Tova, can you please share your background pre-yoga with us?
It’s funny, you have asked everyone else this question, but it just occured to me: my background in what? I guess it really comes down to two things, doesn’t it? My background with my body and my background with my mind. Growing up, my grandmother would spend a month every summer at Kripalu. During my senior year of college I took a yoga class offered at the college; every other person in the class was old enough to be my grandparent. The teacher was lovely, and the class offered a nice stretch and it was relaxing, but I had no space in my life for what I could only describe as stretching for old people. I had struggled with eating disorders since third grade, and also in my senior year of college developed a somewhat compulsive exercise habit. Running and going to the gym were my priority when I was not going to class or doing school work.
I was raised as a Jew but my parents’ Judaism never really spoke to me. In middle school and high school, I played around with orthodox Judaism and Christianity. After college I started going to a Quaker meeting, which is what spoke most clearly to me, but I had this idea that Quakers were very happy peaceful people and I didn’t feel happy or peaceful, and so I felt like a fraud. But I kept going.
When I was living in Portland, OR, I met a friend, another mother, she was in massage school with two little kids, and inspired me to go to massage school. We were both looking for a spiritual “home”, I would say. We tried out some Buddhist temples, and both felt a little out of place. Then one day she said, “Oh I went to this yoga class, you should try it.” At this time I was trying to be a Quaker. I was going to the gym every day for a few hours, running and weightlifting. I was also struggling mightily with my marriage and my identity as a mother with two young kids. When Marie suggested I try this yoga class, I thought, “Oh sure I’ll try it, some stretching for old people.” But it was Ashtanga, led primary, four times a week. And it kicked my ass. I spent the next six months crying through every class. Right away it broke my heart wide open. And it was very clear that this practice would lead me in the direction I needed to be going.
Why do you practice and how do you define practice? Do you practice without any expectations?
I practice yoga asana for a number of reasons. The basic ones: because it helps shut my brain up and it is good physical exercise that you can do anywhere with minimal stuff. And I am still working on the “with dedication for a long time, uninterrupted” thing, to see how that works. You know, as an experiment. And I can’t think of a good reason not to practice.
I define yoga practice as anything you do with regularity with the intention of gaining a better understanding of how things really are. In one of the first Zen classes I went to, the teacher talked about taking something very simple in your day and every time you did that simple thing you would do it in a mindful way. The example he gave was that every time you came into your home, you would put your shoes neatly in a line instead of tossing them in a pile. So this was lining up your shoes yoga practice.
I come to practice with the expectation that I will do the best that my body and my brain will allow me to do on that day.
Is Ashtanga a spiritual practice? Is it evolving for you?
Yes and yes. I was in spiritual crisis when I found the practice. I had no interest in what I thought yoga was. I already had plenty of physical exercise. I wasn’t looking for something else or more. But I was looking for a way to understand myself and my life better, and that has always been what the practice has been for me first and foremost.
Evolving? Always. How could it not be? You run up against yourself every day you are alive. Your ideas should change and evolve. If anything, I think my views about yoga as a spiritual practice have become even more clear. My first teacher would say that whatever you are looking for when you come to yoga, you will get. If you are looking for better fitness, you will get it. If you are looking for a hotter body, you will get it. If you are looking for a spiritual experience, you will get it. The longer I practice though, I am convinced that even if you are not looking for better fitness and a better body, you will probably get it. However, if you are not looking for a spiritual experience, you probably aren’t going to get it. There has to be some self study, some svadhyaya. I would argue, that probably if you are not actively seeking some sort of spiritual experience with yoga, then you aren’t actually doing yoga, by the definition of what yoga is, which is yoking oneself with the divine. That is not to say that everyone has to practice with a spiritual inclination. I don’t expect that all my students must have spiritual aspirations. But just to be clear about what I believe yoga to be, actual yoga should be spiritual in nature. I don’t feel there is anything wrong with doing an asana practice for physical fitness. But I think it is important for each of us to understand what our motivations are when we do our practice. This is where things have evolved for me right now. I’m open for respectful discussions otherwise.
Can you you please talk about your hip replacement?
That would be hip replacements. In March of 2013 I started to have a strange sensation in my right hip. I would not at first have described it as pain. It felt like the hip was getting stuck; like something had become tight or there wasn’t enough space for the joint to move as it had before. There was a sensation of pinching, but not a sensation of pain. This feeling was persistent and I would try harder and harder to open up a decreasing range of motion. Eventually the pinchy sensation gave way to pain at which point I thought, “Oh, this is an injury, I think I have a torn labrum.” Somewhere in my stored memories from massage school, I must have had this information stored deep in my brain, because I am not sure how else I would have even known to consider this.
I’m going to try to keep this short-ish because there was a lot involved in the journey from hip discomfort to hip replacement. But basically, I was diagnosed with a torn labrum and from that point the joint deteriorated quite rapidly. Six weeks from the initial diagnosis from the MRI, I went from just a torn labrum to having no cartilage left in the joint at all, bones spurs, and subchondral insufficiency fractures in the head of the femur. By that time there was no point in repairing the labrum because the joint was too far gone for labral repair to relieve the pain. I had the right hip replaced in October of 2013. I dislocated that hip in July of 2014 (and had it put back together). And then in a similar although not identical chain of events, I had the left hip replaced in September of 2015. This is the short version of the story.
Six weeks time from diagnosis to hip replacement seems quick. Do you think the hip condition has been there longer than that and did practicing Ashtanga exacerbate the problem?
I feel like this question is a little loaded. I think there are folks who will want to hear that Ashtanga had nothing to do with the degeneration of the hip and people who will want to hear that it was the cause of the hip problems. The sum total of the information is really too much to write here, and honestly I think it would be quite boring. I have had hip problems for a large part of my active life. I had constant hip pain starting in middle school that was initially diagnosed as chronic bursitis. In high school I started running and I think this is probably where the degeneration of the labrum began. I would occasionally feel that pinching sensation when I was running. But it would come and go so I never thought of it as a real problem and never went to the doctor about it. I continued to run occasionally until right around the time when the hip pain became persistent. So if I had to point to a causation, I would say a culmination of the activities that I had undertaken prior to even starting a yoga practice.
Did Ashtanga yoga specifically exacerbate the problem? Only in the sense that it happened to be the major physical activity that I participated in at the time. With the second hip, as soon as the pain became persistent, I scaled back my practice significantly. I eliminated all postures that I thought might contribute to degeneration; anything that might be considered an extreme range of motion, even if there was no discomfort, I stopped doing it. The result was that the degeneration happened anyways. My orthopedic surgeon is of the opinion, that no matter what physical activity I had chosen to undertake, this would have happened. He believes that I have an underlying condition that has caused such a rapid loss of cartilage. But these things are hard to test for, and I’m not really inclined to undertake the process.
I think the real question is do I wish I had done anything different, and the answer is no. I don’t think other choices would have prepared me for how I am able to handle what I have gone through. And I don’t think there is a great deal of physical activity out there that I would be allowed to do post replacement that I would actually enjoy. I think the Ashtanga practice gave me the foundation for a meditation practice, which I doubt I would have found otherwise. I think without this foundation I would never have gained the understanding of myself that I have now, and I would not have been prepared for the losses I have experienced.
How can students use asanas as a vehicle for transformation and healing? Is it human nature to only appreciate people or things after it’s gone?-Is that why when we suffer injuries, it is a great teaching moment in yoga?
These are both interesting questions. The first question, I think in order to see transformation and healing through the asana practice you have to have done it for a long time. I think we all fall in love with the practice initially. It feels great; we feel validated when we move along in this linear fashion. So we have the positive reinforcement of the endorphins and this sense of achievement. But to really have transformation, like YS 1:14 says, we have to have done the practice steadily with devotion for a long time. I think it is important to go through periods of doubt, and frustration, and boredom. That’s where faith is born, where the real work is, and I believe, where the transformation is.
I don’t think we have to experience loss to have true appreciation. And I definitely don’t think we need to experience any major injuries to have important teaching moments. But I do think the things I mentioned before- doubt, frustration, boredom- any of the negative feelings that make us get in our own way, working through those is where the real lessons happen. I suppose there are important lessons in perseverance, patience, and achievement. But sooner or later we are all going to start deteriorating. How well will we be prepared for that?
The hip replacements have been amazing. Chronic pain is a real bummer. It makes your world smaller and you avoid doing simple things that before would have been no big deal. The fact that a doctor could open up my joint and take out the diseased tissue and put in a prosthesis and I can live my life again, that is nothing short of a miracle to me. That I could dislocate my fake hip in India and have it put back together without surgery is a miracle to me. There is literally not a day that goes by that I don’t feel grateful for those things; and for health insurance. Everyone should have access to health insurance. The first surgery was pretty easy to recover from. The second one is proving to be a longer process; a different process. I fully expect not ever to get back to the practice I had even after the first surgery, and I really could not be less concerned. That is an amazing gift. To really be able to just practice with no concern about the outcome. To really practice with no outside pressure of any sort, and no inside pressure. I think all Ashtanga practitioners have had that feeling of guilt if we aren’t doing full practice or if we have an off day and we wonder if we will ever be able to do elusive posture X again. What if we disappoint the teacher. What if we never learn a new asana or what if we have reached the place in life where everything just gets harder and we start to ‘lose’ things.
This morning I was able to put my chest down on my legs in paschimattonasana for the first time in over seven months. I blew my own mind. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. Paschimattonasana is a gift. To be able to explore this stuff in a new body is really an amazing gift. Anything I am able to do, I fully appreciate. Maybe I did have to question my ability to ever do paschimattonasana again to really appreciate being able to do it. Don’t take paschimattonasana for granted. It’s awesome. But I also hope that I can pass along that feeling to my students. Do your work. Enjoy the work. Don’t worry. Don’t attach your sense of self worth to your practice. Just do your practice. Whatever that is on any given day. The outcome is unimportant.
Is there inherently a gender difference in using strength in the practice?
I assume you mean a difference between the sexes, as in physical differences, not differences based on cultural or social norms? I suppose there are inherent differences, but I think focusing on that is limiting, and unproductive. It might be more interesting to think about the cultural and social perception of strength and how that affects men and women in the practice. I think that is a much larger discussion for more than one question in an interview.
Practice requires finding a balance between exerting effort and letting go. It’s a tightrope act because if you exert effort to the point where you become injured then it’s too late to surrender. How do you guide your students to find this balance for themselves?
Well, I like to say sometimes, don’t work harder, work softer. I think for the most part the students who come to me are very good at listening to their bodies. But I also think the type A tendencies of the folks who come to Ashtanga can make us inclined to feel fearful of appearing like we aren’t working as hard as we should. I can remember Sharath telling students at KPJAYI that they had tried a posture enough times, and it was time to give it a rest for that day. Sometimes a student will ask me about an unfamiliar sensation they feel in their bodies, maybe it’s pain, they can’t tell. I will always say, I can’t tell you what you are feeling in your own body. Students need to advocate for themselves. They need to become familiar with the messages their bodies are sending, and learn to listen. But I also think sometimes they need to be told that not only are they allowed to advocate for themselves, they are in fact obligated to advocate for themselves.
You carry a dedicated sitting practice. What benefits can a meditative practice have for students?
I began a vipassana meditation practice in 2011 with a ten day silent retreat. I was having what I think would be accurate to describe as a nervous breakdown. I had never done any formal meditation prior to this. And it is not necessarily recommended that you take a vipassana retreat when you are in emotional crisis, but I felt like what I really needed was just to be removed from absolutely everything. To completely disengage from other people. It was really just the most incredible experience. It really was amazing to be around other people but to not only be allowed not to interact, but to be forbidden from interaction. It was such a relief. Prior to going I had read all these things about revelations and visions people had on their vipassana retreat. That never happened to me. It was totally enjoyable, super difficult, but enjoyable. But I never had that mind blowing experience. It wasn’t till I got back into the world that I began to realize what it had done for me. At first I just felt like I was slow, or maybe dull. But then I realized, that was what spaciousness felt like. The space between something happening and reacting was expanded, so in a way I was slower, but not dull. I was sharper. And that gave me the space to take things in and not react to what was going on. Ashtanga yoga had started this process of becoming aware of myself, and vipassana has helped refine that. It’s sort of like the asana practice is brushing your teeth, and Vipassana is scraping your tongue and flossing. Yoga and meditation together just make your mind all that much more bright and shiny.
*Ashtanga Parampara thanks co-editor, Lydia Teinfalt, for editorial assitance