By Holly Makimaa
Holly Makimaa: What brought you back to Ann Arbor?
Navtej Johar: Ann Arbor originally became our home when my family migrated to the U.S. in 1984. I studied, danced, and taught yoga here until the late 90’s, after which I began advanced studies in yoga and dance, plus ventured into the international dance scene. Over the last two decades, I have been spending time between the USA, Europe, and India.
Since 2012, I’d been in Berlin on a research fellowship on embodied practices at the Freie University, plus I’d spent time in India due to my LGBT activism. After a landmark victory earlier this year, which led to the revocation of a 19th century, British law that criminalized homosexuality, I am now back home in Ann Arbor.
Yoga has a long history in this city and it is a delight to be teaching students who’ve been seriously practicing yoga for the last thirty plus years. It is deeply satisfying to be working with students who have been practicing for so long and are pursuing a serious quest. I finally opened the Poorna Center for Embodied Practices, with the aim to offer not just practice, but also deep study in Yoga texts, many of them rather unconventional, if not radical.
Holly Makimaa: How did you come to study yoga?
Navtej Johar: As a child, I was very curious about yoga. This was a time when yoga was not too popular, there was very little information about it, and teachers were not easy to come by. Yes, even in India. For centuries, yoga was seen as an obscure sub-culture that most middle-class households remained wary of. In 1980, I decided to move to Madras (now Chennai), to train in Indian classical dance (Bharatanatyam), and at the back of my mind I hoped that I’d also find a yoga teacher there. The very first week I was there, I was in a bus traveling back from my dance school and this young man sat next to me. We started talking and he said he was a yoga teacher. He invited me to come meet his teacher the next day. The teacher was TKV Desikachar.
Holly Makimaa: Who was TKV Desikachar? How has his work influenced yoga in America?
Navtej Johar: I feel so very fortunate that I found Desikachar. To this day, I get goose bumps when I remember how I found him. The greatness of the man was that he believed in being ordinary. Underneath which, he hid a lot of subtlety, sensitivity, insight, and power. An engineer by profession, he viewed the dynamic body from that informed perspective and his style was all about adaption—a blend of rigor and gentleness. He guided, facilitated, and allowed each student to find his or her own sense of rightness from the inside. He was not enamored by picture-perfect yoga asanas or taken in by any lofty idealisms. He wholeheartedly believed in and made us all rely upon the infinite intelligence and sensitivity of the material body. Thus, the thrust was not to tame or perfect the body. He had too much love and appreciation for the physical body. For him, yoga was the working of the body, mind, breath, and “something more” in tandem. However, this “something more” was never given a definition or a form. Completely secular, he outright kept God and religion very far away from his practice and teachings. There was not even an OM sign in the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram; neither did he ever wear the caste marks on his forehead. To me, he was a true follower of Samkhya, the materialist, non-theist philosophy that forms the basis of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Holly Makimaa: How does your dance background inform your yoga practice and teaching of it?
Navtej Johar: It wasn’t initially easy to marry dance with yoga because, to me, they were fundamentally different from each other. While one is an introverted, self-observing practice, the other is projective, extroverted, and converts the body into an image. It took me more than a decade of serious practice and study in both to reconcile the two. One of the obvious things that dance lends to my yoga practice is flow. It allows me the experience of merging action with awareness, and may I add, even poetry, and the ability to center my attention on specific and isolated parts of my body. I am convinced that each little part of the body has both an autonomous drive or initiative, which we need to honor, and might also have a “story” to tell. A story that can be told and fulfilled through shapes, sounds, and movement-textures. Also, dance has given me the capacity to engage and evoke imagery. Dance poetics has taught me to liberally free-associate, thus my teaching and practice is rife with imagery, which then translates to language and word-imagery. To me, linguistics and yoga are inextricably intertwined! It is not a passive practice of believing and following, but truly a practice of organizing, articulating, and absorbing thought. Therefore it is a practice of body, breath, and speech.
Holly Makimaa: You developed a yogic method called BARPS. What inspired this? How do you see it adding to the lineage you trained in?
Navtej Johar: All that I mention above ushered me to develop BARPS as a method of asana practice. BARPS is an acronym for the processes that I feel are integral to mindful asana: Bracing of body against surface. Aligning of joints. Rotation of joints to your own sense of rightness and satisfaction. Poising of breath and attention. And then finally Stretching into a fulsome asana with all these conditions fulfilled. The form is integral to embodied practice, but the “rightness” of which may be synthetically experienced from the inside as opposed to being image-driven from the outside. Maintaining the integrity of form and keeping it untouched and safe from the pressures of cosmetic-form is in itself a yoga practice. One of the main factors that has led to BARPS is my firm belief in the innate intelligence of the body. This belief defies the Cartesian logic of mind-over-body, or the idealist doctrines that view Spirit as not only superior but even external to the body. To me, Spirit is a contiguous extension of the physical body. Spirit is sensitivity. A sensitivity that can be realized through embodied practice that mindfully tempers, refines, and distills the senses, along with their observation (by the self) simultaneously, or rather symbiotically. Thus, my practice is a practice of honing sensitivity.
Holly Makimaa: After all your years of teaching, what is it about yoga that still captivates you?
Navtej Johar: It is the infinite intelligence and sensitivity of the body that captivates me. And this sensitivity is not a static station but an ever evolving, ever deepening, process. And this sensitivity does not involve the body alone, but permeates to all that surrounds us. Most of all it relies upon the care and choice of words and images with which we internalize this exteriority; the words and images with which we store the outside in our minds. And then how we may be able to still the perpetual flux of these mental images. To me, that is yoga, and not just that, it intrinsically requires a touch of poetics to quell the agitation of the mind in order to arrive at an experience of absorption. This is an idea that gets developed in Tantra according to which the spiritual experience is intrinsically poetic.
Holly Makimaa: You will be offering an upcoming yearlong training in the method you teach. What can people expect to receive in this training that might be different from most yoga teacher trainings in America?
Navtej Johar: It will involve a lot of guided practice in asana, pranayama, and meditation over time; it will involve adaption, experimentation, and self-observation. The students will be required to maintain a journal throughout. There will be considerable reading, which we will try and keep concise, plus lectures by experts. We will cover the history of modern Yoga, materialist Indian philosophies that directly inform both Patanjala and Hatha yoga, history and debates between the materialist and idealist philosophies of India, and the systematic overwriting of materialist philosophies over time. In addition to the major, and more popular Yoga texts, we will touch upon the minor texts as well. We will also briefly study Sanskrit Poetics and Linguistics. The aim of this Teacher Training program is to interest and inform practitioners of Yoga history and its political ramifications, while simultaneously inspiring them to rely upon their ever-guiding, ever-revealing, intelligent, sensitive, and insightful bodies as repositories of infinite beauty, repose (or sukha), and clarity.
Navtej Johar (E-RYT 500) is a senior and longtime student of TKV Desikachar. A dancer by profession, he has been teaching yoga since 1985. He is the founder of the Poorna Center for Embodied Practices and also teaches at Inward Bound Yoga in Ann Arbor. To contact by phone, call 734-686-1671, or email at email@example.com . You can also find more information about classes and workshops online at www.poorna.net.