Dharma yoga is a style of yoga practiced eponymously named after its creator Sri Dharma Mittra. Dharma was born in 1939 in Brazil to a poor catholic family and had an interest in yoga from a young age where he and his brother would practice Asanas from books that his brother owned. They had no available yoga teachers in the area. As his life progressed, he served in the Brazilian Airforce, became an accomplished award-winning weightlifter, and owned a gym, and had interest in a variety of sports including Brazilian Jujutsu.
His younger brother Sattya had emigrated to the United States and lived in New York, there he had the privilege of knowing from Sri Swami Kailashananda – also known as Yogi Gupta one of the most prominent Yogis at the time and who mastered all nine forms of yoga. Sattaya invited Dharma to visit him in New York and Meet Yogi Gupta and the rest is history – it’s kind of interesting so we’ll go through some of the details. If you’re feeling impatient and not quite up for the history lesson, then just skip to the next section where we discuss the yoga style in more detail.
In 1964 Dharma left his position in the airforce and sold his gym and all his otherworldly possessions of any value just to afford the flight ticket to New York. He didn’t even speak English at the time but met Yogi Gupta the very next day with his brother Sattya translating the meeting. He immediately immersed himself in the full eight limbs of the yoga practice and dedicated his entire life to karma yoga for 10 years. He received the title of Sannyasa (a late stage in Hindu apprenticeship focused on ascetism and the focus of becoming one with God) after three years of his dedicated journey and a further three years into that he became Guru Gupta’s personal assistant – considered an exceptional honor.
Dharma started teaching classes in advanced Asanas in 1967 and continued his tutelage with Yogi Gupta until 1974 when the guru gave his blessings for Dharma to leave the Ashram in New York as his education was considered of sufficient caliber at this point to allow him to start his own school.
Dharma started the Dharma Yoga Center (renamed from the Asana Yoga Center as he did not choose to name it after himself) in 1975, where he still teaches three classes a day until this very day. He remains the main teacher at the center with others assisting and is described as a humble person with a wicked sense of humor.
So, what style of yoga does Sri Dharma teach? Do read on for the pillars of Dharma Yoga and what to expect were you lucky enough to attend a class with the man himself.
Table of Contents
Dharma Yoga Principles
Dharma yoga is a holistic practice encapsulating many of the Yogic principles and teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. As part of the practice, there is the emphasis placed on Asanas (yoga postures), Pranayama (breath techniques), and meditation. The purpose of the practice is to realize self-actualization.
There are however significant differences between Dharma yoga and the yoga styles taught by other yogis we know and love. Below we’ll discuss a few of these.
Dharma yoga works with the same postures as other types of yoga and indeed Sri Dharma himself took 1300 photographs of himself performing Asanas, 908 of which became the famous posture of Asanas seen in many a Yoga Studio. The differences however are as follows:
- There is little emphasis on form, and little to no instruction from the teachers. This is Dharma’s style of teaching that he learned from Yogi Gupta who praised him for trying to copy his every move. In Dharma yoga by being with the teacher and working to achieve similarity to them, you are thought to achieve deeper learning.
- The classes are divided into five levels of difficulty, but Dharma can and will often start even a beginner’s class with a difficult Asana such as a headstand. There is no expectation that you will achieve this – but it is recommended that you try. Falling is considered a learning experience and few props or walls are used to aid the practice.
- Students are encouraged to move between Asanas in a highly graceful manner, trying to emulate dancing in their movements. The aim is to create a common consciousness in the class where everyone supports each other even through difficult transitions.
- There is no set series to the flow and not even Sun salutations are consistent when Dharma teaches – he does what he feels like.
- Most likely the class will mainly focus on poses considered fundamental and students will remain in each pose for some time.
The Asanas are considered preparation for meditation.
Pranayama is practiced in almost every class as a preparation for meditation. Sri Gupta was impressed by BTK Iyengar’s pranayama teachings and adopted some of these for teaching his students.
Meditation is considered extremely important by Dharma and although he recommends practicing Asanas every day, he has stated that one can forgo Asana practice once a week, but meditation should not be missed. A minimum of 10 minutes in the morning and the evening is expected.
Nidra is a relaxation focused yogic meditation style that is aimed to bring the practitioner blissful sleep. Dharma teaches at least one class each week on Nidra practice.
As a teacher and style Dharma places heavy focus on non-violence – also known as Ahimsa. Ahimsa is used to foster compassion in every walk of life. When people typically think of the non-violence practice, they often see it as something to aspire to treat others with, Dharma however teaches that non-violence is to be practiced toward all beings starting with oneself.
Our ability to find compassion toward other humans and beings greatly improves if we can find some non-violence towards ourselves, in our actions (think feeding our bodies healthy foods, practicing some physical activity, meditation etc), thoughts; we are often directing highly critical and negative thoughts toward ourselves however this is not beneficial and having more forgiveness can help our mental health.
Dharma is an avid advocate of veganism and although he does not enforce anything on his students, he will in a non-violent manner as he teaches discuss the matter passionately and try to guide in the direction of forgoing cruelty toward animals.
Trying Dharma Yoga
Sounds lovely so far! A guru that teaches us compassion, a relaxed attitude to yoga and creation of community in class, you like many others might find yourself wanting to try it for yourself.
There are qualified Dharma Yoga teachers in nearly every major city, so you can find your nearest studio. If you are still affected by the pandemic or would rather practice at home, there are a number of resources such as DVDs with Dharma himself demonstrating the Asanas and some free resources to try on YouTube. You can also hear Dharma speak on YouTube and sense his presence for yourself.
If you happen to be in or near NYC then check with the Dharma Yoga Center for schedule. They also have a global center search function so do check that out too.