A Pushpam Q&A with Hamish Hendry
By Daniel Simpson
Pushpam is a magazine about yoga, which helps put theory into practice. Instead of pictures of postures, or woolly self-help, it features essays on philosophy and personal experience, plus some practical guidance, conversations with teachers and a recipe.
Its name means flower in Sanskrit, and it's described as "both the beginning and the end," because a flower "yields nectar and often turns into fruit and seed" before it perishes. By imparting ideas, the magazine's aim is to "sow many seeds".
The second issue has just been published. Unlike the first, an assortment of musings, this one has a theme: the Bhagavad Gita, an extended sermon on the nature of duty on a battlefield. Noting that this "classic of world religious and philosophical literature" is "commonly cited as a source of spiritual wisdom by contemporary yoga teachers", Pushpam mines its insights for practitioners.
The opening article highlights the Gita's conflicting messages, from "inspirational" to "incendiary", so all interpretations rely on "imaginative gymnastics". There's plenty to think about in subsequent essays, with the deity Krishna compared to a funny sort of uncle and the human condition to being "enveloped in Nature's web, trying to find some room to breathe amidst the threads that bind us."
Perhaps the most practical of all contributions comes from a soldier, who was afflicted by post-combat stress. "I remember noticing some space between a couple of thoughts," he says. "Then the realisation came: if I can get ten seconds, what about a couple of minutes? What about ten minutes? A ten-minute break from myself?"
Plugs for practice aside, there are no other adverts, though a couple of freebies are also included: a primer on Sanskrit script, and a make-it-yourself origami Ganesh. Copies of Pushpam are available online, or from stockists worldwide. Any profit will be used to pay writers, with surplus income donated to charity.
I recently sat down with the magazine's publisher, Hamish Hendry of Astanga Yoga London, and its editor, Genny Wilkinson-Priest, a former journalist for Reuters and Time magazine. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
Full disclosure: I've written for Pushpam and practice with Hamish.
Q: Tell me more about Pushpam. Why that title?
Genny: Pushpam was Hamish's brainchild. We resisted it at first a little bit. Because I didn't know what it was. I didn't get it.
Hamish: There's a book called Mantra Pushpam that has all the mantras in it. I mean it's not a sacred text, but all the Brahmin priests have Mantra Pushpam.
Genny: You didn't tell me that!
Hamish: It's a bit weird.
Genny: Not really!
Hamish: And also it's from my favourite Bhagavad Gita quote: "patram pushpam..." [which adorns the new cover in handwritten Sanskrit: "A leaf, a flower, fruit or a sip of water offered with devotion to me / That from a loving heart I accept]. So I like that flower. And there's the whole mala [or garland]. Like the Yoga Sutras is a mala of sutras, each one a thread, and on the thread is a flower. You know when people wear their necklaces, a mala, they have a little thread with a flower.
Q: In terms of sowing seeds, you say you aim "to inspire yoga students, helping them feel positive about their practice and hopefully learn a little bit more than what they discover on their own on the mat." Presumably, that feeds back into what they do?
Hamish: Well hopefully, that's if they end up thinking, yes. You know, the idea is that when people go on the mat, they're like OK I'm doing yoga not just to stretch my hamstrings. They have some deeper reason for doing it, whether it's a connection to God or just to feel calmer or whatever it is, but they're doing yoga for more than just physical benefits. So I suppose I've just said what Pushpam's about in one sentence: it's not just about asana. That's all we need to say really. But we're selling a magazine just to say that. And you know, filling people's heads with other stuff, I suppose.
Q: What sort of stuff?
Hamish: I think one of our main things was that it shouldn't be... is sectarian the right word? Where it's like our system's better than your system. You know, trying not to ostracise people. When we ask people to write, we always say the reader shouldn't feel angry, or want to like kill the writer, the way people often feel when they read things online or in a newspaper. I don't want people to have that feeling. The feeling people get after they read it is important to me. So it's partly a feel-good thing to a certain extent, informed but feel-good.
Genny: We can be accused of being safe in that regard. Someone in Mysore said that to me. And I tried to explain to her that you didn't have to create so much controversy that people separated. The whole point was to try to bring people together. Plus we were always conscious of moving away from asana, though we knew we couldn't avoid it completely.
Hamish: Yeah. But we're definitely not doing "this is how to do bakasana", like other publications. Most yoga teachers say you can't really learn from a book, or watching videos. I know everybody does, everybody watches Kino [MacGregor on YouTube] and then they try and replicate it. But that's like well, you don't have Kino's body, as much as you might like it, so there's no way you can do that.
Genny: We also didn't want to be fluffy. I'm not sure if that was ever a conscious decision but...
Hamish: What do you mean, fluffy?
Genny: You know how a lot of those flaky yoga articles and New Age spirituality, it's all saying nothing yet trying to seem like it's rising well above but without any basis in real philosophy.
Hamish: Or even science. Like the whole... I don't have any problems with chakras per se, but having never really gone "yeah, I've experienced that and I can honestly say I get it", we haven't... You know, I can talk about the theory of it, but we haven't said: "drink this super-green smoothie and your heart chakra will open".
Genny: Yeah, that kind of stuff.
Q: Hamish says in this issue: "people often forget the reason why they're practising". Then he asks Richard Freeman: "how do you get people to ask the question: Who am I?" That sounds way beyond asana.
Hamish: Yes, quite deep really. People get to that at some point. That question, you know they might read it, or they might hear it and they'll go, huh, and they'll put it in a box because they don't really understand it, or don't want to look at it. So they know of the question, but they don't want to engage with it, because it's not really a question that needs answering, certainly to start with. And then as you progress, it keeps sort of nagging you and you just gradually pay it more attention, so every now and again you're like "yeah well, who am I really? Well, I'm not this, and I'm not that..." And there's just a few seconds that informs your life and how you then behave.
Q: Does that necessarily have anything to do with asana practice?
Hamish: I think the asana practice has a major effect on your mind, and how you relate to the rest of the world - people and animals and non-living things. I think it stops you being so self-centred, in a way slowing time down so that you can focus a bit more and just pause, think about things. It's mostly taking away the "I" from the equation.
Q: I don't disagree in theory, but I'm sure we can all think of teachers with big egos.
Hamish: It's a major pitfall. Some people say yoga just exacerbates anything that's already there. You know, the thing about your ego becoming bigger is that at some point you fall. All the teachers I know - well I won't just say teachers, because I'm sure it's students as well - whose egos become bigger, at some point, some little pin pops it. Usually through sexual misconduct, but that's another matter.
Q: You write in relation to the Bhagavad Gita: "our intentions are what matter most"? But are outcomes not also important?
Hamish: Of course, at the end of the day, if you do something bad because you intend it, or you do something bad because you didn't intend it, you've still done something bad. But I think if you start with the right intentions, then hopefully you won't make too many mistakes. Everything, all our actions more or less, comes from our thoughts. And the mind is so fickle. It's really very difficult to control. From a biological point of view, we're living in two different minds. We have this sort of adrenalized, coffee, city-living mind that is on full stop, and doesn't chill out. Then we have that other bit of our mind that actually when we get into it, it's like "oh, right, OK, there is a sort of softer me, there is something that has large amounts of love and compassion". But because it doesn't have an ego, it doesn't push itself up to the front, whereas the sort of adrenalized "let's go" mind is always first off the mark.
Q: Is there not a danger that asana speaks to that mind and gets us focused on doing?
Hamish: There is that difficulty of over-stimulating your fight-or-flight response. But with yoga, one of the great things is that because you have control of the breath, it's not just a sport. All sport will put you in that fight-or-flight mode really. Maybe darts won't, I don't know.
Genny: It depends how much you're drinking...
Hamish: But yoga's not a sport. And although it's had the Sports Council backing the British Wheel [a yoga organisation], there is a massive difference.
Q: It's interesting you mention the breath. There's not much described in the Gita that sounds like modern practice apart from focus on the breath.
Hamish: Focus and drishti. In the Bhagavad Gita it talks about drishti [e.g. nose-tip gazing in 6.13]. It's very difficult to go: "oh where's my Ashtanga sequence in the Bhagavad Gita?" It doesn't seem to be there.
Q: Isn't it more about finding quiet and sitting still?
Hamish: Being quiet, you can be sitting still, you can be quiet internally. You can still be sitting still while doing asana, if that makes sense.
Q: Absolutely. But we don't have evidence that what's done now was done back then. So isn't there a risk of reading things into the Gita that aren't actually there?
Hamish: Yes, we turn the Bhagavad Gita into our own story. It's like right, I like that bit, don't like that bit. With any philosophy, with any philosophy you read, you go "oh yeah, I can understand that bit, that suits my character so I will take that on." Was it Gandhi who said when someone asked him "what's your philosophy?" he said: "well, it's mine"? Everybody's philosophy is slightly different. Nobody follows the Buddha's philosophy to the letter. They've all got something they like or don't like, some slight different interpretation. That's human. I don't think any philosopher would question that. They'd all say, yeah of course, you've got to have your own interpretation. What one word means to somebody might have completely different connotations for somebody else. You know the things that are written in Sanskrit and we read it in English, do we lose in translation? Of course we do, because there's like 20 different translations of the Bhagavad Gita in English, but it's how you feel from that, what you get from that, does that make you a better person? Does that make you nicer to your fellow human beings? At the end of the day, that's what matters.
Q: You write that there's little point competing with others, since: "you are best at being you". Is that a modern version of the Gita's message on svadharma?
Hamish: Who was the famous karate guy?
Genny: Bruce Lee.
Hamish: Bruce Lee said try not to copy celebrities, which is what we do. And I suspect what Arjuna did, he tried to copy Krishna, but actually he has to find his own svadharma. Celebrities is a modern word, but we've always had rock stars, we've always had supermen and superwomen. And we look up to them and they give us a certain form of guidance in that way, but we have to become our own superperson.
Q: Is that what Pattabhi Jois was getting at with 99% practice and 1% theory?
Hamish: I think so. He was like you have to find your own way. You have to find your own freedom, really. I think he was very much into you being self-sufficient, personally. You know, not relying on him or the practice, or asana in particular. We do try and rely on things to give us a safe space, to give us a sense of self and to give us just even some comfort in difficulties. But actually, whatever it is that makes you feel safe and, you know, you - it's all transient. All those things have the potential to get broken. You know they won't always be there. So at some point you have to find either something else or something that's non-transient. That's what we're all looking for. We're all looking for that happiness in transient things, whereas it isn't in there.
Q: So to get that across, Pattabhi Jois got into theory?
Hamish: Yeah, he was a big God person. That's the non-transient, for him. Although in the West I think we struggle with the word God, or even just the concept, I think that's what he was trying to get across. We need to find that non-transient happiness, whatever we want to call it. He often used to say: "when you look at the wall, you see the wall. When I look at the wall, I see God." One of my favourite little quotes of his. I'm still looking at the wall.
Q: You quote his grandson Sharath saying: "yoga is nothing but spiritual knowledge," but surely it's not if you're bodily focused?
Hamish: We're always trying to separate mind and body. You know that whole "is yoga physical, or is yoga spiritual?" thing. It's both. The physical allows us to be spiritual and the spiritual allows us to be physical. People say: "oh, you know, do we have a soul?" No we don't. Our soul has a body. And that's what we forget really.
Q: Can Pushpam make philosophy accessible with practical tips?
Hamish: It's a difficult balance. Some pieces are more experiential, like very practical, whereas others are more academic in that sense. I imagine readers want a mixture. Sometimes you don't want to read something academic, sometimes you do. I think we need both. If we ran a magazine on just people's personal stories, that could be good, but it's not really what I was aiming for. Finding a magazine style has been very difficult. We still don't really know what our style is, but it seems to be coming together organically in some way or other, which is nice.
Q: It's certainly helped to have an organising focus. What's the next issue's theme?
Hamish: So this theme is definitely the Bhagavad Gita, but our next one we have an undeclared theme.
Genny: I didn't know. I mean we're not going to actually say this is a suffering issue, because that word is too negative?
Hamish: Yeah, I don't think we're going to call it "the suffering issue".
Genny: But at the same time, we don't want to avoid questions that might make the reader a little uncomfortable.
Hamish: Yeah, like the whole eating disorder thing [addressed by Genny in the first issue]. You know, very important subject, it needs to be talked about, but skilfully, which is what yoga's about, isn't it?
Genny: We're going to have to somehow tie it all together, without using that word. It'll be like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, just a symbol for suffering.
Hamish: Yeah, we can have a black cover.
Q: Or a positive spin, like Yoga Sutra 2.16: "Suffering that has not come is to be avoided"?
Genny: But we won't actually say the word.
Hamish: I don't know, maybe we do have to, it's something we'll have to discuss.
Q: Perhaps future contributors can help shape ideas?
Genny: We're hopeful that this second issue, because we've got a bigger print run, it'll get distributed more widely, more people will see it. So far, we've actively gone after people to write stuff. So my hope is now people are going to come to us with some really good ideas and offerings and photographs as well, not just writing. Because although we know a lot of people, I wish we knew more, and not just Ashtangis.
Q: Would you be happy with a majority of articles by non-Ashtanga practitioners?
Hamish: I think we're pretty cool with that.
Genny: We don't want it to be an Ashtanga publication.
Hamish: I think our first issue was definitely more Ashtanga-biased because a) that was our market and b) those were the people we knew.
Genny: Originally this was just going to be distributed into the shala.
Hamish: I had this idea of something much smaller. Maybe A6 size, 12 pages. Like a newsletter but with other stuff in it.
Genny: But that's how you've been this whole process. Me and Emma and Matt [the designers] have been pulling you, kicking and screaming...
Hamish: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Genny: ...bigger trim size, more articles, charge more money, greater print run.
Hamish: Yeah. There was me, 500 copies, two quid, little A6 thing, you know, single staples, shove it in your bag, but you know, obviously...
Genny: ...we had other ideas...
Hamish: ...which is great. I think that, if I blow my own trumpet one way, I'm quite good at letting go of things that I'm like "this is how it should be".
Genny: But it was important I think to still keep the humbleness of your idea.
Q: How big would you like this to get?
Hamish: World domination. Shall we start with that?
Q: You've printed 1,500 copies. How about 15,000, with global distribution?
Hamish: Yeah, that could be good. I mean for me if something got that big I wouldn't know how to do it. We'd have to sort out storage, we'd need separate bank accounts, a business... It would be a major overhaul.
Genny: But not impossible.
Hamish: Not impossible.
Genny: I didn't think we were going to get the quality as good as we had for this second round.
Genny: The final product is unbelievable. I don't really have an end goal, but I certainly don't have one that's stopping us from going places, I guess is what I'm saying.
Hamish: Yeah, I mean at the moment it's a kitchen table business.
Genny: Quite literally. We're laying the sheets out on my kitchen table. This has quite a London feel to it in terms of the way it looks and it being quite intelligent, we hope. So I can't find anything that's similar to what we're doing.
Pushpam is available here.