“No one wants to practice by the teacher? In India, people would fight to place their mat by the teacher’s feet, but not here,” jokes Sri Dharma Mittra of the empty spaces around him in a very full Thursday afternoon class at New York City’s sprawling Dharma Yoga New York Center, which he founded in 1975.
Five feet six inches tall and 75 years old, Mittra has a humble presence, yet it’s understandable why students might be intimidated. He exudes a sense of rooted understanding that one achieves through a lifetime of practice and nearly five decades of teaching. Born in Brazil, Mittra was a student of Yogi Gupta, the third great yoga master to come to the United States and founder of the first Hatha yoga institution in America. It was in tribute to his teacher that Mittra created the “Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures” 30 years ago. To compile the resource, Mittra modeled for 1,350 photographs of postures (300+ were his own invention!), which he then meticulously cut and pasted together on a poster. This pre-Photoshop archive of poses has since served the global yoga community as a crucial teaching tool. Mittra also wrote the book Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses, and he produced the DVD series “Maha Sadhana: The Great Practice” (levels 1 and 2). While he is renowned for his mastery and chronicle of the physical practice, he says that spirituality is central to his instruction. He encourages students to learn how to be compassionate, respectful, and reverent to all beings. “We spend most of our energy looking for self-realization, not postures. Postures are just preparation. Many people think that yoga is all about postures. Nope!” he says.
Today, Mittra teaches at least four days a week at his studio, travels across the country for workshops, and he says he doesn’t intend on slowing down anytime soon. “If you have a little spiritual knowledge, you should share it. This is the greatest form of charity. As long as I am in good health physically and mentally, I plan to teach and share what I know to help others. To conserve energy, I may travel and teach a little less in the years ahead, but I hope to stay active for as long as possible.” Read on for some highlights from our conversation with Mittra, in which he shares a glimpse of his daily practice and shares how his perspective on yoga and life has evolved over the years.
What made you choose to dedicate your life to yoga and not the passions of your youth, like bodybuilding, wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
When I was young, I had the desire to be the best at something. I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, but there was no chance for me to study. I tried to swim competitively, but I was already older and smoking at the time. When I tried my first race, I was out of breath before completing even one lap. Bodybuilding only went to a point because the technology in Brazil at the time wasn’t much and the only way to compete was to eat egg yolks constantly, and I soon grew to hate that. If we had the supplements then we have today, who knows what I could have done? All this was really beside the point, though, because deep inside, I was starving for spiritual things. When I met my Guru, I knew that that was it for me—the search was over. It was no longer about trying to be the best at something, but about offering everything to the Almighty One. My early life helped me a lot, though, because the discipline and reverence for the teacher I learned in other areas served me very well in yoga.
What is the philosophy behind the Dharma Yoga New York Center?
The purpose of yoga is to get mental and physical power so you are able to succeed in concentration. From concentration, you can achieve anything you want. In my case, I want to find out, “Who am I?” But you may use it for your career, your family, etc. You may use these powers towards spiritual things and not toward things like fame, name, or prestige.
Was there ever a moment during the early days of establishing your center that you wanted to quit?
When I had my first school, I spent everything I had to make it beautiful and nice for the students. The first class, only one student showed up. I sat down at the harmonium to lead the om to start the class and closed my eyes. When I opened them, all I saw was one foot as the door was closing behind her. I was a little nervous, but the next class, lots of students came, and then they just kept coming.
After working with students every day for 47 years, do you still enjoy teaching?
I don’t teach beginners anymore. Of course, I enjoy them, but they need more attention. I think I’m running out of patience. I love to teach beginners one-on-one, but in the classroom, it’s a disturbance, especially when we have other advanced students in the class. Students who are just starting out go to my other instructors’ classes. When they learn the poses, they have some more spiritual qualities and start seeking enlightenment. That’s when they come to my advanced class. I really enjoy teaching the student who is more prepared because I have higher things for them.
Do you get bored teaching? How do you stay inspired?
No, I don’t get bored at all. I like it when I see students being reverent, respectful, and following the instructions. Then I get more excited and I have good things for them. I can see it in their eyes and then that triggers me to share something higher with them.
How has your personal practice changed over time?
I don’t practice for spiritual purposes—to gain knowledge or to realize things—anymore. I believe I have my diploma already, so I don’t have to keep going to school for spiritual growth. I practice to keep the mind calm so that I can cope with the world today. Also, I only practice a few postures (two or three instead of 10) a day to keep good health so that I can conduct classes. There are some poses that I have to do no matter what. Whether or not I teach, I have to stand on my head, do shoulder stand, and the most important of all, Savasana. I go to sleep in Savasana every day. These three poses help to recharge, relax, rejuvenate, and repair the body.
Would you say there’s more stress in the world today than when you first started practicing yoga?
Of course! Technology causes so much disruption. That’s why I have to do something every day to calm the mind. Everyone is running here and there. We have to be more attentive. Even the wise man has to constantly be alert, especially now with the iPad and high-definition TV, which I love. I’ve never been to India. I prefer to see it on HDTV.
Is there a mantra that you return to over time to recall your intentions as a teacher?
I usually remember a mantra that guru Yogi Gupta gave to me: “I bow to the inner-most self. Please use this body now.” Every time I teach, I say, “Whoever wants to use this body and mind, go!”
What have the students taught you over the years?
Oh, lots of things. I’m still learning because there are students of all levels, all conditions, younger souls, older souls, people who are really starving, others who won’t change their ways. So you have to be extremely patient and have special techniques. A good yoga teacher adjusts postures and breathing and even the spiritual practice to accommodate the condition of the students. There are people who were born with or came here with good qualities, very reverent and asking me higher questions about the self, reincarnation, and what would happen to me if I died tonight. I have had students here for years and years and they have never asked me questions, like “Who am I? What is god?” They are so busy working to get mental and physical powers, but nothing spiritual. It’s not wrong. When they see everything going away, one by one, as they are getting old, they will eventually turn to the spiritual part of it.
What is it like being so revered by your students?
I don’t feel comfortable being respected, revered, and worshiped. But sometimes I have to play that role. Not for my own good, but for the good of my students. I hate it sometimes when people come and touch my feet out of respect. But it’s important for them to develop humility and respect.
Does it ever go to your head?
Deep inside, I appreciate some qualities that I was born with. But I never think that I am better than others. There are deeds that this body and mind did in a previous life that I don’t remember. I try to be very humble, reverent, and respectful. But I have my things that I’m working on. For example, I can’t stop eating sugar. Everything I eat is sweet. Even my green juice has to have an apple. And occasionally, I’ll eat a piece of chocolate or dates. This is the only obstacle that I have. Not even the wise man is perfect yet.
What is your personal philosophy?
We are not the body and the mind. The body and the mind are making the decisions in life and dealing with the world around us. I can see myself talking to you. I can see myself teaching. I can see myself hungry. I can see myself getting old—not the self, but the body. I can hear my Portuguese accent. I am always pretending that I am a witness. I am not the body, not the mind. I am eternal bliss. I am the nectar of intelligence. I am the life behind consciousness. This body of mine is like a Verizon cell phone. The yogi who realizes the self knows, “I am the signal.” When the cell phone is asleep, it’s not catching the signal, but the signal is still present all the time. “I am not the cell phone, I am the signal.” We are always only a witness.
What is the first thought that comes to mind when you wake up in the morning?
I think about the day ahead of me. And sometimes I wonder, “How long do I have to stay here?” I need a new cell phone!
If someone has only five minutes to dedicate to wellness a day, what should he or she do?
I would say meditate on compassion for those five minutes. What is compassion? What does it look like? For example, everyone has automatic compassion towards a loved one, like a son. When he hurts himself or is not feeling well, you try to put yourself in his shoes. That ability to see yourself in others is compassion.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Without a doubt it was from my Guru. He told me about the Real Self, the Supreme Self, that resides at the center of the chest, the right side of the heart. That is the true Guru. When he told me about that, I still listened to him and revered him and what he said, but I realized that everything I needed was right there in me, the same as in every living thing. This is the best knowledge anyone can share with anyone else.
Photos by Hailey Wist