My first years of Ashtanga Yoga were spent in her guided class – I simply couldn’t get enough of hearing her clear English accent counting us through the Vinyasas (breath-movement). No one can take you through the Primary Series with more grace than Radha. I remember a time in Goa in the mid-nineties when she had us do eight Sun Salutations each of A and B, and the wholePrimary series with full Vinyasa, six days a week! ”I’m just following orders!” one man laughed after the two-hour practice had ended. But for me it wasn’t like following orders, it was more like being carried on that voice, allowing the mind and body to surrender, to acquiesce, and simply follow her count and the rhythm of my own breath. Even today in my self-practice, I can occasionally hear her voice counting in my mind like a mantra…
And here I am, almost two decades later, once again in that little shala in Crete with Radha & Pierre. One evening last summer, Radha and I sat down on the terrace before dinner. I wanted to share some thoughts of hers with my own students and had asked her for a small interview for my blog. But the half hour interview soon turned into a couple of hours and Radha told me some of her fascinating story…
”This was the beginning of my truth search. I realized that the Western ways weren´t enough for me.”
Please tell me a little about your journey, when and how did you first come in contact with Yoga and later on with Ashtanga Yoga?
My first awakening came when I was about 17 years old. I was interested in Marxism and went to Israel to work on a Kibbutz. It was then that I first realized that what had been mapped out for me wasn´t going to work. It was the late sixties, a time when people were soul-searching and I was an adventurous spirit. In Israel I had a profound experience of wild nature and what I thought of as freedom. There I met another English girl and we decided to travel overland to India, a journey which in those days took months and months, and which afforded us many adventures! Finally we ended up at an Ashram in Pondicherry visiting friends we’d met en route.On arrival, we were invited to a Satsang with Swami Gitananda. He talked about truth, about love, about non-violence and how we could change the world (this was around the time of the war in Vietnam) – he just about covered everything that interested and concerned me. We stayed for three months! Gitananda was a great man, a doctor with deep knowledge of science, the body, the mind and the nervous system. Through the in-depth practice of Meditation, Pranayama, Chanting, Fasting and Asanas, Gitananda was guiding us through a process… ”I will break you down and build you up again”. I witnessed many marvellous things there and I’m so pleased my introduction to Yoga was through him. So it wasn’t solely through the Asanas that I approached Yoga… This was the very beginning of my truth search.
I realized that Western ways weren’t enough for me. I was very disappointed in Israel – I’d been brought up a strong Christian and I was equally disappointed in the hypocrisy I found there. Back in London I met a wonderful man, Indar Nath who ran a Hindu Centre where he also taught Yoga. He worked in the post office, and got me a job there. Later I worked as an air hostess. Indar Nath brought over many speakers from India, including Satchidananda and Krishna Dananda, and I was fortunate to go to many talks, courses and satsangs, where all aspects of Yoga were being taught. Later I moved to southern England and here I met a lovely, older woman, Vaiganda, who became my teacher. One evening she was unable to teach a class and asked me to replace her. And so my teaching began. My classes grew steadily over the next five years, with me travelling extensively to teach every evening, as I worked during the day. Slowly Yoga was becoming more and more popular. Eventually I gave up my classes in England and went to Australia with the idea of having my own Yoga school and living closer to nature. I found a beautiful place, but of course I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. It was totally unrealistic – I was devastated and didn’t know what to do. Still, I had friends in Los Angeles, so there I went. There was no Yoga in LA in those days, only Bikram, and I did actually go to one of his classes but thank God I didn’t go down that route! At this point I’d run out of money, I was working in a health club serving drinks, doing my own Yoga practice, living in a suburb and being very miserable.
”At this point I’d run out of money, I was working in a health club serving drinks, doing my own Yoga practice, living in a suburb and being very miserable.”
But what I did find, on Sunset Boulevard, was the Sivananda Centre – thank God! I joined their Yoga classes and enrolled in their cooking course. However, in order to continue teaching I needed a certificate, and I ended up in the Ashram in the Bahamas, on the founder Swami Vishnudevananda´s Yoga teacher training, in exchange for work. That was where I learned how to run and manage a place like Yoga Plus. There also I came across Swami Shankarananda who, having met someone who had done Yoga with Norman Allen (one of the first Westerners who knew Guruji Pattabhi Jois) showed a few of us the Primary Series. We loved it, and continued practising during the retreat. When Swami Vishnudevananda got to hear of it he said, “Yes you can do it, but not here!” Later on, of course, I understood this – different styles of Yoga cannot really be mixed. I ended up staying six years and became one of the co-directors of the place. From the Bahamas I went to New York where I reconnected with Lesley Kaminoff, who I knew from LA. Through him I met a girl who was able to teach me the Primary Series. I read about Guruji in the Yoga Journal and knew I would have to go, eventually, to Mysore. Two of my NY students arrived in Mysore before me and they told Guruji that I was coming. But I went first to Sivananda in Rishikesh so that when I finally arrived in Mysore I was two weeks late. The very first thing that Guruji said to me was “Where have you been??”
The popularity of Ashtanga Yoga has grown tremendously in the West since you first started. Do you think Westerners have influenced the practice in any way, and if so, how?
Yes I do! First of all, we in the West have certainly taken it on and spread it much more than it has been spread in India. In those days, unless you were willing to spend at least 3 months with Guruji, he wasn’t interested in teaching you. You had to be really determined to follow this path. I was part of perhaps the second group of Westerners who studied with him – such a precious and exciting time! We had all come from different styles of Yoga, but this method seemed older, more rooted somehow. Previously we had practised everything separately – the Pranayama, the Bhakti Yoga, Chanting, Asanas etc, but suddenly here was everything together, integrated into this one practice. Guruji would constantly say: “Do your practice. All is coming. Do your practice and get on with your daily life.” And what I understood from this was that all you needed to know, the truth you were searching for, would come to you. It would be revealed to you in your own time, and in the way that you as an individual needed it. The difference I find now, and it breaks my heart, is that for some people Yoga has become a workout, a training, competitive even. So much learned, but also so much lost since we Westerners took it on. And I hold myself and my peers responsible for that. Perhaps we should have kept it more to ourselves, but we were so enthusiastic – we couldn’t help but spread the word! Yoga is Yoga, pure in and of itself, and its essence will endure despite (or because of?) different interpretations. Cultural differences between India and the West will inevitably lead to differences in the way Yoga is taught and practised. Here we have a tendency to question and analyse everything, whilst in India there is a tradition of devotion and unquestioning acceptance. Clearly there is merit in both approaches, neither having a monopoly on any Truth. Guruji always used to say: “Yoga is for everybody”. And I believe that if that message of Yoga is out there, its seeds will always grow.
”’Do your practice. All is coming.’ Do your practice and get on with your daily life. And what I understood from this was that all you needed to know, the truth you were searching for, would come to you.”
Today one can find many books, DVDs etc about “Yoga for women”. What is your take on that – is there a need for a particular practice for women?
No. Yoga is not a gender thing at all. When you study the philosophy, the Vedas, Vedanta, and if you look at it through the belief in reincarnation, we could reincarnate as either male or female. So Yoga is Yoga, whether you are a man or a woman.
Guidance without interference – the role of the Yoga teacher?
Pierre and I have been greatly influenced by our teachers Guruji and Sharath. As students, we were allowed to go through our own practice with few adjustments, and then only when necessary. With barely any conversation, the Yoga was allowed to unfold, to reveal itself. Our learning then continued through observing how Guruji worked with others – he was always happy for us to come back into the room to watch after we’d finished our own practice. Now, in our classes, we can have new students practising close to others who may have had many years on the mat. Each person is experiencing exactly what they need from that particular practice on that particular day. Our role is not to perform in any way, not to interrupt – except perhaps to take the student a little further into a posture to enable them to experience how the body could feel, where it might go. Or we may ‘spot’ you when you need support in a balancing pose. That’s what our adjustments are about. We don’t feel it necessary to run around demonstrating, or having lots of assistants being there for every posture. It was never necessary with Guruji – he left you alone to practise, to be with your own thoughts.
You have been practising Ashtanga through many stages of your life. Has your practice changed much through the years?
Yes, very much. I was already 37 years old when I started Ashtanga Yoga, and 40 when I went to India. In six months I completed both the Primary and Intermediate series with Guruji. However, due to injury I was unable to complete the Advanced A series with him – he said I was an old tree..! The hormonal changes of the menopause (around 54 in my case) have reduced my flexibility. I practise Primary now and a littleIntermediate. Guruji says from 50 only Primary is necessary. I never thought I’d say it, but you do let go of the asanas as you age.
Did your practice change in any way while you had breast cancer?
Having breast cancer was the most profound spiritual experience of my life – being confronted with the reality of my own mortality. As a young woman I had great ideals, wanting to change the world, inquiring about who I was, etc. But I had become too involved with the asanas. I have noticed, with Ashtanga Yoga, that one can begin to feel invincible, on top of the world – we know it all, there is nothing else to learn. Of course, I didn’t realise at the time that this was happening, and my diagnosis came when I was feeling incredibly strong and healthy. So, the discovery of a tumour when I was in Mysore came as a total shock. I remember one Indian nurse telling me that ‘this is a blessing for you’ – and so it turned out. During this journey I noticed that my antenna or telegraphic system, which had perhaps become dulled as the yoga had become very mundane, was reactivated – it began pulsating again. Through this experience I got back to the preparation for death.
”Having breast cancer was the most profound spiritual experience of my life – being confronted with the reality of my own mortality.”
And letting go. Because life is actually about death. When you have a life threatening disease you have been given a chance to prepare for death and to work through fear, to put into perspective what life is for YOU. And I do think I had gotten away from that. So now I had to move away from the asanas for a while, during surgery and chemo-therapy. After the operation I didn’t practise for several months. Instead I turned to reading and studying. Pierre was a great inspiration for me, as he has always been interested in non-duality. The books we read at that time, our discussions, our searching and his researching were life-savers for me. I carried a book around with me,”I am that” by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, which just spoke to me all the time. And my whole interest in those early inquiries – Who am I? What am I? What is Yoga? was reawakened. The week after I’d had the mastectomy I was in London, staying with my family, when Guruji came to teach. So I went to see him and Sharath and his family and it was lovely. They made a fuss of me and asked me to come to the workshop. I sat on the stage with him and when everyone was in sarvasana I looked out and thought: my god how the Yoga has grown! I knew so many of the students because they had come through me. And there I sat, just had my breast off and gone through months and months of chemo. It was a weird experience because I knew I would be judged by that. Some senior teachers did ask me if people questioned why this had happened to me, with my strong Yoga practice. And I said to them: “Well now my Yoga journey has really just begun!” It’s no good being able to do all the postures in the world if you are suffering from fear or delusion. And you must never stop asking why do you practise Yoga, what is Yoga for you. It is not enough going into Yoga simply as a career and I know that is what is happening. My practice these days is absolutely adorable and I love it. I am so grateful that I can do it. It does have that wonderful way of making things clear for me. When I finish it, and I’ve had a lot on my mind, I still come out on the other end of the practice with the answer.I’m not going to say I’m grateful for what happened, but there are good sides to everything.
Where do you go to find peace?
My home in Saktouria, it’s my sanctuary. Crete in the winter.
Words and photographs from Crete by Kia Naddermier
Photographs from Vogue by Lord Snowdon