interview with joan ruvinsky

This interview was conducted in Montreal by Jean-Claude Leblond for Yoga Mondo, a French Quebec yoga magazine.

YM : Where did you study yoga and how did you come to teach ?

JR : Ultimately, there is only one place to study yoga, and that is in oneself.

The notion of “studying” yoga risks leading us in a false direction. Yoga is not fundamentally something one can know. One can know the history of yoga. One can know the texts of yoga. One can know the philosophies of yoga. One can know the practices of yoga. But yoga ultimately is not something one knows, but rather something that one is. Certainly one of the three pillars of Kriya Yoga, according to Patañjali is study, svadyaya, the study of oneself, the study of the scriptures. But the knowledge gained from study does not culminate in the knowledge of an object, of an entity in space/time, or of a set of principles, but rather culminates in the knowledge of the knower itself. In all the ancient venerable traditions, some form of study is basic, but the ultimate the recommendation obtains: “Know thyself.”

Of course there are many entryways into yoga, and I, like most others, came in through the posture doorway in the 1970’s. Over the course of years, I was exposed to a number of yoga lineages, and participated in a number of training programs, some of which gave diplomas or certificates at various levels, conferring, presumably, the competence to teach the basics. All of the serious teacher training programs covered postures, technique and contraindications, pranayama, a modicum of meditation, a basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, and so on and so forth.

In 1986, my first teacher, a Montrealer, Krysia Gallien, literally forced me into teaching by going away to give a retreat, abandoning me to her students. I had never had any intention of teaching. Her method was the sink-or-swim method. Later, with Swami Shantananda at the Montreal Integral Yoga Institute, with Claude Maréchal through Viniyoga, and in the United States, through Integrative Yoga Therapy, I made my way through a myriad of methodologies and orientations, all of which added to my knowledge of yoga while credentials accumulated in a folder in my filing cabinet. But simultaneously, a parallel stream was unfolding in my peripheral vision, an objectless inkling, unarticulated by the various trainings where it was felt that something was missing. Knowing about yoga did not match my inner, seemingly wordless experience.

YM : Given this disparity between your training and your experience, how would you define “yoga”?

JR : We had been taught to say that yoga was the integration of body mind and spirit. We had been taught to say yoga is the unification of the individual self with the Self. It appeared the words indicated that we were not somehow whole and there was somewhere we had to get to that would integrate us, unify us, make us into how we are supposed to be, not how we are right now. Yoga would make us somehow different, more-than. For some time I lived with the paradox of what I had been taught to say about yoga and my inner experience of the search having already ended. There wasn’t anything to get. It was as simple as: “This is it”.

YM : What was the link for you between the yoga of teacher trainings and what has been characterized as “non-dual yoga” ?

JR : For quite a while, the true teacher for me was nature. I went to the mountains. Solo wilderness retreats rather than yoga retreats were where the deepest insights unfolded spontaneously. So yoga was revealed, rather than studied, lived rather than known. In retrospect, the only definition of yoga that corresponds to this back-door approach is that yoga is the healing of the misperception of separateness. There is nothing to join or yoke with anything else. There is not-two. It is a single seamless whole that has never been fragmented in the first place, except by the mind.

It was through meeting Jean Klein, a European who had spent years in India, that the practices of yoga and the revelations of Being finally came together. Non-dual yoga constituted the integration of the two seemingly separate streams of knowledge and of knowing.

Although the practice of body-sensing yoga seems to use the classical postures of yoga, the practice unfolds not as a set of objects to which the body conforms in a willful manner but rather as a way to provoke a field of sensation that appears in awareness, revealing simultaneously both its source and its expression. Body-sensing yoga is the end of separation.

YM : How is this non dual yoga taught differently from hatha yoga, for example?

JR : Our yoga gatherings, whether in the format of weekly encounters or in retreat settings, do not arise because “I” have something “I” want to transmit. We get together in the spirit of inquiry and what seeks to emerge is allowed to find its expression in our midst. Teaching appears to be happening, but it happens entirely as a consequence of openness and curiosity, which calls forth dialogue, asana, pranayama, yoga nidra, and listening with nothing to listen to.

It is in listening that true yoga, or wholeness, is revealed. This wholeness, or non-separateness, cannot be taught. It can only be lived. And we abide in welcoming, as the various forms of sensation, emotion, thought and belief show themselves, noting their presence as coagulated forms of the ambient, non-localized Presence that is. Sometimes we laugh a lot, too.

YM : Recently you have shifted more toward leading retreats than giving weekly classes. Is there a rationale for this change in emphasis ?

JR : The format of retreats of two or more days permits a deepening that is often not possible in the shorter, hour and a half segment afforded by the weekly encounter. The mind can easily reassert itself, having had a little break from its habitual patterning, as soon as the familiar external environment presents itself. It has to be tricked into a new set point, or baseline functioning. During retreat, we are depriving the mind of its habitual distractions so we can observe its functioning. Checking our e-mail or having a snack is no longer an option for not listening.

Like the flywheel of an engine that keeps rotating after the motor has been turned off, the ego continues to assert its appointed task of separation for a certain time. Although the process takes place outside of time, the uncoupling of the ‘I” from its fusions is often better served in an environment where the continuity of waking, sleeping and dreaming can be observed.

Neuroscience now recognizes brain plasticity as measured in long-term meditators. So in spite of philosophical claims of timelessness, clearly the actual human mechanism is sensitive to duration.

Additionally, the longer retreat allows intense inquiry into seeing what is underneath surface conditioning, even if it is another layer of conditioning. With encouragement, eventually awareness turns on itself and recognizes itself for what it truly is. What we are engaged in is not band-aid yoga but true recognition of our fundamental nature.

YM : All this sounds as though it is not for beginners.

JR : On the contrary. It is my deepest hope that we always maintain our status as beginners. My interest is not contributing to accumulations, but rather to the stripping away of all concepts having to do with progress or becoming. The progressive path is involved with self-improvement, of getting better. The direct path asks us to go beyond the notion of a limited self. Its focus is on self-inquiry as a means of eliminating what we are not. Whether through practices or everyday life, the yoga of non-separation acknowledges the absolute perfection of how we are right now, and of what is arising just as it is, in this very moment, moment to moment, in the vast field of Consciouness.

YM : How do you integrate kirtan into the teachings you are offering? It would seem to belong to quite a different stream of yoga than that of self-inquiry.

JR : Traditionally, kirtan, the call-and-response chanting of the names of God, is considered to be a practice primarily associated with Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. The repetitive and fairly simple phrases of Sanskrit serve to quiet the analytic mind and to open the heart. Moreover, in the top-down approach to creation, all manifestation is said to derive from pure sound, whether the OM or the Word. Through the repetition of the phonemes of this sacred language, we climb the ladder of subtler and subtler sound into the realms of higher and higher vibration, leading toward that which is beyond manifestation.

It is true that devotional chanting is not often associated with the yoga of self-inquiry. I chant because I love to chant. Chanting is a natural extension of singing in the shower. It is a celebration of life, of all that is. My experience of kirtan is not as a means to an end, but rather the end product of joy expressing itself in form. In this sense, it is no different from posture, from pranayama, from any of the traditional practices of yoga, which are customarily thought of as tools to help us to get to somewhere we are not. In fact, the inverse is the case. In this perspective, kirtan becomes the manifested form in sound of the absolute.

YM : What would you say to those who would feel uncomfortable chanting Hindu mantras? Is there a religious aspect of your kirtan ?

JR : Pure sound, beyond language or sectarian interests, beyond this or that idea of God, is an expression of gratitude for all that is. Pure sound is an offering of the self to the self. If one’s religious orientation entails separation from the divine, then, pure sound, resonating in the heart, is an offering of the individual to the totality. Kirtan is beyond special interest groups. And its sound resolves into pure Silence, its very source.

YM : Today, given the negative reputation and connotation surrounding the word « guru », how do you see the role of « spiritual master » or « yoga master » ?

JR : There is a misunderstanding about what is meant by the term « guru ». The guru is a function, not a person. Ramana Maharshi, one of the great modern day saints of India acknowledges a mountain as his guru, the mountain Arunachala. The literal meaning of guru is “remover of darkness”. And the function of the removal of darkness can take many forms. A car accident can be a guru…or cancer, or a miscarriage.

That being said, the role of a guru in the form of a person can be invaluable, albeit not absolutely necessary. There are no hard and fast rules about how the misperception of separateness is dissipated, but surely a good mirror and spiritual friend can be helpful. Even a scandalous guru can be of use, if for no other reason that he or she eventually serves to reveal our illusions and our projections. A popular word in the yoga community these days is “mentor”. The function of “spiritual mentoring” has a more acceptable ring to the Western ear, but is no less fraught with the dangers of the omniscient guru. The true guru is completely comfortable in not-knowing.

What we need ultimately is someone or something to call our bluff, to say to us unequivocally, “Stop pretending”. Stop pretending that you are only your body, your thoughts, your personality, your career. Stop pretending to be a limited object in space and time, subject to birth, maturation, decay and death. Stop pretending that you do not know the fundamental nature of your being. The guru invites us to recognize ourselves beyond appearance, to be who we truly are, to be free.