He's perhaps best known for creating the "Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures." However, Dharma Mittra's influence on the yoga world extends far beyond the nearly 50,000 copies of that poster that have been printed since Mittra completed the laborious project in 1983. (He cut and pasted every one of the tiny black-and-white images of himself on it; this was before Photoshop.) Many of his former students at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York have opened their own studios and introduced his style to tens of thousands of yogis across the country.
A vital 65, Mittra teaches weekly classes (still demonstrating poses) and holds teacher training courses at his Catskill Mountains retreat as well as in Miami and Brazil. He has also put together a book called asanas: 608 Yoga Poses (New World Library, 2003), a compendium of photographs from his groundbreaking poster.
Yoga Journal: How did you discover yoga?
Dharma Mittra: I grew up Catholic in Minas Gerais, Brazil, but I never liked it. I preferred the ideas of reincarnation and karma that I read about in my younger brother's yoga books. I was also fascinated with gymnastics and won titles in bodybuilding as a young man. Then I hurt my knee in the Brazilian air force in 1961 and was forced to spend six months in a hospital bed in Rio. I began practicing deep relaxation, trying to go beyond the body. In 1962, my brother left for America. Soon after, he wrote to tell me that he had found Sri Swami Kailashananda, also known as Yogi Gupta. There were no masters in Brazil, so I spent time gathering money and arrived in Greenwich Village on September 14, 1964. On my second day, I had an appointment with the guru, and that was when I became a full-time yogi.
YJ: When did you begin teaching?
DM: Not until 1967, when Yogi Gupta said I was ready. I lived in an ashram in a brownstone on 56th Street with my guru's other disciples, and I taught day and night. I was fortunate, because I was assigned to live with Yogi Gupta when he was in New York. I cooked for him, shaved his head. I was lucky to be near a saint, and I was completely devoted. Then, in 1975, I left the ashram and founded the Yoga Asana Center [now the Dharma Yoga Center].
YJ: How has the practice of yoga changed since you opened your studio almost 30 years ago?
DM: Some classes at some schools are getting too much into the physical. It's only about their figures for some people. Others do yoga to prepare for meditation, which they do only in order to succeed in their job. Too few practitioners today are looking for self-realization, which is the true purpose of yoga.
YJ: What's the best advice you can give to new students?
DM: If you have a guru, the most important thing is to copy them. Mimic their posture, move your head and your body the way they do. One day a long time ago, Yogi Gupta noticed that I was copying his body language, and he said, "That's the secret." That's how you learn.