Suzanne Morrison, author of the new book Yoga Bitch, started down the path of sharing her yoga story with a critically acclaimed one woman stage show. Her funny and honest discussion about her yogic journey is riveting and revolting, raw and fresh, and immensely enjoyable. She agreed to answer some probing and goofy questions about her process, her practice and her book. Her replies offer a glimpse into the witty and truthful language she peppers her book with and also the completely approachable nature of her words. Clearly not a bitch, despite the catchy title of her book, Suzanne’s approachable warmth and kind correspondence were matched by the intelligence with which she shares her tale.
1.) The thing that really struck me about this book was the deep inquiry into the student/teacher, yogi/guru relationship that it explores. I was reminded instantly of the book Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge because she approaches similar questions but from a different perspective and experience. First I was wondering if you know her book and if you see the parallels yet uniqueness of your two journeys. Secondly, did you know when you wrote the book that this topic might become a focus of your story and was that your intent?
How funny—I just ordered Lucy Edge’s book and started reading it last night! I can’t really comment on it, because I’m only a chapter in, but I did meet Lucy in London when I was performing Yoga Bitch there. She showed up with a handful of friends and was so lovely and generous. I had been avoiding reading anything even remotely similar to my book for fear of being influenced or burning a hole in my stomach lining from nerves. But having Lucy show up like that made me realize that we’re all in this crazy yoga memoir business together. She inspired me to reach out to Claire Dederer and Neal Pollack when I found out about their books. Once you start reading, you realize that while we all came to yoga searching for something (God, peace, relief from back pain) we all have had our own weird, unique experiences. As for the guru/student relationship, I knew I would explore that topic because it obsessed me from the moment I got home from Bali. I’ve had plenty of wonderful teachers and mentors in my life, but never one person who affected me so deeply or made me want to change my life so profoundly as my Bali teachers did. I literally followed my yoga teacher to the ends of the earth. That’s what I was fascinated by, and the story I set out to tell.
2.) Elaborating on #1 because as both a student and a teacher I was fascinated about how your relationship to yourself as your own teacher grew throughout the time in Bali: Without revealing too much about what happens in the book, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you changed through this two month retreat in this area. Do you still want to practice with a teacher? Have your parameters for what makes a good teacher changed or not? What do you think is important to remember in the boundaries between student and teacher?
I think it’s impossible to spend two months doing nothing but yoga and meditation and reading sacred texts and not be changed by it. But it’s not magic; you don’t go home a brand-new person, and if you do, you should probably have that checked out. Your friends are probably making fun of you behind your back.
First off, my body was different. I think I rebuilt my body during those two months, because I don’t think I had muscles before. I looked like a dying dog in plank pose. After Bali I looked like a dog recovering from an illness in plank pose. It’s all about the tiny improvements! But my mind was changed, too. I came home able to concentrate in ways I couldn’t before. I had always wanted to write, but I found the discipline extremely difficult to cultivate. After Bali, maintaining a daily writing schedule became much easier.
I still attend yoga classes three to four times a week. I would love to be one of those people who wake up every morning to salute the sun and meditate before eating an agni-igniting breakfast, but, uh, I’m more inclined to oversleep and then stumble, one-eyed, to the coffee maker. So I rely perhaps too heavily on the outside discipline of a scheduled yoga class. That said, I learn so much from my teachers. If I were doing this practice all by myself, I would never have learned that, in camel pose, it helps to think of my pelvis as a kangaroo pouch full of cherries I don’t want to spill. I would never, ever have come up with that on my own.
If I were to design the perfect teacher for me, she would be amazing at describing the correct alignment of each pose. She would be able to do that in a handful of words, and then she wouldn’t do a lot of talking after that. She would do tons of pranayama and chanting. Lights would always be low. She would believe in God unabashedly. And she would do lots of hands-on adjustments and like, woo-woo energy stuff where she pulls bile out of my liver with her hands. But she wouldn’t be a huge flake. Just like, a medium-sized flake. She would also assign reading and talk about the Sutras or the Pradikipa with great intelligence and brevity. Since I haven’t found that one perfect teacher who encompasses all of that, I have to be my own guru, basically. I’m grand central station for my spiritual life. So I take classes from some wonderful teachers, and then I supplement those with lots of reading. And no matter what I’m doing, I’m engaged in some sort of self-inquiry. Having a mole removed can be a yogic exercise: you witness your reactions, you breathe through the pain or the discomfort. That’s what’s so amazing about yoga—you can do it all the time, and you’re always learning something.
As for boundaries between teacher and student, I’m pretty simple: teachers should probably try not to have sex with their students. Or manipulate their emotions. They should remember that their students might be looking to them for answers they might not be fully equipped to provide. And money. Keep an eye on how money moves between teacher and student. Try and keep that transaction on the up-and-up. As students, it’s important for us to remember that our teachers are human beings. Everything goes a little pear-shaped when we forget that.
3.) I loved how you explored the relationship between you and the other students on the retreat. There was so much depth to them and yet you all came to the Balinese mat from a different spiritual/yogic spaces. What was it that connected you all most: the yoga? the distance from home? the community? the challenges of Bali? While most of us have a community in the studio near our houses or perhaps online you had a real life one created in a magical place that was temporary. So just curious to hear how that might have changed things in these relationships versus those you might meet at your home studio.
I don’t really know the people at my home studio. I tend to arrive at the yoga studio after a day of writing, so I’m usually greasy and disheveled and still inside my own head. It’s not unusual for me to arrive, practice yoga, and leave without having spoken more than a few words.
In Bali, I was with the same handful of people for two months, and it quickly became clear that we were all there because we were looking for something. We were looking for new jobs as yoga teachers, for one thing. But that was really just an excuse for many of us. My closest friends on the retreat were all there en route to something new. I was getting ready to leave my hometown, Seattle, for New York. My roommate, Jessica, was looking for a new relationship. (And not just in some kind of chick lit ‘looking for love’ kind of way. She was on a spiritual quest to find her soul mate.) Our next-door neighbors were about to move to a new country. When you’re looking to upset the balance of your life, bigger questions emerge. We bonded over those questions.
4.) You do not spend much time talking about actual yoga poses in the book, or really that much about the actual practice of yoga past pranayama. I realize that this is probably because even if it was not your original intent that #1 above be the focus, it truly becomes the heart of your story. But I wonder if you could elaborate on where the actual asanas fit in your personal practice and if you consider them secondary to the more spiritual/growth aspects.
I was a total slug before I went to Bali. I still remember how winded I would get if I had to chase after a bus, say, or climb a hill. (It was hard to do those things and smoke at the same time!)
Asana might not play a huge role in the book, but the body does. I was fascinated by how much we dealt with our bodies on retreat. Every possible bodily function was a perfectly appropriate topic of conversation over lunch. I remember chatting about intestinal flora with a random yogi I met at the internet café. We talked about yeast and bacterial overgrowth while munching on the most delicious lemony crepes you could ever imagine.
It was curious to me that a spiritual practice should have such an emphasis on the physical body. But now it makes perfect sense to me. Sure, I think the American obsession with asana can lead to an egocentric form of yoga. But if you keep an eye on that, then the physical postures are immensely useful. I practice yoga without my contacts or glasses, and I’m as blind as a mole without them, which helps. This way I can’t see all the uberyogis I practice with. The one time I wore my contacts I was so overstimulated I kept losing my balance. But when I’m sightless, the postures become a meditation. There is something absolutely spiritual about asana practice, and the mental discipline of learning to control your mind while holding a difficult posture has influenced so many other facets of my life. Any type of pain, physical and emotional, is easier for me to handle as a direct result of my asana practice. It’s the simplest form of self-inquiry: “What am I feeling in my hamstrings right now? Oh, that’s agony. I should maybe back off a little. Okay, now what? Well, that’s still agony, but it’s a good agony.” That sort of thing. Once you’ve learned to inquire of your hamstrings, to really get inside the mind of your hamstrings, it’s a bit easier to start getting inside your thoughts and inquiring after their origins. That’s the genius of yoga.
5.) You had to give up smoking for the Bali retreat, did you notice the lack of cigarettes helped your ability to breathe or did you just miss them too much to notice? Were you able to stop smoking for good or did you return to this habit?
Oh hell yes! Smoking destroys your lungs! I had no idea until I actually started to breathe without them. By the time my retreat in Bali ended, I had gone six months without smoking. (And by ‘without smoking’ I mean ‘cheating only occasionally’.) After Bali, I became a binge smoker. I wouldn’t smoke for months, and then I’d have a half-pack in one night. Or a whole pack. Then I’d start up again for a few weeks before quitting for six months. I did this until a little over a year ago, when the urge simply went away. I can’t take any credit for my being a non-smoker, because it has required no discipline whatsoever. I just simply stopped. I’m told my grandmother did the same thing in her early sixties. One night she was a smoker, and the next morning she woke up and decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. And she never touched another one!
6.) If you were a yoga pose what would you be and why? What poses feel most like home and which ones bring up the most resistance?
Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I adore bound angle pose. I want to live in bound angle pose. Releasing like that is my cup of tea. I also love corpse pose. I have a real talent for any exercise that involves lying around pretending to be dead.
The most difficult pose for me changes all the time. For a while it was Crow, but I seem to have had a breakthrough lately, and it suddenly doesn’t seem so tough. But the pose that makes me absolutely miserable is Warrior 1. Just plain ol’ Warrior 1. Lately my body just doesn’t want to go there. Warrior 1 makes me feel like a very angry person.
7.) Do you still keep in touch with the teachers in the book? Do you ever take classes with them and how has that changed if yes?
The truth is, I feel like I work with the teachers in the book all the time. They taught me so much in those two months. I had lunch with Jessica, my roommate from Bali, last week, and she and I talked about the fact that we both still hear Indra’s voice in our heads in certain poses. I feel like I still channel her, somehow. And I channel Lou, too—I can’t do boat pose without hearing him talk me through it.
8.) I am really curious about how you translated this detailed and wonderful book into a 1-woman show. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between writing as a way of sharing your story and telling it to an audience? Are they different or the same? Also can you talk a bit about what you added or removed when making it a book? What came first: show or book or did they evolve together?
I wrote the one-woman show first, and it went through many different incarnations. But I also knew I wanted to write it as a book from pretty much the moment I decided to tell the story. I really cut my teeth on this story, both as a solo performer and a writer.
There was never really a process of adaptation because the two stories were written pretty simultaneously. There was more a process of influence; a new chapter in the book would suddenly show up as a scene in the play, and vice-versa.
The two forms are so different. The solo show was always somewhat improvised. I worked from an outline, so the pieces changed every night based on the energy in the audience, on my mood, on something I had read earlier in the day. The improvisation keeps me on my toes, keeps me connected to the audience in a dynamic way.
It was easier in the book to explore topics in greater depth. The show was always light and frothy so it was difficult to suddenly get into my Catholic upbringing, you know? My yearning for faith or God or something to believe in never really played a role in the show, but it’s front and center in the book. And the love story was very different in the show, mostly because I didn’t really know how my love life was going to turn out until I was deep into the writing of the book!
9.) Favorite thing about practicing yoga in Bali vs Seattle, least favorite. How was it to be with your home teacher but totally feel like a foreigner?
My favorite thing about yoga in Bali? My roommate Jessica. I was very lucky to go through some deep spiritual processes with someone so open and honest. It was pretty great to break all the rules with her, too. When we were good yogis, we were very, very good, but when we were bad we were wonderfully, wickedly horrid.
10.) Who would play you in the movie and why? Who would play your teachers and why?
It has always been a dream of mine to be played by Woody Allen. If not Woody Allen, then Rebecca Hall, who channels him well in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I think Gwyneth Paltrow would make a great Indra. Lou would have to be played by someone soulful and wonderfully weird, like a male Shirley MacLaine. Which, naturally, means Woody Harrelson.
11.) What do you think about the yogier than thou practices which say no coffee, no meat and no drinking/smoking etc.? Can one really say what is “yogic” for another?
In Christianity, spiritual pride is considered the big kahuna of sins, which is interesting. Sometimes yogis don’t realize that feeling like we’re more enlightened than our neighbors is just pure ego. It’s not helping anyone. (And I know all about it, because I have been oh-so-yogier-than-thou at times. You shoulda seen me in Bali after my Kundalini breakthrough. Holy hell.)
I can be a know-it-all yogini, but I can also be a terrible contrarian. If someone tells me that I’m a bad yogi for eating meat, I literally start salivating at the thought of a big red steak. If someone’s real jerky about it, I won’t give their advice a second thought. But it’s good to ask yourself how and why you’re drinking, eating, smoking. It’s as important as asking yourself what you’re thinking about during meditation. It’s about self-awareness. I started to notice that I smoked when I missed my sister, and just noticing that, I found myself doing it less. Instead, I called her. So I have no problem with these guidelines existing, because they make me think about what I’m doing in ways I might not otherwise. That said, I love a good drink, a good steak, and if I’m around smokers I still love those billowing clouds of nicotine and tar, even if I’m not partaking. And the question of non-harming is complicated for me; when I was in Bali and on a Kundalini high, I swore I could feel the personalities of the plants around me, so being a vegetarian didn’t exactly feel less harmful than eating meat. And, I don’t know—I love animals, but I get real hungry if I don’t eat them occasionally. If I were to get eaten by a bear, I wouldn’t think that bear was a bad yogi. I would just think it was hungry. And I’d be okay with that, apart from the whole ‘being dead’ issue.
Yoga Bitch was released by Random House on August 16, 2011 and is currently available.
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