Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Force Like No Other: Improvising the Tradition with Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy

(Ron Reid (left), Marla Meenakshi Joy (right)

"R eally?" I hesitated..."I'm not sure I want to do ashtanga".

"Ok but honestly just check it out. You'll love it. It's like free jazz or something!"

Free jazz?? That was an unusual thing to say...I was nursing a green tea at the Golden Turtle on Ossington St. with Gary, a Toronto filmmaker and ashtanga yogi who knew a thing or two about jazz. And it was clear he had a distinctly fierce reverence for one of Toronto's most treasured yoga instructors Ron Reid and his "yoga jam" class. Sure, I'd heard of Ron Reid's virtual Jedi status - an uncanny ability to work with the "force" of hatha yoga - for years. But I was skeptical about taking the class.

And who could blame me?? 
How could I know that the deeply musical sensibility of Ron Reid and his wife and musical collaborator, Marla Meenakshi Joy could summon a kind of ashtanga that was skillful enough to accomodate improvisations? Or that a vigorous ashtanga practice in intelligent hands could morph into something that was always intuitively subtracting from the strenuous?

(Ron Reid)
Sure enough through slim sightlines at the back of Downward Dog's upper story room on Queen Street West, I watched as accomplished musician/composer, yogi, co-owner and co-director of Downward Dog, Ron Reid unfurled a masterful series of yoga postures that made a free and adventurous approach to experimentation appear deceptively simple. And more than that, he allowed people in the room to feel like it was easy. There was a distinct air of possibility and generosity that filled the room and circled unmistakeably around the otherwise elusive and introspective Ron Reid.

That's not suprising considering Ron Reid has been practicing Yoga for over 30 years and teaching since 1988. Ron has studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Sharath both in India and North America and was one of the first Canadian teachers to be authorized by Pattabhi Jois.  In addition to regular classes at Downward Dog, he conducts workshops and teacher trainings in Canada, Europe, and the U.K.

And if that weren't enough, Ron Reid makes up only half the equation in a story of a greater partnership. Marla Meenakshi Joy first traveled to India in 1988 to study meditation and the philosophy of the Vedas with Swami Shyam, as well as other learned scholars in the Himalayas.  She is a Certified Meditation and Yoga Philosophy teacher from the International Meditation Institute in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas. She was involved in Downward Dog’s first teacher training program in 1999, as both a teacher of Philosophy and Sanskrit, and as a student.  She has over 500 hours of Teacher Training with both Ron Reid, Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, among others, and is a Yoga Alliance Certified Teacher. She currently teaches Ashtanga Yoga, Swaha Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Yogadance, Meditation, Yoga philosophy, Sanskrit, and Chanting privately and in yoga studios in Canada, the U.S. The UK, Europe and Asia. 

(Marla Meenakshi Joy)
Marla Meenakshi Joy's classes have a parallel ability attract a devoted following of students drawn to her deft and subtle practice, her extensive teaching experience as well as her instinctive, exuberant personality.  But it was when Marla closed her class with a chant so conversational and intimate that I recognized a similar cadence of fluid creativity and exploration as I had experienced in Ron's Yoga Jam.

Ron and Marla are life partners whose deep bonds were forged from a musical synergy. That unique chemistry led to the creation of Swaha, Ron and Marla's kirtan band, who just returned from a high profile performance at Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, California. And as you will see in our interview, the relationship between music and posture practice is so intimate for Ron and Marla that there may as well be no verbal distinction made. In fact, it's a curious thing that in this interview disciplinary distinctions seem to disappear. Ask Ron or Marla about music, postural practice, the cycles of life, astrology, or ayurveda and you'll get the same sense that all things are but limbs of life; all things are ashtanga ("eight limbs")... And if you learn to use your limbs well, you inevitably extend your reach back to your best self. In the following interview, Ron and Marla offer valuable insight into the history of the their own ashtanga practice, raise critical concerns about ashtanga's evolutionary blindspots, and throw the spotlight on what it means to work within a tradition whose very existence is based in innovation.

"You see people try to say "No this was the original practice intended by the yoga sutras". Well that's just absurd. I'm sorry! It never was. You know it was just a very specific practice and it's from a particular time. And I think once you know that, it's liberating. To me, it's liberating. It makes a lot of sense... And so the practice that Pattabhi Jois developed based on what he was taught by Krishnamacarya was his own practice specific to his constitution and context." (Ron Reid)
"Our joy is to be able to allow the soul to grow and feel its own levity and its own unlimited nature. And so our teaching style, hopefully, reflects that...We've seen it time and time again in those teachers that have made the choice to do traditional ashtanga, what that's created in their teaching style, their method and also their adjustments. The way in which some of those teachers touch people violates the very first yama of non-violence." (Marla Meenakshi Joy)

(Mysore class with Ron and Marla)

Marla Meenakshi Joy (left), Ron Reid (right)

Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy Interviewed by Priya Thomas July 2011:

Priya: So why don't you take turns telling me how you came to yoga.

Ron: Oh man....I started in 1973... mainly came out of touring as a musician, and every time I'd travel, I'd get a few books to take with me. But the background story was that back in university I had stopped playing sports. And instead I was playing in bands and starting to feel like I was a little out of shape. It was at that time that I found this book, "The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga", it's still right there (he points to an orange book on a shelf lined up against the back wall) by Swami Vishnu Devananda. And I found it fascinating right from the beginning. It was always so rewarding whatever it was that I did.  And it was also very reminiscent of things I did as a kid.

Priya: When you were a kid?

Ron: Yeah. I can remember lying in bed as a kid...and one day I actually woke up in something close to a lotus pose, just sitting there in my bed. And I used to try and touch my feet to my head all the time. So there was something about yoga practice that went back in time and included my childhood that I really liked about it.

Priya: Was there any reason you were doing that as a child?

Ron: Just exploration. Because that's what I think yoga is... hatha yoga's an exploration of anything you could possibly do on a physical level. And as a child you're just exploring how it all moves, how it all works... So I think it was just an extension of that.

Priya: Did you know anybody else who had done yoga?

Ron: I had one friend, he was a drummer, he had done a little bit. But it was very much behind closed doors! He never showed anybody you know. He just did yoga and that was it.

Priya: I'm guessing at that time, yoga wasn't what it is now...

Ron: No, no, no...nowhere near! My musician friends used to make fun of me. (Ron does an impression of one of his musician friends) "You're doin' your yogurt??"

Priya: (laughing)

Ron: Meanwhile, half of them are dead right now! I'm sorry to say...

Priya: I imagine they were probably pretty sedentary too right?

Ron: Yeah, yeah. It sort of goes without saying I think with musicians. And yet, interestingly I always found musicians to be really good students. And I liken it to they know how to practice for long periods of time for no money!

Priya: (laughing) A clear advantage!

Ron: You know you just do it for the sake of the art, for the practice. You know? And they totally understand technique too. So you can say "Just try this, it will make it better..."

Priya: So Marla how about you? What was your entry into yoga?

Marla: I guess I had a background in the arts. In my early twenties I was travelling around Europe and I met this guy who had studied with my teacher in India. And so he gave me a book called the Bhagavad Gita and it was transliteration by that teacher, so I decided that I wanted to go and meet him. So I ended up going to India and moving into an ashram in 1988. And then I started to meditate with a group when I went back to Montreal. Then in 1995, I was introduced to ashtanga yoga and because I had a dance background, it was interesting for me, because I found it so hard... So it challenged that part of my nature.

Priya: So you had a background in meditation before starting a physical practice?

Marla: I'd spent a long time meditating already, and being in the Himalayas and having a spiritual teacher. When I first started to teach at the old Downward Dog in 98 or so, I would teach meditation and I would get one student. At that time I remember Ron saying to me, "You know just wait, they're young and they need to start with the physical practice. So give them some time to mature into the physical practice". And I was like "yeah, yeah yeah" and three or four years went by and finally I could see some change in people that had been practicing for some time. 

Priya: So you've noticed a pattern that people need to start with a physical practice.

Ron: I don't think everybody does. But the majority I would say, yeah...

Marla: The physical and tangible is what we know. To say, "you are one with all that there is" is a little bit crazy because I don't really know what that means for most people. Whereas back in the day, we were all just like tripping out on that you know. (Marla throws her arms up in the air) Like "yeah man, we're all one!"

Priya: Ok but why were you tripping out on it? I mean you can't really put it down to the vibe "back then"? I mean 1988 - that was like Reagan era right??!! 

Ron: Yeah that's exactly why everyone was into meditation and stuff! They took a look and were like  "I'm outta here man!!" (laughing!!)

Priya: (laughing) Yeah fair enough. But what did draw you there?

Marla: Certainly for me, seeking...I was a seeker. And then resonating with my teacher's particular style and teachings. And then of course being in his presence... I had the experience of that so it wasn't just words, it was an experience. And when you live in an ashram, it's like a bubble of bliss. And then I'd leave and I'd come back to the West, and then all I'd want was to go back there. And so I'd make enough money to go back. And that was my life for about 15 years.

Priya: Did either of you have any exposure or connection to these traditions when you were young?

Marla: Well I'm Jewish and Ron's Christian.

Priya: But no crazy uncle who was into "the east"? 

Ron: No, nope.

Marla: No, I just loved the singing at synagogue. It was very deep...the melodies and harmonies. That was my favorite part of going to synagogue. But I never really related to what they were saying.

Priya: So Ron, who was your first teacher?

Ron: My first teacher's name, and he still lives in Oriliia, was Yogi Krishan. He was an interesting teacher. He was a very smart, charismatic man, and he was also Sikh. And so for him he wanted to sort of separate the cultural baggage of yoga from the practice of yoga. So I always found that kind of interesting because I find, at times, between cultural traditions, - mainly Hindu -, and yoga there can be areas of conflict. And you're told to just do this and don't ask why. You know like the "right side first" thing, and other such cultural preferences. Anyway, he was always very clear that this was yoga, and that the Hindu cultural tradition was something else. But I think he had the intention to make yoga more comprehensible to the western mind. And his practice was also much more about meditation and pranayama. "Oh yes you could do a few postures", he'd it was something that you maybe did occasionally for health or physical benefit. But he was always fascinated by my exploration of the physical. At one point he actually said to me, "You know, you're actually very good at the yoga postures!" (laughing)

Priya: So this wasn't ashtanga....was it Kundalini?

Ron: Well, he would have said classical hatha yoga. You know he never really talked about his own particular teacher or style.

Marla: But ashtanga yoga is actually the eight-limbed path according to Patanjali. So it's actually a philosophical path according to the yoga sutras. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is an actual physical practice. So really all of the meditation, yoga type teachers, of that kind, they were teaching the actual classical ashtanga yoga..

Priya: And yet the fact remains that the word ashtanga has come to mean a very specific kind of practice in the practicing community. Would you call Downward Dog an ashtanga studio in that sense?

(Diane Bruni, co-founder of Downward Dog)
Ron: It started off being that because that was our interest at the time. Diane Bruni, my partner at Downward Dog, and I were both really interested in that practice at that time. For me it was more about meeting the teacher, going to India, things like that... I don't think it was ever that important for Diane to do that. And so that's certainly where it started, but I'm forever grateful that I had another yoga background before I began ashtanga. Because it's always mystified me that people want ashtanga to be that and only that. So in a sense I already carried the other picture with into the physical practice. So I've never understood the separations between hatha yoga styles but I've certainly encountered it. And that's why I feel compelled to sort of bring other elements back into the sometimes rigid, ashtanga context. And in terms of following the strict sequence that ashtanga has sort of become, this hard and fast sequence, I don't think people realize that even Pattabhi Jois didn't see it that way. You know?

Marla: I think what we've added to the template after years of seeing how hard the practice is for most people, and seeing people get injured, is that we've added a warm-up before the main warm-up so you don't just go straight into sun salutations. So that's kind of been an addition to the template. Other than that, it's very similar in terms of surya namaskara a and b, standing poses, sitting poses and cooling down poses. So that is the ashtanga vinyasa template, and then within that we play. 

Ron: And we also play with it to counter the rigidity that sets in when it becomes your only solution. You know and as a musician, there's scales and there's chords but there's also room to play. Like nobody says well music should only be this...hmm well I guess some people do! (laughing) But you know in yoga your body becomes your instrument and so once you learn to play that instrument, it's meant to express something...the instrument reflects the particulars of the person. And in our physical culture, I find that if you're not good at something then you just step aside. So in other words you can only be physical if you're good at it! (laughs) Whereas yoga opens it up for everyone. You know you're not really a dancer but you can still explore your physical body in this practice. And doing the same thing the same way for all people doesn't work.

(Tirumalai Krishnamacarya)
When I started to feel a tension between the so-called tradition and what I was experiencing, I went back into the history of that tradition and I started to read a lot more about Krishnamacarya. And I just found it fascinating because these different streams came from the mountain of Krishnamacarya. There was BKS Iyengar and there was Pattabhi Jois, and there was Desikachar, who was Krishnamacarya's son. And I was like, well, they're all completely different! And then you read about Krishnamacarya and you read that he understood that implicitly!! That "the seed of yoga comes up differently in every person".  He wasn't trying to make it all the same!!

Priya: Right.

Ron: Also I did a lot of reading first from Desikachar and others to remember history and context, but then I also read Mark Singleton's Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, and there are a lot of things in that book about Krishnamacarya's method that I feel I kind of intuited. The climate of that time when India had come out of a period under British rule, and they were trying to reclaim their heritage had a lot to do with Krishnamacarya's choices. And for good reason. The Indians wanted to reinstate their culture. And Krishnamacarya and the Maharaja of Mysore came together and started doing wrestling, bodybuilding, gymnastics, they were doing all of things along with what they already did, that were in non-Indian cultural modes of exercise or whatever. So they decided that they would create something to bring the youth of India into the practice of yoga. So he started drawing things from different places. And then I found out later, from talking to other students as well, that he was constantly experimenting! But he was creating something and he would train these students and then he would take them on the road with him for demonstrations and people would go, "Oh my god this is amazing! What is this?" "Well that's yoga". So he brought people back into the practice of yoga. He brought people back into their own cultural heritage. And that's what he and the Maharaja set out to do. I just think that that's so amazing! So what he was doing at that time was very specific. He had a very specific mandate. And ashtanga comes from that time. 

(Yoga Body by Mark Singleton)
Priya: Do you think practitioners are completely unaware of the research that's been done on that time period?

Ron: Well, for sure. You see people try to say "No this was the original practice intended by the yoga sutras". Well that's just absurd. I'm sorry! It never was. You know it was just a very specific practice and it's from a particular time. And I think once you know that, it's liberating. To me, it's liberating. It makes a lot of sense. And the more I read about Krishnamacarya and understand how he worked, and what he was doing, and how later on in his life his teaching changed...when you take the whole thing picture from beginning to end, you get right back to the source of yoga as it always was. And so the practice that Pattabhi Jois developed based on what he was taught by Krishnamacarya was his own practice specific to his constitution and context. So that's what he started to teach. 

Priya: So do you think that Pattabhi Jois, for instance, was inclined keep everything contained within the one small area of practice that he learned? Because as I understand it he was given one branch of what was a very large tree...So I guess what I'm asking is was he inclined to be creative with it?

Ron: I think to a certain degree of course! When he was younger and when he was practicing..

Marla: And not when the masses of people, western people, came to study.

Ron: Well, one of the things that Mark Singleton said in his book which I found kind of interesting he said at the time when Krishnamacarya went to the Mysore palace to start teaching, he was already teaching at the Sanskrit college. And when he went to teach at the Mysore palace, he sent Pattabhi Jois to teach for him back at the Sanskrit College. And so Mark's take on that was that as a young teacher, he would have been maybe 16 or 18, he did the same practice because you know he was very young and it was simple for him to do that. And this is something that I also find mildly amusing is that the practice of ashtanga itself has evolved according to necessity. It the early days when he taught, this is in the room that I was familiar with, a room that was not much bigger than this room, (the room is about 200 square feet in Ron and Marla's yoga room with a window facing the park) with twelve people, 5 people along one side, and 5 people along the other and two at the ends. And it was a cement floor and he had these two big carpets that crossed over in the middle.

Priya: Sounds very intimate as class settings go. When did that change and did it change the practice?

(K. Pattabhi Jois)
Ron: It was very intimate at the beginning. But as it became more popular and more and more people would go, they used to line up along the stairs and they would peer through the windows of the practice was like they were looking out over and into a cage...there was this sort of wire mesh. And then they were lined up down the road so Pattabhi Jois started to adapt. He basically started to shorten the practice to get people in there and out of there more quickly.

Priya: Really?

Ron: So what used to be full vinyasa which would be a full surya namaskar between every single pose. After every pose you did you would go all the way back to the beginning. So he stopped doing that and he started to make it pick up jump back.

Priya: Right...

Ron: Well, you used to do that anyway, but then you would go back and do the full sun salutation. So he gradually changed it over time until it became only vinyasa only after your second side. Anyway, all of these things were done because he had more and more people on the stairway and he was just trying to get people in and out of the room! (laughs) And so there are people that hang on to this sequence like "No this is the tradition" and I'm thinking "No, no it doesn't really work that way!" (smiling)

Priya: Do you think Pattabhi Jois was simply doing the necessary in order to spread the gospel so to speak? What was going on there?

Ron: Well, he was in the early days...But then you know he was also just dealing with it as it came. People were coming and what do you do with them? You know you just keep it all going. In that way he was very accommodating. And he truly honestly tried to get everybody that wanted to do the practice in and out of that room as best he could. In the afternoons though - and this is what people don't realize - is that he used to give satsang. And so he would sit around and you could talk and you could ask him any question. And I mean, he was a Sanskrit scholar. He knew all the texts by heart. He knew his stuff so to speak. As a matter of fact I used to find it fascinating because people would ask him a question and he would start to chant. And I'd think what's he doing??

Marla: (laughing)

Ron: But he was literally chanting till he found the place in the book that he wanted to speak about! It was fascinating! It was like being privy to a whole other way of learning.

Priya: That's probably similar to the Jewish tradition as well... You're probably quite familiar with that Marla...

Marla: Yeah! And that's also how I learned Sanskrit in India too! You sort of remember it by the tone of the chant....And you do have to start at the beginning to find out where you're at.

Priya: Well remembering a text would be like learning a song.

Ron: Yes! You learned it like a song! Yeah and that's what struck me when I did some studying of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. You're taking a body of information, learning it as a song, and then remembering the song, and somehow all the meaning of it is wrapped up and contained within it. And it's a surprisingly effective method. So with the Yoga Sutras, what you have is something that's very loaded with information and you learn it in this very succinct form so that you could actually remember it. But then at any given time you could open the box and the whole thing comes out and it just goes on for days to even talk about one sutra! Such a fascinating way of learning when you consider that it came from a time when people didn't have books! And this is also what I think Pattabhi Jois brought into asana...he used to say all the time, "One by one you come. Yes, yes, one by one you come". So you were always following a sequential order like you would learn the sutras.

Priya: So do you think that ashtanga now has become much more static because of people's perceived ideas of what that tradition is? And as you mentioned in some cases, those traditions that people cling to were in fact modifications made to accomodate more people...

Marla: Yes, and it's created a rigidity in their personality and their teaching style, and in the way in which they relate to their students. And that rigidity and that hardness is not a way for the soul to grow in our humble opinion. Our joy is to be able to allow the soul to grow and feel its own levity and its own unlimited nature. And so our teaching style, hopefully, reflects that...We've seen it time and time again, in those teachers that have made the choice to do traditional ashtanga, what that's created in their teaching style, their method and also their adjustments. The way in which some of those teachers touch people violates the very first yama of non-violence.

Priya: Is it possible that style of adjustment is embedded in the teaching?

Ron: Well, you know it's a very interesting question. Everything had to start from something so there may be some of it in the tradition, but perhaps as much of it in the teacher's own hands. But the fact that there were set sequences that created the Mysore style practice, which is self-practice, is to me a great gift. The art of adjustment in the right hands is also an amazing tool. But it also presupposes that you know the body very well; that you know anatomy, you know physiology, you know the student, not only their nature and their personality, but then this is where it requires that you have other information. Also ayurveda teaches you something about how people should practice because different body types should actually modify the practice. And this is something that I found very fascinating about ayurveda and food as well. It wasn't the food that was bad, you just changed how you prepared it for different people! So this is sort of what comes through the practice for me. A certain type of person is suited to "you should maybe just stick to the sequence" because they're all over the place. So they need some order, they need some structure.

Marla: Or they're young. That was the nice thing about the young boys doing it at the Mysore Palace. There's a structure that I think youth needs or else they're all over the place.

Ron: See when somebody asked AG Mohan (one of Krishnamacarya's students) that question about the specifics of order in the ashtanga series, and Mohan sits there and he says, "Well Krishnamacarya was teaching 16 year old boys you know!" (laughing) And you as soon as he said that, I got the whole thing! Right of course! He says "You go to the store with you and you have a young child and he's running around and you say, you stay do not move."  So this is the response to the idea that Krishnamacarya was a really harsh was a matter of the context and the conditions under which he was teaching. As he taught as an older man, and Mohan again has written a great book called Krishnamacarya: His Life and Teachings, about his experience with Krishnamacarya as a teacher, what a great resource! You want to know about your tradition? Why is it that you don't want to know about your teacher's teacher? Isn't that what a tradition is?

The vinyasa system is something that Krishnamacarya found to be profoundly effective. This is something else i found fascinating when I read about Krishnamacarya and the real meaning of vinyasa. He would consider vinyasa part of his treatments in later days...that when somebody showed up at his gate, that was step one of the vinyasa. From that point on, every single step that he followed from the beginning to the end of the treatment, at the point where he took them back outside the gate, was all part of the same process, step by step.

Marla: He was very much with each person, one on one. And what they needed, what their body type needed and what their age needed. So he was very much about creating a practice that was suitable for each and every given person.

Priya: I found it very confusing, to be honest, that the first yoga classes I went to were so crowded.

Ron: There are compromised by their very nature. You know Krishnamacarya said it's can't teach people that way.

Priya: Is that right?

Ron: Yeah!

Marla: That's why self-practice is such a gift really!

Ron: And I mean in Mysore you can, again, within reason, guide up to 15 students....I mean for me, I can manage that by guiding everybody in the room in their practice. When it's more than that I need assistants and you know, then things change a little bit you know... as they will...
But at least it's a good vehicle for maintaining individual practice and that's totally the value of it. I just find that teaching classes is a different kind of experience. And that's why I've enjoyed the fact that some of you that have taken these guided classes have started to come to the Mysore classes because now we can have a different kind of a dialogue. You know?

Priya: Yes. So the first time you went to India, what was the experience like? I mean, did you have any idea of what you'd be stepping into?

Ron: No idea!

Marla: It's another world. I felt like I was - from the bus from the airport into New Delhi - looking out at the slums and the people...I literally felt like I had arrived on another planet. I was nineteen!

Ron: (laughing) But I mean that's such a valuable experience in and of itself. I can remember almost every single detail of my first landing because I was on a long flight and I was really trying to imagine what it was going to be like when I got there! Mysore is a nice city and it's one of the cleanest cities in India. But I landed in Mumbai!

Priya: ...crazy!

Ron: And of course there's something very perverse about this ...I love land at about 3 or 4 o clock in the morning. So you're seeing a life that's completely turned upside-down!

Priya: Classic...(laughing)

Ron: So I found a hotel that had a shuttle. And this bus shows up it looks like its been through World War 2! (laughing) I thought OK....then we were driving in the dark bouncing up and down in this bus and then finally arriving in my hotel. And then the next morning I got up and I looked out my front window. And I cannot believe my eyes! I literally have nothing in my previous experience to prepare me for this. Because it's like the whole history of the world was out there...I look out my window and there's everything going on! Everything!!!! There are elephants and bicycles with five people on them! (Marla's laughing) I was just staring out the window doing this (he gestures rubbing his eyes in disbelief)

Priya: (laughing) Wow...So how long did it take before there was any sense of ease?

Ron: It took a while. And at first I got lost all the time because everything here is so linear, and everything there is based on the spokes of a wheel so you're thinking of going on a street that's parallel to another street but it's going like this! (gestures diagonal) And just the density of the place...I was there for three months the first time so it took me almost a month to see the humour in it. And finally one day we were in somebody's hotel room and there were these monkeys that came to the window, and you know you give them a banana, they'd eat the banana...And then somebody gave them these bbq peanuts. So the monkey takes the peanuts, just looks at them, and then throws them over his shoulder saying "what are you giving me this shit for"!! (laughing))  I just started to see the humour in it you know?? And I just started to let down my guard and it was a much better experience.

Priya: What was it like practicing for the first time in Mysore?

Ron: Well, it was just so interesting because the first thing that I could hear was breath. I was given my time to see Pattabhi Jois. And he took my money, counted it out very carefully, and he said, "Yes tomorrow you come". And I show up and it's dark out. I'm approaching this room and all I can hear is sssss...... (he makes a hissing sound).

Priya: What?

Ron: Everyone's breathing! Ujjayi pranayam....And there weren't that many people at that particular point so he's standing at the door and he's looking at me and he said, "Yes, yes, come, come!" And he puts me on the spot and says "Go over there." So I started to do my practice. It was a really amazing experience because of the size of it all at that time. I actually feel sorry for people there now looking to have that experience. Because now there's a room with over a hundred people. There used to be two teachers and twelve students. Now there are over a hundred students and still just two teachers. So the contact and the experience that you're getting is just not the same.

(Southern Star hotel, Mysore)
And it was a very close knit community and very friendly community back at that time. And then I started to see it change as I would go back. And it became less and less what I really wanted. My first experience is the one that will always stay with me....That's when I met my closest friends and the people I could relate to...And there was a lot of sharing going on at that time you know? Everybody would hang out at the Southern Star which was the only hotel that had a swimming pool. So we'd get memberships there and so everybody would just hang out by the pool.

Priya: That sounds alright!

Ron: Yeah it was really a great time. I remember at that time I was having difficulty with handstands. And so I'd asked this one teacher about it who was doing fourth series when I met him. He had amazing handstands. He was Australian... a great guy, and we were sitting around the pool one time and he said, "All right then let's go." I was like "What?"
"Come on let's go". And he started teaching me handstands, and he was poking me in the ribs, and that's how I started to do handstands! And then the first time I went up on my own, I went "ahhhh" and fell over!! (laughing)

But there were a lot of great teachers at that time. That's when I met Chuck and Maty. They literally moved in about two days after I got there. They were my neighbours and they were there the whole time that I was there. So we were in this L-shaped building, and you know I was learning so much just from talking to them. And Chuck.. he was just so cool about the practice... and he would make suggestions. I just thought they were so amazing.

It couldn't have been better. It was small, there were great people, we used to play cards together - Chuck and Graeme Northfield and I... That was the real seed for me of the practice. Just learning what they had to offer. That was very much an important part of the experience. So when I would go into the Mysore room, you would go and you would do the practice as you knew how, and that was it. If there were five people in the room, one person could be doing it really well, another could be doing it really badly and everything in between. Everybody was just doing their practice and that's just the way it was. It was very organic...

Priya: Sounds like an incredibly special time.

Ron: Yeah when I started to see that change it was sad! You know?? And it became very competitive. It became very aggressive.

Priya: Why do you think that happened?

Ron: It's like everything. Once it's popular, everything changes. And so all these guys because you know you're really good if you can catch your ankles, well they would do anything, feet turned out, legs turned out, killing themselves to catch their ankles. Killing their backs. Walking around for weeks with incredible back pain that they probably still have to this day. Just so that they could wear this as a badge of honour. That's what was starting to happen because it was becoming popular.

Priya: Out of curiosity, what did your parents, friends, peers think of your practice? Obviously when you started there was some derision from bandmates, I gather for you Ron anyway, but what happened when you went all the way to India and you started to settle in a new context?

Marla: When I went to India I was young and my parents were pretty freaked out. And it was good at that point that there was only mail as a means of communication because it would take at least three weeks to get a letter!

Ron: (laughing!) Ha! They couldn't really get at you!!

Marla: And if you wanted to call it was super expensive! And then the phone delay made it even more expensive...So I had those things in my favour!

Priya: Yeah of course! (everyone laughing)

Ron: Actually both my parents at different times came with me.

Priya: Oh really? I don't think I've ever heard that before...

Ron: Yeah. And I mean for my father, it was pivotal for him. I mean he'd never really been anywhere outside of Canada.

Priya: Why did he decide to go?

Ron: He just really, really wanted to go. As a matter of fact on the day that he decided, it was he worst weekend that I'd ever experienced. I was sick, I'd had a cold, I was having digestive problems, and then I got food poisoning! And he's telling me on the end of the phone that he's decided that he wants to come. And I'm going " dad. You don't understand...No you can't come! You are not coming. You are absolutely not coming!"

Priya: Did your dad have any ideas about what he wanted to experience in India?

Ron: No! His only preparation - but trust me, it was the perfect preparation - is that he'd grown up on a farm. So he took it all like it was no big deal you know? And he loved his time there! As a matter of fact, I can remember one time, I'd come around after finishing my practice and there's my father sitting on the front steps talking to Pattabhi Jois, having a very friendly conversation! Pattabhi Jois was great. He loved when people's parents or family came! He was very very nice to them, very friendly and always took time and spoke to them like that...My father loved everything about his experience in India.

Priya: Your dad would have been from the Prairies? Because I think you are originally from the Prairies right?

Ron: Yeah. He loved every aspect of that experience. Even when I would complain, he was always like "Oh you know..." (Ron laughing)

Priya: And your mom too?

Ron: Yeah she came the next time.

Priya: So that's pretty supportive that they would join you there!

Ron: Well, I mean, I'm very very fortunate in that sense because my mother's a musician and they supported my choices, whatever I did. They were supportive with me as a musician...then of yoga. They just wanted to be part of it. My band used to rehearse in our house, making an incredible racket and destroying the place! (laughing) So yeah, I feel fortunate that way. And I think what's kind of cool, and what Marla came to see, is that her parents grew to really appreciate who she was and what she'd gone through to be who she is...right Marla?

Marla: Yeah, I mean my dad got there later...maybe at the very, very end. Right before he was passing in the last few days, he wanted to hear the CD that I had made when I was first in India. My very first CD... He just wanted to hear it. And that was cool. It was nice for me to help him in his passing.
And then that left my mom to be free, and be who she always was which was fully supportive and open. And so she and her new husband come to all of our kirtans and she's in the front row! She spends half the time crying! So yeah that's supersweet. But back then when I was going back and forth, they were not supportive. They wanted me home and teach or come back and be in "our culture". "Why do you have to keep going back there?"

Priya: It's quite impressive that you would do it regardless.

Marla: (Ron laughing) Oh aries moon, aries rising! (Marla laughs)  I would say in my younger years there's nothing that would have stopped me!

Ron: There's still a little fire in there! just a little (laughing)

Marla: Oh.. you know it's waay tempered! But at that time anything I wanted to do I would just do!

Priya: So when did you both meet? Was it related to your practice?

Marla: was 1995. Myself and Diane Bruni were teaching at a studio called "The Yoga Studio".  And Ron and I met at one teachers meeting. I barely remember Ron except for that he was across the table. But we met. And then Diane and I kept in touch. A couple of years later Diane and Ron opened up Downward Dog in Toronto and I was still living in Vancouver where I had started to teach. So when I moved back to Toronto she immediately asked me to teach at Downward Dog. So I started to teach there and to take Mysore with Ron. And then soon after that, Ron had a kind of revival of wanting to get back into music and had bought a new keyboard. And he heard that I was chanting in savasana to students, and another teacher at the time her name was Xenia, was also into chanting. And so Ron invited us both over to his house once a week just to get together and jam and see what happened. And then now you can take the story on now...(gestures at Ron)

(Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy, Swaha)

Ron: Well, I was writing new music and you know musicians play from a place of skill and most musicians can all play together. But there are certain musicians that you have this "connection" with. You can't even explain it... it's sort of intuitive. I basically found I liked everything that she did! Every melody she sang....everything.. So an interest was definitely sparked.

Marla: But I didn't know what was going on. At the ashram I was the one chanting in the back row with a shawl over my head while everyone else was performing. Performing wasn't my thing. I mean I was having fun and I found it interesting and of course, I found it interesting to hang out with Ron...but I didn't know what I was doing or even that I had an aptitude.

(Swaha, Salutations, 2003)
Ron: And one day the other girl couldn't make it and so I said to Marla, you know I've got this piece of music that was written a while ago and I'd like to play it for you to see what you can come up with. I started playing and she started singing and by the end of the song, the song was done! She had completely come up with her own part. And that song is on Salutations and it's called "Om Guru". I did a tribute when Pattabhi Jois passed and I put it together using footage of him teaching and I used that song to accompany it. So that was really the first song we ever really wrote together.
It's always been this really interesting process musically for us. It's something mysterious. We don't really know what happens, it just happens and it happens quickly. It's a chemistry thing. The challenge was that we were both married at the time. You know we were both married to great people. So it was also very challenging for that reason. But over time, staying with your truth through it, we've all come to a better place.

Marla: After all that time we came to some peace you know??

Ron: I don't know I seem to be incapable of not going my own way. I have to be moved by whatever it is that I do. Or I just don't stay with it. With music, I've been endlessly moved...With yoga, endlessly moved...It's caused some challenges. But all of this just part of me following my own truth as it presents itself to me. And I'm not apologizing for it in any way. But I'm saying it for the sake of those who want everything to be status quo and traditional...those who like order.
Actually I don't think you came that night to Dorian's talk at Downward Dog did you?? (see author Dorien Israel)

Priya: No I had every intention but came down with a cold...

Ron: But the theme of her book is "Unbound" because how else do you find your truth? So it starts to describe a process of transformation: tradition, transition and transformation. So the whole book is about the fact that you grew up with a tradition, you live within that tradition and then you start to go "it doesn't fit anymore" a snake shedding its skin. You go through this process of questioning "Who am I?" And it's not a comfortable period. Things aren't the way they used to be although you may want them to be the way they used to be. It's a transition. Then you start to come out of it and come into something new again, and you've transformed. But the wonderful thing about the book is that it doesn't just happen once, it can happen again!  And then it can happen again.

Marla: And, at some point, that transformation is going to turn into tradition again. She calls it the "Cycle of Ascendancy".

Ron: And we might live many lives within one...and we might live many lives over lifetimes. It's really all of the same thing that's taking place all of the time. The soul is evolving.

Priya: Does that process describe your relationship to music as well? How has your musical work affected your asana practice?

Marla: I think that kirtan which is where you get to sing together with the audience and you get to create this conversation. And at first, I only viewed chanting in a certain way and I only knew what other people were doing. And Ron was coming at it from a musician's point of view. I was not a musician. I was a devotee. And I just remember that point when we allowed ourselves together just to do the music that was coming through. And that was a great freedom because it wasn't about being like anyone else. And I think allowing the freedom of what's coming through musically is also what's happened in our yoga lives as well by allowing the postures that come through, or the style in which we want to teach... to allow the full expression of that. I think that's created a very joyful expression musically and yogically. It's why it doesn't really feel like we're working!

Ron: I think you want to take people through an experience. I've had my highest moments living through music and through yoga. And to whatever degree I can, I want to give people a taste of what that experience is. I think what a lot of people forget is that the music just comes through us. So that the yoga comes through us. You practice so that you can become a viable vehicle. If the music's coming, but you can't express it, then you're not able to optimize that whole process.

Priya: So with yoga you would work with the body to try and make the mechanism as efficient as possible...

Ron: Yeah...

Priya: In my interview with your student Geoff Wiebe, he talked about you've used the term "sacred geometry" with regard to postures... How does that idea relate to the idea of fluidity in movement? And what does it mean to you exactly?

Ron: Well, particularly when you're doing standing poses the shapes are very geometric. And you can almost just guide them geometrically. You can literally create stick figures. And those shapes hold together because of the nature of the shape. Like a mandala for example...Our ability to conform and find these shapes and patterns is like we're making a personal mandala with our bodies. And it opens up channels of energy. I think that's the other thing that people don't really realize is that in the bigger picture of yoga, we actually have 5 bodies that we're trying to integrate. And each of the kosas have a role to play. BKS Iyengar is incredibly brilliant in his ability to incorporate all this into the physical practice of yoga. He was considering all these other elements. And I've drawn inspiration from that. So that there's an energy, ultimately, that you're guiding in the process.

Marla: In Vedic times, each household had a fire pit. And they would do what are called Agnihotras and they would create these sacred geometric patterns called yantras in the pit and then they would do their fire ceremonies with the mantras. So the shapes that they would make, the yantras that they would make would harness the energy of the gods. That was the shape that was going to be able to harness that energy of Indra...I think that yoga in the physical form, what we want are the nadis, the subtle nerve channels, and the cakras (where the nerve channels converge) we want them to open. When the channels open, you become quite stable in a pose and that allows for fluidity.

Ron: And you become like a conduit. Again, that's why creating a pose in yoga is a lot like making music...because in yoga, your body is the instrument. A great musician can make great music on a bad instrument. But a good instrument makes producing music much more efficient and simple. And a great musician will recognize something about a great instrument, a certain tone that you can get from it, a certain vibration. And you know our bodies are capable of expressing the same thing.
About two years ago I started to think, you know it's just all about the spine! So I just started to reconstruct everything around the alignment of the spine and being able to breathe fluidly in practice. And again, this is something that Pattabhi Jois was breathing! That's what he would say.

Priya: Really?

Ron: Free breathing! If you're not breathing, "breathe!", "breathe!" You know, just keep the breath. Keep the fluidity.  And that relates back to the idea of sacred geometry and the channels. I was talking to a friend of ours, a very spiritual kind of guy, about yoga postures one day and he said, "Well that's how we took form". And I said "What??"
And he explained that when we were originally energetic beings we would have to hold patterns of energy for a period of time until gradually we could solidify and take form! And I was going "What???" But it really sort of struck me that form and formlessness were connected. And that was a very profound way to express it. I sort of make a joke about what he said sometimes by saying that yoga made the body, it's not the other way around!

Priya: How important do you think it is that students are interested in those kinds of discussions of formlessness, so to speak?

Marla: Well, I think we get an opportunity in workshops and in teacher training to go into these kinds of depths with people. But I think if we overwhelm people too early then we get in the way of their growth. And they may just want to get into their body and get their body healthier. They may want to keep it simple. But we find that anyone who comes and stays on the mat, whether they're doing hatha or raja or bhakti yoga, it all converges and it all leads to the same summit of the mountain.

Priya: Have you seen any exceptions to that rule?

Ron: Yeah, oh yeah. It's like you're living in an eight story building and it never occurred to them that there were other floors! (laughing) But I think it's about what's the experience that hooks you in? What's the hook? I mean there are some great teachers, but then there are also some people who just want power over others.

Marla: And these are all things that Patanjali actually overviews in the Yoga Sutras. He's always issuing warnings of "watch out for power"... and "watch out for fame"!

Ron: Well, there's definitely something to trying to be able to orchestrate that situation or navigate it properly. Or else, with the power that comes, you become the central figure, and you can get away with a lot of shit for a while. And a lot of people do...But those people are hooked on that part of the experience. And that's really what Patanjali is saying.
That's not the experience... so don't get stuck there.

Priya: You've talked about the musicality of a vinyasa practice. What do you mean? For me, I see music in sculpture, by the rhythms of repetition etc which form pattern...But I wondered what you see in a given yoga practice that makes it musical?

Ron: Well, anything that works, works because of rhythm. You listen to your windshield wipers, you listen to your washing machine, and you realize that once it starts to lose the rhythm, it will start to fall apart. If it's able to sustain a rhythm then it's able to sustain a life. But similarly, in practice if there isn't a smoothness, if there isn't a rhythm then you'll fatigue easily. You'll injure easily. You know there's a fluidity that ties it all together. I don't think that people always see that. People can often get very mechanical about yoga. But when you're a musician, you know that if you don't have your technique together, you're not going to be able to play anything! And this is what guides my fascination about the body, how it works and how to optimize the experience... Not to mention that sometimes it just looks better! And that beauty of a practice is also telling me something important... that things are integrated within the pose and within the process. Now the person is expressing something. And to me, that's what I want to see come out them. And even if they don't do a very difficult version of an asana, they can still express whatever it is that they're doing very beautifully.

(Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy)

A nd just like that the yogi moves through space without disrupting the flow of breath. We've all seen what Ron's talking about. I'd hazard a guess that many of us have seen exactly that quality of integration when we watch Ron or Marla practice. Only recognizable in the split second motion for its economy of line and symmetry of limb, as when a great swimmer swims - no waves, no splashes, no ripples, and I imagine, no karma... Just subtracted effort, vanishing traces of those geometric forms, from form to formless, all our hard won life lines. That's what I think it's like to watch someone with an integrated practice... Who could know that something that required such enormous physical strategy could be done without a lot of fuss? Let's hope for the rest of us, that the work of this practice leaves such a trail barely visible.

 •   •   •   

You know a teacher is serious when they send you an additional reading list. But no better gift... here's a brief list of Ron's top 3 reads for anyone curious about the Ashtanga tradition:

1. Mark Singleton's Chapter entitled, "Krishnamacarya and the Mysore Asana Revival" in Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.
2. The interview "Setting the Record Straight" between Manju Jois and Richard Clark
3. Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of his Students by Guy Donahaye and Eddie Stern.

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