At the end of my two-hour lunch with Ram Vakkalanka, he leaned across the table and said: “Be honest with me: is my work, my traditional yoga, obsolete? Am I a dinosaur?”
While eating a delicious Indian meal in downtown Toronto, Ram had generously talked to me about his years of philosophy and Sanskrit studies, sitar practice and world travels. We had met up to discuss his recent (and sixth) CD, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: An Audio Book in Sanskrit and English. The recording is a collaboration between himself and yoga instructor, Karla Jacobsen; he recites the Sanskrit sutras and plays sitar, Karla recites the English translations.
His question took me by surprise, because while he had been answering my previous questions about the sutras and traditional yoga, I had been feeling like my understanding of yoga was too modern and shallow, that my studies only touched the smallest sliver of what was available, and that I had so much to learn. My practice involves blogging and following yoga in contemporary culture, along with mantra and self-investigation; my studies took place in a North American ashram and in urban yoga studios.
Then again, Ram’s mission is to present authentic, ancient teachings in a way that’s relevant and accessible to modern practitioners. He teaches in Toronto yoga teacher training programs, offers mantra, philosophy and sitar workshops around North America, records CDs, sells mp3s on his website and has a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. He also knows what it’s like to balance spiritual aspirations with wordly work: after years of pursuing his studies while working as a chartered accountant in the corporate realm, he gave it up to dedicate himself to yoga.
“I think we live in a very interesting world and very interesting times,” he told me. “We have more communication equipment but less communication. In the west, we’re taught that the divine is up there, over there, out there – whereas the Yoga Sutras tell you to look inside rather than outside. The Yoga Sutras, in terms of their value to us, offer a very fundamentally different philosophy to what we learn.”
Part of the magic of Ram’s teaching and conversation style is that he uses metaphors and contemporary examples to illustrate ancient wisdom. He even does this when he explains why he likes to use modern, playful metaphors for this purpose.
“When you’re driving through New York state, you see signs that say, ‘Buckle up, it’s the law.’ Then when you cross the border into Ontario, the signs say, ‘Please wear your seat belt.’ And as you drive into Toronto along the Don Valley Parkway, the signs simply say, ‘Safety first.’ It’s three different ways of saying the same thing, in different contexts. This is what I try to do in my teaching, respond to the context of the students and present the ancient teachings of yoga with language they will relate to.”
As somebody who speaks eight languages (his mother tongue is Telugu, a child language of Sanskrit) and has lived on several continents, Ram developed the skill of cross-cultural communication through his own experience. He is now committed to using this skill to live his dharma.
“There are many sincere spiritual seekers in the world today,” he told me. “They have burning questions and they are looking for answers. It is my firm conviction that all the answers are available already in the ancient texts of Yoga philosophy. However, most of these texts are in Sanskrit and not many people understand Sanskrit – in this part of the world, at least. My passion and mission in life is to make the answers available to all the sadhakas, spiritual seekers, in an easily accessible language as well as format.”
Ram does more than teach the teachings; he also lives the practice. He is a disciple of Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Swamiji, and his daily sadhana is based in meditation and nada yoga (through playing the sitar). But most importantly, he said, “I practice in every moment. It’s all yoga.”
By the time we reach the end of our conversation, when he posed his concerns about being “a dinosaur,” I was already convinced that he had committed himself to a living, dynamic system of teachings. I was also re-evaluating my own yoga education and thinking about how I need to dedicate more time to scriptural study.
The thing is, Ram had already answered his own question, much earlier in our conversation. “The yoga sutras present a very unique viewpoint about spirituality and finding inner peace,” he had told me, as we finished off our meal and sat back with cups of tea. “I think that will last. It’s a lesson that every generation needs, in my opinion. Every generation has its own challenges and questions. The yoga sutras offer a value that I think will last forever.”