At the end of 2015 I attended several Yoga workshops with Simon Borg-Olivier at a Yoga Festival in Goa. There I learned of Simon's approach to yoga and his fascinating way of teaching it. Simon is the founder of Synergy Yoga Center in Sydney (Australia) and a well respected Yoga teacher in the community there. He travels the world and shares his broad knowledge and his dedicated yoga practice. I was truly inspired by this teachings and wanted to know more. That’s why I met him on a warm summer morning in the garden of the Festival and talked to him about his philosophy.
Deddou: In most of your classes here you start to tell a bit about your philosophy about teaching the basics. Maybe you want to share that with us here.
Simon: I think that modern yoga has lost its path a little bit. Because the maha gurus in of the modern included people like Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois . They haven’t been teaching for the last 15 years and now they passed away. So I was very lucky to get their teaching in the 80’s. Today I notice that a lot of teachers, some of them call themselves Iyengar and Ashtanga teachers, are actually mixed and are not really pure. What they say is coming from these teachers is not coming from them at all. So in fact Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga the way I see it now, is not what was thought in the 80’s. What is really missing is the essence of Yoga in terms of Yama and Niyama as defined by Patanjali in his sutras. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya and most yogis were very big on them. On a philosophical level Yama includes Ahimsa which means to be “non violent”, Satya stands for “not lying”, Asteya for “not stealing”, Brahmacharya for “no sex” and Aparigraha for “no attachment”.
But actually that’s a bad way of saying it, that’s not the translation or the intent. When I’m telling you: “Don’t think of pink elephants, don’t think of pink elephants”, the first thing you think of? Pink elephants! So saying “non violence” makes you actually think of violence. That is not what you are trying to do – but the opposite! What’s the opposite of violence? Gentleness. The opposite of “not lying”? It’s not only always telling the truth like when you’re looking at someone and say: “Frankly, I think you look really horrible today”. You don’t have to tell them that they look horrible, instead you can tell them for example that they have nice clothes on. Asteya is not “not to steal”, it is about giving. And of course we have to have sex: to have children or to nourish a relationship between a loving couple. So I think Brahmacharya is not doing things just for selfish pleasures, but do it for nourishing a communion, relationship or friendship. The fifth Yama “Aparigraha” is not “don’t be attached”, but be liberated and free. I have to practice on my yoga mat to experience this gentle balance of giving, nourishment and freedom. So I have to engender that in myself and communicate it with the ones around me. If I’m not following that, I’m not really following Niyama.
So Niyama is also important. Śauca means purity, Santoṣa: be happy with your life, contentment, Tapas: suffer, causing pain, Svādhyāya: studyand Īśvarapraṇidhāna: the devotion to some god.
For me yoga is about union and union means communication and connection. The best way to connect within your body is to encourage your blood flow, so that your energy and information is flowing through the channels or nadis of the body. That can be: Electrical, chemical energy going through your nose, heat going through your blood or energy carrying molecules like glucose or ATP and information carrying molecules like neurotransmitters and hormones. So it is about the movement of energy and information through your channels. What encourages that? The proper practice of Hatha Yoga. What discourages this flow? Too much tension, too much stretching, too much breathing, too much thinking and too much eating. For Śauca (purity) you have to get rid of those.
Santoṣa (to be happy with your life) is: to choose your mood. Happiness is a good choice, you have to know that it is something you choose and something you’re waiting for. I have seen the happiest people living in India on the side of the street with nothing and other people in west who have all the wealth in the world are still miserable. Happiness is your choice and that is the one of the biggest lessons in yoga. You have to be happy with what you’ve got. Sometimes, for example when a friend dies, you chose misery, but nor forever, just for a period.
“Tapas” is not just suffer, it is passionate desire! Iyengar said so in his book: Tapas is the burning desire to do you best. I want to do this, I don’t have to do this.
Svādhyāya is not just to study. It is the inner study, this inner quest to find your Self. Who are you? What are you here for?
Īśvarapraṇidhāna is not just the devotion to an external God. The realisation of yoga is that we are all connected, we are God. The universal consciousness is the individual consciousness. It is not about trying to become like this or find THAT: We are THAT already! We are perfect already. We just need to recognise that we are fine the way we are. Waking up to realise that is quite hard.
So, if we are all connected, how are we connected? Like a mother to a child in total love. A mother is devoted to her child, a child adores her mother. This devotional aspect is love. The ultimate connection is that loving connection. If the universe is connected like a mother and a child, imagine, then we are all connected in love!
And lets have a look at the Nyiama’s? What does Nyiama mean? The passionate inner quest to overcome the obstacles of happiness and loving connections.
I am going to practice lovingly, gently with no pain or suffering. That’s why I say I make my practice like I’m in a warm bath being massaged by someone who really loves me. This doesn’t feel like stretching, but afterwards I get flexible. It doesn’t feel like tensing, yet I feel stronger. It doesn’t feel like breathing yet I’ve got plenty of energy. It doesn’t feel like my heart is racing, but my blood is flowing. It doesn’t feel like I’m just laying down doing nothing, but I feel relaxed. After practicing I’m not exhausted or hungry, but energised.
Deddou: During your class you talk a lot about the 3 basic principles of Hatha Yoga. Could you explain them?
Simon: I teach 3 principle techniques of hatha yoga. But these techniques unfortunately are not used by most of the people. When you understand them, things start to happen. After understanding these three things you can add on things like complicated breathing or resistance exercises. But once you try them too early it turns into over-stretching, over-thinking and that blocks you. This leads to flight or fight response and stress. Feelings like fear, anger, aggression, lack of safety may appear. This doesn’t sound like yoga to me. You’ve got to feel the love, the gentle and safety while doing the yoga poses.
So, the first three steps, which people have widely missed are: 1. Re-learn how to breath naturally, because most adults have forgotten how to do that. 2. Re-learn how to move naturally, because most adults have forgotten how to do that, too.
For example: Most people use their hands to get into the lotus position. Traditional yogis don’t use their hands, they simply do it with their legs. I’m not saying that it is wrong to use your hands, but at least first try to use only your legs. This movement has a physiological response to the body, which means that one muscle will switch on, the opposite muscle will switch off. This improves your blood flow, and trains your muscles. By moving naturally you learn the first steps of traditional yoga.
The third technique is to move from your core. That’s what most people miss, because they are confused by badly interpreted concepts that come from a world of physiotherapy and sport sciences. You move from the core by understanding the following simple technique: move from the core before any part of the body moves. The core is in your centre, the region between Manipura chakra and the Svadisthana chakra. Even breathing has to start from here!
Deddou: In most of your yoga classes we are taught to breath less. Why?
Simon: Somehow the current world of yoga has ignored modern medical science. Because any medical textbook will tell you: A healthy person breathes about 5 litres of air every minute, when in a relaxed state. An average person breaths in and out about 12-18 times per minute. Anything above that is called hyperventilation and is associated with all sorts of negative things: sickness, overstimulation of the nerves, less oxygen, hunger or nervous tensions. Also a few positive things: It will make you more sensitive and it makes your joints a bit more flexible. But hyperventilation is not something you want to promote. However, what happens when you start to breath less? Hypoventilation (breathing less than normal): calming down your nervous system, eases tensions, it makes more blood come to the brain and brings more oxygen to your cells. You can keep on hypo-ventilating up to a certain point. When it becomes too much, that point is called death. Up until that point you actually feel better: you get hotter, you get more energy and your cells get more oxygen.
But it is very difficult to breath less than normal. Once you learned it, that’s Pranayama. If you want to learn to breath less than one full breath a minute, you could do it like this: inhale 30 seconds, exhale 30 seconds. That’s hard though! You could inhale 15, hold 15, exhale 15 and hold out 15 seconds. Also challenging! The simplest way for beginners is to breath naturally, like they would have a rest. The breath almost becomes invisible and that’s Pranayama.
I was in a class of Pattabhis Jois’s grandson, once. I thought I was on the set of Star Wars 7! The intermediate students make all sorts of noise, because they don’t understand bandha and drishti. But any advanced practitioner learns and knows how to breath consciously with bandha application. Their breath is firm, but calm.
So if people want to learn more about my approach to hatha yoga and start teaching these techniques, they can join me for one of my teacher trainings. One is coming up in Goa right now from the 19th March – 17th of April. For anyone who doesn’t have the chance to come to Goa, they can also check out the online trainings, Synergy Yoga is offering .
Interview conducted by Deddou Burkhard
Transcript by Sara Bagladi