Ego in the World of Yoga

An Interview with Paul Harvey, Tel-Aviv, Israel
By: Anat Messing
Photography: Guy Raivitz
“Chaim Acherim” – The Israeli magazine for alternative medicine and spirituality
Issue 114, 2006

Had I met Paul Harvey in the street I would have thought “what a nice man, maybe an electrician, veterinarian or shop owner”. Had I heard him speak I would have thought “what fluent, pleasant, humor-laden speech. He must be an actor or tourist guide”, but Paul Harvey is a teacher, a yoga teacher and an important persona in the western yoga scene.

He does not wear whites, nor an orange dress, nor stretch pants or even sports-wear. In jeans, sport shoes, a bouncy lock of hair and with a captivating smile he manages to fascinate, for 4 long days, the workshop participants who take part in the Reidman College teachers training program guided by his student and senior Yoga teacher, Ziva Kinrot.

“Yoga is a system that evolves with a person through the years”, Harvey introduces his development model of Yoga “children prefer a physical, powerful and challenging practice. Therefore, the appropriate practice for them would focus on the physical aspects of asana. The middle aged man finds himself busy, worried and carrying much responsibility. He cannot dedicate two hours for practicing asana, so the objective of the practice needs to change. The focus needs to be altered for support, protection and replenishment, and the primary tool for achieving this is pranayama. Elderly people tend to become introspective, retrospectively examining their lives, examining their relationships with the world, with the path they have traveled and death. Meditation best serves these objectives.” This model is key to Harvey’s practice and teaching.

One on One

Paul Harvey is a student of Desikachar, who studied with his father Krishnamacharya, one of the prominent teachers of the 20th century. Among Krishnamacharya’s students one can find B.K.S. Iyengar and Patahbi Jois who founded two of the prominent Yoga schools of our time – Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa. The third school to grow from Krishnamacharya’s teaching is known as Viniyoga. This approach is upheld by Desikachar and supported in the west by Harvey. The meaning of the term Viniyoga is “application of Yoga” and is better understood as an approach to the correct application of the tools of yoga.

“In Viniyoga we adjust the posture to the person rather than have the person adjust to the posture. The practice is set according to the person’s current state of being. This means that the practitioner needs to realize that yesterday’s or last year’s Yoga practice is not the proper one for the present time. People tend to prefer a simple and repetitive practice routine, but this is not really possible if we take into account the constant change in our lives. For example, I know of women that use 4 different practices for different times of the month: before ovulation, after ovulation, pre-menstruation and post-menstruation.”

This is why Harvey prefers the classis teaching tradition of one-on-one. Teacher and student. This is the only way to establish an optimal personal practice. “Yet even in group classes I try to develop individualized practice. I refrain from teaching too many asana or from personally demonstrating asana. I will approach each practitioner, attempt to identify their personal needs and ambitions and offer comments that are relevant for their practice. People have different potential and limitations. I will admit that teaching group classes is a challenge.”

Performance & Arrogance

Harvey often mentions compromise. “Asana can be performed in a precise uncompromised form, but this is unnecessary and potentially damaging”. Therefore, Harvey advocates paying careful attention to primary elements that need to be executed with precision, while consciously compromising secondary elements. I chose to open the interview with a question that has been on my mind for some time and touches upon this topic:

Given your compromising approach, I recall a paraphrase I’ve heard on more than one occasion that “Yoga preaches surrender and release of/from the ego”. On the other hand I’ve encountered numerous senior Yoga teachers that despite their preaching of humbleness and humility, displayed a patronizing and arrogant attitude. Does Yoga really preach surrendering the ego? Is this possible? And if so, are those teachers in error?

“There is a common opinion in the spiritual community that estrangement of the ego can lead to personal development, but the reality of things is just the opposite. Self denial is the very force that feeds the ego. The more we punish it the stronger is grows. This position is a typical western confusion between humbleness and humility that are key concepts in Indian religion but not necessarily related to Yoga. We have no way of measuring these concepts, one man’s humility is another man’s arrogance. The Yoga Sutra (a core Yoga text written by Patanjali circa 200 BC that contains 195 sayings, insights or meditative thoughts) does not state humility as a value, but it does advocate action that is anchored in introspective investigation.”

“The problem in the west is that Yoga and asana (Sanskrit for posture) have become synonymous. In California, Viniyoga is called mini-yoga because a Yoga practice is usually referred to as asana practice and does not include breathing and meditation practices that can lead to introspection. The physical practice is associated with arrogance: “I do these many asana that I perform with perfect form, stretching and stability”. Even my teacher’s (Desikachar) daughter took in 380 asanas in 4 months, though this was in a classic teach-student setting with a young and able student. The western yoga teachers that you can find in the gyms also present a formidable repertoire of asana. I focus on the average people, not those that come from a background of fitness or dancing. To them I suggest focusing on a small number of asana.”

“Another difference between east and west lies in the fact that in the east people do not take things personally. For example, a teacher might offend a student but the student will continue to obey. The student will not claim that his ego is offended, but will utilize the teacher’s input for growth and development. In the west we are more doubting, sensitive and have a fragile self-esteem.”

Working with the Ego

If so, then what is the true essence of Yoga? What are its objectives?

“In India the following analogy is used: the ego is like a blind man, it can move in different directions but it cannot see its objective. The ego has an agenda, it is a survival mechanism. It has no vision, it works instinctively but not intelligently. Awareness, on the other hand, is likened to a cripple. It cannot move but it can see and grasp things, register and understand. The integration between ego and awareness gives birth to harmonious and intelligent action. This is the essence of Yoga.”

Sadly, Yoga as experience today, does not offer an alternative lifestyle, it remains an additional activity in the already noisy life that we live. I am not sure that many people would like to use yoga for introspection or as a means to recognize change. People are satisfied saying ‘I would like to change, but without too much effort’. People would like to reduce the stress in their lives without examining the source.”

“As I mentioned earlier, Yoga is not interested in denying ego, but in developing the ability to effectively express it. Yoga is interested in the “I”. The “I” is an essential element in communication. I could not communicate with you without a clear sense of I and without the ability to observe my relationship with myself. Yoga focuses on the human core: how do I relate to my body, is it healthy, how do I manage my energy – through thought or feeling, how do I contain my embarrassments, how do I make choices, how do I introduce clarity into my life. The ego, from a Yoga perspective, is a complex object which includes aspects of thought, emotion, feeling and behavior.”“Self observation is more difficult in asana. To progress towards introspection, our practice needs to be more reflective and the key tools to achieve this are breathing and meditation. Breathing practices can replenish and balance our energies. Closing the eyes during the practice also serves a purpose, introspection is easier without the distractions of the surroundings.”

“This brings us to the question of what it is that we wish to examine within ourselves. The self that Yoga addresses is not a cosmic, god-united self. Yoga addresses a personal self, the one with whom we have a daily relationship. When we have developed an understanding of our relationship with our own ego, then we can begin to investigate our relationships with others.

Thinking beyond the posture

In your approach, a Yoga teacher is a semi-psychologist. What are your objectives, as a teacher, what are the questions that you ask yourself during a lesson?

“Yoga, maybe as opposed to modern psychology, is interested in surfacing the problem but not digging beyond it. Yoga doesn’t ask why, instead it focuses on how I can be more effective on coping with the situation. As a yoga teacher, I try to think beyond the posture into how it is internalized. I continuously explore my relationship with myself and with my students. I ask myself who the individuals facing me are. I feel that the fact that a person attends a Yoga class indicates that he is confident and trying to better himself. He is more interested in improving his life than in strengthening the forces working within him.”

Can Yoga practice improve western society at large?

“No, but I think that people practicing Yoga can have an affect. The introspection offered by Yoga enables us to understand the way we live and where change can be effective. Western society is searching for meaning, and in the UK, for example, 86% of the people do not go to church – this creates a cultural & spiritual vacuum which Yoga can fill.”

“In addition, the field of eco-psychology which investigates the inter-relationship between my life and life around me is evolving. Maybe our salvation will be found in the destructive attitude we have taken toward the planet. The attempt to save the planet has brought together people, that otherwise might not have come together.”

“I don’t think that everybody will be practicing Yoga in the future, but I do believe that tools such as Yoga can assist people in taking care of themselves and of the world around them, in being more productive and creative. Once people find their center and develop their self-esteem through Yoga, a change process will have already begun. “

The change Harvey is describing is not a drastic one. Much like the posture – where he is searching to create a little motion in a lot of places, so in life, he hopes for small changes and feasible short-term objectives.

Harvey believes that the future of Yoga is in the west. Western psychology, the emphasis of western society on the pluralism and the individual value system, as opposed to the Indian culture, a person’s ability to understand his role in a community can prove to be fertile ground for the development of Yoga. Yet Harvey warns that we should not lose touch with the core spirit of Yoga.

Harvey was introduced to Yoga in 1972 when he realized that he was unable to sit quietly for a single minute. His wife found an ad in the newspaper and they both attended their first Yoga lesson. Harvey’s visual memory from that lesson focuses on the teacher’s large and rounded stomach as it shrank inward and then extended as it filled with air while the teacher remained standing on his head. Harvey got out of that lesson feeling good, and that feeling encouraged him to continue seeking the source. When I ask him if he has found the answer he replies that if he had, he would probably have retired to an exotic beach. He concludes saying that “What’s important is not to find the solution itself, but to identify the mystery and to continuously touch it and draw strength from it”.

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