(this interview previously appeared on Bird in the Tree and We Blog the World)
Mysore, India, January 2011
Magnolia Zuniga is one of a handful of Authorized Ashtanga Yoga teachers overseeing Mysore programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, she teaches six days a week at YogaWorks and is an ambassador for lululemon athletica. A student of Ayurveda as well as Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Magnolia is known for her contemporary approach to transmitting a traditional lineage.
In January 2011, she made her fifth trip to Mysore, India to practice at the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Institute with its director Sharath Rangaswamy. Authorized to teach by Jois during a 2007 trip to Mysore, this visit would find Magnolia assisting Sharath in the main shala as well as refining her own practice.
As she prepared to return to California, I asked Magnolia about practicing with Jois, assisting Sharath and how she goes about teaching Mysore-style Ashtanga:
Q: When did you first meet Guruji [Jois]?
MZ: January 2004. Here [in Mysore]. I’d been trying to come for 3 years but was having a very hard time pulling things together. Finally everything fell into place for me to come. I was meant to be here for three months and I stayed for six months. It was amazing to be here and I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to be as close to Guruji as I could and spend as much time as I could with him.
Q: Did you know immediately that he was your teacher?
MZ: No. …I wasn’t comfortable with some of his physical adjustments. I was filled with confusion, judgment, anger and fear. I reacted and started practicing with Sharath in his separate shala close by. After some reflection I realized this was not the answer. Guruji was the master of Ashtanga yoga and I had to study with him. I knew I had to get through this. I decided I would talk to Guruji.
I turned to one of my teachers for guidance and she helped me, how to speak to him, how to communicate a delicate subject in the most effective way. I went in and spoke to Guruji. It was fine. Most importantly it pierced the fear and anxiety that I had been afraid to deal with. It helped me set boundaries among people I deeply admire and respect and that in turn established the teacher-student relationship. That’s when I knew he was my teacher.
Q: Sharath was talking in conference last week about becoming a teacher and how that changes your practice… is harder than your practice. Can you speak to that?
MZ: Well, when I was practicing with [Certified teacher] Noah Williams before I ever came to India, I told him I wanted to assist him. He started laughing, and said “Why? Your practice will go down the drain!” I was surprised. [laughs] It’s true. It looks like assisting is very easy and adjusting is very easy, but people’s limbs can be very heavy.
People’s limbs are very heavy! To hold up someone’s leg, I sometimes have to hold my elbow in my belly, my hand under my elbow… I’m using all of my weight to find stability for both the student and myself. I have more aches and pains from adjusting than anything else. I joke that adjusting supta kurmasana can be a soul sucker! It’s one of those poses you have to be very efficient otherwise it can drain you …you come up and you’re panting. Still, I love [teaching]. I love transmitting the teaching through touch.
Q: You came to Mysore this time, thinking you’d maybe say hi, reboot your practice for a month, and within two days you were assisting Sharath. How has that been?
MZ: No doubt, it’s been really amazing to assist in the main shala. To be in Guruji’s home, even though he’s not physically there, I can feel him. To be a part of that, and watch Sharath and Saraswati in the room. I’ve learned a lot from it. I don’t know how it will integrate into my program when I’m back. How that’s going to translate into the rest of the world I don’t know but it’s been wonderful and difficult. The first day I almost quit. I was so exhausted and kept thinking, ‘I don’t know what I was thinking, it’s the busiest time of year. I’m tired. Pain is there.’ But I found my stride and was excited for the opportunity and that it was available.
Q: What’s it like for you to see Sharath really taking on being director?
MZ: It’s really good. I support him. He’s finding his way… He has a big responsibility and everyone has an opinion about what he’s doing. I think he’s a great contemporary face for Ashtanga. His conferences are easy to digest, people get a lot out of them and it’s the first time I’ve heard many people asking many questions. With Guruji, people seemed a bit shy. Now, people are asking more questions. As far as me teaching this lineage, I feel like the true test is my adaptability to whatever changes and let go of how I think it should be.
Q: What’s your approach to teaching? What’s foremost in your head when working a room?
MZ: Navigating through obstacles. Sharath told us a story during conference about having an appetite for spiritual development. I used to talk about it with the swamis at the ashram up north at Bihar School of Yoga. They would tell me ‘If you want to know god you have to sit at the door and keep knocking. It has to be a consistent conversation instead of succumbing to habits and past conditionings.’ It’s that desire that’s brought me to where I am. I have that same passion with students, to uncover the obstacles and navigate through them instead of working around them. My perspective is not only the Ashtanga lineage but also my studies in Ayurveda. This helps me understand a student’s appetite and aptitude with the practice as far as what they’re bringing to the mat. Whether they’re Kapha or Vatta or Pitta. It’s very individualized.
Q: Do you know if Guruji took Ayurvedic constitution into account?
MZ: I know he knew a lot about Ayurveda. I heard him speak on it in conference. If you’ve been a student, if you’re a teacher, a scholar, I imagine it’s difficult not to pull from [other sources]. His method of teaching was a mystery to me. Everyone had their theories but who really knew. I’m not sure if anyone completely understood except for Guruji and that student.
Q: How did you decide to teach? Or did you?
MZ: I did. I wanted to teach when I took my first Bikram yoga class. I was 17 years old! Then when I started doing Ashtanga, I told Noah I wanted to teach, and he said “OK, here are 10 guidelines to do before you consider teaching.” First thing was go to India and meet Guruji!
Q: Can you tell the story about how you started practicing Ashtanga?
MZ: I was going to take a teacher’s training with Bikram at the Beverly Hills College of India and my friend, an Ashtangi in San Francisco, sent me an anti-Bikram care package.
Q: What was in the package?
MZ: Several different articles about Bikram. There was a separate article on Madonna where she highlighted a sentence: ‘Madonna practices Ashtanga yoga with Noah Williams and Kimberly Flynn in Los Angeles” with a note circled ‘this is where you need to practice.’ It took me a couple weeks to find them. They were very difficult to find. I found Tim Miller, he told me where to find them and they just happened to be right around the corner. This was a godsend as nothing in LA is right around the corner.
I went in thinking I was a total badass, ‘yeah I’ve been doing yoga for 6-7 years, whatever.’
Noah was there, looking like a 12-year-old beaming sun child. When he told me it was a monthly program I thought he was trying to swindle me. I was a college student so I had literally $150 in the bank, and they were $120 at the time. Noah suggested I observe the class. Then I opened these curtains and there were maybe five practitioners in the room. The moment I heard the breath I knew that was it. It was lovely. I wrote him a check. I started that day, Surya namaskar A, B. I hopped on the Ashtanga train! Put on your seat belts kids, it’s going to be a long ride!
Q: In between all this you went to Bihar School of Yoga. This is a completely different limb, yes?
MZ: Yes and no, Guruji’s Brahmin sect recognizes Shankaracharaya as guru as well as the sannyasa lineage from the Bihar School of Yoga. I’d moved to San Francisco to study Ayurveda and my teacher was a student of the Bihar School of Yoga. In 2007, I went to Bihar and lived in the ashram for about 8 months. I was scheduled to be there for 3 weeks. Bihar’s main focus is karma yoga. There are no hatha yoga classes, no pranayama classes. You go in, get a job and work. The jobs can vary between cleaning rooms for guests or in construction. The work is intense and it’s done for no money, no recognition, no anything. What they’re teaching is complete and total detachment from compensation, recognition, and ego, from all of it. The work can be painful, very difficult and things come up fiercely. It’s provocative and people are working at their edge. Everyday you face your issues and there’s no downtime to get distracted, for the mind to get caught up.
This is the spirit of karma yoga, to do your work for the benefit of others without stories, expectations, or conditions. For example, I’m an only child and at the time, had very little experience with children. They assigned me to take care of two children while they’re family spent the day in the ashram. Simple. But I was very nervous. I panicked and decided I needed to relocate to the other ashram immediately. I asked if I could leave, they said, yes, yes, no problem. I made the 6-hour drive and when I checked in, my new job assignment was to take care of the children in the whole ashram, which was close to 1,000. Or at least it felt like 1,000. I thought I was being savvy and clever to get out of an uncomfortable situation. In the end, I had to face my fears and anxieties completely and honestly. It’s like that. That’s the beauty of the ashram. There’s no hiding from yourself. The desire to know God has to be overwhelming, an unquenchable thirst.
Q: All good training for teaching Mysore, huh?
MZ: Yes. I hear teachers complain and it’s easy to fall into that pattern of thinking. I wonder, why am I doing this? In the ashram, they talk about spreading the dharma. If your dharma is to be a yoga teacher in this world then be a yoga teacher. Spread the teachings to the best of your ability in their purest form, regardless of recognition, fame and fortune.
Q: And so that’s what you’re doing back in San Francisco?
MZ: I am teaching Ashtanga at Yoga Works. And I teach Yoga Nidra which is from the Bihar School. I also teach Trataka, which is a meditation gazing at a black dot or candle flame. It was a meditation I was taught in the ashram and it’s also a meditation that Sharath talks about in conference. He relates it to dristi in the Ashtanga practice. This one pointed experience leads to a meditational state, peace of mind and stability. After all, everyone can benefit by unveiling the dormant potential of the mind.
Magnolia teaches Ashtanga at YogaWorks San Francisco.
Follow her on Twitter, @magnoliazuniga.
Deborah Crooks is a Berkeley, CA based writer, singer-songwriter and performer. She has practiced Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois for nearly 10 years, thrice traveling to Mysore, India to deepen her practice, studying with Jois and his grandson Sharath Rangaswamy as well as senior American teachers Tim Miller, Noah Williams and Dominic Corigliano. The former managing editor at Inside Communications in Boulder, CO, her articles have appeared in Yoga Journal, Common Ground, Bare Your Soul: The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Enlightenment and many other publications.