I am a yoga student of 20+ years, a teacher since 2005 and, in equal parts dedicated and rebellious, Ashtangi. Whilst I am anti-Guru culture I still believe in the rich experience of letting myself be taught, being open, receptive and inquisitive. Hence, I will share my experience through my teachers:
No.1 My Mum
My mum got me to the mat in my tumultuous late teens, though the first family photos of me showing off my headstand are at age eight; my pallid pins aloft, skirt around my ears showing my pants to all and sundry. In India they often say mother is the first teacher, and when I chant to my teachers I remember it was her kind hand that held mine and walked me into the light of yoga when I was in the dark.
No. 2 Bridget Woods-Kramer
In 2004 I met Bridget Woods-Kramer, the only certified Anusara Teacher in the UK and a senior teacher at Triyoga, London. Back then, she worked between London and an old chapel studio next to Cornwall’s only cathedral. We Cornish students practiced to her beautiful voice and the bell-ringers next door, a divine energy was with us one way or another. I taught for her at the chapel and assisted her in London and abroad for three years. Whilst Bridget and her shala are a halcyon memory, I left Anusara a few years before the founder was exposed for various immoral practices. It was good to learn early that complete devotion and reverence are degrees of esteem for Spirit itself not humans.
In 2007 I went abroad for two years. I climbed to Everest Basecamp, met the Dalai Lama and hung out with the street dogs in Varanasi. One winter I even lived in an ashram (run by the spiritual guru of senior Ashtanga Teacher, Rolf Naujokat) in Haridwar, northern India, mostly chanting, meditating, and studying philosophy with a few basic asana. My favourite karma yoga job there was shaping cow dung into (in my case heart shaped) patties to dry out to keep a 50 year old dhuni fire smouldering between our daily puja. Modern studio karma yogis don’t know what they are missing.
No.3 John Scott
In 2008, at the tail end of that trip I met my current teacher John Scott at his then home – a beautiful retreat in New Zealand. I knew instantly that my practice was moving into a new stage of evolution. John remained my teacher for some time; at the end of my stay he said, ‘You need to stay longer’. The Ashtanga method provided a structure and discipline which were a tonic for me who was a restless traveller with a playful spirit. I came home and stuck a scrap of paper on the wall next to my bed with Patanjali’s sutra 1.12 ‘Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah’ (Practice and non-attachment stop the fluctuations of the mind) and practised with a new virya (energy). Still this method too is now falling under scrutiny as Pattabhi Jois (the founder) has been exposed as a sexual abuser. This defining moment in Ashtanga’s history has also brought me to seek out female teachers, those who see the flaws in the idea of Guru Shishya (hierarchical teacher lineage) and instead look to the Sangha (community), to seek out those who question the power dynamics of the past.
No. 4 Myself and my Community
Due in part to some disillusionment with the strict teachings of lineage based systems and because I was now a mature daily practitioner. I learnt that to rise early, light a candle, sit breathe and experience the practice fully I didn’t need a teacher beating at my heels. I still love to practice and learn from all types of people, but have a less strict notion of what that is now. Practicing alone without a shala of breathing people is humbling, revealing and helps to instil a belief in the teacher within. As a younger practitioner I was eager to please, I was a late blooming rebel, but have learnt to trust my instincts and intuition and don’t like the Ashtanga Police or zealots.
Yoga has helped me to choose a life that is financially modest, but time rich; low tech, low stress with plenty of literature, nature and practice. It has given me a light heart and a lot of laughter (often at myself). It has also helped me to cultivate sangha (community) – not people to network with or do business with, but people with whom to share this rich and magical practice.