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Interview with Kino MacGregor
YG: You don't talk much in your book about meditation, but I know from your other writing that you have a personal meditation practice. I have heard Ashtanga practitioners argue that the Ashtanga asana system is a complete practice that already incorporates elements of pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, so there is 'no need' to meditate. What brought you to a meditation practice and what are some of the effects that you have experienced?
KM: My interest in Ashtanga Yoga came from a desire to quiet my mind and live a more peaceful life. When I went to Mysore to study with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois I would ask him whether I could try meditation practice and he would often respond that if I tried to sit for a long period of time my mind would not be settled. The tool of the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga is meant to train the body and mind to be strong and steady so that it is fit for deep states of concentration (dharana). The experience of meditation (dhyana) is only possible when the mind is able to maintain continuous unbroken connection with the object of meditation. Most often we experience distractions that draw the mind’s point of focus away. It is not that the traditional practice of Ashtanga Yoga does not recommend meditation but that it is only recommended as a practice when the student is ready. Guruji would say that it would never harm us to sit and try to meditate but that if we merely sit and think for the whole time devoted to meditation that it was “no use”.
My mind is not naturally calm, in fact, it is more naturally jumpy and kinetic. I turned to the discipline of Vipassana meditation to train my mind to steady and strong. I’ve done three 10 day Vipassana meditation courses and I plan on taking another. My daily sitting practice settles my mind. Working with the mind without the addition of a physical posture helps me focus more clearly on the subtle body and the subconscious emotions. Some days (maybe most days) I end up just sitting and thinking as Guruji warned, but other days I am able to slip into a thoughtless, wordless connection with the inner self. When that happens my sense of peace is restored as a deep and fundamental level. I think every student of yoga can benefit from at least five minutes of seated meditation practice as a supplement to daily asana practice.
YG: I was so appreciative to find that your book had such an emphasis on the spiritual journey that is the heart of yoga, especially given that modern yoga sometimes seems so far removed from its roots as a journey of self-realization. On my blog a while back I mused about how as a yoga teacher, I often contribute to this narrative by assuming that my students are seeking a predominantly physical practice and being too 'shy' to introduce the idea of spiritual transformation for fear that students will run away screaming that you're trying to induct them into a cult. Can you share any advice for teachers who are hoping to incorporate some of these teachings into their asana classes?
KM: The thread that connects all human beings is inherently spiritual. We are drawn to yoga in yearning for a direct experience of the true self. The epiphany moments of our lives are not based in purely physical experiences, but are a blend of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual. If you speak from your direct experience of the inner work of the yoga practice you will open a door for others to attain that same experience. If you want to introduce the spiritual essence of the practice to your students the key is to keep it based in your real world experience. If you find yourself speaking too esoterically or too intellectually then people won’t be able to relate. The spiritual side of the practice is an invitation to go deeper.
YG: In your book you talk about how the practice of yoga is not just about performing asanas, but is about transforming the way we live our lives and our relationship to ourselves and the world around us though the yamas and niyamas. You talk passionately about adopting a vegetarian diet as a way of practicing ahimsa towards our planet. What are some of the other practical ways that you live your yoga off the mat?
KM: Ahimsa, non-violence, is the first of the yamas on the Ashtanga Yoga path and it is a conscious choice to allow peace to be a value. Not only is it asked to live a non-violent life but true ahimsa asks you to leave the world a more peaceful place. If it is possible to do less harm by eating a vegetarian diet, is it possible to actually heal the planet with a new type of agriculture or paradigm about food? If it is possible to do the daily sadhana of Ashtanga Yoga, is it possible live every moment in accordance with the yoga lifestlye? For example, when you speak are your words aligned with the yogic path? Adopting a non-violent style of communication is an important conscious step for yoga practitioners. This speaks to the ability of yoga to transform your personal life because our personal relationships are our foundation.
YG: Related to that last question, there has been some critique within yoga community in recent years for being too inwardly-focused, or glorifying the personal journey at the expense of a healthy engagement in the outer world. What led you to look outwards and commit yourself to teaching and sharing yoga with the world?
KM: At some moment there is no difference between the outer journey and the inward journey because what you seek to share with the world is what you seek to discover within. As you delve deeper and discover new layers of the inner self then you will be drawn outward to share that with others.
YG: There is quite a discussion going on in the blogosphere at the moment about pain and Ashtanga. You talk a little bit about pain in your book - what advice do you have for people who are trying to decide whether to "take it and practice with it" or to "back off if it hurts"?
KM: Pain is an important part of the yoga student’s journey. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that when dukha (suffering) arises it is associated with the purification of obstacles. If you run from every painful circumstance you will create aversion towards pain. Aversion towards pain is a stated obstacle in the Yoga Sutras. That being said, when pain arises we do not necessary need to hunker down and just “take it”. It’s a sign from the body that some obstacle has arisen and we need to develop a new way of relating with that pain. For example, instead of fighting against it or running from it a way to practice when pain arises is simply to “be” with the painful experience, not going any deeper and especially not to the point of injury, but just allowing the pain to be as it is without any judgment, placing the pain in the purity of the light of awareness. If you allow the pain to simply speak to you it might tell you that the muscle fibers are burning but not being hurt or it might tell you that the joint is impinged and that you are at risk of injury. Once you have that clear sight you can take appropriate action that is based on clarity rather than fear. This is the liberation that the practice offers all students.
Pain in the practice is a great teacher of our emotional response to pain in our life. What do you do when you experience uncomfortable life experiences? Do you run, escape, avoid, fight or collapse? The experience of pain in your yoga practice gives you the forum to develop a new neurological response to adversity in life so that when you come face to face with difficulty you will learn how to walk the middle way between attachment and aversion into a clear, strong path forward and appropriate action.
YG: In my review, I mentioned that I’m surprised that your book doesn’t include any mention of contra-indications for the postures, could you explain what your reasoning was behind that choice?
KM: I believe that with practice and careful direction from a teacher all the postures of the Primary Series can be made accessible over time. It is more important for me to focus on technique that will one day lead to your experience of the posture. I gues I believe, perhaps, naively, in the limitless potential of the human spirit and that yog is an expression of that. In my book I advise students to follow the traditional method and not skip ahead more fun looking postures but to stay at their places of difficulty allow those postures to teach them. While there are clearly some medical conditions that requires extreme care, such as people with auto-immune disease, people who have suffered a heart attack or stroke, or diabetics, the postures can be modified to suit their conditions with the guidance of a qualified teacher. Pregnant women can also continue their practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
YG: I really enjoyed the section in your book when you talked about overcoming gender stereotypes (your own and other people's) in your practice. (I was particularly amused by the quote you shared from P. Jois saying that "before, not possible" that women could have performed "correct asana!") One issue that has always brought up passionate discussion in my teacher trainings has been whether or not to practice during your menstrual period. If it's not too personal, would you mind sharing how you deal with this in your personal practice and/or any advice you have for women practitioners?
KM: Guruji advised women to take the days of heaviest flow of the menstrual cycle (usually one to three days) totally off. The downward flow of energy during that period directly opposes the idea of yoga practice which seeks to bring energy up the spine. The ovaries are also in a state of flux during which it is not advised to squeeze on them with the deep work of the bandhas. I’ve noticed that women who practice too regularly during their menstrual cycles sometimes experience disruption of the cycle or even infertility. If a woman wants some activity during the cycle I recommend going for a walk, taking a bike ride or even doing some easy restorative yoga but not the intensive Ashtanga Yoga practice.
YG: Ok, enough of the heavy stuff! You and your husband are not only married but you run Miami Life Center together. I'm marrying my partner and best friend early next year, any advice?
Kino: If you are going to work with your life partner I can suggest to set up clear boundaries for work and private life. Tim and I recently switched roles, where he is now the Director of our yoga center in Miami, Miami Life Center and I am focusing more on developing my own teaching both at the center and in my workshops and trainings. I wanted more time to focus on my writing, my online classes and videos and new ventures that I simply didn’t have time to look at while I was involved in the daily operations of a business.
YG: I travel a lot so I know the importance of getting your luggage right. When you travel, what is in your suitcase that you simply can’t live without?
KM: I am attached to my electronics and I love watching movies on my iPad on longer flights, so I need a constant power source. I always have a power adapter for international travel and a double USB cigarette charger with me to plug into the power outlets on airplanes.
YG: Anything else you'd like to share with us? Such as, your thoughts on chocolate-chip cookies or any great books you've read recently?
KM: My favorite chocolate dessert is a really rich lava cake. I’m a little obsessed with sprouted almonds right now—I think they’re amazing with a little sea salt and dehydrated to be super crunchy.
I love a really good novel. One of my favorite all time books is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Marukami.
Kino MacGregor is an international yoga teacher, author of two books, producer of six Ashtanga Yoga DVDs, writer, vlogger, world traveler, and co-founder of Miami Life Center (www.miamilifecenter.com). You can find details of her current book tour, her books, DVDs, videos and other goodies at www.kinoyoga.com.
Wow. Some amazing and inspirational words there! I suddenly have a massive craving for chocolate cake... What about you, readers?