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 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