Scott Johnson: Teaching Ashtanga Yoga and Changing the World One Breath at a Time
"A teacher for me is someone who you are able to connect with in a way that lifts your spirit and you don’t know why." - Scott Johnson, Yoga Teacher and Co-Founder of Stillpoint Yoga London
We had the pleasure of practising with the lovely Ashtangi and yoga teacher, Scott Johnson, in an early morning self-practice Ashtanga class at Stillpoint Yoga London. Here is how Scott effortlessly lifted Kat up into a handstand: http://instagram.com/p/zDyyDis4xd/?modal=true After an invigorating practice, we sat down with the father of three boys, devoted family man, yoga and mindfulness teacher, for some insights on practising Ashtanga yoga the kind and mindful way. We got more than we bargained for… let’s just say that there were a few tears on our part and we left Stillpoint inspired and motivated, ready to do the whole Ashtanga primary series all over again. [caption id="attachment_20758" align="alignnone" width="636"] Scott Johnson, yoga teacher[/caption] What was your first ever experience with yoga? When I was 25 travelling in India, I took my first yoga class and saw an Indian teacher making strange shapes with his body. Watching him in Lotus pose swinging around was really interesting because I had never seen anything like it before. In that first class, I noticed how crazy my mind was, but it was more interesting to see a different kind of strength that I hadn’t seen before. Back home, I wanted to be fit but gyms just weren’t for me. I was really interested in how I can use my own body against itself for weight. I remembered that I enjoyed doing yoga in India so I found a yoga class locally and carried on. It was a Hatha yoga teacher who helped me understand more about anatomy and the mind-body relationship. Despite being an asthma sufferer, she managed to use Pranayama (yogic breathing) to relieve an attack. This fascinated me. The ability to be in control, even with things we think we have no control over, made me become interested in the possibility of yoga practice. In her class, I felt my body deepen into a yoga posture. I was able to let go and feel the pose. She introduced me to the Ashtanga yoga practice. She had John Scott’s book and I asked her if she could get me one too. Ashtanga looked good and quite advanced, I was just unsure of how it fitted together sequentially. After getting the Ashtanga book, how did your Ashtanga journey continue? In 2001 I attended my first Ashtanga class while visiting Sydney. I recognised the postures but had never experienced synchronised breathing and movements like in Ashtanga. It was really dynamic. All the way through the practice, I was wondering when we were going to stop (*laughs*). I was so sure each pose would be the last, but they just kept going. I sweated buckets and at the end I crashed and thought, “Oh my God! What was that?” At the end in Savasana (Corpse pose), I felt real peace in my body for the first time. When I left the class I felt like I was levitating, like something had shifted. When I got home to the UK, I immediately found an Ashtanga yoga class locally and started practising there. How did you meet John Scott?I did a weekend workshop of John’s in 2002 in Oxford, where he still teaches to this day. I remember leaving the workshop on Sunday and nothing had changed except that I couldn’t stop smiling and I didn’t feel that stressed anymore. I wasn’t sure what was going on. From there I started regularly practising. I went to see John and Lucy Crawford as much as I could, as much as having a family and a job and a mortgage could allow me... but I just practised. When you first get into yoga you become a yoga junkie and go to a lot of workshops and meet a lot of teachers. I met a lot of people but I just kept coming back to John Scott. [caption id="attachment_20762" align="aligncenter" width="604"] John Scott adjusting Scott Johnson[/caption] How did you get into teaching yoga? In 2003, I took over a class at my local Ashtanga studio. From that point I thought that I had better learn how to do this properly and attended Brian Cooper's teacher training course. I decided to change the class I was teaching from a led class to self-practice. It was a big learning curve. I saw that a led class was beneficial but self-practice even more so. To ease people into self-practice, at first I didn’t count; I would just practise and they would copy me. What did you find were the main differences in teaching a led class to teaching self-practice? In a self-practice environment, you have the space to tailor and connect with each student. In a led class environment, you don't have that flexibility because you’re holding a whole class of perhaps 15-20 people. The irony is, a counted Ashtanga Vinyasa led class is harder and more advanced than self-practice, but people think it’s the other way around. In a led class there is no instruction; it’s more advanced. Right from the start I knew that the self-practice environment was the only way I would teach. Our job as yoga teachers is to help people notice what’s going on with themselves. A yoga teacher should be a reflection backed-up by the wisdom of their own practice; my teacher reflects back to me and his teacher reflects back to him so you have this continuous relationship that’s always fluid. Everything is a manifestation of karma and karma never stops, it’s always going on, ever moving. [caption id="attachment_20765" align="alignnone" width="640"] Scott with John Scott[/caption] How important is it to find a personal teacher? Very important. I think this is what has been lost. A teacher for me is someone who you are able to connect with in a way that lifts your spirit and you don’t know why. The teacher relationship is about lighting someone else’s candle. When the teacher lights your candle, there are suddenly two candles. There is no energy taken from the other candle. John Scott has that. I went to New Zealand in 2008 to train with John and Lucy Crawford. I watched John teach and how he adjusts. I thought, “if I’m going to teach like someone, it’s going to be him”. The way he represented this tradition and lineage made me model myself on him. I am also inspired by teachers Cathy Mae Karelse and Michael Stone. Stone, a Buddhist, lists Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) as one of his teachers and his thinking is, “how do we change the world this year?” As teachers, we create relationships with people and help people create relationships with themselves through our practice. There is a fine line between really getting involved with people and also being a quiet friend at their side. The yoga teacher can act as the encouraging side of your consciousness.Some Ashtangis believe that Ashtanga Yoga is a moving meditation in itself; do you think that a separate meditation is necessary as well? Meditation in addition to asana is really important. John is big on everyday meditation. Ashtanga is a practice of action; we move with our eyes open and it is a sensory experience. We need to be still to realise what’s left. It’s the "what’s left" that we are really dealing with. When there is nothing else, we feel. The whole world needs to cultivate stillness so we can get a sense of empathy and connection with each other. That’s why I became a mindfulness teacher. What advice would you give you a beginner who wants to start meditating? Follow the breath. Sit at the beginning of your asana practice and also at the end. Notice what’s going on, and become aware of your surroundings and the practice. At the end, sit and notice the difference. You can do a couple of minutes before and after a yoga class. If there is someone who can't practise yoga, you can still do a 45-minute body scan with them sitting under a blanket. Watch how Stillpoint Yoga take over London Bridge with a mindful yoga practice:So you view yoga as a way to take people to mindfulness? Mindfulness and yoga are two sides of the same coin. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The next awakening won’t be an individual one, it will be a community waking up”. I feel that’s what Namaste truly means. It’s important to challenge our viewpoint and deeply connect with ourselves and everything. I am moving into social enterprise to expand how we share yoga and mindfulness. We are doing work with a charity called Kid’s Company nearby in London SE1 because we need to change the world with this. Yoga is for everyone, not just those who can afford it. What do you think of the Mysore way of stopping people at a pose they are having difficulty with and taking them straight to the finishing sequence? In Mysore, you practise every single day. You get stopped so you can meet your frustrations. A friend of mine was practicing third series, but because he couldn’t hold his heels in Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose), he was stopped until he found his own ability to do that. Also, people are stopped because there isn’t the ability to connect on a one-to-one basis because there are too many people. John Scott often quotes how he was adjusted in every pose by Guruji, in a class of 12 (in the early years, Guruji would give students the first and second series in six months). Now, Sharath Jois is getting at least 200 people. Getting into Mysore these days is like trying to get to Glastonbury and I can see it getting busier each year. Being stopped at poses is valuable just as someone giving you a variation is valuable. The primary series is an incredibly wonderful system that is pointing in many directions. We think it’s linear but actually most of the postures later on are pointing back to the earlier ones, just framing them differently. At Stillpoint Yoga London (SYL), we don’t have people who come every single day; we have people who come around 3-4 times a week, so we offer them alternatives. We are able to see and have a relationship with people so we can say, "OK, you are able to go that far, but look at this". The big thing with Ashtanga yoga is that there’s a map, so you can see where to get to. On the flip side, you have to be really careful because it can cause injury. Are you practising to move on to the next pose or practising to have a sensory experience with your body? You have to practise with lightness and space, openly and fluidly. We have to let go of trying to get anywhere and let the practice move us to get the full benefits. [caption id="attachment_20774" align="alignnone" width="960"] Practising at Still Point Yoga London[/caption] When you started self-practicing, did you have any difficulty? The whole thing initially was a struggle. The biggest struggle is to get on the mat. Everything else sorts itself out. We practise to be more giving in the rest of our life. It is important that we practise every day, and to understand why and for what we are practising. For me, it is to be a better person, to be more attentive to my children, my wife Louise, and to the students. To everything. What advice would you give someone who is having a particularly tough time getting on their mat one day? We have a space; tick. We have a mat; tick. We have our yoga clothes; tick. Then we put the mat down and stand on it. Then we breathe and raise the hands up. One step at a time. Think what it is that’s holding you back. That’s what we’re looking to find and deal with. Everything else comes from that. Ozge Karabiyik was your co-founder here at Stillpoint Yoga London up until she tragically passed away in 2012. How did you initially become friends and business partners? We met on the teacher training in New Zealand. She was a very sweet friend with a lovely spirit. She had a lovely way of seeing the good in everything. She wrote me a letter after the course saying let’s keep in touch and when Oz returned later that year, she came and met my wife and children and they loved her. [caption id="attachment_20776" align="alignnone" width="604"] Scott and Ozge at Stillpoint Yoga London[/caption] In the letter she had sent me, she said that she had this crazy idea and that we should teach together. She said she thought it would really work and I thought, "well, I work better in pairs anyway". So I said yes. We started planning and organising how it would work. She was very organised and accommodating. She wanted me to work around my family, i.e. she would open up in the morning and I’d come in later. There was a real buzz and excitement of us doing something. So we found this place here. We opened on 9 March 2009 with 108 sun salutes to open the centre. 108 sun salutations at Still Point Yoga London: We’ve never had a class where not one person showed up. After the opening ceremony, a lovely student came back so we had our first official student and we were very happy. It was a bit odd because there were two of us and only one student so we tried not to swamp him. We had this lovely way of teaching together which was almost a mental thing. We would have double adjustment days where we would both help an individual, working together to help them. We had a lovely way of engaging, a similarity. She had a really empathetic way of being with people and there was a nice unity between the way we taught. [caption id="attachment_20767" align="aligncenter" width="604"] Scott and Ozge[/caption] Oz always wanted to be a therapist and she had this calling. She possessed a wonderful way of being with people, of being present. Her brother had died of cancer when he was 14 and so she had done a yoga for cancer patients course. In 2011, she gave up her job of 8 years as a Project Manager for the NHS to focus on training and teaching. She had so many plans and was doing a lot of travelling. She took life in like a sponge. [caption id="attachment_20766" align="alignnone" width="640"] Scott with Ozge Karabiyik[/caption] Tell us a bit about the time surrounding and just after Ozge's death. How did you adjust? She was in India and had a fall that resulted in a very serious brain injury. Despite receiving the best care possible, Oz passed on the 2nd of January 2012 after 4 days of being in a coma. She was big in the Ashtanga yoga community and our whole community was in pieces.
The meaning of her life is greater than any of us could possibly grasp right now. And she has joy to spread in other dimensions too. — LoveForOzge (@LoveForOzge) January 1, 2012
[caption id="attachment_20769" align="aligncenter" width="344"] Scott and Ozge[/caption] We opened up Stillpoint to bring people together but by the time we came together, she died. I didn’t know what to do. I sat and did nothing. And eventually it came. It was like I heard her tell me it would be alright. So I sat with 13 friends of SYL, all in different states, and told them whatever you got from her, hold it. Remember her. That is her gift to you. Then I started to see what she was really about. When someone dies you see that. She had an incredible tenderness and relationship with people. We had three days of sitting. We had candles and flowers and people would just come and sit and it was incredibly tender and incredibly quiet. A couple of days later, Oz’s favourite Kirtan singer, Nikki Slade, came in and we had 50 people here. Then the next day we did 108 sun salutations with 47 people and we chanted. The following week, I didn’t know what to do. I came and practised for the first two days with everyone and then John Scott came and said, “look, I’ll come and you are going to teach with me.” He held the space, he held everyone; me and the students. We went to breakfast afterwards and he said, “just come in tomorrow and ekam, dve, trini (traditional way of counting numbers one to three)…” And that’s what I’ve done and tried not to change anything since then. When something like that happens you sit and think, “what am I stressing about?” Watch how Stillpoint Yoga practise to raise money for charity and to remember Ozge:After that it was apparent that I couldn’t keep up with my other job. My wife convinced me to quit and focus solely on Stillpoint, so I took a deep breath and did it.What’s your daily schedule like now? I get up and leave at around 4:25am in the morning so I can arrive at Stillpoint for around 5:50am. I finish teaching at 10am, sometimes I practise and then go home, or I go home and practise. This is the only community class I teach; everything else I do on a private basis and I don’t work evenings. I work mornings so I can pick up the boys when they are back from school. I sometimes have a nap in the afternoon for about 20 minutes. There are also other things to do for Stillpoint. It’s not just about teaching yoga. There is a business side which you just have to do. Louise is the other face of Stillpoint; she does all the accounting and admin. The rest of my time I just try to be with Louise and the children.And the outcome? Check out this beautiful documentary on Stillpoint Yoga London:Have your kids taken an interest in yoga? Not really. They’re kids! We play around with handstands together. Noah the middle one, he’s the only one that has shown any real interest. He’ll come to events. He’s practised with Manju Jois. This year and last year he practised with John and Lucy at the charity class we did; 108 Sun Salutes for Yoga Stops Traffick. He did 56 sun salutations next to me, Louise, Andy Gill and 25 other people and when he had enough he came round to Andy and was counting the stones for him. Practising yoga, if they want, becomes beneficial at around 11-12 years of age. I said to Herbie, my eldest, “I don’t want to push you but this could really change your life and if you want me to, I’ll teach you”.
“The next awakening won’t be an individual one, it will be a community waking up”. - Thich Nhat Hanh
Stillpoint Yoga London is open for Mysore self practice Monday to Friday from 6am to 10am. For more information please visit their website.
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