Luke Jordan is a direct student of Sri K Pattabhi Jois and one of a very small number of teachers worldwide Certified to teach the advanced practises of Ashtanga Yoga. He is also a keen student of Vedic chanting, Sanskrit and Yoga’s cultural heritage and philosophy. He holds a Masters degree in Indian Religions – specialising in the Samkhya and Yoga philosophical systems. For many years Luke has travelled the world teaching classes, workshops and studying with teachers both within and outside the postural tradition in order to deepen his understanding of the many facets of this thing we call Yoga.
What brought you to yoga?
I became interested in Eastern spirituality and philosophy when I was quite young. I remember coming across a Hare Krishna on the street. I didn’t know that you weren’t meant to talk to them (!), that you were just meant to pass by, because of their being considered strange by ‘normal’ folk. So I got talking to this guy and I found what he was saying very interesting. He gave me a book and it really spoke to me on a level that I hadn’t quite come across before.
About the age 16 or 17, the beginning of a very experimental phase in my life, I became interested in ideas and philosophies exploring expansion of consciousness and I got very into music which reflected these ideas. The Beatles, for example, talked a lot about the ideas of Eastern mysticism and seeing something called reality that was beyond our everyday experience.
When I went to University I was primed with these philosophical ideas of the East and I got really into Taoism and the Tao Te Ching. These ideas formed the basis of an underlying self-inquiry.
Then one day I randomly met a friend on the street who suggested I should try this thing called Ashtanga Yoga. So I went and I just loved it. I felt connected with my body and the breath and it was just what I was looking for. It just slotted right into place. As a physical practise, I had tried going to the gym, but that just wasn’t for me. Yoga just felt so right and I started practicing everyday right away.
Did you have any idea of yoga before you started practicing?
I had seen yoga in books, I had seen Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga so I had an idea of what the asanas looked like. Also before yoga, because of my interest in Taoism, I had been practicing Qi Gong – it’s a little different to yoga but has the same principle of mind-body-breath connection. It is also an exercise that is about the deepening of internal experience rather than focusing on outside bodily appearance.
Did your idea of yoga change when you started practicing?
I’m not sure that my idea changed so much, it was more that I absorbed myself even more in trying to discover what exactly this thing called ‘yoga’ was. I began reading whatever I could find on the subject, not only the postural aspect of yoga but also the philosophical.
I have always been interested in studying and I have a nature that goes completely into whatever I’m interested in. Similarly, when I was interested in Taoism I was completely into learning everything I could about it. I still have a deep love and respect for Taoist ideas. Actually, I think there is quite a close similarity between the philosophies of Taoism and some branches of Indian philosophy. The descriptions of the sage in the Bhagavad Gita, for example, closely resemble the sage of the Tao Te Ching.
The more I read into yoga, the more I discovered how deep this subject goes. There is seemingly no end to its various branches and ideas. It is such a rich living system of learning and knowledge. It is like the Indian Banyan tree with roots and branches spreading in all directions, with branches extending out to form new roots, which in turn extend out to form new branches!
What is your background in Yoga?
Since the beginning I have practised the form of Ashtanga yoga. I have also tried a couple of other yoga methods. I’ve taken a few Iyengar classes, for example, and I found it to be a very educational form. I think Ashtangis can learn a lot from attuned Iyengar practitioners or, for that matter, from anyone who practises moving the body consciously with a deep internal awareness.
Did your lifestyle change when you got into yoga?
Slowly, slowly. I was a student at University when I started doing yoga so I was living a typical student lifestyle of denatured food and intoxicating drink! My interest in yoga was precipitated by a health crisis and I was looking for some kind of practise to give me a sense of healing, grounding, strengthening and which would support my sense of personal inquiry.
The yoga practice had, from the beginning, a very grounding effect on my life and was a perfect corollary to the existence I was leading. There had been a kind of a mismatch between my philosophical interests, the inquiry into ‘truth’- a sattvic intellectual leaning- and my tamasic lifestyle. I feel like the rajas of the practice, slowly over time, has helped change my lifestyle, bringing it more into line with my philosophical and intellectual leanings. I guess you can say it has created more of a union, more of a yoga between the outer and inner.
And did you notice a change mentally, or did you find your attitude change?
Its hard to say.
I think that mentally you could say that yoga made me stronger. A discipline and focus came through the yoga practice that I found I could apply to almost anything. You could say that the mastery of yoga asana (although you have to be careful when using the word ‘mastery’), the consistent immersion in and development of the yoga-asana-as-practise, and the concentration and focus that that requires, leads to the ability to ‘master’ whatever you choose to put your mind to.
You have been sharing some chanting with us this past week after practice, has that always been a big part of your practice?
The philosophical aspect of yoga came for me before the asana and that remains the strongest interest, the inquiry into – for want of better words – ‘Truth’ or ‘Reality’. That was always what interested me the most. What the asana aspect of the practice has done for me has helped me live more in accord with a way which supports that philosophical inquiry. It is a continuing process.
You travel to India quite regularly to practice. What inspires that and do you find that an important element of yoga for you?
I go to India quite a lot, yes.
Before I went to India, I don’t know what it was, perhaps it was the romanticized images of India that came through the 60’s or 70’s music that I was listening to, but I definitely had a calling to go there. There was always this association with the spiritual East, I felt like maybe there was something of deeper meaning there than the apparently empty materialist quest that I saw in our society. More than anything it was just a strong feeling in my heart. I didn’t need much encouragement to go, all I was waiting for was someone to give me a kind of push and it was my teacher, Hamish Hendy, who first suggested that I go to Mysore to meet Guruji and Sharath.
Being in India for the first time was both a terrifying and magical experience. Overall, I just felt a connection with the place, its ideas and even its alien-ness. Although I am more familiar with India now, there is still something each time stepping off the plane into that thick humidity and polluted, dirty air (!) that feels like coming home.
I have spent a lot of time in Mysore and also enjoy travelling to Goa (in particular to spend time with my friends and teachers Rolf and Marci). I love to go to Tiruvannamalai, which is the home of the Holy Mountain Arunachala and the Ramana Ashram. India is such a huge country and I feel like I have only just scratched the tip of the iceberg.
You travel a lot around the world teaching yoga, do you notice anything different between the different students in the different places?
What I see is that on the outside there are differences between people everywhere, primarily cultural differences, but in yoga people are the same. People have the same struggles and people connect with that same mysterious something in yoga that leads them to a sense of connection. I’m not sure what it is, it just seems like there is a little bit of magic in the yoga practise and, in that, the differences between people in different parts of the world dissolve.
Would you like to talk a little about the inspiration behind the Astanga Yoga Summer School?
One of the things that I have observed happening with yoga coming to the West is that it has been subsumed by our economic system, capitalism. Along with capitalism comes its bed-fellows commercialism and materialism. As yoga has become increasingly subsumed by this system it has become packaged as a product in the spiritual marketplace and the presentation of the package can become, at times, more important than the actual yoga itself. I don’t think people necessarily get the truest representation of yoga when they are consuming it as a product that has been marketed and sold to them.
The first people who went to India in search of yoga, the first people who studied with Pattabhi Jois for example, were part of the counter culture. They were seekers, they were looking for an alternative to their social system and they connected with yoga as part of that counter-cultural search. Yoga in the West has become disconnected from its counter-cultural roots and many of the people who get involved in yoga now are more consumers than they are seekers. Yoga is an addition to their sense of self rather than an inquiry into the Self’s very nature.
Yoga has become one consumer lifestyle option among others and with that comes the products and the billions of dollars that are spent each year on the yoga consumer market. People see that you can sell products to people to make money through doing yoga. There is a whole merchandise system that goes along with yoga now, and while it is not in and of itself wrong, it is a little contrary to my understanding of the underlying philosophy of what yoga is. I don’t think that yoga is there to create consumers. I think, if anything, yoga is there to wake us up from a system that encourages us to be mindless consumers, it is to develop awareness and lead us into an inquiry of our true nature.
It is perhaps a difficult balance to strike and I am fully aware that for many years I have probably been part of the problem, rather that part of the solution, or that I have even been aspiring to a bigger part of the problem!
So the question arose in me, How can I do things differently?
I had been reading about Gandhi and his idea that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. We had been to a restaurant in Holland that operated on the concept of trust, where you give what you feel the meal was worth to you, and that’s what triggered something in me.
Around the same time I came across an article about ‘giftism’, which has to do with this very same idea of a gift economy whereby services are provided as a gift in exchange for an offering rather than a set price. I thought this would be a nice way to offer yoga classes as an alternative to the ‘workshop’ culture and would provide the opportunity also to give students an immersion into a ‘no bells or whistles’ traditional Mysore-style format.
People can go to a weekend workshop and buy that experience but then not continue to practice afterwards. I wanted to do something differently, which was to get people to come everyday for at least two weeks and then invite them to give in exchange what they felt the experience was worth to them. There is already the tradition in India that you would give your guru or teacher dakshina after a period of study. So what we are doing isn’t really that different.
This is one way in which I’m exploring how it might be possible to stay in alignment with the principles of yoga while offering classes in the commercial ‘spiritual marketplace’. There is, I think, a definite balance to be struck and I think it is for each of us, as yoga providers, to inquire into how exactly we might best strike it so that, while being offered in a time and place far from its origins, we continue to offer yoga in a way faithful to its roots.
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