Lots of Yoga recently had the pleasure of coming across a wave of positive energy, dedication, kindness, honesty, sincerity and fun all rolled into one small, delicate yet strong and beautiful package... and it goes by the name of Laruga Glaser. Our very own Kat de Naoum was lucky enough to attend an Ashtanga workshop taught by Laruga and thereafter met and interviewed the lovely, Sweden-based Ashtangi. Here is the full, candid interview; a must read for Ashtanga and yoga enthusiasts alike and anyone just starting out in the yoga way.
How did you first get acquainted with yoga and what were your first impressions?
When I first started, I actually got in touch with the philosophy first. In high school I was really intrigued and interested in spirituality, different avenues of spirituality and different religions. I had some deeper questions because sometimes there are certain things in life that push you to that. I had a few life-changing moments that made me question certain things. Especially when you feel like your foundation is shaken a bit. Through that and reading a little bit about spirituality I came across the '8 Limbs of Yoga' but not really connecting it to asana practice. I was intrigued by that and a little bit by Buddhism and reading about different forms of thought. What interested me about yoga is that you had to practice to understand. It was a combination of that and interest in the philosophy. I knew it was something I wanted to explore further because there was something about working with the mind that intrigued me, instead of somebody handing me over a bunch of rules and saying, ‘follow this and this’.
What about the physical side of yoga?
When I was younger I had some back issues so it kind of all fit in. I first started with a VHS tape, not even a DVD, and I had a few books. It was a very soft form of yoga. Actually, it was Patricia Walden’s. She had a VHS tape and it was more Iyengar based and I worked that way. I was trying to find something to release my back and doing a few simple poses was the only thing that seemed to help. I felt like there was really something to this yoga thing. I also took a class at university and even though I wasn’t fully in, I was reading and exploring and what really struck me during my very first experiences practicing was the sense of silence and the sense of presence. Even though I didn’t really understand it fully, I felt like it was different than going for a run, for the physical side, or going to church for the spiritual side. I felt like it was a blend of both and I knew that this was something that I wanted to look more deeply into.
How did your body feel after the first lesson?
It was the only thing that released my back at the time and it was literally only a few simple poses and breathing. When I look back on it, this thing with my back must have been something psychosomatic. I was able to quiet myself down and then the back released because I was able to settle.
How did you get into Ashtanga?
I remember wanting to do more research on yoga and stumbled upon Ashtanga yoga. The first book I bought was David Swensen’s. I bought some of his VHS tapes and I tried to go at it on my own. I knew that this was something else, but I really loved it. I watched his demonstration first and I thought I could follow along and it was absolutely impossible. I didn’t get fully filled until I took my first class. I knew there was some power in it and there was something that I really loved but there were a lot of unknowns. There wasn’t the full guidance. You can’t really get it all on a VHS tape but even doing it in that way I knew there was something deep regarding it. That’s the power of yoga in itself; even if you don’t get it all right, you feel that you are tapping into something bigger.
What made you decide to be a yoga teacher and what path did you take?
I loved the practice and I was practicing on my own a lot. I was taking classes, I was taking some primary series classes and I really loved the practice and when I started to practice certain people and yoga studios saw my dedication and my focus and I was asked if I would be interested in teaching a class. One woman had me test out and teach one class to see how it would go. That’s kind of how it started. It was in the back of my mind when I was practicing. Being a very dedicated practitioner I thought this would be interesting to share and I did teach a few friends but it really came on its own. It wasn’t something that I was grasping for. I am not 200-hour trained teacher or with Yoga Alliance or anything, although I did do a teacher training program in USA which I was actually kicked out of. I was teaching classes before I did this program.
Why did you get kicked out of the teacher training program?
I questioned a lot of things and my questions really weren’t accepted. I questioned the validity of it and that I didn’t feel it was authentic and so I went on another path and that’s when I really started thinking about going to Mysore. Maybe I just rubbed them up the wrong way. I questioned the way that they wanted to introduce beginners. I questioned that you can’t teach all of the Ashtanga primary series in a once-a-week, 10-week course, and that’s what I was being trained to do. I thought that was a bunch of BS, to be honest. I thought, this is crazy. I felt at the time and I still believe today that that isn’t the appropriate way to teach beginners. I was kicked out. Basically asked to leave. I was really upset at the time but when I think about it now I spoke my truth and we had a different viewpoint and eventually I found my own way.
After starting out as a teacher, how did you go about getting students?
I didn’t take on too much too soon. I continued with my own practice and I started with one class a week, which turned into two and then I was doing it on the weekends because I had a full-time job and so I was still doing the normal life thing. Then it grew from there. Once I started to segue out of the corporate world which I was in, I started to explore teaching yoga more full time. That was where I started to want to really teach the Mysore method because I really knew in my heart that this was the way you teach Ashtanga yoga. It was a scary time for me because it was the security of a steady paycheck and I was on a higher income and then you are going into something super scary and unknown. Again when you do yoga you just call more on your truth and start to sense things. When I was in the corporate world, I'd think, ‘why am I here’. I wanted to do something that felt more true to me. It was slow and I can be stubborn at times. I thought, ‘I can be successful in the corporate world and I can do yoga’ or ‘and I can have the lifestyle I want,’ but eventually something had to give. I started to teach a small Mysore class in Columbus, Ohio where I’m from. I did that for a few months and then I made my first trip to Mysore, India. When I had the opening to be able to go, I took it. I ran with it. I knew that it was what I needed to do if I wanted to explore teaching more and to teach authentically and even to be a practitioner of this practice. It was something that I always wanted to do but when I was leading my other life, to me it seemed impossible to fit in. My consciousness didn’t grow big enough to think that I could go to India for three months. I loved this practice but I couldn’t see how this would even happen in my life. When the window of opportunity came, I knew that if I didn’t strike at that time, then it was never going to happen. So I jumped and went for it.
Did you face any difficulties in the beginning as a teacher?
At first I had some difficulty because when I first went to India, I went for 4 months and then I also spent a month in Thailand. The Mysore program that I started back home was given to somebody else while I was away so that was one difficulty. Somebody gave my job away. What I started, they gave to somebody else and I found out while I was away. So those things can happen. Everything happens for a reason so when I came back from my trip I essentially had nothing. But when I was in Mysore somebody approached me. I guess they saw a certain level of dedication that I had and they had asked me if I would ever be interested in travelling abroad to teach and it was only one conversation. I gave them my email and I didn’t give it another thought. I came back home. I had to stay with a friend. I had no security. I had nothing. I had stuff in storage.
It was a really scary time because, going away to India for that amount of time, the money really went dry and I was only working a few really odd yoga jobs. I would pick up a little class here and there but it was nothing that could be sustainable. Then out of the blue, the person I spoke to in Mysore contacted me asking if I would be willing to travel to Taiwan for at least six months to teach and so I took it. It was a great time. I learned a lot. It heightened my dedication of the practice. It was pure grace that it happened in that way because I really didn’t know what my next step would be. After my six months in Taiwan, I went back to Mysore to again study and practice. After that it flowed to many different directions but in the beginning, I started once a week, then twice, then a few workshops. Not huge workshops, just perhaps introducing people to the practice or certain elements of the practice.
What advice would you give to teachers just starting out facing difficulties?
What I found is that I didn’t necessarily need any type of training, it was just about being dedicated to the practice and just teaching your experience. You teach from the space of knowing, of the experience of practice, of the trials that you’ve gone through and also explaining the principals for the practice which you go through every day on your mat. That’s the beauty of Ashtanga. You stay pretty clear with what you connect to, you stay pretty clear of the method and it’s something that you practice daily and when you share that with others it’s an extension of what you do. That would be my advice. You teach what you know, and you have to be a practicioner. In Ashtanga, there’s no way around it. You have to practice. When you become a practitioner you also become so much more sensitive to other people who are doing the practice. You identify with them. You understand the ups and downs. Through yoga practice you become more sensitive to people’s energy. You become present with what they need.
Who/what inspires you?
It goes without saying that K. Pattabhi Jois is a huge inspiration for me as is his grandson, R. Sharath Jois. More than anything, it’s touching that light inside. When I get just a little taste of it, it’s kept me fascinated. It’s kept me wanting to explore more and more what that is. That authenticity and the shedding of the layers. The everyday renewal and the everyday experience of trying to let go a little bit more and try to sit in that truth. That unadulterated experience, that’s what really keeps me going. I see in someone like Pattabhi Jois, the trials of his life, the passion that he had and that’s so inspiring for me to see. Being in that space of awareness and presence keeps me going and that’s my constant inspiration. Call it God. Trying to have that intimate experience that you can only have when you are silent and when your mind settles, even a little bit. That’s what keeps me going.
Are there days you don’t feel as motivated for daily practice?
I have definitely had low periods with practice. I don’t know if someone would be telling the truth if they said they never did. I have definitely had plateaus. I’ve had low periods. I even went through a period when I was questioning the practice or doubting it. There have been times where I’ve had different tweaks in the body or certain pain in some areas. Even a year ago I really had a low point of energy, for whatever reason. I would come to my mat and it felt like I was practicing under water or with a huge weight on me. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall and I would have to stop and pick myself up the next day. The energy was so low that there were some days where I couldn’t complete everything. I honoured that. I know some people that would say, ‘oh whatever, just push through,’ but I knew that there was something going on with me. At the same time I had a bit of an upheaval with some emotions. I had some sadness at that time. I was just exploring it and trying to be present with it, not trying to run away or cover it up.
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with motivation for their personal daily practice?
My advice would be to roll out your mat and give it your best effort. Not forcefully. I have found that there are some days that I have to soften. At the end you do. When those days I feel tired, heavy, stiff, I’ve learned to soften around the edges and not try to make something happen. I’ll see if I can flow around the heaviness and the stiffness. I try to soften around discomfort. Those days I have to really dig deep, further inside, even if I only go half way with the movement as long as I can breathe and be attentive and hold the drishti (gaze) and hold the internal points, I can move along with the vinyasa but maybe I don’t have to be so full on in every posture. There have been some times where I don’t complete the full practice. Maybe I wrap it up a bit earlier. You have to be a little bit intelligent. You have to give it your best effort. It’s not about a performance. You have to honour the energy that’s there.
Apart from improving, has your personal practice changed at all since you first started?
As I get older I feel like I don’t have to perform so much. I still give it my best effort. There are still areas I’m working on and exploring. I feel that I’m 37 and it’s very different from when I was 27. And that was different from when I was 21. There is something different that happens and I’m just trying to honour it all. When I was younger the poses did intrigue me. But now it’s more the subtle energy that I want to tap into and even some days when I've gone on my mat and felt really heavy and felt some discomfort, when I take it back to the breath again, however cliché that sounds, I feel my center. I try to feel grounded. I try to settle into the body. Sometimes the energy starts to culminate over time and it starts to prepare me and exploring that when it’s not perfect has been really interesting.
Is there anything you aspire to?
I’m continuing to explore the practice. I continue to be a practitioner and a student and whatever happens, all I know is that I’m going to keep going. This exploring of letting go is really interesting to me. The light that the yoga touches, the opening, the shedding of layers, being more authentic to yourself, which yoga practice opens us up to, this is what’s really interesting to me. I just want to be more of who I really am. When you do that, you notice that things spring up. Things arise from that place.
What's your personal study routine?
In terms of study, I’m constantly reading and drawing inspiration from books on yoga, philosophy, spirituality and/or stories from intriguing passionate individuals. You will always find a book in my purse of some sort I’m working through. I often make notes that open me up to a new, more impactful perspective. In light of that, I also feel self study goes beyond acquiring more knowledge. It is through the application of things learned that has greatest impact. In times of contemplation I also turn to writing and journaling to collect my thoughts and to cleanse my mind. It’s a valuable practice in conjunction with yoga I find priceless.
How do you fit meditation in to your daily yoga practice?
Meditation is interweaved into my daily Ashtanga yoga practice through connecting conscious movement and conscious breath. From this, a deep layer of concentration arises that ripens one to sit in stillness. From what I’ve learned, meditation happens naturally when bringing our awareness to one point. I’ve found my Ashtanga yoga practice brings me into this space, some days more than others. Nonetheless, it takes daily effort, and through time and consistency, I have the opportunity to sit in a place of open awareness without expectation of what needs to be experienced.
You return to Mysore every year. Do you take any other refresher courses or studies throughout the year?
Yes, I make annual trips to Mysore, India to practice and study with my teacher R. Sharath Jois. The longest I’ve practiced in Mysore is 4 months, the shortest one month. However, most trips I stay over two months. I’m always on the look out to study with other senior teachers when time is available. It’s a beautiful thing to be in the presence of those who have practiced yoga for multiple decades. The more I practice yoga the more I understand there is so much more to learn. It’s unending.
What are your favourite yoga related books?
I always enjoy reading various translations and interpretations of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. What’s amazing is how simple the sutras are and yet the wisdom so vast. This in itself will keep me busy for a long time to come. Also, I love B.K.S Iyengar’s book, “Light on Life”. That book just lights me up. There is so much good stuff in there.
And finally, what non-yoga related activities do you do for fun?
I don’t watch much TV but my latest favorite was “Breaking Bad”. That show was simply genius. My favorite activity is photography.
(Lots of Yoga's Kat de Naoum with Laruga Glaser)