Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad

Mind in Asana (Page 1)

An Interview with Joel Kramer

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Joel Kramer emerges from the bedroom, where he's been working on his asanas, slips easily into Lotus position, and settles down for a long talk about one of his favorite subjects. Kramer is physically small and compact, with a solid though not overly muscular body; his abundant energy spills out in incessant hand gestures and in a forehead that wrinkles deeply with each thought. Clearly, he loves talking about yoga, loves doing yoga, and he approaches the topic with all the reverence and humor that such an intense interest inevitably inspires.

Joel, in the past 15 years or so, you've carved out a name for yourself as something of a maverick in the Western yoga community. You are almost completely self-taught, you don'tseem to follow anybody's rules but those of your own instincts, and your theories, in some cases, debunk some of the classical teachings of yoga. What's yoga all about for you?

From my perspective, yoga is a transformative process, a continual renewal of the possibilities we have as human beings. And my movement in yoga has been to translate a lot of what might be called the wisdom of the ages into modern, meaningful terms that can be appropriate for our lives and our culture.

That's exactly what makes your approach so suitable for Western students, I think. Your attention to the role of mind in yoga practice -what you call Jnana Yoga is particularly attractive to those of us interested in the body-mind synthesis. How did you come across the principles of Jnana Yoga and begin to apply them to your life?

In the 1960s I was concerned with some of those excruciating dilemmas that young people face, questions like, "Why am I here?" "What's living about, anyway?" and "What in the world should I be doing!" First I looked for answers along a traditional, academic route, working for a doctorate in philosophy and later switching to the study of psychology. Eventually, though, all that became like a game of tic-tac-toe, where you know the game so well you never lose! But I still wasn't getting the answers I wanted. So I dropped out of graduate school in 1965 and began to investigate the influx of Eastern philosophy just beginning at that time. I was particularly interested in the differences between Eastern and Western approaches to the structure of thought.

One day a friend played me a tape of a lecture by Krishnamurti. At the end of the half-hour, I realized I hadn't heard a word of it! When I listened to it again, I understood that I had tuned it out because what Krishnamurti was saying undermined many of the things I held dear. He was talking about how deeply conditioned the human mind is. This was my first introduction to what, in the broadest sense, might be called yoga, the yoga of the mind. I was totally fascinated by the methodology of his approach to the inner search an inward turning of the mind onto itself. I'd never seen anything like this in all my formal training.

As I explored further and realized what a highly conditioned mind I had, I also became aware of what a highly conditioned body I had how stiff and tight it was. So around 1967 I began to do physical yoga. At that time not too much information was available about Hatha Yoga, and the art, at least in this country, was rather primitive. I began to pick people's brains who knew something about it, and I lived for a while with a man who had studied in India. Although his classes didn't particularly interest me, I was attracted by the way he moved as an animal, a kind of elegance, an élan. So I decided to look into this physical yoga on my own and I've never stopped! It just clicked for me quite naturally. Not that I was particularly flexible I could hardly touch my knees at first, let alone my toes, and I couldn't do any of the postures. But I began to see that I was playing with energy, and I developed an internal, nonintellectual understanding of the meaning and differentiation of energy. The physical yoga began to move energy in a way that made it easier for me to become more attentive to my internal processes.

Which in turn enriched your study of Jnana Yoga.

Yes. I began to see how the mind structures and conditions. How it builds habits, and how those habits actually filter our perception of the world. I began to observe how I dodge things with my mind, how I separate myself from others out of fear or out of a need to feel better than they. I didn't find all this particularly comfortable, but I did find interesting!

Maybe you'd better clarify what you mean by Jnana Yoga.

Jnana Yoga is a quality of awareness in which the mind turns in upon itself and begins to observe its own conditioning process. You're not saying,''Oh, I shouldn't be doing this," you're not necessarily trying to control it or make it go away, you're just becoming interested in the nature of mental conditioning.

Much of the structure of our conditioning reveals itself only in our relationships. Let's say, for example, that you and I have a relationship. If you hurt my feelings, I'll start to see you through the filter or memory of that hurt. There are lots of things I could do with that: I could forgive you, I could avoid you, I could ignore you, or I could eke out a little vengeance against you not necessarily even consciously by a sharp word or a subtle put-down, or by telling my friends what a drag you are. And I would probably enjoy this vengeance, even though I don't acknowledge that I'm a vengeful person. But if I begin to look closely at the nature of this relationship, I can observe that when you hurt me, I automatically want to hurt back. If I can just observe this automatic, conditioned response without judging it, I can see my conditioning. And that seeing frees me from having to react to you in an automatic way. In order to do that, though, I have to be willing to look.

This sounds very much like Buddhist Vipassana meditation watching the arising of thoughts and feelings without evaluating or trying to control them.

Many traditions touch on this -Vipassana, certain Hindu techniques, Taoist traditions. They're all describing a quality of awareness that does nothing but observe. You observe the movement of thought within yourself; you don't try to silence it or make it go away. You're trying to catch it in the moment of its appearance. Although it sounds simple, this is probably one of the most difficult things to do, because it's very hard to do nothing and just take a look at what's happening. But this, I feel, is how we move toward real understanding. Growth almost always involves a shattering of self-images, a major shift in one's habitual life patterns.

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