Dimitra Eisterer Petimeza’s first experience with Yoga was back in 2012 in Greece, when she first tried Heartfulness Meditation, a kind of Raja Yoga Meditation. Between 2013 and 2014, she practiced Hatha as well as Ashtanga Yoga Asana Practice (the system by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois) in a yoga studio in Athens run by Nikos Zografos.
Keen on studying Philosophy - Ancient Greek as well as Eastern Philosophy (Indian, Chinese, etc.), Dimitra was fascinated about how a life of ‘practicality’ was the end-goal of such traditions. She applied for a semester abroad to study Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit in the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, affiliated with the University of Madras, where she was admitted. During this semester of studies in India, she not only studied Indic Philosophy and Sanskrit, but also attended and successfully completed two 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Courses, a Hatha Yoga TTC recognized by Yoga Alliance and the Heartfulness Yoga TTC.
She also taught Yoga Asanas in the Rutland Gate Yoga Studio in Chennai as a part of her practice to become a Yoga Instructor. After this semester abroad, in 2018, she was admitted into the Master Studies of Philosophy in the University of Vienna. As a part of interest module of her Master studies, she chose to attend the Introductory Sanskrit course (Beginner Level) of the University of Vienna.
In this interview, she ties in various aspects of Yoga's spread in Europe as well as its links with ancient Greece.
You are doing an academic study of ancient civilizations which were the beginnings of all of our knowledge. Do you see how they are similar?
I am amazed that the more I study these ancient sources of wisdom, the more I notice how deeply connected they are. They are expressing themselves with different words but this doesn't mean that they don't refer to the same thing. My master's thesis is on the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, whom very few people know, even though he was very central in the development of the Daoist movement in China. His descriptions seem influenced by Yoga. He describes exactly how the Yoga of the mind works. I did some work on Plato which had descriptions of the last hours of Socrates. Socrates was arrested because he had many political opponents, and his philosophy found resistance. It describes the last hours of Socrates in his prison cell and he is speaking to his disciples. He speaks about the soul, what binds the soul to this material world and how you can be free from the bonds of pleasure and pain. The similarities are amazing. Language ofcourse is a central aspect in philosophy so I'm trying my best to learn Sanskrit. I'm a Greek so ancient Greek is not so difficult to study for me.
My vision is to compare these three kinds of Philosophies - Ancient Greek, Indian, Chinese - to discover the commonalities between these ancient thinkers. What interests me from the Indic Philosophical Thought are the Vedas, Upanishads (Vedānta) as well as Samkhya and Yoga Philosophy. Therefore, I would like in the future, if possible, to study texts coming from these darśanas such as the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, Yoga Sūtras by Patañjali, Bhagavad Gita, etc., or commentaries on such tests like the commentary of Vyasa on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Yoga Bhashya, or different other commentaries by Adi Shankara such as the Brahma Sūtras, his commentaries on different Upanishads and so on and so forth. In addition, I would like to proceed with learning Sanskrit.
How much education and inquiry can be done in universities abroad. You have visited India and you know how it is taught here. Suppose one didn't have that opportunity, are there departments available for you to pursue your studies in Sanskrit or yoga?
In the University of Vienna there is the Department of South Asian studies where Sanskrit lessons are given and lessons on the history and culture of South Asia. You can even study Buddhist texts from Sanskrit or Pali. Anything you can imagine can be learnt. The problem is that, and I have discussed this many times with many of my peers, if feels that the essence of the text is escaping. It is more like a Philology study which means taking a text and translating, even if they don't grasp what the author means. They don't mind so much about the practical implications, they are more immersed in an intellectual approach, which of course has huge advantages but it's extremely limited if you compare it to the field of direct experience.
What is the attitude towards yoga practitioners in these institutions and among the general public?
This is how our universities have developed historically as institutions. As you know, Western culture is very much orientated towards the intellect in a pure abstract manner, many times totally deviating from experience. So, in many cases, it can even be a hindrance to study these knowledge systems here in the West. I faced these blocks personally when I attended my first Master class in Athens, when my Professor was shocked when he realized that I practiced yoga. He looked at me suspiciously because often people have a lot of misunderstandings about Yoga. It is not that practitioners mystify yoga, it is just that some people see yoga as ‘hocus-pocus’ as they have not tried it.
When I was studying this ancient Chinese philosopher, there were many Western philosophers studying him too, but there many of us felt that we were reading this ancient philosopher through our own lens of understanding. Not really trying to find out what was significant for this philosopher, and why does he write the way he does? We prefer to take our own scheme of understanding and try to explain the work of these philosophers from our own point of view, so completely missing the point of these great people.
Historically there was a lot of room for interpretations of the main texts. But in the last century some interpretations by Western scholars have at times sabotaged Indian interests. What are your thoughts on this?
I can definitely understand what you mean. On the other hand I really appreciate that there were scholars from England and Germany. Some centuries ago they took the effort to go to India or to Greece to study the ancient texts. While their translations may not have been perfect, it did raise the interest to get into a dialogue with ancient texts that were maybe even neglected by most of the world. I believe we can take the positive aspect, on the one hand, and on the other I suggest that scholars of all these ancient civilisations should start researching their own heritage as we have a linguistic affinity with our culture.
So I think it's the responsibility of the Greeks to go deeper and to try to maybe to bring to light some aspects of our culture which have not been understood properly by Germans or by Italians. I am really happy to see that India is also very alive at this moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm among Indians themselves to study their texts, which is very nice. But of course we shouldn't forget that these texts are a common cultural heritage for all humanity. We have a common responsibility towards this inheritance.
Datta Prasad: The Greeks have done a lot of work with the physical body like we have in India. Both cultures emphasized physical discipline. Do you see any of those practices connecting with the asana practice? Visually, they way they perform, in a rhythmic manner, seems similar to the way asanas are done.
As far as I can see, bodily exercise in Greece was generally incorporated as a way of life. Society would encourage youth to train and there were very big festivals, where they could show their progress. But it was not so much integrated as a part of the philosophy, or as a part of the philosophical practice. The Stoics had many contemplative practices similar to Dharana or visualisation where they try to feel that they are part of the whole. Then there were the Pythagoreans from the 6 Century BC and they were very well known for their strict dietary regimen. But I would not say these regimens or physical exercises played such a central role in Greek philosophy as Yoga did in Indian philosophy.
India has an unbroken line of transmitting knowledge. The Sanskrit that is spoken and learnt today is exactly the same as it was millenia ago. Maybe this continuity has benefitted yoga and other traditions
Yes, and this tradition was also kept alive orally. The meaning of the Vedas is connected to the sound. I had this wonderful opportunity from Indic Academy to attend this very beautiful Vedic chanting course and I found it so fascinating. That Vedas have been kept alive along with their meaning through the sound and the oral tradition, for thousands of years. Usually, you don't find an oral tradition being so long lasting. I, at least, have not heard of any other historical example.
Could you describe your chanting experience? What was the most difficult part and what was the most exciting part?
Since I had some training in Sanskrit already, it was not so difficult for me to pronounce the syllables. So I just let myself dive into this sound experience and connect the sound with meaning, so it felt like a transformative energy. Our teacher Shantala has a great modern approach to teaching. She would explain the meaning and this helped us a lot to understand what we are doing. A kind of Sahaja Pranayama develops, if you really allow yourself to go deep into the meaning when the breath happens as it should. And this was really the first time that I experienced this.
Learning live from a teacher, especially in chanting, is critical for doing it the right way. What was your experience about this?
I agree with you. If you learn something the wrong way, it takes much more time and energy to unlearn and learn it the right way. In Yoga, it can also lead to injuries if you don't apply the right technique. It may not be about more effort but better technique. Actually, this is one of the most common questions that comes up in the Yoga courses me and my husband offer (he is also a meditation trainer and yoga teacher.) One of the main questions that people ask is what kind of yoga can they try in their daily life. Which school to follow as there is so much offering available now. This is nice, and not necessarily bad, because in the past, you would have to go up to the Himalayas to find a yoga teacher. Now you have everything with one click. But since I am a Yogini of the heart, I feel people should find out what is good for them and what feels right.
How old is your and your husband's practice in Vienna? Are the people who come to you non-Indians, is there a certain demographic profile?
Actually, we are a part of a Heartfulness meditation yoga Center in Vienna. There are plenty of other yoga teachers and also meditation trainers that are offering their services. I would say that in Austria and in Heartfulness, there are not so many youngsters. It's amazing however, how if you go out into the streets in Vienna, you will find, especially in the City Center a different yoga studio in every corner. I mean there are so many different schools from different cultures, because there are a lot of people who are interested in practicing Yoga. In my country Greece too, while several years ago people were a little skeptical about practicing yoga or meditation, but now that Yoga is connected with benefits people are turning towards it. A lot of the scientific research conducted in universities and the hospitals show that Yoga is connected with benefits for the body, mind and soul and so people are turning to it more.
Is meditation separate from yoga for you? You have also done multiple courses in yoga. If you have already reached a state of some samadhi, why do you need to explore more?
This is an interesting question. Actually I came to yoga asanas and pranayama after I experienced meditation and I realized that yoga is very good for physical health and also for detoxing the body. The wonderful thing about heartfulness is that you begin with meditation but it doesn’t mean that the other limbs of yoga do not bother you. They develop naturally through meditation. We need to take care of the physical body because if I cannot sit for meditation, if I feel uncomfortable, then I cannot meditate so the whole purpose is lost.
The special thing about the Heartfulness system is that it basically begins from the seven steps of Pathanjali upto Dhyana and then it works through subtle energy called the Pranahuti or yogic transmission. This makes it possible, even for complete beginners, to experience different samadhi states and this is what I experienced from the beginning. I realised how deeply relaxing it is and what a great effect it has for all aspects of life.
What is the relation between the preceptor and the student? In our traditions, the guru is central to the learning and experience and we sit at his or her feet. How is it in the Heartfulness tradition abroad?
To become a meditation trainer in the heartfulness system, you need to go through a specific process, which is deeply cleansing and also to get a deeper understanding of the system. You cannot become a trainer otherwise. Then the preceptors of the system are able to act as arteries or conduits of the guru and they are able to transmit the higher energies. This subtle energy is a pure form of life energy, which can be used either to clean impurities or complexities that we have collected inside us or to infuse us with pure life energy, which is not available through our own creations. So we (trainers) act as conduits, and this can happen either face to face or from distance.