When did you first go to india and what took you there?
I first went in 94′. In 93′ I saw a video tape of Guruji teaching Richard Freeman, Tim Miller, and Chuck Miller. A couple weeks later I saw an ad in the Yoga Journal saying Guruji was going to be teaching in LA so I went there and studied with him for the month. After that month he went and taught in Maui so I followed him there and studied with him more. On Maui he and Chuck Miller encouraged me to travel to Mysore and to take practice in India. I didn't hesitate. I knew Ashtanga was for me so I bought a plane ticket, waited tables to save money, and went to India.
What happened and how long were you there that time and over the years?
When I first arrived I was completely blown away and overwhelmed. I can distinctly remember being woken up by prayers blasting out of mosques and temples, the smells, riding my bike to Guruji's house early in the morning and how small the room we practiced in was (Old Shala). There were so few of us in the space. If there were 20 of us there that was a lot of people. Often in the evenings Guruji and Amma would sit outside their porch. We would all walk by and talk with them and hope Amma would offer us coffee. Going to India was something I never imagined or even day dreamed about so I had no preparation or expectations. In my life I never thought I would be doing this or thought I would be searching for someone, a guru, to study with. Sometimes India was so intense I would walk outside and then go back inside. At that time India was not used to foreigners so the Indians were extremely curious. As a westerner I was paid attention to all the time. It was hard for me to be so conspicuous. Sometimes too hard. I also meet a dear dear Indian friend of mine, Ravi. He was playing a flute on the street and he took me in to his house. We would hang out and listen to Indian music. I became hooked on Indian culture from my first visit. Ravi introduced me to my future singing teacher, Virabhadraya. At this time I wanted to learn how to play tablas so I started taking lessons from Virabhadraya's friend. But mostly, I remember loving the practice.My first visit I was there for four months. Since then I have been there over 15 times, my longest stay being a year.
What was meeting Guruji like and when did you know he was your teacher?
I first meet Guruji in LA and I was very scared. I was so scared that I fasted on fruit the entire month. I thought if I ate fruit I would get less stiff. I was in a big cleanse. I practiced in the morning and then I would practice again during the afternoon. I was completely unaware this was too much tapas for my body. I was unaware of the whole scene. I never touched Guruji's feet. I just had no idea what to do. I was in awe of the whole thing. I didn't know what the counting was or what it meant. I had no idea that the Sanskirt was in numbers. I attached esoteric significance to it. When he would bellow out "cetwari" I thought it was something sacred, "Woah, what does that mean?"
What was scary to you?
I had only seen Tim, Richard and Chuck practice from the videos and I saw how Guruji adjusted them and this was scary for me. In the class there was this guy who every day got the adjustment in Baddhakonasana and every day he would cry and everyday Guruji would put him through it. And Guruji would say, 'Why crying?" and the whole class would laugh, It was good natured but intense. I was terrified it would happen to me and of course he finally adjusted me in it. At that time my knees did not come to the floor in Baddhakonasana so he put one hand on one knee and one foot on the other and one hand on my head. He pushed down on my knees and then he started to push my head outwards. It felt like I was looking down from above on to the ground and it all felt big, like a wide expanse for me. My orientation was shifted and there was this opening! I got terrified. Guruji pulled me back up and he said, "no fearing you go." It's one of two adjustments I can vividly remember.
Guruji was always a strategist. If he wasn't helping you it was part of his plan for working with you, it was not because he wasn't noticing. For example, on my first trip he didn't help me much, but he was nice. I figure he knew I needed to take practice so he left me mostly alone. On my second trip he didn't help me and was not really very nice either. I was expecting and wanting more help but still he just left me to practice and work things out on my own. Occasionally when I would break out of my old patterns he would be there all of sudden to help me, which meant to me that he was highly observant of my practice and waiting for some things to shift inside me. But it was a source of pain that he wouldn't help me and I got really frustrated. I thought about quitting. You had to earn help from him. By my third trip when I started working on third series, he began helping me a lot.
Though there was no specific moment when I knew Guruji was my teacher, it was an almost unnoticed evolution; one day sort of all of sudden it dawned on me how much I had learned from him and how significant he was/is to me. It was a profound and happy realization but also a little bit sad because I felt that I hadn't properly appreciated him before that time.
How does music relate to your yoga practice?
In some ways music conflicts with my yoga practice and what I've discovered is that music has to take a small role in things and proportionately it has to be small compared to my asana and pranayama practice and my teaching. If music takes too big of a role in my life it doesn't serve my Yoga practice. But if music is in the right proportion it helps me to be more devotional, prayerful, and it opens me up to a part of my soul that is very deep and sacred. Music also soothing for me. At times the asana practice has a crushing kind of quality, it can really challenging and feel full of failure. It can even be hard to feel good about my self when practice is so hard; playing music, just enjoying a little song or melody can be a healing salve for me. It helps remind me of the soul and sacredness of my efforts.
To me yoga can and ought to be used for personal expression and personal transformation but also since we are all in it together yoga can to be about collective and social transformation too. As a yoga teacher I feel that music and chanting helps me share something different with my students, sharing a little song brings a more universal dimension, something campfire like that brings you to a primal place of sacredness that we can all find a kinship with.
How has yoga changed your music and how has the Indian musical/yogic experience you have had affected your music?
I would like to talk about how I switched from the tablas to singing. My singing teacher Virabhadraya had me start singing because I have a damaged finger and couldn't strike the tabla properly. It's funny to me, he literally made me sing. At first I resisted it, but it was the best thing that ever happened to my music. I love singing and I needed that vocal work to really become less introverted and to open up to the power of my voice as speaker and as a singer. Its been a very important part of my psychological and emotional growth.
Do you still study music in India now?
Yes, though as I balance it with my Yoga practice, I don't have as much time as I would like. I have less time to study Indian music. To study indian music requires total commitment and dedication and I'm not on that path. I do my best to keep up a practice Indian scales and I work with the slow, 'alap' phase of raga development. I try to practice the things that are relevant to what I share with people in my yoga classes.
Do you see your musical practice and your yoga practice as related? How?
Yoga and music share rhythm, they come from the same great source and use them both go back to that source. Since music, breathing, and asana are all based on the elemental, primal life rhythms, I feel they all support each other. To be musical helps your asana practice to become more melodic and to have rhythmic vibrancy and intelligence.
Has your practice changed as you have aged?
For one, I've slowed down some and the physical practice is harder. As I've aged its been challenging to consistently keep the asana practice at its top level. Partly thats due to aging but it's also due to losing focus mentally. There are so many responsibilities and things that seem to call for one's attention. Its all cyclical, but consistency of focus is really challenging. It's a marvel to see how challenging it is to put the asana practice first with a consistency that spans over decades. This commitment effects all of your choices. Also as I've gotten older the focus and intention behind the work is much more genuine and smarter. I'm able to utilize the asana and pranayama to open up within myself in much more powerful ways even though I can't necessarily bend as swiftly or even though I don't consistently have quite as much ready energy. Now I have to listen to my self and my body more attentively and be willing to go into what is there today. Sometimes that means being satisfied with less and being more subtle in my awareness.
Also, I used to need a lot of asana practice, a lot of sweat and rhythm as a catharsis, as a way to wrestle with demons and overcome things within myself. I needed to exhaust myself through that kind of battle. Now that isn't as necessary or relevant and so I don't need that same kind of intense rhythm every day that I needed in the past. Through my practice I've worked through a lot and understand what constitutes a deep asana for me. Its such a curious paradox because I understand what a deep asana is and I can go there much faster now even though there's a sometimes more physical unwillingness. Sometimes I feel a tinge of regret, I wish I had figured out some of what I know now sooner.
As I age I have more appreciation for Guruji and his method and the sequences of asana's. For example I see this incredible depth in the second series. Consider Krounchasana, it is more of a forward bend then all of the forward bends in the primary series. When you strike Krounchasana you are expected to be ready immediately, you are expected to bend forward deeply without the preparation and repetition that exists in the primary series. There's an immediate depth that is asked of you in the second series. All the series have these deepening layers that continue to be revealed as you practice year after year.
Or take Dristi, as I've gotten older I orient myself differently with regard to basic gazing. Now I'm more centered, steady and clear. I also have more clarity about different sets of variables that go into each posture and have more skill to work with those variables in a more immediate and balanced way.
What made Guruji special to you? Did he permanently change your life and how?
He was large enough and grounded enough to see and understand some important things about me and about many people. In this significant way he let me know that what I was doing was alright. This 'alright' feeling gave me permission to let my energy flow freely and in directions that were right for me. It took somebody really grounded to do that because I had so much raw energy and so much inner conflict and fear. To have somebody be so grounded and to see my fear and understand it somehow gave me permission to see it too and thus move through it and let it go. Guruji had this knowledge of Yoga and that's what gave him this largeness and this ability to embrace so many people. He showed me the how big Yoga is; he showed me yoga's breadth and what it can encompass and how I can find belonging and expression in it. Yes he changed me permanently. He helped wipe out my self hatred, inner turmoil, anger, lack of confidence, in a fundamental way forever. Now I have those things but they can never go as deep as they were because he helped me find that deeper place of love. Practice keeps renewing it but Guruji gave it to me in such a way that even if I never practiced again, I will still have it.