Interview by Lu Duong
Gillian, please share with us your background before yoga
My life before yoga was very far removed from my life nowadays. I worked as a flight attendant in the Middle East for many years. I shamefully used to giggle at women boarding flights to India with their yoga mats. However, years later, I am that woman flying back and forth to India with her yoga mat tucked firmly under arm!
On a more serious note, I had always suffered from a deep sense of darkness and depression. I masked it well on the outside but it was always there internally. My mother suffered from depression all her life and she died when I was young. Her illness and sudden death left a massive imprint on me. I kept everything bottled up inside for almost twenty years which manifested into serious eating disorders and addictions. Life then dealt me another deep personal trauma which catapulted me into finally facing my pain.
It was a scary time for me as I was terrified to finally open up about my depression. I carried serious reservations about mainstream therapy and medication. Hence, I was adamant that I wouldn’t pursue allopathic treatments.
I was intrigued by the mind/body connection, so I started to explore alternative therapies. I had spend a lot of time in India and had always felt a deep connection to the land and it’s people. However, I had never tried yoga, nor had I any understanding of its therapeutic benefits. To be honest, I had some biased preconceptions about yoga as being some form of esoteric and unattainable notion.
I was trying various different alternative mediums, but to no avail. I decided to try an Ashtanga yoga class in my local gym in Dublin. I had no intellectual understanding of what was happening, but it deeply resonated within me. The teacher of that Ashtanga class has since turned out to be one of my closest friends and it’s thanks to her encouragement that I made my way to Mysore.
Depression can be a deep and lingering traumatic experience. What was it about the practice that you found transformative in your healing process?
The practice offered me something very different from anything I had previously experienced. It enabled me to gain some calmness within by ‘doing’ rather than thinking about initiating action. I was never particularly academic, so this kinesthetic approach really resonated with me. I slowly developed an awareness of how to control and detach from the stories of my mind.
This practice is precise and systematic. There is nowhere to hide. Hence, it can be a deeply healing practice if you’re willing to do the work. I started to realise that I was full of fear and trapped in the mental stories of my mind. I learned how to work through the darkness through moving my body and the study of my breath.
I was very fortunate that I went straight to Mysore to learn the practice directly from Guruji and Sharath. They taught me the importance of dedication and discipline to truly look into our fears.
There wasn’t any ‘road to Damascus’ moment for me. I’ve suffered the wrath of naysayers claiming that I’m only interested in performing asanas. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the darkness that has given me the appetite to work hard on the asanas to help me face my fears. It’s been my experience that the lightness can only really come once we’re willing to step out of our comfort zones to peel back the layers.
What have you experienced as the benefits and challenges of this daily practice?
The benefits have by far surpassed the challenges for me. The main benefit has been that I’ve found a tool to help me through the darkness. My daily practice is my anchor. There were the initial years of intense attachment to it but it has slowly evolved into something softer and deeper.
Ultimately, we’re all living in fear of death ‘abhinivesha.’ i didn’t fully understand this before I started practicing. Upon reflection though, I was full of fear and it was preventing me from exploring my true potential to live a full life. It doesn’t control me anymore. Daily practice has helped me develop a discernment between the stories of my mind and reality. This has given me a sense of lightness not only physically, but more importantly on a mental and spiritual level.
The challenges are more of a practical nature i.e. running a traditional six day Mysore programme on my own and maintaining my own daily practice. This lifestyle requires immense dedication and sacrifice. It can be hard always practicing on my own but I don’t have the luxury of a teacher outside of Mysore. Maintaining my own daily practice is also paramount to my teaching. It’s the only way I can teach my mysore students to the best of my ability every morning. My lifestyle is far removed from the norm of Irish society, however I’m blessed with a great family and friends that accept and support the path I’ve chosen.
What are your thoughts on asana progression? Is it necessary?
This is a tricky question! As I mentioned above, I’ve borne the wrath of naysayers claiming that I’m only interested in performing and progressing through the asanas. It’s an easy assumption to make. There is a fine line between pushing too hard in your asana practice and sitting in your comfort zone.
When we have a hunger to discover the true nature of our minds, we need to go through and beyond the limitations of our mind. The limitations of our minds are inherently connected to the perceived limitations of our bodies.
Tapping into the true vision of yoga i.e. ‘chitta vritti nirodah’ ‘calming the fluctuations of the mind’ is not some esoteric and unattainable goal (as I wrongly presumed before I started practicing.) I’ve experienced that the asanas are tools to enable us to use our bodies and the subtleties of our breath to develop a steady mind. However, it doesn’t come from sitting around talking about asanas. Talk is cheap. Daily effort and hard work is required.
Admittedly, asana progression can sometimes enhance the egoic mind process. In turn, this can hinder the progression in the more subtle limbs of yoga. We all have different bodies and meet our ‘gate stopper’ asanas. It’s what we do here that’s important. Working through this challenging stage can help us progress into a much deeper level of self enquiry. The asanas can be viewed as a microcosm for how we live our daily lives.
Taking the easy option was never an option for me. I was in a very dark space when I came to the practice and quickly learned that the only way was to put the daily effort in. I learned the practice directly from Guruji and Sharath and I’ve always just done whatever asanas they’ve given me. I don’t seek out other teachers or new asanas. My experience is that there is no fast track through the practice. The real progression hasn’t come for me by attaining new asanas or moving onto advanced asanas. It’s been in the moments where I’ve faced my demons and fears practicing on my own without a teacher to hold the space for me. This is where the real work is. This helped me work through so much of the trappings of the egoic mind.
My experience has also been that the sense of achievement once mastery of the physical asana is short lived. Progression in any asana is only truly mastered when we can breath comfortably in it. This gives the real depth of connectivity between the mind and the body. Otherwise, it’s just bending like circus contortionists. Many people fool themselves by giving themselves the asanas. This results in skipping over the depth of the lessons to be learned in previous asanas. There is no real depth of connectivity to be gained here. Progression is measured by allowing each new asana to help us peel back the layers of deep conditioning and trapped traumas. It’s not about killing ourselves and racing through the asanas. Ultimately, the body will age and the asanas will go. What matters is how we’ve used them to tap into our inner soul.
How do you integrate the yamas and niyamas in your asana practice?
The first yama ‘Ahimsa’ non-violence is probably the most basic but profound for me. I was guilty of pushing myself very hard in the early years of asana practice. I still work hard in my daily practice buy my approach has evolved over the years. I realise that the old patterns in my asana practice came from a space of deep self loathing.
It’s taken many years to strike that fine balance of still working deeply but softly. This has helped me cultivate an inner strength as opposed to working from a space of brute strength. It’s also slowly manifested as a microcosm for me off the mat in my daily life. The integration of this lesson in my daily life has also helped me create a more loving and compassionate space for my students. I know intuitively when they need to back off in their asana practice and when it’s time for them to work a little deeper. There is a deeper level of stability once we can tap into integrating these life principles on and off the mat.
What was your experience like visiting KPJAYI? Can you speak about your experiences with Guruji and Sharath?
I barely recognise the young woman that rocked up at the KPJAYI all those years ago! I had a deep desire to go to the source, but I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know anyone that had been there before, hence I was a total novice. I naively thought I knew all about navigating my way through India after my time there in the airlines. However, I was in for a serious wake up call. My experience of travelling in India had been in 5 star hotels and air conditioned coaches. This time around I was schlepping on the trains and rickshaws to get to Mysore…
I would love to tell you that it was an awe-inspiring moment the first time I met Guruji. The truth is that I was totally terrified. I’d never experienced such a strong force of energy emanating from another human being. I was also very dubious about the notion of having a ‘Guru.’ I quite simply didn’t know what to make of it all.
I had fumbled my way through most of the primary series on my own, so I was pretty clueless. This became very apparent on my first day at the shala. I spent my first morning hiding in the foyer as I was too intimidated to put my mat down. Guruji kept calling ‘one more’ but I wouldn’t budge. I let everyone else go ahead of me for ages. Eventually, Sharath came out and started laughing at me when I told him I was ready to hightail it out of there. Guruji then called me a ‘bad lady’ for taking so long to pull myself together and take my space. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point. Sharath muttered something in Kannada to Guruji (obviously letting him know that I was totally fresh off the boat!)
The energy in the shala with Guruji was something out of this world. He was transmitting a incredibly powerful energy. His adjustments were the deepest energetic shifts I’ve ever experienced. I was in total awe of him by the end of my first practice. However, I inherently knew that Sharath was going to be my life long teacher. I lost the desire to intellectualise any of it. I had spent all my life looking for a way to help me out of the darkness and this was it.
There weren’t the huge numbers in the shala in those days, so there was no limit on how long we could stay. I decided that I wanted to fully devote myself to the practice. My connection was always with Sharath but I also wanted to immerse myself as deeply as possible whilst Guruji was still alive. Saraswathi was also teaching with them in those days and she was also a great source of inspiration for me. I used my savings to return for two full years. Many people thought I was crazy but I viewed it as a necessary investment. I’ve no regrets as it was a deeply transformative time in my life.
Since then, I’ve continued to return for annual trips, initially funded through my work in television and now through my teaching. I’ve made twelve trips to Mysore which totals around five solid years studying at the KPJAYI. However, these trips are an integral part of my own personal journey and an invaluable investment to help me teach as authentically as possible.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed so many different dynamics at play for people when they come to study there. Many people come with expectations. My experience has been that the energy of the practice is transmitted on a much deeper level once you keep things simple. It’s challenging enough to wake at 2.30am every day facing deep emotional and physical obstacles through the daily practice. It’s always been about simply learning the practice for me.
The KPJAYI is very far removed from my traditional Irish upbringing. Hence, it was deeply touching for me when my Father came out to visit me last year. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to Sharath’s request to come to watch a Led Intermediate class. Needless to say, he didn’t know what to make out of the intense asana practice but he was highly impressed with the Institute and Sharath’s professionalism. It meant a lot to me for my Father to gain some insight into my daily life in Mysore.
I’ve also made some of the deepest connections and friendships throughout my years studying there. This rich international community is a great source of support for me.
Admittedly, there have been some necessary changes to facilitate the masses now descending. There are some naysayers claiming that the teachings have changed since Guruji passed. Most of these comments are from sources that have either never studied at the KPJAYI or haven’t returned for many years. My experience is that the teachings are flowing through Sharath in their pure form as Guruji intended.
What were you able to glean from Guruji and Sharath with regards to teaching yoga to students?
The most profound thing I learned from them is to go deep in your own practice before starting to teach. Guruji and Sharath have always told us to spend at least ten years of daily practice before passing anything on to others. This totals at least 10,000 hours of personal practice – a far cry from the 200 hour courses flooding our communities nowadays. Teaching yoga is really just an extension of our own practice, so it should evolve organically over a long period of time.
They also instilled the importance of not forsaking your own practice just to teach. Sharath rises at 1am daily to do his own practice before teaching us in Mysore. This example has always inspired me and encouraged me to maintain my daily practice. It can be a real challenge at times but it’s possible. The practice is an energetic transmission, hence it can only truly work if you keep the energy flowing. Daily practice with a full teaching schedule requires personal sacrifices but that’s the example Guruji and Sharath set for us. The biggest sacrifice for me is the lack of sleep but it’s always worth it.. (although I don’t wake at 1am!)
They also instilled the need to find one teacher or Guru. Once we pass the honeymoon phase of the practice the real physical and emotional challenges start to arise. I learned that I had to surrender to my teacher in order to truly go deep. I often felt like quitting when I was faced with deep emotional and physical challenges. However, they taught me the importance of finding a teacher that has genuinely done the work and can then guide you deeper. These were the times I had the deepest shifts and started to get a glimpse of the lightness available through the practice. It’s easy to project your arising issues on to a teacher, blame them and seek a more comfortable option. However, it’s at these challenging times that you need to really trust in the practice and your teacher’s ability to guide you.
I’ve also spent two trips assisting Sharath in his daily classes and another two trips attending special month long teacher training courses with him. These experiences have been invaluable for my teaching. There is the practical knowledge required for adjusting, but more importantly how to learn to hold the energetic space for people. It’s not something that can be conveyed in a book or YouTube video. It’s simply an energetic transmission that is passed on from teacher to student.
Over the years, I’ve also spent a lot of time sitting in the foyer in Mysore after my practice just watching them teach. I’ve probably learned the most here. Guruji and Sharath have always been totally benevolent towards all the students. This has been my biggest lesson in how to teach from the heart. Teaching this practice is a vocation and they taught me to teach from a space of love and devotion.
Gillian, I’d like to delve deeper into your thoughts on “energetic shifts”. There is something indescribable about direct transmission from teacher to student. What is it that makes it so unique and an integral component of this lineage?
Personally, I came to the practice with an immense amount of fear and trapped trauma in my body. As I mentioned above, I had no intellectual understanding of what was happening during most of these cathartic releases. However, I was acutely aware that I needed to learn from the living masters to guide me through this process.
There has been a lot of debate about the exact origins of the practice but suffice to say that it’s been around a long time. Guruji spent over seventy years teaching and carrying on Krishnamacharya’s legacy in Mysore. Sharath spent over twenty years soaking up Guruji’s knowledge and energy and has now devoted his life to passing on Guruji’s legacy.
It’s easy to learn the practicalities of teaching yoga asanas but this only goes so deep. If you want to use this practice as the deep form of therapy that it is then you need to find a teacher that has deeply experienced it. This practice is ultimately a breathing process that can only be truly be conveyed by someone that understands it on an energetic level. Only then can a teacher truly pass something of substance on to his or her students.
Separately, for the students reading that aren’t able to attend a daily Mysore program, what can they do to enhance their own self-study and practice?
I would advise everyone to try to go to study at the KPJAYI in Mysore. The energy you tap into on these trips helps to keep you flowing energetically on your own. However, I understand that this may not be a practical option for everyone. I’ve always practiced on my own outside of Mysore, as do many of my peers around the world. it’s not easy though..
If you can’t make it to Mysore, try to find an experienced teacher somewhere that you can build a relationship with and visit regularly. It helps immensely when you can occasionally connect with a teacher on both an energetic and practical level. It also really helps if you can occasionally tap into a community of like minded practitioners.
I know only too well how challenging it can be practicing on your own all the time, but it does have its benefits. It can bring you a depth of understanding that doesn’t come from always having a teacher to hold the space for you. It also helps you to avoid the nonsense of comparing teachers etc. You don’t waste your energy on this avoidance behaviour.
On a practical level, try not to think that you have to do the full practice every day. Try to cultivate the discipline to simply roll out the mat every day and see what unfolds for you. The practice is primarily self experiential so ultimately, we need to take responsibility for our practice regardless of where we are.
It can also be really helpful to study some of the Yoga texts. Personally, I find ‘Eknath Easwaran’s’ translations of the Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads the easiest to assimilate when starting to study the philosophy.
Any final thoughts, Gillian?
I’ve always found that the simplicity of Guruji’s message ‘99% practice 1% theory’ conveys the true essence of this practice. Sharath also quotes this to us all the time. They don’t want us to sit around having philosophical conversations about how to become enlightened and the meaning of life. Nor do they advocate skipping the asanas and exploring pranayama or other practices until we are fully ready.
Instead, they encourage us to do the asanas and the practice will slowly evolve organically for us, both on and off the mat. This was another one of Guruji’s favourite sayings ‘practice and all is coming’.
On a final note, Guruji and Sharath have also always displayed a great sense of humour. It’s so important to not take ourselves and our practice too seriously – keep your sense of humour! This Ashtanga practice is a beautiful gift to be cherished and enjoyed.