“Can you be a human being and not a human doing?” That is the question that senior ISHTA instructor Mona Anand has for New Yorkers. A student and colleague of Alan Finger, Mona emphasizes the importance of relaxation and yoga nidra in her classes, and reminded YogaCity NYC’s Jim Catapano that the whole purpose of all that movement is to prepare us to find stillness. And she’s writing a book about it so we don’t forget!
Jim Catapano: What were your earliest experiences of yoga?
Mona Anand: I’m half Indian half American, I grew up in India. I didn’t know it was yoga, but when I was five I used to go for special breathing exercises, because I’m asthmatic. I learned how to sleep when I was having an attack, what exercises to do. And then my first amazing yoga experience was in high school; we had a teacher that used to teach us yoga nidra. I was a serious athlete, but the one time I would have a complete experience of relaxation was when she would come teach. She said that 20 minutes of yoga nidra is like 6 hours of sleep! All through college and graduate school, I just kept using it; it became part of my life. I would stay up really late to study and then do 20 minutes of yoga nidra, and I just feel great!
In my early 30s I started having these massive asthma attacks, and I decided I had to get back into it. I started going to Be Yoga, as YogaWorks was called at the time. I went right back into restorative, as that’s what I understood what was so therapeutic in India. It was the only thing that could help me with those massive attacks, because I had to release it physically from my body, all the anxiety from them. Now my asthma is under control. I’m always going to be an asthmatic; it flares up once in a while. But I don’t have to take an inhaler or be on cortisone, because of the yoga…although I wouldn’t ever think of walking around without that inhaler in my pocket! It’s nice to know it’s there.
JC: What made you decide to teach?
MA: I wanted to give back, as it had helped me so much when I was sick. I loved all the classes here in the west, but the one thing that I felt was missing was a focus on deep relaxation. So when I started teaching I brought yoga nidra into every class I taught. It’s funny, one of my friends said when I started, “You can’t do that in New York! People won’t come!” So much of life in New York is doing, doing, doing…just being is sometimes missing.
We really need to teach people the ability to let go, to deeply relax, just like how we teach them warrior 2 or trikonasana. So that became a very important part of what I taught…at least ten minutes at the end of class, devoted to yoga nidra. I think that’s the whole purpose of the practice, to be able to lie still and connect to that stillness. It would be missing the point of the practice if I didn’t give that enough time.
JC: Was there resistance among New Yorkers to that style, like your friend warned?
MA: I felt that if I, a swimmer and a gymnast, loved it so much in high school, everyone is going to love it, so long as it is taught correctly. If we just leave them there to lie down, they are going to drift off to sleep or get lost in their thoughts, worrying about what comes next. I think that’s the reason some people don’t like it, they don’t know what to do with themselves. So we have to guide them into stillness.
I think as teachers we get into this question of what do people want, versus what we as teachers authentically want to teach. If we teach what resonates with us, we get people who are drawn to that. Those who can’t bear to lie down just won’t come, but that’s ok. You teach what’s authentic. I haven’t had anyone actually walk out during yoga nidra. I think, especially if you live in New York, it’s what you need.
Right now I’m writing a book with Alan about yoga nidra for each chakra. That’s where I’m putting a lot of my focus. I teach a different chakra in my yoga nidra/restorative chakra workshop series every five or six weeks. That helps me in the writing; working on it and teaching it at the same time.
JC: What’s it been like working with Alan?
MA: His style of teaching resonates with me, the idea that it’s individualized; everyone’s different, and everyone’s practice needs to be different every day. I think the idea is that you check in with yourself every day, to see if there is an imbalance, and to set an intention to bring yourself into balance. I think his whole approach, the integration of Hatha, Tantra, Ayurveda, is what I like. And he’s got a lightness to him, the idea that (in your practice) you’re not taking yourself too seriously. The kind of thing we often lose as adults…playing, having fun, trying different things. If we can teach ourselves to go back to being open and flexible, to play in order to learn…it’s a practice, it’s not like you can get it wrong! Alan brings that lightness to all of his teachers, because he doesn’t take himself too seriously!
JC: Can you describe the Tantric philosophy as it pertains to this notion?
MA: The Tantric idea is that you are perfection at your core, and you’re tapping into that. It’s just that these habits that people have are preventing them from seeing their perfection! The Tantric philosophy teaches people to trust themselves, to not have to look outside of themselves.
JC: Who are the teachers that you like to practice with?
MA: One of my favorite teachers and a big influence is Beverly Murphy, who no longer teaches, but owned Be Yoga with Alan. She was the person who used to teach long deep hip openers, which have become a staple of my classes. I love all of Donna Farhi’s teachings on “bringing yoga to life.” And Mark Whitwell; I love the way he teaches breathing.
JC: How has the NY Yoga scene evolved in your eyes?
MA: I think what’s really beautiful in New York right now is that people are coming to Yoga to learn more about the philosophy. To learn to meditate and to deeply relax. They’re not seeing yoga as just a form of exercise as they initially did. I think it’s changing into something much deeper.