by Jan Deremo Lundy
Senior Editor, Healing Garden Journal
Yogiraj Rod Stryker is one of a handful of individuals in America today who strives to maintain the purity of the yoga tradition of the ancients. With the overriding emphasis on yoga as exercise (or asana) taking center stage worldwide, it is not an easy task to stay rooted in the origins of a tradition that is so primeval. Yet Rod finds great joy in doing so. A visit to his website reveals a unique focus: a true sense of joy, celebration of life and inspiration for the journey.
I spoke to Rod about his unbridled enthusiasm, noting that it felt different from other noted teachers in the field, and I asked him how this may have come about. Rod reflected: “I think I was born with a thirst for passion, but I believe that what truly brought that out and gave me permission to grow that passion was meeting the teachers I did whose focus was Tantra. There is a lot of confusion about Tantra and I do think that is starting to change. Tantra is not about yoga plus sex. Tantra is really the full flowering of yoga. It includes all of the things that yoga is about – asana, meditation, chanting, mantra, visualization, kundalini practices – all of this is tantric. The philosophy of Tantra is that we do not withdraw from the world, but transform ourselves so that we can find joy and meaning in the world.
“There are two approaches in the yoga philosophy. One is that the world is a domain of suffering and that the only way we can find a lasting peace is to withdraw from it. The other philosophy is the tantric point of view which holds that when we ourselves are at a certain level of awareness, we remember and perceive the world to be a beautiful place. We see it as tremendous opportunity. The philosophy that explains this maintains: The world is a flower and the divine is the fragrance of that flower, and spiritual practice is here to help us find the fragrance of life.
“Most of my life I thought that I could think my way there. I was a philosophy/psychology major who studied all the great philosophers. What yoga did for me was to give me an experience of vividness, aliveness and purpose, and aspiration. Then, combined with this tantric worldview, I realized I didn’t have to run from the world, I didn’t have to intellectualize the world. It was a profound shift, an epiphany. That is what I became anchored in, a disciple of, a teacher of.
“As I began to travel around the US (teaching), I realized that most yoga that was being taught was rooted in this belief of withdrawing from the world, from the illusion of maya. The world is something to run away from. But if you look at the Bhagavad Gita (which predates Patanjali), you begin to see that it’s all about life as a heroic adventure. That is what always interested me, whether as a yogi or as a child, and that is what my teachers gave me permission to activate and honor, permission to explore. As time went on, that became a mission for me.”
One can only imagine what an intensive or retreat with Rod might activate in oneself. Such a large vision to convey! I asked Rod how he begins to open students up to discoveries such as the one he had.
“It all begins with an understanding of why stretch your body. I ask students that, ‘Why do you want to stretch your body?’ They might answer, ‘Because I want to feel better.’ I don’t stop there. I keep questioning. ‘Why do you want to feel better?’ They might say, ‘Because I want to sleep better.’ And on we go. I don’t let them stop at the first answer. I ask them to keep looking deeper, keep peeling it back and get to the root of all it. What it comes down to is that we all have a longing to thrive. In fact, we all have a longing to thrive in four major areas: the material, the sensual, sense of life purpose (dharma) and the spiritual experience. And that is the ground that I try to take people to at that level. It opens the door to embrace the wholeness of the tradition, beyond asana. If you help people to understand that yoga is something much bigger than exercise, and if you can embody the fullest version that you aspire to be, then people naturally begin to be open to these other practices – meditation and breath for example – they find great meaning in these practices. So life is not about withdrawing, but finding the wellspring of inspiration and to find the wellspring of capacity. Then it creates a whole new kind of openness for us.”
Rod has been widely recognized as a great teacher of meditation and often teaches intensives just in that. I asked him about the importance of meditation for seekers today, especially with the pace of our world intensifying and our stress level escalating. Why is it so difficult for us to meditate when we need it so badly?
“Many people feel that they can’t meditate because right from the start they are getting distracted. All they are sensing is what is happening below the surface all the time – they are just not aware that they are distracted. According to the Sufis, life is seductive and whatever the mind is most interested in, it pays attention to at any given moment, and that is always changing. Because there is so much stimulation in our lives, this appears difficult. As an example, before 911 we could watch CNN present one piece of news at a time. Today, if you notice, there are 5 or 6 pieces of information coming at you at the same time (sports, weather, stock prices) and a ticker along the bottom with more. No one should be surprised that when they first close their eyes it is difficult to focus.
“There are many approaches to meditation and what I get directly from the tantric approach is that one of the things your mind wants to do least is to be still. It’s not its inclination to be still. Mind by definition is activity. Tantra teaches that instead of getting your mind to be still (and struggling with it), make the mind active – make the mind do stuff in meditation. That has a positive effect on the mind that in time will make the mind begin to recede and become more calm. Then we can begin to discover that there is something behind the mind. Many of the approaches of meditation that I teach are slightly more active in nature. The Tantrics linked some of those most active meditation techniques to energy pathways, or the breath connected to an energy pathway. Then, as a result, you are purifying your energy while increasing attention and focus. The mind is moving and that has an effect on thinking becoming less loud and distracting. A higher level of awareness is then slowly recognized. For people who haven’t had a lot of meditation experience, that is probably one of the best ways to go. There are a lot of constructive, extraordinary, yet simple practices that people can do that allow them to tap into that rhythm of stillness. I just finished a CD called “Meditations for Peace” – three 20 minute meditations that are very purposeful and help people become receptive to this. They help people shift into a different rhythm.”
In ending our session, I asked Rod what he would like to share with our readers about the New Year – especially when many of us, once again, are making vows to ourselves to grow and change in positive ways. What would he wish for us in the New Year?
“I’d say – get really clear about your purpose in life. Not so much what you want, but clear about your purpose. And then make a commitment to a path, to a way of life that honors the best of you. Then throw away all doubt and forge ahead. We are all born with something called ‘shakti,’ which means that we all have the power to become whatever we want to be.
“Last year I had a very personal reminder of this. I’d been a single dad for a year and half. It was a really challenging year being as present and giving to my students as I was to my kids. So I put a lot of energy into the dharma. Dharma as dad, dharma as teacher. Really what got lost and dropped down on the priority list several notches was not just self-care, but my own pursuit of self-knowledge. Then I had a health crisis that took me by surprise because I’d always been in perfect health. The great salvation that occurred came a few weeks later as I was flying to Maui. I’d picked up a book on Indian philosophy and was reading about ‘Mimamsa.’ Mimamsa is a threefold philosophy, but one of the key components is all about duty and how you prioritize your duty. For me, conflicts in life were arising around how was I going to be a great parent and also a great teacher. What it says is that our primary duty is our pursuit for self-knowledge. That’s it, that’s the number one duty – to know yourself. Part B of that is never to stand in the way of anyone else reaching theirs. When I read that I realized that in spite of everything I was doing that was altruistic, I had lost that grain. It will be a while before I forget that again. The price one pays is great. Just the loss of meaning or purpose or clarity comes from losing that thread. What is your primary pursuit? If you don’t have that, you can’t be the best parent, the best teacher, and so on.
So my advice is to keep your own self-realization on the priority list and from that, when your own cup is full, make a commitment to a life of giving.”
This interview originally appeared in January 2004 in Healing Garden Journal and on www.holisticvillage.org.