A few months ago, Carly Sachs contacted the Dharma Yoga New York Center to submit some questions for Sri Dharma Mittra to answer as one of a number of yogis she was interviewing by proxy toward a story she was preparing on Bhakti Yoga for YogaCityNYC.com.
I had the privilege of getting to conduct the interview with Sri Dharma on site and thought it would be worthwhile to share the complete interview here at Yoganonymous.com.
Although Sri Dharma is probably best known in the yoga world as a master of asana, he always patiently explains that the posture practice is just a preparation, and that for him, the two practices that were the core of his practice were Svadhyaya (study of scripture) and Karma Yoga (selfless service).
Despite all this, Sri Dharma is identified time and again in my experience as a Bhakta—one who walks the path of devotion. One reason for this is most likely that Sri Dharma constantly models and teaches that one should make every action an act of devotion and offer up the fruit of all action to the Supreme Self or God. If that’s not Bhakti, what is?
Adam Frei: You are not exclusively a Bhakti Yogi, but the following are all questions regarding Bhakti Yoga.
Dharma Mittra: I don’t practice Bhakti Yoga much, but I understand it.
AF: What does your personal practice look like?
DM: Physically, I practice asana every day, even a little while teaching my classes. Also, I do weight training—I go to the gym. I try to be very active, whatever time allows for and whatever opportunities present throughout the day.
I practice mainly the poses that are the foundation of practice every day—I keep up my asana practice always so I don’t lose the poses. If I see water, I swim. If I see the gym there in front of me, soon I’m inside moving the weights. I keep myself very active always, always responding to conditions that arise that need to be addressed and improved upon. I also do my own Kriya Yoga practice daily to keep the inner organs in good condition, especially Agnisara and Nauli.
As for the Pranayama, I do my Pranayama, just the Alternate-nostril breathing, every day. Occasionally, when I see that the body and/or the mind need something done for the purpose of physical and/or mental health, but not spiritual anymore, I’ll do something extra. I then do only one or two Pranayamas according to the need—the Pranayama that’s fit to address the specific condition. And I do extra Kriyas also occasionally when it’s necessary, like fasting if I’m getting sick or the body is showing some problems—especially at my age when the organs start getting older, we have to do sometimes some yoga techniques to keep them healthy and alive. So, I fast occasionally in case I need to do some repair inside. That’s the practice.
About the mental part of practice, that’s going on both day and night. My mind is always busy with questions, always trying to figure out the answers for this and for that. It’s this constant reflection that’s an inner kind of meditation.
Meditation doesn’t have to mean only sitting. While you are walking in the street, you can be using the highest part of the mind to find the answers to subtle questions, answers for subtle things. In this way, one can be constantly engaged in meditation.
With regard to all the other spiritual practices, since I have reached some of my answers and realized a few things, I don’t have to go much to many of the other spiritual practices like a beginner has to—I already have my diploma.
For example, I’m not fasting anymore for spiritual purposes. In reality, I don’t even have to be subject to the injunctions of the scriptures anymore, but I do so in order to help others or to set an example for them, not for myself. I still read and study the scriptures in order to help others, to keep the words fresh in my mind so I can try to share the knowledge to help others, but not for my own benefit.
AF: How do you personally define Bhakti Yoga?
DM: Only the children will enter the Kingdom of God. Most adults don’t sing anymore. We have to break that, and start singing the name of the Almighty One, try to cultivate the emotions. We have to elevate our emotions to the maximum, to the limit, and that then turns into spiritual bliss. This is the sign that Shakti is coming up, then we are always stuffed with bliss.
With the practice of Bhakti, we clean our intellect of impure thoughts. We become child-like, and the heart gets purified as well. It is the easiest way to experience the love of God, through the singing. In the beginning, we have to pretend at least, and gradually this pretending becomes reality. Our emotions go to a point where we even start crying, feeling the love of God. That then will trigger divine attention to us. The Shakti, the Prana starts moving up, and then one finds themselves stuffed with bliss.
When we have that bliss, we have more enthusiasm to keep up with all the other practices, to be obedient to the teacher. Without that enthusiasm, we go nowhere. So, Bhakti is the easiest way—everyone should do it a little bit.
AF: What inspired you personally to find Bhakta, to find love of God, and when did you feel that became a part of your practice?
DM: Everybody who is born, they have their own tendencies from the past. Some people have a tendency for Bhakti, for singing, for devotion—to become a Bhakta. My Guru emphasized that even if you don’t have a particular tendency, you should at least try and practice a little of each form of yoga. That will really set the foundations for all practice and make it much easier to reach the goal.
So, in the beginning, especially in my case, I never was too much inclined for singing. But, I started pretending in the beginning, because I knew what the results could be, the reality behind the practice. Eventually, combined with lots of compassion, one finds themselves singing for all beings, not just human beings, and then the emotion rises up. So, I had to pretend, and then gradually it becomes reality. But, I include it as part of my practice even today. Let’s say five or 10% of one’s time should be devoted to Bhakti Yoga for everyone who practices any sort of yoga.
AF: How has the practice of Bhakti impacted the rest of your life?
DM: As we practice Bhakti, the emotions rise high and really explode into spiritual bliss. That is amazing—everything changes, because when you are really stuffed with bliss, the results of Bhakti, one has more enthusiasm, more power. At last we feel the presence of the Almighty One. This is something amazing, not like regular emotion. Emotion towards the Almighty One is extremely different from regular Bhakti or emotions from outside. Even today, when I’m stuffed with compassion going to Bhakti, then I feel really enthusiastic to teach people, to approach my whole life with more self-control and to face all the problems of life with equanimity.
AF: Can you describe any challenges you faced in working to become established in this constant state of devotion?
DM: The challenge is that we are living in the busiest city in the world filled with lots of temptation, lots of noise, lots of problems. If you’re married, a householder, you have lots of problems—children, pets, rent, taxes, etc. We are here in this city—it’s not like it was in India anymore.
Also, we have the Karmas from the past, the impressions from the past that may come back to be worked out at any moment. Their shadow is coming at us all the time unexpectedly. So, the effect of that is sometimes so strong that it prevents us from doing the Bhakti. We are so miserable on some occasions, so depressed or the problems are so difficult, that we find no courage or enthusiasm to do even the Bhakti. But, deep inside, we know this lack of enthusiasm only lasts for a few moments—it passes away. There are always lots of challenges, temptations such as eating the wrong food. Especially for someone like me now facing old age, the body’s no longer functioning as well as it used to…
All these are the obstacles—sometimes you don’t find that spiritual energy to give impetus to your practice. But, for those who have some enlightenment, all these challenges are lessened. In my case, I love to see a very difficult challenge present itself. I want to see this body and mind passing through these difficulties, I love challenges!
AF: Would you offer any guidance for those seeking to engage in practice? “I want to be like you, what should I do?”
DM: Go to Yama and Niyama, a part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, and concentrate on Yama and Niyama, especially Ahimsa. Go deep into that. Read about and keep Yama—read deep into Yama, not just the little sentences you see about them. Or, meditate on compassion every day for a half an hour. I have a book I like, but it has to be the right translation, like the Nikhilananda translation of The Bhagavad Gita (I don’t think The Bhagavad Gita fits for everyone just starting out, because in studying the first two chapters, many people then think the whole book is about war or something—it’s not).
I love a book called The Dammapada—the sayings of the Lord Buddha. In studying this text, people can easily learn some spiritual corrections that can be of great help to them. I also like The Yoga Sutras—read The Yoga Sutras. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is good for many in the beginning because they’re looking for concrete yogic techniques, i.e.: the Kriyas, the Mudras, the Bandhas, etc.
The other device I have, those seeking to become established in yoga have to find a guide someplace, and then they have to be obedient to the teacher. First, though, you have to see if the teacher is fit to be obedient to. I suggest to someone looking to become established in yoga that they should go to a class that discusses the steps of yoga and is taught by someone qualified. Or, come to the Monday night 8-9 p.m. class at the Dharma Yoga New York Center. The highest knowledge is being spread here quietly, silently for all those that are looking for enlightenment.