I first got to meet and attend a workshop with Greg Nardi in Wexford. I was delighted to get to attend another workshop of his, this time in my home city of Galway. Greg is a really wonderful teacher and I learned so much from him. We spoke about his yoga journey with yoga and his draw towards Ashtanga yoga, why he thinks that yoga has the potential to benefit the whole world and the inspiration Greg and his husband Juan Carlos’ Ashtanga Yoga Worldwide yoga shala.
What brought you to yoga?
I had a friend who went for a massage and the therapist was a yoga teacher, he told her to take a yoga class but she didn’t want to go alone so I went along with her. I thought it would be something we would do, have a good laugh and that would be the end of it. However, from the very first class I was blown away and knew that I wanted to do as much as I could, I was 22 when I started.
It seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me. I was asthmatic as a kid and I never felt good in my body, so it was the first time I could do something physical and feel good.
Yoga also inspired me in the sense that there was a spiritual tradition associated with it and that was something I was very interested in. I had mostly been studying Native American studies and different nature based religions as a teenager and so when I found yoga everything just seemed to come together.
I practiced as much as I could when I started, I just dove in. I was taking four classes a day to begin with, which was probably a bit extreme but you know when you love something you want to get as much as you can. It eventually became a bit more balanced and I gravitated towards ashtanga yoga. I’ve been practicing Ashtanga yoga regularly now for 18 years.
Within a year of practicing Ashtanga I went to India where I met Pattabhi Jois. I thought that it would be something that you do once in your life but when you meet someone like Pattabhi Jois who has that impact on your life you want to go back. He was 84 when I met him and I didn’t know how long I would have with him, so I went back every year for about 10 years before he passed away.
Did you have an idea of yoga before you began practicing?
I went to my first class in 1996 so the yoga boom hadn’t really hit. There was some yoga available but it was mainly in big cities in the United States. When I went and I took this yoga class I guess I knew that it came from India, that it was very old and that it was a spiritual tradition. I didn’t really understand the relationship between the physical practice that we were doing and all of this other stuff. I think that was something that took me a very long time to understand- how it all made sense as a system.
I knew I loved the practice and I tried a lot of things on but I wasn’t sure of the relationship between chanting and kirtan and studying texts and what all of this had to do with yoga.
There are also a lot of new-age things that get mixed in with yoga so it took me a long time to figure out how that all fit together. I guess I assumed that when I first went into a yoga class that whatever they were doing must be yoga – I didn’t know that there were different styles of yoga and that was the process of educating myself over time.
I knew that the studios that I seemed to like the best and that I had the strongest connection with had this idea of lineage, being associated with a particular teacher – typically an Indian teacher. I was always looking for the most authentic form of yoga and when I found Ashtanga yoga it felt really intense and it had this lineage associated with it and it made me feel really great, so that was the one I gravitated towards.
I used to do all sorts of things, like meditation classes, and one of my first teachers was a Bhakti yogi so he had a guru and he led us through meditations and talked to us a lot about the more spiritual aspects of trying to transcend the ego through service. I guess I got that aspect of yoga from early on.
How would you say your perception of yoga has changed since you began practicing yoga from your perception of yoga now?
It has changed a lot, in that I have got more clear.
In the beginning I was very enthusiastic and I wanted to get as much yoga as I could but I didn’t really understand that there were actually discreet traditions within yoga. Also that some of what is being done in yoga doesn’t necessarily come from the yoga tradition but perhaps from other spiritual traditions that people have been interested in, whether through the chinese system, shamanism, the new-age system, religion, paganism – all of these things that can get mixed in with yoga.
I think I went through a lot of phases where I was very in love with yoga and then very frustrated with yoga as I wouldn’t really understand some of these contradictions that I would see in yoga. That was one of the things that helped me find more peace within my yoga practice, understanding that there are discreet traditions within it and you don’t have to do everything. I have sort of been able to settle on those things that resonate with me and support each other and let go, without judgement, of those things that don’t seem as useful to me.
Did you find that your lifestyle changed when you got into yoga?
Oh God yes!
So when I was a teenager I wasn’t the healthiest person in the world – I was sick and asthmatic and really struggled for that reason. So as a teenager I think I almost rebelled against that feeling sick and I felt like I should be able to do anything and so I partied an awful lot and smoked cigarettes and went clubbing, all that stuff.
When I started yoga I was kind of cleaning up my act but I was still doing some of that sort of stuff, like when I first started yoga I was still smoking for instance and eating fast food. The interesting thing was that I had been interested in healthier living for a while before yoga but I was never able to follow through, so when I started to do yoga it was something that just started to happen really naturally. I was feeling really good from doing yoga and I just had this sort of intuitive sense of things that would bring me down and I felt a distaste for it. Eventually I gave up smoking without a whole lot of difficulty, I became a vegetarian and gravitated towards healthier living generally – it was all in flow, it wasn’t a strict discipline thing.
And mentally? Your attitude towards life?
I have always been inclined towards a spiritual view of life ever since I was young, it was just something that was natural for me. When I found yoga I felt like I was let in on a little secret, that there were other people who felt similar to me and that was exciting. In the beginning that was very motivating for me, but also I think it was a little imbalanced because I felt like my yoga was trying very hard to become enlightened and trying very hard to be a good person.
What I realised is that this can lead you to become a more judgemental person because you think ‘I’m so spiritual or healthy and other people aren’t’. Over time I think the transformation has been that I am more content and more accepting of myself, not trying to always change myself but I just know myself really well.
If I feel like I am being somehow unhealthy I just make a change – not in a judgemental way but because it feels like the right thing to do, whereas before it seemed to come with all sorts of negative feelings. As I’ve been able to adopt that attitude with myself I’ve been able to adopt that attitude with others as well. I’m not so interested in what others are doing but just wanting to support them if they are interested.
What is your background in yoga?
I have been practicing yoga for 20 years. The first two years was with a teacher that was a mixture of yoga and chinese medicine. Then I had the influence of the Bhakti yoga teacher and I studied Shiatsu massage, so all of that was very formative in the first two years and it gave me a really strong foundation before I found ashtanga yoga. I still feel after all of these years that this foundation really influences my teaching and how I look at bodies and give adjustments.
I found Ashtanga yoga about 18 years ago and I have pretty much been married to it. I have had other influences but generally I feel like ashtanga is my home base, its how I understand yoga and how I process whatever the journey is that we are on.
Chanting and philosophy is a big part of your practice, did that just come naturally?
When I came to ashtanga it wasn’t that I was looking for a more physical practice, I was more inclined towards a more spiritual practice. I would say that has been something that I have been interested in all along and gradually I started to refine my awareness. I asked Pattabhi Jois if I should read the yoga sutras and he said “No”! He said I will just be confused and so I started reading three hatha yoga books that he recommended.
Every time I went to India, as there is such great teachers in Mysore, I would take different classes – Bhagavad Gita classes or Yoga Sutra classes. At some point I was managing Miami Life Centre and we wanted to offer some philosophy classes, so I started to study yoga philosophy more intensely so that I could teach it. That’s when I really began to seek out teachers and learn how to chant, it was a very natural progression and an obvious next step.
I have found chanting to be one of my primary practices, obviously I do my asana every day but there is something that happens when I am chanting that my mind becomes very clear and open and that for me gives me as much fulfillment as any other form of yoga.
You travel a lot for teaching- do you find there is a difference among the students in different parts of the world, or teaching in different countries?
Yeah, for sure there are differences wherever you go. People’s personalities are different, the culture around the teacher is different – some people are more outgoing or more reserved when a teacher is around.
Generally, I find that most of the concerns that people have tend to be the same. There are certain things that people are interested in or certain obstacles that people have, no matter where they are. To me one of the great things about reading yoga philosophy is that they talk about things that are really relevant to everyone no matter where you are in the world – like everyone wants to be happier, everybody generally has questions about their relationships, these are very general concerns.
Physically, depending on the part of the world, body genetics or proportions may differ. I think that has also really influenced how I teach asana, I don’t try and make everybody do the same thing in the same way. You have to take into account that in one culture or in one climate your practice is going to hold certain challenges that it won’t in another place or with another genetic profile.
If you don’t take that into consideration then you are not really doing the yoga, I think the yoga is a mirror that we use to reflect upon ourselves. If you aren’t seeing yourself and learning about yourself as you go through the practice then it is just a physical practice or physical exercise. If we aren’t respecting or looking at what is coming up in our mind or in our body then we are missing a great opportunity because that is the yoga, its not what you are doing but how you are reacting to what is coming up when you are doing it and what you can learn in the process.
Would you like to talk about your inspiration behind opening your yoga centre, Asthanga Yoga Worldwide, next year?
My husband and I have been travelling around a lot for the past few years. My husband is from Panama and as the US didn’t recognise our marriage legally I couldn’t sponsor him for citizenship, so when his visa ran out we had to leave the US. Now that the laws have changed in the US we are moving back there and we have the opportunity to open a yoga centre together, which is a really amazing dream. Its something I have wanted to do for a really long time.
What I enjoy is being able to establish a community and create resources for people who want to live this lifestyle and work on themselves. Being with people everyday is fulfilling in a different way than the way workshops are fulfilling. Workshops are great because you get to see people really change in a short period of time and everyone is really happy but then you leave and you don’t really get to see the after-part of that. When you see people everyday you get to see that transformation over a long period of time and see people making bonds and there is just something really beautiful that can happen.
We have called it Ashtanga Yoga Worldwide and its in a really beautiful place in Fort Lauderdale in Florida, where it is warm and sunny all the time. We want to be able to have a home community and create a space where people we have met along out travels can come and share workshops and retreats.
I guess after 20 years of practice I feel really inspired to nurture the next generation of teachers. Of course we know that in Ashtanga yoga there is no teacher training other than to work with a senior teacher, build a strong practice over a long time and then you go to Mysore and eventually Sharath will give you permission to teach. What I want to do is to nurture that process of people who are interested in becoming teachers and to offer them a long-term apprenticeship. It would be instead of a teacher training where you come in and you are qualified to teach in a short period of time, I think we need to raise the standard of admission.
I think you should have an established practice already before you decide if you want to teach. I think that its great and useful to get all the hours of anatomy and philosophy but I think that there is nothing that replaces the ability to shadow a senior teacher. I want to give people the benefit of all of that, they will get all of the training and workshops they need, they will get their own home practice and for those who express an interest they can shadow myself and Juan Carlos for a long period of time.
For me that would really offer something useful to the yoga community and how we are going to grow. The last 20 years has been about spreading yoga around the world and now its everywhere I think we need to think about how we are going to give it strong roots and build better foundations for it.
Do you think that making a trip to India is important as a yoga practitioner? Have you found India has had an impact on your yoga practice?
For me personally India has had a massive impact in a lot of ways. I have met a lot of really really wonderful teachers who have not had the opportunity to go to India because of family or other commitments but who have also had the benefit of working with a senior teacher for a long period of time and they have become really great teachers.
I don’t think its the only way to become a good teacher. Part of going to India is that you are out of the context of your home and so therefore you get to learn parts of yourself that maybe you wouldn’t if you weren’t at home.
India tends to be a place that brings up a lot for people and so you really get to see your responses and reactions to that. I think India is the birth place of yoga and there is so much in India that you don’t have to learn it intellectually or experience it through thinking – you are just immersed in the experience of it and it works on you in a fundamental way. You go to pujas and you see the devotion – you see all of the chaos and how there is a harmony that underlies it. It just seems to all work out in the end.
There is that lovely experience of feeling that you can just let go into the experience of life and somehow it will work out in the end.
Anything else you would like to say about yoga?
Its pretty great. I think one of the things that people should consider is that yoga is an incredibly personal experience. Its something that is really all about you, but not in the typical egocentric way but more that you have to learn about yourself and come to terms with who you are – the good parts and the bad parts.
Somehow you learn to take yourself a little less seriously and I think there is something really beautiful about that. Its this incredibly individual and personal experience but there is also this real communal aspect to it. Its very much not just about who I am but who I am in relation to others. As I start to understand who I am, who I am in relation to others and how I start to shape myself in relationship to others then we sort of start to come to this real understanding of our interdependence of how we really don’t exist separately from the world that we live in .
I think that this is something we often forget in the modern world and a lot of the problems that we are faced with are a direct result of that forgetting. That for me is the main reason why I would like to see yoga spreading, because I would like people to really come to terms with the fact that we are all in this together. We need each other, we have to take care of the planet that we live on and yoga is a really wonderful tool to learn that, if you allow it to be.
I think yoga has this amazing potential to give benefit to the world and I just really hope that as we move forward as a yoga community that we bring that potential out. Yoga could end up just being another fancy trend but i think it could be so much more and it is something so much more.
All of the practitioners who work on themselves and support one another in communities around the world and help one another, we are the ones who get to decide whether this is going to be something that is going to really impact the world in a beautiful way or not and I just want to see more people wake up to that fact or that reality.
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