How did you get into yoga?
I discovered yoga in a Blockbuster video store! It was the one on Northwest Highway in Barrington, Illinois, during the summer of 1994. Perusing the workout videos—I was really into workout videos—I was completely taken by this gorgeous mirror image of a stunning woman in a white leotard on white sand against a brilliant blue sky. The video was Yoga Mind & Body with Ali MacGraw and Erich Schiffmann—still the best yoga video around. Immediately, I was drawn in and became immersed in my experience of doing yoga.
When I brought the video back to the University of Vermont in Burlington, I would lock the door to my room in the Pi Beta Phi sorority house, unplug my phone, and get totally into doing yoga with Erich, Ali, and all of the people who were doing yoga in the White Sands Desert in the video. My friends would keep knocking at my door, wanting to know what was happening, so I eventually invited them in to do yoga with me.
I finally got into doing yoga in a class with a live teacher when I moved to Boston for post-graduate work. My favorite art professor there, David Kelley, learned that I did yoga and was astounded that I didn’t go to yoga class. (To be fair, David didn’t know the awesomeness of my video!) But I trusted David’s guidance, and he brought me to meet Barbara Benagh at The Yoga Studio on Beacon Hill on Joy Street.
What would you consider your yoga style and who were a few teachers that influenced you the most?
I teach Freedom Yoga, which is about discovering your own unique and specific connection with yoga. The intention is to rediscover and reconnect with your inherent goodness and your already existing connection with the Divine. Yoga is a lifestyle and is all about being brave and relaxing, pausing mentally and turning inward. Meditation, asana, deep relaxation, and the other practices help one to tune in, be sensitive, and trust oneself.
During my classes, I remind everyone that they always have options and choices. I teach in a way that encourages people to trust what feels right to them, in their body. Toward the end of my classes, I lead people into a grounded and receptive posture and ask them to be guided into a pose that they feel like doing. I recommend using the mantra “think less, feel more.” Freedom yoga is all about being guided to do what your deepest desires are prompting you to do, so I play one of my favorite songs and freeform it. Then everyone else begins to follow what their inner feelings are prompting them to do. The energy of everyone doing yoga together is AWESOME. It is so empowering and feels so good!
When I first met Erich Schiffmann live and in person at a yoga conference in Colorado, it was like my teacher-student journey had come full circle. Erich is my primary teacher, and he taught me to trust myself and to do my own yoga.
I even moved to Southern California to study with him. Every day I would go to his house and we would do yoga together with other friends and teachers. It was the most fun time ever! I remember while practicing with Erich thinking that yoga is a lot like connecting one’s personal computer to the internet. Erich started using that same analogy in his classes, but the curious thing was that we had never discussed this out loud with each other. Erich calls this “the internet of Mind.”
Picture your computer—in and of itself, the hard drive is necessarily limited. Now picture connecting your computer to the internet, which is unlimited. This is just like connecting your small mind to the internet of Big Mind. The trick is to use your small mind to remind yourself to connect to the internet of Big Mind. Through yoga, you realize that you are already always connected to the internet of Big Mind. Conscious connection to the internet of Big Mind yields access to information that the small thinking mind couldn’t produce on its own. Receiving information from Big Mind feels simultaneously mysterious, exciting, grounding, and totally expansive.
As I mentioned above, Barbara Benagh and I met after I graduated from the University of Vermont and began post-baccalaureate work at the Museum School of Fine Art in Boston. I remember very clearly that I loved the way I felt in my body in Barbara’s classes. Her classes were soft, poetic, deep, intelligent, challenging, and fun. While in class, I felt a strong connection both with myself and with Barbara. She taught me so many invaluable lessons, such as the importance of beginning class by rediscovering the natural breath; the beauty of clear and precise cuing that draws one’s attention inward; and the necessity of slowing down to witness and honor the body, rather than pushing to the extreme limit of a pose.
Though when I began taking classes with Barbara, I had no intention of teaching yoga, when one of her students asked me to substitute teach his class, Barbara supported and encouraged me to do it. Once I shared my love of yoga with others, I never wanted to stop. My love affair with teaching yoga began at this time in 1999.
Patricia Sullivan is my female role model. She lives in Northern California and is a revered and excellent yoga teacher, professional meditator, Buddhist, artist, and super compassionate, caring, and loving woman. I have studied with Patricia for many years and love being in her presence whenever possible.
Leslie Bogart is likewise an influential presence, teacher, and friend in my life. I won’t miss her class if I am in Santa Monica. Jasmine Lieb is another excellent and influential yoga teacher whose classes I enjoy taking in and around Santa Monica.
Why do you love teaching Intro to Yoga at yogaview?
I love teaching the Intro to Yoga series at yogaview because I love the freshness, the newness, the excitement, the unknown energy with complete newbies. My life experience has shown me that curiosity is King/Queen. It is essential for learning and self-growth to honor not knowing, and to encourage indiscriminate curiosity. I observe and guide my students by honoring exactly where they are at in each moment and offering adaptations, modifications, or variations whenever necessary.
I encourage people to look at being a beginner as a major advantage. Beginners are curious, and that’s beautiful. It is my honor to be like a gardener, encouraging my students to be present without judgment, to practice not believing what is going through their minds, to think less and feel more, to enjoy their breath, and, ultimately, to really enjoy themselves. Shunryu Suzuki wrote a BRILLIANT book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which is all about the power of being present to the newness of the now moment. It’s so powerful to be present to the freshness of each moment no matter where you are in your experience of yoga.
What was one of the most humbling moments you’ve had while teaching a class?
One of my most humbling moments while teaching class has a little back-story having to do with a new student who appeared in my life and has since become a class regular. (Happy to the infinite power!)
So, at the beginning of class, I always introduce myself to new students and ask if they have any requests or if they have any injuries or conditions I should be aware of. And then I ask the students who I already know how they feel and what they need that day. No matter how much planning I’ve already done, this helps me gauge what I’m going to teach and how I am going to teach it. I am very sensitive to dealing with others’ special circumstances in their body due to my own personal history.
Twenty years ago I was injured by a yoga teacher in a large group class. I have experienced pain, soreness, and discomfort in my body on and off for the past twenty years since the original injury. So when I feel pain, I get scared and kinda freak out on the inside. My pain can be intense and last for weeks, though physical therapy helps, as does amazing medical massage, walking, Pilates, chiropractors who use deep tissue work, and hot and cold therapy. It’s an ongoing process, discovering what works and what does not work.
Recently I was in class with a Pilates teacher who I trust to teach with intelligence and integrity and to help me when I need help. In class, I was in the position where I was originally injured and I was feeling discomfort and pain at the site of the injury. The teacher verbally corrected me to do something new in that same pose, in a safe range for me. In other poses that movement had caused me pain, so I was scared the pain would become worse. But I did it. I was a little freaked out, then continued to live my life.
Fast forward to the next week in my own class when I’m checking in with students. I ask a new student, who has had surgery and has metastatic breast cancer, how she has been feeling after yoga. She shares that she has been opening up scar tissue in class, a process that has been painful and uncomfortable but necessary and that she feels so much more open now. WOW!
Then I have the instant realization that I’m not in pain.
This beautiful woman was honest and truly open, grounded, present, and vulnerable with me about her experience, and that sparked an awakening in me. I then shared the story about my past injury and my recent experience in Pilates class, explaining that I just realized that I have not been in pain since. The lesson I learned is that when sincerity is met with sincerity, it can reveal something in you that you may not have recognized up until that very moment. This experience felt like a real healing for me.
Within the eight limbs of yoga, the experience of Samadhi is often described as the top rung of the ladder. It’s considered by many to be indescribable, yet is often described as such and more. Can you please describe your personal experience of this state or what the concept represents to you?
Samadhi means a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation. In Hindu yoga this is regarded as the final stage, at which union with the divine is reached (just before or at the moment of death).
I have always wanted to receive enlightenment. There have been moments in my life where I have felt a sense of being awakened to the divine, and in meditation I have felt a sense of union or unity consciousness. It feels really good. I have had other experiences where I am very clearly guided and I follow my intuition and then afterward, it’s like HOLY COW! This couldn’t have been more perfect even if I had planned it myself. It all seems to work out magically!
That being said, laughter and being lighthearted always helps me clean away the gunk that gets in the way of my clear perception of reality. So in the spirit of lightening your load so that you may enjoy yourself a bit more and see the beauty of who you truly are, I’d like share a hilarious quote from a classic movie with you:
“So I jump ship in Hong Kong and I make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over there in the Himalayas . . . A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell ’em I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald, striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one—big hitter, the Lama—long, into a ten-thousand foot crevice, right at the base of this glacier. And do you know what the Lama says? . . . Gunga galunga . . .gunga—gunga galunga. So we finish 18, and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say: ‘Hey, Lama! Hey, how about a little somethin’, you know, for the effort, you know.’ And he says: ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” —Bushwood Country Club Greenskeeper Carl Spackler (Bill Murray), in the movie Caddyshack. (As a side note—I heard that Bill Murray totally improvised this hilarity.)
What is your favorite non-yoga activity?
One of my favorite places on the planet is our family lake house in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. I love running and diving off the pier into the cool refreshing water and swimming to the other side of the lake. I have this profound feeling of being completely immersed in the lake, while the sky reflects beautifully in the smooth rippling lake water. I have a spotter motoring nearby, and it’s quite the adventure! It’s always so exciting getting close to the other side of the lake, in the bay, my favorite bay on the chain of freshwater lakes. Cute little cabins are nestled into this sweet little calm bay on what they say is the largest chain of freshwater lakes in the world. The water in that bay is almost always calm, beautiful, and reflective of the bright blue sky and its white puffy clouds.
How do you stay motivated or get inspired when the going gets tough?
I am so grateful and blessed to have a wonderful life. I live on Lincoln Park, look out at the lake and the trees, walk in nature, and have a wonderful best friend, great parents and family, and a pup I love endlessly, Alfie the wonder dog. I truly have a wonderful life. Of course, though, there have been times that have been really rough for me. We all know that there are many factors that play into our most challenging times. But whenever I’m feeling really crumby, I hit the deck, rest, nap, and get back to basics. I rest and ground to give myself the time and space to regenerate with good healthy food, walks in nature, talking to a really good, supportive, and fun friend, a great therapist, and watching hilarious movies that make me laugh. Before I know it, I’ll notice a huge smile on my face and a really good feeling on the inside.
I can attest to that whole thing that you’ve heard about counting your blessings. When I notice one thing that I am grateful for and feel the gratitude within myself, it changes everything. I am grateful for the people in my life who see me and appreciate me and validate me and love me.
If there is something in my life that I need help with, I will be present with a question like, “What do I need to know about this situation?” or “What do I need to do now?” or even “I really need help with this situation. Please let me feel the support I need right now.”
It’s fun doing this on the fly. No effort, no resistance, no judgment. This is what I like to call mind messaging. It’s like text messaging but in your mind and silent. If I’m feeling stressed, I pause and mentally ask, “what now?” And then I get this really cool feeling, like my jets are cooling off, and I slow down and take it easy. From that new place I feel more smooth and ready to take care of the issue at hand. This is fun! This is interactive and being engaged with the living of life. Feeling creative energy move through my body, my mind, and my experience is life affirming and can feel miraculous.
When I pay attention to myself and my needs and being true to my deepest longings, I feel so good. Truly noticing and being attentive feels loving, and love is a healing agent. Curiosity and being present is both engaging and educational. The combination of Love + Engagement = An Awesome Experience. The feeling is one of being self-empowered, inspired, self-fulfilled, and in love with the newness of life happening in each moment.