Interview: Rama Jyoti Vernon PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Felicia M. Tomasko, RN   

Chaos, Change, Identity, Yoga And Hope

The economy, global conflict and the swine flu are only a few of the constant messages of uncertainty that can haunt us. It can be overwhelming if we take in too many of these images. We do have a choice. According to the teachings and philosophy of Yoga our perceptions play a role in our responses. Our ability to modulate our perceptions come from practice. Through practice we can mobilize ourselves and our communities to shift our thinking and our actions toward building hope and community rather than wallowing in fear and despair.

If anyone understands the power of this, it is Rama Jyoti Vernon. Rama Jyoti Vernon is one of this country’s senior teachers and a stalwart elder who has been a catalyst for projects including the California Yoga Teachers’ Association, which founded Yoga Journal; Unity in Yoga, which later birthed the creation of the Yoga Alliance and numerous other projects. She grew up in a family of spiritual seekers who regularly hosted teachers from around the world, a tradition she has continued throughout her life. During the Cold War she served as a citizen diplomat, bringing groups of ordinary people to dialogue across borders. She has utilized Yoga as a tool for mediation through the Center for International Dialogue in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and other conflict-ridden areas.

Rama Jyoti Vernon is a regular keynote speaker at events including the International Association of Yoga Therapists conferences. Currently, she teaches through the International Yoga College, based in Sedona, Arizona, where she is an inspiration to many. We engaged in a conversation about the current state of affairs and what we as yogis can do today.

Rama Jyoti Vernon
Rama Jyoti Vernon

FMT: We’re constantly being bombarded with messages from all sides that invoke fear. Without escaping into a cave, how do we deal with this?

RJV: I do a lot of traveling and teaching of Yoga teachers who come into class saying, “What can I do? My students are immersed in fear; they’re in panic over what’s happening in our country and our lives today.” I answer, “Well are you in panic?” Their reply, “Yes.”
As Gandhi said, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. We need to find that peace inside ourselves first so we can be a beacon of peace. We have to hold that inner peace around us. If we can do that, it influences those immediately around us as well as the vibrational atmosphere of our country and our planet.

FMT: What’s the most important thing we can do?

RJV: Our own practice. It’s even more important to make sure you keep practicing when you teach; when you’re teaching quite a few classes, you must practice otherwise you’ll go dry. Mr. Iyengar says teachers should practice twice as much as they teach. Teachers pick up on the collective vibration so we have to be strong. The practice of observing any panic or fear that comes up and looking at it from a place of nonattachment is important. If we can sit quietly or do the asana [posture], we can process what’s going on around us with greater ease. Don’t you think?

FMT: It comes back to the practice. We can know everything but if we’re not actually practicing…

RJV: Then it’s intellectual gymnastic exercise.

FMT: And we can get spun out if we’re not actually practicing.

RJV: Exactly!

FMT: Then we try to intellectualize where we think we should be without fear or panic but it’s not translating viscerally.

RJV: It doesn’t translate into the cells of our body. Look at what’s happening: We’re under incredible tension. In times of danger we raise our shoulders and pull our neck in like a tortoise. I’m finding out there are so many people in Yoga with chronic neck tension because they’re afraid. How can a teacher help others into a more peaceful state if they themselves have not experienced that peaceful state?

FMT: When we put the mat away and are out in the world, our senses get bombarded and we have to learn how to handle it appropriately. I believe in being fully informed; I don’t want to bury my head in the sand but I don’t want to watch or listen to the news right before I fall asleep. If I do, then it’s all I dream about.

RJV: Oh Felicia, I’m so glad to hear that. I believe in being informed but not excessively so. During the primaries I started getting hooked and I was hooked during the inauguration. Then after watching the media, as is typical, turn against the newly elected president, I finally decided to put the television on vacation because then I wouldn’t be tempted. I felt it could be addictive.
I wanted to see news related to foreclosures because I invested in properties years ago and recent events have affected us very deeply but I finally said, “That’s it.” I can watch every so often but you’re right, it creates more hype to watch and become more addicted to the news. When we listen to it right before we sleep, it works on our brains all night through our active subconscious and then we wake up with fear and panic. With layoffs and foreclosures and people fearful of whether they will have a job tomorrow, doctors say there’s a huge rise in heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and other illnesses.

I feel it’s important for people’s health to take a media fast, at least periodically. I read the paper on the plane and watch the news at the airport but I’ve been so much happier since I turned the TV off.

FMT: It’s a fine line. Fear and panic can distract us from events that may be going on behind the scenes. It can also prevent us from participating positively: rebuilding, helping people find new jobs or living life more sustainably. Maybe we could look at how we are stuffing ourselves at the all-you-can-eat media and news buffet. As an alternative, we could look at ordering wisely.

RJV: If we choose wisely, we have amazing opportunities now for our own spiritual growth. People are embracing voluntary simplicity, scaling down their lives, downsizing their homes, giving clothing away, growing community gardens, coming back to family, sharing homes or renting out rooms and finding their communities. Kids are moving back in with parents and parents are moving back in with children. In my social circles we all want certified organic foods which can be expensive. Even in Sedona there weren’t previously community gardens. Now they are becoming more prevalent. People are frequenting farmers’ markets and supporting local businesses.

These are incredible practices coming out of uncomfortable situations, and I speak as someone strongly affected by the current sit-
uation and living on the edge. I’m going through this and saying, “What is really important?”

FMT: The trap that we have to be wary of is that it’s just as easy to get stuck in the loneliness as it is to find community to counteract the loneliness.

RJV: My heart aches as you said that because I think of all the people who don’t know how to create community, who don’t know how to reach out. I think of all the children who live with discord in their homes. There are heartbreaking stories, like of the man in his nineties who couldn’t pay his utility bill and the company shut off his utilities in midwinter. He didn’t know how to reach out and ask the neighbors for help so he died of hypothermia.

This may be a time to help heal those gaps. Some people aren’t handling this very well.

Others find their own inner strengths to ride these waves of change. Most people don’t like change. We can get stuck in this mode and even give up or we can see the excitement of our lives changing. It just depends on what is inside of us and how we can deal with it more positively. Once people start talking about it in this way, it becomes a positive contagion rather than the negative of fear and panic.

FMT: We have the choice of how we respond to anything. Even with stress – stress comes down to our perception of our situation.

RJV: Exactly!

FMT: Howard Selye, the stress researcher, called "eustress" the type of stress that gets us up in the morning and motivates us, the deadline that gets us to push for something or the joyful stress of a pregnant woman carrying a child. But stress is dangerous when it doesn’t let up and it wears our body down. It’s dangerous depending on our perception of the situation, when we feel hopeless, when we don’t know what to do next. How do we actually change our perception because the world is about change? Societally, we were in a period of complacency and now we’re in a period of intense change.

RJV: If you think about this historically, during WWII, everything went into the war machine and people had to make great sacrifices. In the 1950s, we had a time of peace and rebuilding when people had things they didn’t have before. We had an abundant time in the 1960s. In the 1970s and ‘80s, we experienced some lulls in our economy, then terrorism in the ‘90s and all the sudden in the new millennium finances have kept people in a state of constant stress.

I remember walking into an airport after 9/11. At first airports were like ghost towns before things returned to normal. When there were people in the airport again I noticed what would happen when a speaker announced the terrorist alert had just been elevated from yellow to orange or orange to red. As I watched people (because as Yoga teachers we learn to read the body), their shoulders would tense up and their chins would come in for protection. I thought, “How long can people go on like this without getting ill?” This is not the positive type of stress we were talking about. This can lead to a shorter lifespan.

Some women in their fifties and sixties have recently shared with me stories about losing their jobs in real estate. They very candidly told me that if they have to work at a mediocre job that doesn’t fulfill them they don’t want to live. They wouldn’t kill themselves but they say they can see a future disease that will take them out because they don’t want to keep on living. That was a real eye opener for me. When people get to a place of no hope the subconscious creates an excuse for the body to let go of itself because they don’t feel hope or feel they have a future. This tells me that we have a lot of work to do.

FMT: This brings up the question, “What are we identifying with?” Are we identifying with the title, the excitement, the number of zeros in the salary or having a particular type of job? Do we measure ourselves by the make of our car or the brand of shoes we wear? And when it comes to work, what does it mean to do menial work? Why don’t we value washing dishes, digging in a garden or performing a service?

RJV: We can’t always do what we like, I learned from my mother, but we can always like what we do. I practiced Yoga wanting to be in the Himalayas. Having five children, I was very much a householder and a housewife, so I learned how to turn my kitchen into my temple and my sink into my altar. I could stir the pot of soup and be totally present as a form of Vipassana meditation. I learned to incorporate the practice into my life. I learned to do everything with such love. I was inspired by a monk from the fifteenth century, Brother Laurence. He said he felt more inspired and closer to God when working in the scullery than when he was in the prayer stalls with his brother monks. This made me see our practice is everywhere, it’s not just somewhere. And God is everywhere. There is a story about Sri Ramakrishna falling asleep in front of the Kali temple. The keeper woke him angrily and said, “How dare you fall asleep with your feet pointing towards the altar?” Ramakrishna said, “Oh I’m so sorry. Please kind sir, point my feet where God is not.”

Do you remember the story in Siddhartha of the aesthetic who went into the court and ended up losing his discipline and the king banished him? He became a riverboat master and he became illumened in that job. We can clean houses and it can be a devotional practice. We can gain so much energy and feel light by doing something with love. No matter what we do, we can love it.

We need to stay in the now, as Eckhart Tolle puts it, The Power of Now. Where the fear and panic comes from, I think, is when we look too far ahead. If we can come back to the present, that is the Yoga practice. In the present moment, we can’t go into fear. And we can turn that moment into a devotional offering to a power that’s greater than ourselves.

FMT: When we think about this, the reality is that uncertainty is part of life. Now after this period of complacency and abundance and identifying with all the trapping of the material world, we’re being faced with societywide change. This is the very thing that the teachings of Yoga address: What are we identifying with and how are we able to deal with the forces of change?

RJV: We need to practice. We need to go to whatever classes will help us. We need to come closer to whatever are our religious beliefs, whatever we choose to worship, since it is all part of the same source. We need to hold onto whatever touches our heart. Whenever we feel ourselves going into that fear, because fear is based on the future, we need to come back to this present moment, the threads that hold us to hope.

If we are sitting here thinking, “I won’t have enough food tomorrow,” we’re not being in the moment. In the moment we don’t have the fear, the temptation that we have when we project in the future. I’m speaking from experience; I’ve used my practice to come back into the moment. When I do, I can look with excitement at the changing of the times.

Chaos was a Greek goddess who was stricken from the pantheon because chaos was too frightening to people but chaos has to precede change. The old ways crumble and we haven’t seen the new come into effect and be born. To swim across the lake we’ve got to let go of the dock. That’s really frightening.

Yoga practice is so wonderful because there are 100,000 variations on each pose. Once we get comfortable in one pose then the next variation asks us to go out of our comfort zone into the unknown. The unknown becomes the known and then the new variation will say, “Now I want you to go to the new space.” By making the unknown the known we extend our comfort zone and can more easily deal with change.

The teacher says, “Okay, now you’re comfortable in headstand but I want you to do it away from the wall.” Each student faces fear, overcoming it eventually in their own time and then they can do headstand in the middle of the room. Then the teacher says, “Now, I want you to drop back.” That brings up fear because in Yoga the back body represents the unknown, the part of ourselves we can’t see.

FMT: That makes me think about how widespread back problems are right now.

RJV: It says something about people’s great fears, the things that they don’t want to look at and everything they’ve been suppressing in their lives. The invisible must become visible before it can become eradicated or transformed. Yoga is compressed evolution. It purposefully creates turbulence that brings up pain and confusion. I see what’s happening in our world as a collective Yoga. It’s bringing up so much that’s stored in people and now it gives a wonderful opportunity for healing and transformation. There’s nothing to cling to really. We can’t cling right now.

Many of us have dreamed of a collective society where people help one another instead of competing with one another. I feel something positive is happening. We move into it much more quickly if we can let go of wanting to cling to old ways. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, one of the causes of pain is abhinivesha, clinging to life or fear of the unknown. It’s such temptation to do that right now.

FMT: I think it becomes even more important for us to practice together right now in community and for the benefit of community.

RJV: I think people need community now more than ever. People who are practicing need to come together and share what is coming up for them. The practice moves things out of the cells of our body; it’s like taking a bath daily. Through practice, we can change the atmosphere around us. Through the practice, we can ignite excitement in others in this period of change and help them overcome fear through our own example. Being an example is extremely powerful. Look at how Gandhi was refining qualities in himself that he wanted to see in society. If it weren’t for him going through those tremendous austerities and refinements of those qualities within himself, independence may not have happened.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, one of the causes of pain is abhinivesha, clinging to life or fear of the unknown.

I love this quote: “Nonviolence is the finest quality of the soul.” Almost anything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that we do it. Anytime we have fear or panic, it’s a form of violence to our selves.

FMT: That’s a powerful thought. Fear is a form of violence and clinging and holding on to the fear is a form of violence.

RJV: Isn’t it? And I say this as a person who has lost everything in the real estate crises and I can still say, “Isn’t this a wonderful time?” I feel I can say that because of all these years practicing Yoga have forced me to go from the known to the unknown and develop a lack of fear of the unknown. I feel this faith is what I’ve been given by Yoga practice. When I’m too far ahead of myself I get into fear. I have to know we are cared for, we are taken care of and magical things can happen.

FMT: It’s important to remember that we haven’t failed if we feel fear. It’s just a reminder to come back to the practice.

RJV: The second sutra is the most important in all of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Yoga Chitta Vritta Nirodha. Storms arise in the mind and right now there are so many storms. The first word Patanjali gives to still the mind is abhyasa and he defines it as continual practice. I define it as checking the downward pull and the compression in our bodies. Physically we feel this as we lift and extend the spine, releasing the compression of the spine. I remember Mr. Iyengar once saying, “I don’t know what comes first, the compression or the depression.” I see that in peoples’ bodies – they’re pulling in their shoulders, feeling like failures; they’ve lost their jobs, lost their property and can’t do what they’ve always done. It’s a life change for everyone.

And when I say checking the downward pull, I mean checking our emotions because our minds want to go to that terrible place where the emotion just feeds on itself. I feel we have to just keep practicing – a continual practice – like you said.

FMT: A continual practice with continual support of other people continually looking at creative solutions.

RJV: Continual solutions. You said a key word there. One woman I met who is a realtor, she said “I can’t sell any properties except for foreclosures and there’s not enough money to support my family, my husband is losing his job, so I’m going to bake bread and sell it to the stores here.” She was excited. I was astounded. She said, “I really want to do this. I’ve been doing something I haven’t really enjoyed and now I’m going to do something I really enjoy.” So we don’t know what will open for people if we just relax the standards of the path we’re on.

FMT: It comes back to what are we identifying with.

RJV: Right. It’s so humbling. That’s what Yoga is about. It’s a form of reorientation. I feel our practices over the years can help us define the new relationships that our world is calling upon today. If we can see it in that positive light we will not succumb to the despair and depression which blocks even the miracles that can happen in our lives.

For more information about Rama Jyoti Vernon, including her teaching schedule, visit:

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