1 As a woman, a mother and a yoga practitioner, tell me what do you find the most important teaching you’ve discovered from this practice and what would you share to those who are on this path?
In all three of those roles, my yoga practice has helped me to have patience, to let go, and to rest in the ease of realizing that I cannot control everything/others. That I am not perfect, and I can love myself as an imperfect human being. Being perfect is not possible. Hey, wait…who defined what is “perfect” anyway?
I began yoga because I felt “out of control” and stressed by this feeling. I wanted more control. I wanted everything to go my way and more smoothly. I was a single parent, in graduate school, in the last year of working on my doctorate, and in my fourth year of care-giving for difficult parents. Yikes! I looked in the phone book under “Yoga” and found the shala where I still practice today, twenty years later. Yoga “saved my life!” What it did, actually, was not “save” my old life but give me a new, happier, healthier one. I learned to forgive myself for not being “perfect” and to love myself as I am. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t work on and practice new behaviors, ways to live more in harmony with self and world. I do. Loving myself has brought so much love from others to me. My practice taught me self-acceptance, self-love, and courage from within. Now, I am okay with things being “out of control” and not always going the way I would like. I can breathe through this and smile. My way isn’t necessarily the best way, even for me!
I met my Guru, Swami Brahmadeo, through ashtanga on my first trip to Mysore in 2003. He told me: “Cultivate Divine Love and Divine Fearlessness. If you have enough, you share. If you don’t have enough, you keep for yourself.” More and more, I have enough to share and do. At age 73 I feel strongly that Divine Fearlessness is about acknowledging fear and cultivating the courage to face fears and go on. This helps with aging, which is hard work, and with a closer relationship to one’s own approaching death. Divine Courage. I feel brave.
I teach for seva, for service, in order to share the joy of this path and the knowledge that this practice truly works and brings courage and joy from within. So much so that then you have enough to share with others.
What I can share with fellow ashtanga yoga practitioners (and others) is that an ordinary, regular person can follow this path and it works. I am not a dancer, gymnast, flexible/athletic person. I had severe asthma and allergies until I started yoga at 56; I was in and out of hospitals and on multiple shots and medications. All of which stopped 6 months after beginning yoga.
I am not someone you will see on YouTube or Instagram. No poses in front of temples or in skimpy clothing! I do ordinary, daily ashtanga as part of my ordinary, daily life. I don’t do anything fancy or amazing. Haven’t ever had my own shala; I have almost always taught for seva, for free. I have had both hips replaced due to osteoarthritis and cataract surgery on both eyes. My ordinary practice continued pre-surgery and post-surgery. And it has healed me in mind and body always. My sadhana helps me live and will help me die. In this I have faith. This is what I can share with others.
2 What is Feminism to you? How do you feel women can support each other?
In the old days I was angry. In the nineteen sixties I marched; I burned; I argued. Angry at limitations, so many things I knew were not right, not equal, not fair. Now I work through karma yoga and do what I can. There is less attachment to outcome. The anger fell away.
As Patti Smith said, “As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.”
We help each other find our own voices. We listen to each other and bear witness. We speak as truthfully as possible to ourselves and to each other. We do this with every person.
3 In ashtanga practice, how do you feel we can keep the community strong and supportive for one another?
After 22 years of care-giving (care-giving is tapas, karma yoga), when the last parent died, I moved back to Louisville, Kentucky, where I first began my practice. I moved back here because of, and for, the community. We support and love each other in so many ways. This foundation of community forms a continuous feedback loop, where each interaction (including disagreements or challenges) weaves another strong fiber in what David Orr (an environmental writer) calls the woven vessel of community.
When I worked as a therapist, I was told that the most punishing thing one can do is to remove yourself, to take away your presence/your caring from another. We show up. We show up for each other.
Bessel van der Kolk writes in The Body Keeps the Score that we need someone’s face to “light up” when they see us. Especially if we did not have this as a child. In our yoga community, our faces light up when we see each other. This is healing. This enables us to feel safe in our bodies. We must feel safe enough in our bodies, in ourselves, to be vulnerable and open. Yoga provides this safe ground, and the yoga community lets us be open and visible to each other as we are. The practice makes everything visible, mind and body, which can be scary. The practice builds the courage to take the risk of being visible. When we are visible, we see each other, and we see how vulnerable we all are. Yoga and a community shala provide the safe home for this to occur.
Our faces light up; we see each other.
4 With this practice we are constantly challenging ourselves both mind and body. This requires a lot of self-discipline, focus and consistency in our daily routine. In these moments we are opening ourselves up, we are vulnerable and processing whatever emotions that arise. What would be your advice in these situations? What did you find helpful to you?
Breathe. Have faith. Faith in your sadhana; faith in yourself.
5 In this modern world we are surrounded by distractions, whether it’s the constant stream of negative news, social media and the perfectly manufactured image of how to live life, our appearance and body shaming. It has the power to knock us off balance. How do we nourish ourselves? How do we find acceptance?
We can limit our exposure and choose our sources carefully. Decrease time online, on social media; pick mailings carefully (no magazines, no catalogs!). Increase time with our supportive community and our practice, our sadhana. We practice choosing our words carefully because we are powerful. Words are powerful. We can let each other know how much we care, how much we love and appreciate each other.
When I finish practice, I say the closing mantras and after rest, I say ones from Swami Muktananda’s book Play of Consciousness: punyo’ham, punyakarma’ham, sankalparahito’ham (I am virtuous, I am a doer of good deeds, I am without desire). Muktananda suggests these as a counter to the many messages from inside and outside that we are not good, not enough, not “perfect.” These words help me pay less attention to the “stream of negative news” and were especially important to me as a caregiver when no matter what I did, it never seemed enough.
6 Who are the women that inspire you; who are the women that you admire?
For me it is the unexpected moment of grace that may occur at any time, any place. It could be a man, woman, or child…. or it could be an animal, music, nature. There are those moments when heart speaks to heart. These are often brief and unexpected. I am inspired by and admire anyone who lets themselves be seen, who can listen and speak heart to heart. This goes beyond gender, race, culture, time. This is soul food.
One New Year’s Day I was walking home after practice in Gokulam and an elderly man approached me. He came right up to me and took my hands in his. “God bless you,” he said fervently. “God bless you.” “God bless you.” We looked in each other’s eyes and said this to each other several times. Then we parted.
Pay attention, I tell myself. This is happening all around you. All the time.
7 What are your daily rituals and routines that you feel ground you?
My routines are a work in progress. What I do is evolving and is different year to year as I learn more about what works for me. My rituals have evolved from several sources: Swami Brahmadeo and his Vedic gurukula, Om Shantidhama, my beloved teacher Shri Sharathji, and my studies. My rituals and routines are personal ones from many sources.
I wake up early, around 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. I light a beeswax candle and chant (usually one to Ganesha, the Gayatri nine times, asatoma three times, the peace mantra, and the mritunjaya mantra three times). No radio, no phone checking. I go to my shala, Yoga East. Lately I have been opening the shala- I enjoy this. I start my Mysore asana practice around 5:30 or 5:45 and finish around 7:30. I finish the practice with Lokananda samadhi sukham, also from Swami Muktananda, the bliss of this world is the sweetness of samadhi. Prostrating, I say, I am blessed Then I help adjust if needed until around 8:15. Many days we then have chanting for about one hour. .
My days are quiet- I write (am writing about ashtanga and aging with Lynne Pinette from Brussels), garden, read, cook, play the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute). I cook all my own food; I rarely eat out. My food choices are based on my own guidelines for environmental ethics, as are my clothing and purchasing choices. I usually eat only one full meal a day- around 1-2 p.m. Sometimes a snack of something around 5 p.m.
If my son visits, I watch videos and shows online with him- our way of bonding! He enjoys exposing me to other ways of life! He must explain a lot to me…. I don’t have television and am an old fogey.
I like to be quiet for several hours before bed- reading, sitting- then bed by around 7:30 or 8 p.m. At 73 this routine is relatively easy for me to keep. I am in a different life stage than most ashtanga practitioners.
Now, you must realize, it wasn’t always this easy. As a care-giver I had to sleep with the phone next to the bed and often got calls at all hours of the night from the nursing home. I was a care-giver for 22 years; ten of those years I drove once a month, 7 hours each way, to Virginia to take care of my parents- shower my mother, get groceries, etc. At that time, I was working in the University of Louisville. After those ten years I moved to where my parents were and where I had never lived (or wanted to live). I left my yoga community, my job, sold my house. It was rough. I could not have done this without my sadhana. I tried to keep to my routine as much as possible and it got easier- things dropped away. I have done my asana practice in the nursing home, in my father’s intensive care unit room, in hallways…. I chanted while my mother died and while my father died twelve years later.
8 What makes you feel safe and secure?
My practice. Chanting. My rituals and routine. I did not grow up in a safe space and was very insecure. When I am having “a dark night of the soul,” the St. John of the Cross term, I pay even more attention to my routines and those dark nights become less dark, shorter and shorter, and happen more rarely. They still happen but I am more confident of what to do. You know, this stuff, this practice really works!
9 Which element of nature do you feel most connected to?
Because I struggle with vata imbalances, with air and wind, the element I work daily to feel connected to is earth. Earth is the most important connection for me to make. When I was younger, sometimes, I needed to actually lie down on the ground to feel safe. My dreams were often that I was bouncing higher and higher in the air until I realized with horror that I could not get back down (typical vata type dream!). Haven’t had those in a long time. Gardening has always been important to me- I love the smell of dirt; I love growing things. This literally grounds me.
For the element fire, in my diet I choose foods that will increase my fire, which otherwise is very low.
My family of origin is one of water scientists. My mother loved animals and nature but people not so much. Both of my parents were on the autism spectrum. In the nursing home, when asked, “How are you, Dr. Cairns?” my father would answer, “I am a biological organism in an advanced state of decay.” I’m not sure why I am telling you this story, except that for me it demonstrates an awareness I had from childhood of our connections to all the elements and to ourselves as part of nature.
10 Our energy is always shifting in our monthly practice, as female practitioners when we receive our “ladies’ holiday,” whether it’s a seasonal change or when we travel to different climates. How can we find a balance and a grounding when we feel these changes happen?
Because I started yoga long after menopause, at age 56, I was not so aware of the effect of hormonal changes. I remember Saraswati telling me that when I feel tired to take an “old ladies’ holiday.” Seasonal changes affect me strongly, though, as do Moon Days, windy days, traveling. I am very prone to vata disturbances which manifest in the usual way: disturbed sleep, constipation, anxiety, and general lack of juiciness. I might feel old, tired, and dried up! And, of course, as we age, vata increases.
My sadhana has taught me ways to help myself balance and ground through these disturbances. I do well with routine. I get up, chant, practice, eat the foods that I know will decrease vata (goodbye, popcorn; hello, warm and oily foods), limit time online and on the phone, live quietly, go to bed early and get up early.
This routine is more possible at my stage of life, of course. I don’t have a job; my son is grown. But even when I first started practicing, I found these routines important and during care-giving even more important. I feel so much better when I follow these life-style routines that, again, form a positive feedback loop. It becomes easier and easier to do. And very full of joy….