An Interview with Robert Butera PhD

1. Yoga has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Why do you think that is?

I think that there are a lot of contributing factors, but I’d have to say that I really noticed things taking off in the mid 1990s. I can remember having a conversation with some fellow yoga teachers around that time, and we were all surprised to see our class attendance growing at an unusual rate. The direct correlation was the Hollywood factor—a lot of movie stars were professing that yoga was their secret to a maintaining a lean body and youthful appearance. That got the media talking, and all of sudden yoga wasn’t a strange esoteric thing practiced by hippies and eccentric Gurus. Yoga was positioned to become more accessible to the average individual.

We all know that a trend doesn’t have the ability to sustain itself without some substance behind it, and I believe that the continued popularity of yoga has more to do with the practice itself. It is a process of slowing down that offers people the opportunity to become more grounded and calm. In many ways, it is the perfect antidote to modern life. As technology becomes more and more ingrained into daily experience, we are forced to do more with less time—it is very easy to feel like life is spinning out of control. The stress of this new way of living creates the ongoing potential to lose touch with ourselves, and doing yoga is a wonderful way of setting time aside to reconnect with who we are at a deeper level.

2. How exactly would you define yoga?

This is an interesting question, one that you could ask a hundred different yoga teachers and get a different answer from each of them. Many people use the Sanskrit root word “Yuj” to define Yoga, which means “to yoke” and describes the yoking of the lower self to the higher self. While this definition is true in the literal and metaphorical sense, it has become something of a cliché in yoga circles. When any concept is overused, it can lose its deeper meaning.

At first, many students only experience the physical practice of yoga poses. As they experience the first level of mind/body changes brought about by practicing, students become curious as to why and how yoga works. They start to study the theories behind the practices and discover the pure definition of yoga—the cessation of the thought waves of the mind. The waves represent sources of stress, whether they are minor issues of daily existence or profound life struggles. Yoga tells us that the source of suffering is the resistance to the fact that everything in the material world is in a state of change. We live in ignorance of this simple truth and continue to resist change, creating a revolving source of stress and unhappiness. To remedy these vicissitudes of life, the process of yoga aims to help us calm or still the mind and find a sense of harmony within.

Personally, I define yoga as a holistic lifestyle—a peaceful way of being in the world and connecting to something that is larger than the individual ego. It is an all-encompassing process that allows us to be more skillful in our actions, and create balance in our relationships, health/food choices, at work, and in our spiritual lives. From this perspective yoga is both infinite in scope and timeless in nature.
3. I’ve heard that yoga can be used as part of a holistic approach to living; why is this?

As I mentioned in the previous question, yoga in its true nature is a holistic lifestyle. There are five main branches of yoga, and each category represents a different facet of the human experience. In order to bring about individual union with the larger reality, each one of these categories will need to be addressed. We are all born with different dispositions, so the emphasis of what are working on at any given time can shift if necessary.

Tantric Yoga is often thought of as a sexual practice, but it actually relates to the care of the body, including energy, health, and nutrition. Yoga poses and pranayama (breathwork or mastery of the energy body) fall under this category. Raja Yoga or meditative yoga includes Yoga’s psychological principles. Karma Yoga concerns attitudes towards work and outlines a method of transforming work into a spiritual pursuit. Devotional or Bhakti Yoga offers insights into relationships and love as well as spiritual practice. Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Knowledge consists of the study of self and of scriptures. Each branch is sophisticated and detailed, and when practiced together, they become an integrated and universally holistic path.

Often yoga is described as the science of living or as a complete lifestyle. One of the underlying assumptions for successful yoga practice is the synergistic approach. Simply put, this means that profound improvement can occur from making minor changes in a variety of areas of your life. For example, if you decrease your stress and calm your mind, suddenly you are able see the bigger picture. With this increased field of vision, you may notice that you need to improve your diet and other self-care routines. When you are feeling good about yourself, your capacity for love and patience for others may increase your relationships might blossom. As you evolve, you become a living, breathing example of yogic transformation that inspires others to evolve as well. These kinetic personal growth reactions are the secret to the unfolding path of Yoga.

4. You’ve spent several years abroad; how has your past experience overseas enriched your yoga?

My experience overseas essentially shaped my life path. As a student with the Friends World College in Japan (1985-88), I began to clearly see the suffering of the world. It was during those years that my desire to help people transcend their pain was solidified. Also in Japan, I met my first teacher of meditation, and considered becoming a monk. This teacher sensed that yoga was the correct approach for me and sent me off to India, where I found a comprehensive spiritual path.

As a student living at The Yoga Institute of Mumbai, India, I had the privilege of bearing witness to the effects of prolonged spiritual practice on a community. Through interacting with my teacher, I was able to apply the deeper philosophies to my own suffering and understand the ego’s role. I also observed how a spiritual teacher could live simply and still have a profound effect on the direction of student’s lives. Ultimately, living in India offered me the opportunity to experience the transformative power of a yoga practice and see the same power at work in others. When I began teaching yoga in 1990, the process continued in my own students. These collective experiences gave me the conviction that yoga really works.

Living in Japan and India also imbued my life with the essence of the Eastern approach. Through experience, I learned that life there is more about inner-balance than material success. As a young adult, these lessons were invaluable.

5. Your new book, The Pure Heart of Yoga, provides 10 steps to enrich personal yoga practice. What is the goal of these 10 steps?

The original title of the book was Connecting to the Infinite, and that is the major theme of the 10 steps. We changed the titled because we realized that people might not understand that the book was about yoga! This theme comes from the Yoga Sutras, book 2, verse 47, and describes the correct way to do a yoga pose: “By relaxation of effort and meditation on the infinite, postures (asanas) are perfected.” This statement refers to the goal of a yoga pose as being no different from the goal of any spiritual life—aligning the human being with the larger universe or reality. The book is meant to encourage the reader to use yoga to deepen their connection to a larger reality, and offers a template from which a person can work on whatever issues might be blocking them from the experience.  The book also outlines the experience of yoga poses as a life-long journey and dispels the myth of yoga as a quick-fix sensation. It helps demonstrate that within the context of a lifetime, different aspects of a yoga practice will become relevant, and offers methods for the different areas of the journey.

Ultimately, the 10 steps will empower people to begin or continue the process of understanding themselves through yoga practices, by expanding the mind, reducing the ego and realizing that in fact, they have been connected to the larger universe all along.
6.  I’m new to yoga. What do I need to know before starting my practice? Do I need to subscribe to a particular religious dogma to practice yoga?

First of all, everyone should know that all Yoga is not the same. There are different schools of thought and the approaches are radically different from school to school. The good news is that everyone can do yoga—it doesn’t matter if you are young or old, healthy or physically challenged, flexible or inflexible, there is a style and method that is right for you. Do some research and try different teachers and classes—ask questions and trust your instincts. Eventually you will find the style/approach that is right for you.

Being open-minded and learning to breathe properly are foundational necessities. Poses done without the proper alignment of breath will not reap the same benefits as poses done with breath awareness. Beginner students should also know that yoga is a personal experience, not a competitive sport. An attitude of non-violence towards self is a good place to begin from. Remember, there is no prize for pushing yourself beyond your limits and there is nothing wrong with you if you can’t touch your toes. The rewards of practice come to those who are patient and caring with themselves and allow the process to unfold organically, without force or strain. Allowing time for this to happen is also a key concept. While some people may experience the benefits of yoga after their first class, it may take a while to come to fruition for others.

Though books and DVDs can be helpful tools, I cannot stress enough the importance of finding a qualified teacher and participating in a group or private class. As a beginner, you will learn a lot about how your body works and having a teacher to guide you through the poses and answer questions will be essential.

All of that being said, new students should also know that yoga is designed to be non-dogmatic and traditionally the approach is more scientific than religious. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist—you can use yoga to enhance your life. In some rare instances, you may come across a splinter group that uses yoga to promote a religious agenda. If you find yourself in that situation and it is uncomfortable for you, simply remain open-minded and try a different class/approach the next time.
7. What advice would you give to any practitioner of yoga to enhance their practice?

I like the adage that says, “Plan to live to be 100 years old but live each day as if it were your last.” Trust that wherever you are in your practice is exactly where you are meant to be. Use your yoga to accept things as they are today, and keep the wonder of learning and growing as an exciting and integral part of your experience. If you ever feel stuck in your practice, know that there are a thousand ways to get unstuck—try practicing at home, going to a seminar or retreat or joining a teacher training program to deepen your experience. Certainly, The Pure Heart of Yoga offers a plethora of ideas to keep you moving forward!


About Robert Butera PhD

Robert Butera, MDiv, PhD (Devon, PA), founded YogaLife Institute in Pennsylvania, where he trains yoga teachers and Comprehensive Yoga Therapists. Robert's PhD at CA Institute of Integral Studies focused on Yoga Therapy. He ...

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