“Yoga’s not about following a path of feeling good.” An Interview with Maia Heiss…Part 2

maia-heiss-dwi-padaLast weekend, I booked my flight to go practice with Maia for the first week of January 2015. I’m beyond excited. My practice is more fluid and focused thanks to the changes we implemented together. It’s also become easier and steadier. Sthira sukham asanam, right?

But this post isn’t about me, so let’s get on to the good stuff. Just in case you didn’t catch the first installment of the Maia interview, let me re-introduce her briefly. Maia is one of the precious few Ashtanga teachers with an advanced certification granted by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She passes on the lineage of Ashtanga Yoga with quiet grace. As blogger Grimmly said, she “seems to be going very much under the radar.”

Emma: How much time did you spend in Mysore total?

Maia: A spent a couple of years, total, working with Guruji. After the first few months, which is how long I usually planned on staying, I would feel like I had just begun the work, and if I stayed on another few months from there, I’ll really get something done.


Maia in a Led Intermediate class with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. Photo credit: Bill Brundell.

E: Have you been over to practice with Sharath?

M: I have, but just a little bit. And I will go and practice some more with Sharath. I’d really like to have his input on my practice. In the recent time, my not going has nothing to do with not wanting to put myself under Sharath’s guidance. For me, in my life experience, all that grounding and congealing, and getting solid enough to be in this world, all that happened when Guruji was here, so I’ve sort of newly had something to work with in my life since then. I think this last period of practice has been me exploring it. I feel myself moving into another place in my life where I could make that pilgrimage and check in with Sharath. I’ve always had a good relationship with Sharath.

E: I was actually planning on going to Mysore this year, but I quit my day job instead. All the little pennies I’d been saving for a Mysore trip are now paying my bills, so…

M: Well, what we’re doing is yoga. What we’re doing is not just spiritual path. That’s something Guruji exemplified by being a householder. His teacher was encouraged to be a householder. It’s a bit of new-era thinking. Or renewed-era thinking. The yoga is how our material life and our spiritual life meet. You can’t just bail on life and lock yourself in a room to practice. And I think that can happen to people who get excited about practice, who start to feel really great all of a sudden and so they start following that as their path. But yoga’s not about following a path of feeling good. We can end up bypassing our spirit and not discovering what we’re uniquely here to do.

It’s important to live our lives along with doing our practice. And that’s going to turn out different for every person. How that meets; how our spiritual life and material life meet is different for every individual.

E: That’s good to know, because I was starting to feel like a bad Ashtangi for not rushing to make my pilgrimage.

M: But you’re a good Ashtangi for seeking the source. That’s what Parampara is, getting as close to the source as possible. Keep that with your aim. It’s like practicing Tristana. We’re not practicing Asana separate from breathing or practicing Drishti separate from Asana. We’re practicing Tristana. I think we can apply the same to our life. To have an aim is great, because then we’ve got something to move us forward, but we can’t lose the seat of our Asana, and we can’t restrict our breath. As we move in life, it’s much the same way. We can’t lose sight of our dreams or ambitions, because things get stagnant when there’s no force to move us through.


Maia giving an adjustment to a student in Supta Kurmasana. Photo credit: Marcelo Sáez Borderies

E: What does your practice look like now?

M: I practice before teaching. On days when I have more time, I’ll do my pranayama practice. If I get in a really good groove, and it takes the right mindset throughout the day, the right foods—that’s key—if I get in a good groove, I can create more time for myself in the morning and practice pranayama and practice some meditation, too. But I don’t tend to sustain that for months and months at a time. My Asana practice happens daily, but that kind of comes and goes. When I get demands in my life that are stronger and I’m not able to maintain such a high level of energy, I let myself focus on life a little bit, but try to do that in such a way so that I make room, so that what I do in my life is bringing that energy back. Something comes in my path, I have to deal with it, but I try to get it sorted in such a way that it makes time for that energy, for that growth of the spirit. Does that even answer your question?

E: I think so. Maybe…

M: So, it could take me four or five hours to get through everything, which means getting up at midnight. And I can do that—sometimes! But I’m not able to sustain that 365 days a year. And you don’t want to force that, because then you end up missing life, and life can go by. And that’s not the point of why we’re doing this. I think it’s very important to be tuned in. How much of that depth do you need to do this, to do life, and do no more and no less? Not force more, and not get unfocused and do less.

E: Right. We, or at least I, because I can only speak from my own experience, I practice not to avoid life but to be better at life. For example, if I have friends in from out of town and we stay up until 4:00 AM talking and laughing, then maybe it’s okay to skip the Asana practice to make room for that life experience.

M: And I think that’s what is different for everybody. It’s going to be a different scenario depending on who it is.

Another thing about what my practice looks like, because it could look very different from day to day: I’ve never been a person with a lot of external strength to pull things off, so if I’m not getting into my Asanas in a very balanced way with the internal strength guiding them, I can’t make it look very much like anything.

I don’t force extra external strength that I don’t have, and I don’t have practices where I just default on that. I think on some days my practice looks funny. To someone from the outside, it might not. I don’t know! I find myself problem-solving and being very careful of my boundaries, just acknowledging the limitations that are presented with gravity and the human body and my body. I’ll go through periods where I wonder “Wow, where did it all go?” and I’m searching for something deeper because I feel like I need to find some more fuel for this endeavor. Through that process, I end up finding it and one day it just unfolds. The Asanas are there, blooming, and actually turning into something, but I’m not pushing them when that happens. I’m just looking and eventually, I find it.

E: Like the Asanas are there waiting for you when you find your way to them.

M: Yes. They have a certain place. Each of those Asanas has a seat, and if we can connect our own seat, if we can merge our own self with that seat, then we can find them with peace. At least for me, there wouldn’t be any longevity in this practice if I did it any other way. I aim for where I think the center of that posture is, and if it looks kind of funny around the edges, but I’ve found the center, then I take it. So I think gradually it conforms up to the edges, filling out from there. I don’t really care too much about putting energy into filling it out before it’s filled out on its own.


Maia in a deep backbend. Photo credit: Bill Brundell.

E: That makes sense with the method. You allow it to come when it’s ready. Like with a new student, you take them through poses as they’re ready.

M: Right. And if something comes up, like an injury, you have to honor that, big time. What that looks like, I think, is going back to the place where the injury happened. All the way back. You start your Surya Namaskar. Ekam, all is good. Dwe, all is good. Trini, still good. Catvari, hmm. There’s a problem. Then you go back. I’ve had practices where it’s been that. Where I go back to Ekam, and just do that for forty-five minutes. Just gradually begin to see where, from Trini to Catvari, I have to fill in a blank. Where there’s something I’m not open to, something I’m not seeing, something I’m not using.

I think we get called to search in the unknown, and we can choose to be very positive and assume that we might find something. When there’s an injury that comes up through practice, it’s an indication that we need to be investigating what we’re missing to keep ourselves balanced. I think it’s important when we have an injury to refrain entirely from doing any amount of reinjuring. And then, as we approach practice with those kinds of boundaries, that’s where we make our corrections.

E: This practice gets a bad reputation for causing injury, which is sad. I’ve had some of my best practices when I’ve had minor injuries. There was a time when I couldn’t bear all of my weight on my arms, and it was a beautiful period of practice in which I reconnected with my breath. And then my body healed and I could bring that greater awareness of breath with me. It was a great learning opportunity.

M: These obstacles in our paths, they’re the guides, if we let them be. There’s a way to do that, and it all goes back to the method, back to practicing the vinyasa correctly, practicing the Tristana. Maybe there’s some misinterpretation [behind all the injury stories]. I think that will get sorted out in the future!

E: I hope so. It has to!

M: I mean, I don’t have students who are injured. We’re not overpowering that part of being sensitive. We’re just collectively not doing that.

E: It seems like you have a steady group.

M: Part of that is how I structure my class. I follow Guruji’s format, and they pay for a month at a time. There are no other options. I make an option for students who come in from out of town with their own practice, like yourself. I don’t have a one-week plan or two-week plan or ten class package. Everyone who is there is dedicated to being there every day, even if they’re not physically present every day. There’s not an influx of people coming and going and not coming back. If they come, they stay for a month. Then they can choose if they want to come back or not. It makes for a very cohesive group, and I think it makes my job much easier.

When I get a new student, there is some excitement. The students who come every day, who I pay attention to every day, they won’t get the same attention when a new person comes in. But the new person enriches the group, and at the same time there’s new energy that’s most likely going to stick around, so people get excited.

E: It may seem funny that I’m here telling you that I’m looking for a teacher when I have a teacher at home who is studying in Mysore right now…

M: No, not at all. You have to find a teacher who lights up a path for you, in a way that you don’t see where the path ends. That’s the method. The path is the method.

We’re used to hearing repeated, “Practice, practice, practice, practice, all is coming.” He said that, of course, he said that the most. But then he would say, “You take practice, practice, practice, practice, CORRECT practice.” He made it so simple. It’s the Vinyasa and Tristana. But to understand that, it takes going down the road with the Asanas, and doing it for a long time.



Maia helps a student with backbends while Guruji looks on. Photo credit: Marcelo Sáez Borderies

4 thoughts on ““Yoga’s not about following a path of feeling good.” An Interview with Maia Heiss…Part 2

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