A periodical blog from Rebecca at Apsara Yoga Shala


What’s in a Name, Apsara Yoga Shala?

19 August 2019

In 2001 my parents relocated from far north Queensland to the Kingdom of Cambodia. This would turn out be a life-altering move that would imprint on me so deeply that almost two decades later, the naming of my own yoga school would be a nod to Cambodian heritage and the healing that took place in another time and place.

Tides of Change
I was seventeen and had completed Year 12 with great success when my parents sat me down at our kitchen table to gift me a small Minolta film camera and gently break the news that within months they would be ex-pats abroad. Our small home would be rented out to the family of one of my classmates. My father, a biologist, had accepted a position as Fisheries Programme Manager at the Mekong River Commission. My mother, a teacher, would teach the Primary Years Programme at the International School of Phnom Penh, and my sister would enrol at the high school of the same name. My two older brothers had fled the coop several years earlier and already had lives of their own in other cities.

I was off to America on an exchange program to a small town called Tunkhannock in north east Pennsylvania. It did not pan out well. Although I knew it would be part of the deal, I resented being back at school after having worked so hard to complete my studies in Australia. And I was freezing. I was not prepared for the shocking transition from the temperate climate of the Atherton Tablelands to this corner of north America. Even at the time I had a deep appreciation for the beauty of the white-on-white landscape, but it was just not good for my constitution. I became lonely and depressed. When I sat on the front step of my host family’s home and told my host ‘father’ that I wanted to go home, his counsel was to be sure that I felt I was being drawn towards something, and not that I was running away or hiding from something that needed to be faced.

I heeded the advice. Within a month or two I would be back in the tropics, but still far from what I thought was ‘home’, a concept that I experienced a fair degree of anguish over, but would eventually come to realise is a feeling, not a place.

“Seeing is believing…but the lessons of Angkor can help broaden everyone’s view” (Frederico Mayor, General Director UNESCO, Paris 1997. In Jacques & Freeman 1997, Angkor Cities and Temples, p. 9).
My first visit to Angkor Wat was in September 2001. It is hard to describe the power of Angkor Wat, but those who have visited will have an immediate appreciation for the immense beauty, scale, and the indescribable, but undeniably real, vibration of this one of the seven wonders of the world. We (my mother, father, and sister) woke before dawn to watch the sunrise over the great temple. The photo above – taken with the camera that was intended for photos of America – is of my parents standing at the gopura of the main (Western) entrance to the central tower at Angkor just after sunrise. A gopura is a formal entrance way through enclosure walls. They are common in Indian and Cambodian architecture and are often elaborate. And they are more than just practical entrance ways.

 “Gopuras mark the point physically for the passage from the profane to the sacred, and mentally from preoccupations directed to the material to those directed towards spiritual ends” (Kollar 2001, Symbolism in Hindi Architecture as Revealed in the Shri Minakshi Sundareswar, p. 8). 

The time I spent in Cambodia was a turning point in my life. By no means did things take a linear path from then on, but it was like a switch was flicked inside and I knew I had to get with the program. This was something of a beginning of my journey with yoga – the applied art of measured introspection, in which one makes a concerted effort to see beyond the world of distinct material appearances to the deeper underlying structure that binds us all.

 Angkor Wat is rooted in Indian cosmology, the study of the origins, evolution, and fate of the universe. Construction of the temple complex began in the Ninth Century C.E. and reached its heights and completion in the Twelfth Century under the leadership of the great King Jayavarman VII, who said:

 “Full of deep sympathy for the good of the world, so as to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality…By virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence.”

 The original name of the temple is believed to have been Vrah Vishnuloka or Parama Vishnuloka (the sacred dwelling place of Vishnu, the Sustainer). The entire temple complex is a mandala – a microcosmic representation of the macrocosm – and contains calendrical, historical, cosmological and mythological data coded into its design, including its geometric shape, zenith, as well as cardinal, equinox, and solstice alignments. The elongated west-east axis of Angkor Wat, for instance, is divided into sections the length of which correspond with the four major periods of time in Indian cosmology, the Krita, Treta, Dvapana, and Kali Yugas. The numbering of sculptures and monuments similarly reference celestial precession and the slow transition from one astrological age to another. Records indicate that the ancient Khmers were master astronomers. The temple was built for lunar and solar observation and is considered an ‘ancient observatory’ by NASA. The beauty of the temple is coupled with remarkable feats of engineering, even by today’s standards, focusing primarily on control of the water supply and its fisheries, which were essential for survival.

 Heavenly dancers
 In the eastern corridor of Angkor Wat is one of the most famous and largest bas reliefs in the world. It is an enormous depiction of the Churning of the Ocean Milk, a story that occupies a central place in Indian cosmology.  Apsaras were born of this process, and emerged as the ‘essences of the waters’ (hence the Sanskrit conjunction of ap – water, and rasa – essence). They are the ‘unmanifest potentialities’, representing all the possible worlds that exist in the divine mind but may never come to exist physically. It is estimated that there are over 2000 of these fine creatures dancing their way over the temple walls. In the photo above, you can see the apsaras in the foreground, dancing on the columns of the gopura. Their presence is equally ubiquitous in Khmer culture. Apsaras feature prominently in most artistic pursuits in Cambodia such as fashion, jewellery, sculpture, painting, dance, and drama. Authorities on Angkor Wat have described it as a ‘magical experience’ to wander through the halls, pavilions, and galleries of the temple “to find the most charming apsaras, with their superb jewellery and coiffures, in a wide variety of supple attitudes. It is as though the sculptors…gave free reign to their imagination when they embellished the temple walls with images of the royal ballerinas of the time” (Jacques & Freeman 1997, pp. 47-48).

 In the vernacular, Apsaras are usually described as celestial nymphs or heavenly dancers. In fact, rhythmic dance that is ‘pure’ in origin (that is, without emotional content) is a key theme at Angkor Wat and an important tenant in yoga. Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, is also called the Nataraja, the King of Dance: “Shiva creates the world of forms through rhythm, and this is why he is represented as a dancer. Movement and gesture are the primary means of communication; dance and mime form the first language, which is older than the spoken language” (Danielou 1949, Yoga: The Method of Reintegration, p. 13). In this vein, many contemporary scholars have argued for the (re)-veneration of ‘other ways of knowing’ beyond the written text that dominates hegemonic culture. Expressionist Suzanne Langer has argued that semantical understanding is a second-order activity that is built upon the first-order foundation of immediate perception (cited in Gilmore 1986, Picturing the World, p. 54). Langer suggests that ‘perception’ is intuitive, a matter of direct insight and not a product of discursive thinking . Renowned practitioner of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, Dr Claudia Welch, has similarly suggested that we perceive with our whole being and in that sense, ‘seeing’ goes beyond the physiology of the eyes and brain. Good food for thought for the yogin.

 Home is Where the Heart Is
My parents spent the first decade of this century in Cambodia and Laos. No member of my family would ever return to far north Queensland but instead followed various highways and byways, reconnecting at different points in time. In my first six months in Cambodia I learnt to speak conversational Khmer, a language which borrows many words from the sacred language of Sanskrit, which is of course the language of yoga. Shala, for instance, is the Sanskrit word for ‘home, ‘house’, or ‘abode’. The cognate in Khmer is sala, which can refer to a pavilion, a place where people will be protected from the elements, and a school. In the context of yoga, a yoga shala is a ‘house of yoga’ or a ‘yoga school’ where a seeker on the path (sadhaka) is individually nurtured to his or her full potential. My teacher has been known to sum up the feeling, indeed the purpose, of yoga as that of ‘coming home’. To where, or to what, are we returning? According to the Katha Upanishad (6.10): ‘When the senses are firmly reigned in…that is Yoga. From distraction a person is then free, for Yoga is the coming-into-being, as well as the ceasing-to-be’ (Olivelle trans. 1996, p. 246).

 I spent many long summers in Phnom Penh and returned to Angkor Wat several times, each time the charge of the place deepening in my bones. Life would seem to come full circle when in 2008 a connection forged Phnom Penh led to my return to the east coast of America to do a working stint at the United Nations Population Fund. There, I met my future husband and father to my children. Things have a way of working out.

Don’t Believe the Hype: “yoga” ain’t Yoga 

15 May 2019

These days it seems like there is a yoga studio on every corner. Drop-in and casual classes are the norm. Anyone – literally, anyone – can be a yoga teacher just by signing up to one of the many ‘teacher training’ courses available to the general public. I have friends who have attended such courses and report that there were people enrolled who had never before done yoga themselves.

This should give us pause for thought. 

What is yoga? To address this question, my teachers have often encouraged reflection on what yoga is not. First and foremost, yoga is not a simple exercise system. It is not a fitness regime. It is not synonymous to gymnastics or about mastering acrobatic feats. It cannot be done with beer (“beer yoga”), goats (“goat yoga”), paddle boards (“SUP yoga”), hammocks (“aerial yoga”), or music (“hip-hop yoga”). It is not about the body beautiful. The profundity of the system does not lend itself to catch phrases or one-liners.

A studio is not the same as a school. Instructing is not the same as teaching. Learning – deep, transformational learning – is not the same as being able to remember elaborate sequences or follow the leader.

There is nothing wrong with any of the present-day activities that are referred to as some kind of “yoga” if one is looking for a bit of fun and, in many cases, physical exercise with good health benefits. The problem is that the word “yoga” has been widely misappropriated, misused, and abused. This has led to a state of confusion in the community about the nature of the system, and worse, delusion about supposed benefits to be gained. 

Yoga is a systematic process of self-inquiry, and thus, an inquiry into the nature of reality itself. The system has its roots in spiritual texts and technical treatises that date back thousands of years.

“Yoga is a spiritual system that deals practically with the process of enlightenment…[which is] is a dynamic evolving activity, and not a fixed state of attachment, as many conceive it to be.” (Shandor Remete, Shadow Yoga, Chaya Yoga: The Principles of Hatha Yoga 2010).

Yoga is an art form. It is exacting and methodical. Like other traditions such as martial arts and classical dance, yoga requires patience, determination, and dedication. There is no place for nonchalance. It can only be learnt in a sustained and progressive way with a teacher who has a sincere love of, and dedication to, the system and understands that the body is nothing more than a tool.  Only if approached in this way does the possibility remain open that people will gain insight into the revolutionary nature of yoga in its deepest sense.