Yoga Sutra Classes with Robert Birnberg

I never thought I would be in a place like this with people like this. I once had a hard time thinking about where I would be, I had trouble thinking about what I wanted, I had trouble making plans. That only gets you so far, I kept going until I hit a dead end.

Robert Birnberg is a yoga teacher who does not teach group yoga classes, he only offers students one-on-one sessions. He does however hold a group class on the yoga sutras, which is where I am now. The yoga sutras are basically the ancient text from which yoga derives.

Once a month, on a Wednesday evening, I drive to his apartment in Silver Lake, just passed Sunset Junction, up in the hills. It seems every neighbor tends to a beautiful garden. As I walk toward his front door, I smell incense burning.

I take off my shoes, then enter his home. Most of the lights are off and most of the light comes from several glass candles, in glass holders, placed all around the living room. The largest candle is in a lotus candle holder, on the large wooden table, where he has put out snacks in bowls for his students.  There are chinese crackers, two types of cookies, fig newtons, candy, cherries, and strawberries.

As soon as he sees me he gives me a big hug. He wants to know how I am, how I am doing. I tell him and then find a seat.

He offers us food from the kitchen. Every sutra class, Robert offers his students pongal, a typical Indian dish. There’s homemade ghee and coconut oil to mix into the food. On the counter, there are two types of homemade tea, iced or hot. It’s summer and I’m warm but I choose the hot tea because it’s in a glass container and appears to be filled with small roses and mint leaves.

His wife Eleni Tsikrikas is usually here, I usually chat with her as I help myself to pongal and tea, but she’s learning how to do Ayurvedic massages and their dog is with her. He is a small lean brown dog that barks at me. I try not to take it personally. I tell myself, I’m sure he barks at everyone, well everyone except Eleni. He seems to love her very much.

I eat my pongal and look at the dozen pink roses in a vase on top of the piano and wonder if Robert bought them for Eleni. The apartment is filled with statues, of buddha-like figures and the books on the shelves are all yoga related.

Class begins and we introduce ourselves, some of us know each other, some of us don’t. We say our names and where we are with the yoga sutras. There are ten of us total in his living room.

Some people have been studying the sutras for over four years. One woman is memorizing all of them, she owns a yoga studio and offers teacher trainings. One of her former students is here. Many of these students have taken or are taking Robert’s teacher training.

As for me,  I discovered the yoga sutras very recently and I may be the youngest person in the room. I learned about the yoga sutras at my Shakta Teacher Training, directed by Tanya Greve and Lauren Maher. I’m the youngest student in that class, which makes me feel a little funny–only because someone pointed it out. I miss the obvious. I focus on the details and lose the big picture.

They say the devil is in the details. Which is true but I believe god must be there, too, and I don’t really even believe in a god–I’m just trying to make a point. That the details can be so striking, so beautiful, they can fill you up with light.

When I introduce myself, I explain that the yoga sutras added an intellectual component to yoga, which I felt was lacking from my yoga practice because I identify myself as a reader and writer. I tell them the classes are grounding because I’m learning so much in my teacher training. Robert’s classes keep me grounded in the sutras.

Robert comments that the yoga sutras are at the center of yoga and because of this, they should be at the center of every training and every practice. To say he is opinionated would be an understatement. I enjoy people who are opinionated, probably because I, too, am opinionated, and if not opinionated than I have singular likes and dislikes.

He makes an analogy to alcoholics. He explains that alcoholics think the relationship is the problem, finances are the problem, family, the job, and maybe drinking. When, in fact, the main problem is alcohol, which is affecting and informing every thing about the addict’s life, ie relationships, work, family, and finances.

Robert usually makes analogies to alcohol and drugs, because he was an addict for years and years. He also draws upon his personal experience with family and romantic relationships, in an effort to explain the yoga sutras. He makes the abstract concrete with personal experience, which reminds me of the way Bettina Aptheker, my feminist studies professor taught. Which is the only way I’ve ever been able to absorb abstract information–through stories.

Robert is an  articulate and funny storyteller.  He makes an Ayurvedic joke about him and his wife, “We’re two pittas in one house, during the summer. July and August. Two pittas. Can you imagine that?” We all laugh. I laugh. I know what that means. I’ve been reading Ayurvedic books since 2008. It’s yoga nerd humor.

One reason I like Robert is that he is very direct. I tend to listen to people who are direct. Mainly because they cut the bullshit. They get to the point, there’s a bottom line.

I told a friend I was studying with Robert and told me, “I’ve studied with Robert before. I’m glad you’re seeing yoga through his prism.”

I said, “It’s definitely refreshing,”

My friend said, “It’s nice to pop the yoga bullshit bubble. You’re studying with good people.”

Case in point: Two months ago Robert said, “One thing I want you to think about is focus. Everything in your life shows you don’t have focus.”

“Aargh,” I yelled and threw my hands in the air. “I fucking hate focus.” I slouched in the couch and crossed my arms.

“I know, and how far has that gotten you.”

Touche, teacher. Touche.

“Fine,” I said. “Fine.” And just like that I decided to focus, which for me meant to make choices about what I wanted from life and stick to them.

The first sutra begins, “Here begins the authoritative instruction on yoga.” The second sutra defines yoga as “the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction.”

After introductions, we reviewed the sutras we discussed in the previous class. We had reviewed the first five sutras. Robert says the first few sutras have to do with defining yoga as setting on a path, choosing a direction or goal. He explained that yoga gives you the tools to stick with it.

Today we discuss other sutras, we discuss nine sutras in two and half hours. Before we discuss a sutra, we chant the sutra in Sanskrit. Robert usually picks apart sanskrit, word by word, giving us a literal translation. He studied in India and his knowledge of the sutras as well as Sanskrit appears impressive.

There’s a fan behind me and as the sun sets the air feels cool on my skin. I take notes on my MacBook and listen to Robert and other students and sometimes contribute.

When the class ends, I wash my bowl and fork and tea cup in the kitchen sink. I say goodbye to Robert who gives me big hug. Before I leave, I turn and say Bye to the other students. They all seem to know each other and I’m not sure why I don’t stick around to talk. Maybe I have somewhere to be, maybe I am shy. Maybe I know I will get to know them soon enough.

To learn more about Robert, visit Longexhale.

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