… and here’s the second bit of my epic interview with Melissa Billington, lead lady at MYOGA on Marion Street in Wellington, New Zealand.
GUDFL: What do your students get out of yoga?
Melissa: There have been a number of people who have come from more masculine forms of yoga like Bikram and Astanga that are more power focused, intense, and have quick movements. Some have had injuries. Those people have been forced to see the advantage of slowing down. They get a sense of rehabilitation and recovery because I’ve mixed the precision and alignment of Iyengar, which tends to be very slow and alignment-based, with the more flowing and energy movement practices of things like Vinyasa or Ana Forrest or Kundalini yoga, which is a very different thing altogether from all of the other Hatha styles.
What I’ve heard from students is that they get a sense of themselves, a sense of centeredness and groundedness and the usual sort of physical increased vitality, strength and flexibility. The mental and spiritual aspects—of feeling centered, mental clarity and feeling connected to themselves beyond all of the distractions and difficulties of life—are just as important.
What do you get out of teaching yoga?
I guess it’s something that happened in response to the film and theater world. I loved the creative outlet, yet I had a difficult time with the waste of human resources and of material resources. It was difficult with my sense of values and ethics around living and being part of the whole ecosystem.
Yoga to me feels like an overflow of who I am and has enabled me to continue to grow and to learn. I experience the teaching as a dialogue within myself with the practice. It’s, by extension, a dialogue with my students. Literally, at the beginning of class, asking for requests or where they are in the moment so I can get a sense of what I call the ‘human weather pattern’ in the room. It’s also the unspoken language of body language, seeing where people are and letting that communicate as clearly to me where/how they are as they might with their own words… I guess this where I see one of the differences between the masculine styles that have taken yoga out into the world like Iyenger, Astanga and Bikram, and some of the more feminine styles that are emerging more strongly these days. Within that conversation or dialogue, instead of imposing a practice on students and imposing my idea of where they should be or what we should do, it’s a constant listening on my part to what people say with their bodies and then adjusting how I teach and what we’re doing in conscious response.
What was your first experience with yoga?
My parents were hippies and I’d say I was conceived on LSD and marijuana and alcohol. I haven’t really done LSD but I found with marijuana it’s almost like I wake up, I feel inspired and alive. So that’s kind of clued me into the fact that maybe I was created on that particular substance. So they were quite… The hippies and their connection to the eastern modalities that came in when the US opened their doors to Asia in the 60s and a lot of teachers flooded in, created a very interesting mix which has its own history of two cultures coming to meet. Out of that, Kripalu, where I did my yoga teacher training, emerged from an Indian teacher named Amrit Desai and an ashram was established. When I was quite young, my mom went there to do massage training and so I went with her and they had kids yoga and meditation for kids and danskinetics - which they still have but they changed the name of it - which is free movement but with awareness. I was seven at that time and prior to that we had been Nichiren Buddhists, so we were chanting morning and night.
I was also aware of my own personal ancestry and my mom’s friends and their hippie way of being connected us with nature [playing outdoors, growing and eating our own food] and the natural rhythms [4 seasons] and the return to what they thought of as the native ways [living in a teepee, having Indian names, making our own plant medicine, birthing at home]. My own history is that I’m the 13th lineal descendant of Pocahontas, so there’s always been this pride in the family around that. Even though the blood is far off there’s a strong questioning around, ‘What does it mean to be First Nation or Native American?’ So there’s a lot mix in there that exposed me to different ways of thinking and being during my developmental years.
Yoga was in the mix and I remember being at Kripalu and the guru was over from India and I didn’t know this at the time but it was his last year of life and he had been doing something like 10 years of silence. So his teachings were really just satsangh, a Sanskrit term meaning to be in the company of the truth. I remember the impact, of this teacher walking into the room, on all these adults. And all the people just quieted and centered and I think children can often see more clearly than a lot of adults. Seeing that and seeing how impactful, in a positive way, his presence was had quite an impact on me. After that, when we left the ashram and returned home, I would sit on my little carpet and meditate. Yoga postures are relatively easy for kids but I think the meditation practice is pretty unusual to be sitting still and quiet at age 7! I hope it becomes more usual in the future.
What is your understanding of how Hinduism relates to your practice?
Kundalini yoga is actually connected into the Sikh religion so it’s slightly different. I don’t know how close Sikhism and Hinduism actually are.
There are some definitions of Hinduism which actually include Sikhism and Jainism.
So I was exposed to quite a few different religions when I was younger and I was quite skeptical of them. I really resisted any perceived form of ‘power over.’ I resisted a lot of doctrine. I would listen carefully, but, so for example we went to a Presbyterian church - we were Buddhist at one point, Presbyterian at another - and instead of bowing my head when we were praying, I would lift my head. Not to be rebellious but because I felt like it was more open and honest to lift my head rather than bow like I was hiding something. I’ve since come around to that whole tradition of bowing, and the humility, the sense of honoring oneself, of honoring others, honoring teachers. Partly through martial arts and partly just through experimenting.
I wrote an article called ‘What If Yoga Is Like Religion?’ I think part of that was coming out of the concern that I was getting from people in New Zealand around the religious aspects. So there are many, for me the difference is being self aware, taking that skepticism yet not letting it stop you from experiencing. And then from your experiencing making your own decisions. Asking yourself, ‘Is this something that’s putting power over me, or is what I’m experiencing, is it something that’s bringing power into me, empowering me?’
So sun salutation…I have a really good book you might be interested in by Georg Feuerstein which is the more philosophical aspects of yoga so…In India there are 30 or 40 types of yoga. There’s Karma yoga which is the yoga of service, Bhakti yoga, which is the yoga of love. There’s Gnana yoga which is the yoga of study, of the mind, Nada yoga, the yoga of sound. So the Hatha yoga that most people have heard of and that has all of these different styles in the west (Bikram, Astanga, Iyengar, Anusara, Satyananda), is really just one branch of the bigger tree branching out into different twigs. And sometimes you find a sense of devotion or some of those other aspects, selfless service, brought into it. But a lot of times it’s really just the physical practice. The Indian view of yoga is very different from the western view of yoga.
Because of my concern around other people’s concern about religion, and own experience with exploring it but not wanting to make it something doctrinated, there are certainly elements of devotion and spirit in my teaching, but it’s more a matter of how much you choose. For example, the sun salutation, surya namaskara. Apparently, originally, the sun was considered the father of yoga because really, ultimately, the sun is what makes all life possible. I taught kids yoga on the ‘Good Morning’ show and I had an Indian woman and her daughter join the practice but she wouldn’t do the ‘Om’ at the beginning because she was Catholic (even though she was Indian she wasn’t Hindu) because paying homage or honor to something other than Jesus or God is sacrilegious and blasphemous to her. So while I could understand where she was coming from, I felt it limited her experience and limited her view of reality, which is that the sun does make life possible! Why not honor the sun and make a living prayer of our bodies doing it? Or say aum, which is a resonance of unity. Apparently if the whole universe were to vibrate simultaneously, the sound made would be aum. Yoga means union to many, so what could be more unifying that humming to the same pitch?
In a couple of classes you mentioned levitation. What did you mean by that, figuratively and literally?
You definitely see emotionally and mentally that when we learn how to take ourselves more lightly, we lighten up. So enlightenment is often pursued and I have found that those people who have experienced, who are maybe considered enlightened or maybe considered swamis, gurus, teachers, people who are on that path of enlightenment, generally giggle a lot. You know grown men who giggle, who really take themselves lightly and who find great joy in the kaleidoscope that is life.
Physically, in the yoga practice, sometimes I tell people I think of the yoga practice as flushing the toilet. You wouldn’t go a week not flushing the toilet having used it every day and yet we go decades sometimes without flushing our bodies and so after a while it stinks, it gets clogged. We get clogged and heavy and full of shit so that regular sort of flushing physically, moving things through the digestive system, moving things out through the pores, helps to keep the channels clear and when you’re clear, you’re lighter. You can see, for example, people doing a simple movement most people would know like a push up position, or plank, to down dog. Plank tends to look really heavy, like the weight of the world is on people’s backs initially, when they’re just stepping into themselves. And then down dog tends to look like everything’s crowded up around the shoulders because all of the weight - instead of being drawn back through the thighs, through the belly - it’s down in the hands. As students become more familiar with themselves and start to clear the crap, they become lighter and so that transition, holding yourself up, it becomes a difference of emphasis. Whether the weight of things is on me, and I am the weight of something on the ground, sinking, or whether I’m pressing the ground away and growing up out of it. Which is taking on that quality of levitation. And levity is the same word, taking yourself lightly so literally and physically taking yourself lightly and lightening up.
I did some research into the etymology of levitate: “(v.) 1670s, “to rise by virtue of lightness,” from Latin levitas “lightness,” patterned in English on gravitate. Sense of “raise (a person) into the air” is mainly from spiritualism (1870s). Related: Levitated; levitating.”
How important is the lighting in the room? What effect are you trying to create here? It’s pretty sunny now. Is that one of the reasons why you chose this place?
I definitely was deliberate in choosing this space. I had been to so many different studios or community halls or church halls that smelled strangely, that had fluorescent lighting, that seemed to not take in to mind that yoga is about union, in that we’re all-one. So while we’re cultivating this concept in ourselves, cultivating this awareness of how everything’s interconnected and how I’m connected with you and with the environment around me, it’s a lot easier to do that in an environment that’s supportive of the positive end of that. It’s much more challenging when it smells like old socks and it’s too bright or too dark.
Tell me about your book.
I’ve been writing the introduction and I was writing that’s it’s been trialled on live humans for many years now and it came out as a response, out of that dialogue, of people saying the can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes. The Basics Series came out of recognizing that a lot of yoga practices start you out in full postures and then run you through a lot more full postures. And coming out of the Kripalu tradition of paying attention to what is actually going on with people, I recognize that we really need to warm up. You find that in Hot Yoga and Bikram, and that’s one of the advantages of the heat, is that it enables the body to move a bit more freely. What you don’t find there, that you do find in India, and other Asian cultures, is squatting. And so by squatting, all of the leg joints open, the lower back is long, there’s the connection to the ground, the ability to sit cross legged. So without those things, a lot of the other things are really challenging to do. So it was really taking it back to the basics. Since most people are sitting at desks, holding to things, their hands are closed off, their wrists are tight, people walk in shoes more often than barefoot, so their toes are tight, they don’t have the connection of their feet to the ground… Really what we’re doing is connecting in to the extremities and to the major plexus/nexus, the shoulders and the hips, and then developing core awareness and strength. That’s really key for me. Everything expands out of the center point. It was originally a six week practice - it still runs like that in the studio - but in putting it into a book and audio form it can be done in six days or it can be done in six months. It’s really open to how you want to do it. I recommend that you stay with something until it gets a bit more familiar. It is meant to be done with the audio. So it’s a different format to what people are accustomed to - the visual, and the video format - but because I had an Ana Forrest set done the same way, I appreciate this format. And because I’m so keen on developing listening as a skill in myself and others, the audio gives a lot more information and enables us to develop our ears. Because everybody’s bodies are different, what I look like in the photo or the video is not necessarily what you’re going to look like. The practice becomes about taking that information in and translating it to your form.
Made a foray into the world of flower arranging today, which is I think a fitting activity for the nearly-40-year-old I am.
I’ve not consumed any Easter eggs, meat or alcohol.
The decision was not a conscious one, it’s probably because I’ve been doing other stuff like mooching about, paddling in the harbor and this morning a bit of yoga.
As my appetite for contact sports has diminished with my advancing years, so has my appreciation of the discipline of yoga increased.
I like it because it feels good.
Sure, there are tough bits but there are no crunching noises, there’s no straining against your cardiovascular limits.
When I was younger I thought yoga was full of crap but I think I was just put off by prejudice and chanting.
A decade ago, inspired by an entertaining afternoon dancing along to Ministry of Sound’s ‘Call On Me’ jazzercise video, I had a brief period of collecting other exercise vids in the markets in east London.
I picked up this yoga one containing shots of people in leotards stretching in the desert, which looked like it would be good for a laugh. It was.
“Now breathe,” said the teacher dude in a nasal American accent. Everybody in the desert breathed. I breathed.
I felt great afterwards, and the next day, but assumed it was a coincidence.
I did yoga in India once, on the roof of a guesthouse in Goa. It was super and again I felt great afterwards but failed to make the connection.
Then about six years ago I did an introductory course of Bikram, or “hot”, yoga, still in east London.
Ten sessions cost £10 but to take advantage of the offer you had to do the sweaty 90-minute classes on consecutive days.
Because it was around Christmas and New Year they weren’t open every day so I did it over about two weeks.
It was a revelation.
Slow yet intense, afterwards I felt drained but not in a bad way.
I listened to my body, which told me to stop running without warming up.
I downloaded the poses from the internet but only really ever did the breathing exercises and the first few standing poses.
But even that did a lot for me. Pretty much every day since I’ve done the breathing exercises and most days I’ve done half an hour or more.
If I’ve got a cold it opens up my sinuses, if I’m sore from some other exercise it helps with rehabilitation. If I’m stressed it relaxes me.
If I’m full of beans I get excited, find a nice little downhill and blast it as fast as possible.
If I have a puff on my vaporizer first I find I take longer over the poses.
Sometimes I get this tourniquet-release effect where the blood rushes back to wherever it was and I feel high.
I’ve tried to use aspects of its philosophies in my life, application of gentle but sustained pressure in particular.
Bikram was quite expensive so I never went back however I’ve recently invested in 35 classes with MYOGA, a studio in Marion Street in downtown Wellington.
The teacher is Melissa Billington whom I’ve interviewed for GUDFL.
Melissa Billington @ Marion St - March 2013
GUDFL: How long has MYOGA been going?
Melissa: At this space, about four and a half years. MYOGA - as a particular brand - the same length of time. I am MYOGA and we’ve also had two rounds of apprentices programs, 200 hour teacher training, that is recognized by the yoga alliance so it has all of the different areas that you’re meant to study such as anatomy, physiology, ethics. I’ve had five women graduate from each of those, so there are other teachers that are also MYOGA. I was looking for a brand that wasn’t my name and wasn’t exclusive, that was more inclusive. I like the idea that if people say they’re going to ‘myoga class,’ it’s also the brand within it and there’s that sense of ownership that people bring to the class.
How would you describe the style of yoga you teach here?
I usually describe it as a fusion. It depends on who I’m talking to and how much they know about yoga. People know different styles, so I try to relate it to the style they know. It’s accessible because we have lots of levels now, so people can step into it if they’ve never done yoga or if they’ve been injured or spent decades being stiff. Or they can step into something like flow yoga which assumes a greater familiarity with their own body as well as the particulars of MYOGA. The two main styles that make MYOGA - Kundalini and Kripalu - are both noted for being about awareness and Kundalini yoga in particular is about the movement of energy through the body. And Kripalu means ‘being compassionate.’ So MYOGA is about compassion and awareness, which doesn’t mean there’s no rigor in it or no intensity and strength building! A lot of people say to me ‘I can’t do yoga because I can’t touch my toes’ I say ‘you’re not going to get any closer to touching your toes by not doing yoga’ but it’s a balance of strength and flexibility. It really depends on where the person is.
I didn’t know at the time but I now particularly like the fact that this is the transvestite street and there’s a prostitute [painted] on the building that makes it particularly easy to find. And there’s something about reclaiming the feminine power in that that is important to me. A lot of the people that come to yoga are women, yet the history of yoga is very male-based. It’s only in the past 20-30 years that more and more women have come into the practice and more and more female teachers have emerged, which has changed the face of yoga as well. I spent about a year casually looking and then six months intensively looking for a space and was looking for something that felt yogic, that felt spacious and also nurturing. That had a sense of nature even though it’s in the middle of the city. It took me a while to find that.
What kind of people come?
There’s a wide range of people from 18 to 70. In terms of the age it’s quite broad. It tends to be more women. Occasionally the brave man like yourself. I think in New Zealand it’s still a young industry. When I first moved here seven years ago people were still concerned it was a cult so it’s only really been with Bikram and Hot yoga that people’s minds have been changed. I think because they’ve been able to step into it as more of an athletic pursuit then they’re able to move from there into the more spiritual aspects without fear. I find MYOGA students tend to be more mature and open-minded in the sense that they’re more open to the spiritual elements. As much as we do physical practice, I don’t shy away from the spiritual practice so it takes somebody who’s ready for that and also someone who sees the benefit of slowing down and being more precise as well as adding in an element of something bigger than the ego itself.
So that’s Giving Up Drugs For Lent done for 2013.
How do I feel? Ok.
First half of Lent physically I felt pretty great. Lungs good, Achilles a bit sore, slept well. Kinda bored as usual, and felt clumsy and stupid, particularly when doing new things.
Second half my back went, got some bug, smashed myself up a bit on the hill race. Achilles much better after my doc prescribed me some calf-raises.
Re: levitation, I didn’t really explore it that much altho I’ve got a bit more of my interview with Melissa to post in which we discuss the subject.
Re: Hinduism, they’ve some really cool shit going on that warrants further investigation. Next year Sikhism!
Shantih shantih shantih
Just went to a Good Friday service with my folks, which was a real downer.
Main themes were betrayal, injustice, abandonment and of course death.
Should really be named Bad Friday.
Wasn’t sure if I was going to make it but was able to arise in time as we finished work before midnight last night.
We got offered a beer to reward us for the extra effort put in; I accepted.
The first few swigs tastes good and it was nice to have a more relaxed chat with colleagues but I didn’t really enjoy the effects after that.
About to do some yoga :)
Day 43: My favorite mug
Given my condition I prescribed myself a some cannabis vapor and ibuprofen which seemed to do the trick.
Hill has been run up, and faster than previously so that’s good.
From my smashed toes to my aching head I am wrecked tho.
Next year I’ll move up a class, to the 40 and over veteran men’s.
Feel like shit. Need to run up a big hill.