Getting into the body is exactly what Monica Voss intends to do. She does it deliberately, repetitively, as she chooses her words, observant of her students’ abilities, the tenor of the – room and the pacing of her exercises. But moreover, Monica’s class enables a deliberate blurring of the categories that we use to organize our everyday lives: she stirs up the concepts of work and play, drawing together physical structure, creative expression and a certain “come-what-may.”
In our conversation, she recounts not just the vivid, eccentric personalities of teachers whose lives intersected with hers, but the trajectory of the Esther Myers Yoga Studio’s method and its corporeal morphologies. Monica laughs as she recounts her experiences studying with the gifted and idiosyncratic Vanda Scaravelli as well as her years working alongside the Studio’s extraordinary namesake, Esther Myers. And she tells us why her own yoga process has so little to do with texts and uninterrupted lineages, and everything to do with knowing your own human form…so that getting into a pose, at work and play, becomes as persistent and effortless as yawning.
This piece has been adapted with permission from an interview of Monica Voss by Priya A Thomas, PhD for her blog, “Shivers up the Spine,” published on Tuesday, July 17, 2012.
Priya Thomas Interview with Monica Voss, Esther Myers Yoga Studio, Toronto, May 2012:
Priya Thomas: I wanted to thank you for starting the class with all of that yawning. It’s the first time I’ve come across yawning as an exercise in a yoga class. And I hadn’t thought about its relationship with yoga. But it also made me wonder a little bit about your background in voice, drama and movement. I gather that you’ve worked with voice coaching a bit?
Monica Voss: A little bit. That was far in the past, when I was a teenager. But the focus on self-expression was really what drew me to the physical arts. You know, getting emotions out in sound and in movement. Finding the balance between freedom and structure in drama, creative movement and voice has always interested me.
There’s a lot of back and forth between freedom and structure that I enjoy. I am very interested in structure, but only as a tool to focus the attention, or to focus the movements, or to focus the breath. But we want need to to break out of that structure as well because organization can be inhibiting.
We human beings need free time. We live such structured lives, especially kids nowadays. We all flourish with free time just to do stuff or nothing. Something or nothing.
PT: So at what point did you run into yoga?
MV: Not until my late 20s, I think it was. A friend had been asking me to come to a class with Esther Myers. She pestered me for about a year and a half before I actually turned up because my image of yoga (this was in the mid-70s) was that it was all about flexibility. I didn’t think I needed that. Again, I was on a search for structure. I could stretch any way I wanted to stretch, but I didn’t have the focus.
So I finally came to a class with Esther and was hooked at the first class because, first of all, I could do all the poses. They were fairly easy for me, but they were also challenging because at that time they were positioned and held. This was the Iyengar method. The external structure really appealed to me. What could I do within that structure?
PT: What do you think was going on there? Do you think you were just at a time in your life where you…
MV: Well, originally I was searching for a job. I had to find some way of making a living. And I’d long given up the idea of acting. So I went to Teachers’ College but didn’t get a job after graduating. I was looking for a proper job, the kind that I’d never had before. And I was interested in Eastern thought too, but hadn’t done anything about that really. I hadn’t sought it out in university.
PT: But I take it there’s a strong connection for you between that feeling of self-expression that you had found in acting and what yoga does for you, right? Do you think that others who practise are similarly searching for self-expression?
MV: I think for the most part our students come to the Studio in order to feel their bodies, to find themselves a little bit. So there may be a search, although I don’t know if our students would express it that way. I think many are coming to reclaim something…maybe something from the past. Or maybe they are just finding a way to relax. It can be: How can I manage this life and still feel like I’m an individual with thoughts and feelings? The yoga practice can help develop another life, a personal life, an inner life. And then there are people who are either on the verge of retirement or they have retired and they’re looking to view themselves in a new way. So I think in both cases there’s a search. Feeling at home in the body, I think, is a major draw.
PT: That brings me to something that I had read in excerpts of your writing on the Esther Myers website in which you discuss “being in the body.” In one snippet you ask, “Are we denying the body? If so, why are we afraid?” And I wondered what prompted you to ask that question. I mean, you wrote that post in 2009, so are your feelings different now? Do you think people are afraid of their bodies? And if so, why?
MV: I wrote that because there was such an emphasis at that time and in that place on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It was everywhere. So if you didn’t know the texts, if you didn’t study the texts, then you weren’t really practising yoga. You weren’t teaching yoga properly without Patanjali as your guide. It was almost as though anything we learned from the text was good and smart and important, and anything we learned from ourselves was not necessarily valuable. Valuing, exploring and appreciating what we learn from our own bodies did not seem to be part of a yoga practice. Perhaps it’s not fear of the body so much as a lack of trust in our corporeal reality.
Our bodies are our reality. Vanda was an inspiration in that line of thinking because she took what she learned and practised. She lay on the ground, under her piano, for hours exploring and breathing and thinking. Her determination was to find a kinder, gentler approach, easy on the nervous system, easy on the mind. She discovered the concepts of breathing, grounding and elongating the spine: she didn’t invent them or learn them from a yoga text. My personal lineage does not involve textual study. I’m not drawn to it, Esther wasn’t, and Vanda never even read Patanjali. All of us are engaged in movement and sensation and thought. That’s where our interest lies.
PT: So when you first met Vanda, at what point did you decide she would be your teacher? Was there a moment where you thought this was…
MV: It was instant. In fact, it occurred even before I met her. Esther Myers had already been studying with her for a couple of years. Esther would show a few of us some of the things she was practising with Vanda and ask us what we thought of it. It was so different from our previous practice. And I took to it immediately.
Vanda’s approach was a recognition of something I was looking for, but hadn’t been able to articulate. It was about dropping inside, exploring from within. Using the earth spoke to me so deeply. In other words, using everything we’ve already got for discovery and for self-actualization – the body, the breath and the ground.
PT: Your writing really communicates how inspiring it was to be around her. How much of that do you think had to do with her? Or was it her teaching? I mean, what was she like?
MV: When she was teaching you, she was teaching you. She was incredibly focused. It was like nothing else existed for her at that moment. It was incredible to feel that level of concentration. I felt valued and whole.
PT: What was your relationship with Esther Myers like?
MV: At first, it was a professional relationship. She trained me and I began teaching in her studio in 1981. But we became colleagues and friends and eventually developed a very full, rich relationship. She was a strong character, and I found her tremendously inspiring. She was an excellent teacher. We made a good team with her Yang and my Yin.
PT: In one of your web posts you note that modern postural yoga is only 100 years old, and all of it was effectively designed by one person…and then you ask: “So why can’t it be one of us?” I take it that you mean why can’t yoga be redesigned? Is the inspiration to renovate yoga drawn from Vanda Scaravelli?
MV: Absolutely. Vanda was a real pioneer. She changed things in the poses. She dug down deeper to the principles supporting the poses, underlying the poses. And her practice became, and ours is as well, much more principle based, or conceptually based. So the poses were less important than the principles. She stated repeatedly how she took what she learned from BKS Iyengar and created her own unique variation of the yoga modality and we can do the same. She didn’t seem that interested in my discoveries per se, but was deeply committed to making sure I had a process.
PT: When you say the principles of the poses, are those physical principles?
MV: Yes, the breathing is one, the grounding another and dynamic elongation of the spine is the third.
PT: Do you feel it’s necessary to include spiritual or religious frameworks for those things?
MV: Well, the principles are the breathing. That’s true for any yoga. The grounding and the elongation of the spine are specific to this approach. I don’t know any form of yoga that focuses so specifically on the elongation of the spine as being basic, not just a happy coincidence or something that is great when it happens but not central.
So those are body principles because we’re breathing. That’s the body. We’re grounding, we’re earthbound. That’s also the body. And we have spines and they need to lengthen. So it’s interesting that you framed the question seemingly separating physical and spiritual. These principles are body principles, but they’re also life skills. And they’re spiritual. This is a secular practice. It has nothing to do with religion. But it’s all spiritual as far as I’m concerned because physical practices and spiritual practices are indivisible. We are integrated creatures, body/mind/spirit.
PT: I’m guessing that you’re not particular about how the tradition is preserved and then handed down.
PT: So you wouldn’t mind if it were completely taken apart and put back together?
MV: As long as what we are doing and more importantly suggesting others do is safe. I mean, the only don’t, so to speak, is something unsafe or unhealthy for the body or mind.
PT: And how do you figure out what’s safe for the body?
MV: There are parts of the body that are particularly vulnerable and that’s true for everyone, all genders, all ages: the neck, the elbows, the lower back and the knees. Safe movement is functional movement, movement we can’t or don’t want to live without. If someone’s functional movements are compromised, then some form of therapy can help.
But there are also movements that we just like to make. They’re not functional. They’re fun or they’re expressive or they’re challenging or they just make you laugh or they’re interesting. Or you’re going to try the movement knowing you’re probably never going to be able to actually do it, but why not give it a go?
So there’s safety, which is absolutely central. And there’s function, which is deeply important. And then there’s a third category and that’s movement for the pleasure of it, for the fun of it.
PT: I guess that overlaps with the structure versus freedom idea. It seems like you keep coming back to this idea that we need to play. I should just ask you, how has yoga changed you?
MV: Part of the Iyengar method was that it was strengthening. And I needed that. It was psychologically stabilizing as well, helping me to set about on a fairly unusual career.
Esther was a tremendous influence because she was very tough. The method and her personality were very integrated at the time. However, when she met Vanda, Esther was thrown into not only physical but psychological changes. To watch her shift from a highly disciplined and very forthright and even fierce personality to someone who could actually breathe and release and begin to soften was amazing. What happened with me was a little different. I gained strength from the Iyengar method originally and also from Esther. Vanda’s approach helped me validate and enhance my inner life.
PT: If you describe yourself as a seeker, what did you seek before you were seeking in yoga?
MV: Presence, and the confidence to present as an individual.
PT: In one of your writings you also talk about verbal cues…and how by choosing our teaching language carefully, we can encourage a great deal of exploration within known forms. We can learn to be less directive and more suggestive and descriptive. And I wondered how that translates into verbal cues in class for you. Why choose to be more suggestive rather than directive?
MV: I don’t like to be told what to do. I always wanted to make structure my own. I wanted to make choices for myself. And so I don’t really want to tell anybody else what to do. However, there can sometimes be a fine line between enough instruction and not enough instruction.
I’m trying to determine what’s enough instruction to encourage people to move on by themselves. When it’s too much, people try too hard; too little and they get confused or fall asleep. The goal in teaching is to move the student beyond you. How do you do that? There’s so much in yoga where the student is bound to the teacher.
PT: Right. Why do you think that is?
MV: Yoga often attracts those who enjoy a power differential. I don’t know why.
PT: I noticed on the sheet that I filled out before class that permission to touch was asked. And I really, really appreciated that because when I travel a lot, I tend to go to whatever yoga studio is nearby. However, I’ve stopped doing that quite as much because few yoga studios ask you before they proceed to adjust. But how exactly do you approach physical adjustments given that there is, as you say, a power differential?
MV: We teach a course on hands-on assisting called “The Power of Touch” because touch is powerful and effective; we name what we do “assisting” deliberately, not adjusting. Certainly not correcting. The main question is, how can we contribute to the students’ independence when we’re touching them?
We can do this by being as clear as possible about the principles. We come back to the principles, the breathing, the grounding, the elongation, teaching principles. They’re body principles. But they’re also ways of becoming more confident and more autonomous. I believe yoga teaches independence, how to be alone and how to help ourselves. Our philosophy of hands-on assisting is that when I’m putting my hands on your body, I am endeavouring to be absolutely clear that I’m assisting you in finding your own breath, the ground supporting your body, the elongation of your spine. It’s got little to do with me and almost everything to do with you. One can experience breath, grounding, and elongation on one’s own. And in a way, we must because essentially, we are alone. We’ve got to because we don’t want to develop or feed co-dependencies. And I think yoga is particularly delicate when it comes to that.
PT: After a day filled with possibly assisting people who are dealing with really difficult things that may or may not be verbalized to you, how do you recover from the hands-on experience?
MV: By practising the principles again. If I’m hoping to communicate those principles to you, I must be practising them myself. I have to be grounding. I have to be breathing to be aware of the release of my own spine. A Shiatsu therapist used to advise, “On your way home from teaching, hug a metal pole.”
That’s the grounding principle again. So the thing about the earth is that our support comes from her, but our release does also – we can drop our negativity into the ground and it seems to be able to neutralize it. And we get energy from the ground, so the pull of gravity is the source of our energy.
PT: Do you mean this literally?
MV: Yes. It’s physics.
PT: Almost everybody who does yoga has some kind of transformative narrative to relate, especially those who have overcome a chronic illness or injury. But do you think that someone could go and take up basketball and achieve similar results?
MV: I think it’s the conscious piece: the awareness of the breath and the awareness of movement. We’re practising these things, bigger breathing or stretching the legs. We feel it, then we know it. We’re depositing this new information into the brain. And then we’ve got it as a technique or as a tool to help ourselves. And we can call upon it. It’s like we’re building our reservoir.
PT: Are you saying we’re storing techniques within the body?
MV: Yes. So if someone were going out to play basketball and they’re on some level aware that this was a good thing to do…then it’s going to help. It can’t not help.
MV: Movement is better than no movement under most circumstances. It’s very simple. Vanda describes her basic ideas in her book, Awakening the Spine. And it’s lovely to read. Her musings are beautiful. But we can all muse.
PT: It’s interesting that you use that word, muse…a word that relates again to the play of imagination and creativity. That’s what seems to guide your particular understanding of yoga. Is the anti-authoritarian streak in this system a reaction to the scandals yoga has been dogged with?
MV: I think the original stimulus, aside from my own personality and desires, came directly from Vanda because she actually taught in quite a structured, even dogmatic manner. Her genius was that in spite of that or perhaps because of it, she communicated licence to explore. Sometimes she’d say, “This is what I learned, this is what I came up with. Now you take it and do with it what you want.” The message was, “Go home and explore”. Her role and her passion was to communicate certain concepts applied to certain exercises. Whatever the student did with the practice was her own business. In fact, the last time I saw her, in Italy in 1998, she was walking me to the bus stop and said, “Try this way. Try it.” I said, “Okay. I’ll try it.” (This was after 12 years of dedicated practice.) “And if you don’t like it,” she said, “change it.”
PT: That’s just great.
MV: I burst into tears.
PT: She sounds very free with her practice. I guess that’s rare.
MV: Very. And totally trusting of her body and experience. She’s not that well known but she really changed the approach to Hatha yoga among a small population that knows about her, from rule bound to individual, from authoritarian to personal. One could even say from external to internal in posture practice, and she made that practice more psychologically responsive.
If we agree that postural yoga offers the possibility of transformation, Monica contends that the power of the practice rests within the human body and not beyond. The moving body requires no legitimation by experts, no hierarchy of physical skills and certainly no guru or intermediary. Without concern for the authority of Sanskrit texts or any claim to yoga’s origins, the practice at Esther Myers Studio continues with its primary goal of guiding students of all ages and abilities to confront the human body in its most basic and tangible functions, to explore the things that still confound: What is the relationship of the human spine to the ground? How can I work with gravity? How does my perceived reality relate to my physical body? And so, through work and play, structure and abandon, Monica Voss invites her classes to simple observations of the human form in movement so that every body is realized by virtue of embodiment and physical being: each one’s life-force is accessible each day, realization is at your fingertips, a simple matter of recognizing the extraordinary reach of the physical body.
Esther Myers Yoga Studio in Toronto offers daily classes, workshops, teacher training and retreats.
To find out more: https://www.estheryoga.com
Original interview with Priya A. Thomas, PhD can be found at Shivers Up the Spine.