Interview With Ashtanga Parampara
Magnolia, could you share with us your background before yoga?
As a teen I chose to step away from that side of my upbringing in order to live a more normal American life (whatever that means). I was a gymnast as a child until puberty. I was a solid sprinter in track & field, a mediocre volleyball player and an even worse swimmer. Around the time I was 17, I started rock climbing (trad, multi-pitch). My climbing partner and I moved apart so I needed to shelve climbing for a bit. I then began experimenting with a few Bikram classes though climbing was my first real passion. I spent a short time gym training with a competitive bodybuilder…Joyce. She taught me how to reach beyond my physical & mental capacities. She encouraged me to try harder, go further, reach beyond my mind & will. She was the first person or teacher who made me realize there was a relationship between body and mind through physical practices and austerities. She also taught me to not believe everything the mind was suggesting or telling. She was strength and power. I’ve carried that with me.
Singing is a huge part of the Mexican tradition and I was raised through and around music. Around 1993, I moved to Los Angeles, where I began studying music and voice. I began working with vocal coaches, singers/songwriters and pursuing a career in music. In 1996 I picked up Beryl Bender Birch’s book, Power Yoga. I didn’t take the time to read the darn book so I had no idea it was Ashtanga Yoga! Regardless, I practiced the postures from the book at home while I continued Bikram classes. About a year or so later, a friend referred me to Noah Williams and Kimberly Flynn, Mysore Ashtanga teachers in Silverlake, Los Angeles. That’s when I started a daily Ashtanga practice. It’s also when health issues began to surface.
When I was 16, I developed asthma and was quickly put on steroids and inhalers to manage the symptoms. Unfortunately, lifestyle choices in my 20s (late nights, alcohol, cigarettes) and poor diet made the asthma worse (duh!). By the time I was 27 or so, I would be too sick to attend classes, rehearse, or practice yoga daily. I grew weaker and weaker, suffering from chronic sinusitis and bronchitis. For years, I was on round after round of antibiotics. I had seen several western doctors for varying opinions, and they would continue prescribing antibiotics. I dropped to 98 pounds and was desperate. So, I did what many people do when they are at the end.
Praying was not part of my usual repertoire but that day it was the only thing to do. I was 27 or 28, very thin, pale and sick. I thought I was eating right by following a yogic diet (vegetarian, salads, juices, smoothies etc). But, it was not working and I didn’t know why or what to do. I prayed to have the healing path revealed to me. I also made a prayer for myself that I would fully commit to it no matter what. It was here when I started embracing the ritualistic practices from my past.
A few days later my mother called expressing concern. She said I needed to see a doctor of yoga. When I asked her what that was she replied ‘I don’t know, you’re the one that does yoga!’ Right. I called a friend in San Francisco, the same woman that referred me to Noah and Kimberly, and asked her what a doctor of yoga was. Her reply ‘Why Ayurveda of course.’ Admittedly, she had been trying to get me to see her Ayurvedic doctor for months but I resisted. I drove to SF, had a consultation and decided I needed to learn more about Ayurveda and its healing capabilities. I guess you could say my prayers had been answered.
The alchemy of Ayurveda made sense to me. This was it. Time for reflection and change if I wanted a long, healthy and happy life. Ironically, I had just been signed to a vocal agent in Los Angeles. It was my first real lead and a very exciting opportunity to travel and sing as a backup vocalist on major tours. However, after discussing this with my Ayurvedic doctor, it was clear that I wasn’t well enough to travel and perform for months at a time.
To follow this new commitment to Ayurvedic healing, I moved to San Francisco and began studying Ayurveda, Satyananda Yoga and Tantra. I stepped back from daily Ashtanga practice, as recommended by my doctor, to keep from creating too much heat in the body. I would practice primary series every once in awhile but not regularly. I would say this was the real beginning of learning yoga for me; when I embraced Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda as the sister sciences that they are. Under my doctor’s dietary suggestions, I slowly began developing strength and was able to begin practicing Ashtanga regularly though still not 5-6 days a week. This time, with the increased self-observation and knowledge from Ayurveda, I was able to practice with better knowledge and understanding of what health and well-being meant for me.
I went to Mysore in 2004, where I met Guruji and my current Ayurvedic doctor (Anil Kumar). At that time, I was still not strong enough to practice the recommended 5-6 days a week. We decided I would practice 4 days a week. Guruji told me which days to practice and he and Sharath began teaching me second series within a week or two. They taught me the series pretty quickly. It was shocking, as I had only practiced primary up to that point.
At the same time, under Dr Kumar’s supervision, I did my first Panchakarma treatment (Ayurvedic detox). That was the first time in years that I experienced freedom from asthmatic symptoms. Since then, I have had no need for steroid medications. Albuterol inhalers are needed only in case of emergencies. Over the course of 2 weeks, I went from having to use the albuterol inhalers every few hours (24 hours a day) to once or twice a year. Dr. Kumar is still my physician and I continue to do regular PK treatments under his supervision.
We take our breath for granted. We take for granted that the body will operate its system on its own. When you don’t have that same trust in the body it creates a fear and anxiety that is indescribable.
In 2007, I moved to the Bihar School of Yoga ashram in Mungher, India, to study with Swami Niranjanananda. Although Ashtanga was and has been my main focus, my interest in the Satyananda teachings from the BSY deepened, in particular the practice of Yoga Nidra. I lived there (and Rikhia ashram) for almost a year as a resident, and trained as a Satyananda teacher. This time of isolation and training was necessary, extremely positive and very challenging. I am deeply saddened to learn that currently the ashram is under investigation by the Australian Royal Commission for child abuse and rape; crimes committed in the 70s and 80s at the Australian ashram. This is devastating and my heart goes out to the survivors. I am taking my time to better understand this for myself and to know how to move forward with my head and heart. A conversation for another time, I suppose.
Since 2004 (with the exception of 2009) I have studied in Mysore for anywhere between 2-6 months per year. From 2004 through 2012, I was kept at the same place in the practice. No new postures for 8 years. I didn’t add more postures for myself when I was home, nor did I accept new postures from other teachers. I already had a teacher. Some will think this is stupid; and some will see it as devotion. But for me, it was a matter of practicality. I figured, If I’m going to travel all the way to India, pay a good chunk of money and make the necessary sacrifices every year, then I am going to be a student. Fully.
During that time, some would say that Sharath forgot about me. I thought that, too. So at the end of each trip I would ask him if I should do more or less. I would share some of my frustrations and every year his reply was, “I will teach you more when you are ready”. He would sometimes smile and say, “What’s the rush?”
Right. Why the rush to learn more postures? Ah, this mind. I understand the rush. I had to explore the other side of that, the patience, the non-moving and non-reacting. The crying in confusion and entitlement and sadness when I didn’t get what I wanted or thought I deserved. And then the immediate and complete letting go that is required for growth. This is something the practice continues to show me; the places and pockets for growth.
I think we’re up to date. Did I put you to sleep?
Hardly! You mentioned that you had to take a step back from Ashtanga as it created too much heat in your body. For practitioners coming into the practice seeking healing for their body, do you recommend Ayurvedic treatment or study in conjunction with the practice?
Yes. I encourage students to incorporate additional ways to support their practice. The practice inspires divine and material change. Because the practice is so potent, practitioners may need additional support and guidance. I offer Ayurveda and scriptural study because that is what I’m familiar with. However, each student has their own appetite and aptitude. Which brings me to a question I ask (mostly to myself) repeatedly. What is the appetite and aptitude of a particular student at any given time? How do I meet the student there AND how do we reach slightly beyond that point? The answer changes. It’s important for me, as a teacher, to be receptive and welcoming to the varying degrees I meet without allowing complacency, laziness or fear to take over. Or perhaps complacency/laziness/fear is a place we’ll visit, but only a short time.
The Ashtanga method, like anything else, can create further imbalance when practiced incorrectly. By correctly, I mean emphasis needs to be places where it belongs; breath, dristi, bandha. But, this requires a lot of work, every day, for a long period of time. For example, if a student is taught too many postures too quickly or if the emphasis does not continually come back to that foundation, than the body and mind will suffer. The practice is simple in its requirements.
I find Ashtanga fascinating because it requires you to take care of yourself. There is no yoga binging allowed. Otherwise, you’ll hurt yourself and/or bail. Eventually practitioners hit a point where they need to make different lifestyle choices. Our actions and thoughts will need to be reflected upon, and revised with a fine tooth comb…or a sword. Your choice. This is frustrating because we want a quick fix and we want to feel good about it. The daily discipline of Ashtanga Yoga is rarely understood, let alone encouraged. But, it’s punk rock and does not abide by societal norms. I love that.
It’s fascinating that you had a direct and close relationship with Guruji. Your practice was modified and tailored to your individual needs, a prescription if you will. How much of an impact did Guruji have on you as a healer?
He was close to my heart and I was fascinated by him and his teaching methods, but I wouldn’t say we had a close relationship. Sometimes he would know my name, sometimes not. A few times when he saw me, he opened his arms wide and chuckled saying ‘old student’. I was not an old student, so I was confused. I remember looking over my shoulder to see who he was talking to. He was talking to me! I happily embraced him. Another time I asked him what time the shala opened and he did not reply. Instead he stared at me and said ‘You come take practice, after 3 times teaching you take’. He walked away and I was left equally confused and elated. This was Guruji to me. He was deeply compassionate and at times incredibly wrathful. He pushed my buttons, confused me in every way, and yet things made sense.
Honestly, I don’t think my practice was modified or special in any way. I had specific recommendations from a doctor and they were honored. Simple. Guruji did the same with other practitioners, and Sharath continues to teach yoga as therapy. So yes, there are general guidelines to the practice, and they are adapted as necessary. Over the years I have seen Guruji and Sharath set aside the general guidelines in order to teach students in different ways. The rigidity that Ashtanga gets its reputation for is mainly from folks who are misinformed or haven’t spent much time in Mysore.
This is why I encourage students who are interested in teaching to study in Mysore. You will witness how the method is taught, how and why it is adapted. You learn by diligently observing and receiving the teachings. However, if you spend that time socializing or focusing on getting what you want, without taking an interest in learning the practice itself, you’ll miss it. The food of learning is subtle, and your digestion needs to be precise in order to assimilate and apply the information. There is nowhere else in the world that offers the same. On the surface yes; but on the subtle level, no. For the more subtle appetites, Mysore is home.
Overall, Guruji taught me to be a stronger woman and to set strong boundaries for myself. I had deep personal experiences with him that changed my course as a woman. As you know, the relationship to a teacher, or any person that deeply enriches your life, is a sacred one. It’s difficult to communicate its meaning and intention in words. I miss Guruji, and I am blessed to continue with Sharath’s guidance. What else to say?
Being based in SF, there are as many yoga studios as there are styles available. What are your thoughts on Ashtanga, an authentic classical practice, in today’s yoga-commercialised environment where students seek immediate “results”?
As I mentioned above, Ashtanga is the long, slow, path. Most importantly, it’s rarely an ego booster and it doesn’t make you feel good all the time, so that’s a hard sell. I usually encourage students to think critically about what is being offered. Some questions to consider:
- Is the type of yoga being offered a style, or is it a method? Ashtanga yoga is a method of practice, not a style. It’s systematized, organized and intelligent sequencing that hasn’t changed much. Mysore Ashtanga teachers will have their style of teaching but they’re teaching the same method, so wherever you go in the world, it will be more similar than not. To me, a style is more or less an expression. When I am asked if a particular style is worth practicing, what I encourage students to consider: Is the yoga mainly about the teachers charm and personality, or does it have legs? Will it stand and continue with or without them?
- Who told the teacher to teach? Yoga teaching is now a viable career option that has little to no accountability surrounding it. Yoga teachers can create any style and brand themselves in any way. So the more of a relationship the teacher has with their teacher, the better. I don’t mean workshops here and there, I mean living with (or near) their teacher, immersing themselves in the teachings for years and decades.
- I also encourage students to steer clear of teacher training programs. TTs are primarily designed to make money and cater to the new, well-intentioned but naive student. Be weary of glossy advertisements and big promises around yoga. If you want to teach, that’s great. Wait 10 years or until the teacher tells you you’re ready. Be a student first.
I took a TT course in 2001 and was deeply disappointed and a bit embarrassed. In signing up for it, I had ignored the advice of my teachers and peers because I thought there was a short cut. Turns out there isn’t. For the same amount of money I could have gone to India and spent more time with Guruji and Sharath. It was an expensive lesson to learn.
What teacher(s) made an impactful influence on you?
Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois
Noah Williams – taught me the integrity of Ashtanga Mysore as Guruji taught him. He has had a huge influence on me as a teacher and someone I continuously refer to when I have questions and concerns. When I first told him I wanted to teach Mysore his response was, “Why? Your practice will go down the tubes”. He could tell I was serious and was kind enough to give me further guidance. He gave me a list of things I needed to do to align with that intention:
- Go to Mysore and study with Pattabhi Jois
- Receive blessing to teach from him
- Never date or sleep with a student
- Be a vegetarian (I am no longer a vegetarian, based on doctor recommendations)
- Know the sanskrit names of all the asanas and recite quickly
- Know the vinyasa sanskrit count and recite quickly
- If you don’t know the answer to a students question say ‘I don’t know.’
- Study scripture everyday
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
Can you share how your teaching has evolved from your earlier days to now? What have you learned from experience?
- I no longer feel the need to be a cheerleader or talk people into the practice. It’s a powerful practice, as we know, and students come when they’re ready. In order to really honor that process I needed to learn to step back, let students come to IT instead of the other way around.
- I no longer feel I need to be ‘inspirational’. I don’t need to be anything to anybody, really. I teach a method that is simple, intelligent and precise. I learned to get out of the way in order to let that happen.
There’s a certain sobriety that comes with years and years of daily practice. It becomes more like brushing your teeth, so, what are you going to do?….”Hey guys! Here’s how amazing it is when I brush my teeth!’ HA! Of course things may change for me in the future, but for now this is what I’m experiencing.
Magnolia, I would like to revisit an important point you shared about your practice. You mentioned in an earlier response that Sharath held you for 8 years before moving you onto the next asana. When asked, he responded, “I will teach you more when you are ready”.
How did you find the patience to settle in for 8 long years without falling into an ego-trap of chasing asana?
Well, I had no idea it would be 8 years! I stuck with it but I would swing between being patient and frustrated. Regardless of these dualities, I was a good listener and I trusted Guruji and Sharath. So I took those years to drop deeper. Just because you’re not doing new asanas doesn’t mean you stop learning. Yes, I was bored. But I was equally fascinated. The asanas are vibrant and alive. They have a specific role, a particular narrative in this world and in the body. There is always internal work to be done.
As an Ayurvedic practitioner, and someone deeply in tune with what activities and foods optimize your health, do you have any advice for practitioners on the topic of diet? How should students best approach their diet?
If a student expresses interest in Ayurveda I encourage them to consult a practitioner to understand their doshas. This is the beginning to better health and diet. In Ayurveda there’s a proverb that says one man’s medicine is another man’s poison. What works for one person will not work for another. Its more about refining our relationships. Unfortunately eating disorders are alive and well in the yoga community. They’re rarely addressed, let alone discussed. Ayurveda guides us to conscious relations in all facets of life.
What do you enjoy doing outside of teaching?
Rock climbing (sport climbing, bouldering)
Hanging out with the husband and pets
You and Jessica Walden recently collaborated with Les Twins. Can you share briefly about this?
Yes, that was really fun! Sandy Lee, the videographer, is a good friend and has been hosting Les Twins in San Francisco for years. When she suggested working together on a project I was really excited. I like hip-hop and street dance so it was an opportunity of a lifetime. We had several ideas for a concept but it was hard to coordinate schedules with them so each idea sort of fizzled out.
Finally they were coming to San Francisco and we had a few days’ notice before the shoot. We didn’t know what to do but we thought of a quickie concept; ‘double booking’. It happens to me often when I’m practicing. At times I practice in shared spaces where people come and go, sometimes they’re dancing, sometimes they’re doing acro yoga, sometimes they’re hanging around talking. I have to concentrate and keep dristi as best I can. I didn’t want to do the video alone. I thought it would be a nice balance to represent opposing strengths in yoga. Also a nice balance to have 2 men and 2 women. I wanted someone that could stand on their hands for any length of time, without hurting themselves. That was Jess, of course! I backbend, she stand on her hands. Perfect balance.
Anyway, it was great. They’re incredibly talented, inspiring and sweet.
ps. my bboy name is Maggie J-Zunes
Any final thoughts on the practice?
I think I’ve said enough. But I’ll probably think of something in a few days
*Magnolia would like to thank, Angela Jamison, for editorial assistance.
with Les Twins: Sandy Lee