Sara, what is your background before yoga?
I was born in Boston and raised just outside the city in Watertown, MA. My younger sister and I are close in age and were partners in crime as children. We are still best friends today. My childhood was a joyful one, and now that I am a mother I recognize what an incredible job my parents did at protecting our youthful innocence as long as possible. I’m deeply thankful to have always had a supportive family.
As a child I was athletic and willing to try almost anything. I dabbled in soccer and basketball. I took ballet and other forms of dance, all of which I loved and excelled in, from age three until I left for college. I figure skated competitively for many years. I had begun skating out of sheer enjoyment, but by the time I stopped at age thirteen it had become a grueling job I dreaded. I was a burned out eighth grader.
Around this time I began noticing an underlying fear of not being “good enough”, which pervaded every part of my life. I felt pressure to be perfect all the time, which was completely self-imposed. I never quite felt like I “belonged”, and I was aware of this even as a small child. I always maintained perfect grades in school and had plenty of friends, yet my mind wandered to anything which seemed inadequate. My figure skating performances weren’t good enough in my eyes. I wasn’t pretty enough, thin enough, artistic enough, smart enough, and I most certainly wasn’t happy. In hindsight, I am aware this pattern is a deeply ingrained samskara, which years of devoted Ashtanga Yoga has helped me manage. As a teenager, I was constantly trying to figure out what was wrong with me so I could fix it and be perfect all the time. Some might call this constant anxiety a tendency towards perfectionism. When I look back, it is abundantly clear that I did not know how to love myself and was constantly seeking a fix. It was a perpetual game of keeping up with the Joneses, in hopes of finding contentment.
It is of no surprise that this deep-seated self-hatred led me right into a nasty bout of anorexia at fourteen years old. During the eighteen months I suffered from it I longed for the innocence and joy of my childhood. I was spinning out of control, so I tried to control what I ate (nothing), and I maintained a 4.0 in school throughout. Because hindsight is 20/20, I now see this was a slow form of suicide. The self-hatred was simply too much to bear. Yet, because I have great parents who devoted themselves to my care, I survived. However, western medicine and therapy cured the symptoms of anorexia but not the underlying problem.
Yes, I survived. My high school educational experience was academically outstanding, and the small, all female environment at Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart was supportive and stimulating. I was first exposed to yoga in my final year there. After reading A Passage To India, our professor organized a yoga lesson for our class. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to keep a room full of stressed out, hormonal, eighteen year-old girls focused! While I didn’t begin a devoted practice right away, yoga felt familiar. It felt like coming home.
I went on to receive a half tuition scholarship from Boston University and majored in marketing and organizational behavior. I enjoyed city life and the diverse student body, which constantly exposed me to other cultures. My underlying fear and discontent persisted, and while I seemed perfectly fine on the outside, on the inside I felt as if I were somehow fundamentally flawed and would never be truly happy. I experimented with alcohol, drugs, and nightlife, but the temporary high was not what I sought. In my gut, I knew contentment at a deeper level existed and I was determined to find it.
Then, in the first semester of my junior year, while in a rigorous business management program, 9/11 happened. Shortly, thereafter, I began having debilitating anxiety attacks. At any given moment, I felt like I was suffocating and wondered if I were actually dying. All my old beliefs, fears, and patterns which I had pushed down for years were finally bubbling up and could no longer be avoided. Desperate and willing to try anything for relief, I finally found yoga.
What was your initial experience with yoga?
As I mentioned, I tried my first classical Hatha yoga class during my senior year in high school. Once at Boston University, I would occasionally dabble in whatever yoga classes the local gym offered. I enjoyed them very much, but wasn’t yet compelled to commit. The universe works in mysterious ways, though. Push came to shove in the form of anxiety attacks and I was desperate to find a way out. I literally and figuratively felt like I was drowning. A visit to my lifelong physician is what provoked me to begin yoga with a deeper intention of healing. Thankfully, my doctor chose not to prescribe anti-anxiety medication right away. Instead, she suggested I stop dabbling in yoga and commit to practicing at least three times per week. Christmas break was approaching and I had the time and space to heed her advice.
At the time, the nearest yoga studio was a Bikram yoga school owned by Lauren and Tom Strachan. They welcomed me into their community without hesitation. My first class was intense, and I vaguely remember vomiting once I returned home. Yet, I knew something important had happened to me. I felt alive. My mind felt quiet for the first time I could remember. I practiced Bikram frequently during that school break. Apparently, my father, who knew nothing about yoga, told my mother he “had no idea what I was doing, but I HAD to keep doing it.” I felt different and everyone noticed. As the next semester began, I continued to practice. Over time, my anxiety became more manageable. When attacks arose, I was able to use breathing to calm myself down. Sometimes relief came quickly, other times not. In every instance, I was able to control my mind rather than fall into a spiral of panic. This was new territory, and I knew yoga was the impetus for this change.
After a couple of years, the Strachans took me on as an apprentice and I began teaching. I had begun experimenting with other styles of yoga, which they encouraged. As fate would have it, David Swenson was scheduled to teach in the Boston area during my last semester at Boston University. Tom and Lauren had registered for his class and told me a little about David and Ashtanga yoga. I looked his workshop up online and I KNEW I was supposed to attend. I registered and paid using the money I had received from Christmas gifts. I informed my professors I would be missing a week of classes to attend this intensive. They were surprised, yet supportive. A few weeks later, David came to town and life as I knew it changed forever.
And what was it about Ashtanga that drew you in?
The feeling I had after finishing the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series was unlike any other I had ever experienced. I had never felt so ALIVE in my life. All the mental chatter stopped and I felt at ease in my own body. It was extraordinary. This isn’t to say the act of practicing was easy. It most certainly was not. But the difference in my mental state was so stark, I would have done anything to replicate that feeling. I immediately knew this practice was medicine for me.
My body began to change, too. I was stronger and I felt lighter. While not the goal, it was definitely motivation for me to stay on the path. I can’t say it was instantaneous, but I slowly began to like my body more and hate myself less. I was tasting the sweetness of contentment for the first time since childhood.
In 2005, after two years of daily practice on my own and with like minded friends, I made my first of seven trips to India to study in Mysore with Guruji.
What was your experience with Guruji?
I met Guruji in person for the first time during his 2003 tour at the Puck building in NYC. I had only been practicing daily for 9 months, and the experience left me awestruck. His presence, his energy, were incredibly special. I successfully did a headstand for the first time that day, and Guruji adjusted me in Marichyasana B. It was a powerful morning, to say the least.
I was nervous to travel to India, yet it called me somehow. I made my first trip to study at KPJAYI in Mysore in August 2005. Many people have the chance to study for months or years with a daily teacher prior to their first experience in the shala, but I wasn’t one of them. After two years of self practice and attending whatever workshops I could, I took my first every Mysore style class with Guruji and Sharath in Mysore. I completed the primary series and did my drop backs, after which I received a crash course in “catching”, which I had never seen before. Friends are shocked when I tell them this story. To have my first ever Mysore class at the feet of the Guru was a huge gift. I was able to see clearly how everything worked. I never had to question what was being taught to me at home, because Guruji and Sharath were my teachers. I always knew exactly what was expected of me. Even when I returned home, I held myself to their standards. This connection is what sustains my practice at home, year after year.
Guruji was still actively teaching when I returned in early 2007. I can’t express how thankful I am to have attended many of his conferences and absorbed his wisdom. I watched him smile as he scooped up the few babies who journeyed to Mysore with their parents. His joy was infectious. I began practicing intermediate series under his watchful eye. I always giggle when remembering his post-back bending hugs. I certainly need a hug after deep back bending! I watched him lead as Sharath followed his guidance. I’m confident he is watching Sharath today with love and pride.
There is a delicate space that exists in the practice. Students strive to do their best in asana yet also remain a mindset of detachment. How does one strive to walk this razor’s edge?
Anything in life can be approached with a gentle mindset or an aggressive mindset. It really is that simple. Yoga practice, marriage, parenthood, our careers, can all be approached with a gentle or aggressive mindset. We get to choose. I have seen colleagues of mine practice Advanced B (4th series) with steadiness and ease. On the contrary, I have witnessed yoga philosophy classes, no asana involved, in which the delivery was so judgmental and agitated, I felt unsettled afterward.
I remind myself and my students of Sutra I.12 regularly. Abhyasavairagyabhyam tannirodhah. The benefits of yoga, namely the quieting of the mind, are achieved by BOTH practice and non-attachment to the results of the practice. Practicing on its own isn’t enough. Patanjali urges us to take a closer look. Are we practicing to achieve the perfect handstand and not much else? If so, we aren’t practicing yoga. The lessons are in the journey, not in the results.
When a student struggles with this, I remind them to check their mindset. Is it gentle or aggressive? Often, simply drawing awareness to this is enough to provoke a change. I encourage practitioners to begin each practice by asking themselves WHY they are getting on the mat that day. Most of us aren’t doing so to just burn a few calories or learn to put our leg behind our head. I ask this of myself at the start of each practice. It reminds me that I am there to “get my head on straight”, as I often say. I am attempting to bring more clarity into my life so I can better serve others. I aim to reconnect with God/The Divine/The Higher Self every single day. My goal is to live an inspired existence rather than just going through the motions of daily life. At the end of each practice I notice a marked difference in my mindset and energy. This is the whole point. If my asana is perfect, fabulous! If not, it doesn’t matter because I have received the benefits of the practice anyway.
How do you see your role as a teacher?
Being a devoted teacher is very much like being a devoted parent. I am not in the Mysore room to make friends or win a popularity contest. I am there to lead my students on their spiritual path and my job is most important when they are facing an obstacle. I always have their best interest in mind and they know it, which is why they trust me even when they don’t understand why I am guiding them in a specific direction. Each student is unique. Some respond best when I am strict, while others shine when guided by a gentle approach. My intention is the same regardless: to inspire, encourage faith, and show them how to move through obstacles, knowing full well I can’t conquer the obstacles for them. My role as a mother is to teach my children to be empowered, capable, and loving humans, which can only happen if I allow them to explore this on their own. If I focus on fixing every situation for them they won’t have the confidence they need to be self-reliant. The same is true in the Mysore room. I am there to lead and show each student that he or she is fully capable of realizing his/her deepest potential.
What are the qualities of a good student and do they translate to being a good teacher? Can you speak to the your experience of being a student and the transformation to teaching?
There are so many qualities visible in a good student. To me, the most important are patience and faith. I’m not sure I would have developed much of either had it not been for Ashtanga yoga. Being willing to show up on your mat day after day, through easy days and brutal ones, whether you are filled with joy or barely surviving a broken heart, through excellent health and illness, THAT is when the benefits of yoga are cultivated.
Undoubtedly, I have learned the most about myself and life by showing up daily and facing the parts of practice which were incredibly difficult for me. Sharath stopped me at kapotasana for nearly two years. It took me six years to lower down in karandavasana, granted I was pregnant and nursing my two children during that time period. Facing myself, my mental chatter, and being patient enough to one day embrace those challenges changed me deeply as a person. Yoga is not for those seeking instant gratification. The poses which did come easily showed me far less about who I am and what triggers me. While enjoyable, I don’t hold them in the same regard as those which put me between a rock and a hard place. They have taught me patience, faith, and that I am so much stronger on every level than I ever gave myself credit for. It has showed me that everything can change if you are willing to give it time. In time, all things are possible. I truly believe that.
This trust in the process and the patience to allow it to unfold is crucial in teaching. When my students are struggling I am able to remind them this practice is not about getting new poses. The learning is in the process, and this is what enriches our lives most. We receive that whether our poses are perfect or not. As a teacher, I’m not sure I would hold the same respect for this method if it hadn’t been challenging at times. I’ve shed tears, questioned my worth, and wondered if I would ever move through those obstacles. Because of this, my students trust me, knowing I have walked in their shoes. They believe me when I encourage them to stay on course, no matter how challenging it seems in the moment. I find that sometimes students develop faith in their practice because they first have faith in their teacher.
Sara, what is devotion to you and can yoga happen without devotion?
To me, devotion is when you learn to love something, even when conditions aren’t perfect. When we first begin practice, many of us have a “honeymoon phase” with yoga, probably because we’ve never before felt so alive. Much like a new relationship, we can’t get enough. It is intoxicating. We don’t want to take rest days or do a modified practice, even if we are ill. It is pure pleasure. In my mind, yoga truly begins when the honeymoon is over. On the days when you wake up tired, in pain, and wanting to do anything but practice, yet you get on the mat anyway, THAT is when real transformation begins. We learn to cultivate discipline, knowing the results are always worth the effort. No matter how brutal it seems or how much avoidance exists, we practice anyway. This is devotion. While we might begin our practice without understanding this concept, it won’t last unless devotion is cultivated. Patanjali drives this point home in Sutra 1.14, “sa tu dirghakalanairantaryasatkaradarasevito drdhabhumih.” Satkara means devotion, and if we want to receive the benefits of yoga we must practice for a long time, unbroken, with devotion and faith in the process.
For me, I began to understand the depth of my own devotion when my son was diagnosed on the autism spectrum four years ago. I was literally convinced I would die of a broken heart. I’m not ashamed to admit there were moments when I hoped I would. Had I known heartache like this even existed, I might have been too scared to have children. I was a new mom to a two year-old son, an eight month old daughter whom I was still nursing, and suddenly my world was turned upside down. I felt broken, vulnerable, and like the universe was rubbing salt into my wide open wounds.
I would wake in the early morning to texts from my close friend and fellow KPJAYI authorized teacher, Danielle Burger, reading, “I’ll see you at practice.” Every day I pulled the covers over my head, afraid the pain would be too much to bear. Yet, years of conditioning had taught me I would feel better on the other side. I have thanked Danielle many times since for sending me those texts and holding me accountable as her teacher and friend. Her presence and the practice saved my life. I showed up, took one breath at a time, and by the time I finished I had the confidence to handle whatever the day delivered. It felt like magic, yet I knew it wasn’t. The drastic difference in my mindset, health, and energy was the product of devotion.
Thanks to the practice, I survived those difficult months and even made it back to India just six months after Rocco’s diagnosis. Sharath was surprised to see me in India without my family, so I explained to him what was happening in my life at that time. He told me he understood my situation and he also found it challenging to be away from his family while traveling. We became incredibly close during that trip. Every day, usually during my back bends, he would ask how my son was doing. He frequently reminded me to video chat with my children, as if I could forget. It was so sweet. Every time I saw him around the shala he made a point to check on me. It meant so much. Sharath was gentle and compassionate in his speech and energy toward me, but he held my practice to incredibly high standards during that month. It was a long practice, too, so I had to dig much deeper on the mat than I ever had before. Knowing the practice would heal whatever needed healing, Sharath let the alchemy of yoga work its magic. I returned home stronger than ever, physically and mentally. I felt like I could conquer the world. Sharath knew I had to be strong for my family and did everything possible to make that happen. He knew what I needed and how to use the practice to transform me. I am deeply grateful I took the risk to return to India so soon. It was a vital turning point in my life. It strengthened my devotion beyond what I imagined possible.
Four years later, I often recall that time of my life and it reminds me why I get on my mat each day. Additionally, my son is making a miraculous recovery. That isn’t magic either. It is the product of hard work and devotion, just like the practice.
Any final thoughts?
Ashtanga yoga makes impossible things possible. When I first began practicing I wrote off headstand as an impossible pose. Day after day, it remained so. One day, to my utter shock, it clicked. It provoked a deeper level of self-inquiry within me. “If I successfully conquered this previously impossible task, what else is possible for me?” When I face a huge obstacle on my mat or in my life, I now know it is just a matter of time until I see the other side. My first trip to India seemed impossible for so many reasons. Returning to India for my fourth trip and leaving behind two children under three years old seemed unthinkable. Seven trips later, I look forward to being a student at KPJAYI again this season. It is both a miracle and product of embracing the daily work.
My all-time favorite quote sums up my journey into Ashtanga yoga. “Faith is to believe what you do not see. The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” -St. Augustine
Editorial Note: For additional information on Sara, please visit: http://www.sarayoga.com/
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-pilot, Lydia Teinfalt for editorial assitance
*Photos provided by Sara Intonato