Andrew Sugerman Chants The Sutras
"You sound awful," joked yoga therapist Andrew Sugerman to his new Wednesday Sanskrit class in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "But that's good. You're trying it, and that's how you learn."
As one of two students, I laughed at my efforts to say "yoga" in three rhythmic notes, instead of two clunky beats, the usual pronunciation. Although I am a yoga instructor, I had spent more time bending my body than exploring Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in their original language.
Now, in this large artists' apartment, my brain was on fire as I followed a cheat sheet. I tried to imitate Sugerman, the same way he emulated his teacher, Srivatsa Ramaswami, a long-time student of Shri T. Krishnamacharya.
"Before printing, the only way to preserve language was through memory," Sugerman said. "Like Latin, Sanskrit is an archaic religious language kept alive for the sole purpose of communicating to God. For most people, it could be intimidating. It could seem dry and boring. I always treat it lightly, not as a sacred subject, but I'm rigorous about the correctness."
Sugerman, who began working with Ramaswami in 2002, has memorized the Yoga Sutras up to halfway through the third chapter, which is III.36. “I recorded Ramaswami and worked with the tapes for years,” he said. “I couldn’t recall that exact sutra and what it means. But by having the words in my memory, even if I don’t always know what they mean, there is something personal about it. It’s intimate. Eventually, I want to memorize the whole thing. I sort of petered out just now. It's a work in progress by a white guy from New Jersey,”
Recently, he admitted to being put off by a Lululemon bag that said brahmacharya, the fourth yama, which means celibacy or temperance. "It was a beautiful bag," he said. "But the woman carrying it probably didn't know what it meant or else she wouldn't have bought it."
I nodded at Sugerman, giggling at the irony, but then I remembered my satya necklace, a pendant with the likeness of Lakshmi. Maybe I wasn't so different from the woman with the brahmacharya bag. What I really needed was a better foundation. Learning Sanskrit in a hot room with two other people felt pure. It was also hard.
We warmed up with Sutras I.1 and I.2, with Sugerman singing the words. Then the other student and I would repeat twice together. Sugerman, a youthful 53, was patient, nodding his head in encouragement. Eventually, he strung the syllables together into complete threads. We were almost in sync, until we reached I.3: “Then the seer dwells in his own true splendor.”
I fell apart with drashtu, the Sanskrit word for seer. When Sugerman said the word, his soft voice was full of nuance and meter. When I said drashtu, my face contorted. I tried to roll the "r", click my tongue to the middle roof of my mouth, and make the last syllable forceful without getting louder. I reminded myself of Eliza Doolittle, wide-eyed with a mouth full of marbles.
By 1.4, I was exhausted, ready for the Prayer of Forgiveness, the ending of each session which states: "If there are mistakes made in the pronunciation of letters, words, or timing, please forgive all these." Bloopers are allowed and necessary, but within yogic tradition, the prayer eliminates consequences of speaking incorrectly. "The prayer is a free pass from bad karma," he said. “Sanskrit is a powerful language.”
Sugerman, who gives private yoga sessions in the West Village, calls himself a yoga mechanic. Having studied architecture at Arizona State University, he said he is sensitive to precision. He started these Sanskrit classes because he wanted to offer yoga beyond "theatrics."
"When I first started yoga more than 13 years ago, I noticed that people could do all these circus things with their bodies," he said. "It was all very exotic and airy fairy. People were trying to push themselves into postures, and I thought, 'Just because you can do it doesn't mean I can.' I was naturally attracted to a more scholarly, intellectual voice."
He traveled to India in 2000 to study under T.K.V. Desikachar and his senior students. Later, Sugerman trained with Viniyoga teacher, Gary Kraftsow. In 2010, Sugerman assisted Kraftsow in Snowbird, Utah, where he taught Yoga Sutras to 80 students. “They all fell apart,” he said, smiling.
To attend Yoga Sutra sessions with Sugerman, email him at Andrew@artofbreathing.com
Classes are 7 p.m. on Wednesdays, at 35 Broadway in Williamsburg. The suggested fee of $10.