med Petri i Kovalam, februar 2004
1. Biographical questions
2. Yoga "Blue Book" questions
3. Questions about different astanga styles
a. Clarifying questions (by Alexander
1. Biographical questions
"Juha Petri Räisänen."
"36 (born 1967)."
"I used to play ice hockey for a long time. I started when I was 6 and stopped playing seriously when I was 18. I continued to play for recreation for about five years. As a teenager, I was almost considering going pro and I was much bigger at that time, 15 kilos heavier and much stronger, lifting weights every day. Spiritually, my parents were atheists, so I didn't have any kind of spiritual background. When I was 16 or 17 I read my first spiritual book. It was by Krishnamurti, and after that I started to be a little more interested in yoga and all that. I don't remember what book it was. It was not mine, it was my girlfriend's. That girlfriend had a big effect on me, because she used to go to a Steiner school, and her parents were more spiritually awake, so we often had discussions about spirituality with them and I was always against everything.
I became a vegetarian when I was 15 or 16, mainly because of these animal rights' things happening at that time. I was against killing animals; that was the main reason I became a vegetarian. I don't know; I was quite sensitive: When I was 9 years old I knew that I wouldn't go to the army when I got older. I got soldiers and stuff like that for my birthday and always exchanged them for something like footballs. So when I was young and playing ice hockey I was just living a normal, Scandinavian life: drinking all the time and smoking, this kind of unhealthy life. But also vegetarian. But you know, at that time we didn't know anything about vegetarian food, so we ate pizza and all that.
I also used to play drums in a punk band. Lots of performances. I still play and mostly sing in a band. I also write lyrics. I am singing this kind of Mongolian, Tibetan style - different throat-singing styles with whistling sounds and throat sounds. I learned that in Finland and also in New York. They have one throat singing community in Finland, in Helsinki, and they bring bands from Mongolia and Tuva. I don't really have enough time for that though. I should practice all the time."
"Full-time yoga teacher. Nowadays, I don't have a home. I travel most of the time, but I am still co- director, along with Juha Javanainen, of Astanga Yoga Helsinki, even though I only stay in the summer and when Lino is there. I give my responsibilities to two women, Virpi and Marke, and also Juha, so they are the main teachers now."
"I started when I was 22, I think it was in 1988. I did some hatha yoga before, just maybe for half a year. I did this raw food workshop when I was 17 or 18, and after that I did one reiki workshop. All this raw food and reiki happened because my friends signed up for the workshops and didn't go, so they called me and asked me to go there for them. It was not really my idea, but it started to have an effect on my life.
I started doing yoga because I just wanted to try it. Maybe because I read this Krishnamurti book and my girlfriend was a little bit more spiritual, and her mother actually went to the first astanga yoga workshop in Helsinki. It was with Derek Ireland and Radha Warrell. They had this retreat center in Crete, Yoga Plus. They still have it, but Derek passed away three or four years ago. He was around 50. Cancer. He was like an idol for me. A really strong guy. I used to play ice hockey, but he was really strong and flexible. Ice hockey players are not flexible like that. My first stretching ever was in yoga class. Before that we did some kind of warm-up, but not really stretching, and I was very stiff. It took me more than one year to get into lotus position. Before astanga I did some hatha yoga, but in a very light style. I went to a class once a week in Helsinki. I didn't really understand what they were doing, but one thing I understood was how to relax the body, and I think that was important. So I started to kind of observe myself and my body, when I had tension in my body and when I relaxed; that was the big thing. Otherwise it was too light. There were too many older women in the class. It was a kind of western hatha yoga. In India, everything is actually hatha yoga, also what we are doing. Hatha, raja, karma, bhakti, everything is the same.
So, my first astanga teacher was Derek Ireland. I practiced with this group who started with Derek in the first workshop, and my first practice was the full-primary series. All primary. And very fast. At that time, the style was much, much faster, and I was really sagging after the practice; the next day I couldn't walk. We had this practice every Tuesday at a Steiner school, and I was always so sore the next day. For the first five years I practiced only once or twice a week, but it was always full primary. We did half vinyasa. And the first time I went to Crete, we did practice twice a day, morning and evening. At that time they did the same in India: twice a day, also with Guruji."
Which teachers inspired you the most?
"Of course the first was Derek Ireland, and then Lino came to Finland in 1994, when Derek was too busy in Crete. So Lino came, and he really teaches this different kind of style: slow, meditative and focused. He became my teacher then. In 2000, I went to America for the first time. I stayed in New York, where I got in touch with Eddie Stern, who I think had a really big effect on me. His style of teaching and talking, and also how he doesn't advertise or anything. No internet page, no e-mail, no information. It is like everything is against this commercial system of yoga in America. He is really good. If Derek was kind of physical and fast with big muscles, Lino kind of slow, meditative and focused, Eddie is a more spiritual and almost religious teacher. He has a temple in the yoga shala. A real one. And he does pujas every morning and chanting, and almost every month he brings Indian bands and groups to perform in the yoga shala. So for me it has all the time been going more and more in a spiritual direction. I also started to do puja every morning. It is a kind of Hindu offering with prayers in Sanskrit , and garlands of flowers, and fires, oil lamps and incense sticks. It is different from chanting because it is really religious. It is a meeting with your Guru or God every morning. It has a very nice energy. Even if you - like me - don't have a religion. I am kind of open. To me it is more like observing and almost like a kind of research for different religions and different feelings. It is really meditative. It is meditation. The connection with God is the real meaning of meditation. So puja is really meditation. I meditate every morning before practice. So sometimes puja is meditation and sometimes, when I don't have all my puja stuff with me, I just do meditation. And I also try to meditate when I practice."
What would you consider to be the ideal time for practice?
"The ideal time is between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. That is vatta time, the most spiritual time of the day. Krishnamacharya, the Guru of Pattabhi Jois, used to wake up at 1:30 a.m. When vatta time starts, he started to do his puja and asanas and pranayama and chanting. They say he was so loud with all this chanting and ringing bells that the whole village woke up."
2. Yoga "blue book" questions
How many series are you currently doing?
"I am still in third series. It is a tough one. I did almost all of the third, but when my son was born five years ago my practice really went down a lot. Of course, that's normal. I focused on that for about two years, and then I started to develop my practice again a little bit. And now it feels good! I am back on third series. I have many injuries in my back, wrist, besides others, due to my background. When I started I was so stiff that I injured my hamstring, and the right side took five years to heal and the left side took three years to heal, and it was so painful so every practice was like hell. Of course I tried to take it easy, but you lose your patience and start to push, so the first practice after it went away was like "Ah, is this yoga?" "This is yoga - no pain!" At that time we were pushing so hard. We didn't know there was relaxation in the asanas; there was always strength. Maybe that is the way - you need to learn. Usually you make mistakes. If you have a good teacher, a good Guru, maybe they teach you before you injure yourself. That is very rare. Usually people injure themselves and then they ask the teacher what they should do."
What is your favorite asana?
"My favorite asanas are the ones that are the most difficult for me. Like back-bending. It really feels good when you start to open your chest. Also the asanas with the leg behind the neck are nice, even if they have been difficult. After ice hockey my thighs and hip were so stiff, but now I start to feel better and better. So the most difficult are the best."
Do you have any "hate"-asanas?
" I don't have hate-asanas anymore. I had hate-asanas, like utthita hasta padangusthasana. I never looked forward to that one. It made so much tension for my hip and was just painful. When I had this hamstring pain it was so painful to stretch the leg. But now it feels good. No hate-asanas anymore! The hate asanas is that you hate yourself. You are fighting with yourself, you hate yourself. It is ego. You are trying to do something when you are not ready. So, somehow, you really hate yourself. You are fighting with yourself and your obstacles and you are not really balanced with yourself."
what extend is yoga guiding your everyday life?
"I was already a vegetarian when I started practicing astanga. When you get to know yourself a little bit better, then maybe you get rid of some of this hate. Then you maybe start to feel something deeper; I call it a kind of holiness. I think that this holiness is the goal. You start to follow this kind of spiritual energy, and you do everything according to how you feel from this energy. And I think that is yoga. You start to feel this energy and it is your guide. We can call it God if we like. It is a kind of spiritual guide and you just follow it. It is holiness. You need to find this. It gets stronger if you follow it. I don't know where it leads you. I really try to be honest with this energy. Being honest is one of the most difficult things. You always try to follow yourself, cheat yourself even. We could also call it an inner way, compared to the outer, physical world. I try to follow this energy. It is nothing else. If I need to read some books, the energy shows them. If I feel something, I try to trust this energy. It is known as intuition as well, but actually we say that it is our Guru. We have two Gurus: One is your teacher and one is what you feel with your heart. Your heart is your own Guru. So you try to follow your heart, which is also Guru, and also God. They say you should follow your Guru, because your Guru has seen more than you. If he is Satguru he has experienced God. You can also say that your heart has experienced God, but you just need to find it or purify yourself so you can really feel it. So after you find your heart you can follow it. It's funny: When Pattabhi Jois speaks of Guru you never know which Guru it is. Is it heart or is it Krishnamacharya?"
Could you tell a little about your practice with Guruji?
"I went to Mysore for the first time in 1997, and now I am going there for the fourth time. I haven't practiced that much in Mysore, but I have been practicing with Guruji in America, many times in New York and in Colorado together with Richard Freeman. Richard Freeman had a little effect on my practice too. Just his way of thinking about the practice, how your body moves, the earth and space energies and how it affects you and how you ground yourself with your hands and feet on the floor. I also took one workshop with Rodney Yee in New York. He was teaching Iyengar yoga. A Hollywood teacher, but even so, he seems to be a really honest person. I felt that this guy was kind of a yoga idol. Actually I saw Rodney at a workshop with Pattabhi Jois. He was quite stiff; he has big muscles. But yoga is not the asanas. Yoga is more yama/niyama than asana and pranayama. When you are doing asanas and pranayama, yama and niyama comes naturally. When you start to understand yama and niyama you become a yogi. Then you start to live a yogic life. But first you need to take this practice and purify yourself, then your life changes. That is the connection with God, and it is already in niyama, the kind of inner strength. So when you start to understand yama and niyama then you start to follow the energy. Before that, yoga is just exercise. I did yoga as a physical practice for a long time, and then one day I didn't want more asanas, I just wanted to practice every day and do yoga. And then all the practice changed. You become more humble, humble with the teachers and humble with the practice, and you really start to respect the teachers and the practice. Before you were fighting and pushing and hating. So the goal of the practice becomes totally different."
3. Questions about different astanga styles
you tell a little about the difference between Eastern and
"When you read the new astanga yoga books, they always say 'astanga yoga', but actually they show only the primary series - which is more like 'yoga chikitsa' - but they always call it 'astanga yoga'. They put a lot of effort in the strength of the practice and how to develop the primary series. Lots of strength. I think the biggest difference between the Indian and the Western style is that Indian people do a more spiritual practice and western people are doing exercise. You can also see it in the practice: In India they try to save energy and do everything in the most simple way and in Western astanga they try to do this very fancy way of yoga with hand-stands and lift-ups and all that.
And in India they use more breaths, they breathe more times during the practice. If you read Yoga Mala you will find more breaths than if you compare with Lino's book. They breathe more to save energy and at the same time the breath shouldn't be too long when you are practicing. It should be of middle duration, so if you really try to take asanas with one breath, then maybe the breath is too long. But of course, when your body is ready for that, then you can do it easily. But if your body isn't ready you just try to breathe for 15 seconds and it is too long. In a way, you could say that in India they have more of an inner alignment and in the Western world the form needs to be perfect. In India the form is important, but it is not that important. So it is more important what is inside than what is outside. You can also look at different students, very flexible and very stiff students, and sometimes you see that the stiff student is doing more yoga than the flexible, because the focus is there. So even if the body is stiff there is still inner alignment. The body is not ready but the mind is on the right way."
If Westerners have learned the yoga in India, then where
does this difference come from?
"We are not the same. India is the most religious country in the world. Compare it to Finland, where nobody really believes or respects anything. In India you can still see the respect and the religion. There is a big difference. But of course we are learning, slowly, this kind of inner alignment. Yoga is very popular in the West, but when you read the magazines you see that they really make it in their own, commercial way. Now they have yoga-aerobics, yoga-anything. But maybe that is a gateway. Actually, Pattabhi Jois saw Krishnamacharya's demonstration in 1927 and was so impressed about that, that he went to practice the next day. So that is the way. You see the form, the body and the beauty of yoga and maybe you get something from that. There is concentration, there is form and there is strength. It is like when you see people meditating: You see that there is peace. When you see asanas you see peace, strength, form, all this. And that was also my first interest. I saw this strong man and his students. I was thinking that lotus position was some kind of trick and that you just needed to put you legs in a certain way to make it. My knees were just facing upwards so I thought that I didn't know the trick. I was always thinking that I was stiff, because I was always stiff. For me, it took seven years of practice before I started to feel flexible. I don't know what kept me going all these years. I felt inside that when I became more flexible I would be more free or something. And that it was good for me."
How did you first experience Lino's style?
"With Derek we did full primary in one hour. Really quickly. When Lino came, his practice was very, very powerful and at the same time slow. There was more strength than before. It was like in his video. He showed how to lift the body up and how to jump back. We didn't do that before. Before Lino, we just crossed the legs and jumped back, like beginners. Lino showed us how to use the breath and the strength and the movement. Also, with Lino we did the opening and finishing mantras for the first time ."
To me, Lino's style appears to be really quick.
"You know, it is not the style that is quick, but that there were so many people in his class. The same thing happened with Guruji. When Lino was there in 1988 and 1989, there were maybe ten people in his class, so it was much slower. When there were 130 people. - you know how much time it takes to practice - the yoga shala fits only twelve people, so 130 people took maybe ten hours. So that is why it got quicker all the time. But it was slow before, and when Lino came to Finland, it was really slow. For the same reasons as with Guruji, the practice with Lino is a little bit quicker now. There are so many people. Off course, Guruji also says that the practice needs to be quite quick to get the heat and purification going, but I think that he is talking more about this hatha yoga practice, because that is very slow and you don't get any heat, so I think he means a different yoga style than astanga yoga. But, of course, there are some people who practice too slowly. They are thinking so much and it takes forever. But when you are doing vinyasa, you use this breath and you are constantly moving with the body. That is the thing. So with Lino it was quick because there were so many people."
Is there any specific reason why we are doing exactly
five breaths in the asanas?
"I think that before it was actually six, so five is not the original. Also it used to be six Surya Namaskara A and six Surya Namaskara B. Six is kind of the number. So now, they are doing three of each, because it is six. And before it was twelve, so everything was divided with six. I don't know why it is five now. And, actually, now it is three Surya Namaskara A and B in Mysore."
Where does the different styles come from?
"You know, every teacher takes something from the Guru, and also, they always put something of their own in the practice. John Scott added this thing with bending the knees a little and keeping the neck more or less straight. That is his own thing, it's not really like that in Mysore. If you bend your knees in Mysore they scream at you. Lino also has his kind of own style. You can really see it. It is very powerful, lots of strength. But you know, also Lino says, that that way was how Guruji was teaching to him. It is not really his style, it is what Guruji was teaching. And now, many guys like Richard Freeman and Chuck Miller have been taking a little bit from Iyengar yoga, like the alignments and the very high degree of detail. Astanga yoga is more like: You do the asanas, and from your practice you start to understand how to do the asanas. There is not that much talking. It is more that you are just practicing and you find out. In Iyengar yoga they explain everything: How the skin should be, how the muscles and bones should be. I think everybody takes something and they put some other things on to that. So it is developing. And that is why you should always go to Mysore to see what the origin is. Well, actually it is not the origin anymore, because they are always changing it, too. Many things have been changing, like for instance in Janu Sirsasana, where it used to be 'head to knee', well it is not 'head to knee' anymore, it's 'chin to shin'. And the dristi used to be the nose, but now it is the big toe. With this change there is a big difference in your back if you are bending the head down or if you are pushing your chin forward. I think the old way is more therapeutic for the back and the chakras, because when you push your head down it stretches your back. Not only from the lower back, it opens all of the back. If you think about Pachimottanasana A, B, C and D, the first one is kind of an easy stretching when you grab the big toes, it opens the upper back. The next one is a little bit more, then a little bit further, and in the last one you press the chin forward so it opens the lower back. With A, B, C and D you open all of the back and also all of the chakras. I don't know why they changed it, because the old style is more therapeutic. Now it is all the same: the stretching is all in the same place in the back. You can feel it in the morning: if you push your head down in the morning when you are stiff, you start to feel the spot where the back is stretching and also you start to feel the heat, just in that spot, so it is really opening the muscles and the chakras from there. Otherwise, if you always push your head down the stretching is always in the lower back. Maybe one day people will start to do this again, this kind of old-style of astanga."
When we choose the teacher, we choose the style, too?
"Yes. You know, in America, people actually move to follow
the teacher. Many people live in Boulder, Colorado, because
Richard Freeman is there. Some people move to Encinitas because
Chuck Miller is there(1). They move because
of the teacher."
Is the effect of practicing a specific style of astanga
the same on everybody?
"Yes, I think so. I think it is the same with everybody. What is the difference between people? We have different constitutions. I cannot follow vata-people - they are too quick. I have too much kapha. The difficulty with these vata-people is that they don't understand other people, because they are quicker than other people. They don't understand that somebody is slow. But slow people understand that somebody is quicker, because somebody has always been quicker. In the practice it is terrible because if you are slower you cannot do it as quickly as vata-people want you to. You will injure yourself very quickly. That is the difference between people; they have different doshas. I haven't heard anything about this from any teacher, but it is the same with what we eat: We shouldn't eat the same when we are different. And we shouldn't practice the same. The same asanas, but not really the same, in different ways depending on their dosha, from the practice. However, the similarity is that everyone can benefit from the practice. In that sense, the effect of the practice can be the same for everybody."
But then we really have to trust our teacher, right?
"Always trust and respect the teacher, whatever he says. If there is something wrong, then maybe you need to change the teacher. You need to find a teacher that you really like. We should have only one teacher, and of course it would be best if we could just live in Mysore and study with Guruji. But now there are many teachers, and you can fly anywhere and find your teacher and I am sure that anybody can find a teacher, if not for the rest of their lives then at least for many years."
Could you give a few good advices for beginners?
"Respect the teacher, but follow yourself, too. Try to feel for yourself. Nowadays there are many teachers, and sometimes they are wrong. They try to make you do something, so you need to be sensible with yourself. You really need to be willing to do your practice. It needs to feel good. You should practice in a way that you feel good all the time. If you need to take a break, then take a break, and if you want to practice, practice. I think this is the most important thing. I think, that when you start doing yoga and you start listening to yourself, you stay in yoga, because it is so deep. If you don't listen to yourself, you need to stop, because then it is too hard. You need to have the right attitude. If it doesn't feel good, I can bet you are doing something wrong. Patience is required as well because if you don't give time for change, then maybe you don't change. It is also very important that you respect the Guru. If he tells you something, it may be true even if you don't understand it. You need to follow the teacher. When you listen to yourself, everything comes naturally. It comes from inside, like a kind of will to do something. Try to be sensitive. That is yoga."
a. Clarifying comments
Petri sent these clarifying, additional comments by email
to Alexander Smirkin, when he was translating the interview
into Russian in January 2007:
Q: You said, that one of the aspects of Richard Freeman's teaching is "How you ground yourself with your hands and feet on the floor". What did it mean? It have physiological (alignment asana) or energy (prana-flow) meaning?
A: Richard Freeman spreads the toes and fingers to get a stronger feeling with the ground and better balance especially on standing positions. That's physiological. And for sure it will give a better prana flow from the stable strong asana!
Q: You said, "Some people move to Encinitas because Chuck Miller is there". Are you sure? As far as I know, Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty's yoga studio place in Santa Monica, LA, 100 miles north from Encinitas (1).
A: Yes, you
right, I have never been there. Tim Miller is in Encinitas,
Chuck and Maty are in Santa Monica (1),
Richard Freeman is in Boulder, Colorado, Eddie Stern is in
New York. They are all a good reason to move and have a great
Q: You said, "So John Scott added this thing with bending the knees a little and keeping the neck more or less straight". Is this bending the knees during Padangushthasana and Paschimottanasana and postures like these? And "keep the neck straight", does that mean looking at the big toes?
A: I'm not sure in which asanas he is teaching this, but I've seen it mostly in Trikonasana and Parsvottanasana. John Scott said he got the information from Pattabhi Jois, but this seems a little hard to believe, since Guruji was always screaming at people to straighten the knees!
Q: You said, "In India they use more breaths, they breathe more times during the practice". Is this about additional breaths in vinyasas or about more breaths in asanas? And then "so if you really try to take asanas with one breath, then maybe the breath is too long". Is this about one breath during jump through and taking a sitting pose, for example Marichyasana, and the like?
A: In India they put more focus on the harder asanas (Marichyasana D, Supta Kurmasana and so on) where they keep the students in the posture longer to get more benefit from it. The vinyasa is otherwise the same, and they still use one breath to get into the pose.
(1) Chuck and Maty later
moved to Hawaii, they are not in L.A. any more.
Editing done by Wambui Njuguna; May 2011