Nea, please share with us your history before yoga
I had attended the occasional yoga class during my early twenties but nothing really grabbed me until I made a major lifestyle change and found Ashtanga yoga when I was living in Hong Kong. I always had a connection to my body having had studied ballet, jazz and russian dance from the age of four to seventeen but there was a long break of about ten years before coming to a daily yoga practice.
I grew up in Sydney, Australia and spent most of my early twenties conspiring to leave. I always felt very cut off from the rest of the world living in Australia. Not that I really knew what the rest of the world was, I just knew I wanted to be somewhere else. Looking back, I don’t think I felt my life truly started until I arrived in Hong Kong at the age of twenty-five.
Working for a public relations (PR) agency there, I fell into the typical “work hard - party hard” hedonistic expat lifestyle. On the surface I had all the trappings of a successful life. But I started to notice a dullness inside, a feeling of mediocrity and I began to wonder “Is this all there is?”.
When I was twenty-eight, my boyfriend broke up with me and the incident caused me to unravel. It made me to look at my life honestly and I didn’t like what I saw. The break up hadn’t come out of nowhere like I was telling everyone. Problems had come from an emotional immaturity on my behalf, stemming from a drinking problem.
I had always been a first to the party last to leave type of person. Binge drinking is an accepted part of Australian culture and is certainly venerated in an expat environment. It was completely normal to stay out drinking all night at least one night a week often to the point of blackouts and alcohol poisoning. Well, that was what was normal for me.
During this period of introspection following the break-up I started reading a book called “Responsible Drinking”. It suggested taking one month out from drinking alcohol. I couldn’t fathom such a thing. I couldn’t recall a weekend that hadn’t involved excess drinking since my late teens. But I decided to try. I remember thinking I just want clarity. I want to be able to see things clearly.
It was during that month of abstinence that I start practicing Ashtanga yoga.
And how did you find the practice?
I started going to a Friday night Ashtanga class in a gym. It was the ideal timing as to enforce the “no drinking policy” I had to drop out of my social life for a while. It was easier to stay home and be lonely than to go out and try to be disciplined saying no to drinks. It was an alienating time and I probably wouldn’t have survived it if it wasn’t for yoga. I signed up to a huge yoga gym called Planet Yoga and started going to classes every morning of all different styles. But Ashtanga was my favourite.
I came to the end of one month of abstinence and felt amazing so decided to continue no drinking indefinitely. This period ended up lasting for the next five years.
I suddenly seemed to have so much free time, now that I wasn’t partying or recovering from partying. I started avidly reading about yoga. I read a book called the “Spiritual Teachings of Yoga” which detailed Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and it blew my mind. I thought, wow this is it. This is giving me a framework of how to live my live. How to see clearly.
I was attending evening Ashtanga classes at a small studio with a lovely teacher from Australia called Nicole. When the studio planned to close I was devastated. But where will you go I asked her. “Oh back to Mysore probably” she said. “Mysore what’s that?” I asked and to which she replied “It’s where Ashtanga comes from”. She gave me a moon day card with a picture of Pattabhi Jois on the back. It was the first time I had heard of Guruji. Well I want to go there, I thought.
Nicole suggested I start practicing with certified teacher Alex Medin who was teaching in Hong Kong then. I still remember my first Mysore class with him. The room felt too warm and I had never tried anything past Marichiasana D. Alex guided me through the full series. I went off to work that day feeling like someone had turned the light on inside of me. I remember walking to the metro station thinking, “I’m awake”. Up until now I think I have been living my life asleep. I looked around at everyone on the morning commute and thought, we are all walking around asleep.
By 3 pm though, I was exhausted and felt nauseous (probably from dehydration as I don’t think I had ever sweated so some much!) and I had to go home early. But I couldn’t wait to get back on the mat again the next day. I was hooked.
A few months later I decided to resign my job and leave for India.
How did you find the courage to take this big leap of faith?
The decision came during a time that I was questioning everything about who I was. Who was this persona that I had constructed? I was definitely fearful of taking time out of my career but I started asking myself, “What’s the worse that can happen? You run out of money. You have to get a menial job. You end up sleeping on your parent’s couch. So what?” In fact ever since I took that plunge I have never been out of work except by choice. But I have definitely had many periods of homelessness and sleeping on the parent’s couch in the years that followed! I had no idea what was in store for me. I certainly had no grand plans about teaching yoga. I just had a strong innate belief that what I was embarking on was of value. Maybe not for “getting ahead” in the worldly way but definitely for my own self-growth. People kept asking “But what are your plans? What will you do next?” My only answer was “I really don’t know. All I know is that I have to do this now.”
Can you delve into your first trip to India? What was that experience like?
It was actually my second trip having already visited Rajasthan for ten days over Christmas of the year before. For this trip, I planned for six months with the aim to soak up as many yoga experiences as possible. I left Hong Kong in March 2006 and spent a couple of months travelling in Kerala and Karnataka visiting various ashrams, practicing Ashtanga each day on different rooftops or where ever I could find the space and relishing the time alone for reading and introspection. I felt like a bit of a cliche - PR exec quits job and “finds” herself in India - but that’s essentially what was happening.
After some time in Cochin, Gokarna and Hampi I made my way to Mysore to study at the Institute. However, at the last minute I changed my mind and decided to take Sharath’s smaller class rather than practice with Guruji. Those were the days when you sent a letter to apply to practice and you didn’t get an answer back, you just showed up.
I had spent sometime in Mysore settling in before registering and I met a lovely Japanese guy who suggested Sharath’s classes (smaller and cheaper) and the idea appealed to me. I practiced with Sharath alongside around 25 other people each morning, where Saraswati now teaches, and attended conference with Guruji in the “main shala” once a week.
I was very happy with the decision. I enjoyed conference with Guruji but I also loved learning from Sharath. I remember learning to drop back and stand up on that trip and being admonished by Sharath for riding a bicycle as he did my supta kurmasana adjustments! It was a special time.
It was special for practice and special because I was falling in love with the Japanese guy I had met. Nori was a yoga teacher from Tokyo and had been in Mysore for the last nine months. At the of my time in India, I returned to Sydney with the intention to resume life back in the corporate world. Instead, I worked three jobs for three months to save up enough money to leave again and returned to Mysore to meet up with Nori the following January.
We spent the next six months in Mysore and travelling in the north of India. In fact, for the next two years we spent as much time in Mysore and India and Thailand as possible, practicing yoga and sitting meditation retreats. The relationship with Nori was hugely influential for me. It was because of him that I first went to Japan and started teaching as his assistant at Tokyo Yoga. We were deeply in love and were both extremely committed to developing our sadanas, side-by-side.
Eventually, Nori’s journey led him to a monastery in Japan where he ordained as a monk in August 2009. I stayed on in Japan and started a Mysore program in Nagoya. It was hard to let him go, but I’ll always be so grateful for our time together. It was truly life changing.
As you had Nori on your sadhana path, how can practitioners that have a partner not involved in yoga best create conditions for supported growth?
For me personally, I think it is important to share your life with someone who also values a path of self-growth and transformation. This doesn’t mean they need to do asana. But I think having their own practice of some sort or certainly a more philosophical and yogic outlook on life is helpful. A partner can be more supportive if they have an appreciation for why an Ashtanga practitioner is committed to practicing everyday. Understanding that the discipline and routine is liberating rather than restrictive and that the practice is what keeps us grounded, vibrant and sane.
This can definitely be a lonely path. I was single for three years after Nori and I parted. There have been times in my recent life where I absolutely despaired that I would ever meet someone given my lifestyle choices. Aside from the daily practice itself, running a Mysore program requires a huge commitment, physically, emotionally and energetically.
I have had periods of doubt. Questioning whether I was sacrificing too much of myself to some lofty cause of trying to change the world through yoga. But the longer I teach the more proof I see that this practice heals and transforms. Even just teaching someone surya namaskar could be a catalyst for change. Recently I received an email from a student telling me that her bad habits were falling away. That the yoga is like some sort of magic. Hearing stories like this makes me know I am on the right path.
Fortunately, I am about to marry a man who shares my love of early bedtimes and wakeups. He didn’t practice yoga when we first met and that wasn’t a problem for me. What was more important was that he understood why I did. However, he now does come to my Mysore class three mornings a week and loves it.
I recognised that I needed to make some adjustments in my schedule to create the space for a relationship to grow. For the first time in many years I’ve now started practicing after teaching. I may go back to the early mornings as that time of day for practice is so precious and I do love it. For now though, in the lead up to our marriage, this is what feels right.
Nea, going back a bit, what impression did or does Sharath have on you as a student and teacher? Many teachers in past interviews have spoken about how little Sharath speaks but how direct and meaningful his few words can be.
One of the first things I noticed about Sharath and I continue to observe is how open and honest he his. He is completely himself. There is no facade. When someone asks him a question, he answers straight from the heart and his emotions show on his face. I love this.
Like any good teacher he definitely knows when to be tough and when to be soft. In 2009, I did three weeks of led classes with Sharath. A week in Bali and two weeks in Sydney. It was a wonderful experience. I remember for the two weeks we were doing primary he was smiling all the time and very kind to everyone. Then the morning he walked in to teach the led second, there was no smile, he was very serious and commanding. It was like he was saying, “Okay everyone, if you are in this room, you are going to work very hard!”
I agree that Sharath’s effectiveness as a teacher does lie in being sparing with words. When I am in the room with him, I don’t need him to say anything to me. Just being in the presence of my teacher makes me do my absolute best. He can say it all with one look.
It means when he speaks his words have power. One of my dearest memories of my time as Sharath’s student happened during the Level 1 training in July 2010. We each had to teach a led class with the correct vinyasa count and then Sharath would critique us. After my class Sharath said “Nea you need to speak louder. One day when you have many students, they will need to hear you.”
To me that moment symbolised “parampara” - my teacher believed one day I would have many students. To this day, five years on, I draw on this moment as a source of strength and empowerment. Now when I teach my led classes here in Dubai, I remember to speak loudly and clearly, knowing that I have my teacher’s blessing.
How important is parampara to you? How important is the role of a teacher in a student's yoga journey?
I am a very independent person. One of the things I like about Ashtanga is how self-reliant you need to be. You are responsible for your own practice. It is you who turns up each day and does the work. Over the last eleven years most of my practices have been alone. I think self-practices like this builds resilience and inner strength.
Yet, I also really value the role of the teacher. Actually, on my last trip to Mysore I thought a lot about this and came to the conclusion that the traditional teacher-student relationship, where the teacher teaches and the students listens, learns and follows their instructions is truly paramount in the path of yoga. It is a path of devotion and surrender of will.
When I first started yoga I wanted to try every asana I came across. Now I am content to follow what my teacher says. I don’t try asanas until they have been given to me, normally by Sharath. It’s kind of a paradox to be quite strong-willed yet prepared to surrender, but I’ve come to realise that I prefer freedom from choice, rather than of choice.
It does mean that I’ve been stuck at postures for a good couple of years before moving on! But I go to Mysore to learn from my teacher, not to perform. To me that moment when a new posture is given, is pure parampara. I don’t want to do anything to spoil that.
Spending time with a teacher is more than just picking up asana tricks and tips here and there. A teacher is someone who has walked this path longer than you. Someone who has been on their own journey and can now be a source of inspiration and support as the student finds their way. I see my role as a teacher is to a create a nurturing space, like a little oasis in the desert, where people can come each day, knowing that I will be there, by their side, as they navigate the ups and downs of self-transformation.
You were the first teacher to bring Ashtanga to Dubai. What was that experience like?
There were few people who were already teaching Ashtanga in Dubai and some visiting teachers had passed through over the years, but I was the first KPJAYI teacher to move there and start teaching. I started a Mysore program with the support of a local yoga studio at the beginning of 2013 and since then the yoga scene in Dubai has absolutely boomed. I started Ashtanga Yoga Dubai at the beginning of last year.
When I first moved, many people asked me why I would come to live in a “materialistic and superficial” city like Dubai. I felt strongly that this was a stereotype, and that you can always find people in any city who are interested in something deeper. We are all chasing the same thing at the end of day. I felt it was a good place for me to settle. I know what it is like to live as an expat in a consumerist city and how alienating it can be when you start choosing a different way of living. I want Ashtanga Yoga Dubai to not just be a place for morning practice, but a community of people bonded by a common desire to live more consciously.
One of my favourite times of the week is after our weekly Friday led class (Friday’s are the first day of the weekend in Dubai). About a year ago I began holding a yoga philosophy class after the led class, discussing the yoga sutras. When I first started I wasn’t sure if anyone would stay around for it, as I thought most people would probably be wanting to head off to Friday brunch instead. Instead, now the majority of people who have come to the class also stay on for yoga philosophy or meditation. It could also be because I make chai!
I’ve enjoyed learning about the Muslim faith while living here. Some of my students are local Emiratis and it’s been wonderful to be invited into their homes to teach yoga. One student is currently continuing her lessons through the fasting period of Ramadan. She mentioned the other day that she felt that the yoga was helping her be more calm and steady for her prayers. I love hearing how this practices makes a tangible difference to someone’s life, often in unexpected ways.
Any final thoughts?
I clearly remember there was a time I was considering quitting Ashtanga yoga. It was about two years in, the bliss bubble had burst, and it was starting to get a tough. I created a whole list of reasons why I should quit, ranging from perhaps it didn’t suit my dosha to thinking I had the wrong body shape.
I was attending a workshop with John Scott in Kuala Lumpur and one of the first things he said was how most of us go through life doing things until they get hard, at which point we then quit and try something else. I realised that was exactly what I was about to do. So instead I made the decision to stay with the practice and I am so absolutely grateful that I did.
Yes, it can be hard. But so what. Hard is good. In the words of Ram Das, “It is all grist for the mill”. This practice brings health, vibrancy and joy to my life as well as providing me with an incredible methodology for powerful self-inquiry. It continues to intrigue me by simultaneously helping me see clearly, while illuminating how little I know. It makes me a better me and I am honoured to share it with others.
I give thanks to Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Saraswati and Sharath for making it their life’s work to teach this method. I remain indebted to all my teachers who have all shined a light on this path for me over the years and to my students who I love dearly for their dedication, commitment and support.
Keep practicing, with gratitude and devotion in your heart.
*photos provided by Nea Ferrier
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial support
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks Lydia Teinfalt for editorial support