Anna, can you please share with us your background before yoga?
There was life before yoga?! In all seriousness, sometimes it is difficult for me to remember and relate to who I was before I began my yoga practice. There is a very clear dividing line in my adult life and my yoga practice is part of that. Growing up I was neither inclined towards, nor skilled at, any type of physical activity. I spent the majority of my childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood overweight, and unhealthy. Don’t get me wrong, I lived a very happy life. I had an amazing family, graduated University with a degree in English Literature and Religious Studies, married a wonderful man, and set out on a great adventure with him. But throughout all of this, being active just wasn’t something I wanted to do. In 2003, my husband Bart and I moved from Hamilton, Ontario to Baltimore, Maryland for his job, and it was there that things began to unravel. Unable to have a job because of my visa status, I spent a lot of days on the couch in front of the television. My weight problem began to spiral out of control and I suffered from bouts of depression. My unhealthy habits in the kitchen as well as my lack of motivation also rubbed off on Bart and we both became heavier than we had ever been. We continued on like this for several years, and although I found more and more things to occupy my time - volunteer work, friendships, and learning and eventually teaching ceramics - none of them helped to increase my physical well-being. In 2006, Bart had a medical scare, and we both sat down and realized that if we wanted to make it to our 35th birthdays, we needed to make some changes. Thus, the line was drawn.
Paying careful attention to our diet and increasing our exercise Bart and I both began to lose weight. We started with walking and hiking, almost exclusively cooking at home, and developing new, healthier habits. Within a year, Bart’s medical problem was under control and he was training for a marathon, and I had lost about 70 pounds of my eventual 110. This was when I started yoga. It began with a once a week “yogalates” class at a local gym, and after doing that for a few months a friend invited me to a class at a nearby yoga studio. “Rock n’ Roll Yoga”. It was hard and I loved it. I remember my muscles shaking as I tried to hold the postures. I kept taking the class, and after hearing that the teacher was normally an Ashtanga practitioner, decided I would take the plunge and try a Led Primary class. Surprise! This was not “Rock n’ Roll Yoga” (or maybe it was the real rock n’ roll yoga). It was better. I immediately noticed how the quiet of the room and the challenge of the sequence took me to a different place. Ninety minutes passed in the blink of an eye and I hadn’t thought about anything other than my body and my breath. There was no turning back. I was hooked.
You note the quietness of the room. This aspect coupled with the asana sequence tends to hook folks in initially. What is it about the silence that draws people into the practice?
I think that the silence separates the space of the room and the practice. It defines it from the rest of your day; the rest of your life. It creates a sacredness and a boundary line that people don’t even realize they’re missing. Most of our minutes are spent listening to background noise. We’re constantly inundated by the sounds of everyday life: traffic, people on their phones, music on the car stereo, television on in the background of a room. Personally, before the practice, I not only wanted, but often needed to have on music while I was home, or in my car, or out for a walk. It was company so that I didn’t have to be alone - a connection and a distraction. I relied on it. And at the time there was nothing wrong with that. But the quiet offered me something else. It was a chance to be my own company, to hear what was going on in my own head, and my own heart, rather than what was happening outside. It allowed me to start to build a better relationship with myself. I think that silence forces you to hear things in an entirely different way - with your whole being. When you step into a Mysore room this prospect can be either be a draw or a deterrent. It all depends on whether or not you are ready to listen.
That's such a lovely perspective. I actually hadn't made the connection regarding the quiet solitude of the practice as a check against our daily desire (subconscious?) for external stimuli. It's almost as if we are at times..afraid, of just being by our self.
I'd like to revisit your experience when you first began. You utilized the practice as a therapeutic vehicle for a healthy shift in your life. What was the experience like emotionally for you?
As much as the physical change was on the forefront of my desire and drive to commit myself to a yoga practice. The emotional benefits, in retrospect, far outweighed (no pun intended) the shift I felt in my body. Sure I was getting stronger, more flexible, and continuing to lose weight, but I could have accomplished that with any other exercise. What the practice gave me, was a chance to form a new relationship with my body; form a new relationship with myself. Perhaps that’s also why the silence was so appealing. I needed to begin that conversation with myself in order to reconcile what was happening outside with what needed to happen inside. I was creating a mind-body connection from scratch.
I spent too many years of my life not liking my body, and not really liking myself for getting to that physical point. In turn, this coloured the way I felt about my personal relationships, my abilities, even my intelligence. I was uncomfortable in my own skin, which doesn’t make for a very happy or positive perspective on anything. I was afraid. A lot. I was afraid of how people saw me or what they thought about me, but really it was a reflection of how I saw and thought about myself. The practice forced me to understand this - to really hear the things I was saying to myself. It encouraged me to trust myself more, to appreciate myself more, to have confidence and even some humble pride. Of course this didn’t happen overnight, nor was the process perfect (in fact it was hard, and uncomfortable, and downright awful at times) but the simple awareness of my negative internal dialogue began to shift my thoughts and feelings about who I was. I finally had a voice to answer all my accusations about myself. This is not to say that I don’t still have times where I revert to my old ways - as we all know bad habits are hard to break - but I notice them, I recognize them for what they are and I work to let them go. I no longer get caught up in the turmoil, the sadness, and the fear. Instead, I work through it, I listen both inside and out, trying to distinguish what is really going on. Since starting the practice, I have never again suffered from the kind of depression I did prior to yoga. The physical changes and search for a healthier lifestyle are what initiated me into the practice, but it was the mental and emotional awakening that made me stick with it. One of my first Ashtanga teachers in Baltimore used to say, “first your body changes, then your mind changes, then your heart changes.” For me, it couldn’t have been more true.
Can you share about your first visit to India and KPJAYI? Was it transformative?
This question makes me laugh because I was having a conversation with an old University friend the day before yesterday about how my first trip to India was such a pivotal point in my life, and how going to KPJAYI really brought to life the person that I am today. And he was the one who said that!
I learned Ashtanga at a non-traditional studio, where we had one Mysore style class per week and all the other classes were taught as Led Primary. My initial trip to KPJAYI was literally my first foray into daily Mysore practice - what a way to start! But it was the getting there that I think really had the largest impact. When I went to Mysore I only knew one person who had gone before. She was incredibly helpful and got me connected so that I could set up accommodation and taxis, but otherwise, I was kind of flying blind. I had no idea what to expect.
India itself was the first shock. I spent nearly a month before going to Mysore travelling with my husband through the northern part of the country. It was overwhelming to say the least. The noise, the crowds, the smells, the dirt; I was completely bombarded. And, as a fairly tall, extremely pale, and (at the time) red-headed woman, I kind of stuck out. People would take my photo constantly, reach into my pockets and bag, and follow us from place to place. I experienced some of the most memorable and also most anxious moments of my life on that trip. And when the travelling was done, Bart took me to the airport in Delhi where I was to board my plane to Mysore before he would begin his trip back to the U.S. I remember being at the airport, crying, saying to him “if Mysore is like the rest of India, I don’t think I can be here alone…”. Like I said earlier, old habits are hard to break. But, I got on the plane, where I subsequently developed a fever, and flew to Bangalore. Then I got in the taxi and made my way to Mysore. I was sick, exhausted, and completely alone. And I hated it. I had about two or three days before practice at the Shala would begin, and those were some hard days. I was basically eating only rice, bananas and applesauce because whatever illness I had contracted in our travels wouldn’t let me consume much else. My parents could hear my misery on the phone and were telling me to come home. I was so worried about what practice was going to be like and if I was going to be able to do it at all. I just really wanted to give up. But I had gone all that way. It was time to face my fears.
In those two terrible days there were a lot of tears and self-pity, but also some glimpses of hope. My fever broke and I started to feel a little better and I made a couple of incredible friends who I still continue to talk to regularly. They supported me, without judgement. Through that, I continued to learn to stop judging myself.
My first practice at the Shala was so nerve-wracking. It was the beginning of the season, so we had Led Primary to get us all off on the right foot. The Shala was so much emptier than I’ve seen it since. There were maybe 50 or 60 of us total. Nowhere to hide. I remember whispering to the guy beside me, now also a dear friend, “I’m so nervous!”
“Just do your practice,” he said.
And that’s what I did. My normal practice. Which was the best I could do. I couldn’t be anything different or more spectacular than exactly who I was, and I had to be okay with that. Every day in the Shala I would just go, do my work, and have to be okay with the outcome. I was working hard on backbends while I was on that trip, but they were very elusive to me. And the more I wanted them to come, the further away they seemed. The assistants and Sharath were very patient with me, helping me every day even though I was dead weight in their arms. I felt bad, but they never seemed to need me to do anything more than try. And once I saw that Sharath was okay with the results - mine and everyone else’s - I realized that it didn’t really matter whether or not I stood up or dropped back, especially on that trip. My work had already been done. I had come to Mysore alone (do I like myself enough to be on my own for a month?! What will I do in this crazy place without my Bart-security-blanket?). I had conquered my fear of being away from my husband and family and having them be “mad” at me for going (my lame excuse for putting the trip off for as long as I did) . I had met new people and made new friends without a familiar face to make me feel loved at the end of the day (what did they think about me?). I was keeping a blog while I was on that trip and I wrote an entry entitled “In Transition” about how the vinyasas between the poses are just as important as the postures themselves because they create momentum in the practice, forcing it to keep moving. Just as in our lives, the transitions help to propel us forward; those times of movement and change and breath bring us to the next position, prepared to face it. That’s what my first trip to India was for me, a catalyst to help me to continue moving forward. It was the tool that forced me put all of the awareness I had gained about myself into real life practice so I could be ready for the next stages of my life. I could talk a good talk about having gained confidence and learning to be comfortable alone, but going to Mysore was the only way I could make it true.
Anna, how have your subsequent trips to Mysore evolved?
When I set out on that first trip to Mysore, I wasn’t anticipating how strong the pull would be to return there, well, ever,never mind year after year. I had no idea the effect of the sacredness of the Shala, the energy of the other practitioners, the transformative power of having a time devoted solely to practice, or Sharath’s humble, warm, and wise presence. Those are the things that draw be back to Mysore. Though on my first trip, these unknowns were sources of anxiety and worry, they now offer a familiarity that provides comfort. My trips to KPJAYI offer me a chance to leave behind my busy life and focus on learning from my teacher and my practice. In Mysore I get to be a student, which is a blessing, albeit a challenging one. There is work to be done, and I find that on each return trip I am forced to learn a new lesson, but there I feel like I have the time and the energy to really understand it. Every trip is transformative in some way. The internal shift may be big, or it may be small, but the gift of having the opportunity and space to go back to the roots of my practice and my teaching to experience this is immeasurable. And sitting here on a snowy afternoon in Canada, I can’t help but think “I can’t wait to go home again.”
Can you share about your past teachers and their influence on you? How integral has Sharath played a part in your development as a practitioner and teacher?
As I said, I began Ashtanga at a non-traditional studio in Baltimore. I learned Primary from several dedicated, kind, and knowledgeable teachers who all shared a love of the practice. They were warm and encouraging, and I am so grateful to them for the time and effort they spent on me. It was the strong foundation in the practice that they gave me that allowed me to begin to work towards becoming a teacher. They were the first to be excited for me when I decided to start making trips to India, and when my practice evolved to a point where I felt I needed to be somewhere with a full-time Mysore program they supported my decision. I try to impart that same enthusiasm on my students, as those first few months of early mornings and achy bodies can be so difficult.
Since then, I have had the opportunity to practice and assist under some incredible Authorized and Certified teachers. I have tried to glean as much as I can from their wisdom, learning from their interactions with me as a student as well as carefully watching and listening to the ways that they offer the practice to people with a wide variety of bodies, ages, and experience. The ability of those teachers to be flexible yet true to the method, to know when to speak and when to remain silent, and to be authentic in their communication of the practice and the lineage, have all had a huge influence on me as both a teacher and practitioner. I hope to offer my students even a fraction of what I have learned from them.
But it all stems from the source. Guruji, Sharath, Saraswathi - the parampara of the Ashtanga practice is invaluable. As someone who went to KPJAYI having never participated in daily self-practice, Sharath was, literally, my first Mysore teacher. And when I returned to India for a second trip, I was learning postures for the first time in the Shala. To me, this was a huge advantage in seeing how Sharath teaches. I was working with poses I had never attempted, let alone accomplished, and going through that struggle there was humbling, but also thrilling. There were days that ended in laughter, and days that ended in tears, but Sharath’s presence was constant. A groan, a look, a quick joke and smile about my “laziness”, or silence; all were timely, and on point, and provided exactly what I needed that day. I really felt like Sharath was watching me. I think we all do. I am by no means special, or stand out, but I never felt alone in that room. I felt taught, seen, and trusted to do the work my teacher expected me to do, whether he was standing beside me, or hadn’t come near my mat in a week. He was, and is, present; not taking us (or allowing us to take ourselves) too seriously, but also reinforcing the importance of the work we’re doing, and that it is us that is doing it. While Sharath’s presence is constant, it is not in the forefront. It is supportive and quiet. That is what I try to offer to my students.
How can a student utilize the asana practice as a vehicle for transformation?
What’s the word limit on this thing?! This is such a huge question, because in my mind the possibilities are endless. I mean, isn’t this what we’re doing every time we step onto our mats? Each breath, each posture, and each practice provides an opportunity for us to create change. But we have to see the bigger picture. As Sharath says, without the other limbs, asana is just circus. In order for the transformation to take place, students need to delve deeper. They need to see the asana practice as a tool for looking at the not so pretty parts of themselves and their lives. Only then can they recognize how and where and why change is needed. For some, this is part of their natural inclination towards the practice, while for others it happens in spite of their original intentions. Either way, it is difficult and absolutely terrifying. Let’s face it, nobody likes change; it is messy and uncomfortable. Facing it down on the mat is one thing, but having to implement into your life is something else. Ashtanga gives you the hope that if you can accomplish it in the practice room, then maybe you can learn enough to accomplish it everywhere else too.
Though the question is broad, the answer (one answer, my answer) is simple. The easiest (and also hardest) way to create/find/see transformation: show up. Every day. Whether in the Mysore room, or on your kitchen floor, showing up on your mat each and every day is how you awaken, recognize, and learn. There is a reason that this is a daily practice. The devotion, dedication, and discipline required to get yourself into your practice space each day is a built in catalyst. You are initiating change every morning that you get yourself out of bed when you don’t want to, and every time you tell yourself that your practice time is important, and necessary. Each day you are probably hearing that inner voice telling you the same things it has been telling you for the past 10, 20, how many ever years, and each day is your chance to answer back by unrolling your mat, rather than just agreeing. You have to face down the hard stuff daily, in order to overcome it. Those patterns are so ingrained in us that they cannot be erased in a week or a month or a year. The changes may be subtle at first, you may not be able to articulate what is happening, or why, but over time you’ll realize that something is different, shifting. Great transformation is possible through this practice, and as teachers we have the privilege of watching it occur. But we can’t make it happen for you. You have to want it for yourself. Your first step is showing up.
“Do your practice, and all is coming.” It’s not more complicated than that.
How does a practitioner show up to practice every day and see their reflection day after day when they are unhappy with that reflection?
I’m not going to lie. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can’t, and as teachers we cannot force them to commit themselves to a practice that shows them the worst of themselves even though we know it can lead to the best of themselves. But that part that makes them unhappy, it’s only the beginning.
The Ashtanga practice brings all the worst stuff - the perceived insufficiencies of the body and the mind - to the surface so that we can we can let it go. The internal fire we create burns hot and bright to purify us, body, mind, and spirit. This is what you have to remember as you are confronted with the not so pretty parts of yourself each day. Sure, it is easier to quit. It is easier to walk away and not acknowledge the things about yourself that make you unhappy. But there will inevitably be something else in your life that brings them up again and again. And how much happier are you really if you never accept how you perceive yourself? Because that is just the thing. It is a perception. I try to remind my students of that when they are frustrated, or angry. What they are seeing is just their perception of themselves. It isn’t their true reflection. They need to get past the surface and start to look deeper. They need to change their drishti.
Making it through the first weeks and months is the hardest part. It is when people most often get derailed in their practice. They tell themselves that it is too hard, or they’re too tired, or too sore, but really it is the fear of having to confront themselves morning after morning. But if they can find a space where they feel safe, where they feel supported, and where they know that they can come, do their work and not be judged for whatever their reaction to it is, then I think that helps. Also, the energy of the community and knowing that everyone is going through it together can be a source of comfort and an inspiration to stay strong and focused. This thing we do isn’t easy, for any of us, but as we grow and mature in our practices we are better able to differentiate what is truth and what is fiction. Once you hear the stories you tell yourself day after day, you can begin to change small parts of them. You replace the perceptions with truths. The discipline you build just by showing up is your first new truth. And each time you do it becomes a little easier to make it to your mat the next morning.
There are students that may never be able to progress into a certain posture or series. As a teacher, how do you work with a student in that situation to see beyond the posture?
In Ashtanga, the fact that at some point progression in the asana practice stops, is a universal truth. It is as true for me as it is for any student I will teach. At some point we are all going to be pushed to our edge, and when we meet that pose or series, we are going to be confronted with something that naturally we want, even if we can’t or shouldn’t have it. It is one of the (many) difficult parts of doing this practice, but it can also teach us a lot. This is the first thing I remind any student of when they come to something they’re working on, but have yet to accomplish. I can empathize with them. It is the same for me, as it is for them. The posture might be different, but the premise is the same. How can we let go of our egos, and allow the practice to work within us, and us within it, and its parameters? I try to reinforce to my students that the asana is only one small part of the practice, that without the other seven limbs, what we do on our mats can be accomplished at any gym or fitness class. It is how we take what the postures teach us, whether we can do them or not, and make the transition from mat to life. This is something I talk to my students about regularly, via newsletters, discussions, emails, over coffee - we approach it right from the get-go so that when they are finally confronted with postures that they may be working on for months, years, or forever, they already have a foundation in what we are REALLY doing on the mat. Does it really affect your life or your relationships if you can bind Supta Kurmasana, or is it more important to realize what your inability to make the bind, the closed off nature of the pose, the fear, panic, or other reaction, brings up in you? Are you learning more by clasping your fingers or by facing your demons? The pose is only a physical thing, it is not going to change your life. But the other work, the “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”, that is what makes a real and long-lasting difference; both on and off the mat.
Is Ashtanga a spiritual practice for you?
Absolutely. I may not have approached it in that way, but it didn’t take long for me to start to feel the strong spiritual connection that comes from doing this practice. I grew up in a Christian household. We went to church every week (sometimes more than once) and we were involved in church and religious community organizations. In University I did a minor in Religious Studies, and that, combined with my background, always seemed to have me seeking something that would provide a spiritual outlet, and a place to put my faith, that didn’t negate every other religion except the one I was “devoted” to. I think this is why Ashtanga is so appealing to me. It is a faith-based discipline that truly embraces people of every spiritual path, no matter which God they believe in. It is completely non-denominational and celebrates the connection and oneness of all of us, without asking you to subscribe to something in particular. I think the other thing about Ashtanga as a spiritual practice is that it asks me to examine myself, my thoughts, actions, and reactions, daily, not necessarily striving for perfection, but rather working to learn to be a better person than I was yesterday. I feel like it asks practitioners to realize that God is already within us; we are already worthy simply by being here. Through the practice we are just trying to find and be the very best version of ourselves in order to show it to the world.
As Ashtanga grows, there will be pockets of students that are not able to attend a daily Mysore practice with a teacher. Do you have any advice for home practitioners?
You’re absolutely right, there are always going to be areas without Mysore programs or teachers, and there are always going to be practitioners who cannot find or attend daily Mysore. I have students who drive up to an hour each way to come to practice, and I, myself, have been that student. It is rigorous, and nearly impossible to commit to that every day before going off to family, or work, or school. But the rigours of home practice are challenging as well, and the sense of motivation and responsibility you feel towards yourself, your practice, and your progress will ebb and flow, just like students who have the chance to work with a teacher each day. The key is to do your practice. YOUR practice; the best one you have in you that day. Roll out your mat, breathe, and just start. You may make it through Surya Namaskara A, you may complete your entire sequence, but what matters is that you had the discipline to begin in the first place. Though there are suggestions I make to students whose schedules require periods of home practice, such as creating a practice space that they can use each day (even if it just a corner of a room where you can put a little photo, or flower, or special object), or to try to choose a consistent time (whenever that might be) to be on your mat so that you and your people know that period is separate from the rest of normal daily distractions, the best advice I can give is this: keep at it and know you’re not alone.
Any final thoughts about the practice?
There are days where getting on the mat is the most difficult thing you’ll do, and then there are days where it is the easiest thing you’ll do. Embrace them both. Learn from them. Acknowledge both the worst and best parts of yourself and allow that to cultivate something bigger within you. This practice is powerful. It runs deep, and if you let it, it will open you up in ways you never expected. I am grateful for this practice, each and every day. Even on the days I hate it. Or maybe especially on those days, because those are the days I have to learn to trust - trust myself, my body, my teachers, my students, my choice to do this practice, and believe that somewhere, in this lifetime or the next, “all is coming.” All with the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll get up and do it all over again. It is a process; like life, like relationships, like each one of us. Take it one step at a time, and appreciate the journey.
*photos provided by Anna Muzin. All photographs except group photo by Rob Gee and property of Steeltown Ashtanga