Roger Cole: from Aikido to Yoga

Roger Cole shares his story on living in a big co-op house at University and offering big “mellowing out” sessions to his peers to help everyone relax.

Dr. Roger Cole is an internationally recognised, certified Iyengar yoga teacher trained at the Iyengar Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and Pune, India. He is also an accomplished scientist, educated at Stanford University and the University of California, with specialities in the science of relaxation, sleep, and circadian rhythms.

What, when and where was your first experience of yoga?
The postural part of yoga came to me spontaneously as a small child growing up in Los Angeles. My parents would find me standing on my head and experimenting with all sorts of positions, and they would laugh.

When I was sixteen, my sister lent me a book on Aikido, the peaceful yet powerful Japanese martial art. From it I learned my first formal yoga exercise, which also happens to be an Aikido exercise: sit upright in a kneeling position (Virasana), focus attention on a spot below the navel deep inside the belly, and feel the force of the universe force coursing through that spot while breathing deeply, inhaling for 20 seconds, holding for 20 seconds, and exhaling for 20 seconds. It changed my life. I felt the calming yet energising effects immediately the first time I tried it. After two weeks of regular practice, I realised that its effects were cumulative, penetrating deeper into my psyche, building a mental stabilising effect that lasted 24 hours a day. I still practice that exercise 42 years later.

What made you decide to move from student to teacher?
I never planned to be a professional yoga teacher. I just enjoyed asanas, breathing and meditation practices so much that I started sharing them with friends. At Stanford I lived in a big co-op house with over 40 people, and at the end of each intense day of study I would run a big “mellowing out” session to help everyone relax. When I went to graduate school to get a doctorate in Health Psychology, I thought I should supplement my academic training with some hands-on health promotion skills, so I enrolled in a yoga teacher training programme, then travelled to India to study more.

What teaching tip has had the biggest influence on the way you practice? And the way you teach?
Practice only takes place in this moment. Focus attention on what is happening right now. Move with the present, always seeking the highest good. You only understand an asana, pranayama or meditation technique when you are actually in it.

What does your own self-practice involve?
Reclining or seated pranayama and meditation nearly every day. Frequent pranayama and meditation during ordinary daily activities. Dedicated asana sessions several times a week, typically focusing on one type of asana each session. Surfing or other recreational exercise whenever possible, often preceded or followed by brief asana practice. Frequent restorative yoga asana practice ranging from 9 minutes to an hour to prepare for or recover from intense work or travel.

If you only had 10 minutes to practice, what would you do?
For active asana, it could be one forward bend, one side bend, one backbend, one twist, one or two inversions, and Savasana. There are many ways to do this, for example, Uttanasana (forward bend), Trikonasana (side bend), Virabhadrasana I (backbend), Bharadvajasana (twist), Sirsasana (first inversion), Sarvangasana (2nd inversion), Savasana. For resting, 10 minutes of Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana is a great practice.

Who/what is the biggest inspiration on your yoga journey at the moment?
BKS Iyengar is a huge and enduring influence. He is often misunderstood as caring only about achieving precisely aligned postures for their own sake, but this completely misses the whole point of his teaching: that alignment is balance, balance is equanimity, and equanimity is yoga (“samatvam yoga ucyate” ~The Baghavad Gita). Refining posture quiets the senses and so moves the mind closer to the highest goal of yoga: stillness of mind. And quieting the mind refines one’s posture. Iyengar taught to practice asana from the mind and for the mind, not merely from the body and for the body.

What role does yoga play in the way you live?
Aside from the practical benefits of keeping me ambulatory and well rested as I grow older, yoga has taught me to keep a witness in my head: a connection to “Big Mind” that objectively observes whatever happens without getting caught up in it. Big Mind is comforting because it draws its power from something far greater than my small, petty ego.

What do you hope your students experience when they practise with you?
Big Mind, and their own power to channel it. Everyone has this power.

Which yoga text could you not live without?
You don’t need any text to realise yoga. Everything necessary is in the practice. That said, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are brilliant, and a tremendous help.

What’s your favourite yoga pose to do and to teach?
Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana on a very low prop.

Describe the meaning of yoga in 10 words or less.
Yoga is physical health, mental calm, and interpersonal peace.

Roger will be teaching Turning Breathing Into Pranayama: Science-Based Practice in London on Saturday 3rd October, and Knees and Shoulders: Preventing and Recovering from Injuries in Manchester on Sunday 4th October.