My teacher, Matthew Sweeney, said something during our last course in Bali that struck me. He said that research is empirically validating what yogis have known all along: yoga postures are good for health and well-being. Then, he said the thing that has stuck with me:
“Research has shown too that the benefits are in the simple postures. Doing advanced postures brings no more benefit and in fact, brings increased risk.”
This was a new perspective, if not new information. And yet, many practitioners – myself included – are drawn to complex (“advanced”) postures.
This makes it clear to me that we practice yoga postures for many reasons. Health is one, but there are benefits that complex postures (this being relative to each person – essentially meaning “challenging” in this context) can deliver, for those who choose to practice them.
Humans can be described as “anti-fragile” – a system that becomes stronger, not weaker, under stress. Challenge is necessary for growth and even maintenance and stability.
There is an elegance, art, and aesthetic component to practicing yoga postures. We express ourselves creatively, as both the artist and the medium.
Finally, there is an awareness and an analytical piece: complex postures are typically complicated and intricate. Indeed, the risk is greater – and therefore the awareness may need to be greater, the precision greater, and the depth of understanding of how to express the posture with your own body greater. Challenge can be a lens that magnifies, clarifies, and brings into focus complexities we would otherwise never comprehend.
Needless to say, simple and advanced postures are not mutually exclusive. Understanding our motivations and benefits gives us the leverage to tailor even the mental perspective with which we approach our yoga practice. The choice is yours.
The yoga tradition is filled with colorful “origin” stories, of how yoga practitioners and teachers came to the practice. One example:
Around the turn of the first millennium, a peasant fisherman in the Bay of Bengal – known to legend as Matsyendra, the Lord of the Fish – hooked such a fish that he was pulled in and swallowed whole. Finding himself comfortable and safe in the fish’s belly, he listened eagerly as his host was drawn to the bottom of the ocean. There, in a protected spot away from any eavesdropping ears – or so he thought – the Lord Shiva was instructing his wife Uma on the secret teachings of yoga. Uma began to doze and when Shiva asked if she was listening Matsyendra accidentally revealed himself, responding “Yes!” Shiva quickly recognized the presence of a true, eager student and so began twelve years of esoteric apprenticeship.
The power of this story is its illustration of serendipity. Who among us, having found our calling, doesn’t look back in wonder at the chance, the good fortune, to have been swallowed by fate and carried to the turning point in our lives?
Kelly attended her first yoga class in 2002 at the Davenport School of Yoga, with a friend. The next night, she brought Evan. We quickly fell into a rhythm of weekly yoga classes: absolutely raw beginners, beginning at the beginning.
One class a week became two, became three, and soon enough there was no point in maintaining the fitness center membership just to do handstands and stretch. Already we were lucky as Matsyendra, having found in Jeani Mackenzie a teacher with 30 years of experience right here in Davenport, IA. The third floor of Hibernian Hall was a second home, and the nuanced alignment, synthesis of posture and emotion, and endless curiosity about an endless practice was felt in our bones.
As the internet bloomed, resources opened up: workshops in Chicago, the earliest instructional Youtube videos, and yoga conferences with the likes of Paul Grilley and David Life & Sharon Gannon, at which we first heard the word “Ashtanga”…
We began teaching after attending Jeani’s teacher training in 2005 and began to blend what we had learned with the out-of-town elements we loved: yoga workshops (a new concept in the area), more advanced postures, and a reach toward the larger yoga community. We were lucky to find students quickly and had great fun doing yoga, blogging, and playing the edge in classes.
In 2007 we spent a week with Richard Freeman in Chicago and had our deepest experience yet of Ashtanga yoga. The discipline, exotic roots, and tapas were inspiring and we resolved to make good on our thoughts of India.
The drama of quitting our jobs to explore India was lost on us at the time. It was a blur of noise, color, and spice. We practiced Ashtanga yoga at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute with R Sharath. The steady beat of rising before dawn and leaving it all on the mat six days a week has, in some ways, never left us. We met friends we still have today. For the second month, we decided to ride the trains and see South India, staying in hostels and seeing both cities and villages. We were again in the belly of the fish, and the fish was India.
Ooty was cool and hilly and as our trip wound down we decided to open a studio back home. “Shala” means “school” or “barn” and was a common term for the practice building in Mysore. “Tapas” is “austerity,” and we loved this quality of the practice. We opened in November of 2008, thanks to the help of so many.
The next year, in our ongoing project to study with as many teachers as we could, we traveled to Minnesota to meet Matthew Sweeney, whose book we were using to learn Intermediate Series. He turned out to be gracious, technically skilled and added a new layer of potential. He was also willing to let us learn the Moon Series and begin a teacher training process for it – a process which he was just developing. We got in early and began to travel to month-long intensives with Matthew whenever possible, learning his Vinyasa Krama sequences and internalizing his approach of maintaining genuine relationships with students and exploring the potential of yoga practice outside of postures: in relationships, and as teachers.
After two more months in India, we taught at the first Iowa City Yoga festival and designed our first 200-hour teacher training program. Teaching others to teach brought a new depth of purpose and refinement. In the years since, our opportunities and experiences mentoring and training other instructors have been some of the most meaningful and enlightening of them all.
By 2011 is was time to expand and we moved the shala to The District of Rock Island, expanded our class schedule, and began offering and integrating Thai Bodywork. We hosted David Keil – the first visiting yoga instructor workshop in the QCA. Continuing to travel and study with Matthew we began to teach Moon Series and learn to teach Lion Series in addition to Ashtanga yoga and vinyasa practices of all types. After hosting Matthew in 2012 we traveled to Bali for the first time in 2013. Riding scooters through terraced rice paddies with an eighteen-month-old in tow was another seminal moment. We assisted Matthew and completed our 300-hour teacher training.
For the next two years we expanded: into a new, larger suite in Rock Island which allowed for more bodywork offerings and private sessions. Our teaching took us to regional festivals – Sukhava Bodhe and Fields of Yogis – and we participated in and put on local, regional, and international workshops and events. In 2016 we were invited to participate in Matthew’s Level 3 Vinyasa Krama Self-Practice teacher training and traveled again to Bali with twenty other participants from seventeen countries.
We embraced an unexpected opportunity and purchased and relocated Sol Hot Yoga, opening in March of 2017. This allowed us to reach a new group of students and create another community to foster this practice. The same year we added clinical therapy to our services at tapas and hosted Kino MacGregor in the largest visiting instructor event in the QC (so far).
In 2018 we continue to build our local community, pushing to educate instructors, maintain deep roots, and keep a good sense of humor about everything. We traveled again to Bali, hired as instructors on Matthew’s training course, and worked in workshop weekends in Malaysia and India. As we celebrated our 10th anniversary this past November, we reaffirmed tapas, renaming the Bettendorf studio Tapas Hot Yoga, launching a new website, and looking ahead to the next ten years.