The point of yoga - Interview with Petri Räisänen

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Everybody talks about yoga. But what is really the point of yoga?

Finnish Petri Räisänen is a world known yogateacher and has been a huge influence in spreading Ashtanga Yoga in the world for the past 30 years. Over a weekend in September he visited us at Åhus Finest Yoga at a workshop for curious yoga practitioners. Mimi Gall sat down for an interview with him to hear what he has to say about this ancient method that has now taken the west by storm.

M = Mimi

P = Petri

M: What brought you to yoga in the first place?

P: I was a vegetarian and into the animal movement. I started to be interested in world religion and philosophies. And I started to read books that was related to India. I first practiced Hatha yoga and it was very light in comparison to Ashtanga Yoga. In practicing Hatha Yoga I learned how to relax my body. When Ashtanga came to Finland in the 80’s I took a workshop and from the beginning I loved it. I used to be a icehockey player and I was really heavy and stiff. I understood I needed the flexibility and to feel more comfortable in my body. The deep relaxation coming from yoga was important to me. I also had the feeling that it affected my mind. What really interested me was also the mindwork. How to develop concentration and meditation. And perhaps that was more important than the physical aspect.

Watch the interview on Yotube.

M: What is mindwork to you?

P: You first have to to learn how to concentrate before you can go to meditation. Meditation is the practice but it is also a state of mind, and it comes from the concentration. From there it goes to a different level. Quite early I started to feel meditative experiences that went really deep.

M: What kind of experiences did you have?

P: In the beginning it was through the relaxation in the end. When I'd worked really hard and I just let go. I had never went to that space ever in my life before. I went to a space of emptiness. It was really interesting.

M: Did you feel free in those moments?

P: More free than ever before. In icehockey we didn’t do that much of relaxation. But even when I was playing icehockey we started to practice visualization and they even took us to dance classes to get more open and free in the body. Nowadays I think athletics do much more of these things like yoga, visualizations and hypnosis. Everything that helps.

M: That helps relax and concentrate you mean?

P: Yes, to find the full capacity in body and mind. We don’t really know what we can do. It is normal in yoga that we don’t know how flexible we can become.

M: What is the point of yoga for you?

P: For most peope it is wellbeing. But I also think about samadhi and liberation. It is not just wellbeing. It is really about purifying the karma. Just to feel more free. And it is a real thing. That people feel more free. It is hard to imagine if you don’t do yoga. I think I feel more free than 20 or 30 years ago.

M: In what way are you more free?

P: There are these ideas about right and wrong. Nowadays it is hard for me to say that something is right and wrong. The mind is changing I think, and becomes much more free from limitations. I am also more free in how I think about other people. I really want people to be who they are. It doesn’t matter how they are. So I let people be what they want to be. That is also a kind of freedom.

M: In your consciousness?

P: Yes, to let people be. Many people are against so much. Let people be.

M: Let everything be as it is, right?

P: Yes, of course we have to understand what feels right and what feels wrong. To me it feels wrong not to let people be free. But I also understand why people think the opposite. We can be against things but we don’t have to hate anyone. We can be against the thing a person does. You can understand that something is not good. But you don’t have to hate anyone. In this way there is freedom. There is also freedom from myself, from my lineage, my family, my genes. I cannot be free from body. It is accepting I am what I am. That is a kind of freedom. When we do the asanas we have to accept the limitations of the body. Accepting is freedom.

M: What do you think it is about yoga that makes you more free?

P: We create more space for the body and mind. For the mind to be more quiet, and not caught in thinking all the time. Meditation is giving space for the mind. The movement is creating space for the body.

M: I am thinking a lot about how disembodied humans are because we are so identified with the thinking mind.

P: Yes, mostly we live in the future.

M: Or the past.

P: Yes, mostly future and a little bit past. Very little now. What is created in yoga is that space to be quiet.

M: It is like coming into the now. I usually feel it as the now is flushing the past and the future away and then you can just be.

P: And then after the practice you can rest in that space. A little bit lightheaded. Seeing things for the first time. Even if you’ve seen these things so many times before. It's nice!

M: Yes, and I think that is what keeps you young in a sense. Because being young is to see and experience things for the first time, right? And I think it is easy to lose contact with that when you are identified with the thinking mind. Because mind is conceptualizing everything.

P: Yes. It is more fresh when you practice. It can be a funny feeling sometimes. Just being. Almost like accepting some kind of guidance to take you forward and see where it goes. Even if there has to be a lot of control. Still there can be moments when you follow the guidance and just let things happen.

M: Is that surrender?

P: Surrender for life.

M: But it needs to be come kind of control in order to surrender?

P: Yes, things need to be quite well. The basics things to work.

M: Not too loose?

P: Not too lost, haha.

M: You’ve been working a lot with healing also. Do you see being a yogateacher as healing work?

P: I see it only as healing and therapy work. It is what I want to teach. The technique is a tool to learn people how to be quiet and work hard with themselves in this moment. It is not just purifying the mind and the body but to learn how to be in this moment. And to feel that somebody, like the teacher, is caring and accepting. There is a space where people can come and be themselves. There are many levels in the practice and the deepest level is the quietness. Maybe some people don’t feel the healing aspect if there is too much focus on competition and the physical work. If the teacher is too demanding, then it is just becoming a physical exercise and then you lose that quietness and being in this moment. I have a friend who is a psychotherapist who tells all patients to start yoga. I think you also need a therapist but there has to be movement too.

M: Not just talking.

P: Yes, and yogis should also talk. And not only be quiet. Things has to come out from both ways. Maybe the quietness is a little bit more important. To go deep into yourself.

M: And listen.

P: Yes, and sometimes it is important to express yourself and say how you feel.

M: There is a balance there.

P: Yes, so quietness doesn’t always work. You can even become a little bit deluded by it.

M: By the quietness you mean?

P: Yes, and maybe think that you’re somehow special. Special in a way that you are somehow more in this moment than others. If you’re just in your own bubble. Maybe you start to isolate and become a bit weird. Maybe you're happy with yourself in a way but how do you actually exist in a society?

M: Yes, and how can we use that inner work and how can we share it with others.

P: Yes, of course there are beings that go somewhere to sit in a trance.

M: Yes, there has always been yogis that sit in the mountains, right?

P: There has been quiet yogis that didn’t talk. They were in that trance state all the time and they couldn't express in words where they were.

M: Maybe all individuals have different paths in this life, or what do you think?

P: In India I learned that we don’t have to think too difficult things. Like trying to describe or define God or something. Or explain the universe. It is too difficult. Our brain is not big enough for that. Keep it simple. Live your life. Do your best. And stop thinking so much.

M: That is an liberating insight. Simple is good.

P: Instead of trying to think so hard. Try to make your life work. That is a lot of work.

M: To make it work.

P: To be a normal civilized human being, and helping other people, helping ourselves, that is enough work. Living our life.

M: Do you think that is spirituality?

P: Yes, that is spirituality.

M: It is not about transcending something.

P: But spirituality is also going beyond the rational mind. It is to go to the other side where you have a different connection to spirit. But it is very spiritual to live a normal life. And you can’t be too selfish and self-important in order to live a good life.

M: If I as a yoga practitioner become ill and can’t practice the postures. How can I still practice yoga?

P: When you are ill, yoga is to rest. That is yoga. That is part of the healing process. When you can't practice the postures you can start to practice pranayama. Or start reading. Thinking. It is good to think. Not too difficult, but thinking about what yoga is about is important. Some mornings when I feel really tired, sleep is my yoga practice. It is much more important to give myself the time and rest than to do postures then.

M: So yoga is taking care of ourselves?

P: Yes, in yoga I think we understand the tools how we can make ourselves feel better and how we can do healing work for ourselves. So yoga is an amazing tool. But there are different methods too. When I started doing folk-healing in Finland with my master I was amazed that stretching the body is so rare in the world. Even among the healers there are really little stretching the body. And how can it be possible that people just eat a sandwich and go to work for instance? You have to do something to maintain your wellbeing. I think that is weird. They might think yogis are weird. But I believe it is your own responsibility to feel healthy. And most animals are stretching.

M: Yes, my dog is stretching!

P: Yes, cats are stretching. So we also should. I think it is crazy not to do anything for ourselves. That is weird. That is so far from understanding what is good for yourself. Even when it comes to a simple nature walk, if you don’t stretch your body afterwards it gets very tight. And you develop pain.

M: And this pain that doesn’t even need to be there.

P: Yeah, it just comes because we are not doing the right thing.

M: Especially in Sweden. Maybe it is the same in the whole west. Why do you think more women than men practice yoga?

P: In the beginning in India it was the opposite. Krishnamacharya only taught boys. Later they started to teach girls. But it was much later. Think about horse riding, that was only for men and now basically only women do it. I think men has lost their femininity. We became this macho and toxic male. We’ve been losing the feminine side of ourselves. And maybe woman has become more masculine.

M: Isn’t yoga a masculine practice?

P: I think it is both. I think there is masculine poses and feminine poses. In Ashtanga the primary series is more masculine. The second series more feminine. Honestly, I haven’t been thinking too much about it. But I think something has happened in the last 100 years. You can see it even in the hairstyles. Men used to have long hair. Now short.

M: Yes, and heels. And skirts. It is all changing. What is masculine and what is feminine. It is not a fixed thing.

P: Times are changing.

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