I practice, teach, and live Bhakti yoga - the yoga of love and devotion. Balabhadra, a devotee of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, first introduced me to this practice in 1990. This compassionate spiritual master followed Lord Krishna's teachings found at the heart of the Bhagavad-Gita: Bhaktya mam abhijanati (18:11), which means "I can only be known by devotional service." In addition to Bhakti, Balabhadra also taught me the importance of selfless service, Karma yoga; and chanting in a group or softly to oneself, called Japa and Kirtana.
I began my practice of Hatha yoga in 1996 through the teachings of Masters Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda, who emphasized the synthesis of asanas (postures), pranayama (breath exercises), relaxation, and proper diet to develop the physical body and awaken the energies. They also taught selfless service to remove egoism; mantra chanting and worship to release emotion into devotion and selfless love; study of the scriptures to transcend the intellect, and meditation to go deeply within and arrive at the true nature of our being-Self, God, the Truth.
I've been teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1998 and enjoy fusing together the many wonderful influences I've had from teachers such as Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Georg Feuerstein, Shri Dharma Mittra, Baron Baptiste, David Life, Sharon Gannon, and everyone who has ever demonstrated patience and exquisite kindness - including every single parent who somehow 'keeps it all together'. Their eclectic methods inspire my teaching and continue to deepen the experiences of my own personal practice, and I am eternally grateful to them.
Ashtanga, Bikram and Jivamukti are other important systems within this diverse practice known as yoga. Inspired by these methods, I incorporate certain elements from each into my own practice and instruction.
While my classes tend to be vigorous and physically challenging, their actual power stems from each student's internal experience. I encourage all to recognize that a generous, compassionate nature gives us the wonderful opportunity to transcend our limits and let go of what no longer serves us. With that realization, we can release our egos and prepare our hearts for the opportunity to be of service through unconditional love and devotion.
The heart of yoga is the discovery of Oneness.
'ayam bandhurayam neti ganana laghuchetasam
udaracharitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam'
'Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger.
For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.'
- Maha Upanishad Chapter 6, Verse 72
Recently, Rusty sat down with writer Nora Isaacs to talk about his style of yoga, the evolution of his teaching, and his personal practice. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:
Q: What is Bhakti Flow?
A: Bhakti is the yoga of love and devotion to the god of one's own unique understanding. There's no dogma involved; if you have devotion in your life, you know where to put your attention, whether it's to a god, person, nature or anything else.
The flow part refers to the flowing sequence known as vinyasa. The flow is also an energetic response, where you have the opportunity to open up and observe. Whether you are in a pose that you love or may not love, the flow is about bringing all that stuff to the surface so you can be with it as it is.
In the practice of yoga, we use the body for self-discovery. Some yoga systems are devoid of the study of the emotions, but they are a huge part of who we are individually and collectively. In Bhakti Flow, we acknowledge the emotions in our lives. We look at the whole-the mind, the body, and the heart-and try to do the best to connect it all with the flow.
Q: How do your vigorous vinyasa classes lead to a feeling of stillness and peace?
A: When I first started teaching, I was softer. Everything was quiet and sweet. I thought people just needed to come to a quiet sanctuary. But soon I noticed that people fidgeted like crazy and couldn't handle the quiet. Then I realized that maybe those of us who are urban dwellers, who have stimulation all of the time, need their yoga experience to reflect that intensity. I decided to bring it up a notch.
In yoga, we want to pay attention to the present, and I find the best way to do this is to make the practice an intense experience. At the end, you feel a calm, a relief, and an appreciation for a moment. When I teach these fierce classes, there is surrender that I never see when I teach a more relaxing class. It's like a snow globe-you shake it up so much that nothing is different, yet you can see clearer.
Q: What brought you to the yoga practice?
A: I had friends who were yoga teachers nagging me for a long time to just try it. I would roll my eyes at them. Finally, I went- kicking and screaming. Immediately, it was very profound. I came back because I found that I was in a non-competitive environment for the first time in my life. It felt safe and like a really creative place to come and release something. I stayed in the practice with great humility and appreciation. I just kept coming back, day after day. To this day, when I thank my teachers, I always think of those teachers, they are kind of amazed at what they started. They fed me in countless ways.
Q: How has your own practice evolved?
A: The systems that I've practiced in the past have had me working in a very linear, flat way. This has been great for strength and flexibility, but I find that my body enjoys rippling a little bit more. So I'm letting my whole form become more fluid, letting it really become a flow as I find the undulation and awakening of the spine. I like the dynamic flows of a Sun Salutation or the Primary Series, but if it's all about strength and predictability, we might miss out on being fully present. When you know what's going to happen, it's easy to switch to automatic. Finding the flow also helps find areas that we are neglecting-usually there is something beautiful waiting to happen.
Q: And how has this influenced your teaching?
A: I like to teach in an unpredictable way. What kinder gift can a teacher give to their students than to help them stay in tune with present time energy – being one with a moment that will never ever come again? The intensity works because they are just trying to get by in the moment.
Q: What is your daily practice like?
A: I like to practice a standard vinyasa series on my own in the mornings. In the evenings, I have my own freestyle exploration. When I do this, I don't use a yoga mat; I find that the four corners of the mat contain me. It's a very helpful container at times, but it's also fun to get off of the mat as much as possible and let my body move around a little bit. I also practice before every class I teach. I want to be able to walk into that space, and whatever it is I ask of the students I can feel comfortable doing it myself. If you are going to teach it, you should be able to practice it. So before class, I kick my own butt so I feel justified in asking people to find their edge!
Q: Is yoga just for the young and the fit?
A: Absolutely not. I feel blessed to teach a variety of people. I've taught obese people who can't get to the floor. I've taught chair yoga to senior citizens from ages 82-96.
It doesn't matter if you are 97 trying to do a chair backbend; an overweight person who can't see your feet, let alone touch them; or a world-class athlete who can do everything. When I watch students, I'm in love. I am inspired. All I feel is this love and appreciation when I see how powerful they are, and how hard they are trying. I am just in constant awe, absolutely inspired by people doing everything they can.
Q: Any advice for a new practitioner?
Make sure you come to the most appropriate level class. Many people make the mistake of coming to a class that is too difficult, especially if they have an athletic background. They think they can escape the fundamentals. Trust that you can build the fundamentals quickly, but if you don't start with that, it's hard to go back and unlearn how you've done it incorrectly, especially with the breath. Another thing to note is that it's a noncompetitive environment. If you are a competitive person, do the best to set that aside-with yourself and others. The advice I give to both beginners and seasoned practitioners is that there is no room for ambition or greed. Neither one will serve you, and in fact they will be counterproductive. You want to keep the foundations strong, but if you are pushing to a point that is ambitious or greedy, you will be get tight and stand a chance of hurting yourself.