March 1, 2011

How I Became a Yoga Teacher. ~ Makaan Burt

Interview with Makaan Burt By Matt Rosenberg. Part One.

The original audio interview, done by Matt Rosenberg, can be heard at Cafe Holistic.

Matt Rosenberg: Can you please start by telling us a little bit about your background?

Makaan Burt:

I started meditating when I was 19 regularly, and it had a profound effect on me. That was in the late 60s. It had a profound effect on my relationships with my friends and my school work.

I was in college at that point. I practiced yoga just out of books. I started getting intensely into yoga after being in India and seeing yoga first hand, both the yoga of asana as well as chanting and kirtan, and when I came back, I was wanting to practice more of the yoga and started studying Bikram out of a book.

Photo: Jeff Kramer

I started teaching that to friends, and I had a little class of friends. I was living in an ashram in Hawaii at that point; an ashram that we were actually building as we were living there, and that went on for about two years. The asana part of it evolved from not only books but also from friends. Originally, I took workshop classes with Joel Kramer.

When I came to Boulder in 1983, I heard about Richard Freeman, and I started taking classes with him in ’84. So I studied with Richard for about 10 years off and on. That is when he was still an Iyengar teacher, which was really actually quite wonderful.

The Boulder yoga scene was very small and sweet at that point. We were oddities and did not talk to many people about yoga outside of our circle.Then when Richard changed to Ashtanga Vinyasa. I learned that system and practiced that on my own. Yoga was then becoming more popular in 1990.

I made my living being a potter and eventually a drum maker for 25 years. When I started studying with Richard, I realized well, I don’t know enough to become a teacher. His knowledge was so intimidating that it sort of shut me down, and I kind of regret that. I traveled the country doing Renaissance Fairs for 10 year and solo wilderness retreats in the summers.

I didn’t come back to teaching until the year 2000 and that was after studying other forms of yoga as well as Astanga Vinyasa, and it was a wonderful time. I decided to become a yoga teacher on a vision quest in 1999. That was a really exciting time for me, and I also decided to stop being a potter and drum maker.

Spirit really gave me a big kick in the pants at one point, and that’s kind of an interesting story involving a fire at my pottery studio the same week in ’99 that I was studying with Sri Pattabhi Jois in Boulder. Once that kick in the pants got resolved, it was a very exciting time studying yoga intensively. I took Richard’s teacher training and started teaching.

After a few years in 2002, I discovered the wonder of Mukunda Stiles. So I studied with him for about four years We studied anatomy and therapeutics intensively, as well as yoga philosophy. That changed the way I taught. I began to see that Ashtanga Vinyasa was not really suited for my body type and my age because I kept injuring my hamstrings in the first series.

Right before one of the last of eight Estes Park Yoga Journal conferences I went to, I had kind of an awakening. That was that I needed to find my own style. So I started looking at all the work I’ve done in nature and the rituals I’ve done in nature, both with my ceremonial dance as well as the vision questing, solo wilderness retreats. I was also doing hot stone massage at that point and I started fooling around in my private practice, doing the asanas with hot stones as well as cold massage stones. I discovered that it really helped me connect with the energies of the earth, which I think is really lacking in a lot of yoga classes. I have had so many wonderful experiences on my solo wilderness retreats that it was a very natural evolution.

Rosenberg: Those are two things that I’d like for the listeners to learn more about. Can you dive into those solo wilderness retreats that you mentioned?


Photo: David Herrera

I started studying those in ’89 with a  master questing teacher, John Milton. He lives in Crestone in the summer. He has vision quest sites both at the tip of Baja California, in Arizona, near Tucson and in Virginia.

John helped me go deeper. He combines both Buddhist and Native American ways of doing what he calls “sacred passage”. One of his contributions to my questing was not to use fire and to stick with staying in one place and finding a power spot that I liked in nature and staying there so that I can really delve deep into what that power spot had to offer in terms of spirit and knowledge and the cycles of nature that pass through that particular power spot.

He helped me be able to read the rocks, the currents of energy. You can use the currents in every power spot that has energies that pass through it, You can learn to use those to enliven your body and your soul. So he teaches how to read those energy currents that exist below the earth as well as on surface.

I have something I wrote on my second vision quest I could read you.

Rosenberg: Yeah, we’d love to hear it.


“One by one, day by day, the issues of marriage, money, healing, fatherhood, and sexuality become resolved through quiet inner guidance.

Many teachers speak to me as I meditate. The feminine sings through my flute. I feel the cool earth energies flowing out my legs and spine, flowing over my head and swirling with the sky energies. My exhale brings this wondrous energy down through my heart and then it flows down to my beloved earth again.”

While questing, I do a lot of meditating. I use a cycle of activity. I intersperse meditation with activity. I would either do asana, walk, or I would make some liquid to drink, which is usually the master cleanser lemonade, So they were cycles of 45 minutes, and that would just continue throughout the day and sometimes late into the night. When you’re meditating that much, you don’t need much sleep, and I had lots of experiences in the middle of the night. We often went out in pairs and we left signs in the ground to make sure everybody didn’t need any help. And that usually went on for seven days.

Photo: H2O Man

The last night on a quest in the Chiricahuas in Arizona, I was staying up all night, trying to keep myself awake and just experience the sounds and the experiences and the animal sounds in the night, but I was having trouble. I had been visited by two rattlesnakes on that site, ’cause I was up on this rocky knoll, ’cause there were trees up there too above me. I was trying to stay awake, but I was having trouble because it was cold, and I’d get into my sleeping bag to stay warm and then I would get up to do walking meditation. And at one point, I was getting warm again in my sleeping bag and I felt myself going to sleep and I was trying to wake up, and then all of a sudden, there was this long two-minute rattle. And at first, I didn’t know what it was, but then when it stopped and started again, I knew it was a rattlesnake and it was like five feet away and so…… scary. I couldn’t see it.

And then it stopped and started about three or four times, just kind of a little shorter rattle. It woke me up and I was like wide awake. You know, I kind of laughed. I remember it being really funny. I couldn’t figure out, what it was trying to tell me. It’s like a big mystery It wouldn’t have been so close and been so loud and rattled for so long if it wasn’t trying to say something.  I had a wonderful morning because that was right before dawn and I noticed about that it was beginning to get light. I had a wonderful dawn and I watched the sun rise. I just was really thankful, but I still couldn’t understand why or what it was trying to tell me.

After I came off the hill, I asked John about it and he said that rattlesnakes are very psychic and they can feel what you need even though you may not know it. That was the rattlesnake’s hill. I mean that big rattlesnake obviously live there.

So what John said is that it actually intuited that I needed to wake up. It intuited

Photo: Mike Baird

my longing to stay awake. It was just helping me by being my alarm clock.

The rattlesnake is definitely one of my favorite animals, which stands for transformation I was transforming from a Renaissance artist that was very footloose and fancy-free into a more responsible yoga teacher that doesn’t travel much and focused in learning the depths of yoga.

On a quest in Wild Basin in 1999,  I was asking the question, “What is it that the spirit wants me to take on as a vocation?” I got very clear that I was to be a teacher; the spirit wanted me to be a yoga teacher.

But the other thing that happened often is that I would have visions or visionary dreams when I least expected them, when I was just relaxing on a rock. I had an experience that involved this whole ritual of me letting go of my anger. There was both my teenage self archetype and my witness teacher self, my older, more wise self having a little ritual together. The teenager was expressing a lot of frustration and anger, and the older self was helping him process that and go through that.

That was an experience that I had prepared for before going out into nature. The way it played out was surprisingly dream-like. So you just never know on vision quests how things and how visions are going to happen.

Rosenberg:  It sounds like when you truly let go of effort and intention and motivation is when your experiences seem to come to you.


Yeah, yeah. Relaxation is a key point to letting go into altered states of consciousness. John Milton often said that. Of course, just being out in nature puts you in that state, but then dropping into a place where you can have daydreams that are visionary takes relaxation. It takes letting go and just allowing them to happen. And it’s the same thing in yoga. When people can relax, they often have a deeper experience of doing their yoga, and they allow the energies to come through them and direct the flow of asana and breath.

Rosenberg:  Can you quickly define what a vision quest is?


A vision quest is a Native American term. A solo wilderness retreat can be a vision quest but not necessarily. A vision quest is where you go out and you seek a vision by doing penance in nature, penance being sitting and waiting for it.

Native Americans fast and sit in one place, and wait for a sign from nature or a vision from nature or a song that came through them or a poem that came through them. And it often was due to the preparation they had done for it. A quester’s questions are meant to clarify and deepened his life and clan issues, archetypal issues of your current life.

John Milton calls his quests “sacred passage” because it often is just an experience of deepening into nature. For me, that included a falling in love with nature. My second quest was the first time I had ever experienced my breath in such a euphoric way that all I wanted to do is just take another breath.

Photo: Ezweave

And many people, when they give themselves the space and the time to experience that love of being still, love of the cycles of nature, become environmental activists. And what a sacred passage or a quest looks like is people going out into a pristine place in nature, finding a spot that they are attracted to, which we call our power spots, and staying within a circle of  about a 20-foot circle in diameter. It can be as much as 100 feet but staying within that area for at least three days, if not seven days or more. That  is so you deepen your experience of that place without the distractions of new places bombarding you.

What John recommends is not doing very much writing, if any writing at all, while you’re out there, not using fires, but just being with nature in its natural state. That’s what it looks like. It’s a lot of sitting, meditating, tree hugging and cloud watching. There’s a lot of tai chi that John teaches. People do whatever disciplines they’ve learned. I use trees and stones for asanas. John teaches many different types of meditations and exercises to bond with earth elements.

Rosenberg: Can it get a bit frustrating, especially, you know, maybe after the first few days when you’re having trouble quieting the mind and you’re really hoping for something and you’re not getting anything?


Almost everybody on their first quest goes through some kind of frustration. The people that I took out, they all had frustrating experiences. Some of them didn’t resolve them on that quest, and yet, they were able to resolve some of their life issues because they had the time to think about them and they considered it to be a very valuable time. Most people get through their boredom after a couple of days. Some people sleep a lot especially people that are addicted to caffeine. They stop taking caffeine and they sleep a lot, and that’s a very healing time for them.

Other people are afraid of the nature sounds, thinking that the animals are going to give them problems. Other people are not afraid. Some people attract certain kinds of animals. Some people attract even mountain lions and the mountain lions come and say hello to them and talk to them. Very few people are ever attacked. The only people that are ever attacked by bears are women that are on their periods, so it’s not advised to go out when you’re on your period if you’re a woman because bears are attracted to that smell.

Rosenberg:  That’s good to know.


Yeah, it is a passage, and the passage is often confrontation. You often face whatever your biggest fears are while you’re out there, and you usually come to the other side of them and accept them for just as a fear or a paper tiger.

Rosenberg:  Well, I’d like to do one myself sometime.


It’s always a big punctuation in your life.

Rosenberg:  Sure.


And they also are very empowering. You come back very excited about what you’ve discovered. It’s sometimes difficult re-entering. There’s sometimes a culture shock coming back and being overly stimulated by all the electronic stimulation.

Rosenberg:  Would you like to tell how your experiences in nature have shaped your own practice of yoga and your teaching of yoga?


Sure but that is another story.


Makaan Burt CYT, has combined many yoga forms and teaches a refreshing new one called Nature Stone Yoga. This form allows the student to drop deep into their own mind-body experience. Makaan has studied yoga for over 35 years, including  two trips to India. He is certified in structural yoga therapy. He has completed 14 solo wilderness yoga retreats. In Boulder, Colorado, Makaan offers ayurvedic massage, yoga privates and leads workshops in nature stone, hot stone, back care, knee care, anatomy study, spinal curvature  and stone yoga for teachers.

Matt Rosenberg. The practice of yoga is key to living a fuller more authentic life.  Matt came to yoga during a stressful time and quickly realized its powerful calming, strength, and confidence building affects. The ability to connect to breath has had a profound impact on his life. It has helped him overcome both chronic bronchitis and a lifetime of asthma. Matt’s teachings focus on connecting to breath, cultivating mind/body awareness, and finding one’s power. His teachings are presented in a manner that help one cultivate these skills both on and off the mat. Matt encourages students to explore modifications to find the pose that is appropriate for their practice.

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