Teacher Spotlight: 10 Questions with Andrew Eppler of Ashtanga Yoga Studio
Chamundi Hill, Mysore
Andrew Eppler was one one of my first teachers back in 2008, when I first embarked on my journey into yoga. It is only fitting that he is the first subject of an ongoing series of interviews with some of the most inspiring and influential yogis I know. Actually, this interview comes from a few months back, when I interviewed Andrew in a session for our upcoming documentary, "Mysore Yoga Traditions." We had to cut out most of the interview for inclusion in the documentary, but I am happy to present the majority of the interview here in a World Wide Yoga Tribe exclusive! First, a bit of an introduction from Andrew's website, and then onto the interview itself:
"Andrew Eppler has been practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga for over 30 years and he is the owner and director of Ashtanga Yoga Studio in Norman Oklahoma. Andrew began practicing yoga with his father, Ray Eppler, at age 14. Cliff Barber, an old friend of Andrew’s father, was their first teacher. Somehow Andrew’s father had the patience and insight to keep his young son interested and practicing yoga daily throughout his teen years. Danny Paradise, who is also a very influential teacher for Andrew, was kind enough to let Andrew to tag along on one of his many trips and taught Andrew how to travel in Asia. Danny dropped him off to study in Mysore saying “good luck kid!” In 1990 at the age of 18 Andrew was able to study with Sri K Pattabhi Jois where he practiced through the 3rd series.
In 1995 Andrew returned to Mysore and studied with Sri BNS Iyengar. Because Iyengar’s series is slightly different, Andrew made it a point to learn both methods thoroughly. Andrew has continued to study with Sri BNS Iyengar 8 times over the last 20 years and has completed courses in Pranayama, Mudra, and Yoga Philosophy. Andrew carries Iyengar’s blessing in teaching Yoga. In 2014 Andrew brought Sri. BNS Iyengar and his assistant Kanchen Mala to the USA to teach in Oklahoma at Ashtanga Yoga Studio.
Andrew’s teachers include everyone he has ever practiced with and every student in his classes. But some kind souls have made great contributions and those people include Sri BNS Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Cliff Barber, David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Danny Paradise, Kumar Pallana, and many others.
Magic is one of Andrew’s passions and he has always had a keen fascination with all things that seem to be miraculous or unexplainable. Through the yogic practices he became aware at an early age that perception depends hugely on the state of mind of each individual watching. Andrew has traveled to many parts of the world, from the streets of Europe to the jungles of Asia, to study different types of magical practices. His studies include both modern and ancient forms of sleight of hand and illusion as well as, rain making and many different ethnic healing ritual practices. In his lectures about yoga he sometimes uses magic and illusion to illustrate philosophical points about the nature of the mind and how our perception works. The art of illusion has deep roots and is a part of every culture. “I have no magic powers other than the power to practice an art form that I love and to make people smile and take them for a moment to a place of wonder where anything can happen. Reality is very fragile indeed when you start to examine it carefully.”
Andrew’s teaching is a synthesis of everything he has studied and been exposed to in his journey with yoga. He has always loved the structure of the Ashtanga Sequences and the grounding repetition of movements that bring out our full potential and create states of deep concentration. Andrew also loves the creative and innovative sides of yoga and sees yoga as an evolving, expanding cultural and spiritual art form. 'My goal in teaching is to inspire people to believe in themselves and to cultivate a daily practice that fits in their life, and to make it a sacred, healing, evolving, life long journey to explore our fullest potential.'" And now, the interview: Q: Our upcoming documentary focuses on the social, cultural, and historical background of yoga in Mysore. So let's start there. After interviewing so many heavy hitting scholars from the yoga world in Mysore, what can you tell us about the role of the royal family of Mysore in the development and propagation of yoga - both in Mysore, and around the world? A: They were behind the scenes paying for everything and directing everything. They asked for yoga to be taught in the community for free to anybody who was interested. The king of Mysore invited Krishnamacharya to teach there and to teach in the Sanskrit College. It was the royal family who asked that yoga be taught to the whole community for free, for anybody who was interested to learn it. Because of that, a great social experiment took place in Mysore. If we look at the videos of Krishnamacharya which we can see now on Youtube, those were ordered by the king of Mysore. If we look at the old photographs, that too was ordered by the king. He wanted yoga to become revived in India. That was his vision. So in a very real way, we can thank the royal family of Mysore for the yoga that we’re practicing in the west today, and also for a social climate that allowed western people to study it because before that, it wouldn’t have happened. Nalwari Krishnaraj Wodeyar was the king who brought Krishnamacharya to Mysore. And because there were 3 kings in a row who were called Krishnaraj Wodeyar, it’s a bit confusing. I don’t really claim to know the whole picture. But Nalwari Wodeyar was the king who wanted to learn yoga himself, who was interested in compiling all of the Indian knowledge systems in Mysore, creating the Saraswati Library, he brought water from the Kaveri River for Mysore to use. His contributions were so broad and so numerous, that we were shocked by how many things he had done. He was truly a wise and enlightened and very generous king who took care of his community.
Q: So it was the royal family, specifically the Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar, who brought Krishnamacharya onto the scene. So then, what was Krishnamacharya's role? A: It seems like out the people that created it, who I thought of as very traditional people, turn out to be more movers and shakers. It seems like Krishnamacharya and his early students were more like visionaries and that they had a more articulate view of human culture. So this is modern yoga, and we’re practicing modern yoga, in a modern context. In my view, without the careful reformatting that Krishnamacharya and his students did to make this yoga accessible to the western mindset, I don’t think it would have worked. I don’t think that we would have adopted it into our lifestyle and into our culture the way we’ve done... And when we start to look at who Krishnamacharya taught, and where his students went in the world and began teaching themselves, it starts to make more sense. Whatever the case may be, we can say that Mysore has made an enormous contribution to the yoga culture in the U.S. today, and a lot of it can be traced back to there.
Andrew presents Guruji with a traditional gift basket after his interview during the filming of "Mysore Yoga Traditions"
Q: What about Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and his contribution to global yoga culture? A: As we learn more about the background of this yoga, it becomes completely clear that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois made huge contributions both in terms of sequence and approach. And his approach produced some of the finest, strongest, most dedicated practitioners without a doubt. He passed away without ever mentioning a word about his own contributions. He never said anything like that. He always passed any credit back to his teacher and to the community that it comes from, to the tradition that this yoga comes from. That’s the difference. The Indian teachers never said a word about their contributions. They always gave all of their innovation and all of the credit that anyone gave to them, back to the tradition that it came form, to their teachers, to their families, etc. Western people, on the other hand, can’t wait to create some new twist or nuance and put it on yoga, and brand it and promote it on social media, and you know, we’re all looking for how to be unique and trying to come up with new ideas all the time. And that’s ok. I do it too. I don’t have any finger of blame to point at anybody, I post on Instagram, I post on Facebook, and maybe that’s just part of surviving in our current time. But it has to be said, that the people who really made the biggest contributions, never said a word about it. And that would also have to include the royal family of Mysore. Q: Besides Pattabhi Jois and BNS Iyengar, who else have you studied with over the years? A: My first teacher who I learned with when I was 14 is Cliff Barber. Cliff Barber is an ascetic and a renunciate. nobody knows him. He lives by a river, in a mud hut, with no shoes and long dreadlocks. He always had the perception that yoga should be free. It should be taught by love, it should be taught by compassion, and it should be taught only to people who are sincere and really care about it. I’ve had a lot of teachers over the years. Pattabhi Jois is my teacher. Pattabhi Jois taught everybody I’ve studied with, just about. He was the face of yoga to America, he and his family have done an amazing job of teaching Ashtanga Yoga all over the world, and Saraswati and Sharat continue to teach yoga in Mysore, and for sure, their students are among the finest and most capable and dedicated, knowledgeable western practitioners anywhere. Q: How have your teachers influenced your views on yoga?
A: As my teacher and very close friend Danny Paradise has always insisted, yoga is connected to all shamanic indigenous traditions all over the world. And our teacher BNS Iyengar has also made the statement that this yoga transcends all language and culture, and that it is for everyone. Yoga is for all humanity. Those are the views expressed by the people who are the keepers of this knowledge. Q: Recently, some scholars have begun to question certain claims about the history of yoga. In your view, how old is Ashtanga Yoga in general, and the Primary Series specifically?
A: I started yoga when I was 14, and my teachers told me it was 5,000 years old. Of course, I believed that, and when I went into teaching it, I repeated that statement. However, books started coming out saying it is much more modern than that, and of course, I was curious. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve spent 30 years doing this now. To ask for an accurate historical perspective, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But we do have to ask in the right way. Basically, yoga is old. Exercise fads are modern. Yoga is ancient. And for me, I finally got around… it’s a very delicate subject and you can’t really ask directly. Traditional Indian teachers will not generally speak to you about their own training, teachers, and how they know they know. You can’t really say that with them. But one morning, having breakfast, here in my house in Oklahoma, Guruji (BNS Iyengar) told me that Primary Series was roughly 100 years old. So there it was. I’d gone from 5,000 to 100. And as I learn more about the background of yoga, I’m realizing that yoga is very old indeed, and this is just the latest reformatting of something that has been around for thousands of years. I don’t think it would have worked in western culture if Krishnamacharya and his teachers hadn’t reformatted it the way that they did. So what they did, in my view anyway, is to pull from their own cultural icons, their own belief system, and their culture and create something that worked for the entire world. And I feel like they gave a very great gift. In fact, I would say that yoga has touched the soul of humanity. And that is very much their opinion and their approach, that yoga was available to everyone. There was never a fee for studying yoga in those early times. Everybody that learned it, learned it for free. It was considered a community activity. Mysore was the place where a great social experiment took place. The king ordered that yoga should be taught to everybody. And the king of mysore also ordered those early films and pictures to be taken of Krishnamacharya. That’s the only reason we have that around to look at on youtube today. So after all the years of practicing this, and meeting the people who are in the community it comes from, I feel like this yoga is as legitimate as it gets. And that fact that it was more recently composed than I realized at first is not a big deal at all to me. Because the view, and the perspective of life that it comes from, is indeed very ancient. Also, Surya Namaskar, and the philosophy of the sun, the symbolic significance of the sun in Indian philosophy, that’s very old, and in fact it’s right at the core of Indian philosophy.
Q: So why all the academic clamor about how old it is? Is it really that important? A: We’re a little bit schizophrenic in the West... on the one hand, we want to be part of an ancient tradition, we want to be able to say we’re doing something that goes back for thousands of years, or longer.. But on the other hand, we’re extremely skeptical, and heaven forbid anybody tell us that something is older than it is, we’re very attached to dates and numbers… and in the end, we sort of cut our own legs off worrying about all of these things. Nearly everybody we spoke to in Mysore, when we started to ask about the age of primary series, about the Yoga Korunta, about the background of this practice, at some point or other, they said to us, ‘Hey, yoga is ancient. It works. Why don’t you just do it, and quit worrying about how old it is.’ Q: So would you say that the current format of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that we are practicing, (Primary Series, Intermediate Series, etc.) is a modern innovation? A: It’s the latest rendition of an ancient science. Yoga is the control of the fluctuations of the mind. As it says in the scriptures, and as so many of the scholars we spoke with quoted. So how you do that, depends on your time and your circumstance, and your situation. What we’re practicing now is something that was formatted for our current time. And without that, i just don’t think it would work in our community. The most modern thing about the yoga that we’re practicing is that everybody can do it. Anybody who is interested can practice yoga. And up until very recently that wasn’t the case. Yoga was a full time activity. There were no part time yogis. You couldn’t stop off at the yoga studio and take a class on your way home from work, that option didn’t exist. You had to abandon all material possessions, shave your head, and go to the forest. And that’s how yoga was taught before the time of Krishnamacharya.
Q: After speaking with so many scholars in the Sanskrit College, what can you tell us about the current situation in India with the decay of the palm leaf manuscripts?
A: Palm leaf texts last for about 300 years. This is the first time in thousands of years that there isn’t a new generation to copy the texts. Because of the influence of technology in their culture as well as ours, there isn’t a new generation following in the same traditional footsteps. To some extent there is, but it’s nothing like it was in the past. So technology got us into this mess, and technology could get us out of this mess. They are working as fast as they can to preserve and digitize their texts. They’re writing programs. They’re looking at all forms of media. They’re very innovative and very creative and working hard to do what they can. But they need financial as well as technical support. There are millions of Indian manuscripts turning to dust as we speak… and almost no amount of effort can save all of them. These manuscripts are about yoga, they’re about all the Indian knowledge systems, science, mathematics, art, music, culture of all kinds. As professor Lakshmitatachar from the Samskriti Institute in Melcote said, this huge body of knowledge is the property of humanity. Not just India. It’s everyone’s loss if this stuff is allowed to turn to dust. So, if we love yoga as much as we say we do, if we’re out in the world earning money with their cultural traditions, and if we’re grateful, if we think it’s benefitted our lives, we should really help them to preserve their texts. That’s the one thing they ask for. And I don’t think they would ask if they didn’t need the help.
Q: Another recent claim by certain scholars is that Krishnamacharya's yoga was heavily influenced by western gymnastics. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Exercise fads are modern. Yoga is ancient. I think the best way to define it is the internal energetic components involved in yoga and yoga literature. Yoga has things like vayus, and koshas, and prana, and nadis, and chakras, etc. And each of those represent some kind of internal energetic structure within the body. Yoga is physical exercise aimed at internal results. All of that is completely absent in other forms of exercise and gymnastics. No other form of exercise has that sort of energetic intention. For me, yoga simply has a different goal than other forms of exercise. Q: What is your view on the way yoga has been commercialized as it has spread throughout the world over the last 100 years?
A: It seemed to me that because every single person that we spoke to talked to us out of the kindness of their heart, and you know, there is a very strong presence of Bhakti yoga in Mysore. These people are devoted. And they’re very very kind. They don’t really love seeing the yoga that came from there commercialized on. They also realize that everybody has to make a living and they respect people who are dedicated. I think that the energy form the yoga should be directed in a humanitarian way. I think that would probably please them the most, is if they realize that we are in fact grateful and that we’re moving beyond just asana practice, and really trying to understand their philosophy, and use it in a way that benefits society and eases the suffering of humanity. If you think about how many people are practicing yoga - 20 million people in America alone, and infinite numbers of people are practicing yoga all over the world, every day… how much depression, how much anxiety people are reliving through these practices. How much good has yoga done in the lives of how many people all over the world… it’s staggering. India gave a huge gift to the world. They reformatted an ancient discipline from their culture and put it out into the world, and we should be very grateful indeed, to them.
Q: If you had one message to the world about the practice of yoga, what would it be?
A: Yoga is a source of internal stability, it’s a source of healing, it’s a source of inspiration, it’s a source of internal freedom that helps us to process the events that happen in our lives, it improves society and the world on a very immediate basis. Each person practicing yoga has a more positive impact on the environment around them. Each person practicing is an inspiration and a source of peace and rationality in their corner of the world, wherever that is. So more people practicing yoga creates a stronger sense of connectedness, and a clearer, more intelligent view of life, in my view. The world in front of our eyes is the material world, and it’s full of illusions; it’s full of disappointments and illusions. The world behind our eyes is the world of emotions; the world of the psyche; the world of the spirit. If we don’t pay attention to the inside world, then for sure our enjoyment of the outside world will be less. Happiness in life cannot come from money, from fame, from the opinions that other people have of us. Success in life and happiness in life comes from an internal happiness. And I just don’t believe that we can practice yoga in an authentic way and use it only for commercial purposes. There needs to be some kind of intention to help humanity. To do good in the world with yoga. Not just become famous and fly around the world teaching workshops. I don’t think that was the original intention of yoga. People who are happy, are happy because they’re happy on the inside. Everywhere they look, they see happy. People who are unhappy on the inside, everywhere they look, they see unhappiness. You can be in heaven or hell depending on the state of your mind. And your surroundings physically don’t really determine that. It’s in the mind. That was more or less Buddha’s main message. Everything all in the mind. It’s all mental. Meditate. Use the asana practices for what they were really meant for, which is to purify and cleanse your body, and to open you energetically so we can do these other deeper, more internal practices. And to do that, we have to be interested. We have to move beyond the idea… of yoga as an exercise and as an exercise fad, and realize that to really approach it in its full blown context, you have to modify your behavior, you have to modify lifestyle, you have to modify your diet, you have to modify the way you interact with other people. And that’s how I see yoga as creating a very positive effect in the world. ************************************************************************************************************ When he's not traveling around the world giving workshops, Andrew can be found teaching classes at Ashtanga Yoga Studio in Norman, Oklahoma. Be sure and check out www.mysoreyogatraditions.com for more information about the documentary, which delves more deeply into the topics we discussed in the interview.
Andrew & BNS Iyengar, circa 1990s