“We only encounter what is within us” Interview with Christian Pisano - Iyengar Yoga teacher

(by Matilde Cegarra)

I met Christian Pisano in 2009. At that moment, I was a bit lost in my yoga practice (and maybe in my life) and I was looking for a more subtle way of living the yoga. I was also desperately looking for answers, gurus, … moved by this very human feeling of lack. “Even when the fridge is full, our belly is full, we have the sensation of lacking something”, says often Christian. He told me that once he sat in front of a master and felt that this man didn’t want to change anything in him. In an instant, all the effort to change and develop, be more or less, searching and experimenting, disappeared at a stroke. “You are already what you are looking for”. This very inclusive approach touched directly at the core of my being. Still looking for answers but now, I look inside…

This interview was made during a workshop in Brussels in November 2009 and was published in the Yoga Sangraha magazine. Christian did enriched it with quotes from the Kashmir Shivaism tradition. You can find the interview in the original magazine following this link (you will also find it in French and Dutch).

Christian Pisano has practiced yoga for more than 30 years. He lived for several years in Pune where he studied directly with his guru, BKS Iyengar. His philosophical inclination draws him towards the non-dual approach of the Trika system, better known as Kashmir Shivaism. In his book, The Hero’s contemplation. Yoga in the light of BKS Iyengar’s teachings and Kashmir Shivaism he explores in depth Iyengar Yoga and Kashmir Shivaism.

How did you come to take up yoga?
There is nothing much to say, I started yoga whilst very young, when I was 16, but it was quite a few years later that I met my teacher.

What about your encounter with Kashmir Shivaism?
We carry within us certain inner currents that find their expression through the people we meet, situations we experience or what we read. We only encounter what is within us. The Vijnana Bhairava is a text that I came across whilst still in my teens and it immediately touched my heart. The all-inclusive approach of Kashmir Shivaism makes me feel at home.
«Wherein lies the inclination, therein lies the precept; where there is no inclination, therein lies the prohibition. For those of us who consider treatises as outpourings of the heart, that is the discrimination» (Maheshvararanda, Maharthamanjari 7).

How has this theoretical aspect influenced your practice of yoga?
The texts confirmed my intuition, which is actualized in the bodily sensations themselves.
«One should meditate on the void in one’s own body on all sides simultaneously. When the mind has become free from thoughts, one experiences everything as the Void» (Vijnana Bhairava 43).

There is an organic actualization that is the heart of practice. As it is said in the Shiva Sutras: “To operate in the body the resorption of the activities of separation».
It was re-stating to me the fundamental question, who am I? Strangely enough the question is already the answer. This question is everywhere. There is nothing outside of it and everything brings me back to it.
The inclusive approach of Kashmirian Shivaism has touched me deeply. I am already what I am looking for! There is nothing to reject, nor anything to acquire.
«Here, there is no need for spiritual progress, contemplation, skill in speaking or investigation. There is no need to meditate, to concentrate or to mutter prayers. Tell me, what is the absolute, certain, ultimate Reality?  Heed this: neither take nor leave, just as you are, happily enjoy all things» (Abhinavagupta Eight Stanzas on the incomparable -Anuttarashtika-)

During the week-end course you stressed the importance of the preliminaries, of preparing the ground. Why are preliminaries so important?
I have often noticed that the techniques that we use are not understood, we use them on an organism that is not ready. We impose techniques as if we want to colonise the body without understanding its culture, its customs, its language and its internal semantics. This always has a tendency to create a body of tension where the emphasis is on the doer. I feel it’s therefore very important to prepare the body with certain preliminaries in such a way that the ‘bodily clothing’ becomes very large. Thus the asana can deploy itself by itself, almost spontaneously, without too much effort.
«One should know that the real asana is the one in which the meditation of Brahman flows spontaneously and unceasingly, and not any other that destroys one’s happiness» (Shankaracharya, Aparokshanubhuti, 112.)

This preparation of the body is very important because we all have different bodily structures. We don’t wish to impose a shape on the body which is not suitable for it but rather we allow the body to reveal the asana.
«O gazelle-eyed Goddess, if one contemplates on all the elements constituting the body as pervaded by void, then one’s contemplation (of the Void) will become firm» (Vijnana Bhairava 47).

How do we prepare the mind?
The preparation is something that happens from one moment to the next from the sensation itself. The first preliminary is to observe your body as it is without imposing anything on it.
«Although apparent phenomena manifest as diversity -yet this diversity is non-dual……..
Seeing that everything is self-perfected from the very beginning, the disease of striving for any achievement is surrendered and just remaining in the natural state as it is, the presence of non-dual contemplation, continuously, spontaneously arises» (Six verses of Vajra.)

In this way, we can remain with the feeling and with the source of the feeling or sensation that is always in the moment. As the sensation is always full what I can or cannot do has no importance. Limitations are always circumstantial and in this way, there are no identifications or grasping. With this approach, we do not wish to create a body/mind that is more or less like this or like that. On the contrary the sensation of bodily separation is burned away from moment to moment if you stay with the sensation and the source of sensation. The body therefore unfolds as spaciousness, the body of Shiva. Otherwise we are forever trying to create a virtual body from our fantasies and fears.
«When the intentness of worldly objects is shed and limitation is discarded, what remains aas the body is nothing other than Shiva’s bliss. The body itself is completely full with the blissful essence of Shiva and is the very abode of the thirty-six principles. One should behold it in this way,
day and night and worship it as such» (Abhinavagupta, Tantraloka XV. 284cd-286ab).

You also spoke about the background of Consciousness?
Without the background of awareness there can be no activity. Activity comes from this background as a screen but activity cannot reveal it. First there is the background of awareness, presence, consciousness, the sensation of being, and from that, activities originate spontaneously. 
It’s a bit like in this room, if there had not been pre-existing space, the walls could not be built.
«Ritual and yogic practice cannot serve as a means because Consciousness is not born out of activity; it is the reverse, activity proceeds from Consciousness»  (Abhinavagupta, Tantrâloka, II, 8).

No matter what the activity is, it cannot exist or appear without the background of Consciousness which itself cannot be objectified. For this reason it is described as being without a path or means (anupaya).
We cannot become that which we are, nor can we objectify it the same way that
we perceive an object. But it is by that which allows the object to be revealed, to exist.
«As for those who wish to directly discriminate this essence in some way, they are nothing more than fools that try to use fireflies or glow-worms to apprehend the sun» (Abhinavagupta, Tantrâloka, II, 14)
«O Lord, the reality of your presence is spontaneously obvious and omnipresent, thus those who seek You using means, are certain not to discover You» (Jayaratha, Tantralokaviveka, II, 14).

We need to change the way we look at things…
Regardless of the way in which we look, there is always an object. Seeing encompasses the object, the act of perception and the subject who perceives.
«We say: In the six directions there is the light of God.
 A cry rises up from the world: This light, where is it? 
The stranger looks in every direction. 
Tell him: Look for a second without a direction» (Djalâl-od-Dîn Rûmî. Rubâi’yât).

So we can feel it?
Feeling is after all a translation. It is always more or less limited. The ground in which feelings appear and disappear is the sacred ground of awareness. We could say that there can be a flash of intuition. But this cannot become an object of experience; it is for this reason that it is not the result of practice.
Nevertheless, in practicing asana, we experience the return of a tactile perception whereby we stay in contact with the magma of sensation, at its source. It is very important to shift from a ‘thought body’ to a ‘felt body.’
«The organs of sight, hearing, taste and smell are to be found in a subtle way in the earth and the other elements, belonging to the lower level of reality, the highest not outstripping the level of illusion (mayatattva) while touch inhabits at the upper level of the energy as an inexpressible and subtle sensation to which the yogin ceaselessly aspires, for this contact is achieved in a Consciousness identical to the pure, brilliant firmament of its own luminosity» (Abhinavagupta, Tantrâloka, XI, 29-33).

Coming back to this week-end’s course, you mentioned angular and circular postures, and you suggested making the postures more circular, could you explain what you mean by this?
First let’s distinguish between asana and postureAsanas are not postures. We can perform postures, but an asana cannot be performed as it is something which arises spontaneously.
First there are peripheral movements that can create a certain fluidity. This fluidity is accentuated by movements which are called circular. Circular movements are not aggressive and nourish the body, while angular movements are muscular and use a lot of energy. But this is a bit difficult to explain. It’s better to study it in the practice of yoga. For example in Uttanasana, I demonstrated with June that when she moved downwards using a more circular movement of her thighs and groins, it created a certain passivity in the downward movement. An angular movement by contrast would be more aggressive on the lumbar region and the abdomen would be weighed down. In Virabhadrasana II or Parsvakonasana, there is a circular movement of the knee. A circular movement is always more encompassing, more nourishing.
«The circle is the vital point (marman) and should be contemplated as Brahman» (Vastu Sutra Upanishad). 

You used the expression «kumbakha of the knee »what do you mean by this? 
It’s an expression that I use to mean that we fix or we seal certain zones. It is not simply an extension. Generally these zones are joints. The joints are referred to as sandhi in Sanscrit, which means junction or interval. They function as a storehouse of space. There is of course the establishment of the vital points or marma. We learn to activate certain points, to fix them, to stabilize them in such a way that the energy in our bodies is no longer lost or wasted. But first we must go through the process of cleansing generated by the postures before we can understand how to seal certain zones.
To begin with it is also important to learn to perform movements using the exhalation. For example, to learn in Supta Padangustasana how to fix or stabilize the knee while exhaling. Quite often these actions are done by also tightening and tensing the senses. In the Shiva Sutras it is said: «The senses are the spectators». 
Thus once this exhaling technique has been understood we learn to have cycles of clear, normal breathing while one specific zone is ‘fixed’ in order to ‘churn’ it.

And what do you mean by practise scales?
We always have to practice scales, just like when one learns to play an instrument. Whatever the level of practice, we always begin with preliminaries. I believe one should not immediately activate the technique of a posture. We should first read our terrain, its reactions, and the contractions that we meet. We should learn to have a friendly approach with our terrain.

Before we finish this interview could you say a few words about viniyoga which you mentioned at the end of the session?
It’s a term that we come across in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (III.6) and in the Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni. It means «application».
All BKS Iyengar teachings, are perfect illustrations of viniyoga, especially concerning the use of props in the practice of yoga. Viniyoga is then, the application of the techniques adapted to the needs of the individual in accordance with the internal and external environment and are not just an imposition. The constitution (deha), the place (desha), the sex (linga), the weather (kala), the age (vayas), the capabilities (shakti), the hopes or aspirations (marga), the activities (vritti) of the person practicing yoga need to be taken into account, whilst respecting the seasons of existence (ashrama) and the different phases of life which we go through. Peoples’ inclinations change depending on the situation and the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Of course, at the beginning we all need to go through a certain learning process, but afterwards yoga practice must be adapted to our needs otherwise it’s simply an imposition.

You have spoken about the book Yoga Rahasya of Nathamuni where the text on viniyoga can be found.
Yes, there is a chapter on viniyogawhich explains that yoga practice should be in harmony with the seasons and the circumstances of your life.
«After long reflections, the sages came to the conclusion that yoga can be divided into three types of practice: srishtikramasthikrama and antykrama.
Yoga should be practiced bearing in mind that srishtikrama is for the brahmachari (adolescent, young man), sthitikrama is for the grihastha (adult, man or woman with an active life, with family and professional obligations, married or not) and samharakrama (also called antyah karma) is for sannyasin (renunciate, retired people)» (Shri Nathamuni, Yogarahasya, Viniyogadhyahab, 2, 3).

Thank you very much Christian.

“We only encounter what is within us” Interview with Christian Pisano