Today I'd like to welcome author Linda Sparrowe. She wrote the book Yoga at Home, which I featured yesterday. If you missed that book review, please take the time to go back and read it here. Settle back in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and enjoy the interview....
How old were you when you started Yoga and what was the reason you started?
I didn’t actually start doing physical yoga in earnest until the mid-80s, but my love affair with the philosophy, language, and the ancient teachings began in 1968 when I was a freshman in college and I went on to study all that in depth in graduate school. As a anxiety-prone freshman, I became more interested in meditating, which I’ve continued to practice ever since. By the time I joined the staff at Yoga Journal in 1992, I was practicing Iyengar yoga pretty seriously. But before that I merely dabbled, agreeing at most to do a 12-pose sequence my meditation teacher insisted on (in 1970) to get me to settle down and sit quietly. Initially the physical side of yoga helped ground me but I was way more interested in becoming enlightened!
Yoga is so much more than striking pose and holding it. What do you feel are the biggest benefits to incorporating Yoga into your life?
Yoga helps us wake up to the whole of our experience—and helps us establish a deeper relationship with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. It helps us move from a feeling of separation to connection. Yoga can help you learn how to notice and then listen to what your body needs at any given moment—without judgment. I think too often we come to yoga in hopes of becoming better or “more than.” You know, we want our bodies to be stronger, more flexible, have better balance. We want our minds to be calmer, our interactions with others to be kinder, more mindful. But I believe what yoga does is uncovers who we already are, what’s already true. It’s a path toward self-discovery not a self-improvement plan. Yoga, above all, is a body-based meditation practice, a way of waking up to what is. Discovering the strength of our legs in standing poses or breathing our way into the length our spines already possess. I’m less interested in becoming more than I am than in discovering the truth of who I already am. I want to see what it feels like to approach a pose with friendliness, instead of judgment; I want to experience the coming together of my mind and body through the agency of the breath. I want to step onto my yoga mat with the intention to practice loving kindness and see how that impacts the rest of my life. Hopefully, all of this helps me be a kinder, gentler, happier human being off the mat. Does that make sense?
What do you most take away with you when you leave your mat each day?
A renewed sense of connection. An intention to bring that connection, that peaceful feeling, and even a feeling of accomplishment out into my day.
I’ve heard people comment that in order to do Yoga you must study Buddhism or Hinduism. How true or untrue is this and what’s the connection?
Totally untrue. Yoga doesn’t belong to any religion. And truly, yoga is practiced in a multitude of ways. You can bring a sense of sacred to the practice, invoke your God or Goddess, tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism into your yoga slate, but all of that is optional. Once again, yoga is a practice of self-discovery and deep connection. That can mean different things to different people.
There are many different practices of yoga. What are the differences and how does someone choose which one to try or study?
There are so many different styles of yoga these days—it’s quite mind-boggling. I’m not certain how to answer this, or give the best advice, but I will say people need to listen to their bodies and determine what works best for them. If you go to a class and it doesn’t feel right—for whatever reason—it’s NEVER your fault! Find another class and teacher and explore that. And another, and another until you find something that works for your body, your schedule, and your challenges. Yoga is always willing to accommodate the population it serves.
What is the purpose of having a yoga altar and is it necessary?
Creating an altar in your home practice space is a way to designate that space as special or even sacred. For many practitioners, it’s a reminder of their connection to the practice and a way to honor themselves; it helps them separate their yoga time from the rest of their day-to-day obligations. I like altars because I like to establish a beginning and an ending to my practice: Lighting incense or candles at my altar is a lovely way to begin; bowing toward my altar, which has photos of my family and my teachers on it, is the way that I end my practice, expressing gratitude and setting the intention to come back again the next day. An altar with sacred objects can also be a reminder that our practice is bigger than our own needs; we do yoga to be of service to others.
Do we need altars in order to have a home practice? Oh gosh no. First of all, while it’s lovely to have a designated space, that’s not always possible, so carving out a place to put your mat is really all you need. Secondly, if bringing in a sense of the sacred is important to you, you can do that by simply stepping into your space and stepping on your mat. In other words, the space becomes special or even sacred by deeming it so. And finally, doing yoga wherever and whenever you can connects it to the rich fabric of your life—and keeps it real!
What I wanted more than anything to convey with the Yoga At Home book is how people really live and how they find spaces of stillness and practice within their great and messy and beautiful lives. I wanted to depict the tiny details that make people human (kids books scattered about, flowers, and other members of the family walking by) and give readers a feeling that they can create what they need out of what they have.
What is a murti?
A murti is a sacred object. For yogis, that often is a statue of Ganesha (the remover of obstacles, in the Hindu religion), Krishna, or Shiva—most often the dancing Shiva or the Shiva lingam. Hindus believe these objects are actually imbued with the living presence of the diety him/herself.
This may sound silly, but how does one meditate? Are you thinking about something, making your mind blank, praying?
Meditation is both incredibly simple and profoundly difficult because, of course, it involves our minds and our minds refuse to be silenced or corralled. If you try to stop your mind from thinking, you’ll fail pretty much every time. Because that’s what the mind is designed to do! Think. There are many forms of meditation—mantra; shamatha (a form of watching the breath); concentration; mindfulness or vipassana. Some forms invite you to pay attention to the breath and when you find your mind wandering, as it is wont to do, simply invite it back into your experience and center it once again on the breath. In practices like mantra meditation you silently repeat a word or syllable to keep your focus internal.
What do you say to people who think they are too stiff, too old, too overweight or not disciplined enough to try yoga?
While I understand why they would think that—our culture’s obsession with flexible, skinny, young bodies has permeated the yoga world, too—I just want to say you’re never too this or not enough that to try yoga. The problem with waiting until you’re flexible enough or thin enough, or have enough time to devote to doing yoga? You’ll never do it because you’ll never be enough.
Is it ever too late to start?
Oh my goodness…NEVER! One of the most famous yoginis of all time, Vanda Scaravelli, didn’t start until she was in her late 40s; other women I’ve met didn’t begin until their late 60s. Assisted living homes and even nursing homes have yoga for residents in their 80s!
For those who are interested in beginning, what do you suggest they do first?
Check out their local studios and see what they have to offer. Talk to friends they respect (and whose lifestyle and fitness level is similar) and see where they go and what teachers they like. And remember, once again, if a class or a teacher makes you feel uncomfortable or like a loser, take a different class, choose a different teacher. And start gently. Don’t commit to more than you think you can do. Don’t sign up for a four-day-a-week practice when you’re not even sure you have the time or inclination to do once a week! If you really feel much too self-conscious to go into a studio class, perhaps save up for a private session with a yoga teacher (recommended by someone you resonate with) or sign up for a free two-week trial on an online yoga community like yogaglo or or classes on yoga international’s site. I say this because these sites often have very beginning classes that only last 10 or 20 minutes and can give you a gentle taste of what you can expect in a longer one.
Why do a home practice and how do you start one?
Home practice is essential to gaining the most benefit from yoga. Going to a class helps you figure out what to do, allows you to benefit from a teacher’s wisdom and knowledge about the body, the practice, and the sequencing. It’s also great to practice in a community of other practitioners. But without home practice you have no idea how to digest what you’ve learned. No way of incorporating it into your own body, your own life. You don’t have to worry about what other people are doing or how you’re measuring up. You have an opportunity to ask the question: How am I doing and what do I need right now to feel good? And then in the privacy of your own space, you can listen deeply and act accordingly. Plus, if you decide you want to spend your entire practice in Savasana or begin with a Headstand or a backbend, or stop after 15 minutes and brew a cup of tea instead—you can!
Which Yoga book would you suggest reading, other than this one of course?
There are SO many yoga books out there, it’s hard to choose! I like Donna Farhi’s The Breathing Book and her Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness. Yoga: Mastering the Basics, by Rolf Sovik. My personal favorite—although it’s not really asana/posture based is BKS Iyengar’s Light on Life. It’s a beautiful treatise on the deeper teachings of yoga and how they relate to our everyday life. And, speaking of teachings that help us navigate the day-to-days, always have a Pema Chodron book or two on your bookshelf (Wisdom of No Escape; When Things Fall Apart).
Thank you Linda for coming by and sharing this with us. I know it has given me a new insight into the world of yoga and your book has inspired me to get up out of my chair and try it. I especially like the meditation aspect and I'm going to explore it further.