Written by Maria Raynes, YogaChicago
It takes and enlightened professor to teach a body of students nearly eight hours a day for five days, combine lab and lecture in a way that is congruent and electric, organize and ancient text to transcend the esoteric and bring it to life – and mix in humor. No wonder Yogiraj (master of yoga) Rod Stryker is so well received in Chicago.
Before recently relocating to 17 acres of land near Aspen, Colorado, Rod Stryker maintained a home base in Los Angeles, where he taught for more than 25 years. He now travels extensively, leading retreats, workshops, teacher trainings and seminars in the tradition he founded, Parayoga. A holistic approach to yoga, Parayoga comprises a collection of many traditions; it is a merging of the three rivers of ayurveda, Tantra and the Yoga Sutras.
Rod’s recent challenge was to meet the Chicago yoga community, eager to be enriched, at a workshop, March 18-22, at Yoga State, a new yoga studio housed in the historic Lake Shore Center at 850 North Lake Shore Drive on the downtown campus of Northwestern University.
Yoga State’s grand Mediterranean Room buzzed with students connecting with old and new friends, vying for space close to the front of the room and setting up camp for the intensive training. As with any Parayoga workshop in Chicago, there was the feeling of being in good company as a clew of local senior teachers, and several from around the country got settled in.
Of the 70-plus students who rolled out their mats for the morning practice, over 60 were enrolled for the entire five-day Yoga Sutra: Light on Self-Mastery training. There were only a few practitioners who did not have notebook open, pen cocked and the text, “Four Chapters on Freedom,” ready to open when Rod clipped on his microphone.
“[For me] this is the most intimidating course of all that I teach,” began Rod, explaining how difficult it is to teach the most comprehensive text on yoga to students who have invariably been exposed to it. Thus, there is the compare-and-contrast factor for the students.
During an interview over curried tofu and rice at Big Bowl late in the weekend, Rod shed light on his challenges while teaching the Yoga Sutras. He offered the example of learning a Sanskrit chant or mantra very well but incorrectly and then being taught the correct pronunciation.
“One of the hardest things to do is to un-teach people – almost harder than to teach them,” said Rod.
Then there is the task of picking up where the Sutras fall slightly short. “It is a profound collection of wisdom. But it doesn’t capture all of yoga. So part of the intimidation is, do I stay absolutely true to this rendering of the Yoga Sutras?…because it’s fairly strict. And…what a lot of the people in the course are feeling is that there is a lot of self-examination within this tradition,” said Rod, explaining the process of tying the Sutras into the whole of Pure Yoga.
“There are other parts in yoga, and I’m as familiar, if not more familiar, with teaching those than I am just the self-reflection path. In a way, Patanjali [compiler of the Sutras] is making it challenging for people who want to take the path of yoga saying, ‘Look, you have to get still enough to begin to start looking at yourself.’ The beginning is stillness/ you have to make some conclusions about who you are and your subconscious tendencies, patterns, and then begin to make some choices about which of those patterns you like and are helpful and which are destructive.
“[That’s] a long way of saying it’s intimidating because it asks a lot of the practitioners. The other stuff that I teach has a little more vibrancy in it, a little more celebration to it, a little more dynamic to it, and that’s Tantra. It’s more obvious that there is…[a] point of view about the beauty of life and the goal…is to find joy. Patanjali doesn’t make this implicit. He conveys the highest essence but does not outline it in very flowery, expansive and celebratory terms.”
Despite the intimidating nature of the Sutras workshop, Rod overcame his challenge as he guided us in overcoming ours. As he checked in with the class each day, there were pockets around the room of low-sunk energy; the room was like a sea filled with many ships throwing everything that was not needed overboard to avoid sinking. But during the five-day journey, each ship seemed to take its turn steadying, many even riding on that wave of beauty and bliss.
“Welcome to day 56,” said Rod to the class on the morning of the fourth day. Indeed, it was a grueling process to be asked to sit with myself daily on the lovely but hard terrazzo floor and separate from what I had until then considered “self” and detach from that identity to rest in the light of my truth: my soul. And yet to the surprise of even this dedicated practitioner, the loftiest goals of yoga became attainable.
An underlying theme of Parayoga is kaya Sthira, or stillness. This action, or non-action, of being still is imperative to quieting the mind. In Rod’s teachings, which are in keeping with the Yoga Sutras, only then can one achieve true liberation.
Yogasgcittavrttinirodhah is a sutra familiar to most yoga teachers. It translates as yoga is the ability to direct the mind without distraction toward an object. Patanjali maps the road to stillness; Rod applies it. The first three chapters focus on techniques that (1) reduce the sources of suffering and (2) lead to samadhi (enlightenment, or bliss).
Svadhyaya, or the self-reflection path that reduces suffering, naturally, comes first. The mind can only be available to reach samadhi when it is clean and healthy. But in order to get there, the mind must be still. The methods for stilling the mind were explored each morning of the workshop through asana, pranayama and meditation. Another familiar sutra wove its way through the daily asana practice: sthirasukhamasanam (the posture is steady and calm).
Rod guided our control of the mind in such a way that it felt like a new discovery. Drsti (gaze) was called upon to hold oneself still balancing in Utthita hasta Padangusthasana (standing holding big toe pose). Mastery over the senses became a reality by steadying the shaking of the body in a three-minute Dhanurasana (bow pose). All previously held tension in my hamstrings was released via the mind in janu Sirsasana (head to knee pose, with sole of the foot to inner thigh).
“The mind is a void, the body a vast open space,” repeated Rod during one practice. Like a devotee repeating a mantra half a million times before suddenly merging with the content, I became this sensation.
The wizardry of Rod’s teaching is that he applies rich meaning to the asana practice, and from that depth of practice the meaning of this ancient text is realized.
Rod led us to joy through meditation and chant. According to Chicago teacher Jim Bennitt, who assisted the workshop along with Brenna Geehan, the chant we worked on in the afternoon sessions was the most difficult undertaking of the entire course. Although we chanted frequently throughout practice and lecture in the spacious ballroom, the invocation to Patanjali highlighted the workshop.
Senior teacher Karen Ornish (Kayo) of Michigan led the class patiently over a couple of days in call-and-response style. The invocation, a chant of gratitude to Patanjali for the Sutras, is as lengthy as it is beautiful. Learning it well was a practice in Smrti, or retentive power.
Giving the reigns to his senior teachers is a step Rod is taking to bring in a new phase of Parayoga. He plans to allow those he has mentored to become mentors. Bennitt and Geehan are among those teachers formulating a workshop to help teachers integrate their knowledge into their classes.
Rod explained that it would take three years for participants to complete the Paryoga Master Training. There will be ample time in between the nine courses for students to integrate the information and mature in their practice. Rod stressed that it is important for trainees to develop self-reliance. “It’s never the same as being in the company of a teacher who is more experiences and is steeped in a tradition. It’s never the same alone.” Not living in the same city as one’s teacher is something Rod himself studied for many years with internationally renowned yoga master Yogiraj Mani Finger and became his only American disciple to be given the title of Yogiraj.
“It became absolutely incumbent that I do personal practice…the process to get to self-reliance was often painful – and disappointing – I want to say even lonely,” said Rod.
It is through this progression to self-reliance that an instructor becomes a teacher, said Rod. The course on the Yoga Sutras is an integral part of this process, serving also as groundwork for the more Tantric courses. The five days left us with a utility closet stocked with new cleaning products and tools to undertake our homework – spring cleaning our minds so that we are prepared to invite higher consciousness to move in.
Maria Raynes is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. She teaches at Core Yoga Studio and Nature Yoga (where she hosts monthly prenatal workshops) and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org