Love:Mindfulness – Interview with guest teacher Cindy Reed

On a rainy afternoon few weeks ago, I got to sit down (read: sprawl on bolsters on the floor) with Cindy Reed. Cindy is a powerful presence in the Central Kentucky yoga community, and we are delighted to welcome her to our faculty.

CS: Talk to me a little bit about your initial experience with yoga. What was your first class like? When? What kind of environment? How did you feel? Just anything that comes to mind.

CR: So my journey with yoga started because, when I was in grad school, I met my bff, who is still my bff, who is named Julanne, who already had a relationship with Amanda. So I’m gonna put that right over there. So we were in grad school, and she had moved here from Pittsburgh. She stumbled over to the Wellness Center, which was a thing at the time, and the person who owned the Wellness Center said, ”Hey! You should probably go over and meet my friend Amanda.”

So Julanne became my bff. We were in grad school for being therapists. We both had bachelor’s degrees, and when I met her, we were both in an advanced standing program to be therapists, so we were on a fast-track–a program that would usually take two years, we were in a one-year program. So within that, we ended up, just by luck, being in this training called DBT–Dialectical Behavior Therapy. The story I’m telling you takes place in about 1999. So in 1999, we went to this training, and the specific therapy was to help people who have borderline personality disorder, but the premise of the therapy was mindfulness. So back in the late nineties, this was a thing that no one else was really doing, except for this one therapy, but at the time, everyone was getting trained in it because insurance providers had found that it was super effective, and so they wanted people to get trained in it because it’s effective and it moves people out of treatment faster. So just by luck, this thing happened that I didn’t know would change my life, but it did. So Jule and I, we’re young, it’s 2000 now, and we start doing this mindfulness based cognitive behavioral therapy with trauma survivors in rural Appalachia. And it was revolutionary. From that, I started looking for ways to deepen my understanding of mindfulness. In the meantime, my bff is hanging out with Amanda all the time, so I end up over at Amanda’s early on. So my first yoga class ever was with my bff, because it was free, and I was with her, and it was at Amanda’s. And I also took a class in this very building [Dudley Square], in a room across the hall with Cindy Hutchison.

So my first experience with yoga was–how blessed–with Amanda and Cindy Hutchison. And that was all I knew about yoga for the first couple of years. How amazing is that?

CS: That’s pretty awesome.

CR: I hear people tell stories about yoga, about how they ended up in gym yoga, and I’m like, that wasn’t my journey. I went straight in.

CS: It sounds like your introduction was through mindfulness first, rather than through asana. Which is sort of the reverse of how most people come into yoga.

CR: That’s exactly right.

CS: Do you think that had an affect on the evolution of your practice? Or where you see yourself today with yoga–coming at it from mindfulness rather than through asana first?

CR: Absolutely. That is my niche, mindfulness. For me, asana is a way to practice mindfulness. Period. I get it, it’s good for your body…I like to do a handstand, that’s fun, but it’s all about presence, and a way to deliver the message of mindfulness to people. That’s how I started. Julanne already knew about yoga. It was just natural for me to start looking for ways to expand people’s ability to implement mindfulness in their lives, and yoga is a way to do that.

CS: What are your thoughts on classes where there may be no mention of mindfulness at all? Do you think that “magic” is still there?

CR: It’s hard…I know this might be weird, but I’ve never been to that kind of yoga class. As weird as it is…this all started for me in 1999. I feel like I’ve led a charmed yoga life in some ways. I’ve been with Angela Farmer, I’ve been with Judith Lasater, I’ve spent TONS of time with Amanda, and a lot of time with Cindy Hutchison. So I don’t really know how to evaluate that. I can tell you that gym owners definitely do approach me, and have approached me. And if you know me, you know I don’t have the “yoga body”. I have a bigger body, so I even think that it has not been my experience with people who own gyms, that they don’t want this message, because they do. They come to my classes and they ask me to teach at their gym, and I don’t look like I even go to the gym! So I get what you’re saying, and I know that it exists, but it’s asking me to speculate on something I’ve never experienced. And maybe I’ve just internalized it so much that everything feels like mindfulness to me. Does that make sense?

CS: Absolutely, it does. Would you say that is perhaps the essence of yoga?

CR: To me, the essence of yoga is presence. Straight up. I’ve been hanging out with Amanda for a long time. I’ve been down with her essence of yoga language for a long time. For me, the essence of yoga is presence. We are present. Mindfulness is a presence practice. Yoga is presence practice. So for me that’s it. How can we be present in our lives? I think that mindfulness and yoga offer us a way to do that.

CS: That resonates, for sure. How do you see that presence as a transformative force in people’s lives?

CR: Oh my, how much time do we have? So the question is how is presence a transformative force in people’s lives.

CS: Yes, or why is that important? If that’s it, then what does it do for us?

CR: If you go back to where I started my yoga journey: I’m young, I’m fresh out of college, and there are underserved communities. If you’re a healthcare professional, they incentivize you to get into underserved communities. So me and Jule got out there, and it was all trauma. They could come and say this is ADHD, this is depression, this is anxiety. Nine times out of ten there was trauma underneath that diagnosis. The way my career unfolded, I got this training in mindfulness. Trauma by definition has people not present. Why? Because if traumatic things happen, whether it’s in your body, or verbally, you learn a way to disconnect from that situation, or not be present with what’s going on because you’re trying to plan the next thing to say or do to keep your ass out of trouble. There’s a lot of ways in which that’s useful, and I could get on a soapbox about post-traumatic stress not being a disorder. It is the brain trying to heal itself. Post-traumatic stress can look like depression, it can look like ADHD, it can look like anxiety, but it’s really the brain trying to make sense of the experience, associating that experience with triggers. An example would be, I worked for a time as a counselor at Berea College. Predictably at midterms, there would be this influx of students, referred to me by mandate, and the problem would be that they’d been hiding in their rooms since the first or second week of class. Inevitably when I would get them in my office, it would come out that something had happened in which their survival was to hide and not be present. So in other words, they got into a situation in which they did not have the skills to meet the needs of the situation. And their survival so far in life had been that when this happens, when something’s coming at you that you don’t have the skills for, you disappear. So if I can help people have a practice in which they are present for what’s happening right now, there’s a really good chance that whatever skill they developed in the past to save their life, is not applicable in the situation they’re dealing with right now. And if you’re present with the situation you’re dealing with now, you can–we can–develop together skills through presence that are adaptive to the situation that you’re in right now. In the meantime–soapbox alert–post-traumatic stress is the brain trying to heal itself. We wouldn’t take someone who’s a veteran from Afghanistan or Vietnam who, when a helicopter flies overhead, they hide under a table. Well, when the helicopter flies overhead in Vietnam, you needed to hide or you would die. If you hide under a table in Lexington in 2018, you look like you have a disorder. But really, if we can teach the brain to be present in Lexington in 2018, and you have a way to practice presence, then you can unlearn that coping skill, and that association with that particular stimulus.  Asana allows us to be present in our bodies and to feel our bodies.

So, to me, the essence of yoga is presence, the practice of yoga is a mindfulness practice. It allows us through breathwork and asana to be present in our bodies and to feel our bodies.

CS: By the way, feel free to soapbox-away! This is your opportunity to get on a soapbox about your passion!

CR: Ha! It’s terrible! I could soapbox all day. It’s hard that so many people are pathologized or pathologize themselves. Knowledge is power, and when you learn how the brain works, and that the things that we do are patterned behaviors which have saved our asses in the past, we can then choose to practice mindfulness and presence, and to make a different choice in this moment. If you say to a traumatized person, you must be present all the time, it’s a little much, but if you offer it as a choice, that’s much more manageable. The yoga mat allows us to have a symbol of practicing presence. We roll out the mat and that is the signal to our brains that this is the time to practice. I had a student in class last week who said, “Hey, you probably don’t remember me but I took one class with you ten years ago, and in that class, you suggested that we practice presence in line at the grocery store, and to use that as a cue like the yoga mat. And every time I’ve been to the grocery store in the past ten years, I’ve practiced mindfulness in line.” And she continued, “As a matter of fact, everyone in my family practices presence in line at the grocery store, because I loved it so much, I told them about it.”

So the yoga mat is a cue that we’re practicing, but you can identify other situations in your life to use as cues, whether it’s a difficult conversation with someone, or standing in line, or whatever it is you’re doing.

CS: Those are great tips! Those are all opportunities to practice, for sure. So I feel like we’ve covered how do you define yoga. For you personally, not necessarily in your professional life, but may be more in your personal life, what role does yoga play for you?

CR: First thing that pops into my head is that yoga keeps me HONEST. Yoga keeps me from being the expert. Yoga keeps me from being the know it all that I sometimes tell myself that I am. My personal practice of yoga keeps me in the role of beginner, student. So sometimes, I say that being a yoga teacher at first was something that kept me contractually obligated to keep up my personal practice, but I kinda don’t feel that way anymore. I am glad that I did that in the beginning, but really, everything is yoga. The eight limbs are there to give us a way to be present with what we’re doing here on this earth.

CS: I think it’s really helpful to have those, on the one hand, things like contractual obligation, but on the other hand, those small opportunities, like the grocery store line. That’s lovely.

So, one of your focuses for the last few years has been the work of Brené Brown. Could you say just a little bit about that just in case people aren’t familiar, and also talk about what drew you to this work, and how it has influenced your yoga practice?

CR: So, Brené Brown’s work is…oh if Cindy Hutchison reads this [chuckling]…it’s a very elaborate cognitive behavioral therapy. So cognitive behavioral therapy is cognitive–the way you think, behavioral–the way you behave–and behavior can be an anxiety response, avoidance, whatever. So the idea is, that if you change the way you perceive something, you change the way you relate to that thing. So that’s, in a nutshell, what cognitive behavioral therapy is, and mindfulness is the space between perception and reaction, and trying to change reactions into responses. So that’s another way that yoga and mindfulness is a thing in my life

So it started out with Brené Brown in 2013…2014, when Cindy Hutchison, who owns The Massage Center, suggested that I start doing private practice work.

So Cindy is a person, like Amanda, who has been a really big part of my life and my development. So it wasn’t like somebody off the street going, “Hey you’d be really good at this thing.” It’s someone who has spent a lot of time, watched my whole practice develop, and said, “I think that you would be really good at this. And I want to offer you a way to deliver this, just the way I’ve offered you a way to deliver your yoga practice to students. These are my clients, these are our customers here at The Massage Center, and I feel like you have something that could benefit my clientele.” So, we decided that I needed some kind of certification. Clearly, I’m certified as a clinician, but she wanted me to do airquotes “life coaching”. So I just started looking. So up until that moment, I had no knowledge of Brené Brown, but what got me into her is that she has a clear focus on mindfulness. So that’s how that started segueing. Back in 2013/2014 is when she was all hooked up with Oprah. Oprah had picked her book and there was an ecourse, so it wasn’t that hard to find her. Like she popped up at the top of the google list when I started looking. So, because Cindy is not someone who messes around at all, she said that in February, and by April I was doing the training with Brené Brown. Within 6 months it was happening. That certification involved a training in Texas in which Brené Brown was the lead trainer. We would break up into small groups. The training lasted a week and you walked out with a certification. It was so intense, I cannot even tell you.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with Brené Brown, her certification work takes her research, which began with a research question on shame a long time ago. She wanted to know, why is that some people have hard things happen to them and they bounce back, and other people don’t? So way back when she developed this theory called the Shame Resilience Theory, which then operationalized what it is that people actually do. What practices do they have? Is it all just luck? Or do people actually do things that cause them to be resilient? So she was able to operationalize resilience, and she called it shame resilience. As a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator, I can deliver these strategies to clients in a way that really help them deal with shame and the hard things that come up, which have resulted in them maybe having behaviors that take them away from authenticity.

So, what drew me to Brené Brown’s work was mindfulness and luck. Total luck, like a lot of things in my life. It was a good fit because of the mindfulness and because of it being a very elaborate cognitive behavioral therapy, which is something I’ve been doing my whole career. So since then, we’ve done a lot of workshops, I was a featured presenter at the National Association of Social Workers Conference. People really resonate with Brené’s work. It’s very approachable. She has a really authentic way of delivering, which is not an accident, since one of her goals is authenticity. It’s not yoga, at all, but it’s mindfulness. It’s not asana, but it’s mindfulness. It’s not yoga, but it’s the yamas and niyamas and everything wrapped up in a way that allows us to recognize how hard times and hurtful things shape our responses. And mindfulness is the key to changing that response.

CS: Clearly you enjoyed the training with Brené Brown, and I know you’ve had a lot of teachers–Amanda, Angela Farmer, Judith Lasater, Cindy Hutchison–of all of those teachers, and I’m sure many I haven’t mentioned, think about someone you really enjoy. What is their teaching like, and how does that inform your own teaching practice and personal practice?

CR: Ooh, hard.

CS It’s tough! It’s a tough question.

CR: Well, it’s Amanda all the time, and Cindy Hutchison. It’s Amanda all the time, because even with Judith and Angela, who I spent a lot of time in training with, I got to both of those people because of Amanda. Especially with Angela. Again, I’ve been around other teachers…it’s like the gym yoga question…like, I know that other teachers exist, but at almost 50 years old, and practicing since 1999, I can’t…I don’t even know how to answer the question, because Amanda and Cindy. I just…I’ll get emotional…they’re part of who I am. This isn’t me being dramatic, it might sound like it, but it isn’t. Everything I am, everything I deliver…there are days I teach 4 or 5 classes a day. It doesn’t matter if I teach 4 or 5 classes every day. Every class is a little bit of Amanda and a little bit of Cindy. Without a doubt. Obviously, if I’m teaching a restorative class, there’s a lot of Judith Lasater, and a lot of blanket tucking and whatever.

How does that influence who I am?…It’s so hard for me to know anymore, because it’s like it’s so close. It’s who I am as a person, and Amanda will tell you that this is true–I will randomly on a Tuesday afternoon, send her a text that’s like, I know this might be too much, but I love you and everything I have is because of you. Now, I get it, it’s my work, and it’s my thing, but if it had not been Amanda in the beginning, I don’t know what would have happened. And if it hadn’t been for Cindy, the first time I ever MET Cindy. I can remember the first moment that she came over and looked at me. I think I was in Parsvakonasana, because she like, bent over, and looked me in the face, and she was like, “I can tell you’re working really hard in your practice, would you be willing to move your block?” [laughing] You know…something like that. I don’t know, it’s just so much choice, and presence in the body, inner body work. Like inner body work as opposed to what the asana looks like. I could get really emotional about how blessed I am that I got to spend as much time with the two of them at the very beginning of my career. There’s hardly anything that comes out of my mouth on a day to day basis or working with clients that doesn’t come from them. I work with clients at the Rape Crisis Center a couple of days a week, and even there, Amanda is with me, even there, Cindy is with me. There’s so much. They are my teachers, and I can’t pick one of them.

CS We’re not asking you too, don’t worry!

CR: Haha, don’t make me pick one! It’s a tie. There’s not enough gratitude in the world. It wells up in me often, and I let them know all the time, because how they influenced me has now influenced LOTS of other people, including people they may never ever meet or know about. So, I’m passionate about both of their work and their influences on my life.

CS: What I hear you saying is that their teaching has influenced you in many ways. Is there one characteristic of their teaching that really comes forward for you as paramount?

CR: Trust yourself. Listen to your voice. Practice presence. Love yourself. And that’s exactly what I needed to hear at the moment I met them both.

CS: What I have experienced in the couple of classes I’ve taken from you, and what I hear from other students of yours is that your teaching is so very heart centered. And that so strongly resonates with people. And I think, from an outside perspective, I think those two influences kind of combined to really bring that out.

CR: Thank you!

CS: So you’re coming into our training programs, and we’re so excited to have you. Is there anything you’d like prospective students to know about you? Anything about you, your teaching, or the world at large?

CR: So I think what I bring or what I have to offer that is unique, which I hope to bring to your students, would be the trauma-informed piece. How big and little trauma’s in our lives, all of these things influence us in ways that we might not have thought of. It’s really easy to say, “oh other people have it worse, or other people have had harder things happen.” My work now brings a perspective on yoga to give your students an understanding of how the brain works and how that relates to emotions and mindfulness. And how mindfulness works as the space between perception and reaction, and how we might change reactions into responses. So I think I want to be clear that if students have an interest in that that I’m really passionate about that, and I want to get the word out to them so that they can carry that forward in their lives. Brené Brown will be the curriculum, and what I use to deliver this message, but ultimately, it’s about mindfulness and presence.

CS: That is the heart of the work, for sure.

CR: Yeah…asana is a way to deliver it, but that is it. Love you Amanda!

Knowing and Not-knowing – Interview with The Essence of Yoga Center partner Tanja Bisesi

Over the 4th of July weekend, I sat down with my partner, Dr. Tanja Bisesi, to ask her the “essential” questions. Tanja helms our Integration, Reflective Practices and Yoga Lifestyle module in the 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher training programs, and while my chocolate labrador snoozed in the next room, we discussed everything from love to theoretical physics. Check it out!

CS: Tanja, think about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with; what is their teaching like, and how does it inform your personal practice?

TB: I guess right now I’m in a place where I’m sort of searching for a new teacher. You know we go through those places where we’re really connected to somebody, and then go through places where we’re changing enough that we’re always searching and seeking something new. But I would have to say the person I keep coming back to, and have come back to for many years, is Diane Thayer. She started the program at the Y [in Bloomington, IN] in the mid-70’s, pretty much all by herself, when nobody really knew much about yoga, and she’s the one who encouraged me to teach. She was sort of my first not only teacher, but mentor. She trained me. The thing about Diane that sticks with me, and why I keep going back to her, and will continue to, is that there’s always a freshness, a curiosity, that beginner’s mind. She’s really able to keep that freshness, herself, and then also open it up to you. She’s been teaching for around 40 years, but it’s always new, and it’s always focused on the student and the student’s experience. She came up in the Iyengar tradition, and there’s always focus on alignment and what’s safe and what’s not, but it really ultimately is about this freshness, these new eyes, this new way of looking at your practice and your life. Trying to get new insights. She keeps opening new horizons in very subtle ways, and she keeps learning. She is always going to classes of those she’s trained, and she has her own mentors. She provides a good model of continuing to grow and learn.

CS: Is that what you take most from her in terms of your own approach to teaching? That openness?

TB: Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that’s what always attracted me, because I’ve always felt very resistant to lineages and traditions. There’s this rebel in me, that’s like yeah, that’s interesting and I want to know about it, but I want it to be my own–I want to make it my own. She shows you how to do that in terms of taking concepts and saying this is how I use these concepts in my practice and in my life.

CS: How would you define yoga, and what role would you say that yoga plays in your life?

TB: Yoga is a moving target, both as a practice in our culture as well as for me. I think it has been many things for me over the years. If I had to define what it is for me right now, I would say it is an approach to life, or a lens to self-knowledge. A set of beliefs and practices that frame how I look at the world and how I move in the world, and how I go about getting information about who I am, what I want, and who I’m becoming.

CS: Can you give an example? I think what people think about when you say “yoga” is the practice on the mat. What I’m hearing from you is that it’s not just that. Can you say more about that?

TB: Oh, definitely. You know, when I first started yoga, it WAS the practice on the mat, but what I love about it is that it has become a way of life for me. It has become my spiritual center, a paradigm, a worldview, a way of looking at the world and interacting with it. It goes well beyond what I practice on the mat. Absolutely. Matter of fact, that way-of-life part is the part that’s more important for me right now.

CS: So that pretty much covers the role that yoga plays in your life right now…it is everything.

TB: YES! It’s like anyone who identifies with any spiritual or lifestyle practice–Christianity being one example–it becomes a lens for looking at the world and making sense of it, and making choices and decisions. At a conceptual level, what it is…we talk about being after peace or a sense of calm. It’s love. Unconditional love–for the self, for the world, for the universe. Practicing that love in every possible way, in every decision you make in life, and being very conscious about that. It’s a practice.

CS: That mindfulness piece becomes both essential and difficult in that practice of love.

TB: Yes, but it is the gift. It’s hard, but ultimately the biggest gift of this practice is that ability to just accept and be and acknowledge yourself and everyone around you for their uniqueness and what they contribute. It gives a hope for what we can all do together. If we all have a role to play and we’re all accepting each other and helping each other grow, to me that’s what yoga’s about.

CS: We have those moments or brief glimpses of connectedness, and it gives that hope, that sense that we are all in this together, and in fact, we’re not even we.

TB: Right, we’re one. I think that’s the part I sometimes get lost in when I go to classes now is that there seems to be this feeling of a need to go inside and almost escape what’s out there because it feels almost toxic–the “out there” in the world. But ultimately what gives us that sense of unconditional love and safety is the feeling of connectedness, whether it’s to other people, or to the universe, or to something beyond. That’s really where this sense of groundedness and safety and love comes from. From the one.

CS: Describe your initial experience with yoga, and, if you would be willing, describe the first time you experienced that “oneness”.

TB: The very first time I felt that one-ness, I was 9 or 10 years old. I had a lot communion with my grandmother. She was a real spiritual seeker, and she gave me that model. I didn’t have a strong sort of religious grounding or centering in my life, but my grandmother was always looking across religions for these commonalities and themes. I would sit and talk to her all the time. That’s where I started with yoga, because it was always one of the themes and strands in our discussions. I would go and visit her in the summers for a couple or three weeks, and every morning we would watch “Lilias, Yoga and You” on PBS. Six thirty in the morning she would be out there practicing. I was fascinated by the postural stuff I saw, plus these conversations we had. Being there with her, it was very peaceful. I didn’t have the drama of my life, the drama of my teenage friends. So that first moment of oneness for me, was being with her.

And you know I did yoga a lot because it was a big part of dance culture, and I’ve been a dancer most of my life. The physical part became a bigger piece in my adolescence, but I always went back to the meditative piece because I was a highly anxious kid, and I needed to keep that in my life.

Then I went into the academic world and I dropped it. I developed totally my intellectual mind for a long time, and then later, I had kids and was in my mid thirties. My body was not well. I hadn’t taken care of myself, and my mind felt totally disconnected. I saw a meditation class at my local Unitarian church, and I went and I was just amazed at how I could go into a group with people I didn’t really know and just sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. We would take breaks and chat and then go back into it. I was amazed how connected and grounded I could feel by just sitting with other people–that feeling of acceptance, no expectations from the people around me. Just being together. That sucked me back in and got me reconnected. The rest is history. That’s the feeling. That feeling of unconditional love and groundedness and peace. I’ve only really ever experienced it at that level in the presence of others. In community. I think that’s why the community aspect is so important to me.

CS: So, that leads us into one of your focuses as an academic and an educator: this idea of a community of practice. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Was it from that moment of connectedness, sitting in that first meditation class that that seed was planted?

TB: Yes. It is the way I teach and have always taught. I have always been a teacher; I was always tutoring kids, growing up. There’s always been this drive in me to help others see their value, and help them to bring it out. When I see that , I feel it. It becomes us. I feel that one-ness, that us-ness. That’s why having kids was such a beautiful thing. You see these beings who are totally dependent on you, and there’s the constant reflection back and forth. I can’t separate that sense of spirit or mystery with who I am as a teacher and why I teach the way I do. I think teaching in an authoritarian way–someone being the knower–that’s not how knowledge is generated. I think it’s a creative process between people, and in that experience both parties, the whole community is able to learn and grow. The authoritarian model is the anti-community model of learning. In that model there’s no honoring of what the student already knows and could bring to the experience, and how the student could enhance the experience for everyone in the room.

CS: Has it been only in yoga that you’ve found that community style of education, or have you experienced it elsewhere as well?

TB: It’s everywhere. This idea of social learning and the idea that there’s this cycle of knowledge as  a cultural practice –we take it in, we appropriate it, we transform it, and then we publish it in the world in some way. And then it slowly starts to transform the conventional knowledge. Lineages over time evolve whole cultures of learning, in this case, yoga and what we believe about it and think about it. That process of how we learn as human beings applies across all contexts.

CS: I’m curious about what your take is on the idea of cultural appropriation in the yoga world and the yoga community.

TB: That’s tricky. That’s a great question. I think that the old cliché is somewhat true: imitation is the highest form of flattery. And because of the way we learn and process, there is no such thing as “new knowledge”. We’re always appropriating. That’s part of the process. Where I have a problem is when we don’t acknowledge the gifts and where we got them. It’s always a conversation. While we may not always know the source of our inspiration, we must at least acknowledge. I think it’s naive to think we’ll never appropriate anything, because that’s how knowledge works.

CS: And it goes both ways.

TB: It absolutely does, and we give it back to culture, and that’s how the culture evolves. So I think people’s desire to go back and be just like such and such lineage in India…well that lineage in india isn’t like that anymore anyway, but going back and respecting what it was and the fact that the culture was different and what it was like and understanding it from a historical perspective can tell us a lot about how those concepts are relevant now. Or how they’re not. And it also honors. It’s important to honor.

CS: I think you’re such a renaissance woman, in the sense that your interests and your knowledge-base are so broad. If I made you pin yourself down, what would you say that your focus has been over the last few years?

TB: I’m really interested in ways of knowing, ways of understanding. I think one reason I got out of academia, not just because of the politics and the drama–the obvious things that make it difficult when you’re raising kids and being a woman in this culture. One reason is that I felt limited. I love science and the fact that there are rules, and it’s objective, and there’s reason involved. But what bothered me was that alternative ways of knowing were excluded. The rules and reason and what we can see together were privileged. But here’s the rub, as a psychologist, the internal experience, what we know, we can’t see in that way, the scientific reasoning way. The only way we can see the inner experience is to use our inner experience. This has been a conflict in psychology: do we use introspective methods? Or do we only use what we can look at outside together. So I’m very interested in how we can respect multiple ways of knowing, and then how do we bring those together in a way that enhances our self-knowledge and enhances our practice on the mat, and our experience in the world. I can know by faith, and intuition, and science. How do I balance these ways of knowing at any given time? And how do I integrate them in a way that makes me feel a sense of aliveness?

CS: I think that’s one of the things we’re after–that aliveness, that presence.

TB: Yes! And it expands that lens.

CS: I’m thinking of my dad right now, who’s also a psychologist. He and I had a conversation a couple weeks ago about faith, which really I think comes down to these ways of knowing, because for me, and I think maybe you would agree, it’s just there. It’s in me; I feel it; I just know.

TB: It’s your ground!

CS: Yes, and for him, he not only does not believe that, but to a certain extent, rejects it. And he holds fast to that logic and the things we can see and quantify and measure. How would you approach a student like that?

TB : I have lots of students like that.

CS: And not that we want or need to convert them…that’s not the point.

TB: No no, not at all. That’s something that I struggle with–in a good way. I think that’s why I’m so interested right now in theoretical physics, and the Akashic Field Theory and String Theory. This research brings some of these bigger ideas that we FEEL and makes them concrete for people. So explaining for instance the Akashic Field, which Vivekananda wrote about at the end of the 19th century when he came over to the United States. Now it’s been taken up by some theoretical physicists as this Field that underlies the whole universe, and we’re just these sort of ripples–ripples in the field of these manifestations. So our physical bodies are just physical manifestations out of this field. Finding effective ways to fit that into the practice…I’m not sure I’ve been completely successful at that yet, but I think those are the ways people will start to feel more grounding to their beliefs, to that connectedness. The physical knowing is confirmed by the faith-knowing. It’s all sort of the same knowing. It’s just different evidence, different ways of judging. More evidence and opening to more ways of knowing. And that’s not easy.

That’s why the teacher part is so important. I don’t think going in there and taking people through a series of poses is where it is. This cosmic, bigger mystery is just one of the ways of knowing.

We think of mindfulness as being this anchor and this key–we’re in the present, in the now, that’s all we have. We hear that all the time. But our mind, like our body, is meant to move, so there must be some power in it there. So while we anchor in the present, we can explore going back, reflecting on the past, reframing it, making sense of it now. We can go to the future, imagine what could be, use manifestations and affirmations. And even taking photographs of our thinking now, maybe in the form of a journal, so we can go back and look at how we thought about the world at that moment. We can be in the present, we can expand it to include the past and the future, we can expand it to include all of humanity, all of the cosmos. Different lenses on our own mindfulness and reflection. That’s the power of the mind. Yoga needs to expand and understand the mind in new ways that go beyond “can we train it and control it.” Our mind is so powerful, and as long as we keep it connected to the fact that we are living in this body in this time, the power comes from using it in different ways to open our field, to clear our lens, to see wider vistas.

CS: You know, I’m thinking of Patanjali, and the beginning of the sutras: “yoga is the stilling of the revolutions of the mind.” Something I think about often, is that the Sutras is just one piece of literature that survived. For whatever reason, probably because Patanjali was a gifted marketer, it’s the thing that survived. And it is kind of the one that is latched onto by most practices, most schools as THE yoga text, but it’s not at all the only yoga text. At any point in time, there are people writing about their experiences, about their practice, and about their lives, but because of the way literature works, and because of the way history works, it just doesn’t make it to us here in the present.

TB: And I think we latch onto that one because of the ways of knowing that are privileged in our society. The Yoga Sutras are a very scientific, external, almost formulaic text. Science is that way, it has nice neat rules, so we can all compare our work. There are reasons for the rules, but some people have taken that really literally. A lot of yoga I see being done now has gone so far down the hatha path. The physical practice has become all-important. But in this sort of mental way, we’ve taken that text and interpreted it to mean that all we have is the present, and we need to just shut the mind up.

CS: And if it doesn’t shut up, then I’m broken.

TB: Right, or I’m not doing it right. And harnessing that power of our mind, that’s how we’re different than, bless her heart, your puppy laying there in the next room. But the mind needs practice at it. It needs practice putting itself in different mindsets, imagining what it’s like to be the dog. That’s how we expand our consciousness, or help clean the lens to see how god-like we are. To see what God would see, which is, what it looks like from the dog’s eyes, what it looks like from this table’s eyes, what it looks like from your eyes. So I guess when I say multiple ways of knowing and multiple lenses, that’s what the mind needs to expand, but always grounded in the body and in the present moment.

CS: And science is beginning to catch up to this.

TB: Science wants to reduce everything to its pieces, but it’s always emergent. Just like you and me, our knowledge emerges from our experiences, and it’s the same here. It emerges from that internal knowing.

I do wonder sometimes if we’re not born with that internal knowing.

CS: Do you think it goes the other way as well–that some people are born without it, or that it’s not as strong?

TB: Sure, I think we all come into the world with strengths and weaknesses, and with things we have to learn. I think that knowing can probably emerge and develop through interactions. I have to have faith that that’s possible. We all have the potential to let go of those samskaras, those things we’ve come into the world with. Maybe that belief is why I have the desire as a teacher to help people feel that. To be able to reflect it for someone and have them say, “Oh yes, I sense that I have this deep ground of being that I can always fall back on.”

CS: Would you say that that is “the essence of yoga,” that ground of being?

TB: Oh yeah, I would. I said love at the beginning, but it is also that ground. They are the same. It’s the sense that I know there’s something there holding me. I know that. No matter what I do. No matter what our politicians do. I think it is that sense of faith-knowing. That is the essence.

CS: Is there anything else that you would like us or our students or the world at large to know about you, about your practice, about your teaching, or about the world?

TB: I want people to know that things are always changing. I’m going through a period of time right now where I feel less like I know things. I’m going through a period where I’m confused, and not knowing, and that’s hard for somebody for whom being competent and knowing a lot is so important. I would really encourage students and practitioners and teachers to know that the not-knowing is ok. That that’s honestly where the juice is. Talking and rambling like I’m doing right now is a huge way to try to figure things out. That’s what we’re all here for. Those periods of not-knowing just spur you to grow. Don’t be afraid of them.

CS: There’s that story of the kidnapped selkie woman whose son, stumbling around in the dark, finds his mother’s lost seal-skin. That metaphor that we have to stumble around in the dark, in the not-knowing, to find our true treasure.

TB: Yes, challenge is the only way to growth. You know, if we lived in “perfect” we would just be all sitting still and not growing. Getting on the mat and wanting this escape is problematic. Feeling like you can’t go beyond those “good-feelings” because it’s hard is problematic. It’s the challenge and the feeling that it’s hard that brings growth. As long as we care for ourselves and continue to restore when we need it, it is those moments of challenge, of hard-ness, of not-knowing that show us what we’re made of. And yoga is one way to challenge ourselves.

CS: We think of the word “yoga” which means union or yoking–it’s challenging to be yoked to something, or to someone.

TB: Ha, is it ever. Because it requires integration and strength.

CS: Oh yeah–those ox pulling the cart.

TB: Yes, the push-pull. The opposite energies and the continuum in between, but staying in balance at the center. Finding that center. In the present moment, in this body, in this time so that we feel safe to explore other lenses. That is the practice.


Post by Cara Sparkman; edited for clarity and content.

A Spiritual Map – Interview with guest teacher Matt Branstetter

Last week, I was lucky enough to sit down with Matt Branstetter, our meditation and philosophy teacher. Here are some of his thoughts on yoga, and the peace of the present moment.

CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–yoga, or otherwise–what is their teaching like, and how does that inform your personal practice?

Matt: So, my main practice these days is taiji (tai chi), so I study with a master of the chen style of taiji, and I study with him 3 times a week. The thing that draws me to Master Ding is his joy in what he does. He moves with freedom and with joy, and that is infectious. It creates this kind of energy in class, where you’re driven to do that yourself. You’re driven to find that freedom and that joy of movement, without restrictions or inhibitions.

CS: It’s contagious joy.

Matt: Contagious joy, yes! Enthusiasm, and a pursuit of excellence…with joy. Not with stress. Excellence through joy rather than through have to or need to or must, but you have the opportunity to bring out what is best in you, and it is pleasant to do that. So here is one avenue for you to do that. So, I would say that he is a great inspiration to keep going deeper into the practice.

CS: And do you find yourself seeking out that joyfulness in your own practice, or does it arise naturally?

Matt: I find that it’s there. I find that when the body is in its natural state, joy is just kind of the essence of who we are.

CS: Thank goodness! And how does that then translate from your relationship with your teacher as a student, into your practice, and then from there for yourself as a teacher. Where do you find that joy?

Matt: Well, in all of the above. You know, when I have the time, I’m practicing. I love to do it. I love to explore. I love to do the same thing over and over and over again. For some reason I get great satisfaction out of that. And I feel like I’m pursuing something. You know, I’m pursuing a kind of wholeness. And that’s very appealing to me because it seems like if we’re living with less than whole, then it’s not time spent as fully as it could be otherwise. So the pursuit of that wholeness is also the pursuit of something true about life, and something true about living. So in my teaching, that’s it. The idea of the emotional quality and the feeling aspect of learning about qigong and taiji, it’s just so central to what it is. The felt quality of practice is the essence of it. I couldn’t conceive of movement or technique independent of the feeling that gives it life. They really are one. It’s a transmission of that joy of living.

CS: That direct experience.

Matt: That’s right, that direct experience. It’s an invitation not to mimic techniques, but to find yourself.

CS: Your focus and practice is taiji and qigong, but obviously you’re very steeped in the yogic tradition as well. How would you define yoga?

Matt: There are different levels that we can talk about. And I don’t want it to sound like the advanced levels exclude the more beginner’s level because you’re a beginner all the way through. Definitely I think there’s something about finding peace in this body; making a home in this body; finding comfort in this body, which is essential to every level of yoga. Dealing with our own discomfort; dealing with pain… It’s only by inhabiting this body that we really inhabit the present moment. So it’s kind of there, either as a barrier or as a means to being present in our lives.
That being said, I think when we start to make a home in the present moment, there’s a kind of spiritual map that’s there also, and that’s for me the essence of the yoga philosophy. It’s not concepts, it’s not the presentation of a world view, but it’s giving language to a process that happens as we go deeper into the present moment, and as we get more still, as we get more comfortable with being. So yoga would be…the art of being.

CS: Is that something that you found in your initial experience of yoga? That spiritual map?

Matt: For me, and I don’t think this is necessarily the normal pathway for people, but for me, philosophy came first. So I was a student of philosophy, Western philosophy, and then eventually Eastern philosophy. And then it became clear to me that to understand what these people were talking about, you had to be in the same or similar mental state to where they were when they were saying what they were saying. So the idea of meditation, that made sense to me. In order to understand what these philosophers were talking about, you need to meditate. So I found a meditation teacher who also ended up being a martial arts teacher. It was a quest for philosophical truth, for knowledge. And I think for a lot of philosophers, and this was definitely the case for me, it was looking for something stable. Because my early life as a child was unstable, so there was some quest for stability. Does the center hold? Is there something that abides through the changes in life? And the answers from the East were always couched in a mastery of meditation. So the answer was yes, but not one that’s going to be immediately accessible to you. In order to find this abiding place, you’re going to have to strip away various layers, and you’re going to have to make this inward journey. And that seemed fair. It seemed fair that if you were going to find something like that, you would have to make a journey to get there.
So my very first yoga class was after a martial arts training session. One of our students became interested in yoga, and started teaching yoga to the rest of us. It was the deepest relaxation I had ever felt. Ever. I was used to doing things with my body, but to really go in and relax everything, and to let things let go at their own pace. I can remember just driving home in a state of bliss. And relaxation. It was just like OH MAN. This is GREAT. We can just go in and chill ourselves out. And that was it. Ever since it has just become part of my life and part of my practice. And that initial hit, that initial hit of philosophy, the initial hit of insight into what these guys were talking about, and the initial experience of that yoga class, they continue to live. Those initial glimpses continue to live in my practice today and inform and inspire it.

CS: So for most people, we would probably agree they get to yoga through the asana, through the body, and you came at it from the other side of things. Do you find that that is something that sets you apart from other teachers?

Matt: Maybe…I’ve taught philosophy in college, in the classroom, and I realize with these philosophies it’s about a lived experience. That’s what it’s about. And I really have that sense ingrained in my being at this point. I would say my teaching, when it’s effective, is a really open invitation to meet each other at a certain level of being. You know? And then the concepts that we use will make sense, because we’re kind of in the state that the people were when they started saying, “Hey, how can we talk about what we’re experiencing right now? Let’s put some words on this.” And so they put certain words on that, and as we get close to where they were when they had that idea, we can more easily assimilate the words because it’s not some foreign concept to us anymore. It’s a way of getting to the essence of what we’re experiencing in the moment of experience. So satsang is a shared experience of truth, where we are somehow kind of resonating with it together, and I recognize it in you and you recognize it in me. So when it’s explained that way it has very little to do with concepts, and I think the yogic philosophy, in the final analysis, has very little to do with concepts. It has to do with being. With a capital B.

CS: What role does yoga play in your life?

Matt: The practice of asana is still pretty central to what I do. Between movement, mindful movement (which is what I believe the internal martial arts are based on), and the practice of asana, the practice of breathing and the practice of meditation, I would say my practice these days is to try to get a sense of a continuum between all those. Even when you’re sitting in meditation, you’re breathing…most of the time. So the body is moving, the diaphragm is moving, the ribcage is expanding. So there’s always a sense of movement. There’s always a sense of meditative awareness, and there’s always a sense that sensation is never still. There’s something about the way our nervous system is arranged, so that in order for us to feel anything, that nerve has to fire, and fire again, and if it doesn’t fire, we’re not going to feel anything. So the fact that when we feel, it means that things are moving, things are changing, things are shifting, so that is the awareness that I think is common to all those practices. The awareness itself is quiet, still, but everything else is moving, changing, flowing. So being comfortable with that change, relaxing into that change, surrendering to that change, and even learning how to surf that change is how I would define yoga, and say how it’s playing a role in all these different practices right now.

CS: What would you say is the “essence of yoga”?

Matt: I like “peace”. There’s a lot of directions I could go with that question, but I like this idea of shanti. May there be peace in the world, may there be peace in our households, in our surroundings, and may there be peace in our own bodies and minds. I think that’s a very worthy goal. It’s definitely true in our time, but it’s been true of every time. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, but I think it’s a really meaningful one. I think we should continue to inspire ourselves and one another to continue to pursue this goal of peace. Let it go. Let it be, at least for this moment.

CS: What drew you to the practice of taiji, qigong and East/West philosophy?

Matt: When I was studying philosophy as a student, I really started with ancient Greek philosophy. I had been waiting for people to talk like this since I was born! That was my sensation, and I really wasn’t finding people, you know, my mom, my family, they were not using that kind of language. So just the fact that people were asking these fundamental questions. All of a sudden a light went on in me, and I very quickly learned that vocabulary of asking those questions and seeking the answers. It was a great awakening for me, but it was also kind of systematic. You know, I started with the Greeks, and then I got into European philosophy and after stewing in that, and the questions they were concerned with for a while, Eastern philosophy came. In a survey course, you usually get a smattering of traditions, so the Hindu tradition and their philosophy, the Daoist, so ancient Chinese, and Buddhist, and Zen. These all kind of hit me at the same time in this survey course, and they’ve all been constant companions throughout the whole process. And qigong is really just the yoga of China. Just as in India, there’s breathing techniques, there’s physical techniques of the body, there’s philosophical techniques, and they’re all intertwined with one another. In China it’s the exact same scenario, you have all these subtle techniques for the body and the breath, and they inform a certain way of looking at life and a certain way of experiencing life. And fundamental to the practice of yoga in India is the idea of Prana, or life force, and fundamental to the practice of taiji is Qi or life force. That is something that we kind of are always tasting. We’re always feeling that at some level, but I think the moment we really become conscious that, hey, I’m alive. Not because my doctor tells me, or because my fitbit say that I am. I’m alive because I feel alive. Because I feel these life processes happening inside of me, and I am somehow one with those life processes. I think when people get that initial sense of that, you naturally want more of that; you naturally want to explore that deeper; you naturally think, this has something to do, not just with a fleeting experience, but the meaning of what it is to be alive. And so this is the force that’s underneath all of that. This is the force that’s making that happen. And it’s more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. It’s closer to us than our own thoughts.

CS: This question is a little bit off the beaten path, but why do you think it is that the Western world created or imagined such a fragmentation, such a divide between the body and mind, while the East has these systems that are so mind-bogglingly simple and complex at the same time, and that work so beautifully?

Matt: That’s right…well, I think the ancient traditions of the West, you don’t see that quite as much. In the indigenous traditions of the West, you don’t see that as much. It’s a whole process, but I think you hit one of the key factors, and that is the separation between the mind and the body, which is just not the case in the East. It doesn’t tend to be the case in the East, it tends to be that these are obviously part of a single process. So beginning with Descartes and some of those European thinkers and the Enlightenment; and the separation of material pursuits from spiritual pursuits, so the material people kind of have their realm, and the spiritual people kind of have their realm; the process of beginning to see nature as a resource, rather than something that was living and valuable in its own right; the shift from “being” to “having” in all kinds of ways. All of that plays a role, and then science really seeming, in those early stages to create a world that could exist independently of our experience of it. It was solid, it was real, it was out there. So that’s one of the fascinating things about more contemporary science. The belief that the world is solid real and out there has crumbled from every direction that we’ve approached it. It’s crumbled from the neurological perspective, it’s crumbled from the perspective of physics, and this is an ancient concept, the idea of maya. Which is not that the world is a trick, it’s just not ultimately and totally real. I mean, a rainbow is real. We can see it! There it is! We can experience its beautiful colors. But the closer you get to it, the more it seems to recede, and that’s the same thing we could say with biology, chemistry–they’re real, from a certain level, but the closer we get to them, the more powerful our microscopes, the more they seem to dissolve and disappear. And I think that’s the fundamental idea of maya–don’t seek the eternal or the abiding in terms of these material processes, because they’re neither. In fact, they come from and are rooted in a more profound reality that you can’t own, you can’t store up, you can’t have it, like you can have material things, but ultimately, that’s what’s going to be fulfilling to you. That’s what’s going to give you a meaningful human life, and one that aligns you with the way things are.

CS: Is there anything that you would like your future students to know about you? Or about the world? Or about the practice of yoga?

Matt: I would say this is a common thing, because I approach things, in a way, backwards. Because the philosophical way of speaking is so second nature to me, that I feel like that can be intimidating to some students. I guess the primary thing is don’t be intimidated. The kind of knowledge that I’m interested in is really just an invitation for us to be together, which means both–we’re being and we’re together. So both of those have to be there. Because we can be together, but not be being. Or we can be being, but we are either on our own cushion, doing our own thing, or we’re out on a mountaintop somewhere, and this is neither. This kind of philosophy is about being together. And one of the things that humans do when we’re together is we speak to one another. And this is not to say the ancient yogis had the best vocabulary for our day, but they did really go deeply into the questions. So the essence of what they were saying I think will remain the same, but the words that we put it in? I think those have to evolve. Because traditions just get created around particular words. And it’s very easy in that scenario…you can master the whole system, but not know what the hell it was really about, and that’s our goal. Our goal is not to be the master of some ancient vocabulary, our goal is to try to tap into the essence of what they were talking about…why they felt compelled to bring forth these words in the first place. And I think people will find that that it’s very pleasant to feel like you’re sharing with somebody at a deep, fundamental and essential level. And I think that’s what satsang was all about. You know, having people talking and meditating at the same time. We’re being and speaking and interacting at the same time. Somehow when those things become separate from one another, we have the scenario you were just talking about with the Western world. We end up with fragmentation. Ultimately, I don’t want to know anything that you can’t also participate in at the moment I know it. The knowledge I’m interested in is where we meet together…in peace.

CS: In peace–the essence of yoga.


Post by Cara Sparkman

Sweetness and Light – Interview with guest teacher Romi Kalova

Yesterday, I sat down over a couple of mugs of hot chocolate with Romi Kalova, one of the extraordinary guest teachers in both the 200 and 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training Programs. Here’s what she had to say about yoga, and the sweetness of life.

CS: Thinking about a teacher you enjoy taking classes with–what is their teaching like, and how does it inform your personal practice?

Romi: The teacher that comes to mind, I would say, is my dear teacher Kim Schwartz in Chicago. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he is ordained as a Swami. He was one of the directors of the teacher training there at the Temple of Kriya Yoga, where I took my initial training. He is very steeped in the Iyengar tradition, but what I really love about his teaching–not only the depth and how deep he can go when it comes to the physical body, and the whole organization and all the systems in yoga, but how he incorporates that, and how he’s able to connect the physical to the energetics and the whole thing.

What I love about his classes is also the humor that he brings in, and that in the depth that he is trying to pass on, there is also a sense of lightness. That balance that we always strive for. He does that beautifully. His authenticity and gentleness, you can see it radiating from him. To me, when it comes to my own personal practice it’s about just staying authentic and connected to what’s really deep inside. The knowledge and the facts we learn in yoga is part of it, but that connection really gets to the essence of yoga. Very much for me it is experiential. I believe that it’s hard to be authentic and connected to ourselves if we don’t experience deeply the direct experience of what yoga really is. And then it translates into life. Each one of us has a different experience of that depending on where we are. That essence of yoga to me is just the expression of how we live our lives, and how we are able to make that connection. Yoga to me is about that connection, and that was the experience I had the first time, and it is constantly evolving and informing my personal practice. Making that never-ending connection with my core, with who I am. Seeing that, reflecting that, and taking that into the world. Implementing the Yamas and Niyamas, and all the facts. But the question is how do we really take it in, and live it? And that is why yoga is so unique. Sometimes it’s really hard to teach that!

CS: It’s hard to live it; it’s hard to be there; it’s hard to make that connection, and then be present with what you’re connecting with.

Romi: Yes, yes! And so teaching it has such a delicate balance in it. Because it’s individual experience. It’s different for every person. So I would say it’s more of just sharing rather, what my experience was, and if it resonates with someone who might be at the same time and the same moment in their life that that situation might apply. Basically we’re just sharing it

CS: You never know…whatever we give…how it might land with someone else. We think, this is what I have to offer today. And it might land, and it might not.

Romi: Yes, and that is what I treasure so much. If we can keep it fun, with humor and lightness, because at the end, that is what yoga is, that essence. It can become really hard and difficult. As they say, yoga is a discipline, but we can get too serious. Really, yoga is about balance, and in order to be able to bring about the balance, it is asking for the constant connection, that continuous connection and reflection and going back and being there with myself in my inner universe, and discovering everything there is. So I can see what I need, what I can do. And then it just translates to the outer universe.

CS: It seems like when we can continue to show up for ourselves, that the rest falls into place.

Romi: Yes, yes!

CS: So what was your first experience of yoga? What was your introduction to yoga?

Romi: It was very interesting. I was going through a really hard time. I was living in Chicago, and going through a very difficult time. My physical body was not feeling well; I was working three jobs, and my injury from when I was younger and doing track and field came back. One day I couldn’t get up from bed. I had to go to the doctor, and when I asked them if this could be fixed, he said, “Well…no, but you could TRY yoga”. So I did. But what was so interesting was that in my very first yoga class, I almost threw up. Even though I was physically very fit from track and field. You know, I got the postures: the lunges…it was very familiar. But we did the practice on the floor and then we got up into standing. Right when I got up into Tadasana, I couldn’t stand up straight; I almost vomited. I had to fold forward, and I was like whaaats happening? And so after class I asked my first teacher, Meg, “you know I had this interesting experience. Can you tell me what this is?” So she first just told me to step against the wall and lean my back against the wall, and then just as if I was doing my Tadasana, lift up and stand up straight. And then she touched my belly, my solar plexus. And I couldn’t breath, standing there. Then she asked me a question: “Are you going through some tough time in your life?” And I said, “how do you know that? What does it have to do with all this?” And she explained to me in my very first yoga class how it’s not just the physical practice. She explained what yoga is about, and how it moves the energy and the breath, and how on the physical or energetic level if there are blocks, the practice makes it all move and the sensations come up, and everything comes up. To me, that was the first AHA moment. That moment when I thought, how does she know this about me when she just met me? She had no idea what I was going through. That clicked. From the very first moment, I knew. So that was my first yoga class that completely blew me away with its profoundness, and it’s profound power and the gift that it is. Within 3 months I was enrolled in the yoga teacher training, and that was it.

CS: Wow. How many years ago was that?

Romi: That was in 2005. Eleven years ago. It’s one of those moments that just stays with me forever. I will never forget that moment.

CS: It had an impact on your life, for sure. Thank goodness for that doctor.

Romi: [laughing] And just like that. Although, I would say the way I actually got into that yoga class, was this. After I was at the doctor, my friend was actually going to this center–the Mystical Sciences Institute. Every Friday, they would do a loving-kindness meditation. So my first step into this realm, this world of yoga and meditation, was attending the loving-kindness meditation. I knew nothing about anything. I knew nothing. I just went there open to experience whatever there was to experience, because what I was experiencing in my life didn’t feel good. I went there to be open to all of that. I remember after the 30 minute meditation, when I even didn’t know what I was doing, sitting and listening and woooooo [gesturing]. The beauty of it was what I experienced afterwards. It was very profound, because I sat in my car, and I was driving home in the crazy Chicago traffic, and I was looking around me thinking, something is different. And you know? Everything was different: the colors were different,  the drivers and the cars didn’t bother me, the craziness on the street didn’t bother me, and I thought, hunh this is interesting…ok! That was my very very first experience of the benefits of yoga…the essence of everything.

CS: So your current focus is the yoga of sound, Nada Yoga. Were you a musician before you started practicing yoga? Have you always played the guitar? How did you get into nada yoga?

Romi: So I played guitar when I was younger, but then I moved away from it because there was too much…I don’t know if order is the right word. I tried playing classical guitar, and it just drove me crazy because it was too stiff. So I moved away from it. But when I entered the yoga therapy program with Joseph Lepage at Kripalu in 2009, he opened up the program by playing guitar and chanting, and it just blew me away. He would take the chants and traditional mantras, and he wrote his own music to it, and it never occurred to me that one could do that! I mean, that’s allowed??

So back in 2009 that was the first reconnection for me with the guitar and music. So, I started just playing with it. There was something really amazing–I would just sit down, and I would start playing just whatever came up, and then, hunh! I would hear a chant or a mantra with that music. And that’s how it started. The music came to me. It was not me sitting there and trying to write the music, you know, the tones and chords. No. I was just playing and then the words started flowing, and there it was. And this was not the traditional style of chanting we hear and experience in India, but to me that’s the beauty of yoga. It brings me back to that essence that I discovered through the music and the sound. It is our direct experience expressing through us the essence of the universe. And yoga is the vehicle to me to bring that experience in and feel it. So there’s this creativity. I would play for an hour just repeating the words and the sounds I was hearing, and I would have no idea it was an hour. And then I would stop and there was this experience that in yoga we can call nothingness–this amazing stillness and the silence within. And that was another of those AHA moments. What power! Oh my. Wow. How come and how is this possible?

So that experience was really just deepened with the playing of the guitar, and it started to bring about so much more awareness because it was leading me and guiding me to that essence of yoga, to that source of creation, and that direct experience that is beyond words. And when someone would ask me about the chants, and ask how did you come up with it. I would say, “I don’t know! This just came through me.”

When I saw the training being offered in India, it was a calling I couldn’t resist. It was always my dream to go to India, to the birthplace of yoga. I had no idea what I was about to experience. Being in India, and getting to learn the essence of yoga, the essence of life. That is to me is yoga. The expression of life itself. That essence is one of love. I had no idea that connection that we really make is within us is just this beautiful circle. The circle where we return back home from where we came, again and again.

Being in India where there are unbelievably high vibrations is just beyond words. It’s experiential, and can be experienced only if we are ready for it. It will either scare us and we have to run away, or we stay with it and go deeper. Learning about Sanskrit and the pronunciation, and how actually with yoga in India, the physical practice is such a little part of it. It’s all about the mind, and how we can find that place of stillness and come back to the center and to our essence. How we can come back home. The creation and this circle, how to come back home, is embedded in every single Sanskrit vowel, every consonant in the alphabet. It’s right there. And the sound is the creation. To me it was so profound, and it was that direct connection, that direct experience of the creation and of the essence that translates through the sound. It is vibration, and it is frequency. It’s either the silence, or the inaudible sound. Another step deeper, another dive in that I had no idea I was taking. We have no idea how much further we can go.

CS: We always think we’ve reached the peak, but really it’s not true. It’s not true at all.

Romi: Yeah, and that’s the fun part to me, it’s “OH! Wait a minute.” Right at that moment when I think I’ve reached that point, the universe is about to kick my butt. [laughing]

So that’s why Nada Yoga is my passion, and why actually my whole journey has led me to this place. I was always striving, I was led, I was guided to go to that essence, to find the essence, to find what this is all about. So that’s where it led me. By listening and by being open to it. And it never ends, it never stops, and there is so much more and so much more. As complex as we are as human beings, and with everything we carry with us from past lifetimes. It’s all there for us to reconnect to it. That continuous reconnection. Again. Yoga. It’s the good stuff. The sweetness of life itself. Like chocolate! [lifting her mug]

CS: [laughing] Yes! Exactly.

So you’re going back to India in a few weeks, and if i’m not mistaken, you’ve completed the training there?

Romi: Yes

CS: So what are you going back to do this time?

Romi: It is the teacher’s assistant mentorship. Some of the graduates from this training were invited to become teachers of this type of training. It’s the only teacher training in the whole world that’s based entirely on sound, so there are not many people who share it, partly because it was so sacred in India. And really, you have to learn Sanskrit, you have to learn mantra. You have to have that experience. And it’s not here in the West yet. There is the history and ancientness in India. There is a need to be able to share it more. The time has come, I think. It’s needed. So, we were invited to come back, and be part of each module again as teacher’s assistants. To be a part of the training, but on the other side. So in a few years, depending on how often I can go back to India, I will be able to share it from the position of the teacher. I feel so strongly just like I did all those years ago in Chicago, that this is it. This is my calling.

CS: What a gift. Let me see if I’m missing any questions here. I think we’ve defined yoga. [laughing]

Romi: So many times, and yet there’s still so much more! That’s why it is challenging for me to even come up with one sentence or one answer, because to me it translates to everything and every single moment, and so the essence of life is the essence of yoga.

CS: And it’s undefinable except through that direct experience.

Romi: Yes, so depending on where each one of us is, that’s how we will describe it, and put it in words. And sometimes as we learn in Nada Yoga it’s really the sound, and if we can express that essence of yoga is the inaudible sound. Sometimes the language of love requires no words.

CS: True enough. Well, thank you Romi.

Romi: Thank you!


Post by Cara Sparkman