the breath is pranayama.
Calmness of the mind, that’s the first advantage that we see from pranayama. You are calm, your mind is relaxed. Also the energy increases and focus develops.
What is your approach when teaching pranayama?
Make them breath properly, that’s all.
Where should the focus be on pranayama?
On the breath, everything on the breath only. Focus on the breath.
For how long should we practice pranayama?
Timeless, because each pranayama has it’s on benefits.
In the beginning we learn all the pranayamas and practice for a limited period. Later on, when we have different aims or goals, according to that particular goal or desire we do the pranayamas where we have to spend more time. There is no time limit.
But how much time takes your pranayama class?
The group of the TTC that you just met are doing 80 minutes practice. Beginners do 45 minutes. To reach 80 minutes one should at least do a good practice. Minimum 50 to 70 minutes for a good practice.
There are many pranayamas…
There are thousands of pranayamas, millions of asanas.
How do you choose which ones to practice regularly?
There are traditional pranayamas, there are classic pranayamas. Those are enough. If you do those that’s enough. They (Masterji’s students) have all been given proper guidance to do also. If they follow that that’s enough. There is no need to go here and there or anything like that.
No much confusion in learning pranayama. It’s a very definite guided practice. Actually even asana is a very definite guided practice. People are making all sorts of nonsense in the practice, teaching and practicing. They are having so many wild ideas. Wild crazy imaginations.
Pranayamas, they are all very strict, simple, direct, beneficial.
What can you say about meditation?
Meditation is fixing the thought. Meditation, what we call dhyana, is the highest level of pranayama. From there we start, mind gets controlled and then mind is fixed on an object without allowing the mind to jump away. We remained fixed. That’s the training we have to follow.
We are having meditation courses, meditation classes. They are not actual meditation, they are preparation for meditation. When you reach the level of meditation you’ll be a totally balanced person, in all aspects. Very balanced. So this classes will only prepare you to go in that direction, they don’t make you perfect in meditation.
By practicing, by detaching all these things, by reducing the thoughts, then only we can be fixed. Meditation means not doing anything else. No mental activities. Mind is fixed only on one object, very steady. That is meditation according to yoga.
According to Patanjali?
Not Patanjali; Patanjali is only codifier. He is not the owner, or author. Yoga practice was there thousands of years before Patanjali
What is the main lesson that you have learned from your teacher?
Dedication, honest dedication. To do justice to my practice. We don’t cheat. Whatever we do we try to realize it. No show business here. This is the learned knowledge, that should be realized. That’s the biggest message from him to us.
I don’t compare with others, I don’t ask others. Yoga is an inner practice. It’s not an external practice. Developing internally. So like that, go on developing.
External life is different, yogic life is different. External world we have to live according to the needs of the society. That is not a permanent one. Internal world, is what we have to do for ourselves
And how can we balance this external life and the internal life?
Very easy. No problem at all, it’s easy to balance. Be aware of the situation. Awareness brings a lot of balance. In awareness there is an understanding, « What is this. » When you have the understanding of the situation balance automatically comes. It’s easy.
What is for you, it is internal; what is for others, it is external. You know your life. What is for you, you will be practicing internally. You know what is your life for others, and that is external practice. Like that.
What is the main lesson that you would like to transmit to your students.
They know that they have to practice and master what I have given them. So they try to follow that. Continue the practice, don’t stop. Try to practice. Once you continue the practice, automatically you’ll be taken to the higher level by your own consciousness.