It was a bumpy and often painful road that brought Erica Mather to yoga. Mainly interested in the liberating aspects of the practice, she discovered Forrest Yoga, a system and practice developed by Ana Forrest that isn’t frequently taught in NYC. She is one of the senior teachers, called a “Guardian,” and has been entrusted with passing forward the Forrest Yoga lineage. Erica and I had a lively conversation recently in which she reflected on what it means to be a teacher, how music has influenced her, and how pain still informs her teaching and her
Kathleen Kraft: You describe yourself as a lifelong teacher. Tell us more about that and what the term means to you.
Erica Mather: I started teaching when I was seventeen – I was a tutor in high school - and have been teaching ever since. I believe everyone is born with a life task. I’m a natural teacher… I’ve been teaching myself for a very long time – I’m an autodidact. As a child I was diagnosed with a learning disability, and have always been interested in why certain teaching mechanisms work for some and not for others.
KK:How did you first come to yoga?
EM: At 26, I was diagnosed with adult-onset migraines. I’d been an athlete all my life, but had used athletics as a way to punish my body. A healer was recommended to me, and when I went to see him he told me I was really fucked up, and that I needed to swim, lift weights and do yoga. I wasn’t interested in the first two because of punishing experiences with them in the past, so I decided to give yoga a try. I went back home to Madison, Wisconsin and tried several classes – Bikram, Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Forrest, and Forrest was the one that spoke to me.
KK:Tell us about that.
EM: The teacher was a very laid-back hippie chick Rachel Kaplan who now lives in Oakland and is a psychotherapist. She was young, unintimidating, and cool. She was unassuming and focused on feeling, which is what Forrest is all about. Learning to deal with one’s body without expected outcomes.
KK: You’ve written about body image and you work with people who struggle with body image negativity. Why is this important to you?
EM: Women are the front-line victims in our culture in terms of body image. The topic has always been on my mind… My personal history of injury and feeling fat growing up, being teased for having big breasts because I went through puberty early. My coaching program Adore Your Body addresses the societal standards that are the ever-tightening noose around the neck of yoga that even teachers fall victim to. A student in my class recently thanked me for offering a modification for large-breasted women in the room, and told me later that a teacher in NYC told her to leave her big breasts at home next time! Yoga has given me tools to make peace with my body and I want to share that with others who are really suffering.
KK:You were a jazz pianist. How did the shift to yoga occur? Are there connections for you between jazz, making music and yoga? Do you still play?
EM: I’m a Scorpio which means I tend to be very focused on whatever I’m doing, so no, I don’t play much anymore. I started practicing yoga when I was playing and found it to be mind-expanding, and that it enhanced my creativity. The two complimented each other. After I moved to NYC, I realized that making a living a musician was not really possible, so after a cost benefit analysis I stopped. I was playing gigs and carting my piano around on subways… again, it was the injuries, past and present, and the migraines that led me to yoga.
EM: Well, I’m not reliably able to balance in the middle of the room, so it’s a goal that’s in process, which is interesting for me because it requires 1000% of my focus. It keeps me humble because I am a skilled person… so standing on my hands makes me have compassion for my own challenges. I sometimes feel fear and it always feels precarious, so I keep pushing on like we do in life.
Yoga has given me life skills to be a better person. It has taught me how to live better. Like not to gossip and to really think about what it really means not to cause harm. My parents didn’t teach me these things. I didn’t grow up with ethical inquiries.
KK:What are your favorite poses?
EM: Standing poses. I’ve had problems with my ankles so I tend to teach them a lot. And also because people spend so much time sitting. I have to check in with myself as a teacher, like I don’t teach arm balances because they’re easy for me, so I have to remind myself to teach them.
KK: Favorite poses to practice?
EM: My back is a mess so I like twists and hip openers. I gravitate towards those and forward bends more so than back bends.
KK:What would you be doing if you had unlimited time, money?
I think about the organization and proper disposal of trash. The issue ripples across our planet and has great impact on animals and human beings. Why are we throwing away so much… and so much food? I also think about going to Africa to work in an elephant rescue/rehabilitation, or, learning to be a ranger and protecting them in their preserves.
Erica Mather teaches regular classes at Pure Yoga. She has retreats and workshops coming up this month in NYC and at Kripalu in western Massachusetts.