Jillian Pransky has been teaching yoga since 1995; she leads programs at Kripalu, Omega and Mohonk, as well as many other venues across the country. Her “Relaxmore” CD has garnered excellent reviews from many including Dr. Memhet Oz. She is National Director of Restorative Yoga Training for YogaWorks and co-director of the Bright Spirit Yoga Teacher Training, and has been featured in many magazines including Yoga Journal, Self Magazine and Family Circle. She writes for YogaDork Ed and has appeared on CNN. As a student of Pema Chödrön since 1998, Jillian’s yoga is infused with mindfulness practices, steadfastness, and ease. Her teaching and practice combine Traditional and Therapeutic Yoga, Ayurveda, Developmental Somatic Movement Therapy, Thai Massage, and Hands-On Healing. Find out more at www.jillianpransky.com.
Jillian met with me at YogaWorks in SoHo, New York City, before her Level 2 Vinyasa Flow class.
INTERVIEW PART ONE
YOGA TEACHER MAGAZINE: So tell me something about yourself, where are you from…?
JILLIAN PRANSKY: You mean literally?
JP: That’s funny, in all the interviews no one ever asked me literally where I’m from. I grew up in Hillsdale New Jersey, then spent 18 years in Hoboken before moving to Montclair NJ where I’ve been now since 2007.
YTM: What was your family like?
JP: Growing up, I had two older brothers, and for a while we sort of adopted one of my brother’s good friends who needed a more stable environment. Between my dad, two brothers and friends around, the dominant energy of our home was male. “Female” energy had no room to flourish or be honored, or cultivated. If I wanted to be part of the gang then I had to fit in with the guys. Accolades and acknowledgment were only handed out when success was measurable on a masculine level, in other words success in sports, business, conquering something, popularity… measurable achievements. In order to feel more seen and accepted in my family unit I tried to silence this inner pull I sometimes felt towards my more feminine aspects, like grace and ease, softness and receptivity.
This strength was a dominant aspect of my character right through my early twenties. Even when I came to a regular yoga practice, I had already been a collegiate soccer player, a marathon runner, a 5-day a week aerobics instructor and personal trainer. I was also holding a pretty big job for my age, Mass Market Marketing Director at St. Martin’s Press. But I had no problem burning the candle at both ends, and if there were more ‘ends’ to burn I could have done that too. I was a master of mind over matter.
YTM: Did you ever feel like you got any satisfaction, were you ever acknowledged and recognized in the family?
JP: When the successes mattered to the outside world, for example, when I ran a marathon, that was a great accomplishment. My grades were good, I graduated all the right things. If my successes were noted by others, the family definitely acknowledged it. So when I came to yoga, I came to a very athletic style. I practiced in Yoga Zone, with Richard Viella, who was an ex-football player, and I started noticing how hard I wanted to work in yoga to be acknowledged by the teacher. And so the study of watching my effort for acknowledgement started making me ask those questions. And by the way Richard didn’t acknowledge me, so the frustration of not being acknowledged for how hard I pushed made me frustrated to the point where I could see my frustration. It was just easy then for me to see I was being motivated by being acknowledged.
YTM: Rather than something coming from within.
JP: Well I think there was probably a little bit of both in there, but I wanted to understand why I was doing this, and who I was doing it for. It became clear that I was pushing -- for very specific reasons.
YTM: Just to step back a moment, how did you first discover yoga, how did you come to practice?
JP: I worked in the Flatiron Building for St. Martin’s Press, and Yoga Zone was across the street. I was already working out six times a week, I had run a marathon the year before and I was really tired and really sore, I worked a strong job, I worked out nearly every night, taught every night, and then I had a family tragedy that crashed me. One day I was dragging myself and I passed the door and the sign: YOGA ZONE, and I thought… huh. I’d already come to yoga as a kid with my mom, so it wasn’t like this foreign thing, I knew it to be a potential antidote to my moment. I walked in the door, and like the overachiever that I was at the time went back seven days a week for three years. [Laughter.] Because that was another thing I could totally succeed at!
YTM: Was that where you met Richard Viella?
JP: I started studying with Alan Finger, he was my first teacher and led my first teacher training, but Richard Viella was one of the most followed teachers there. But even though I highly regard an ISHTA practice, if you’re coming to it from an athletic point of view you can find the workout in the practice too. So at first it really appealed to me because I was so engaged on a physical level and it was like love at first Down Dog. Because even though I created a life around achieving as the dominant aspect of who I was, I was simultaneously aware that I was covering up these other parts.
I was always journaling, I was always reading. As a kid I read John Bradshaw, and as a kid I read Passages, and I read My Mother, Myself. [Laughter.]
So even though I was on this conquer-the-world journey, I was nurturing a self-awareness quietly and consistently, so when I did come to the mat at the age of 24, it was an instant coming together of all these parts. It was not a big surprise to discover what I discovered on the mat, but it became urgent to address it. It accelerated my need to see myself clearly, to be honest and to feel a sense of love for myself. I was all those things but they weren’t integrated so they didn’t feel authentic.
YTM: Was it sort of an epiphany, an “aha!” thing, or something that gradually developed?
JP: Crazy ephiphany! No, no no no, no! Crazy ephiphany! I have a letter I wrote to my cousin Ali after my first couple yoga classes and I sound like I drank the Kool-Aid in the biggest way, but my language and my words are exactly what I would say about the practice now: the layers through which it reveals you to yourself, the layers through which you shed constructed ideas of yourself, the layers through which physical tension melts away. It was as if I had only been waiting for the opportunity for my own understanding, but it was an unconscious understanding and in my first yoga class I put it all together. The practice itself was like sitting with the master of all teachers, instantly. It was another world from my first class forward.
YTM: So how did you start teaching?
JP: Well at that point, around ’94, I had already been teaching five fitness classes a week for eight years, I’d given presentations since I was a kid, I was president of my class from seventh grade through high school, I was used to speaking to large groups, I was always in that role in some way –
YTM: It was an easy role for you.
JP: Yes, so sharing something I was passionate about was an easy idea to take on. But I took a teacher training practice not to teach. I took a teacher training with Yoga Zone not to become a teacher. I didn’t want yoga to become just one more thing to succeed at, because I began to realize how much I succeed at everything else, so this was going to be my temple, my religion, something that was just mine. Once I got my certificate they asked me to teach right away, and I said, almost automatically, “Well of course!” That part of me was always so close to the surface.
So I started teaching right at graduation. And I held my job in marketing, taught a fitness job three times a week, taught two yoga classes a week, and took yoga every lunch hour for several years. Then all of a sudden the fitness started falling away and my identification with my job started falling away, and the process of yoga did what it does best: it showed me what to question in order to find out what felt most me. How to find out where I was holding back from fuller parts of myself, where I was overstraining, and where I was constructing myself instead of being myself. It highlighted the difference between being who I thought I should be, and relaxing into the fullness of who I was, which was actually so much more than who I thought I should be.
And I didn’t need to have a vision of what I wanted to succeed at… as much anyway! Now it’s really even less, but at that point it was a balance. When I started teaching yoga I wanted to be really good at it, I wanted everybody to love my classes, because I was used to doing things for acknowledgement.
YTM: Do you feel that you don’t do that anymore?
JP: If I used to do that at 100%, I’d say now I’m 10%. It’s drastically different. I find all parts of me still surface, I can still taste them all to some degree. Although sometimes I wake up and I say, I can’t believe I used to be that person! I’ll watch a show on TV and I’ll see some behavior, and I’ll think, I think I used to do that! And it cracks me up. Or I’ll read old letters I wrote to a girlfriend and… oh my God.
YTM: Well we have to evolve, right?
YTM: That’s it, we all evolve. So how has your teaching evolved over the years?
JP: Well, again, initially, I was very interested in what would be pleasing and satisfying for my students, and for a long time, being stronger and more athletic was the more popular choice –
YTM: One can argue that it is now, as well.
JP: So that’s the beauty of being mature in my practice, the beauty of having done so much yoga, having the privilege of not pushing to be popular. I think a lot of what makes us stressed is wanting that sense of accomplishment, that fitting in, that control, that keeping-it-together, that I have a vision and it needs to be that way, and when you let go of trying to control, and allow ebb and flow, and you’re not concerned with trying to be popular, but instead what really makes you feel like you, even stress feels less stressful.
But yes, I used to teach very athletically, and it came very naturally to me, and I had many more men in my class. Then I started practicing with Erich Schiffmann, and I really learned from him that “Just be” means not pushing, not becoming, not striving. You know the slogan that has been in our spiritual world for a long time, “Be here now.” “Being here now” doesn’t have a pushing quality to it. It might have aspiration, and inspiration, but it’s not pushing. There’s a difference between aspiration and conquering.
YTM: …Gathering territory.
JP: Exactly. I used to be afraid of losing students or losing ground. That’s also what makes us stressed, we feel like if we rest, if we pause, if we just “be me,” we’re going to give up something that should be ours, our stuff, our students, our class, our money, our house, or whatever else we’re trying to get or hold onto. If we relax someone else’s gonna get our stuff! Working with Erich made me practice in a way that was not about getting anything. Instead it was about letting everybody have everything. There was this “enough to go around” kind of a feeling, so you didn’t feel like you had to go after it. That really shifted my practice dramatically, and I feel like that was one of the completing pieces for me, tapping that more organic, graceful, receptive, feminine side that I’d been keeping at bay in order to be more successful. So ironically it was a male teacher who really opened me to my femaleness.
I was practicing with Erich for many years and it was a very expansive experience, his focus is much more about how we’re connected, and about the perception of being separate. But it wasn’t just a concept, I would bring that practice into my body. It wasn’t so much about structure, hugging the bones and finding the lines of my body, but much more about expansion, feeling how I’m the space around me.
While I was practicing with him my sister-in-law died, and she was 34 at the time, and she died of lung cancer from the environment, from asbestos. And while I had faced family deaths many times, it never felt like me. And when she died, I was 30 at the time, she was 34, this had a different reality to it. I saw how vulnerable and out of control we actually are to life, and I didn’t know how to mourn that. I didn’t know how to mourn my own…
JP: …yes, mortality. I didn’t know how to mourn her, so instead I held my breath, literally and figuratively. There wasn’t any clear breathing. I would freeze up. And six months later I took on the stoic responsibility of cleaning out her clothes for my brother. I wanted to be of service, I wanted to be helpful. I acted like I could do it, and I never listened to how I felt about it myself. I was just doing an act of the right thing, goodness, kindness, strength for my brother; being supportive, not addressing myself. However as I was bringing the clothes from Maryland to a donation destination in New Jersey, I began having symptoms of a heart attack while I was driving. This wasn’t exactly an unlikely scenario, because my family has a history of heart disease. It would have made sense: I’m having a heart attack. And so I drove to an emergency room and there I was told I was having a panic attack.
I had all the symptoms. I was shaking really deeply, as if my bones where shaking. My arms and hands went numb. Temperature changes swept through my body. My heart and chest clenched in pain. I could barely breathe. I was falling apart. And when they told me I was having a panic attack – I had already been teaching yoga for about five years at this point -- I was like, “What?! I’m a yoga teacher! I’m having a heart attack!” [Laughter.]
YTM: “That’s just not possible! Tell me I’m having a heart attack!”
JP: Exactly!... [Laughter.] But what then became clear to me was that too much receptive, expansive practice, along with the trauma of not being able to integrate and regulate my experience of grief, left me very ungrounded. Not that that’s always a bad thing, there’s a lot of lessons in that, but at that point the physical practice wasn’t holding me in a way that I could grieve without completely falling apart. And I did fall apart, for like a year. I had a panic attack followed by anxiety attack… like an earthquake with aftershocks. So now I deeply understand panic anxiety and I find I’m a great teacher for that. In hindsight, it was really like a breakthrough or a break out. Lisa’s passing pummeled me on so many levels. It brought me to my most vulnerable experience of my life. Darker than dark. Shakier than shaky. But I was able to look in there, and get a really, really good look at a place I never wanted to see. And I do believe truly, this is now my strength. My true strength.
And it led me to John Friend. I went to Utah and began a very intensive study with John Friend which was very healing in that it was insulating and integrating on a physical, tissue level. It was muscular, it was strong, it was re-grounding, and in order for my nervous system to be able to then come back together again and be able to integrate and hold and process my grief, I needed to feel strong. What I learned is that too much of any one thing will eventually be too much, and any technique that serves you will eventually stop serving you. Because we are constantly changing and evolving. We ebb and flow, we can’t only do one thing through all of that.
YTM: Yet we try to hold onto it.
JP: We do! Whether it’s the same sequence or same practice or lifestyle or diet, we pick our way, and it doesn’t support being human. And sure enough, working with John Friend at some point no longer served me. It was too muscular and rebounded me back into “I’m so strong I can do anything!” Which for me meant, “I’m so strong I need to do everything.”
YTM: What was the nature of training you did with him?
JP: I did more than 200 hours with him, I did therapeutic training with him, I did Utah, I did retreats and several workshops, I trained with him consistently for several years. I still stayed connected to and trained with Erich, but I brought in this back-to-strength thing. I felt reconfigured, but then I spent a couple of years trying to figure out which one was right. Is Erich’s practice right or is John’s practice right? I was trying to prove one over the other.
Eventually I began to ask what I need more of, at particular times. Do I need more expansion and connection? Or do I need more insulation and strength? I found that having these two strong influences ebb and flow together was far more healing for me than either one of them could be standing alone for any length of time. And that healing process led me to restorative. With restorative I can combine both kinds of practices. What’s most important to me is using all the tools I have, but also keeping true to this philosophy that I’m not doing poses, not achieving the pose, doing the pose, that’s not yoga to me. The pose is an opportunity to play on the journey in the pose.
John’s style stimulates the side of me that gets things done. If I’m encouraged to do the pose, I’m going to take on that challenge, I’m going to do the pose. But that really gets in my way! It really gets in my way to be excited about doing a pose. It pulls me out of love, out of appreciation, out of presence, out of the here and now. It pulls me out of feeling connected and it puts me into “accomplishing” the pose. I’m getting something done, like it’s on a list of things to do. And even though I do teach poses, being in the poses is a kind of freedom for me. It is a freedom of somehow not being goal-driven. I think that’s a lot of our stress, too, how goal-driven we are. I was a master goal driver. I ran my first five miles ever in May and ran a marathon in November. So it’s easy to prove to myself that I can set a goal and do it, but that isn’t experiencing myself fully, it’s just experiencing the part of my brain that can meet a vision. For me that is overpowering myself.
YTM: Ironically you do find a lot of people coming into yoga and wanting to achieve and achieve and achieve. What would you say to that?
JP: The beauty about being okay with not being super popular is that because I don’t teach that way, I no longer attract so many people who want to work out, now I attract more people who enjoy their breath and their mindfulness and the feeling of being themselves. They know I’m teaching that and so they’re willing to go there with me. A lot of people who want to work out know what they want from the class, and there’s very little curiosity and openness and meandering. And really a group class is just about attunement with each other.
You can’t do too much individual adjustment in a group class like you can in a private session. So a group class becomes what the group needs, the attunement of all the energy in the room, and that’s healing too. Maybe even as much as meeting individual needs. We all attune energetically, everybody gets healed in some way. Everybody leaves feeling more connected to themselves, more connected to the world, and that addresses individual needs. The group energy rolls out of here and it spreads.
Once a student literally yelled out, “It said Level Two on the schedule!” She couldn’t even hold her Chaturanga, but my class was not the classical hard vinyasa, Up Dog/Down Dog experience that she was expecting from the class. Slowing down and experiencing the yoga was not her intention. She was coming to get her workout on and she yelled out in my class, “This is not an advanced class!” And I paused and said, “If it doesn’t meet your needs, I suggest you find a different class.” In the past I might have picked up the pace and gone, “Up Dog! Down Dog!” I might have changed right there to satisfy her! [Laughter.]
YTM: Because you wanted to be popular.
JP: Exactly! I only teach now because I love my practice and I want to share it. I no longer teach because I want to be a good yoga teacher for popularity or achievement or a goal, I no longer have the goal of being the yoga teacher that everybody wants to go to. I can’t not teach. Because I love my practice so much I just want to share it. And if some don’t like my practice, I’m not their teacher.
INTERVIEW PART TWO
YTM: Jillian you don’t only teach restorative, what other kinds of classes do you teach?
JP: In terms of non-restorative practice, I find that I may practice a slower flow than people are used to, my articulation and steadiness is more like a slow marathon. Totally present and engaged, strong and in the body, but in a slow way. I am definitely not on a mission when I practice and teach. While I know I’m on a journey, it feels more like time to spread out and meander as I take in the scenery and really enjoy all there is to see, taste, touch and feel on the way. I do not do a drive-by practice. Lots of awareness, feeling, experience, breath.
YTM: And I love how you use creative movement too. So what did you find in restorative?
JP: At first restorative was just this delicious experience. I had never really rested. As I mentioned I worked in publishing, I took yoga every afternoon, I taught fitness every night, and I liked to go out. And if I had any time at home? I was cleaning out drawers and closets! Why pause when you can get something done?
Then years ago I was asked to sub a restorative class, well before restorative was even on the radar, and I found that I really enjoyed the opportunity to give people relaxation. And for me slowing down as I figured out what I was going to do, that act in itself slowed me down enough to look at the practice. Then I started practicing it. But of course it was a legal pause, a legal rest.
YTM: You had permission to pause.
JP: Exactly. Not only was there permission, I had to relax in that class…
YTM: That’s what you had to achieve!
JP: Yes! And since I was so ambitious to do the practice fully, when I started really taking it on, I really started looking closely at the internal experience of relaxation. It was a whole other world to investigate, a fascinating opportunity to do more work! [Laughter.]
YTM: But also to just be.
JP: Well, you know, it’s never just being. I think that’s a misconception. You actually have to practice relaxing. It is a practice. People think, I’ll just sit here and I’ll just be. But they’re probably anxious in some way, holding their breath, maybe reviewing their to-do list or having anxiety about not doing anything, or holding some sort of tension in their body because they’re uncomfortable sitting or lying. Something’s going on.
But to me restorative yoga is this practice of conscious relaxation, which is the practice of being able to notice where you’re not relaxing, notice where you’re still holding on, notice where there’s still residual tension. Then there’s another layer of noticing that you’re still working, so there’s the practice of accepting that, and then there’s yet another layer after finding the tension and relaxing… that something under the tension may be revealed, and that’s usually something we got good at stuffing up in there because it has some quality we didn’t want to look at. So the practice becomes relaxing with whatever’s under that tension.
There are many layers: finding the tension, relaxing with the tension, relaxing with whatever bubbles up as the tension is observed or released, and in that, just being relaxed with whatever you find. It’s just being, but it’s not as empty or as subtle or as non-active as people perceive. They think it’s going to be a lobotomy, or like they’re just sitting there and nothing’s happening.
YTM: Even some people who come to a restorative yoga class think it’s going to be the equivalent of having permission to lie on the couch, but it’s much more dynamic than that.
JP: People think of it as a yummy treat, like a massage, or a chance to sleep. And at first there’s a level of that happening, but if someone is guided to relax in a really deep way, something shifts so much that it becomes one of the most advanced practices. As I’ve mentioned it’s so much easier for me to do, it was far more difficult to relax into not doing and see what’s left there.
YTM: What about the attitude that restorative is wimpy, that you’re not doing anything, you’re just lying there, it’s just a time out.
JP: I challenge anyone that thinks that restorative is a wimpy practice to stay with what comes up when they consciously relax in an open, curious, loving, accepting way. That’s a lifetime practice. It is a lifetime practice to look at all the things we don’t like about ourselves that come up, whether they’re physical injuries, or body image issues, or tension, or the way we stay sucked into sadness or grief. I challenge anyone who thinks that’s a wimpy practice to stay steadfastly open, curious and warm and loving toward yourself while you observe that these are also all the experiences of being you.
YTM: But some people would just put up a shield and not feel any of that.
JP: Absolutely. That’s why it’s too advanced a practice for them at this time. Or they’re not ready to take in the depth of the practice. They’re going fall asleep before they ever get there and never become interested. Or else they’re going wind up in a room with a good teacher and little by little they’ll become titillated by epiphanies or changes, tears or laughter, or something shifting, and when they walk out they feel bigger than they did when they walked in. And when that happens they’re more curious. “I’m gonna do that again.” And sooner or later, “Oh my God I am transforming!”
YTM: Pema Chödrön talks about groundlessness, and it seems like for you getting beyond the support of habit and recurrent mental fluctuations is what restorative can be about.
JP: Totally! The restorative practice is very expansive, but because you have the opportunity to feel the ground, to feel the props, to feel supported, to practice staying with your breath, there are all sorts of ways you create a home base in the practice. This allows for the feeling that no matter how big I get, no matter what’s revealed to me, no matter how challenging the feelings that arise, I feel safe, I feel held, I feel swaddled and I’m going to practice relaxing with whatever terror or beauty arises in this pose. If I feel euphoric while I’m lying here I’m going to feel euphoric, similarly if I feel sad or angry or even feel like I’m not doing anything.
I think it was really embarrassing for me to realize how much I did for acknowledgement. It was shameful. So the restorative equivalent would be relaxing with feeling shame. That’s what I got to do in restorative. And if I used the work that I did with Pema -- I’ve studied with her for a long time, annually since 1998, so she’s a rich part of my practice – through using her approach to Buddhist teachings and meditations, I can be warm, curious and loving toward feeling shame. Especially through the practices of metta. I have seen amazing success in my ability to be more self-loving, self-accepting, and -- the hugest one for me -- forgiving.
I think I was delivered an incredible teacher in the form of my father, because I spent most of my life learning about forgiveness through our relationship. And while it may sound like another story of a girl with a rough dad, I truly say from the bottom of my heart, with the biggest, warmest, most loving heart I have, that had I not had such a challenge with him I would have never known the freedom, joy and depth of the soul that forgives. Still, forgiveness is a daily choice. In fact, I could still squeeze out some anger toward him if I wanted to, so when those ghosts arise, it is another forgiveness practice opportunity.
All this together, in restorative yoga, makes for a very deep experience. I grow in ways that no Chaturanga could ever have let me grow, no Wheel pose seen by my teacher. When I see myself loving me and accepting me the way I was painfully aching for my teacher to acknowledge me – and I see the darker stuff that my teacher would’ve never seen, my teacher would’ve only seen the way I succeeded –
YTM: The perfect Wheel.
JP: I’m showing them my perfect Wheel, but when I sit in restorative I have to see all that I was hiding from my teacher, the darker stuff. If I can do that, be with what I deeply wanted from my teacher, then I’m okay, I feel integrated. And nothing in my life has been more nourishing for me than learning how to take care of myself and love myself in the way I always pushed and longed for someone outside of myself to do.
YTM: That’s going deeper within, expanding inward.
JP: And for a yogi, the physical sensation, following where we keep tension, is equivalent to a meditator following where the thoughts go, and in restorative yoga you do both. For me it’s a more complex practice than either doing yoga on the mat or doing meditation on a cushion. It brings these worlds together in a way that you feel so much more comfortable in your body and in your mind simultaneously. To me it’s more the meaning of yoga than either of those practices alone. It’s the body, mind and breath getting things done without the activity masking it, or overriding it. You can’t quite get to the same level of what are you hiding in your body, in Triangle. You can get to what you’re not allowing yourself to be in fully, or afraid of, or where you’re missing communication with the muscle or the shape, but it’s much harder to find what you’ve lodged in there.
YTM: And if you’re on the cushion and meditating, is there something missing there?
JP: I think it’s a less embodying practice. You don’t walk out into the world physically feeling your container participating in the space around you. It’s much more about how your attitude and your mind are participating. But we’re more than just our attitude and our mind, and we’re more than just our body. It’s easy for people to prefer to get stuff done on the mind level or the body level, and it’s much more advanced to work them simultaneously. Not advanced – effective. It’s a quicker evolution to being a human in a body, to work them at the same time.
YTM: And that’s the challenge we have right now, being human.
JP: …Loving being human! [Laughter.] The challenge is being okay with being human. We’re so stressed because we want to keep things in control, which isn’t the human experience and reality, but we have this need to not fall apart, a need to succeed, a need to keep our world as we know and want and expect it to be – and of course add in all the technology and blah blah blah blah. But it’s really stressful to try to hold things together. It’s against nature, how could it not be stressful?
YTM: It seems to me that for you part of the grounding in the groundlessness deeply involves nature, connecting to nature. How has that evolved?
JP: Well I’ve always appreciated nature, I was someone who always felt better outside, but when I was really not well, from the panic and the anxiety, and lived in the city, one of the ways that I healed myself was I took on – religiously of course! – an Ayurvedic lifestyle, which incorporates time and nature as a daily practice. It presupposes that we are fully, fully aware of our external environment from an energetic point of view just as much as our inner environment. And the practice is in seeing what we need to feel balanced and well in the environment that we’re in. Because what might be wellness to me here in New York City won’t feel like wellness to me in New Paltz on top of a mountain, and what feels like wellness to me on top of a mountain can get me killed crossing a street in New York City. And what makes me well in winter won’t make me well in summer.
But this practice made me well on a deeper level. I began to pause and be informed by something other than what I’d previously believed was the right practice for the day. I began to be informed by the weather, by the environment, by the news, by my own body.
How I choose to practice differs every day. I don’t have an agenda, ever. I have an idea, because I know it’s summer or winter, or it’s morning or night, or I know a hurricane just happened or I know I’m in the bliss of a vacation. So I have an idea of what I might desire to do, but being open to what’s really going to balance me in that moment has a lot to do with my feelings about nature. And it’s given me a love for and an appreciation of nature. I lead several retreats each year and they all incorporate a walking meditation, and I really feel like I’m nature. So I practice as if I’m watering my plants and tilling my soil. I practice as if I’m a landscape and see what the garden needs.
YTM: And the Ayurvedic knowledge informs that.
JP: It’s based on attuning with nature and the seasons and the world around you. But it invited me into my connection. I didn’t even realize how connected I was to nature until it invited me into nature as a practice. I’d been walking in nature a lot before then but when I started practicing yoga in nature I didn’t feel any different than the tree next to me in a lot of ways. But I actually wrote a lot about that. I wrote, “But I am not a tree! I can walk and I can talk!” I actually had arguments with myself about using this metaphor that we’re a tree and how that’s limiting, how much more dynamic we are as humans. But if you really look at what keeps a tree alive, and what keeps you alive, and how we’re part of the same system of energy, then nature takes on a different aspect. It’s like we’re brother and sister in a lot of ways, when you see the aliveness of nature.
YTM: And you can bring that into your practice.
JP: I don’t separate my practice from it.
YTM: Ah yeah. That wasn’t quite right!
JP: No, but it’s a great question. Because it’s not a theme for me. It is my life. Which is different.
YTM: When you’re teaching, how do you observe the person? I know there’s the group attunement, but everyone’s so individual as well, and how do you know how to work with students in a group environment?
JP: Before I walk into the room I don’t know. And I think that’s how I know. There’s a difference between being, “I’m so here, I’m present, I’m embodied,” and, [whispers:] “What’s that in front of me? What is that?” I learned from Erich, before I practice, before I teach, before I get out of bed in the morning, to ask, “What do I need to know right now?” That is really how I start to make decisions. Open my mind, look, ask… figure it out in the real moment. That level of: where are we, and how are we in the room together? I’m not afraid of not seeing an individual, which is I think how I see individuals now.
Whereas in the past I’d wonder, “Well what if I walk in and there’s someone with a bad back or a bad shoulder?” I used to be worried about how I was going to meet everyone’s needs. But now I’m very therapeutically trained, my tool bag is so full, I’m not afraid of whoever walks into my room, and I’m also very well-equipped to handle structural, energetic, emotional varieties, whoever walks into the room. And I trust that if an individual has a need I will be able to meet it with a tool or just with my attention. We forget that sometimes just attention is enough.
YTM: What about people who say, “I like the simplicity of just a mat and restorative has all these props”?
JP: In poses where you’re using no muscular engagement whatsoever and you want the body to open in certain ways, the props are what enable the openings of the body. The body’s wise enough to know that it’s in a vulnerable position and without support it might release cortisone and adrenaline which is the opposite of what you’re going for, which is to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and thereby get all these healing aspects of the practice.
Some people get annoyed by the complexity of using props. And so it’s just a matter of becoming more artful and skillful in proper placement.
YTM: So Jillian let’s finish with this question: Can you think of a time a student stressed you out --
JP: That woman! “This isn’t Advanced!”
YTM: Yes! And conversely, a time when a student brought you “back to center”?
JP: I was teaching a retreat at Kripalu and at the end of the retreat a guy came up to me and said, “You know, at the beginning of the retreat I could not stand your voice. Hated it.” And the point he made was that even though he hated my voice, eventually he couldn’t believe how everything I was saying was so right on, and so informative and so important, and that by the end of the retreat he got over hating my voice and was blown away by the level of the practice. He thought he’d never make it through the retreat having to listen to me! And usually the emails I get from people about my relaxation CD mention how incredible my voice is to them, so having someone say that to my face, “I hate your voice,” was a shock. Actually having someone insult me to my face was a shock. But the biggest inspiration was that I did not shrink and diminish myself. Previously his opinion of me would’ve made me run, shriek and never talk again. But this time I handled it openly and with humor. It was a moment when I realized that yoga works, I’m not beating myself up because someone doesn’t like me! I’m not going please everybody, and it was a moment of seeing for myself how much growth I’ve had in the practice.