The following is a full interview from “Journey Into Yin Yoga” by Travis Eliot
The book can be purchased here
In the tradition of “Bhakti/Devotion” Ira Jeffrey Rosen was given his spiritual name, Govind Das, which means “servant of the Divine”. His path of service and devotion is at the root of his spiritual life, to serve the Love and Spirit that lives in the hearts of all. It is from this place that his teachings and music flow. He is the owner/director of BHAKTI YOGA SHALA, an innovative bhakti-based yoga studio in Santa Monica, California. Govind Das and his family live overlooking the Ocean in the Pacific Palisades. Govind Das leads Bhakti Yoga workshops and retreats and presents at festivals and conferences in the US and internationally.
T.E. How did you get into yoga?
G. Well, I got into meditation before yoga. In 1989, I was in my first year of university at University of Maryland in College Park, and I took a stress reduction class and there was a portion of the class that taught us meditation. That was my first introduction to Eastern mystical meditative practices and I really loved it. I didn’t really continue meditating though college though, yet during the meditations in that class I felt a deep connection to quieting down the mind, and entering into the inner self through stillness. After college, I moved to San Diego and there was an Eastern Spiritual bookstore near my home. I started buying books there, and one of the books that I remember purchasing was Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Wherever You Go There You Are.” It gave me a wider perspective of the whole eastern philosophy. As well too, I had similar experiences with books like “The Celestine prophecy” and “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” I started to understand this whole other philosophy, very different than the way that I personally grew up. A couple years later I moved up to Los Angeles from San Diego and I ended up getting very sick with a disease called Ulcerative Colitis, as well known as Irritable Bowel Disease. At that time, a close friend said to me, “You should go to a Yoga class. I think it would really help you.” So, I went to this Yoga class and it just hit me, in that moment after Savasana, I knew that this was one going to heal me. I knew that this was something that I would really dedicate my life to. That’s how I got into yoga, and since then in 1996, I haven’t stopped. [laughter]
T.E. It’s funny you brought up “The Celestine Prophecy.” I remember years ago I came up to you after I had taken one of your classes, to tell you I was reading that book. You had this huge light in your eyes and said, “Oh my God, I love that book. It changed my life!” [laughter]
G. It really did, it really changed my whole perspective of life.
T.E. At what point did you transition from being a student to becoming a teacher?
G. Well, at a certain point I realized that Yoga, Meditation, Spirituality, and Wellness was the most important thing that I could be dedicating my life to. It served both my own personal healing, and my love to share it with others. I felt so touched by the power of these practices that I just wanted to dive as deep into them as I could. I was at a crossroads in my life. As I had mentioned, I was really sick and I just had gotten out of the hospital. I didn’t want to go back into the world of a nine to five business type of thing. My grandmother had just passed away and she left me a little bit of money. I was dating a girl at the time and she said to me, “You should teach yoga.” And I thought, “What?! I could never do that. Never! I’m too shy in front of groups. I could never do that!” [laughter] When she said that though something hit home. I started researching Teacher Trainings. In Yoga Journal, I found a teacher named Yogi Hari, who came from the Sivananda tradition. At that point, I made the journey to Florida, and I took my first teacher training with him. Right after that I started teaching in Florida. Then I came back to California a year later, in 1998, and took another teacher training with Brian Kest. That’s when I started to teach here in California full time and set up public classes. That was really the turning point.
T.E. Let’s shift gears into the topic of how yoga originated. Maybe you could share where it started, how it started?
G. Well, my take on it is that all Yoga ultimately originates from Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva is called the Adiyogi, and the word Adi means the ‘first of all yogis.’ He was God incarnated as a Yogi to show us humans, how to cross the ocean of Samsara (the cycle of suffering). Essentially, he taught us how to live as a human being in harmony within ourselves and within the universe as well. Yoga originated from Shiva’s absolute love and compassion for us humans. He gave us these tools to help us heal our wounds, to help us balance our imbalances, and help us unite the places where we are disconnected within ourselves. The way I’ve heard it, is that yoga has been around since the beginning of civilization, which is beyond what we can even fathom. For many many thousands of years these were philosophy tools to help us unite our humanness with our spiritual nature. So, this has been happening for a very long time. Then somewhere around 5,000 years ago the Vedic culture lived in an area of Northern India, called the Saraswati Indus River Valley. It was a culture that was grounded in these spiritual practices and the earliest of the yoga teachings. They practiced a spirituality called Sanatana Dharma. Sanatana Dharma is the universal path of how to live in harmony within ourselves, with mother earth, with food, with the stars and planets, and within our relationship with each other. All of this great wisdom was channeled through these ancient sages and passed down through a long line of yogis. Then some 5,000 years ago to 2,500 years ago we saw these great teachings blossom like the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishad teachings, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. But the origin of all of this comes from Shiva. Shiva is called Yogeshwara, which means the Lord of the yogis. It was his channeling from the cosmic realm, that was the birth of yoga on this planet as we know it.
T.E. When you spoke of the yoga tradition going back to the beginning of civilization it reminds me of Shamanism which supposedly goes back 50,000 years.
G. I really think that Siva was the first shaman. [laughter]
T.E. I like that! So, yoga starts off as this spiritual practice, at what point does it become more of physical practice?
G. Yoga is holistic and integrative. It’s the harmonization of the many levels and aspects of who we are. When we look at the Tantric traditions and even modern day quantum philosophy, at a certain point physical and spiritual are the same thing. The body has this great wisdom within it, and at a certain point the physical and energetic merge together as one. From a yoga perspective, on a physical level we create a body that is strong enough to hold the powerful electrical currents that start to awaken when we go deep into meditation and yoga.
T.E. And not to mention you have to take care of your body through the physical poses so that your spirit can fulfill its purpose.
G. Yes, and the old saying that “the body is the sacred temple,” and I agree with that so much.
T.E. Let’s talk about some of the different paths of yoga.
G. Well, in The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna has laid out the four main paths of yoga which is Bhakti, Karma, Raja, and Jnana. Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, the yoga of love, and the yoga of the heart. It is the yoga of dedicating our life to living with God and in loving intimate relationship with Spirit. Jnana Yoga, is more about using the discerning intellect to approach the Divine. It is the ability to discern what’s of the spirit versus what’s of the ego. What is capital R Real versus what is unreal, what is temporal versus what is eternal? In that differentiation, we follow that which is eternal. Karma Yoga, which is a word that Gandhi made very famous and was a great advocate of, is called the Yoga of Action. The word karma means action. It’s also well-known as the yoga of selfless service. When they say the Yoga of Action, it’s the turning of your life’s actions into your yoga practice. This is the path of living your actions from a place of sincerity, dedication, loving kindness, and humility. We recognize that we aren’t necessarily doing it, that there is a Doer that is much bigger than our own small or egoic self. When we start to live with that awareness, our actions start to take on the quality of loving kindness. We recognize that we’re all One, and how could we ever do anything to hurt anybody else? Because if we’re all one, it means that we’d just be hurting ourselves. So that’s the Yoga of Action and selfless service, which is living our lives with that dedication to serve God. How do we serve God? We do it through serving God’s children and through serving each other. We do our own part within this life to make this world a better place, or to be a beneficial energy to all others. The last is called Raja Yoga, which is commonly recognized as the Eightfold Path of Yoga. It is commonly recognized as the yoga of meditation. Through meditative practices we take the deep journey of stillness within ourselves.
T.E. How did you discover Yin Yoga?
G. I discovered Yin Yoga in my own self-practice. Not always did I feel like doing a strong Power Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga practice. At times my body would just really thirst for stillness in the yoga poses, so that’s where I first started my own practice with Yin. Then in 1999 I started to hear about this teacher named Paul Grilley. He was coming to a studio in LA called Santa Monica Yoga and giving a Yin Yoga workshop. I read the description of it and I took the weekend workshop with him. I realized at that point that the things I had been doing actually had a name, form and a structure to it. It was called Yin Yoga. Why I love the Yin practice so much is because of its meditative and surrender-based way of practicing. It’s a non-stimulating practice, in contrast to the yang-based practices which are very stimulating, Yin is completely the opposite. It’s more soothing for the nervous system. Yin practice is about slowing down and really meeting yourself in the moment. It reaffirms the teachings of Ram Das and Eckhart Tolle, “Be Here Now” and “The Power of Now.” There is nowhere to get to. It’s a fabulous and a fascinating practice to dive into.
T.E. Is there anything you find challenging about Yin Yoga?
G. It can be incredibly challenging [laughter]. The most challenging thing is just being with yourself, especially when you’ve been in a pose for three, four, five, six, seven, eight minutes. You’re feeling sensations that could be incredibly uncomfortable, or your mind is very loud and noisy. I feel like it is such a great life practice. It sets us up for being in relationship and especially in intimate relationship and partnership. In these poses, what we’re asked to do is just to sit with what is. We have to learn the incredible virtue of patience. There’s a great saying from the Vedas, “The one that has patience has the entire universe.” I really believe Yin Yoga is a tremendous practice and tool to help us cultivate that sense of patience, listening and slowing down.
T.E. I do think that humanity could definitely use more patience, myself included! [laughter] What is your favorite Yin Yoga pose?
G. That’s great. Almost every single Yin Yoga session that I practice and that I teach, I always seem to come back to the Dragon Pose. I love it because of its challenge, and I love it because it’s a direct gateway into our hips. Our hips are our largest joint in our body. There are a few different variations we can play with to access different parts of our hips and hip flexors. But to close the eyes and to settle in for five minutes, and to just watch the phenomena and matrix of all of these different aspects of ourselves just dancing with each other. I find it absolutely fascinating to watch the miracle of human life manifest, and express itself, and expose itself, all through a hip stretch. [laughter] Just a simple hip stretch.
T.E. Do you have a least favorite Yin pose?
G. That’s a great question. The one that maybe brings up the most, is the traditional yin style Child’s pose, which is where the knees are together. The feet are together. It’s a real tight and compact Child’s pose. I find when I’m in that pose, because it’s so tight and compact I find it very difficult to breathe. When I find it difficult to breathe, it can bring up a tremendous amount of anxiety and fear. On some level, it’s a great practice because it forces me to slow down and really connect with the breath even that much more.
T.E. So I know you are teaching your first Yin training. Is this your first one?
G. Yeah, this is. It’s been fabulous. We’re training students to take it out into the world to teach it, which will turn so many more people on to it in an exponential way. I really believe the world needs these practices right now. I feel it’s so important. It’s not to take anything away from the solar based practices because they’re just as amazing in their own right. But when we come away from a Yin style practice we feel energized instead of depleted or worn out. We feel light.
T.E. I know you have a strong, dedicated mantra and kirtan practice. How do you see Yin Yoga being helpful for that aspect of your sadhana?
G. I think the Yin practices really help to deepen that connection to, what in the meditative tradition we call non-judgmental awareness or the witness. It’s a part of ourselves, that is pure awareness itself, where we just watch the phenomenon of body, mind, emotions and life arise and pass on. I think whether it’s a mantra practice or any type of spiritual practice, it’s essential to cultivate that ability to watch without getting entangled in it. It’s a basic foundational aspect of all eastern spiritual practices. From cultivating the witness, we start to deepen our equanimity and our non-reactiveness to whatever may appear. In Yin practice you cultivate a tremendous amount of mind control with it, and with that mind control, we can restrain our tendencies to unconsciously react and choose a more conscious response to any given situation. This a jewel. This is how these practices work for us in our modern-day worldly lives. We take our practices off the mat into our everyday life situations, and begin to steer our lives with a little bit more intention, and effectiveness, and consciousness.
T.E. I love that because it’s so life-changing. It’s a gamer changer! What are you most excited about in life right now?
G. Well, I’m doing a tremendous amount of traveling in the short term. I’m going to be in a bunch of different countries over the next six months just doing teachings. I’m starting in Costa Rica, and then to Bulgaria, and then to England, and then to India, and then to Australia, and back to the USA all within the next six months. And I imagine you feel like this too, that yoga practice is like a bridge to connect cultures together. There’s just nothing like being with people from a land halfway across the world, sharing these practices, and so much joy and love and friendship that blossoms. To me, that is the greatest and most exciting thing. It’s so fun, just true fun to develop these friendships that come through yoga.
T.E. Yeah. I spoke, in the book, about when I went on retreat with you in Kauai and had that near drowning experience. That was a life-changing experience, but there’s nothing better in the world than yoga, music, good food, community, and travel. I mean, that trip changed my life in so many different ways. Within all the negativity that we see in the media, what we don’t see is all this positivity that is spreading across the globe. We’re yearning to be connected in a positive way more than ever. Along those lines, within all the turmoil that is going on in the world, do you have any insights on how to navigate these difficult times?
G. I think the most important thing is to have an anchor. As you just spoke about, there is a lot of negativity manifesting in the world. We are all feeling it. But so many people are responding to it with a greater sense of positivity, purpose and a greater connection to their hearts through joy and to love. One of my dear friends and a great teacher, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati from the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, gives a teaching that really taps into a deeper truth for us to learn from. She says, “We need to anchor deeper into ourselves. The metaphor that she uses is the ocean. She says, “If we live on the surface of the ocean, the unending waves up and down completely exhaust and deplete us and knock us off our center. But only when we anchor deeper and deeper into the infinite ocean of the Self the waves on the surface, i.e. the external circumstances of life, don’t affect us so much. She says, “If you’re in the ocean and a wave is rolling towards you – a big six-foot wave – and you try to jump straight through that wave, the power of that wave will knock you down and knock you out. But if you dive under the wave, you come up on the other side relatively unaffected by it.” The metaphor of diving deeper into ourselves is how we can move forward in this time of instability.
T.E. That’s a beautiful metaphor. Lastly, are there any stories or quotes that are a personal favorite?
G. One of my favorite quotes by Gandhi is “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” I came from a family background that would have absolutely no idea what that meant. [laughter] When we begin to serve others selflessly it thins out the dominating power of the ego. When the ego thins out, there is more space for the light of our true self to shine through. When we learn to serve, we actively become a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem. Through a service based life we learn to do our part, however small that may be, to help transform consciousness and help uplift people’s spirits. I really use that as the foundation of my whole life and especially my teaching path. Another quote by Gandhi, that relates to Yin Yoga, is “In a gentle way we can shake the world.” Sometimes less is actually more. The practice of Yin is so still and chill, and it’s not fancy, but it’s so powerful.
T.E. This has been great and thank you for taking the time. I wouldn’t be on this path if it wasn’t for you so thank you.
G. I’m so happy and excited for you.
T.E. Thanks brother. Namaste.