Meet Master Teacher: James Murphy

This week Kathleen Kraft interviews James Murphy, Director of the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York. Murphy has been practicing yoga in 1988 and teaching since 1990. He has made ten extended trips to India to study with the Iyengar family. He began his study of Iyengar with Mary Dunn and Kevin Gardiner after a ten-year career with the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theater.

Continuing in his leadership role in working to create evolving programs and an active interchange of teachers and practitioners in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, he teaches a full range of classes, including a class for those living with HIV/AIDS. He also does mentoring and training in the Institute’s teacher training program.

A yoga practitioner of unusual integration and ability, James is featured in the Yoga Journal book, Yoga, and has been interviewed for numerous articles in national magazines.

Devoted and long-time student Meg Walsh-Sinkel said, "James Murphy is an inspiration and a force! His mastery of yoga and his art of teaching Iyengar yoga are dynamically expressed and deeply felt in every class. His sequences are intelligently threaded and fluid, challenging and ultimately transformative. And he teaches consistently, without ego, and with a sense of humor."

Kathleen Kraft: What does your yoga practice look like every day?

James Murphy: First I want to say that I don’t consider myself a master teacher. I feel like I’m still a beginner student even though I’ve been practicing for a long time and have certifications that are higher than other people’s. My teachers, the Iyengars, and others, like Mary Dunn, are masters.

My practice changes over time and depends on what the situation is week to week, but the main things I practice regularly are pranayama and inversions. Those are the staples or the foundations of the method, so when all else fails—when I’m traveling or busy—I make room for those practices. Some of the poses that are more physically challenging and fun and exciting that I did in the first twenty years of my practice are less exciting, less interesting to me now.

Now it’s about getting quiet and content as opposed to getting more and more and more… Inversions like salamba sirsana (headstand) and salamba sarvangasana (shoulderstand) calm the nervous system, and allow that quietness, inwardness to come. And pranayama and restorative postures as well. Especially, I think, being here in New York, being very busy and being a doer, those things are really important for me to balance.

KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?

JM: Respecting boundaries is really important. There’s intimacy in the student/teacher relationship, so we need to respect that boundary.

I think giving the student time and space to explore who they are, letting things come to them, so you are not just feeding them information. They’ll hold onto the information and own it when they learn something for themselves, even something as simple as having a student get a block instead of getting it for them, and then ask them why they are getting the block—What does it give you?

KK: Which sutra is guiding you?

JM: When I first started practicing I studied the sutras, but over time I became more interested in the Iyengars’ interpretation of them. They bring the essence of philosophy into their teaching—simple but profound examples and metaphors, for example, how to prepare food… or have a relationship with your family members… Your connection to day-to-day activities. They are able to transmit the sutras it in a gentle way and with humor. That’s what I connect with. I am engrossed in Prashant’s writings, which are profound but delivered with lightness. Also, Abhijata Sridhar Iyengar, Mr. Iyengar’s granddaughter, who he taught and gave a lot of attention to at the end of his life. She spoke recently at a convention for our community in Florida on how he taught her not to get stuck in her habits, even the good ones, because they will bind you up and hold you down. “Be free, be free,” he said.

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