Wisdom InterView #6: Matt Champoux: Revelling In The Wisdom Of Ashtanga Yoga, Buddhism, And Birdsong

“There are definitely Ashtangis out there who think if they do all the series perfectly they’ll become enlightened. God bless them for their enthusiasm, but there is no physical prerequisite for enlightenment.”


Matt Champoux Biography

Matt has been a student of yoga since 2000 and is an internationally recognized teacher with 500+ hours of training. Based in San Francisco, he directs a Mysore program at The Mindful Body and teaches Vinyasa with Yoga Tree. He is a lifelong student of yoga philosophy (Hindu and Buddhist) and the shamanic traditions of Amazonia. These traditions inform and color his teachings on vinyasa and Ashtanga as taught by his root teachers, Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor.

In addition to studies with Richard and Mary and in Mysore, with Sharath and Pattabhi Jois, Matt has spent years Iyengar teachers and other therapeutic yoga methods. Of the numerous teachers and mentors he’s had over the years Matt has been deeply inspired by Maty Ezraty, Chuck Miller, Dan Michael, Ramanand Patel, Gabriella Giubilaro, Rodney Yee, John Friend, and Dr. Robert Thurman.

His training also includes in-depth study of anatomy and long-term apprenticeship. He draws large classes and supports studentship at the highest level.

Matt is also a lifelong student of environmental science, ornithology, and religion, and he has a master’s degree in Anthropology from Stanford University. When Matt’s not at the yoga studio, he likes to climb, travel, and birdwatch. He also operates Of the Field Photography, a company devoted to yoga portraiture, nature photography, and documenting the vital connections between humans and the environment.

Lead Image by Kaare Iverson

Interviewed by Director of Vasudhaiva Institute, Sati Chmelar

INTERVIEW

Q: I would love to open this interview with you sharing your first experience with Yoga at the age of 14 years old. I found it quite charming.

A: Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Yoga was one of those things everyone did. My mom and aunt had been practicing for a number of years by the time I was a teenager. Richard Freeman was one of the main teachers in town, but he also grew up in the same part of St. Louis as my family grew up in, and grew up Jewish. So many of these secular Jews (myself included) across the US have been drawn to these yoga practices—a fascinating note with strong karmic implications! Anyway, I had always been one of those kids who enjoyed standing on my head, falling asleep in strange yogic positions while draped over the couch, and my mom knew I would love Yoga. I finally consented after two years of denying her invitations and went to a class of Richard’s. Even then, Richard drew people out of the woodwork and we were crammed into The Yoga Workshop like sardines. It being the 90s, all I had for Yoga was a pair of baggy shorts to practice in and, as was the style for my generation, a shirt three sizes too big because it was cool. All the hustle and bustle, people vying for a good place where they could see the man, and my feeling all that teenage awkwardness simply trying to ready for my first class. I don’t remember much from the experience but a few things stand out: Richard’s long legs in those silly little Iyengar diaper shorts; watching a profound expansion of his ribcage as he instructed us to take a 1,000 gallon inhale prior to our first forward bend into Padangushtasana; hating every minute feeling incredibly uncoordinated, and sweating profusely inside the humidity tent of my giant t-shirt. It was a sufferfest. Although unpleasant at first, I soon became swallowed up by the practice at age 17 and haven’t looked back since. It has become more and more interesting and rich as time passes.

Q: What impact did Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor have on your spiritual education and development?

A: In many ways, Richard and Mary are my spiritual parents. They have witnessed and supported me in my practice (and through periodic meals and coffee dates) during some of the most profound times of my life—major transitions, trips to Asia, deaths, heartbreak, you name it. Taking public class with Richard for five years (2000-2005), at the very end of his time teaching regularly in Boulder, was a profoundly transformative time for me at a key developmental period. Richard inspired me to delve deeper into the practice through my studies at University of Colorado at Boulder and in fact inspired me to stay in Boulder so I could keep studying with him at The Yoga Workshop. At CU I transformed my degree into a personalized Yoga study program using anthropology and religious studies – through studying the nature of the human condition (anthropology) we can learn about the deepest dimensions of the human experience, what makes us tick. Evolution, cultural expression, history, art, and science, are all limbs of inquiry into the nature of who we are and our place in the cosmos. I studied Sanskrit, Hindu studies, Hindu Tantra, South Asian anthropology and history, in addition to post colonialism, ecological anthropology, nature religions, and evolution. All the while I was practicing Mysore at 6am and couldn’t get enough raw Yoga practice. My entire life became subsumed under the practice. And this was just the first third of my time with Richard, over 10 years ago.

Mary’s presence, until recently, was mostly background but she always had an eye out for me since I was one of the few younger practitioners at the studio in the early 2000s. She always supported me and even pushed to have a small article written about me for studio newsletter called, “The Laughing Elephant” in time for my first month-long teacher training with them in 2005. She wanted other teacher training attendants to know I was not just another dabbler, but a practitioner with some depth. Mary was a profoundly steady presence for me as my main Mysore teacher from 2009-2014. She witnessed many of the major physical breakthroughs in my practice such as learning to float into handstand from a forward bend, completing the 3rd Series, etc. I was not naturally flexible or strong, so everything I earned in the practice was hard-won. Mary’s patience, humor, and kindness kept me going through it all. Richard and Mary have always kept my ego in check as well with gentle reminders and regular phone calls over the years. I, like many, think of Mary as “Mother Mary,” since she has a deep love and capacity to care for everyone in the sangha. No matter how busy, Richard and Mary, always made time to have tea or grab a quick bite with me. Put simply, their teachings of yoga were present not only in what they taught (and are still teaching me!) but also in how they lived and related in their “humanness.” They have changed my life and influenced me in the deepest of ways. Answering this question is like trying to answer the question, “how has being a parent changed your life?” As dharma teachers, Richard and Mary have colored the deepest fibers of my being, my pranashakti and wisdom mind. An irrevocable, unshakable transmission has occurred through my studies with them. I feel so fortunate.

Q: Why do you think Ashtanga Yoga ended up becoming your sadhana? Was this practice particularly good at shining a light on elements of your psyche that needed attention and healing?

A:   I love the practice. I find its nuance and subtlety endlessly captivating, and the landscape of the human body has always felt like a natural place to explore. The more I practice, the more a feeling of returning home arises inside. In other words, I have a strong karma with the practice, and most likely previous lives as a practitioner of Hatha Yoga and the technologies of inner science. Also, I respect my teacher Richard so much, and trust him so deeply, that I have naturally followed his lead. I’m a fan of standing on the shoulders of giants rather than rebuilding the wheel—as is the fad here in the West with a new Yoga form being invented by the day. I want vetting and integrity to be a part of my practice. Authentic historic lineage insures that. The Ashtanga Yoga practice has been deeply healing for my own body image as well as strengthening in general. Through the careful attention to the details of posture—alignment of outer form through to inner forms and the interrelationship between the two—I have felt more and more grounded and able to deal with life’s challenges. Since I began the practice I have been reading yoga philosophy (Hindu and Buddhist), and realizations made through literature have been tested out in the laboratory of my yoga mat. The values and philosophical schools of Mahayana Buddhism have left a particularly profound impact in a way that feel integrated with my Ashtanga Yoga sadhana.

Q: What is your opinion about choosing a physically dynamic practice like vinyasa-based asana for those later in life? How should the practice shift or alter with respect to the aging process?

A: I work with a number of “older” practitioners who don’t fit the mold of those who stereotypically become inspired by Ashtanga, namely the fit, young, and agile. As we age in the practice it’s extremely important to remember that Pattabhi Jois often worked with students in a therapeutic format and often prescribed different practices for students (mostly in this earlier days). Therefore the practice is adaptable if we let it. There is a tendency right now in the Ashtanga community towards increasing rigidity and a belief that the only way to do Ashtanga is to do perfect count, perfect vinyasa and flawless physical execution of the posture (not to mention catching ankles in backbends), even at the expense of physical wellbeing. Anything else that deviates is simply not Ashtanga or some “bastardization” invalid in the eyes of many: the politics and power dynamics of the lineage are real. In other words, there are orthodox practitioners (often—but not always, dogmatic in their approach), and non-orthodox. Simply acknowledging this difference is useful if you are interested in having a dialogue about this living tradition. Life requires adaptation and resilience. If a tradition is to withstand the test of time, it also requires these qualities.

From this perspective, in the context of the aging process, or atypical students (with physical limitations or injuries), the series need to be considered structures of accountability rather than a sequence of postures sent from God etched into gold tablets. After all, the series have changed in content and dynamic during the lifetime of Pattabhi Jois – just ask any of the senior-most teachers out there and they will give you an earful (such as Nancy Gilgoff, Richard Freeman, Mary Taylor, Maty Ezraty, and Tim Miller, to name a few.) Moving into the future, if we can remember the therapeutic root of the practice (Yoga Chikitsa) and if we develop an understanding of the internal forms of the practice then we can begin to understand the intention behind the postures. Through understanding the intention of a family of postures, we can modify the postures (if the body is no longer able to perform the original pose) to give the energy behind the pose to the practitioner’s body. This will have the desired effect. Modification is fine as long as we understand why, and only qualified teachers can be trusted to make these judgments. In general, less vinyasa seems appropriate for my aging and therapeutic track students. I direct them to find power in subtlety and dive deeper into the more meditative dimensions of the practice. As teachers, we are transmitting a method and an intelligence that underlies behind the postures, behind the practice itself.

Q: Do you feel Ashtanga Yoga as an asana practice can effectively support more subtle practices such as pranayama and meditation or that the sheer length and complexity of the asana practice (in terms of each series) can overshadow or take up valuable time that is needed for more subtle practices?

A: I don’t look at Ashtanga Yoga as different from the more subtle practices of pranayama or meditation. When the practice is done correctly, with attention to the inner forms, meditative states arise spontaneously. When combined with a seated practice, the embodiment studies of yoga make it much easier to maintain meditative awareness in daily life (at work, taking care of the kids, negotiating traffic, etc.). The series prepares the body and physiology in important ways for pranayama as well, by deeply strengthening all the secondary respiratory systems, making you aware of them, and training your ability to control them. But yes, in some cases the series work takes up time when we might be studying sutra or obtaining inspiration from wisdom literature. There are definitely Ashtangis out there who think if they do all the series perfectly they’ll become enlightened. God bless them for their enthusiasm, but there is no physical prerequisite for enlightenment. Just look at the Dalai Lama.

Pattabhi Jois said “Do your practice and all is coming.” Many students think you just have to do the asana and you’re going to be fine. But what he meant by “practice” entails philosophical, textural study, and meditation. Do your practice yes, but also hold it in the context of the Noble Eightfold Path, the eight limbs of practice, of your whole life. All in all, the practice, when done correctly, has an erosive effect which helps people to become softer, kinder, gentle, and more compassionate. If that’s all that comes from their practice I’m happy for them. I’d be happier if everyone who undertook the practice in earnest also became inspired to pursue enlightenment.

Q: Have there been other spiritual and/or religious traditions that have significantly impacted your practice and views?

A: Buddhism and the shamanic traditions of South America. These traditions are some of the best at addressing the deepest nature of our relationship to the natural world, the world of spirit, the cosmos of mind and true nature of the universe. Again, it’s about orientation and gaining insight into my place in the cosmos and biosphere.

Q: I am quite interested in your love of anthropology, environmental science and in particular of birds! Can you tell me more about this and if you have found connections between the natural world and your spiritual studies?

A: One of my favorite things about birdwatching is that I feel like I’m having an incredibly deep and intimate relationship with nature; it gives me a sense of communion. The simplicity of watching a bird doing what it does is extremely calming to me. In order to see a bird, particularly tropical species, which are my favorites, you have to slow down, listen, and watch the surroundings intently. Birding requires attentiveness and attuning to your environment. The practice of asana has the same quality for me: stop, listen, slow down, connect with breath, and then watch the process do what is does—raw and fresh. When I was a graduate student doing research in the Peruvian Amazon I memorized about 150 songs and became familiar 300 species’ songs, calls, chips, and song phrases. Through all of this listening I learned a lot about the deeper practices of nadayoga.

My love of anthropology comes from a deep curiosity about the nature of the human condition, in all of its diverse manifestation, which is also the crux of the yoga practice – a deep understanding of self through a profound understanding of others and vice versa. I’m an environmental scientist by training (that included conservation biology, ecology, evolution, and anthropology) and I’ve always had a deep love for the natural world. My favorite bedtime tales as a child of 3 were those found in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. I still read the publication to this day. My love and appreciation for the beauty of creation continues to grow and some of the deepest states of yoga that I’ve experienced come from this sense of rapture while in nature—of nirodha, the essence of the aesthetic experience. The more I learn about the natural world and the universe, the more I feel at home, united with the cosmos.

ON WISDOM

Because these interviews are an extension of Vasudhaiva’s mission to cultivate and aid in the realization of wisdom, we make a point to ask several questions directly about wisdom in each interview.

Q: How do you define “wisdom” in the context of your spiritual life?

A: Wisdom is correct view, or a perspective that transmutes the condition of suffering into joy. Wisdom is that which enables the mind to understand how the mind works, why we suffer, and how we might live with true, lasting happiness. Wisdom arises from the experience of insight. In other words it is more than just knowing something. To have wisdom is to have wrestled with the ideas of the dharma, to have chewed them, kneaded them, digested them, and ultimately assimilated them into the deepest fibers of your being (Atman), or for that matter, your non-being (Anatman). Jñana is the Sanskrit term often used to denote wisdom and comes from the verbal root jna “to know.” It is distinguished from knowledge of things, as dyads, born of context dependent networks of signifiers, with the word vijana, which has the addition of “vi” signifying split, or in two.

Wisdom is a root state that, once connected to, has a pervasive effect that transforms and purifies one’s actions. Through establishing the mind in wisdom, the practitioner’s field of actions and influence start to manifest as embodied wisdom, which is one of the most powerful results of a deep Hatha Yoga practice. I consider the highest teachings of Buddhist and Hindu Yoga to be teachings on the same subject and so I freely allow texts on the subject from both schools to inspire and inform my practice as if they were one source.

Q: What particular texts have had a profound impact in your cultivation of wisdom and could you describe briefly why?

A: The three most impactful readings from the last two years have been: The Profound Treasure Instructions of Padmasambhava to the Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal (and other termas, or Treasures from Juniper Ridge) commentary by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and translated by Erik Kinsang and Marcia Schmidt; Vajra Essence, Shamatha Teachings from Dudjom Lingpa, commentary and translations by B. Alan. Wallace; and The Profound Dharma of the Natural Liberation through Contemplating the Peaceful and Wrathful: Stage Completion Instructions on the Six Bardos (or Natural Liberation: Padmasambhava’s Teachings on the Six Bardos), commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche and translated by B. Alan Wallace.

In a nutshell, these texts have played a significant role in refining my understanding of the view, proper ways to practice, and they have grounded me in taking the mind as the path through embodiment practice. As the Hathapradipika says, the mind (citta) and body/perception/breath (prana) are two ends of the same stick; they are like two fish swimming in tandem, when one moves so does the other. In reading these texts my mind enters a space that is similar to the experience of feeling a cool breeze on a hot day. The discussions and critiques provided in good wisdom literature give me a sense of relief from normative awareness in a way that is startling—it’s a relief from something I didn’t even know I needed relief from!

Q: Can you tell us one or more specific wisdom teachings that have deeply touched you and briefly describe why?

A: #1: “As a Yogi, you should stick to the meditation experience without interruption. While doing so, you should meditate on the three key points of body, speech, and mind. While clearly present as the yidam deity, visualize and supplicate the guru above your head. Imagine millions of dakinis dancing in manifold ways at the base of every hair on your body. Then gather your mind within your body at the level of the heart, and let both the body and mind be totally unfettered, utterly free.”[1]

I like to practice asana in this way and with this degree of subtlety and imagination. If asana is practiced like this then each gesture, breath, thought, and feeling, offers is a potential gateway to the transcendent—and to the reconciliations of the two truths (the utter oneness of all things and the conventional significance of particulars). Through practicing this way, simply doing Suryanamaskara A is utterly amazing and transformative. Imagining wisdom energy dancing at the base of every hair is not only a beautiful image, it creates a palpable feeling throughout my body and gives me shivers. It confirms that what I’ve been feeling through the teachings, as I’ve been taught, is valid and that I’m on the right track.

#2: “The American notion of tulku is different from the traditional Buddhist notion of a tulku. Americans have this sense that a tulku is a person who takes birth as a tulku and then lives his or her life serving others. Then, as soon as that life is over, this person zips off to the next life and takes birth again. Then he or she lives that life as a tulku, dies, again doesn’t want to waste any time, and zips off to another life. It’s hurry, hurry, hurry—a rush-hour traffic approach to tulkuhood. Trinley Norbu remarked that in contrast, the Buddhist View is that the Dharmakaya emanates effortlessly and immeasurably as the Sambhogakayas; and Sambhogakayas manifest as innumerable Nirmanakayas, like light rays manifesting from the sun. All this occurs spontaneously and limitlessly. That view is very different from the out-of-breath, linear movement of the one little tulku zipping through time leap-frogging from one life to another.”[2]

This second teaching made an important translation for me in terms of how I think about wisdom and the energy of the teachings (the dynamics of teacher, student, and the dharma). It is immensely grounding to know that even if you may not be a recognized tulku or treasure revealer, as a teacher, your energies can be authentically inspired from the deepest source. By simply practicing effectively and diligently you can become a source of the highest teachings from the greatest wisdom lineages in history. While I certainly feel I am a long way from this level, it is inspiring for me to have this potential in the back of my mind: to be a conduit for the light rays of the Dharmakaya emanating the great healing vision of the teachings to all beings, in all lands, through all times.


Matt Champoux Upcoming Events and Further Information

* Matt is co-leading a yoga retreat with Sara Hess on Koh Samui, Thailand at Samahita Retreat Center, July 31-August 6, 2016 and has numerous other plans for teaching international in the works. You can find more information regarding his travel plans, articles, videos, and teaching schedule at mattchampouxashtanga.com.


[1] Treasures from Juniper Ridge: The Profound Treasure Instructions of Padmasambhava to the Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, as translated by Erik Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt, 2008, 45.

[2] Natural Liberation: Padmasambhavas Teachings on the Six Bardos, commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche, translated by B. Alan Wallace, 2008, 151-152


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