Jessica, before we delve into the yoga, can you share with us your background pre-yoga?
I started practicing yoga when I was 21 and still at University and so before that time I was basically a student, majoring in Environmental Studies. In my youth, I had been a seasonal springboard diver (between the ages of 8 - 18) and an avid bike rider (biking only for transport reasons and for fun). During my first 2 years at University, I practiced Taekwondo. I loved how the breath, focus, and stretching was a central part of martial arts. But, I got my nose broken in sparring. I really enjoyed the practice/training part of Taekwondo, not the physical contact of sparring. I was a wimp. :)
I studied in Australia for my last two years of University and there I looked into yoga, thinking it might be like martial arts without the sparring. I started with the yoga classes offered at the University during lunch time (with David and Simi Roche) and slowly began to make it a part of my weekly activity. It started once a week and then became two and then three. At first, I hated yoga because it was so hard. But after resting at the end I would feel so alive, so happy. After practicing yoga for 7 months, Tim Miller from the US visited and did a 2 week 1st Series Ashtanga workshop. I had not done Ashtanga before but I was interested in seeing if I could do yoga 6 days a week. The classes started at 5AM and, as a student, I would usually study until midnight every night. So, when I started the workshop I would sleep with the light on and all my yoga clothes on so that when the alarm went off in the morning I just had to wake up, brush my teeth, get on my bicycle and get to yoga on time. It was the hardest, most invigorating 2 weeks of my life. All I can say is that from the moment I did the Ashtanga practice, I felt like I was coming home.
I assume it was this period that you met Andrew at University? Were you both practicing at the same time?
I met Andrew about 3 months after I got to Australia. He was a friend of my house mate and he was invited to her birthday party. I had already started doing yoga once a week with my housemate and when I met Andrew, he was doing a classical guitar degree and not doing yoga, although he said that he'd like to give it a try. Once I started doing yoga seriously and getting up before 5am every day, he initially wasn't able do that because he was practicing guitar until 2am every night (morning). After I had been practicing for about 7 months and getting more and more inspired by yoga, Andrew started taking classes. As with everything he does and enjoys, he quickly adapted his lifestyle and sleeping habits to accommodate a 6 day a week Ashtanga practice. He also began reading the ancient texts and delving further into the other limbs of yoga.
Guruji, and other sages, have said that for yogis practicing in this lifetime, the pull to the practice is a direct result of having practiced in a previous lifetime. Does this this apply to you (a sense of coming "home")?
It is hard to say since I am not sure about whether or not I have had previous lives, but my "previous life" (that is, before I started yoga and as a child and teen) was ridden with uncertainty, sometimes worry and fear, and yoga took me to another place. Well, actually, it exhausted me so much that I had no energy to get stressed, move fast, bite my fingernails, and worry about the "something" in the future that would surely cause me pain. Every morning when I stood on my mat and began connecting each inhalation and exhalation to the movements and postures, the anxieties that had plagued me the night before seemed to dissipate. Yoga would wipe the slate clean every time. The worries - often new and creative worries - would come back during the day, but each morning during practice they would lose their intensity or vanish completely. Yoga opened my heart as well and made me see that to be vulnerable was actually beautiful because it connected me to the most human part of life, and to everyone else. So, I am not sure if in a past life I did yoga or if I was finally, after many lives, given the opportunity to have a practice and go beyond my fears and to embrace uncertainty. My dedication to this practice keeps me steady, focused, and alive. It is the one thing in my life that I can truly count on. All I have to do is show up on the mat and then it doesn't matter what life dishes out after that. The sense of "coming home" I felt when I discovered yoga was more of a coming back to a sense of security that was within me all along, as opposed to something I had thought was outside of me.
Speaking of Guruji, can you share with us your experiences of traveling to India to practice with him? Do you have any memories you would be willing to share?
Andrew and I went to Mysore for the first time in October 2001 and practiced with Guruji and Sharath at the "old Shala" in Lakshmipuram. Our first trip was for 2 months. We were living in Australia and at that time the Australian dollar was trading at 42 US cents and so our shala fees were more than double. But after we met Guruji we didn't care. The money didn't matter. After having practiced Ashtanga for 7 years already by the time we first got to Mysore, we were so grateful that not only did we finally get to visit the source, but that we fell immediately in love with Guruji when we met him. It was an amazing and powerful experience. He would sit on his stool in the back of the room and you'd think he had fallen asleep (sometimes he would) but he must have slept with one eye open because he would always know when you needed an adjustment and he never let you get away with doing a posture incorrectly. He was so strong and had such a presence. The funny thing is that he never remembered me. Every morning as I entered the shala he would ask me if I had just arrived. I would say "No Guruji, its Jessica" and he would laugh and say "oh yes, ha ha" and walk away. Finally, he started to remember me. But then I took an oil bath and because I didn't have hot water where I was staying, the oil wouldn't wash out of my hair for days and days. Each day, I had a new crazy slicked hairdo. And each day, Guruji would look at me suspiciously as if to say "I have never seen you before." I would look at him and say "Its me, Jessica" and he would laugh and laugh. So, yes, practicing with him was extremely special and powerful and, more than anything, incredibly humbling. I had to let go of that strong desire for his attention and just be grateful to be there. I also learned not to take myself so seriously. It was a perfect experience.
Andrew and I went back to India with our young children at the beginning of 2008 and stayed through mid 2009. When we first arrived, Guruji would come out and sit on the stage during conference and would often answer some of the questions. He would also liven up when children were present. But he was also nearing the end of his life. One morning in 2009 we came into practice and Saraswati said that Guruji was up all night talking about how he wanted to see his mother and his father. Later that day he passed away. It was an emotional time in Mysore, not many students were there but soon many students arrived, including the “pioneer” students. We definitely felt that it was the end of an incredible era and also the beginning of something new and special. The deep sense of humility and gratitude for this amazing practice was all pervasive (and still is).
You had a daily practice for a lengthy period before you had your first child. You are also authorized but have a traditional career. What shifts in your life and practice occurred as a result?
I practiced for 9 years before having my first son and so yoga was already firmly a part of my life. I worked full time before having kids and so would wake up super early in order to practice before work. After having my first son it took a while to get the time, space, and endurance to practice again but I just kept at it and was grateful for whatever practice I was able to have. Andrew was also supportive by getting up at 3am in order to do his practice first so that I could do mine afterwards. After my second son was born, I made sure to find other yoga students that could watch my kids while I practiced and I started to work full-time from home. I still work full time from home and I get up at 4am, start working until 7am, get my kids up and off to school by 8am, and then at about 8:12am, I do my practice until 10am….and then back to work until 5pm! Its crazy! But yoga actually saves me, gives me energy that I never would have had if I were only a mother and a career woman.
The practice is so essential to my day that even though sometimes I think "I can't do yoga today,” “I have too much work," or "I am too tired" I know that I will feel a million times better if I practice. As soon as I start my practice all the anxiety of how much I have to get done goes away, at least for that 2 hour period. It is helpful for keeping life in perspective and gives me balance. It takes me out of my head and into my breath and my body and gives me such peace. So, I guess the short answer is that I know I am a better mother and employee if I do a practice and yoga is a top priority for me, so I fit it in however I can. And usually that means that I just have to get up as early as it takes. There are days that I can't do a practice because of travel or unforeseen circumstances, but it is always there for me when I am able to get back to it. I should also say that I work (and have always worked) in organic certification, which is another passion of mine. The yoga practice supports the way I live and work in the world, which is nice. I do also teach yoga from time to time when I can.
Have you dealt with a serious injury? Did it provide any insight?
Yes, I had a major spinal injury that happened while practicing yoga but I had a weakness in my spine that I didn’t fully understand (and didn’t really want to understand) for many years. Apparently I was born without the little bone that connects the L5/S1 vertebrae. I found out I had this condition in 2001 after my first Mysore trip. I didn't think much of it and kept practicing, getting further along in the series and doing more and more intense back bending. Then I got pregnant twice/had two babies and the hormones made things a little unstable…but still I did my backbends. “Yoga will heal,” was my motto. And I still believe it, but I approach that belief a little more intelligently these days.
It all came to a crescendo in early 2012. Back in my heyday in December 2011, I flew to Mysore, India for a 2 month working holiday with my two sons. We met up with my Andrew who had already been there for several months doing yoga and studying Sanskrit. The two-month visit was both amazing and overwhelming. I was working full time for my American employer, doing 2 hours of very intense yoga and extreme backbends, and also assisting in the yoga school after my practice for another 3 hours. I was getting little sleep but living off the adrenalin that was all pervasive in Mysore. I was also counting the seconds until I could approach my employer on March 31st, 2012 to ask for a sabbatical from my job. I needed a rest!
On March 2nd, I returned to the US, and on March 9th my back decided that enough was enough! Wooooweeeeee, I had never felt so much pain in all my life. During yoga that morning I stood up from a backbend (as I had been doing for 18 years previous) and I suddenly felt the flooding of the most intense pain radiating out from my lower back, up to my neck and down to my feet. I could not move and was stuck in a slightly bent-kneed standing position. Tim Miller, my yoga teacher, carefully lowered me to the floor. I laid there until I could get enough pain medication into my system to tolerate any movement and allow two men to carry me to the car and take me to the emergency room.
An MRI was taken and we discovered that I had a grade 3 spondylolisthesis (a condition in which a vertebra in the lower part of the spine slips out of the proper position onto the vertebra below it), the disk had degenerated to nothing and the nerves were severely crushed. “If this would have happened to you all at once, you would have been paraplegic, there is no question,” the surgeon informed me. “You’re going to need surgery.”
What did it all mean? No more backbends, no more working towards Ashtanga Yoga certification from KPJAYI (I only had two months and five postures left of the 10 year process), and most importantly, no taking a sabbatical from a job that offered fantastic medical benefits!
This event in my life was definitely not what I had expected. What I also didn’t expect was that I would react to it in the way that I did. I am sure that all the years of yoga prepared me for meeting this challenge gracefully. I accepted it. What’s more, so many good things have actually come out of this. I am holding off on the surgery and still doing a daily yoga practice (without the super intense backbends!!), which actually feels much better for me. Sonia Jones introduced me to Pete Egoscue who developed a system of gentle exercises that bring the body into alignment. While my condition appears severe on paper, these exercises stabilize and strengthen the correct muscles and I can manage the pain. Pete Egoscue also told me that one of the best things that I can do for my back is to walk with arms swinging! I have to walk at least 20 minutes daily. I walk on the beach every gosh-darn day, rain or shine, high tide or low tide. During this walk I also stop on the beach in a secluded spot and do a short meditation. I can’t express how much this daily walk has nurtured my soul. That ocean is like the mighty healer.
Slowly, slowly, I have managed to start back bending again but I don't ever wish to go to the extremes again or adjust heavy people. Those days are over for me and I am okay with it. I realize that this practice is addictive in terms of wanting to do more advanced postures. That is fine. It is natural for us to want to progress and go deeper. I did that and I went to my limit and I learned something very valuable. Now, I do what feels sustainable and I am having a lot of fun and being compassionate with myself. Plus, I now do other activities rather than just yoga. Aside from my walk on the beach every night, I dance more, do stand up paddle boarding, hike and backpack in the most beautiful places. I didn't do these other activities very much before hurting my back. I also worked with a handstand trainer for a while, which has been so helpful because it strengthened my core and takes pressure off the disks when you're upside down. So in many ways the injury opened up my world and I am grateful.
And as time goes by, my body continues to heal and adapt. I saw 3 surgeons and found one that I resonated with. He said just keep active, doing what you can, and come see me when you stop being so active because of pain and we'll operate! Yikes! Maybe I will have to have surgery one day? Maybe I won't?
I also have adapted my asana practice to remove some of the intense backbends and to do only those postures that feel supportive of my body. That really helps during the healing phases. Now I can do almost everything I did before the injury except for extreme backbends, like Ganda bherundasana or grabbing above my knees in backbending (thank Ganesh I don’t have to do those any more!! :) ). But Kapotasana and Natarajasana are coming back, although they are not pretty. Luckily, Sharath is very supportive of my modifications.
The main thing I have learned from this is that the body wants to heal and it will if you let it. When I said that I am doing all these other things, like dancing, etc. I am not doing them so that they compromise the yoga asana. I am doing them to express joy, fun, and life, and I now approach my asana practice in the same way, instead of like an athlete.
My advice would be to listen to any pain and discomfort because that is the body's way of trying to tell you something important. Learn to differentiate between the harmful pain and the “good” pain and don’t to the harmful kind (it’s not worth it!). Be compassionate with yourself and try to find the place that actually feels sustainable. Also remember that we never know how the story is going to end. We can have plans and ideas about the future, but in reality, we really know nothing and have nothing except this very moment.
You’ve had the good fortune of spending considerable time with Guruji and also Sharath. What has been your experience witnessing Sharath grow into his role as director of KPJAYI?
I was in Mysore for a year practicing solely with Sharath and Saraswati before Guruji died, and when he died, Sharath was shocked. He knew Guruji’s health was failing but I guess one is never really ready for their loved-one’s passing. Sharath maintained a gentle, calm strength through it all and also maintained his humility. I try to keep a good distance from knowing him too well or engaging in any discussions about him, his teaching, changes that happened after Guruji passed. I am just so grateful for him and have deep respect for what he does, the tireless hours he puts into teaching people from around the world, his dedication to the practice and the love he had for his Grandfather. I could never do Sharath’s job and I can’t even comprehend what it would be like to be him and to have his dharma :) . I think he has grown into his role with grace and strength and I trust that he teaches and speaks from a place of knowing and living this practice.
Jessica, I came to you for advice when I began finding myself naturally turning to a more vegetarian diet. This doesn’t appear to be too uncommon with those that have made a commitment to the practice. Any thoughts?
As you practice, your body becomes much more sensitive to what you put into it. While I did become a vegetarian several years before starting a yoga practice, I still used to have late night, rich dinners and then try to practice the next morning. I would feel sick, overheated, wrong. I think that as your body starts to detoxify through the sweat, the breath, the asanas, you start to notice your physiology more. You notice when you don’t feel so great because of certain foods or beverages. Or you start to shift your eating schedules around so that you’re eating lighter at night and eating the heavier foods in the early part of the day. In general, I think you start to search out options that might make you feel better.
Vegetarian diets seem to go hand in hand with yogic lifestyles but I know plenty of non-veg practitioners. We are all different, have different constitutions, and have different requirements. We also don’t always get our diets right. Sometimes we think we need to heavily restrict our diets in order to bind in certain postures or stay light and then we end up drying out, or getting too weak and thin. The key is finding a diet that serves, nourishes and invigorates you so that you thrive and can sustain an intense practice, as well as all the other demands that you’re faced with. I think more than anything, the yoga practice makes you aware of how you feel and you realize that feeling good and energized, especially during practice, is so worth it. I must admit, my diet is very simple and I eat throughout the day instead of having big meals. That works for me but that wouldn’t work for many people.
Also, the sensitivity goes further than just what you eat. I find I can’t really watch violent movies any more or watch TV at all. I am a bit weird in that way but I have such limited time during the day that I’d rather read, connect with people, play with my kids. Also, some people start to feel a certain compassion for all beings and decide to stop eating meat. As with any awareness practice, practicing yoga daily (or meditation, pranayama, etc) has an effect on what we pay attention to. And we start to pay attention to the subtleties of who we are, what we believe in, how we feel, what more we’d like to explore in life and in ourselves. And food preferences play a major role in all of those things.
Do you find that the practice opens up a spiritual door or enhance once own’s spiritual faith (however one may define “spiritual”)? What causes that transformation?
The yoga practice definitely opened up a spiritual door for me, or perhaps it refined my relationship with Self, the universe, or (as my Grandmother calls it) “the power of love in the universe.” I have always felt a connection with something greater. I was never religious, meaning that I didn’t grow up in a household that went to church or followed religious customs. But I always felt an incredible benevolent presence in nature or in daily life when conditions were just right (e.g., feeling the cool breeze on my face as I’d ride my bike through city streets in the late night or early morning, experiencing every-day people enjoying themselves in coffee shops or in a park, etc etc). I always felt that someone or something was with me, protecting me. As I got older and started university and work, I would neglect that spiritual side of myself because subconsciously think I felt I should be more practical.
Yoga practice helped ground me and bring me back to who I am, who I have always been, and who I want to continue to be. The daily practice, the breath, the meditative space always gets me out of my head and into the flow of movement, the steadiness of the breath and the regularity of the heart beat. I can’t explain entirely how it happened but yoga opened my heart, taught be to be compassionate with myself and with others, and inspired me to dig deeper into the teachings of the great evolved beings like Ramana Maharshi. Basically, yoga showed me to accept what is, and “what is” is beautiful and perfect, in life, in yoga, in nature. Its not always pretty and there is devastation and disappointment, but remaining steady and being observant of what is, can be profoundly enlightening.
I think that sticking with a practice such as yoga, through all the ups and downs, the injuries, the childbearing, the parenting, and the times of no sleep and crankiness, shows you that the only thing positively true about life is that it is change and if you have a steady strength, which can happen through a daily practice, you can accept and embrace all of the changes in life wholeheartedly. To me, that is spirituality.
Can you speak briefly about your past teachers? Their influence on you?
I started yoga in Australia in 1994 with David and Simi Roche. They were incredible inspirations. Simi was so nice and nurturing, which I loved. David was encouraging but he always challenged me to work harder. I loved that too. They were the perfect balance. If it weren’t for David, I don’t think I would have built the strength that I did. He would make me start over again from time to time, taking me back just to the Surya Namaskaras and slowly adding postures again, even after I had completed primary and intermediate series and had already been practicing them for years. It was great training in the sense that I had to break bad habits, work out how to use my body differently, and remain humble. We practiced with David and Simi for about 9 years.
After that, in 2004, we moved to Encinitas and started practicing with Tim Miller. As I mentioned previously, Tim came to Australia at the end of 1994 and did a two week primary series workshop. That was when I signed my life over to the practice. Moving to Encinitas to practice with him was like returning to the Guru. He was really the first teacher that “turned on the light” for me and that had a profound affect on my feelings for him. He didn’t push me hard or nurture me. He was just Tim Miller. He was funny and lighthearted, but also soft spoken and had a profound energy. I needed that kind of teaching at that point in my life. I had young babies and a full time job and just wanted to practice in a space that served my soul. And that is what Tim’s shala was for me. I still practice there from time to time and love getting back there.
In 2008 and 2009, we moved to Mysore and practiced with Sharath. We had been to India before that time but being there for such a long time was an incredible experience. We settled in and enjoyed just being in the shala and building upon our practice under the quiet and powerful guidance of Sharath and Saraswati. Just being in the room, surrounded by people from all over the world, brought forth such incredible energy and focus, at least for me. There was nothing like it. Of course, it was INTENSE (!!) but being there inspired me to work harder, stay more focused and grounded, and remain humble and appreciative to be practicing at the source with people from every corner of the globe.
Your husband, Andrew, was certified last year. What influence has he had on you in your own practice?
Even though (for the record :) ) I started practicing yoga before Andrew did, Andrew took his practice to the next level. The asana practice was only a small part of it and soon after beginning an asana practice, he started reading books like The Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita, and made the commitment to get to India to study with Guruji. Andrew is going to be interviewed as well so I won’t say much more here about his experience, but without his strong drive to go to India, it might have taken me a lot longer to get there. Andrew embodies an authenticity that is hard to come by. I am definitely the more social one in the relationship and his quiet, steady manner made him the perfect student, not only of asana practice but also of chanting, cooking, and meditation. This dedication to all limbs of yoga has affected me and our whole family in a very profound way. It is very grounding.
I also always felt like Andrew was the real teacher in the family. I certainly love teaching when I can but he really has an intuitive grasp on what is going on in people’s bodies and can provide insights and adjustments that make all the difference to his students’ practices. I have benefitted over the years from his insights, in pranayama, meditation and asana practice, and they have helped me be a better student and a better teacher.
What would you share with a student making their 1st visit to KPJAYI and India.
Just go and don’t worry too much about getting everything in order before you get there. Once you get there, you will quickly meet people, work out a place to stay, transportation, food, etc. There are always students and the community there to help. And don't worry if your yoga practice start time is really late, you’ll quickly move up in line as people leave and, before you know it, you’ll be starting with the first batch. I would say try not to be too social and make sure to get out of Mysore into the jungle or take a train somewhere...but everyone needs to have their own experience and learn from it. So, really, the short answer is: Just go with an open mind and all will fall into place the way it is supposed to. And then go back and have a different experience. It is a worthy way to spend a piece of life, that is for sure.
Any final words about the practice?
I think I have said way too much!!! I suppose my final words are that there will always be questions, concerns, desires, frustrations, loves, and hates with the practice, but so it is with life. The practice is just a metaphor for life and it shows us that changes in our bodies and in our minds are limitless. When once we thought some posture was impossible, we eventually find ourselves able to do it. When an injury that we might have had for years heals, we realize that we are constantly adapting and evolving. Outside of the practice, the same is true of life. Life is big and how we adapt, respond, evolve is limitless. I love that!
*photos provided by Jessica