Megan, could you share your background with us before yoga?
Before I started a yoga practice I was very active but not committed to one thing--I ran, fussed around at the gym, and biked. I loved to move and try new things. However, I feel like all roads were leading me to my first yoga class. I had just finished my MFA in creative writing so that discipline of writing and being quiet and introspective everyday was waning because I had no real deadlines and stopped making them for myself. It wasn’t enough for me anymore. I was bored with putting it all down on paper even though the witnessing and thinking was still happening. I had taken random classes at my gym, although, in 2004, I signed up at a local yoga studio for an intro class that as luck would have it, was Ashtanga.
Finally, all of these things came together. The next morning I walked into my office at the university where I was working and laughed to my coworkers that I couldn’t lift my arms above my shoulders. I was beat, and I remember that kind of exhaustion feeling so good at the time.
I felt really alive.
What do you think hooked you in initially into the practice?
I loved how quiet it was. Not too much talk about the poses--I was asked to listen to my breathing. I was so tuned in to that space on my mat (and just trying to survive led primary) and sometimes I was also able to tune out during practice, as in-almost leaving the body, if it’s possible to do both at the same time. I still can’t tell you what is right. Both sides, intensely there and not there, exist for me when I practice and both are heaven.
So maybe at first it was the challenge of the practice, the delicious exhaustion, and the quiet time. I have these A Prayer for Owen Meany moments (John Irving novel) where I don’t know that I have answers for why things have happened, only that, in retrospect, I can see a lineation connecting events together with no idea of what or who I was when I made decisions. Who was that kid who decided today was the day to sign up for yoga? That sounds dramatic, I’m sure--I certainly don’t mean to say I’m going to save a bunch of kids’ lives because of an accumulation of talents and experiences (like at the end of the novel) but it’s brilliant to think sometimes our choices make sense only later.
In college, long before my first Ashtanga class, I took a few religion courses that I found so fascinating and ended up in a class where we read the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It was a tough read for the 20 year old me. I struggled and maybe only ended up with a B+ at best. I didn’t quite grasp it and understood the message to be so far beyond me at the time. When I came to the physical yoga, I really thought, “Okay, maybe this will have something to do with it.” I was wonderfully naive, thank goodness.
Who was your first teacher? What type of impact did they have on you?
I had a few lovely teachers when I got started. The first yoga studio had a rotation of two or three teachers who were very committed and encouraging. I can still remember the little things they’d say that had major impact. I was also popping into Iyengar classes in those years. It was actually an Iyengar teacher who said to me that if I was going to really do this Ashtanga practice, I had to find one good teacher and go exclusively to Mysore-style. He said that only then would my practice change.
Faith Scimecca had opened up in DC and I walked in one morning (it may even have been a Tuesday!) and that was it. She joked with me at the end of that week that if I kept coming back, there was no convincing. Everything changed then, I can’t say enough good things about it. I don’t want to go on and on too much, because she is humble about herself but I learned so much there and count her as my first real teacher. I think about everything that happened to me in those years, good and bad, love and loss, and that space was the constant. I started assisting her there, watched how she handled the room day in and day out, from her own devotion, her own dharma. During my time at her shala, I started going to Mysore, India; I was there at her shala when Guruji passed, when my father passed, I came in when I left my job, after I left my boyfriend and whatever other life events.
I remember her giving me Bakasana on my birthday. Wings for my birth. And now I can say I am thankful to have had someone who had no attachment to my asana practice. Oh..to look back at our young yoga-selves! I remember a time when I worried about when I’d get the next pose or what intentions a teacher had for me or if Sharath knew my name. Every year I hope that I gain a little perspective. Every year I can look back and realize I was (hopefully in a quiet manner) ridiculous! It’s why I try not to make big bold statements about yoga, about practice, about what is or is not. Because we all end up eating our words a year or two later as we continue to evolve. That’s the practice. So all of those times Faith would simply shrug or say maybe to me, just listen to me prattle on in my feverish state over the practice, I love that now. It’s brilliant. I had to answer it all for myself.
From the outside, we're simply doing movements with breath, but there is such an open space with such depth that everyone experiences which grows year after year. How can a student best set conditions in her life to maximize the benefits of the practice?
Again, I’m careful to say there is one way to do it and many people, especially Sharath, give great advice already about following the yamas and niyamas. Based upon my experiences, I first tell students to give up what is already “known,”-what we think about our bodies and potential, where we think we are stiff or strong, even what we know about exercise and the body. It could all change.
Pay attention to the agitations, the things that push your buttons, and try to react and “fix” less. All of these things become disturbances to practice--the need for a particular space in order to practice, a particular clothing, temperature, mood or feeling--to be able to get up in the morning. I am feeling 100% only about two practices a month! This isn’t the gym so don’t wait until you feel fantastic to get to it. The practice, the discipline, is getting on the mat when it’s not easy. Seems simple enough until you live through it. Those tough times are where people can get lost. After the honeymoon phase of plowing through a bunch of new poses the first year or two or three, or some glowing great phase of life, we encounter a time or pose that really messes with us, and I don’t mean in a fun, “I can’t do this” kind of way but in a “dread and sweat” kind of way. When we aren’t the best in the room, when we are on the losing side, after some sleepless nights, heartbreak, shame, all the bad feelings, those days, what gets us there? Devotion. We become stronger when we resist the urge to skip, especially if that’s our first instinct.
Also, and this one is said often and then misinterpreted often which gives Ashtanga a bad wrap--don’t stop coming even if you are sore or have pains. That doesn’t mean show up and do the whole practice even if you have an injury. Respect injuries. There is a difference between working through stiffness and pain and continuing to aggravate an injury. But most everything can be worked around, even if it feels silly at the time. Keep moving, find ways to keep moving. Just spending time in the room with your peers, your teacher, can be therapeutic. When I started to really work jumpbacks I began to have shoulder pain. I was riding a bicycle to practice at the time and riding was aggravating it further, leaning over the handlebars. I had one big hill up to the shala in DC. I missed a day or two, I remember, scared about what the practice was doing to me and also what it meant to take steps backward instead of forward. I can’t remember if Faith called me or emailed me. I didn’t miss practice so she must have thought I had died! In so many words she told me to get my butt in there. I thought, "Oh, if I can’t jump back how will I do my practice, what’s the point?"
But I stepped forward and backward for every transition every day for weeks and then one day it was over. I was fine if not even better than when I started. I did my little grandma transitions so that I could keep moving my body and breathing and working on other things. This way I didn’t lose the momentum of daily practice. It’s good to test our attachment to our physical practice. There will be a day that some things will be gone forever or never come. What then? It is good to know that life goes on when the prospect of advanced postures are over. When I was in a bike accident a couple of years later I knew what to do. When it was time, I got out of bed and did sun salutations and standing postures with a chair. A month later my doctor was surprised that I was 90% healed when he predicted it would take me 6 months to kneel again. We can start to use the practice as a tool once we understand it. Building muscle and strength and working through old injuries, old damages in the body, will be difficult, as difficult as working with the mind stuff. Scar tissue, places we protect or favor, this won’t always feel great. The practice room isn’t a spa where we are doing stretching exercises only! We are trying to change and improve ourselves.
Can you share how your visits to India have impacted you?
I don’t think it’s possible to articulate how important the time I have spent at the Shala in Mysore has been for me. I am forever changed, improved. I never had much money so I viewed my first trip potentially as a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Then I got there and knew I had to get back, whatever it took. On my first trip Pattabhi Jois was still alive but very sick and not teaching. It was hot and Sharath and Saraswathi were teaching in the room together. I loved how tightly Saraswathi held me to her when she backbended me. I felt love. The whole room hummed. I imagined Guruji upstairs, warmed by the energy we were creating. I met wonderful people. The loveliest. Many mornings I was called in to a spot next to Jessica Walden. I only know now that it was her. At the time, when trying to explain to someone at breakfast where my mat had been that morning, I think I said I practiced next to the "The Matrix". I was humbled by everyone’s dedication and love. I think this practice can make us feel confident at best and superior at worst. Going to Mysore keeps everything in check, hopefully, instead of fueling the beast.
Managing a different culture and country is important to a person’s growth. Fortunately, Faith had prepared me for some of the differences and difficulties before my first trip. I was prepared that getting a phone up and working might take a few days or that I might have to visit four ATM machines before something worked. It wasn’t going to go smoothly or be predictable. I learned to appreciate the absurdity I would find myself in and even began to realize that it was, in fact, me who was absurd.
Every time I get to practice under my teacher, Sharath, I return restored and refueled. It’s magic. He is working very hard, harder than any of us, and trying to live right and be good in his relationships and responsibilities as we are. At the same time, he is representing the source of this practice, all limbs, and is transformed into something more than just another person. This is the work of the guru. He has to observe and manage our energy, panic, fear, happiness, in the practice room. In that room we are at once anonymously working in our little spaces and also very exposed. I learn a lot about myself then, about what makes me tick. It’s a religious pilgrimage for me and something I take seriously now that I’m teaching because I need this time away from teaching to be a dedicated student stripped of everything but my commitment to this practice. I am incredibly fortunate to have gone, to be able to somehow come up with the means and the time to continue to go. When I quit my desk job in 2010 so that I could spend more time in Mysore for one of my trips, Faith said to me that the universe would take care of me, that it would work out. The money, the time, the place, the next thing has always come, somehow. There is always another stone to hop onto when the one I’m on is sinking. So if you think you can’t get there, think again. Trusting the universe is really just trusting ourselves to make it happen. We’re the universe.
The practice of asana can open new dimensions within ourselves. It can also, at worse, boost the ego if not consciously kept in check. How can a student best guard against this?
Which came first, the ego or the practice? I kid, of course. I think we are all individuals and, therefore, all experience the practice differently. We all have the possibility of repeating old patterns again and again, transferring past problems to new situations. I think when Sharath reminds us to practice yoga 24 hours a day and to follow the Yamas and Niyamas, he’s reminding us over and over to be good people, to think of others. He has said before that our practice is like a sharp knife handed over to us. We can choose to slice fruits with the knife or we can choose to use it as a weapon. I think he answers it better than I can. How to feed and nurture from practice? Everything pushes us to react--social media, the person one mat over, whatever. I try to remember that there are people who came along this path before me. I think, first, maybe my knowledge is still evolving. Maybe I am not right about how I feel. Maybe I can take time before I react. So much of the ego plays out in reaction. Sit still with it. It will pass. I think we’re reminded, too, that none of us is special. Maybe it’s possible to be the universe and nothing at the same time?
Practitioners often experience a sense of "spirituality" from the practice. However that term may be defined. Why do you think this happens?
I don’t want to speak for anyone’s spirituality but for me personally, in the quiet spaces created from regular practice, I began to appreciate and even sort of worship the connections I have with people, with myself. I became even more appreciative of my life, the world unfolding daily. We don’t slow down when we should. We don’t always stop to smell the flowers. I think practice helps that along. Students say to me often that they find the practice spiritual, more spiritual than something forced or handed to them by someone else even though I offer up nothing more in the shala space than a clean floor, sunrise, and a small altar with my photos of my teachers, my guru. I never have to discuss it. In the space of their practice, sitting there with themselves, they come closer to it, whatever they feel it is. Also, I joke that the practice really wrings us out, and we don’t have the energy to be combative the rest of the day. We become good people because we are too tired to be bad. In that delicious fog we see more clearly. Though I’m being funny, there might be some truth there. At least for me.
“I joke that the practice really wrings us out, and we don’t have the energy to be combative the rest of the day. We become good people because we are too tired to be bad. In that delicious fog we see more clearly.”
That’s interesting. From that statement, I feel that if we place our attention wholeheartedly, both from an awareness and physical perspective for that hour or two on the mat, we burn through negative energy and what is left is spaciousness that’s inherent in all of us...just typically shrouded in on overactive monkey-mind.
“Practice, and all is coming”. One of Guruji’s most prolific statements. What does it mean to you?
Maybe this should have been the first question! Just shut up and practice your yoga! More doing, less talking. Keep going. You will find your answer or, better yet, realize there was no answer, no question. Everything can be yours. Everything is already yours. It’s on the horizon. It’s already here! I sound like a failing Dr. Seuss! We evolve, we gain, we lose, what are we working toward? What is coming? Our own understanding. Even better, contentment, which quiets all questions, soothes desires, calms restlessness, flattens expectations.
Did you ever hit a roadblock in your practice, be it emotional or asana? How did you overcome it?
Yes, all of the above. Pain, injury, sadness, happiness, everything. It’s like any relationship--if you’re in it long enough you’ll experience it all. I work hard not to evaluate it any more. How am I feeling? What was this morning’s practice like? I am learning to let it happen without judgement. To really practice this yoga, you’re in or you’re out. That’s it. There are times when I maybe look at my options, take pause. There are a few times still when I find myself in the doorway passing through to another layer of the practice, be it some long practice with a split nowhere in sight or a new schedule hurdle that requires me to get up even earlier. It’s like recommiting or doubling down. Dominic Corigliano, who I was fortunate to practice with for a bit, said at one of those critical points for me that I was about to “go deep,” and I imagined a journey ahead, another layer of exploring. It was comforting because it supported my experience, recognized that I was standing at another precipice of commitment, which is what is so beautiful about this practice and this parampara. You can rest assured that your teacher can teach you because they deal with the practice, too, and they have passed there before you. Now my biggest roadblock is solitude. I salute all of those practitioners who have to practice alone day after day. I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time in the practice room with teachers, other practitioners. Now I am alone and it can be tough to stoke the fire at 3:30am. If I ignore myself--no evaluating, no mulling over this or that-- I usually can slip into a groove, and it steers me along. There will always be something.
What are qualities a student should seek to cultivate to deepen their practice?
Maybe deepening the practice requires all of the things I mentioned for getting started in the practice? Give up what you think you already know. Pay attention to your bad patterns. Show up every day. That’ll get you pretty far. I also talk to people I admire to find out their secrets, pick their brain. I’m not talking about asana tricks. Get close to them, sit in the little space next to them like a cat sits in the sunlight. It’s easy to want to be the expert but in truth we should see ourselves as students first. There is so much to learn.
Megan, many of our readers are home practitioners without access to a shala, do you have any advice for those doing their best to maintain a consistent practice without the energy of shala-mates and a dedicated shala?
As I mentioned earlier, practicing alone is not easy for most of us, me included. It is a gift to be able to practice with a teacher, at the feet of a teacher, day after day. I was lucky to have many years in a shala and to make multiple trips to study with my teacher Sharath in Mysore. That kickstarted my practice for me. The practice time is a part of my day now. What to do when those days in a shala are over or you never had a shala in the first place? If you don’t live near a shala, I can’t stress enough how important it is to check in with a teacher and try to get to the shala in Mysore. Sharath and Saraswathi tour quite a bit, and it’s a great time to connect with many practitioners and collect some of that energy and joy for the practice.Reach out to people! You, too, are part of this lineage. Each of us, like a domino effect in our respective time zones, get up and salute the sun. As I roll up my mat, someone else is starting. I want to be honest with how I’ve worked to maintain a practice which might open me up to criticism. I struggle, too, but I make a point to talk to long-time practitioners and teachers to find out what they do to stay on course. Some of the best advice I got was to be as consistent as possible by hitting the mat around the same time every day. Set up a dedicated space for it so that your mind and body can switch over for practice. Kids, dogs, dust bunnies, they all call for our attention. We have to do our best. That’s all we can do. I don’t like to practice in my apartment because I get distracted. I go to the practice space early so I can be as loud as I need to be. I can move through my little rituals. I’ve also heard of people using empty offices, quiet stretching areas at the gym. You have to find what works for you. Don’t bring your phone. I don’t read email or Facebook before practice. Once you have to cut your practice short a few times because you hit snooze, you will get frustrated enough to set aside the right amount of time for practice. Fail and see how annoyed you get at yourself. You’ll set the alarm earlier after you have to rush through closing a few too many times. The practice pulls you on course.
Once you can get on the mat, how to direct yourself without a teacher? A teacher likely would show you postures one by one as you progress through the series so be conservative when working on postures yourself. I don’t give myself poses. I can wait until I get back to the teacher. It is another siren song to resist. Again, I am speaking from my own experience, and I’m sure an argument could be made for a different method. So here’s the thing, even if you don’t agree with me--set up your rules and stick to them. Be patient and create that discipline. You’ve committed so commit. When we don’t have anyone directing us, many of these videos and pictures seem to encourage us to try everything at once. It’s easier to get off track without daily guidance. Picking and choosing is not the method. It’s the easy way out, bopping around doing things you like. It bypasses the real practice if you are committed to Ashtanga Yoga. At some point I realized that the joke was on me--it isn’t about the individual poses. We can talk about it with each other, the little explorations we make on ourselves. It’s okay to enjoy that part of it. I love it. We are working to balance our bodies, face our fears, and strengthen our weaknesses so it is somewhat about the poses. But there’s more to it and you can still access it without having a daily teacher. Yes, maybe you would get Marichyasana D faster if you had someone to help you into it every day. Don’t get down about it. Fortunately, everything you’ll ever need to know about the 8 limbs has nothing to do with the bind. It has everything to do with the dedication and discipline you had to turn up on your mat and work on it, work on yourself, take care of yourself.
Lastly, know your own heart. What makes you come alive for practice? The cold bike ride in the dark. Music on your alarm. The ritual of making coffee. Reading about each other’s experiences. I could write a precious little poem about driving my scooter to practice when I lived in DC. Maybe in a perfect scenario we don’t need all of this but the practice made me a realist. It’s about forgiving ourselves for how we’re feeling. On exceptionally dark mornings I send funny texts to a good friend of mine who is up at the same hour. It can be a lighthouse lamp for me, companionship on the path. “Hey, it’s 4am, what’s the temperature in your practice room?” “Who knew yoga mats completely freeze when left in the car overnight?!” It is nice to know I’m not alone. I think of her legs jammed under a cushion in Supta Vajrasana as I crisscross myself. I think of my friend in the city walking in to open her space. I think of my friends tiptoeing around so not to wake their wild child. Play Sharath’s opening chant. Chant yourself. Make holy. As I said earlier, make a nice rut from the repetition for the tough days ahead--you can set yourself up and it’ll carry you along.
Any final thoughts on the practice?
*photos provided by Megan