A few months ago I had the opportunity to meet for the first time Gregor Maehle at the retreat he hosted with his wife Monica Gauci in Paros. The retreat was one of a kind experience and even though I have read all of his books a couple times & the practices were familiar it left a really strong impression to me… You can find more about my personal experience in this article – here.
At the end of the retreat I had I had the opportunity to catch up with Gregor and ask him some questions about Yoga in general & the practice. Gregor is an international ashtanga teacher, author of five books and he currently lives in the rainforest in the hinterland of Byron Bay where together with Monica they are conducting occasional Immersions. (Full bio at the end of the article).
You can find the Audio Version of the Interview here.
Anthony: Yoga is a traditional system do you think it can be integrated in the modern lifestyle? Is it possible without been an ascetic?
Gregor: I think it is actually very important that we apply it, because I think all of this crisis that we have on the world. Environmental crisis, co2 emission, acidification of the oceans, more and more plastic waste on the oceans, increase of mental disease in people; all of those things I actually believe they are connected. At the moment we are very much focusing on the CO2, but what’s behind the CO2 is actually what we could call unbridled materialism or greed; although it is difficult to exactly say what greed is. Essentially all of those multiple converging crises point to the fact that we as humanity have collectively lost our soul.
So I think there was a state in our history that we might have been simpler but we had our soul, and this is very much so when you look at indigenous societies. So we have lost all of that and ultimately what that points towards is that all of those crisis we see in our human society that leads us; we have destroyed 85% of the wilderness of the planet, we have killed since the 1960s 2/3 of all wild mammals, we are making everyday 60 animal species & 40 plants species extinct that means that the whole biosphere is actually in what’s called a mass extinction that is humanly caused.
And at the base of that is a spiritual crisis, and spiritual crisis means that we have lost ourselves, lost our path, and so when you look at indigenous societies the function of the human being wants to be the keeper of the garden, the guardian of the biosphere, so this is what we have lost, we live and act as if the whole biosphere is a shopping mall and we can take whatever we want and we are not giving back a lot in fact we are only giving back death and devastation.
And so, I think that yoga might not be the only path, but yoga is a path at that helps people find their spirituality back and what that means is that we come to a point where we experience ourselves as human beings, as integral part of the biosphere, and that we have a duty here, and that is the duty to not act only in the interest of ourselves & humanity, but in the interest of the biosphere as a whole, there are no life forms that we have the right to make extinct and all have a purpose to be here. And so I think yoga can give us that experience to come back to fulfil a function that we should actually fulfil.
Anthony: So do you think we should go back to the state of an indigenous society? Or is it possible to apply it to the existing society?
Gregor: Look, I think it would be a fantastic thing if we could do that but personally I don’t think going back would be practical or possible. I think there may be a lot of people who would be prepared to do that, there is actually a movement which is called rewilding movement. People are really trying to essentially live like indigenous people. But I think it won’t catch on as a mass movement, that it will always be marginalized.
And I think that it is probably not practical, therefore I would think we would have to find ways to go forward while at the same time we act from an authentical spiritual position, were people have a spiritual experience and from that feel they have a duty towards the whole.
The thing is also, there is also the question at this point if it is already too late to go back to an indigenous society, because I think that we have done so much damage to the biosphere that we can’t actually save it or turn around without the use of technology that’s it.
Anthony: So in your Samadhi book there is a small sentence at the start of the book and it goes like this:
“Many modern practitioners only practice asana & believe it to be yoga. And because they don’t understand the entire process ultimately they achieve only health. Health is not to be dismissed as unimportant but most animals in the wild are healthy. Even if you are healthy you will still die a healthy animal, unless you make some additional efforts to develop your humanity & spirituality.”
What would be those additional efforts? What would be the steps for someone who would like to take a step further than asana?
Gregor: I think what is really important is that when one starts yoga or when one has a thirst to go further, it is important that good quality information is available. And it is because of that, that I have actually written all of my books, and particularly with that in mind I felt that it would have been really good when I started yoga if something like the Samadhi book would have been available at the outset. Because the thing is, if you don’t know where you are going or where you want to go you will end up somewhere else.
It is really good in the beginning that you would have an understanding of where you are going or where you want to go, what is possible what is available so you don’t get stuck early on. For example, I too have probably gotten stuck for about a decade or a bit longer in almost exclusive asana practice or had an obsession with it. And so I think it is really good in the beginning if all of the information is available were the yoga is leading to and also that the techniques are taught.
Anthony: Do you think you can put Samadhi in simple words for the people who don’t know what that is?
Gregor: There are two types of Samadhi who are very different. One is called the “Objective Samadhi” and the result of the Objective Samadhi is to experience the world as it truly is. So what that means is that you don’t relate to the world simply from your conditioning. We all have what is called conditioning which is essentially a robotic programming that we have from our past that stops us from being truly alive and capable of experiencing the world as it truly is. So the objective Samadhi makes us capable of that, it let us experience the world without our conditioning.
The “Objectless Samadhi” is a Samadhi which shows us what we would call the deep self; that is our true nature. So the Objectless Samadhi makes us aware of the fact that our deep self, our true self is infinite, eternal and quality-less; what that means is that we know from an experiential point of view that we don’t die when the body does. So we have a body and it is a privilege to have a body but we are not the body, it cuts this identification with the body.
Anthony: Do you have any tips, advice for new practitioners? What would you like to have known 40 years ago, when you started to practice?
Gregor: One would be that I wish I would have understood the process of Samadhi, that there are 8 different types of Samadhi and I would have really like to really understand where Samadhi leads to. And then I would have early on put more emphasis on the so called high limbs of yoga, so that is one thing. I think it is really good to have an understanding of that early on.
And the other thing is that of course to relatively early on start what I call an “integrated compound of all yogic techniques”. To give you an idea, for example asana is structured from certain elements which include bandha, focal point, breathing & a particular sequence; and all of those structural elements would be itself or would be themselves in your breathing and your meditation with other methods coming in the foreground.
In yogic breathing for example, respiratory aspect is the foreground also in asana and meditation; in pranayama it is the foreground but the bandhas are still there, we are using mudras and we are using mantra. And we go into the yogic meditation the visualization comes in the foreground, the breathing is still there, the posture is still there, the mudra is still there, the mantra is still there. So if I could go back I would have start early on practicing this integrated scientific compound of those techniques were the same structural elements repeat themselves.
Anthony: And can you explain why it is important not only to do asana or why is not the only thing you have to do? Why is it not enough?
Gregor: Look T. Krishnamacharya said that from the practice of the yogic limbs you get the benefits relative to those limbs. That means he said you do get from asana the physical benefits. And you do get some other benefits as well but I think very often in modern yoga the other benefits are getting overemphasized, the stress relief, we do get more relaxed, we do get more present; but you know to really get deep respiratory benefits which we call pranic benefits and mental benefits you have to practice the other limbs as well.
So the reason why this is so important particularly those three: the asana the physical training, pranayama the respiratory training and meditation which is the mental training; is because the so called conditioning which for example consists of trauma, that you may have or had in your life something that you have experienced that really limit your vital self-expression today. For example believing in yourself, or self-worth, self-esteem, just like a belief in what you can’t do, what you are capable of doing, what you would like to do.
So there are all these traumas, and it is important to realize that those traumas are stored or let’s better say that they are encrypted simultaneously on the physical, the respiratory starter and mental starter. For example if you had something really traumatic it would limit your breathing pattern, certain areas which you can’t breathe or your breathing will be shallow, or you would have panic attacks.
Similarly you have certain things in your mind that repeat themselves like nightmares and in certain situations they will cause horror. And similarly the same trauma is also in physical tissue and here it may distort your posture. And it is important to simultaneously work on all of these areas.
Anthony: Do you have any advice for the people that already doing yoga in a studio or self-practice? Especially if there are doing Ashtanga because there is all this pushing and being hard on their bodies and I think it is a bit different from your philosophy and the way you practice.
Gregor: One advice I would like to give is to see to get as much quality information that you can get, that’s why I wrote my books for example. And then another thing is to not fall for personality cult.
Anthony: Do you mean something like a Guru?
Gregor: Yes. I think it is important to question teachers and to also hold accountables, not to base this in “I want to believe that this person knows everything”. I had an experience 20 years ago were I was with a particular teacher and I noticed this teacher was doing strange things, and I regularly told this friend of mine who was also with the same teacher, that the teacher was doing those things. As a yoga teacher/guru you are not supposed to do these things and then she was like “yeah this is true” but he is our guru; and eventually she said stop to talk to me about this. And she eventually said to me “look your approach is too difficult, I just want to find somebody that I can surrender to totally and they fix all of my problems in return”.
So what that means from a psychological point of view, that we are refusing to grow up and that we are having certain issues from our childhood with our parents. When we are children we have this need that our parents take total care of ourselves for ourselves and fix all of our problems. And then when we are not completely mature you are projecting those on teachers, on leaders (e.g. political leaders) etc.
This psychological mechanism is called projection and especially when it comes to a spiritual teacher we have to be very careful with that, it is a deep longing within the human being that we find somebody that fixes our problems for us. But I think in reality our parents were the last people who may be had that responsibility and when we grow up we have to take responsibility for ourselves.
The problem is that we are also not doing our teachers a favour if we project that on them, because on the short term yes we do lift them on a pedestal and they may feel really good about themselves that they are worshipped as deities, that they are godlike, but I think ultimately they will fall from that pedestal and it won’t be a good fall. That’s why a teacher in the short term is flattered if you show them devotion but in the long term psychologically it is not actually a good thing as there is no benefit for either side.
Also as a teacher, it is important that if someone comes with an attitude like that, that you show yourself as fallible, that you show yourself as mortal, and then if the student tries to put you up in that pedestal that you immediately step down. It is very tempting, very seductive for a teacher to stay up on that pedestal but ultimately this will serve as the undoing of the teacher.
Anthony: And what about the people that are doing a self-practice and they don’t have teacher? What would be some sources of good information?
Gregor: Well it is exactly for those people in mind I have written the books. So my books are predominantly for students who don’t have access to a teacher.
Anthony: Alright, let’s move on to something different. We have seen you are involved in the makings of the documentary “The Yoga Industry”, what’s your opinion about the yoga industry in general? And what would be the key points that you will talk about in the documentary?
Gregor: Look years ago when yoga became a mass movement, it probably started in the beginning of 2000, that yoga really exploded. You know I am practising yoga since the late 1970s and during the 80s people started to approach me and said “oh why don’t you teach”. I said “I can’t teach, I don’t have an idea, I don’t know what it is”. And so I continued to practice, but even so when I started teaching in the 1990s I never expected that it would turn into a mass movement.
And in the beginning of year 2000 it just started to explode, and people were saying “this is so amazing that yoga becomes really big”, and I was saying “let’s see whether this is a good thing, because certainly there would be negative effects that may outweigh the positive effects”.
I am still not sure if the negative effects outweigh the positive effects, because one thing is clear, in the moment yoga became a mass market, and because we live in a capitalist society the market will then determine what would be the outcome of the product.
And so a lot of the people that are today in yoga are simply there to just have a stretch, or to just have a little exercise because they don’t want to do some form of exercise that is too vigorous. Years ago I heard a quote from an interview of Julia Roberts that was saying “that she can’t relate to the yoga philosophy that she is only into it for the yoga butt”. So that’s where the trouble starts, and the thing is that probably the majority of the people are doing yoga are just there for the physical benefits, the shape of their body, even for beautifying, and yoga is now sold to women as a method of beautification.
And because of that, and because those people are the majority, those people are now determining which teachers are successful. So we have now a new generation of teachers that are very successful, they attract a lot of students, they know how to market themselves in social media and they have really jumped on this bandwagon of that’s only about the body. Successful yoga teachers are selling their own range of clothes, even selling their own range of cosmetics; they even work as travel agents so you can book trips to India towards the various historical sites there.
Anthony: So there is more identification with the body now?
Gregor: Yeah that’s right, in other words there is a generation of yoga teachers in the public eye that are even increasing selling yoga as a product, which increases identification with the body now. Where yoga used to be a path of spiritual liberation. And yoga is absolutely not against the body but yoga says similarly that the body and the mind are tools. If they are running your life then you are a slave, you need to be able to use your body and mind appropriately and not to be a slave of the body & the mind and let them run your life.
Anthony: So is there something that people that are practising can do? Do you think it is possible to change that attitude in some way? To have an effect on the mass?
Gregor: Yes, you know what can change that; is to not just teach asana. I think that asana can’t really get to a feeling of what we call “Ego Transcendence”. That means to have an experience that the sense of self becomes much larger than what currently is. At the moment most people think we are the body, so yoga can give you what we call a transcendental experience, where you experience you are so much more than the body. But you can’t really do that if only asana is taught, so pranayama and meditation aspects of yoga must be taught.
Anthony: So people must have an “Integrated Yoga Practice”?
Gregor: Yes that’s right, but of course now we have a problem. Now we have a feedback loop, on one hand we have a mass of people come to yoga that are into it mainly for the physical purposes and it is because of that they are making teachers that will meet the needs for that market. So now of course it is really difficult for us to say, that we will have to re-educate you, of course this is not something that it is really possible. You can’t forcibly teach yoga, you will have people coming that are absolutely not interested in the spiritual path. You can’t of course say you have to.
Anthony: Or afraid as well.
Gregor: Yes that’s right, the thing is that a lot of teachers are now intimidated and they are not even trying to approach that subject and I think that what’s important for a yoga teacher to stay true to the class, that he is ultimately teaching a spiritual practice. And so when are teaching we shouldn’t of course rub it into people face, but it must be there permanently as an offer and they can go into that direction if they want to.
Anthony: We can only actually make it available?
Gregor: Yes that’s right, you could for example if you run a yoga studio to have dedicated pranayama workshop/classes or meditation workshop/classes that are predetermined. Sometimes it is difficult to fit it all into a general class.
Anthony: Can you give us a definition of what is yoga, and what yoga is for you?
Gregor: Yoga is essentially a system of self-cultivation, or psychology you could say that comes out of the Vedas. I would say it is the Vedic form of ancient psychology and it is basically a path to inner freedom and independence. Because the way modern society bring us up, is to either be totally dependent on the body in which case we are only a consumer of resource; or we are totally dependent of the mind in which case we become control freaks, we become really interested in controlling all possible outcomes of what can go wrong with our lives.
In both cases, our influence of the biosphere is negative because if you look at technology and science it looks to the total control of the biosphere, the total control of everything no matter what can go wrong. What has been taught in the bible I think it is a mistranslation actually from the Hebrew, that we should make the earth our dominion, so science and technology have taken that religious mandate from the bible and have turned that into reality. So that’s the outcome of being dependant on the mind. If you become dependent on the body, you become simply a consumer and you are depleting the resources of the biosphere.
So the yoga aims for you to become independent of the body and the mind. In which case you will eventually live in harmony and in peace with the rest of life.
Anthony: Thank you very much for your time.
About Gregor Maehle:
Gregor Maehle began his yogic practices in 1978. In the mid-1980s he commenced annual travels to India, where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters, traditional Indian sadhus and ascetics. After practising with BKS Iyengar he spent fourteen months in Mysore, and in 1997 was authorised to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois*. Since then he has branched out into researching the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of yoga. He gained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied history, philosophy and comparative religion.
In India Gregor also received eight months of mostly one-on-one instruction in scripture and the higher limbs of Yoga through B.N.S. Iyengar, a student of T. Krishnamacharya, and he studied Sanskrit under Professor Narayanachar and Dr Chandrasekhar. He lived for several years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit and yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. Together with his wife, Monica, in 1996 they founded 8 Limbs in Perth, Australia, which they co-directed for 21 years. They now live in a rain forest in the hinterland of Byron Bay where they conduct occasional Teacher Training Immersions.
Gregor’s internationally acclaimed textbook series consisting of Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga, Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom and Samadhi The Great Freedom – have sold more than 75,000 copies worldwide and have been translated into eight foreign languages. Further volumes are in progress. He has been invited to many countries to teach and has contributed to and been interviewed by numerous yoga magazines.
Today he teaches an anatomically sophisticated interpretation of traditional vinyasa yoga, integrated into the practice of the higher limbs in the spirit of Patanjali and T. Krishnamacharya. His zany sense of humour, his manifold personal experiences, and his vast and deep knowledge of scripture, Indian philosophies and yogic techniques combine to make his teachings applicable, relevant and easily accessible to all his students. Apart from offering with Monica Teacher Trainings and Immersions in Melbourne, Perth, Tokyo, Byron Bay and Bali, Gregor also teaches retreats and workshops in various locations around the world.