RICHARD ROSEN began his practice of yoga in 1980 at the Yoga Room, in Berkeley, CA. Two years later he began a two-year teacher training course at the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, from which he graduated in 1983. In 1987, with his good friend Rodney Yee, he opened the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, CA, which operated until 2012. Richard has written numerous articles and reviews for national yoga magazines, and is also the author of five books, four of them published by Shambhala. His fifth book for Shambhala, Yoga by the Numbers, is due out in the Spring of 2022. Richard lives in a 115-year-old bungalow in beautiful Berkeley, CA.
Q: What was it that got you hooked on yoga history/philosophy?
I’ve always, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, been a bookish person. When I attended the teacher training program at the Iyengar Institute in SF from 1982 to 1985, our teacher required us to study what seem to be the Big Two traditional texts of US training programs, the Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gita. At the time I started the program, I’d officially been a student for about 2 years, and knew practically shunya (that’s Sanskrit for zero) about the tradition. Reading the YS, I soon understood that it presented a system of practice, and “systems” were right up my alley, I very much liked the idea of how systems made the world a, well, systematic, orderly place.
So the YS was my main entree into the field of yoga scholarship (to be clear, I’m NOT saying I’m a scholar, what I mean here is I began to investigate the work of recognized yoga scholars). I realized that as a teacher (fingers crossed at the time), and a serious student, that I would need some idea of the tradition I had joined, the same way many people are interested in their family background. Now the “yoga tradition” might better be called the “yoga tradition jungle,” not only because its more than 2000 years old, much of it not well documented, but also because it’s generated countless battles between its scholars, and it’s hard to know, not being a scholar yourself, who to believe. Regardless, I loved participating vicariously in these high-brow dust-ups, half the time not really understanding what the fuss was all about.
But in time, with lots of study, something my bookishness very much enjoys, the jungle became less tangled. But then, at some point now lost in the proverbial mists of time, I finally emerged from behind my stacks of books, and realized that book study, while valuable as a first step, was not as valuable as self-study, since the source of all the texts “out there” is in fact “in here,” in the Self. This I believe is the real meaning of svadhyaya, one of Patanjali’s niyamas. It literally means study of the Vedic texts, but I think that’s only half the equation. ALL study should to some extent be self-study, and then all self-study made the foundation of behavior, and in the case of yoga teacher’s, their instruction.
Everyone should, I also believe, take what they learn from the study of the old texts and use the material to construct their own “philosophy,” their own unique way of looking at and moving through the world.
Q: How do you think understanding yogic thought impacts our experience on the mat?
There’s essentially one question that practically all yoga schools hope to answer: Who am I? I think many students are somewhat surprised by the proposal they don’t “really” know the truth about themselves. This question should ideally be at the center of every practice, regardless of what the outward practice is all about. Everything experienced during practice relates to the Question, whether it’s physical or emotional. Of course, our practice on the mat is a sort of microcosm of of lives. Too many students equate “yoga” with that 90 minutes class attended x number of time each week. In fact, I strongly believe that “yoga” is woven into the fabric of the Universe, so that our movements are asanas, our breathing pranayama, and as Ann can explain far, far better than me, our words are mantras.
Q: What, if anything, do you think we share in common with the original hatha yogis?
As we’re all aware today, thanks to the work of Mark Singleton and other scholars like Jason Birch and Elizabeth de Michelis, we understand there are significant differences between the tradition and modern yoga. But we all have the one important thing in common, and that is the intense, untiring search for the Self. Fortunately, the one big difference between us and many of our yogi ancestors, is that we use our practice to celebrate life, to cast as wide a net as possible to bring all who are interested into the fold.
Q: What is one of the most surprising things you have learned about the original hatha yogis?
The original HYers neither sowed nor reaped, there existence to a large extent depended on the “kindness of strangers.” They had to venture out each day to the nearest town or village to beg for their daily bread (which is why stories of yogis living isolated in the Himalayas, are just that, stories; if you’ve ever trekked in those mountains you know that food is scarce). I imagined that they just went out and hit the first house they came to for a sandwich. Wrong. There was a
hierarchy of begging and the yogis had to follow very strict rules, one obvious reason being to avoid becoming a nuisance. Yogis actually started begging from their relatives, sort of Introduction to Begging 101, before they hit strangers’ homes. They couldn’t if there was smoke coming from the chimney, which indicated the family’s meal was still in progress and wasn’t to be interrupted. There’s a good deal more. Some beggars weren’t allowed to use bowls, they had to receive the food in cupped hands, others weren’t allowed even that luxury, they had to eat ... well, anyway, when you sit down to dinner this evening, be sure to appreciate not only the food, but the dishes as well.
Q: Does yoga philosophy hold any practical value for our lives today?
This is a question that might make a good book. First of all, which “yoga philosophy” is the questioner referring to, there are at least a couple dozen schools of yoga, six or seven major, the rest minor. Secondly, there are some scholars that caution us about using word “philosophy” when talking about India. When a Westerner sees that word, all sorts of ideas can pop into her head that have nothing to do with India’s teachings. The question’s implication hides a Western bias, that “philosophy” is all in our head, there’s no such thing as existentialist triangle or logical positivist brahmari. But there’s no such thing as yoga “philosophy” without a practical side, a way that the teaching is embodied and lived. So the answer to this question is: which “philosophy” are we talking about? Let’s say Patanjali’s problematic dualism. We all of us in our state of self-ignorance experience the world in a dualistic way, I’m “in here” and everyone else is “out there.” That has some value for approaching the world, though he whiffed on the ultimate state of the universe, which is monistic, there is no “in here” or “out there,” it’s all for one and one for all, as in Vedanta.
We actually directly experience yoga philosophy’s “practical value” directly, each time we take a class at Mountain Yoga. Asana doesn’t exist in a vacuum, or at least it shouldn’t. Maybe we can talk about this some more on 30 October.