Carla, what was your background before yoga?
Before committing fully to Ashtanga Yoga, I worked professionally in New York in a variety of jobs: advertising, fundraising for a major performing arts center, as a film curator for a museum (one of my dream jobs), and finally in academic administration at New York University, both in New York and Paris. Paris was really where the practice took root for me and eventually pointed me toward Mysore.
Backing up a bit: I took my first Yoga class in my final semester of college to fulfill a health credit. It was in a big room in one of my favorite buildings on campus, the “Women’s Building.” My passion at the time was running. I really enjoyed the class and immediately noticed the positive effects it had on my running.
One thing that has remained with me after all these years was a remark by an instructor (somewhere along the lines of), “Thoughts play in our mind like images on a video tape. Watch the images flickering across the screen of your mind...it might be necessary to eject the videotape.”
Post college, I moved to New York and would take yoga classes (as my cool-down after running or working out) at my local gym (first World Gym then Crunch), the latter of which had a great and varied schedule of Yoga classes. Lots of teachers were new and right out out of Jivamukti’s training program: Barbara Verrochi and Lori Brungard to name a few. The classes were mostly Ashtanga based and/or Led Primary classes but when I look back, it’s a bit of a blur. I really had no idea what i was doing with my body then but I loved the combination of movement and breath and particularly how I felt after practice.
It was only years later, while living in Paris, that something finally “clicked” and I developed a wholehearted interest in Ashtanga Yoga. I’m a firm believer in the idea that the seed of the practice grows at an appropriate time for the individual and this I learned from my own experience.
The seed of practice was planted within you. What happened next?
I was nearing the end of my time working in Paris and there was a 6-month interval before I was due to return to my life in NYC. While living in France, I was fortunate to have a lot of vacation time and always planned a big trip each year. India had been on top of that list and this gap seemed like the perfect opportunity. After much research, I did feel somewhat nervous about traveling alone as a woman. By this time, I had been taking Led Primary classes a few times a week and my first teachers (Linda Munro and Gerald Disse) heard about my travel plans and suggested I go to Mysore. Et voila: this facilitated my choice and is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
In April 2004, I visited Mysore for the first time, spending six weeks studying with Sharath at Saraswathi’s house (where she teaches now). Before registering, I visited the main Shala: it was full-on! Being new to the practice, mildly intimidated by the room and the number of students, I decided I wanted a smaller setting.
Each morning I arrived, awaiting my turn on the steps leading up to the second floor where years later I would go and do my finishing postures. We were maybe 15 students practicing in a low lit, humid living room on the first floor. (I didn’t know a soul when I arrived in town, but a woman I connected with online via an Ashtanga forum, was kind enough to put me up for a few nights in her home and helped me settle in.)
Sharath would beckon me from the steps and I would put down my mat and start practice. He was very quiet, mostly teaching through his intuitive adjustments. I was shy and trying to make my way through the practice, hoping I wouldn’t screw up the sequence. I had only ever done Mysore style a handful of times and was not quite practicing the full Primary Series.
The trip was pretty remarkable: I fell completely in love with the practice, with India and met such lovely, friendly people. It really was hard to leave; I so wanted to stay and continue practicing but responsibilities at home called.
I travelled to Bangalore on the train the night I was returning to New York. Passing the rice fields, a deep emotion welled up inside me and I started to cry. It was as if my mind was telling me, “India is in my heart.”
I returned to New York, resumed work at NYU and began practicing with Eddie Stern. Over a year later, I quit my job and returned to Mysore for 5 months.
Thus began a period of intense practice, extended study and many successive trips to Mysore. I was delving deeper into Ashtanga Yoga.
Amazing, to experience Sharath during his early teaching career followed by Eddie Stern. Can you please share any thoughts on what have you learned from both?
So much wisdom has been imparted to me by Sharath and Eddie. I remember prior to one long trip to Mysore, Eddie advised I spend as much time around Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) as possible. To this day, it has been important for me to be in the presence of my teachers as much as possible.
(On subsequent trips, I was fortunate to be in the room with Guruji when Sharath started taking over more and taught with Saraswathi, his mother. Guruji had a strong body and build. This was reflected in his adjustments. I will never forget the light radiating from him and the clarity of his eyes. He was very approachable and studious. Often when I would go into his office, he would be reading a philosophical text, the newspaper or chanting. And he always had an answer to my questions!)
Back to your question:
Namely: importance of Parampara, devotion to the practice, long time study, devotion to a God/cultivating a spiritual practice, faith, surrender, svadhyaya, dedication to students. But really I could go on and on. Oh, I think I would add quietness of presence.
I have studied with teachers directly connected to Guruji and I feel this is so important because what I have learned is very consistent. In this way, the practice and teachings are true, they do not contradict.
Walking into Eddie’s studio on Broome Street after my first trip to Mysore felt so right in many ways: the energy in the room, the chanting, the temple, Eddie’s style of teaching. It was the closest connection to Mysore I could have wished for and the practice there totally fulfilled that.
I would also add the power of Yoga as a tool for self-transformation. This too, we know from the Sutras and Sharath speaks about it frequently. Yoga shines a light and reveals to the individual how to see, deal and perhaps do things differently, with more mindfulness and reflection.
This idea is one of the first things that began to crop up in my mind: does yoga encourage me to be a different person? And how so?
I don’t want to say ‘a better person’, but partly I do. What I mean is that it encourages me to live my life more truthfully and to be the best that I can be. I did not set out to be a teacher, I just revelled in the practice, being able to spend time in Mysore, studying and practicing. I remember at Guruji’s 90th birthday celebration at the Puck Building, in his speech, he said emphatically: “Don’t waste your life!”
Another influential teaching has been that Asana extends beyond the mat. Asana is the gateway and foundation, if you will, for the other limbs that follow. The eight limbs of Yoga are a prescription for life and daily living. Each and every moment is an opportunity to practice.
For the past few years, I have been fortunate to earn a living as a Yoga teacher. Initially working with adults and now also with middle school students in Harlem. Students at that age have no filter and tell me honestly how they feel about what I instruct. Instead of Asana, I teach them health and wellness tools to help them manage their lives, stress and anxiety: tools that can hopefully improve their relationships with themselves, with others and also their academic performance.
These pre-teens (and the adults too) inspire me to really live the practice and its principles. Working at the middle school and being a part of this initiative has been an amazing experience all around, especially in the sense that I have the privilege of sharing what I love with many students who have never experienced these teachings.
The culmination of what I have learned and find meaningful in Yoga came about this past year in October when I travelled to practice with Sharath in Uttarkashi in the Himalayas. Though I’ve been to Mysore many times, being with Sharath in this highly spiritual place was a very special, magical experience.
You mentioned an initiative in East Harlem with middle school children. Please elaborate on this wonderful project.
The work I do in Harlem is part of a larger project aimed at teaching students mindfulness tools, health and wellness nationwide. I feel fortunate to be involved because the work is invaluable. More and more, schools are implementing mindfulness practices into their curriculums because of its positive impact on children’s mental, emotional and physical well-being.
Not all children are immediately captivated by it, but I strongly believe in simply planting seeds. Observe what develops. You never know. Recently, I saw some former high school students. They were in middle school when I first taught them. A student athlete who wanted absolutely nothing to do with our movement practices said to me, “I’d so much rather be doing Yoga now than gym!” His admission caught me by surprise and completely warmed my heart. The kids are great! Totally honest, loving and full of life.
Teaching children provides a wonderful counterbalance to teaching adults. I am focusing my attention on two different groups via Asana and mindfulness to reveal the inner secrets of the practice.
What is the difference in teaching kids the eight limbs (or a generalization of them) vs. an adult?
Is it okay if I reframe the question? Or perhaps let me clarify:
The goal of the school program is to encourage students to become agents of their own health and wellness in and out of school, to teach them positive habits to calm themselves and their minds.
With the children, I am direct in my approach like instructing them on their breath, encouraging them to find a connection between the breath and mental/emotional/physical state, defining “mindfulness” and so on. Our main goal in class is to move consciously with the breath. With consistent repetition and practice, we encourage awareness and students begin to understand the breath as a tool for self-regulation.
Our curriculum is very thorough and also highlights the brain and the nervous system to further illustrate the mind-body connection and how it impacts health and wellness. We offer students knowledge and tools to help them deal with stress and to be successful in school and in life.
With adults, the teaching feels more indirect and subtle. I am more of a guide holding the space for students on this path to self discovery. When we practice Asana, for sure, we are moving our bodies into shapes but it’s really the “Yoga” that is moving through us. We arrive at these glimpses of “Yoga” directly through the physical practice and in that way, have a grounding or foundation on which to proceed to the subsequent limbs. And if we proceed, step by step, deeply and slowly along this path, it can be a magical, potentially life-changing journey.
As one teacher I have studied with is fond of saying: “The postures are intrinsically empty.” It really was a big moment for me. The practice is a reflection of your intention and how you are with yourself, in that very present moment. And so much more.
The teachings are ultimately the same, I guess it’s just a matter of delivery to the audience.
We enter this world and leave it with a breath. What role does the breath have in the practice?
“For breath is the life of beings and so is called ‘the life of all.’” —Taittiriya Upanishad, 11.2
It's timely that you ask this question because I think a lot about the breath especially in my daily life and work.
The breath as a tool for mindfulness and awareness is my main point in teaching the middle school students, as I mentioned before. Suggesting awareness of the breath as a connection to the mind and body.
But in teaching adults too, I remind them that the Asana practice is simply a breathing practice. Find and focus the breath, assume the posture.
In my own daily life the breath is a number one tool for helping instill a sense of calm. There are days when it is extremely challenging to leave practice, commute a long distance during rush hour and arrive to work with my nervous system intact. For me, the breath is a check-in tool to connect with myself and ascertain where I am in the present moment. If I’m in a stressful situation I tune into my breath and breathe deeply to help calm myself down.
In the practice, the aim is that postures and breath flow seamlessly together while at the same time are supported by bandha and drishti. What I love about a Mysore room is not only the quiet but the sense that the room is alive and breathing. The breath reveals the quality of the pose, the mind, the body. Just listen.
On really challenging practice days, the breath (and working slowly) guides me through. Deep, relaxed breathing with sound purifies the mind and body, creating a beautiful, soft stillness within. The breath is a sacred life and therapeutic tool (literally and figuratively) because it allows one to maintain one's energy and keep the container strong and resilient.
Ayurvedic physician Claudia Welch's emphasis on prana as the life force says: "Wherever your attention goes, your Prana follows." This image has remained in my mind for years now.
You have spent significant time travelling the world and spending time in India. As a teacher and a student of the practice, what natural obstacles do Westerners bring to the practice?
Well, I cannot speak for everyone, I can relay how generalities of a Western mind may create obstacles to the practice.
(But first, from a philosophical perspective, I think the obstacles outlined in the Yoga Sutras are universal and students might identify with them at some point or another.)
I think there is an inherent tendency in the Western mind to be competitive in general and, more specifically, with oneself. This, along with impatience, can be an obstacle as it leads to grasping and a desire to advance quickly without being ready.
Thus, the emphasis can shift narrowly to an obsession with Asana. Combine that with an analytical Western mind, wanting to dissect and understand the mechanics of a pose, getting caught up in the minutiae, the larger picture of Yoga can become lost. This is not to say that the fine details are not important but not obsessively so.
It is easy to get caught up in subjective ideas of perfection rather than trusting the flow of time and the pace in which the teacher passes on knowledge. There is so much to be learned in the quiet of a Mysore room and through a skilled teacher’s intuitive adjustments. Yoga happens within. It cannot be explained with words: it can only be experienced.
Early on, I learned that Ashtanga Yoga requires a tremendous amount of patience and equanimity. The practice ripens over time. The postures we practice and eventually learn to master, foster a spiritual deepening and growth along the path. The longer the student commits, with heart, body and mind dissolving into the practice, a sweet softness and relaxation takes over in the approach and how one practices.
There is great beauty and benefit in a long continuous practice as illuminated by the Yoga Sutras and taught by Guruji and Sharath. I feel blessed to be quietly encouraged and challenged by my teacher who is so sweetly supportive and positive. I would not trade the small breakthroughs or this lifelong journey for anything!
What words of advice would you give to home practitioners who do not have the guidance of a teacher or the support of a shala community?
1. Have faith and practice. In it’s essence, the practice is, as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is so famously known to have said: “99% practice, 1% theory.”
2. Stoking the fire steadily and consistently with dedication is key but finding an authorized teacher locally or nearby (refer to the KPJAYI website’s teachers list) and making a commitment to visit and practice with such a teacher is very important. In addition, the benefits of practicing within a group setting cannot be overstated. There is something to be said for the positive, communal energy of a group of dedicated students.
3. Set a goal to travel to Mysore and practice with Sharath, experience Parampara at the source.
Any final thoughts?
The Ashtanga Parampara site you have created is inspiring on so many levels. Thank you for asking me to share my experiences.
*Photos by Nick Ruechel (www.nickruechel.com)
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assistance