Yoga is the Thread of Connection

Poesis: A Journal of the Arts and Communication Vol. 3, 2001 Copyright 2001 – EGS Press Printed in Canada All rights reserved ISSN 1492-4986/2001

Yoga is the Thread of Connection:
An Interview with Rosemary Jeanes Antze

Stephen K. Levine

Rosemary Jeanes Antze is a yoga teacher in Toronto and a lecturer in dance at York University. Her work raises questions about the relationships between body, breath and mind in therapy and the arts.

S. In recent years, you seem to be shifting your emphasis from the world of dance to that of yoga. What is distinctive about your approach to yoga?

R. Viniyoga emphasizes the link of breath with movement and poses, called asana. Breath serves as the link between mind and body. So the very specific use of breath both deepens the work in the body, as well as stilling the mind. Practising yoga helps one move towards a clearer, quieter state of mind. I also use sound and chanting with movement and in stillness. In addition, recently I began a Yoga Sutra study group where we chant, translate and discuss this essential textual source of yoga philosophy. The Viniyoga approach is also based on the relationship between teacher and student: my teacher, Desikachar, stresses how helpful it is to have a teacher who not only knows you but who also understands your culture. The teaching is incredibly rich yet also flexible, adapting practice to the individual, rather than imposing some standardized external form.

S. How did you come to this work?

R. Yoga, which I pursued seriously as a young dancer studying in India, is a system of self-study, which complemented my dance training. I had always worked on myself as a dancer, training from a very young age, first in ballet which was my initial career, then in modern dance and also Indian classical dance. The discipline in dance, the regular daily practice to free up other possibilities, has always been very compelling to me. Dance technique was a means to open myself in order to perform. From time to time I touched upon wonderful moments when there was some kind of transformation. I can remember very clearly those instances when my dancing really transcended the daily struggle, the technique, and gave glimpses of real joy. Ultimately yoga also provides the means of transcending the struggles in daily life.

S. What do you remember about dancing?

R. When I was about 10 or 11, taking a dance class, I recall getting right into the rhythm of a movement sequence. It was a summer class. To remember the steps I had to repeat them mentally to myself. But somehow something else took over, the buoyant flow of the sequence: it was an amazing sensation, of being totally absorbed. Afterwards my teacher looked as me and said, “Rosemary, that was beautiful.! ” in a tone of voice that affirmed the specialness of what I had just experienced. This total absorption in movement happened a few times in my training, and now and again in performance. This first time was special because it was my own experience, combined with an affirmation from the outside — someone else had noticed it too. Such moments provided touchstones on a path, to refer back to and to help keep the inspiration going through dryer periods.

S. So you started as a dancer?

R. For five years I was a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, dancing everything from the classics to contemporary works… there was a pas de deux that was choreographed for me that I loved. Then I spent a “sabbatical” year in Paris where I danced with an international group of modern dancers, American, French and one woman who was Indian. She taught us all yoga; that was my first experience. We focused on breathing in conjunction with exercises in our dance warm up. She also gave us a practice that I took home and did on my own. So I began doing a daily personal practice right from the beginning.

S. And then you moved from dance into theatre?

R. After Paris, I spent a year in India studying Indian dance and yoga. This was when I met my main teacher, Desikachar. It was both an exciting and reflective year, leaving behind my culture, my work, my whole life, and finding the focus of dance and yoga in a completely different cultural context. In the mid 70s, there were fellow seekers also travelling, and I was fortunate to have the definite focus that kept me anchored while I explored other possibilities of self and ways of being in the world.

Upon my return to Canada, a friend urged me to go and see his sister, an old friend who was studying medicine in New York City. She had studied Indian dance and yoga, too, but at that moment she was also involved in theatre. So I went to visit, to see the plays that were being developed at La Mama E. T.C., a very influential experimental theatre in the East Village, off off Broadway,. I was blown away by the work. It was Greek Tragedy, Electra, Medea and the Trojan Women, directed by Andrei Serban. He’d worked with Peter Brook on Orghast in Iran. One of the central explorations of this work was language, sound and the different levels of expression and emotion. We performed these plays in ancient Greek, without understanding the literal meaning of the words. All of the passages were composed by Liz Swados, who created a really extraordinary score. We learned rhythms and melodies in such a way that we explored the intention, the dramatic thrust and the emotional power of those pieces. The meaning came though the essential sounds of the language rather than through translation.

S. A little bit like a mantra..

R. Very much like a mantra, except the text was highly varied. When one thinks of a mantra, what comes to mind is one word or phrase that is repeated over and over. These plays had all the richness of the Greek tragedies. Performing also involved sitting still for a whole play, as in Electra in which I was one of four or six members of the chorus. We entered the performance space using a slow Japanese-style Noh walk; then we sat while the main characters moved and spoke, travelling from one end of the space to the other, exiting through doors of the place at one end or up a staircase into the darkness at the other. We sat around the central platform where the main characters would cross and circle each other. As the chorus, we interspersed our parts within their text. To be still while performing, only using voice, was an very amazing experience for me, so recently a dancer. We also performed Trojan Women, where there was a lot of movement that took place within the audience, and also a dance using Indian hand gestures that I did for the funeral of the young prince, Astyanax. Those experiences in theatre were very very powerful, very transformative, for those of us who were performing, as well as for the audience. We took our audiences on a real journey, as we toured to theatre festivals thoughout Europe, Israel and Iran, in the latter half of the 1970s.

S. And from there, where did you go?

R. From there I came back to Canada, realising that I needed some theoretical background. I was in my mid-twenties and had never been to university, so it seemed this was the time to move to the other side of my self. So I entered the University of Toronto and pursued a wide ranging undergraduate degree with a somewhat esoteric collection of courses in theatre, Sanskrit and Indian studies, and anthropology with the intention of somehow combining the performative aspect and the reflective.

Throughout all of these activities I always did yoga. Yoga is the thread of connection. I did yoga upon waking up in the morning to get myself ready for dance class. Yoga became my preparation for performance. While acting in the Greek plays I would always begin my warm up with yoga, to let go of the encumbrances of the day and the rest of my life, to find a more centered and quiet place. At that time I also chanted the Sanskrit alphabet as a vocal warm up. Yoga was a means of tapping a clear energy to perform. Later, when I was studying at university, my practice became the way to clear my mind so I could focus on academic work. Around that time I also started teaching yoga to a few private students and some small group classes.

S. At what point did you meet your primary teacher?

R. My primary teacher, T.K. V. Desikachar, I met in India. I was given an introduction to him, in fact, by the friend who linked me up the theatre work. She and I had met at ballet school in Ottawa, and when I was a young ballet dancer, I had visited her in India where she was studying dance with the great Balasaraswati. She also studied yoga. When I was able to return to India for a longer stay, she and her father, who had been Canada’s High Commissioner to India, sent me to Desikachar. I was in my early twenties. When I phoned him up, he first said he was very busy. But we met, and he agreed to teach me twice a week, individual lessons. This was the primary way he taught, one-to-one, for many years. In the first class he just told me to experiment with different ways of breathing, to go away and think about it and come back in a few days. But he gradually gave me different kinds of practices over several months, and urged me to carry on and teach.

S. Can you say anything about your relationship to him as a teacher? Is it different from traditional teacher-student relationships?

R Actually, the teacher-student relationship has always fascinated me; it was a central theme of my thesis, Tradition and Learning in Odissi Dance of India: guru-sisya parampara. Desikachar’s father, Krishnamacharya, was an old style, strict teacher. Just last year I interviewed two American women who had studied with him, collecting their stories about the lineage. I’ve been hearing how different the old teaching style was — more authoritarian and strict. Krishnamacharya lived over 100 years, until 1989. His son, Desikachar, was an engineer before returning to yoga. He has a wonderful sense of humour and is a very thoughtful and encouraging teacher. Somehow he always makes you feel better about yourself. He shows you possibilities rather than telling you what you’re not good at, affirming the qualities you have. What that seems to do is to inspire one to do those better, to live up to his expectations.

In a traditional teacher-student relationship in India, a student wouldn’t ask a lot of questions. In contrast, in seminars I’ve been to, ranging from 8 to 30 to over 200 participants, Desikachar encourages questions. From these questions he focuses his teaching and so makes relevant the tradition. What I observe is that from the clear structures of knowledge and wisdom that have been handed down, which come in the form of texts as well as in the oral tradition, he is able to guide both thought and experience. Desikachar is really a master, taking those structures and making them very personal, down to earth and relevant to the moment and to the people before him.

S. I’m wondering if you feel any contradiction between that traditional transmission of teachings and the more exploratory work that you’ve done in theatre and the arts.

R. The handing down of knowledge in classical dance is still somewhat traditional, as are many forms of modern dance. Where the creativity opens up in dance is in improvisation and composition. In that area I’ve experimented with Claudia Moore, who is a wonderful dancer and choreographer here in Toronto. She offers workshops to her company and to the dance community, for which I’ve been invited to teach yoga.  Other creative approaches are included in the day, such as voice work (Katherine Duncanson), clown work in the style of Philipe Gaulier, Butoh (Denise Fujiwara), and then different openings to improvisation. For that work, the dancers really appreciate the power of yoga as preparation, for shedding idiosyncrasies, the blocks or habitual patterns that one carries without noticing, things that you do without being aware you’re doing them. One of the remarkable things about yoga is that physically, mentally and emotionally, it can bring one to a neutral state, a place of readiness from which one can assume other ways of being or acting. The practice helps dance artists respond very immediately to stimuli in front of them. Yoga taps the ability to find that place where you’re in the moment, not erasing technique or skills or intelligence, but freeing one from being controlled by previous actions. Being open to new things — yoga is so helpful in cultivating that possibility.

S. So there’s kind of a paradox there, that this very highly structured framework can lead you to a place that you’re open to something totally new.

R. Well, I view yoga as much as an attitude, a state of mind, as a set of physical postures. Perhaps many people think of yoga as a physical routine or a number of complicated poses. In fact, that is simply an external structure for drawing attention to the moment, so that one can act with clarity in the next moment. So I don’t see yoga as being rigid at all. The way Desikachar teaches is based on the principles of sthira and sukha, that one should be steady and at ease while doing yoga. Cultivating those qualities in the mental and physical domains, being happy and content while stable and alert — there’s nothing rigid about that. That’s when a person can really adapt to change. Yoga acknowledges that everything in the world is constantly changing. No matter what is happening now, or what happened in the past in a certain situation, next time it will be somewhat different. We have no idea how things are going to transpire. So if we’re open, alert and aware, then whatever confronts us, we will respond from a deeper, truer place.

S. The ability to be open, as you describe it, seems to be connected to breath. Can you say anything more about that? Is that true?

R. In my experience, the ability to be centered is connected to the breath. The times when we’re nervous, anxious or tense, there is a corresponding change in the breath which tends to become shallower or quicker. When the breath is deeper, smoother and more sustained, and when one is aware of one’s breathing, it is possible to be more open. I also think that being open requires a certain safety in the surroundings. Often when I’ve done a very deep yoga practice, it takes me some time to get back into a state where I can function appropriately in the everyday world. The kind of openness that yoga can produce, perhaps more an inwardness, a connection with one’s self, is a reference point. However if you were always in that deep place, it might be difficult to go to the grocery store or to drive a car in traffic. So though yoga helps to access a quality of being, a heightened awareness, there are also different states of openness that are appropriate at different times. For example, being a performer (in dance or theatre), means opening in certain ways that would not be appropriate for just going out on the street, to work or to a party. In the same vein, a special environment is created in a dance workshop. When working with improvisation, it is crucial to feel the support that comes from the place, the people around you, and the fact that everyone there is committed to a shared process. When one talks about openness, it is something that can be a little scary, especially if a person is feeling in any way vulnerable.

Breathing connects very immediately to emotions. So when I work with students, I am watchful if someone seems in a very emotional state, because the breathing might tap into that. Recently in one of my classes, a student started crying during some deep breathing while lying on the floor. I could see the tears running down her face. When I went over to her, she explained that a friend had just died and she hadn’t yet stopped to feel. She was relieved to be able to let go. She had come into the class cheerful; but yoga gave here the space where her emotions were able to surface. So having a safe environment in which to tap openness, is very important.

S. When you talk about yoga it sounds as if there’s a therapeutic dimension to it. Do you agree?

R. Oh, very much so. There are ways of using yoga primarily as therapy. Most people first come to yoga for stretching their body or for relaxation. But there can be a kind of transformation, effects of yoga that come along with a practice that are therapeutic as a side benefit. Yoga can also be primarily therapeutic, for people with illnesses and their side effects, both physical and psychological, as well as for stress and depression.

S. Do you see that as complementing psychological methods, ways that address more the personality?

R.. In yoga there is an understanding of the human system being composed of five layers, rather like the layers of an onion. There are different yoga practices that address these different levels of the individual. The external layer, the physical body — annam — is a Sanskrit word which means food or body. The poses, asana, are the tools for working on the physical plane. There are techniques of breathing that are done with the poses as well as on their own, and these are used to work the next level — prana — the life force or energetic level of the person. The third level is the mental domain– manam –which in yoga is considered a place of activity, almost a sense organ, rather than who the person is. A person is not identified with the mind in yoga. Studying Sanskrit texts or religious works from a chosen tradition, as well as reflecting on life experiences, can provide a vehicle for developing understanding and finding out more about oneself. The fourth level — vijnanam — refers to something behind the mind, the deeper personality, that which distinguishes one person from another. There’s something unique about each individual, and meditation practices are very helpful in bringing one closer to one’s true nature. The fifth level — ananda — is the seat of deep emotion, the place of lasting joy. For the emotional core of the person, the tool yoga suggests is faith, letting go, trusting in a higher force. In the Yoga Sutras it is written that in the end, we are not the masters of everything we do. This suggests a kind of acceptance of who and where we are right now.

I find these structures very helpful. Where yoga differs from traditional psychotherapy is that yoga is trying to bring us to a clearer understanding of where we are right now so that we can move forward with less suffering. There is not the same inclination to look back, to look for causes or for sources in one’s past. The practices help one accept the present reality in order to take the next step with clarity. From my understanding that is a fundamental difference.

S. What’s the next step forward for you?

R. The next step for me is… continuing to practice yoga, to teach yoga, and to reconnect with the source in India. I’m going back there in March 2001, to see my teacher and to attend the international conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the institution Desikachar established in Chennai, the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. Then the real challenges lie in trying to live all the aspects of my life and relationships — with my family, my students and my community — in a way that is inspired by yoga. I feel very fortunate to have found this approach to yoga; its practice is a sound way to cultivate a sense of calm, openness and readiness for whatever happens next.