Tuesday, December 25, 2012

1968, Meditation and Obstinate Faith: A Litany of Daisy Chains for Dear Prudence

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns in Rishikesh, front row left

I have a set of pushpins squeezed into a pretend timeline in my mind. It’s linear (only for the sake of order) and runs left to right (convention). Anyway, on it, several crucial dates are pinpointed. It’s like those maps of the world people have on their inspiration corkboards with pushpins that represent every place they’d like to go. If I could fling myself back to one year on that ridiculously reductive line, it would be 1968. My reasons are myriad – I won’t start that list. But a good number of those reasons started flooding back to me when I spoke at length to American yoga and meditation teacher, author and film producer Prudence Farrow Bruns.

Prudence Anne Villiers Farrow Bruns is the daughter of film director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, and the younger sister of actress Mia Farrow. She also happens to be the subject of the breathtaking Beatles song “Dear Prudence."
On January 23, 1968, Farrow, along with her sister Mia and brother John, traveled with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from New York to India and then to the Maharishi's ashram in Rishikesh, India for a Transcendental Meditation teacher training course. The Beatles arrived shortly thereafter, on February 16 and 20. Farrow became so serious about her meditation while in India, that she turned into a near recluse, rarely coming out of the cottage she was living in. As a result, Lennon wrote the song “Dear Prudence.”

Prudence Farrow Bruns
Farrow taught Trancendental Meditation for several decades after her teacher training course in India. She received her BA, MA and PhD in South and Southeast Asian studies from University of California at Berkeley. Her doctoral dissertation was on pulse diagnosis, titled Nadivijnana, the Crest-Jewel of Ayurveda: A Translation of Six Central Texts and an Examination of the Sources, Influences and Development of Indian Pulse-Diagnosis. She has also worked in film production, with credits including The Muppets Take Manhattan of 1984 and The Purple Rose of Cairo of 1985, with Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen.  She also conceived and co-produced the 1994 film Widow’s Peak.  Farrow became a magazine writer in the 2000s. Using her married name, Prudence Bruns, she has authored articles on Asian studies, world religions, ayurveda, and healthy living. She has presented at conferences and held teaching positions at the University of California at Berkeley, Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin. She has taught Transcendental Meditation in Northwest Florida since 1970.

Occasionally, -like anyone not enough advanced in their yoga practice to be able to inhabit two (or more) lives at once- I lament that there must be a way to bend time, to live exponentially. And so it is with remarkable candour and detail that Prudence talks to us about her travels and experiences circa 1968. She relates the seismic impact of a spiritual experience that followed on the heels her father’s death, her unbroken loyalty to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, what the song “Dear Prudence” meant to her, the miracle she requested (and received) at Lourdes, teaching asana to Andy Kaufman, and the story behind her very name, a name which she notes, “fashioned my destiny.”
"I was sitting around my brother’s house reading a book on meditation because I was obsessed with it. It didn’t really make sense, but I was obsessed with it and he came up and he said, “What are you reading?” And I said, “I’m reading a book on meditation.” And he said “So, you’re interested in meditation...”
And somehow when he said that, I just felt... But I felt something happen and I just KNEW that I was hearing something that would have profound effects on my life..." (Prudence Farrow Bruns)


Monday, October 29, 2012

Kundalini Yoga Teacher Simran Khalsa Asks: Why Poverty?

Simran Khalsa

 T he West end YMCA in Toronto held a staff meeting for its yoga instructors a few weeks ago. Across the table sat Simran Khalsa, the kundalini yoga teacher who, a few years back, had watched my life's rougher patches play out in yoga postures week by week, class by class. He was grinning as he looked across the oval board room table and said:

"Hey, I hear about your classes from one of my students... I've been meaning to come and check it out but haven't had time!" Then he turned to the instructor next to him and said: "You know she and I are born on the same day. We have the same birthday!"
There was something so comforting about seeing Simran in his trademark white kundalini garb and running shoes years later, radiating all things exceptional and simple.

I stepped into Simran's class accidentally while I was writing a 'novel' a few years ago. I would leave my house in the west end every morning, just to get out of the reach of its four walls. Then I would head to the Y with no real objective apart from sitting for hours at a time in view of a pool in which the voices of children and swim instructors echoed and dissipated behind flawless glass. I spent hours writing poolside, drawing childlike fragments... images in yellow, poppy and powder blue with colored pencils, until it became clear that mine was not a novel so much as a children's storybook about things you'd rather not tell children, or some unruly derivative of 'Life or Theatre' a la Charlotte Salomon.

One day, I was either out of things to say, or just too tired to write anymore that I walked past the treadmills and up a flight of stairs. There was a paper schedule tacked outside a closed door which read, "Kundalini yoga." For the next year I went to Simran's class three times a week, awkwardly making my way through postures that were unrelenting, trying my best to accommodate whatever emotional/mental states might erupt during 'breath of fire'. Simran always warned that breath of fire was provocative - it would test you, try your nerves before it calibrated them. Not unlike incoming tropical storm Sandy (it should hit Toronto in the next few hours) you didn't get into it without bracing yourself.

Anyway, this video was sent around at the west end YMCA this morning. It was made by Geoff Bowie, a Canadian filmmaker, longtime student of Simran's, and a regular in our classes. As you can see, Simran is - well, just plain special. I'm thrilled that Geoff has put this together and I have every intention of chatting with him in the near future to see if he and Simran would consent to an interview with this blog. 

Until then, below is Simran Khalsa's answer to "Why Poverty" on TVO. If you are on an ipad or iphone, click here for a non-flash version.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Do Yogis Still Fly? Fables and Flightpaths of the Itinerant Yogi: An Interview with Jim Mallinson PhD

Sir William James Mallinson PhD, self-portrait
Dr. Jim Mallinson and Balyogi Shri Ram Balak Das

B ob Dylan, birds, planes, yogis. Motorcycles, birds, magicians, yogis.
Backpackers, soothsayers, wandering mendicants, paragliding pilots, and of course, yogis.

  A “musical expeditionary” if you recall, is what the always touring, ever-itinerant Bob Dylan wanted to be (for anyone who has seen the Scorcese documentary No Direction Home). Birds, (especially the aquatic kind, or hamsa) have long been associated with enlightenment and the migrant yogi. I don’t need to mention the complicated relationship modern yoga has had with travelling magicians, soothsayers and backpackers in the trippy 60s. So why does postural yoga so often focus on physical stillness when the yogi - if we take tales of the yogi in Tantric mythology seriously-, is the consummate vagabond: traversing geographic boundaries with ease, and even entering, inhabiting and exiting other human bodies imperceptibly? What is the relationship between movement and stillness given that those who may have devised yoga were likely themselves wanderers?

This is something Dr. Willam James Mallinson is uniquely well-suited to explain. Although he has never practiced his postural yoga in a modern studio environment (save for once with Danny Paradise), he does have a thing or two to say about itinerant sadhus and modern practice. And this is a good time to listen to what he has to say: If you haven't already heard, yoga scholars Dr. Mark Singleton (previously interviewed on this blog) and Dr. Jim Mallinson have teamed up to put together a corpus of hatha yoga texts aimed at the modern practitioner entitled Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions. The Kickstarter initiative to fund this new set of yoga texts has just sixteen days left towards its goal of raising $50,000. As of today, the campaign is just shy of the halfway mark, meaning the next modest contribution through Kickstarter could get the project airborne.

William James Mallinson, Bt., DPhil., is an Indologist specialising in the Indian yoga and yogi traditions. His main method is textual studies – he has studied Sanskrit since his undergraduate work at Oxford. His ethnographic research comprises almost a decade living in India, most of which was in the company of itinerant yogis and ascetics. From 2002-2008 he worked for the Clay Sanskrit Library as its most prolific translator, completing six volumes of translations of Sanskrit poetry. His prizewinning MA thesis at The School of Oriental and African Studies in 1992-93 was on the place of the ascetic yogi in Indian society. His DPhil at Oxford, which was supervised by the world’s leading scholar of Tantra, Dr. Alexis Sanderson, was a critical edition of a fourteenth-century text on a key technique of haṭhayoga, namely khecarīmudrā. The thesis was revised for publication in 2007 in the Routledge Tantric Studies Series. In 2010 it was reprinted in paperback and an Indian edition was published.

In addition, Mallinson has a non-scholarly book on his time living with yogis in India currently placed with the London literary agents Gillon Aitken. A documentary film which Mallinson devised, associate produced and co-presented, The Beginner's Guide to Yoga, was broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 in 2007. In February 2013 he will film a documentary on The Original Yogis at the Kumbh Mela, to be co-presented with actor Dominic West. He has most recently been asked to advise on the Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibition to be held in Washington DC late next year, for which he is also to write a catalogue essay on the depiction of yogis in medieval miniatures. He is currently collaborating with the photographer Cambridge Jones on an illustrated history of yoga.

In honour of Mark and Jim’s Roots of Yoga project I interviewed Dr. Jim Mallinson at some length about the Kickstarter initiative and his ongoing scholarly research. But instead, as you will see, our conversation weaves through some unsuspected terrain. A self-described “contrarian” who began studying Sanskrit as a teen, Mallinson is also an avid paraglider pilot who won the British Open in 2006 and recently captained the south of Britain against the north in the 2011 inaugural North-South Cup. Add to this an expertise in filmmaking, a non-scholarly book project in the works and a more than casual interest in juggling and you have what I suspect one might call a polymath yoga expeditionary.

Dr. Jim Mallinson, photos: Claudia

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Work, Play and a Certain Come What May: Monica Voss of Esther Myers Yoga Studio

Monica Voss, Co-Owner and director of Esther Myers Studio, Toronto

T he Esther Myers Yoga Studio in Toronto features a bright wall of windows facing north. Occasional trains pass; low rumbling sounds gather into cacophony and then flit into silence again. The day I attended a morning class, there was a rustle, a nervous tapping sound somewhere in the room before Monica Voss made a suggestion: “On the next exhale see if you want to make a sound. Perhaps you want to yawn”. She asked gently once again. The room yawned awake, shuffled and stretched. I looked up and saw the flashing outline of Voss' spikey Laurie Anderson meets Edward Scissorhands mop as she repeated the request: “If you’d like to yawn once more.” We repeated. And then she asked us to repeat it again.

Monica Voss began her yoga studies in 1978 with Esther Myers, trained to teach with Esther, and has been teaching at the Esther Myers Studio in Toronto since 1981. She came to yoga with a background in drama and movement and has degrees in English Literature and Education. Monica studied with Vanda Scaravelli from 1986-1998. Moving into the poses using the rhythm of the breath and the support of the ground resonates deeply for her and she continues to draw inspiration from Vanda’s and Esther’s teaching, from the natural world, from complementary modalities, from study, and from interaction and dialogue with students and colleagues. Monica has received additional tutelage from Mary Stewart in London, England, Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten, Edward Espe Brown, and has attended retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh. She has been training teachers since 1986; she co-owns and directs Esther Myers Yoga Studio, its 750-hour Teacher Training Programme and 250-hour Graduate Teachers’ Programme with fellow yoga educator, Tama Soble.

Getting into the body is exactly what Monica Voss intends to do. She does it deliberately, repetitively, as she chooses her words  – observant of her students' abilities, the tenor of the room and the pacing of her exercises. But moreover, Voss’ class enables a deliberate blurring of the categories that we use to organize our everyday lives: she troubles the difference between work and play, drawing together physical structure, creative expression and a certain 'come what may'.

In our conversation she recounts not just the vivid, eccentric personalities of teachers whose lives intersected with hers, but the trajectory of the Esther Myers studio's method and its corporeal morphologies. We hear Monica laugh as she recounts her experiences studying with the gifted and idiosyncratic Vanda Scaravelli as well as her years working alongside the studio’s extraordinary namesake Esther Myers. And, she tells us why the Myers process has so little to do with texts and uninterrupted lineages, and everything to do with knowing your own human form... so that getting into a pose, at work and play, becomes as persistent and effortless as yawning.
There are also movements that we just like to make. They're not functional...you want to be able to do it because it's fun, or it's expressive, or it's challenging, or it just makes you laugh... Or you're going to try it knowing that you're probably never going to be able to actually do it, but why not try? So there's safety, which is absolutely central... and then there's function, which is deeply important. And then there's a third category that it's just for the pleasure of it, for the fun of it.  - Monica Voss, Esther Myers Yoga Studio

Monica Voss assisting a backbend at Esther Myers Studio

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Guest Post by Linda McLean: In Search of Kripalu: A Yogi’s Journey to Find the Heart of Perennial Wisdom


 T he other day, I remembered the face of a friend I have not seen since I started my PhD. He stood barefoot and laughing in front of the lead-pane window of the yoga studio, a dozen wiry wrinkles fanning across his hollow face, mapping his story in ways he never quite spoke, but I extrapolated. After we parted ways, my serpentine recollections of that yoga class took on a cinematic quality, a life of their own that I'm sure contributed well towards the development of my own wrinkles, those physical inscriptions of the days we spent together. Though time has passed, I still find that I still carry on an internal dialogue with that 'laughing man', responding and reacting from a greater distance, just as I recall the faces of so many others who shared that class.

I think this is what friendships do. They create conversations - not just between yourself and the other, but between yourself and your multiple selves till you've become so porous that all kinds of people live "under your skin." Sure, people move on... yet you keep talking to them out there on the fringe, hearing their voices.  Maybe that's what the man from Galilee meant when he apparently said, "Wherever two or more are gathered, I am there?" Or, perhaps Raman Maharshi's words are useful here, "there are no others." And so it is, that I remember a conversation I recently shared with my dear friend Linda McLean.

(Linda McLean)
Linda McLean, MEd, CYT, is a singer songwriter and dedicated yoga practitioner. She’s lead singer and songwriter in Linda McLean Band, co- owner and operator of Mandolin Records, and has written and recorded and promoted 4 albums of original music. She’s teacher-trained in Alexander Technique, and has integrated and taught this unique body awareness principle while working as a professional actor. She has a Masters of Ed from OISE/UToronto, specializing in Holistic Learning and Arts Education, and was a founding faculty member in Seneca College’s Independent Music Production program, developing courses in Songwriting and Artist Development. She completed her yoga teacher training at YogaSpace in Toronto, and yoga massage at Ahimsa Wellness Centre in Muskoka. She teaches early Saturday morning Vinyasa at Sacred Breath Yoga studio in Muskoka, shares Vinyasa Wednesdays at YogaSpace in Toronto with her yoga teacher friends, and has opened a private studio in Toronto where she works one-on-one with students to help them develop a personal practice and integrate yoga into their lives.

Our conversation happened on one of those unusually warm first days of spring that turns the streets of Toronto into a frantic parade of flip-flops and daisy-dukes. (We in the northern climes seem to lose it at the first sight of the sun). That day Linda had come to take the yoga class I teach on Tuesday mornings; as we crossed the street wondering whether we could abandon boots for sandals, she said with unusual prescience:

"We will still get another snow. We always do."

I suppose Linda would know. She leads at least half her life up in the north country and she speaks as if she's long known the panorama of Ontario's protean seasons and its transitional storms. Speaking likewise in rural swells and intuitive horizontals, Linda happened to mention that she would be doing a Kripalu retreat the following week and I jumped on the opportunity to have her blog about it. As you will see, her guest post for this blog takes you where all conversations with friends lead: to those places you couldn't or wouldn't journey alone.

It also turns out Linda was dead-on about the weather. It wasn’t a week before we got another resounding gust of winter.


  In Search of Kripalu: A Yogi’s Journey to Find the Heart of Perennial Wisdom

by Linda McLean, M Ed, Songwriter and Yoga Teacher

I ’ve been reading Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga and find myself practicing pranayama continuously as I wind my way along the Mass Pike through the Berkshire mountains to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “Follow the movement of the breath in the body, feeling the inhalation from the center of the collarbone, down through the rib cage to the diaphragm, and following the exhale upward from the abdomen.”  The attention on breathing brings me perpetually to a still and grounded place in my body, even as I’m hurtling along a major US Interstate highway. The technique neutralizes for a time the endless mind chatter, and my thinking becomes like a translucent line flapping across a screen, until, forgetting my breath, the thoughts resume, and I’m once again preoccupied with trying to figure out what I’m hoping to ‘get’ during my stay at Kripalu.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Kind of Yogic Quest for Viveka - Mark Singleton on Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

T he long lines of white light, high ceilings and the sprung wooden floors of The National Ballet School of Canada are, for a single weekend in August, the hub of Yoga Festival Toronto. I had a keynote conversation with Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice at Yoga Festival Toronto, 2011. His book Yoga Body has accrued a devoted and loyal following, and it’s rare to meet a practitioner with little to say about the book's articulation of modern yoga’s complex postural history. So by the time we were all gathered together, bodies and silhouettes were stacked against the walls, a few festival-goers still circulating in and out, as the room came to a slow hum.  Behind the ballet barre the sightlines was vertiginous: a steep sky, static and pale, hovered quietly as a few small feedback squeals from microphones introduced our conversation.

Mark Singleton has a Ph.D. in Divinity from the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively on yoga, notably the books Yoga in the Modern World, Contemporary Perspectives (the first ever collection of scholarship on modern yoga) and Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (which Yoga Journal said “should be on the reading list of every serious student and teacher training program"). His current work focuses on the translation of early Sanskrit hatha yoga texts. A new collection, entitled Gurus of Modern Yoga, will appear with Oxford University Press next year. He is a certified yoga teacher in the Iyengar and Satyananda traditions. He teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

(Mark Singleton, author Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice)

As perhaps some of you in attendance might recall, Mark and I had an engaging encounter in which he declined comment on the presence of religiosity in his own personal practice. I admitted to Mark - after our interview-, that I wasn’t sure why I had pressed the issue. I suppose I wanted to know what it might be like to be a scholar that gets up in the blue light of morning to do asana/vipassana. Or maybe part of me thinks scholars, (not just their books), are worth studying. In any case, Mark and I have since been back and forth on my assumptions and his answers. Needless to say, like any yogi, I’m answering my own questions. But I thank Mark for the sharing his conversational circuitry. In our conversation, Mark weaves a narrative of postural practice that intersects with modernity’s emphasis on muscular physical culture, and addresses a few popular misconceptions about his book’s key points. Moreover, he shares fond memories of his early days conducting research with the Indic Institute at Cambridge University, and how writing the book was a manifestation of a “kind of yogic inquiry”, its impetus, a “search for viveka”.

(Mark Singleton at Yoga Festival Toronto 2011)

(Mark's cherished reading room at Cambridge University)