More about Mary's background
Iyengar: The early 70s in London was not exactly a hot bed of yoga but there were some fine teachers who had been given access to the adult education system partly because of the westernally acceptable form that Iyengar yoga played in the West at the time. The simplicity and rigor of these classes was totally acceptable to a sceptic like myself and although I enjoyed all sorts of forms of movement from dance and competitive squash (racquet ball), to swimming and biking, there was something extraordinarily different about yoga and its impact on my being. Fit I was - in the mainstream sense of the word! - but my first class with a group of Hackney housewives in a school gymnasium, left me humbled, challenged, gasping for a cigarette and ready for more (yoga that is). These dear ladies and our charming miniature Indian yoga teacher impressed me by their ability to turn, flex and stay in poses that were at that time way beyond my capability although I was at least half their age and poundage.
I continued to study with some of the great matriarchs of the Iyengar yoga world who had helped bring Iyengar westward. Among them was Penny Nield Smith who taught many of the early teachers in this system in the West and would come to class ablaze with fliers for political demonstrations! These women in their 60s, 70s and 80s were impressive - looked amazing and dazzled me with their clarity and their wish to pursue another way of being in the world. After college my life led me to live in other places where yoga became perfectly suited to nomadic simple living eg in the wilds of Eire, or working in Catalunya where it was more challenging to find the accoutrement of other movement modalities.
A Shift in Awareness
When I moved to the US in 1983, my teacher at the time Kofi Busia - a pupil of Penny's, recommended that I studied at the Iyengar Institute in San Francisco, where I completed the training program partly because everything about yoga fascinated me and I also felt at sea in this culture. My fellow students - Richard Rosen, Marta Rodriguez, Donna Fone and Rodney Yee - helped me see yoga as collaboration and sangha rather than this isolated, individual practice - one of the best aspects of this program was the opportunities we created to meet and play with ideas as we began our baby steps in teaching. Later we worked together on retreats and trainings and have supported each other over the years even if time, life and geography has separated us at times. Marta introduced me to the Cuban Community in 1997, which became a very important part of my life and focus. Richard's and Rodney's Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland is still where I spend much of my teaching and teacher-training time.
In the mid 80s, even though I was studying with many of the leading lights in the yoga world in the US, Europe and India, I noted that the original reasons I studied yoga were becoming both expanded and compromised. I could do many of those poses that I only dreamed about in Hackney, practiced many hours of asana and pranayama daily, but I felt increasingly dead inside and lacking the spiritual ease and well being reminiscent of the original passion. The philosophy of yoga clearly indicated yoga was part of this process of "union" which was eluding me most of the time if I was truly honest. This is where my true education began. With tremendous gratitude to the community that had helped nourish my initial curiosity and had given me a window into yoga, I needed to open the door to a way of living that was yoga.
Vipassna meditation: was becoming more available in California - a temporary center existed in a nearby county and I started exploring this aspect of the path through Buddhist eyes. In those days, meditation was actively discouraged in the yoga circles I was familiar with. Sitting for 10 days at a time in silence had such a profound awakening effect on my life and yoga that I realised that this vipassna, along with pregnancy and living more closely in touch with the land set the tone for my way of being til today. Since the mid 80s, I have spent many happy (and not so happy!) hours on silent retreat, completing the 2 year Dedicated Practitioners Program at Spirit Rock in 2007 and have done longer retreats there and in Burma. In the early days there was no yoga in the meditation retreats, and I struggled with the fact that most of my senior teachers didnt meditate and at the same time the meditation world saw yoga as at worst a deluded indulgence and at best a recovery arena for sitting! Fortunately we have moved on a little since then! and for many years I have been invited to teach yoga on retreats with Christina Feldman, Narayan Helen Liebenson, Ajahn Amaro and others.
The work of Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten had great resonance in the perplexing transition years of the early 80s and these teachers encouraged me at a challenging time to trust this inner unfolding and the need to listen from a deep quiet place. Over the years, I have sent copious amounts of students and teachers to imbibe their wisdoms. Letting go of a more rigid formulaic approach to both yoga and meditation, allowed a powerful feminine thread to voice itself. This feminine voice is deeply lacking in our times and in some of our yoga arenas - an embodied heartfelt relationship to the earth and the ability to see this body as not separate from the earth body.
Art, Ecology, Global Consciousness
My net of inspiration has broadened. Along with my meditation teachers, I currently seek wisdom from the ecology and art world (from which I originally came!) There is a way that the work of body mind pioneers like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, Andrea Olsen and Emily Conrad come together with environmental scientists such as Bill McGibben, Vanda Nashiva and the poets and artists of our time. This wealth of creativity and investigation married with the extraordinary developments in 21st century yoga and the increasing interest in a bodhisattvic, meditative approach to the pressing questions of our day supports and sustains me. I go to environmentally oriented conferences, cultivate community and exchange in Cuba and with my Latino friends, look to the wisdom and sangha in our local community, my apple farm collective and family to support a living, breathing sustainable yoga.
From time to time, I think about dear Penny Nield Smith and those that have stepped the path before me with great love and respect.....aiding me and others along the way to keep removing the sleep of ignorance from our eyes, and to keep embracing a humble, kindly and whole way of being.