Devoted student Melanie Parker said, “When I am in Barbara's presence, I see what it means
to translate yoga theory into the fabric of the everyday. She is devoted to practice in all its forms, and this comes through in her teaching, her chanting, her ongoing study of sacred texts, and her demeanor. The depth of her integrity is rare—no rigidity, no frills, no bells or whistles, no spiritual bypassing or spiritual materialism. She guides and supports her students with great skill and care, and is steadfast in her commitment to sharing yoga as she has learned it from her teachers. Barbara embodies the concept of bringing practice into all aspects of lived experience.”
Barbara Verrochi co-owns The Shala in Manhattan and Brooklyn with Kristin Leigh. Verrochi taught art in New York City public schools from 1986 to 2000, which informs her current work as a curriculum writer and training supervisor for health and wellness programs across the country. In 1990, she started studying Iyengar Yoga, and from 1997 to 2009 she was a student of the late Ashtanga Yoga master, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Kathleen Kraft: What does your practice look like every day?
Barbara Verrochi: My practice and teaching have always been in close dialogue with one another, and they have both softened with age! I initiated most of my daily practices between 1990 and 1994: Mysore Ashtanga (asana), pranayama, Buddhist meditation, textual study, chanting, and anatomy. Mysore Ashtanga is the foundation that brings greater depth and focus to my other disciplines. The basic principles are: systematic linking of breath and movement, the anchoring of the gaze to one place in each pose, and repetition of a set sequence of postures. When done consistently, the practice has a very integrating effect on the mind and body. I often arrive on my mat distracted or confused, but I always leave with an energized and focused mind.
Another characteristic of Ashtanga that I find increasingly interesting as I age is the room for modification of the postures within the prescribed sequence. I can still do a relatively rigorous practice while modifying as needed, and I can keep my body open, strong, and flexible, which is hard as you get older (things tend to tighten up faster!). Pranayama, meditation, and chanting (singing and harmonium) have become more essential with age. I now feel naturally drawn toward quieter, seated sadhana.
KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?
BV: There is a sutra that tells us practice becomes firmly grounded over a long period of time, without interruption, and with sincerity or truth. One of the most important qualities of the student-teacher relationship is how it unfolds over a long period of time, so consistency in the relationship is key. In the traditional Mysore Ashtanga practice, you have one teacher that you see every morning. It is necessary to see a student regularly because it is hard to know how to help them in just one or two visits. Just like the process of learning a new pose, you only gain understanding of the pose by revisiting it again and again, and that relationship provides insight into the ever-changing nature of bodily sensations and mental phenomena. When you do the same thing each day, you really get to observe how the mind and body change in relation to this one thing. So a long and consistent practice with the same teacher or teachers is important for gaining insight into the nature of oneself and others. The practice is really about becoming your own teacher, but that requires commitment.
The sincere or truthful part of the sutra on practice pertains to thoughtful communication between student and teacher. As teachers, we have to continually be aware of what a student needs versus what we think they need or should be doing at that moment. Are we looking with open eyes, or are we influenced by a mix of attachments and opinions, a prescribed agenda? The teacher is similar to our “witness state,” that part of ourselves that can step back and see the moment clearly, without judgment. The teacher looks closely and sees the student in front of them, and what they need at that moment. The artful part of it is, how do I convey this message to the student so that they can hear and understand it, and then make it part of their practice and have full ownership of it?
KK: Which sutra is guiding you and why?
BV: Over the past twenty years, I have studied the yoga sutras with many amazing teachers. The main sutra I always come back to is yogaścitta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ. It is the lakshana sutra, the sutra that all the other sutras refer back to. If I am studying and practicing aparigraha, non-grasping, I might look at the things I accumulate in my house and my mind, and see how uncluttering my house affects the quality of my mind. And I would also keep an eye on how I might grasp onto an idea or an opinion when I am talking to someone, and try to loosen my grip in the mind. The less I collect objects or ideas, the quieter my mind becomes. If I am studying ahimsa, I might think, what can I do in order to not escalate a heated conversation, or to say something difficult without making the situation worse or creating more vrittis of anger, regret, and blame?
KK: Who has been a major influence on your life, your work?
BV: I met Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India, in 1997, and ran back to study with him eight times between 1997 and 2009, the year he passed away. He was super clear, comfortable in his body, and went with the flow of life. Sitting near him was enough to remind me that I could also access these qualities and states of being. His mere presence reminded us how the teachings were alive in him and in us.
Guruji was the first person I had met that embodied the teachings: very grounded, yet light and happy. I learned a lot from him, mostly how to live simply and with devotion. He was one-pointed about yoga and passionate about helping others on their path, and he taught me that practice is key to daily life. I think of him often, especially when I am teaching or needing to feel grounded. When I am not sure what to do, when I am feeling uneasy or resistant or attached, I remember Guruji, and I can feel my feet on the floor, my breath deepen, and my mind start to relax.