Thought of the Heart. A summary of my 35 years of yoga teaching written for YTI newsletter Spring 2018Published by paola on Wed, 02/07/2018 - 04:08
Thought of the heart
Philosophising with the body
The term “Journey” has been so over-used in the yoga/therapeutic literature that I had vowed to avoid it at all costs, place a moratorium on it, and find a less jaded substitute. Looking back at 35 years of yoga teaching and training however, it really feels like a journey, or a trip, a voyage…whatever the term, it’s certainly a long time, a circular route rather than a chronological timeline.
Even a circular story needs a starting point. My first unofficial teacher was a young and slightly odd Italian boy, who read broadly and avidly, writing his first riposte to Dante’s Divine Comedy, complete with pencil illustrations by age 8. My brother Gianni was an unusually bright kid, obsessed with culture, exoteric and esoteric, including history, literature, medieval alchemy, symbolism, astronomy, Zen, and astral travel. Together we squinted at people, trying to see their auras, and tried to put into practice Rosicrucian techniques for conscious dreaming, each time falling asleep too deeply to remember anything. Despite the many frustrated attempts at developing psychic powers, it wasn’t all a waste of time, and by the time I was 12 we had read the Tao Te Ching and some texts on Zen, a prelude perhaps to Gianni’s time spent as an apprentice in an Italian Buddhist Zen monastery years later .
My brother’s gift of spiritual thirst was only matched by his love of music, introducing us sisters to his ever-growing collection of contemporary (60s,70’s, 80s) hits from far and wide, thanks to which we also ended up learning English!
Moving from Rome to my mother’s small town in Gran Canaria at age 12 was a big leap and a rough shaking of roots. When I later moved to Ireland in 1985, my roots became truly aerial, I became a cultural hybrid, which wasn’t as common in those days as it is now. Nietzsche said that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and It was embodiment that provided roots through all changes; first with classical dance, then martial arts and finally Hatha Yoga by age 20, physicality provided my grounding. I taught my first yoga classes at age 24 in Guia, my mother’s Canarian town, while I lived in my grandmother’s old house, which overlooked the square, the sea and a mighty volcano. A local official who had heard about my yoga and martial arts practice knocked on the door to ask me to teach in the town’s sports hall. I took to teaching like a fish to water, having by then just completed a course with the GFU (Gran Fraternidad Universal), a South American Yoga school based in Las Palmas. Since then, I’ve never stopped teaching, and teaching has often come to me, which is lucky as I am a pretty lousy business woman. I organised very few classes and, over the years, most just seemed to appear. In Ireland I trained with The IYA, beginning in 1986 and soon finding that I was expecting my twin daughters, Francesca and Amy, who were born in April of 1987. By the end of my second year of training I was expecting my son, Jimmy, born in November ’88. Needless to say, Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, was my main practice in those days. It was a busy time, so much taught in the course; anatomy and physiology, asana, pranayama, meditation, philosophy…a lot to cover, never mind experience in two years! It takes a lifetime, if not several, to filter, integrate and experience some of these practices. It’s common for students to try to become spiritual and to succeed at yoga fast, but this can bring about a dangerous disconnection from the body and from the emotions, what Eugene Gendlin termed “Process skipping”. We need to find our own way through some of the ancient teachings: reading, comparing, and contextualising, then weighing up against our experience before deciding how much if any of it suits us. Didn’t both the Buddha and the great Krishnamurti urge us to always question and to take our time? I studied it all passionately, and it’s taken me decades to digest! The tutors were gifted, especially the unforgettable Maureen Nolan, a dancer and an irrepressibly imaginative and knowledgeable yogini.
It was Maureen who, as soon as I had qualified, encouraged me to take on the role of tutor for the following teacher training course. I immersed myself in this work, training IYA teachers for six years. The learning and the people I met made it all worth it. Outside the TTC, I was exploring meditation with the Dublin Buddhist Centre and later dance improvisation through The Liberation Dance Workshop, run by Kalichi. Both these practices/unofficial trainings continued for over a decade, opening my eyes to Somatics, Isadora Duncan’s work, the writings of James Hillman, Genlin’s Focussing, and many western movement practices. My love of meditation, a desire to learn more about the brain and to better support my students led me to train for two years with the IICH. I qualified as a counsellor and NLP practitioner and learnt the value of images and the imagination in healing. A one year training for teachers with Jenny Beekan “Yoga of the Heart” inspired a desire for fluidity and connectedness. I left the tutoring and I began running my Deepening The Practice course, which the IYA subsequently continued. Later I trained in Body Mind Centering and Authentic Movement with Joan Davies for one year in her beautiful Gorse Hill Centre. It seemed that I had to move away from the straight lines of Iyengar Yoga to the curvilinear dynamics of Somatic movement and dance and engage with the sensory realm, listening to the body. Experiential anatomy, and Focussing, which teaches us to notice our physically held emotions was my practice. Fluidity became central. Alchemy, which offers metaphors for the inner life, presents dissolution or melting as an early stage in the process of transformation. Wilhelm Reich would have agreed… both in body and mind, letting go of muscular, emotional, ideological armouring needs to precede the building of any new strength. Asanas became easy, open and less effortful. Prisons, schools, universities, one to one classes ,yoga in the work place and many other settings were broadening my teaching experience through the years.
Meanwhile, the imagination was stirring, as my children grew I was finding time to draw and paint, even exhibiting and working on commissions. It was my heart, and not my practical mind, that led me to undertake a six year period of study at NCAD, completing a BA in 2012 and an MFA in 2015. During this time, a natural progression took place, and embodied performance art became a core aspect of my art practice. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly coined the term ‘Flow” to describe altered states of perception that can be entered through durational performance art, meditation, and other creative work. I now realise that a need to enter states of flow, to develop intuition and direct perception was the magnet that has pulled me to many things I have embraced in life.
Today both intuition and practical study inform my work. I believe that when people experience deep relaxation and cultivate the relaxation response a natural ethical sense arises independently from religion. When students understand anatomy of movement and practice sensory awareness the map becomes the territory and embodiment happens. We learn from each other and explore together. The main tenets of my yoga philosophy are simple; compassion, awareness and inter-connectedness. Healing is becoming increasingly important to me. Pranayama, meditation, mudras and bandhas have been appearing in my practice quite spontaneously for years and lately I’m sharing some of this with my longer running group. I now value the strength of Iyengar Yoga which I combine with more gentle work. Every effort we put into our yoga we dedicate to the good of all beings, every moment of practice, on and off the mat, benefits the web of connections that is our world.