Angela, can you speak to your life before yoga?
I started experimenting with yoga, meditation and natural medicine in Seattle in 2000. Age 23, with applications out to grad schools, focused on social justice work and excited for the future.
But I was also physically unwell, with serious back trouble and a case of giardia that wouldn’t go away. I had been in a tin and particleboard house in Nicaragua the previous year, drinking unfiltered water, caring for my small self about as well as the other lefty social justice people I knew. Which is to say, not much. The alternative health scene in Seattle got my attention because (1) it was full of idealistic people and (2) my body was in trouble.
The Angela that I was up until that year had the same basic personality as now. I think it’s important for those of us on the path of conscious evolution to cultivate compassion for past selves. So I don’t want to denigrate that past self. She’s a good person, as we all are. Personality stereotypes for her include INFJ, Enneagram type 7, Scorpio/ Capricorn rising, tri-doshic constitution. Some of the problems I see troubling that past self are a tendency to be resilient to a fault (never stopping to acknowledge trauma, just putting all energy into overcoming), a constant seeking for adventure and bigger/better ideas, strong idealism, impatience, and high anxiety around relationships due to a tendency to feel others’ pain. Her favorite things were being alone, dangerous adventures, constant novelty, and following the cutting edge of research and big ideas. Because she inhabited a world of ideas and forward movement, she wasn’t very skilled in being present in her body or in relationships. She was all-or-nothing: either passionate about something, or put to sleep by it. In a way these tendencies are all still present, but yoga has helped me to understand my inborn biases, balance the extremes, and to act more from love and a yearning for wisdom than from the old triggers of anxiety, sadness, attachment and avoidance.
I hesitate to share about my bizarre childhood. I kept it secret for years. That’s because although this past makes for great stories, the stories don’t belong to me, but rather to the kids I grew up with. I don’t want to exploit them for shock value. But yoga is slowly making me transparent whether I like it or not; and to go with that flow I’ll say more.
My parents were Christian hippies who, in their 1960s idealism, chose to move to a ranch in rural Montana. Off the grid culturally and economically. My brother and I were born there; and my parents stayed there 45 years, until they moved out of their home on the grounds last Thanksgiving. They are selfless, loving, extraverted people. They have so much energy that they exhaust me to this day. They think and talk about Jesus all the time. When I was little, on the Ranch we raised our own food and processed our own waste. We didn’t read magazines or newspapers, or get much exposure for TV or popular culture. We did have an inherited set of Harvard Classics, which I read over and over. We had a fire truck that my dad used to serve the farms within a 15 mile radius, and a huge Ford pickup that I learned to drive on when I was 13. I used to climb the back fence and talk to the cows for hours in the summers (these cow friendships were a family joke), and go ice skating for miles on frozen irrigation ditches in the winters.
But. While the Ranch had all normal attributes of sheep and horses and cornfields and grain silos and split rail fences, its actual purpose was to be a kind of orphanage for 100 traumatized kids. For example, kids who had undergone or participated in violence in rural settings (rural America can be more violent than the city), refugees from the 1980s gang wars in Chicago, and kids whose families had somehow been destroyed on the Native American reservations in Montana and the Dakotas. This was my normal. My dad was the wilderness guide/ outdoor activities director and later the preacher for this organization; and my mom was a cook and later a counselor. We ate meals together, all 100 of us and staff, celebrated holidays as a group, and all in all grew up together. A whole fictive kinship situation. That was the therapeutic idea anyway.
On one hand, we were at perpetual sleepaway camp, with horseback rides, a giant swimming pool, and a full schedule of innocent play. Kids being kids, finding a way to have a meaningful, peaceful childhood. And on the other hand, there was an undercurrent of acute suffering that I couldn’t not feel, even though it bewildered me. I was often heartbroken, hurt and angry, and - given my wonderful nuclear family - had no good reason why. Growing up was emotionally confusing. By age 18, I had the empty bank account, test scores and sufficiently weird life story to get a few full ride scholarship offers far away. I lit out running and told my family that service work and God were for suckers. My plan was to become a journalist and foreign correspondent.
I would have to do a lot of healing in the relationship with spirit, with my parents, and with their professional choices before I could accept my own path as some sort of a service worker. I don’t think that work was complete until 2011 when I finally left my academic position at the University of Michigan, a few months after Sharath told me to teach.
I understand that a lot of us feel broken. We carry marks on our bodies and minds that we think make us different. Or special. Or unlovable. The more transparent we get, the more we see that the marks aren’t special - they are what make us like everyone else. I grew up with people who were so much more broken than I can ever say. And even these heartbreakers: at bottom they were fully alive, and whole. We can all give thanks for how much health we have, how much support we have received in all ways, and for the mind-bodies that enable us to do something so amazing as to practice. We are all whole.
And... we are all here to learn. To be human is to have little personality twists here and there. Narcissism and psychopathy are legion in our time: it is useful to learn their energetic and behavioral signatures. Practice is brilliant when it makes egoic subpatterns - kleshas - conscious and squelches their power over us.
How do you find the practice of Ashtanga?
I’d taken a bunch of yoga classes, and started to get an idea of what ashtanga was, that year in Seattle. When I started grad school in 2001, I found great asana teachers at the UCLA rec center (notably Joan Hyman). The whole moving-while-breathing thing helped everything, and I’d experiment with the breathing and postures at home in Seattle, and later in my office at UCLA. It was nice to play around in silence, with a focus on the breath.
Then in the fall of 2002 there was a nearly fatal accident. I was crossing the street in front of my apartment in Santa Monica, and was hit by a driver who ran a stop sign. I didn’t wake up until I was strapped to a board and an EMT was putting a needle my arm. I don’t take drugs (something inherited from my dad), so fought the IV. To calm the situation, the EMT said that my neck was broken and I would be paralyzed if I struggled. My mind was in a strange place just then, and the suggestion about paralysis went all the way in. My body went limp and lost feeling until early the next morning. My husband Rob was holding my hand, and I realized I could actually feel his hand. Some other dramatic things took place that night and in coming weeks. There was a lot of pain and injury, some of which remains today. What I was left with was a chronic case of gratitude for this body. And a conviction to NOT WASTE TIME.
I instinctively wanted - needed - some sort of sadhana to heal emotionally and physically, and also to explore the weird states of consciousness that were now coming up. It was obvious that ashtanga was the path. (Settling with the driver’s insurance company funded my shala fees, and also paid for my first trip to Mysore 7 years later. What a blessing.) Everything about ashtanga already intrigued me, and now I had changed my value system to make space in daily life for, well, self-study. Heather Radha Duplex (now Carlisi) took me under her wing and I started practicing with her three days per week, quickly moving toward a 7-day practice. (Yes, 7. I over-did the asana for years, often adding afternoon classes in other styles. Los Angeles had so much to offer at the time and I was on fire with curiosity. I joke that teaching is penance for this - it cured me of the asana junkie thing and introduced significant new physical and energetic challenges. That said, I love the bodily practice still. Very much.)
For the first few years I experienced the practice as highly sacred. More perfect than the rest of life. Which is why there was no interest in canned technique from videos and such - I learned the embodied practice only through devoted relationships, and did not talk about those sacred connections until - sadly - it formally came time to share my practice with others.
Direct transmission, baby. Present moment; person to person. Still possible in the 21st century.
From the beginning, ashtanga put me in contact with some weird state of consciousness that filled me with hope, reverence, and a sense of mystery. It seemed to engage motives beyond the push and pull of my superficial ego, and brought me intensely alive. I was in awe of my teachers because of the brilliance of what they were carrying, and still feel each of them, at every step I have taken, to be the greatest blessing imaginable. Not only has the line between the mind-states of practice and life faded, but also over time I have learned to experience my teachers as everyday, fallible humans. This is because, maybe seeing the stars in my eyes, every one of them has insisted that I keep my love and respect real by engaging them on a mundane level. Each one has tempered and grounded my idealism, turning it from a weakness for abstraction into a source of actionable strength. Dominic Corigliano, who has profoundly influenced me (he helped me understand the subtle energy of the practice, and taught me to teach) continues to be relentless in requiring me to integrate the sacred with everything else. These relationships, including with Sharath - with whom I’ve studied seriously since 2009 - are all the richer for being not only devotional but human, and sustained over many years.
Lately I have come to see the practice - the genuine method, if you will - as stream of super-concentrated intelligence. It is the highest intelligence I have ever encountered: a sort of collective, evolving brilliance that illuminates whatever it touches. I get to observe people, one by one, mixing their own consciousness with this intelligence stream. I watch as they are naturally drawn into devoted practice, and their own inner teachers start to wake up as a result of the intelligence the practice is calling forth. Something about this intelligence stream in the practice has the potential to ionize what is discerning, and disciplined, and loving, and concentrated, and equanimous, and non-self-serving, in a person. I understand it doesn’t always play out like that - sometimes our superficial ego or some neurosis takes charge instead, or therefore the things that darken the heart (anger, greed, illusion, pride, envy, etc.) are never made conscious and healed. But when there is strong concentration, self-study and equanimity, I feel the odds are good for evolution of consciousness.
Teaching is hard in some ways, but it’s effortless in that it mixes my individual consciousness with that superconsciousness for hours every day. That feeling and its long-term effects are a mystery I don’t ever expect to understand. So I guess the sadhana now is to hang out in that energy a lot and just let it have its way with me. There is no place I’d rather be than a Mysore room.
You are an academic. Your “previous life” was research and behind the professor pulpit; sustained on critical analysis and the thought-process. Society promotes the notion that a “busy” mind and life is the correct and normalized path. Was an Ashtanga silent practice with the goal of quieting the mind difficult for you?
No. Quelling the monkey-mind was not difficult. It was awesome. I’m not kidding that giving awareness to the ashtanga practice may be the easiest thing I have ever asked my mind to do.
This must be because my teachers knew what they were doing. The created, and held, space for absorption to be a surrender, not an act of will. The main place discipline entered in to things was that I committed to driste from the beginning, and made a decision to treat any distractions or annoyances as part of the practice itself.
It’s not that I came in with a particularly strong concentration muscle (plenty of scholars have only average concentration). It’s that my teachers had strong energy and were not at all confused. I trusted them; I trusted the practice: the mind didn’t need to jump around. Maybe this is part of my reverence for my teachers: they held the door open for me to access new worlds of consciousness. When Dominic taught me to teach, the main technique was creating the conditions for absorption (safe space + strong fire), and mostly staying out the way while students mined into that. I deeply admire people who claw their way to concentration by tooth and nail (especially in home practice), and doubt if I would have had the discipline to go through that.
About academia. It’s funny that I ended up establishing a shala in the most educated city in the country. Degrees do not impress me. But the discipline, curiosity and creative strength of scholarly types does excite me. My sense of it is that when someone decides to direct those skills into embodied meditation, she might awaken her energy in a big way. Some academics at our shala have shared this feeling that “the practice just feels like home.” It is their refuge from analytical labor. They love the breath.
You referenced “The whole moving-while-breathing thing helped everything” when you first found the practice. This appears to be a constant theme with new practitioners that find Mysore style transformative. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, but here is a guess. It’s hard (not impossible) to make a “thing” of the breath. The superficial ego has some difficulty hanging on to it and trying to achieve “goals” with it.
Many traditions have some sort of metaphysical woo-woo around the breath. Humans seem to associate it with something… spiritual. Why is that? (It’s funny when you consider that the breath disappears in states of deepest absorption.) I guess all we know is that placing the awareness on the breath - as a life practice - does something to people. It is doing something to me.
There are shifts of consciousness that occur as a result of this practice; openings of spaciousness in consciousness, if you will. There are also opportunities to indulge in ego through an asana-intensive practice like Ashtanga. Through your own direct experience, how can students maximize the conscious-opening benefits while navigating the pitfalls of the ego? How can students use asana as a guide post instead of the end result?
Through my direct experience, love. I went too many years before I took love seriously. It’s powerful. By love I mean actually feeling my heart, in my body and in relationships, and no longer blocking out the natural experiences of connection and care that arise there. And especially making this sort of “allowing,” or “unblocking,” a practice in relationships when the going gets tough.
I’m not suggesting here the sort of “mutual appreciation society” that we are often tempted to create in communities. Robert Augustus Masters defines the M.A.S. as an implicit agreement that ‘I won’t call you on your stuff if you won’t call me on mine.’ The mutual appreciation thing comes from anxiety, not love. It’s dissociative, flattering, and afraid of the dark. But keeping it real is part of love.
On that note, (advice alert - please skip this part if in doubt) it seems really helpful to set healthy boundaries so that the learning process is not torn to pieces by confusion. There is a lot of avidya out there. Avidya is not just ignorance, but actually wrong knowledge that we mistake for correct information. If someone has asked me to work with them (the initiative always comes from the student, not me), one of the first suggestions I offer is nix unsolicited advice. Construct a good filter for the first many years. Choose influences, friends, teachers, reference groups, with intention. (Later, this may not matter so much. A strong, long-term practitioner can alchemize anything.) Steer clear of teachers who flatter their students and friends who constantly say you’re beautiful and amazing: that may require your reciprocity in kind if not by social media. If you’re already mixed up with sticky energy, it’s possible to compassionately and non-violently bow out. Take time to cultivate a deep foundation, a beautiful heart, and a sharp, clear mind. We are what we eat not just physically, but also energetically, emotionally and mentally.
Other than love, I don’t know. It seems like every technique someone might try to get beyond illusion can turn on us. Ego is smart. It knows how to co-opt the tools we think we’re using to see through it. The “I’m more yoga than you” trip. Service, ethical practice, studying spiritual texts, Sanskrit scholarship - it is all so important and rich. And at the same time each of us will engage svadhyaya according to our own karma, our own conscious and unconscious intentions. Maybe the best we can do is just commit to keep practicing for a long time without a break, to keep examining our own intentions and setting them high.
Elaborating on consciousness. If a student has spent any time with you, it becomes clear how highly you value a sitting/meditation practice. Can you share your experience with meditation? Why is it complementary to the Ashtanga method?
The way that my teachers teach the asana is like this: gentle-gentle and gradual as a physical practice; and relentless as an attentional practice. Being in the body, moving and breathing without interruption, bandha, driste, and actually making all of this about the quality of awareness and not any outward achievement… holy cow, this requires a lot of consciousness. Sometimes the meditation is a letting go, and sometimes one has to really work it. I don’t pretend that every ashtangi actually practices meditation on the mat, but many do. They get it.
Someone who gets it in this sense, she already has a meditation practice. And in addition to this, some feel a strong internal call to meditate while sitting down. The technique for that might be a little different from tristhana, and it might develop varying skills and take a person to slightly different places. Different but same. Personally, it’s true that since 2000 I have been feeling a strong call to sit. Daily. Sometimes for days or a week without interruption. Moving practice; sitting practice; same. It’s just practice.
I don’t suggest that students do sitting practice. Pattabhi Jois joked about sitting being “mad attention,” maybe because he saw people who pushed themselves to sit go crazy. Bad trips definitely happen. So we work against the idea that sitting is important. That said, for me personally sitting is space to dwell in my spirit, something I may have longed for especially badly because I began adult life by rejecting god, and then spent my 20s honing my rational mind to a sharp point. Sittng has also quickened my learning in the areas of equanimity, love and intuition. It feels natural, like something I have been doing since before I was born.
If someone is feeling an inner call to sit down to either watch the mind or let it become still, this is not an urge to repress. We are repressed enough already. It may be helpful to find like minds.
Is Ashtanga a spiritual practice ("spiritual" being defined in a macro context open to individual interpretation)? Why do so many experience a shift in this space after a committed, daily, practice?
In the Krishnamacharya tradition, yoga is not religious. He was clear. So it seems important that any spirituality (which might be experienced at any time - it’s hazardous like that) is not reduced to religion. I’ve decided to enjoy religion without seeing it as more sacred than anything else. But for some, religion can exclude and offend. So this boundary (spiritual but not religious) can be liberating.
It’s hard to talk about spirit. The word seems to refer to anything in experience that is beyond rational understanding or the small self. Whatever that ding-an-sich might be, it does seem to be hovering around. My understanding of “99% Practice” is that our fundamentally non-conceptual approach leaves space for people to have their own unique experiences of the subtle realms.
Being deeply moved does seem to happen a lot in ashtanga though. Fly at your own risk!
How has your teaching evolved over time?
Could we come back to this question in 20 years?
Early on, I heard that Pattabhi Jois said you needed ten years of practice before teaching, and I went with that. When I did start, I felt satisfied that I’d received a lot of guidance, and also had a long time just to practice. Nobody pushed me into teaching to make money or to meet their needs. So it was possible to come from a place of great support from my teachers, and from an abundance of previous experience.
Nevertheless, I worried about losing my edge because I would be focusing on others. I now give most of my mental real estate to running the shala. That’s why I re-framed teaching as the practice. Suddenly, it was obvious how to do that work. Counting students or money was the same sort of trap as counting postures. Wishing for another situation (warmer weather, more focused students), was like phoning in the asanas with my own attention somewhere else. Feeling entitled to respect, or enjoyment, or attention, or comfort, or students who learned anything at all, was the same ego stuff as believing I deserved gratification and fruit from the personal practice. And so on.
From this idea that teaching is practice, I’ve spent the last five years asking: What is my purpose here? What am I here to learn? How do I serve? This asking helps guide momentary actions.
So far, it seems that transparency is important. Just being me, with honesty about my experience and limitations. I am not a final authority. I just work for my students, and in honor of my teachers. Seeing my role as holding one link in a chain clarifies the importance of stability, and the non-importance of twisting the method into fun new shapes.
Lately it feels like listening is a big skill for the teaching practice. Giving close attention to the students. Not having more students than I can fully perceive and support. Maintaining a quiet life, and safe spaces, where listening and understanding can happen. And then also listening to my teachers whispering in my ears: meditating on the true teachers, embedding the life-streams of those who have gone before deep into my consciousness. When students need information, I hope to perceive them accurately enough to meet them where they are at, learn from them, and then give them space to go beyond me.
There may be periods in a student’s life where visiting a shala isn’t possible. Do you have any thoughts for a self-practitioner setting the necessary conditions to maintain a daily, consistent, and beneficial practice?
If you have ever been overwhelmed by gratitude or reverence for practice, gather that feeling close and cultivate it. There’s an energy at the center of the feeling. It came from inside you, so you can summon it again and again, and learn to ride on it.
If that sounds epic, maybe it is.
I’ve responded to questions about home practice before in the HR and How to Practice By Yourself. http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/585165
One last idea. Read Guruji: A Portrait again and again. Our foremothers and fathers gave up everything to gain the method, and with it a real-life teacher, and a community. As a result, now we have brothers and sisters in the practice all over the world.
What’s happening in the grassroots, non-commercial shalas out there can’t be touched in a workshop or in canned material. The method and its energy are there for the absorbing at the grass roots. Go there. The direct experience is beyond words, and beyond worth the effort.
AY:A2 has a “mobile shala” - a group of people who have learned traditionally and practice at home. They visit from from 1 week to 3 months per year. They are on the monthly mailing list, can drop in even if we’re full, and are invited to the shala’s internal events. This supports their self practice for the rest of the year in Nebraska, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, wherever. The mobile shala is a reflection of how it works at the mothership in India. It’s the essence of Mysore style: to alternate periods of focused, residential (not workshop) study with periods of uninterrupted practice.
One theme in your writings is that you approach your own practice in a research-oriented fashion; always probing, tweaking, and digging deeper. Do you recommend students examine their own practices in such a way? How?
Yes, I see my practice as one “vector of data” for the “scientific” method of ashtanga. Toward the beginning, part of the inspiration for consistent practice came from the idea that I have donated my body to science.
Here’s an extended metaphor. The method is evolving through us, so how can we ensure that we “contribute to science”? One way is to limit fluctuation. Seek stability of conditions and consistency of mind. Don’t change things up at random. When experimenting, do so dispassionately and with reflection.
In my Sutras group last month, we discussed the notion that the goal of yoga is not samadhi. Yoga is not an escape. The goal is viveka - discernment between illusion and reality. In this interpretation, strong concentration, open-mindedness, and meditation are the means for finding wisdom. Concentration and absorption are just tools.
I gave my body to science a decade ago, but now I contemplate giving my mind to service. This fall, I had a series of humorous dreams that started with a booming voice in my head saying “PUT THE SOUL IN CONTROL.” There was even reverb in the dream. My subconscious is a big joker like that. But the dream-cycle concluded in a dead serious way weeks later with this mantra: “Use this body, use this mind, use this body, use this mind.”
Wow. So now I am living with a big question. What would I become if I surrendered every thought and feeling to serving others?
Can you share your experiences with assisting Sharath in the Shala?
Those of us who assist for a month serve 2-4 hours per day, 3-4 days per week, for 4-5 weeks (24-80 hours). This year alone, Sharath will serve the same room for something like 4-8 hours per day, 5-6 days per week, for 24 weeks (more than 1,000 hours).
Given Sharath’s depth of experience, and his Joisian stamina, I don’t feel right to say after only a month that it’s an honor to assist, or to develop many conclusions about it. But I will share that the experience was challenging, coming as it did on the tail end of an intense year of teaching, and adding the variable of being the only female assistant at the time. My intention was to be as useful as possible, and to understand a tiny bit of how my teacher works.
Any final thoughts on the practice?
Three words come to mind. Concentration. Relationship. Learning.
Lu, thank you for this project and for your practice. Love and thanks to my family, teachers, students, and colleagues.
Editorial Note: You can learn more about Ashtanga Ann Arbor here: http://www.ashtangaannarbor.com/
*Photos provided by Angela. Angela solo photographs taken by Flint Jamison.