Dear friends, I recently had the honor and privilege of being interviewed by Anne Marie Schultz for the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga National Association of the US) Newsletter ‘Student Spotlight’ section. I enjoyed working on these questions during my annual week of study with Patricia Walden this summer. The interview eventually went through an editing process, so I thought I’d share the unedited and unabridged version here, rambling metaphors and all! We explored a lot… yoga and social justice, some personal stories… Thanks and hope you enjoy…

Demoing using the column for Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana I (Upward Facing Intense West Stretch Pose) with Patricia Walden’s guidance – and help from her feet! -At her 2019 Colorado Retreat.
  1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.    

I have a major crush on life! I am a white, queer, non binary feminist, full time Iyengar Yoga teacher, a healing justice advocate, a devotional artist and rad mom. I’m pretty magical, a bit chaotic, full of heart. I live in Albuquerque, NM, in the beautiful high desert with big big sky, on the unceeded territory of the Tewa people, and Sandia and Isleta Pueblos. 

2. What do you do when you aren’t doing yoga? 

I have two kids, a 2 year old daughter and a 13 year old son. This tender teenager + tenacious toddler combination keeps me pretty busy and at my edge of growing and learning. Coordinating, finding balance, and sharing support amongst a large but close knit local non-nuclear family that involves coparents, grandparents, little kids, and my precious partner is a dynamic deeply woven with how I move through life. 

I’m also involved with various forms of local community organizing: queer antiracism study groups and activism, supporting immigrant justice, co-producing a monthly queer trans yoga group are a few examples. 

My life blooms at a vivacious rate, and brings opportunities for forays into occasional performance art/ dance, illustration projects, camping, organic gardening…I love to feed healthy delicious things to the folks I love and my kitchen is well used and often full of delicious aromas. The days are usually packed, which makes the quiet deep dive of daily asana and pranayama especially crucial. I’m grateful my life is so rich, embodied, connected, meaningful. 

3. What lead you to start Iyengar Yoga?   How long have you been practicing? 

My entrance into Iyengar Yoga was gradual; peripheral to the core. I studied deeply for 15 years with Kim Schwartz, a wonderful teacher and student of Ramanand Patel and Francois Raoult; I’ve taken many workshops with them as well. I’ve been practicing yoga for 20 years, working with ‘Iyengar inspired’ and Iyengar teachers who left the system, since 2003, and about 10 years ago became a bit obsessed with what is the actual Iyengar method, something I’m of course continuing to discover, excavate, expand into, and explore. 

4.  Describe your path toward establishing a home practice.

As a teenager, I was very interested in the terrain of consciousness, and though the philosophy books my mom had brought back from travels to India were a bit too obtuse for me to get into, I developed a sort of made-up meditation practice. I didn’t know about asana. I attended my first yoga class in my freshman year of art school (my best friend took me, both of us balanced on my bike, which had pegs on the back wheels, all the way through downtown Baltimore to get there) and I fell in love with it right away. I noticed a palpable difference in how I felt, and was intrigued by this thing that was so challenging, yet felt like home. That summer I visited my cousin Melina for a month in big bad NYC. I met a friend of hers named Sigaleet – a magnetic, gleeful very energetic Isreli woman, who practiced 108 sun salutations every day (!). Needless to say I was inspired! My cousin and I would start each day on the roof with 10 surya namaskar, and from then I just kept with it, adding in things as a learned. 

5. Has there been a particular moment or memory when you realized the personal significance of practice?

There have been many. One memorable moment was half way though my second retreat with Patricia Walden. I was driving away from the day of practice, and in a stormy New Mexican twilight became overwhelmed with a sense of joy that burst to the surface in powerful tears, so strong I had to pull off the road and just cry, messy loud, sobbing tears, like that of a newborn who has found their lungs. 

In those years I had some repressed trauma and emotions, so crying was very rare for me. These were euphoric, happy tears though and I had a clear sense that finally, I had found the work, for me – this path of Iyengar yoga – that had such scope, meaning, depth, potential, that it was worth committing my life to. 

I grew up with homesteader hippie parents, in rural WV: lots of art, nature, leftist politics, and modern dance instead of TV and mainstream culture so I had a lot of creative talents and will to serve, but had struggled to pin down what to really do with my life, what is MY work, my way to serve. This was a poignant moment that seemed to clear the way. Interestingly committing to this Iyengar yoga path has opened doors for much of the these “divergent” interests such as art and healing justice work to blossom.

5. How does your yoga practice relate to your family (furry and otherwise) life?

Yoga sadhana is essential for me to show up fully for my family. My motherhood makes much of what yoga philosophy teaches, real. 

But practice it often feels at odds with my responsibilities; both pull at me and time with one means less with the other. Family time and time inside my practice create a tension that is somewhat positive; each one makes me hungry for and very appreciative of the other. 

I am inspired by Abhijata, how she is being both, mother, practitioner-teacher. In her own way, finding an ever changing balance. I’m very glad to have a supportive partner who also loves yoga, in their own way, and understands it is a big and worthwhile part of my life.

6.  If you are a teacher, what brought you to teach in this lineage?

I felt pulled towards teaching yoga from a young age, and always took it as a serious endeavor. The more experiences I had in both practice and teaching, the Iyengar system consistently emerged as the most relevant, direct, clear, bright way forward into yoga. Once I found access to the Iyengar system, other possible trajectories faded away pretty quickly. I had to work through many barriers (mostly of my own creation) to feel deserving, that I too could be part of all this. 

7. What do you love most about  Iyengar yoga?

“Most” is tricky! A Gemini answer: Top 5!

I love that it is lineage based: that there is accountability, mentorship, responsibility, practical ways to progress into an embodied, somatic experience of spiritual evolution that affects all aspects of life and self, here and now, in such exquisite ways. 

That in teaching I can serve directly at a root level. Students can come out of pain, or change their relationship to pain, that healing is possible and accessible, and that this opens the gateway to the deeper potentials of practice: a miracle every time.

I love that it is a vast endeavor, humbling, that the subject will only ever be barely touched, even after a lifetime of practice. 

I love that to practice Iyengar Yoga is to step into a river of Devotion, that it brings me to total trust and terrifying levels of surrender, that it requests all I can give and more, so I know my capacity for focus, for strength, for patience, for love, is much greater than my mind tells me.

I love that what I’m exploring in asana practice are the exact skills I need to navigate work in the external world: to awaken to and challenge my own internalized oppressions, to disrupt the harm I inevitably create, to stay present during the discomfort of working towards change, of directing attention to what I’ve been socialized to ignore, of compassion and clarity amidst fracture and conflict. I love that there is space within Iyengar Yoga community for culture shift to grow and that conversations around inequity, privilege, race, class, gender, etc are becoming more and more a part of the space. 

I love that Iyengar yoga brings me in, to really experience what is beyond, what is  God, what is real. To sense the hum of the earth’s living soul, the awake vital pulse of the universe. 

8. Any particular asanas you are currently focusing on?

Mostly: Actions WITHIN asanas! How do the combined actions of socketizing the femur and work in the buttocks elongate the lumbar and pacify my adrenal glands, especially in back extensions? How do I verticalize, centralize, and sense the relationship of my joints in inversions? How does the space behind my sternum directly relate to states of mind, emotions? How to feel many areas in my body at once, in such a way that they harmonize, rather than compete? How do I work with my discouragement? 

Currently excited about a lot: Adho mukha vrksasana, pincha mayurasana, sirsasana 2, vipariti dandasana, working patiently towards kapotasana. Also seated twists in general. And supported versions of Halasana. Viloma 3. Also having a recent love affair with parivrrta trikonasana, WHO KNEW?!

9. What are your thoughts about the relation of yoga philosophy to questions of inclusivity and/or or questions of social justice?  

I love this question! 

In an asana, if there is an intense injury or imbalance in the body, we must first address that, triage what puts someone in danger. Similarly, addressing and disrupting the harm of injustice and inequity is very important, foundational, if we value compassion and healing.

I see Iyengar yoga as an invaluable practice to help humanity evolve and survive, and the necessity of centering a justice framework key the survival of Iyengar yoga for future generations. 

Society in the US has been constructed on a foundation of imbalance, and these systemic oppressions permeate our world, and live inside us, too. They spoil it for everyone. Although our culture is obsessed with individualism, what happens in the collective, social, political affects our connection to our hearts, our embodied aliveness, each other  – and vis versa. I see yoga and social justice to be deeply intwined, inseparable, even. 

Although yoga in the US has been deliberately whitewashed, divorced from it’s source, and rebranded as a “feel good” luxury lifestyle for the privileged few (I blame consumer capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, to name a few) we know that it was never meant for escapism or erasure, or to sell fancy yoga clothes. Yoga is about awakening, liberation, healing – and the ways oppression and imbalance in our outer world live inside us ARE the very things that yoga seeks to address: the kleshas, the illusion of isolation, the unchecked repetition of the ways we perpetuate harm without realizing. Arjuna was called to action, after all, to fight injustice.

It’s very important we address these uncomfortable realities, squarely and honestly. For instance, in the US the attempted genocide and colonization of Indigenous people and forced importation of African people for slavery laid the foundation for our country and its cultural values. In far reaching ways white supremacy has been baked in to our culture at a systemic, institutional level, and it affects all aspects of our life, including our yoga classes. 

As a white person, I benefit from these systems which privilege my life and liberty over black and brown folks. White people have been socialized not to see these dynamics, even as we contribute to them. We’ve been socialized to believe all sorts of dangerous beliefs around who deserves power, protection, respect, and who doesn’t, based on gender, class, body size, ability, citizenship status, and how well others perform rules around gender expression and heteronormativity. This is avidya. This conditioning keeps us blindfolded, and entrenched in suffering. 

From a place of privilege, how do we lift these veils of ignorance, face our fragility, overcome our defensiveness, our wanting to skip to good “spiritual” feelings? From the places where we are marginalized, how do we reclaim our dignity, ease, authenticity, shed the internalized bondage of society’s sickness? How do we truly anchor ourselves in bhavana, in tender humanity? How do we support each other in this work? Even now, how are you feeling as you read this: are you shutting down, intellectualizing, assuming it’s not about you? While you and I did not choose these systems of oppression, I do feel a responsibility to understand and dismantle them, especially in my beloved yoga communities, and I hope we can keep exploring together what this means. 

Where are the transgender, black, brown, queer, fat, poor, undocumented folks in our classes, workshops, trainings? In what ways do marginalized students and teachers of Iyengar yoga have to code switch, shut down, hide, or armor themselves in order to show up? In what ways do our actions, assumptions, etc perpetuate this imbalance? 

“Inclusivity and diversity” is a hot topic in yoga in the west but we need to use both paksa and pratipaksa to address the harm in our yoga spaces. Yes, being welcoming and kind is great but we need to seek out the root cause, understand these systemic problems and how they affect us, so that we can create something different. In his commentary on sutra II.33 Guruji writes, “Instead of trying to cultivate the opposite condition, he should go deep into the cause of the anger or violence. This is paksabhava. One should also study the opposite forces with calmness and patience. Then one develops equipoise.” 

This inner work and outer action is a powerful combination. It is not enough to be kind. It’s not OK expect diverse folks to assimilate into our yoga culture, so that we don’t have to change, or tokenize, or expect people from marginalized groups to be a representative or spokesperson. What needs to transform within our selves, our studios? As Sonali Fiske says “You cannot be inclusive without examining your exclusivity.” Healing justice opens doors to deep svadhyaya, deep ahimsa. And deep liberation, not only for others, but for us, too. These systems of inequity hurt everyone. We are all in this together. 

I trust that as we explore this aspect of practice, our ‘on the mat’ work can become even more rich. I envision an Iyengar community strengthened, uplifted and beautifully expanded by the vulnerability, courage, and growth that healing justice work involves. Positive change takes many forms, and we each hold a piece of the equation. 

10.  How might we as a community come together to uphold each other in practice? 

I really appreciate space for vulnerability, for real listening, curiosity, unpacking conditioning, opening to new possibilities, with others. It’s wonderful to practice with Iyengar friends, to study together, have group projects that keep me accountable. I’m excited about an NEW collaborative blog exploring Iyengar Yoga and Social Justice: Ahimsa in Action which will be a hub for local and national organizing and inspiration. The more we have the courage to bring our whole selves to the yoga space, the more integration is possible.

11. How have you worked to build up community in your area? How it might be a model for other communities?

Community constantly reminds me how interdependent we all are, how nourished and upheld by others I am. It is a source of true wealth and resilience. Showing up for other people’s causes, bringing my full attention to interactions, having clear boundaries around what I can really offer, reorienting to what is true vs convenient, working to diminish ego in interactions, and staying heart centered in conflict rather than running away, having a birds eye view, long term vision  – these are ways I’m striving to show up for community now. 

I’ve learned a lot by bringing yoga classes out of the studio, into trans, queer, and community spaces, to local Native reservations, to women transiting out of incarceration, etc. I think we need to be willing to make mistakes, and learn from them, and not give up because it’s not “perfect.” There are things I can offer, and things I can’t. It’s an ongoing process to explore how to be a conduit, how Iyengar yoga practice can meet people where they are at, how to work with others in collaboration, how to step back, listen, share power and build trust. 

At my studio I’ve helped start a teacher meet up group to explore the inner work around critical whiteness, privilege of all sorts, we have readings, help from a local trainer who specializes in this work, it’s been incredibly beautiful to see how this has fostered more connection amongst the group, shifts in the space. 

What does an Iyengar yoga environment look like, feel like, where many different types of people can bring their whole selves into the practice, where no particular way of being is dominant? What needs to change, evolve, open, so that the purity and spirit of Iyengar yoga can continue to grow? When we define Iyengar yoga in the US, what are the essential roots of the practice, and what are dry husks ready to fall away? I don’t have answers, but I’m grateful we will all keep learning, together.

“Yoga has a beginning but no end…” -Geetaji. 

2 thoughts on “IYNAUS Student Spotlight Interview

  1. I love you Avery and your dedication to the practice as well as your passion for life in many areas – the world is a better place because you are here. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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