How did you first get interested in yoga? A good friend of mine had been raving about yoga for a few months. One day in 1992 I walked into a random class at the original Jivamukti studio in NYC. I had no idea that my life was about to change. I was going to check it out from a purely physical standpoint, having been a dancer for 15 years. After my first class I literally never stopped practicing. Yoga became my main physical practice. Very soon I realized there was a LOT more to it than just the physical intensity I had been craving.
How has yoga changed your life? Yoga has changed me in every way. I became vegetarian, I started meditating and chanting, I immediately became certified as a teacher within a year of practicing. Yoga has given me, and continues to give me tools for living in a way that has integrity and reconciles the seeming disparity between the inner world and the outer world. I have become a more gentle, compassionate, patient and loving person as a result of my practice.
Do you have any advice for people who enjoy yoga, but have trouble finding the time for it? 5 minutes makes a difference. Do one pose. Sit quietly. Any effort toward practice is relevant. And sometimes we have to prioritize and let other things go if we really want to make the time for yoga. For me it’s about realizing what is most affirming and important in my life, and trying to put those things at the center.
Could you please tell us what a Doula is, and what it has been like for you doing this type of work? A Doula is a woman who provides support to a woman during labor and childbirth. I work with women during their pregnancies to provide information and approaches that will help them to surrender to the laboring process and have a positive experience of birth. Being a doula is extremely intense and rewarding. It is amazing to go through this particular rite of passage with a family, and to help hold presence and awareness over a long period of time, as births can often last an average of 12-20 hours. My yoga practice has helped me really sink in to the moment with laboring women, and to allow the physiological processes to unfold in their own time.
What was the most memorable experience you’ve had teaching yoga? I taught yoga at a community college in a relatively low income area many years ago. There was a man in class who had recently been released from prison for a minor non-violent offense. He described an experience where after doing yoga in class, he got into his car, put on classical music (which he had never done before) and felt a tremendous inner peace. He said he had a whole new understanding of the events that led him to prison. That made a huge impact on me. I realized this practice works in big and small ways, often mysterious.
What advice do you usually give to expecting mothers who wish to continue a yoga practice during their pregnancy? I feel that pregnant women who have a strong practice can continue in regular classes (as opposed to specifically prenatal classes) through month 7 or 8. They need to modify poses to accommodate the changing shape of their bodies, but having done this myself 8 years ago, it’s pretty possible. Most important is to not overstretch, especially the hip and low back ligaments. There is a chemical in the body called relaxin that starts opening and softening the pelvis for birth. While it can feel good to stretch deeply, it is not the healthiest action over time, as we don’t want to create instability in the joints just from overstretching. Women should be more conservative at this time and not go to their maximum edge.
What would you say is the goal of yoga? I would say it’s about being a more aware and kind and compassionate person. I believe the physical poses help refine and clarify the energy body, and give us access to tremendous amounts of feeling. This sensitivity can be a wonderful way to deepen our acts of generosity and loving kindness.
What does the spiritual aspect of yoga mean to you? It means that I’m tapping in to the whole range of what is possible as a human being, in a physical body. I’m attempting to know that there is more to this life than what is visible on the material plane. And this points back to the answer to the second question. When I hold an awareness of something larger than just myself, I find that I regularly experience the magic and mystery of life as it unfolds. Curiosity and inspiration and joy are always nearby.
Do you think there’s anything wrong with people wanting to approach yoga as purely a physical exercise? Not at all! Hatha (physical) yoga is fun and intense and compelling for all sorts of reasons. I myself came to it from the perspective of looking for a new physical experience. The interesting thing is that I have never seen anyone stick with yoga and NOT find themselves drawn to the more reflective and meditative practices as well. I believe at a certain point it’s almost impossible to separate out the physical benefits from the spiritual elements that are at the root of all yoga practices, no matter how distilled or westernized.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in yoga and looking for a class? Try to find a class and a teacher that offers some specific instruction of the poses. It can be fun to jump into a sweaty vinyasa class with great music, but those classes generally move too quickly for a beginner to get in and out of the poses with good alignment, and this is the main cause of injury in my opinion. Once a student has enough knowledge of basic alignment in the foundational poses, there is a lot out there to explore. While it may take a while to find the right class or teacher, I do believe that there is a suitable option for everyone who would like to practice.
Thanks Rachel, for giving us your insights. You can contact Rachel at her website for more information about her services as a yoga teacher and birth doula in the Bay area. I’m sure she would love it if you follow her on Twitter too.