Master Teacher: Lois Nesbitt
Known worldwide, Lois Nesbitt’s prowess for inquiry began long before she dedicated herself to yoga. In earlier careers, she was a professional writer, editor, and artist. With a B.A., Magna cum laude, from Harvard University and her Ph.D. from Princeton University, where she taught literature and writing, Lois’ penchant for analysis have made her teacher trainings deeply rich experiences.
A teacher of 22 years and a leader in the Anusara Yoga community as well as a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga for almost ten years, Lois has led many retreats and workshops internationally. Her popular public “Injury Clinics” have helped many out of pain due to accidents, surgeries, and life’s wear and tear. She is currently crowdfunding and writing Hip Op: Beyond Recovery, on how she endured, survived, and thrived via a total hip replacement.
Devoted student Allison Harrington said, Lois answers ALL of your questions—what I learned is that there are often multiple, ‘right’ answers, but Lois was able to tell me what the differences between them were and why, attributing it to the respective schools and approaches. She knows them all and can lay them out in a clear, concise comparison. She is a master not only of asana practice and its intricacies, but also of the philosophy behind it. Lois makes it understandable, giving you an invaluable foundation and framework for deeper study.
Kathleen Kraft: What does your yoga practice look like every day?
Lois Nesbitt: I get some yoga in every day, one way or the other! But I’m not as rigid as I used to be, when it felt like my daily Mysore-style Ashtanga practice was the glue holding my life together. When I left that practice (partly because of injuries from a bicycle accident, and partly because I had discovered alignment-based Anusara yoga, which was shifting how I practiced), I felt like I was in free fall, without a rudder, and worried that I wouldn’t have the discipline to get up and do anything!
Luckily my love of yoga and a strong will to carry on kept me going. Given the changes in my practice scenario, I focused first on a lot of stabilizing actions and familiar poses to maintain some consistency. Over time I relaxed and got more creative and innovative, enjoying my newfound freedom.
Given the erratic nature of my teaching schedule and my frequent teaching-related travels, I don’t stick to the same practice at the same time every day, but do what timing allows and what my body needs. I’ve been through periods where illness, accidents, and other physical barriers (like a total hip replacement!) forced me to radically alter what I considered “practice” and even “yoga,” often blurring lines by including moves drawn from classic fitness workouts and physical therapy. But yoga is so versatile that I’ve always been able to salvage something of a true practice.
I don’t have kids or any other external complicators to how I choose to spend my time, but my friends and colleagues tell me that requires even more flexibility and self-acceptance.
Without a personal practice, teaching becomes disconnected and loses integrity. We have to practice what we preach. I also learn something new every time I come to the mat, and I believe it’s my responsibility to transmit what I discover to my students. It’s too easy as a teacher to disconnect and go on automatic. Yoga is a practice of constant self-transformation—no place for plateaus!
KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?
LN: On the teacher’s part: authenticity above all. Never fake it. Never pretend you know something you don’t, feel something you don’t, or have all the answers. Have a reason and a conviction behind every word you speak and every adjustment you make. Be able to articulate that to yourself and your students. Once you lose a student’s trust, the relationship is history.
Second: Swami Vivekananda said the definition of love is “pure attention.” I try to give my students my full focus, bringing my eyes, mind, and heart to their every move and every breath. I see the whole person so that I can guide them through a yoga that is uniquely suited to them on that day.
KK: Which sutra is guiding you?
LN: I’m a student of late Tantra, so Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which come from the Classical Yoga tradition, are not my first go-to book. That said, I often reflect on Swami Satchitananda’s delightfully light-hearted commentary to that book.
I’ve been lucky to receive the vast majority of my yoga training live from teachers well-versed in the English language and modern culture, so nothing gets lost in translation. I find myself drawing on many fabulous one-liners from my philosophy professor Douglas Brooks and my former yoga teacher John Friend.
Douglas Brooks: Life is a gift [A primary teaching of Tantra]! How do we know that? You didn’t ask for it; you don’t deserve it; and you can’t pay it back.
Praise and blame, praise and blame: time to get off that rollercoaster fast.
You are every character in the story. Be wary of judging other people and their behavior—we are all part of one self.
Injuries are signposts on the path home.
Whatever the form of the pose is, your actions (alignment) should be the opposite. Also, each action/alignment point has a complement, an opposite action to restore balance. The place in the middle is the gateway to the heart. Hanging out at the extremes of the pendulum swing fosters instability and anxiety.
Stabilize the mobile part of the body to move the stiff part.
KK: Who has been a major influence on your life, your work?
LN: All of the great writers and thinkers I studied in college and graduate school, who taught me how to see, how to articulate what I saw and felt, and how to live from my heart. These have all been the bedrock of my teaching. To name a few: Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Michel de Montaigne, Roland Barthes, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Einstein. Also the outstanding professors who opened the world of these thinkers to me.
My primary yoga teachers: Eddie Stern, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, John Friend, Douglas Brooks, and Leslie Kaminoff. And of course my parents, still alive and kicking. We connect almost every day. My mom has a huge heart and a great analytic mind. My dad is by all accounts one of the brightest minds out there—a fount of information and wisdom on everything on the design strengths of classic wooden sailboats to why a student might respond in an unexpected way (he’s a psychiatrist). The only realm where I may be surpassing his expertise is in my knowledge of how muscles and bones work in moving bodies and how to help heal and prevent injuries.