Master Teacher: Annie Piper
“OK, we have some work to do,” Annie Piper said as she took her seat at the beginning of class. It sounded serious, intriguing and somehow inviting. What followed was guided body
shaking, a lot of it. On another day, it could be rolling up and down the mat, rediscovering the spine—something free form and somatic—to get you out of your head, pre-asana.
Piper, who has been teaching yoga for 22 years, is a former actor. She teaches at Kula Yoga in Tribeca, The Shala and Prema Yoga in Brooklyn, and is on the movement faculty at NYU's Tisch School of Graduate Acting and The Yale School of Drama.Certified to teach trauma-sensitive yoga by both the Trauma Center in Boston and Warriors at Ease, she brings the practice to veterans throughout the New York area.
Devoted student Leslie Roth said, “Annie’s Sunday class is ‘my church’. She shares ancient teachings with radiant clarity, and beautifully translates them to physical and energetic practice. One of my favorite of her traditions is her Martin Luther King Day class, in which she shares his powerful words, leads us in song (“We who believe in freedom cannot rest”), and holds space for our remembrance and embodiment of Dr. King's teachings. She offers a special space in which our minds and hearts can reconnect, our bodies can process our experiences, and we can practice that which we intend to take out into the world."
Kathleen Kraft: What does your practice look like on a daily basis?
Annie Piper: Honestly, it’s erratic. Because I have children, and I live in NYC, and I’m freelance and middle class. I work a lot. And I’m deeply grateful for all of those things, but what it means on a regular basis is that my spiritual practice is in the gaps, and in the world. I find it on a subway train or when I’m cooking dinner. I spent many years trying to find a desert island or a perfect yoga room, and I got frustrated. And truthfully, I didn’t want to go away; I wanted to find it on the subway and in a room with vets.
Practically speaking, I meditate. I practice alone, I practice with people. As I age, I meditate more, meaning I sit longer. You lose all your shock absorbers in menopause, your emotional buffers. There’s so much anxiety that estrogen buffers you from… Everyone’s evolution is the things they’re working with so sitting is really important for me.
I also started practicing Qi Gong 4 or 5 years with Thomas Droge. I move differently as a result, and it impacts how I teach and move. I feel so alive when I take his classes—I don’t have my teacher’s mind going so I can really feel my body in that room.
KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?
AP: A lot of people are seeking help and comfort. A yoga teacher’s job is to help the student develop their own ability to hear themselves, to have their own reservoir of strength and knowledge and wisdom. That’s how I proceed. If I have a student who thinks I know the answer, it’s my job to turn them towards themselves. If they turn to me as if I have some elevated knowledge, it’s my job to remind that I am not elevated; I’m in the room with them. I’m not a guru or God; I’m a guide. And I think most students get that. I want students to leave feeling, “I didn’t get that from Annie; she reminded me of what I already have.”
KK: Which sutra is guiding you and why?
AP: As much as I’m interested in the sutras, I’ve been studying the Bhagavad Gita for a long time. What drew me to it was Arjuna sitting in a ball in the chariot crying and saying, I can’t do this. I relate to that, I think we all do: that feeling of surveying the field, life and death… What do I do? Stephen Cope’s book, The Great Work of Your Life, about people finding their dharma, really spoke to me.
The point of the life is not to get through the rough spots and feel better— that’s a survivor mode. It’s the arc that has meaning and purpose, and it’s in what you can do. Like Seane Corn says, it’s off the mat and into the world, not back into your head. I love the way Krishna says, “Get up, get up, you have things to do.” I hope that’s the next phase of country is—real social responsibility. If 10-20% of our yoga teaching was volunteer, think of what we could do! But it’s not glamorous. It’s not instagram.
KK: In your dharma talks you sometimes reference your lack of knowledge or your curiosity about a subject as an inspiration for your practice. For example, you and Kula teacher Ahmed Soliman and a few others recently brought an imam to Kula for a Koran study…
AP: Young teachers often think they have to be smarter or better than everyone in the room. It’s powerful when a teacher says I’m trying to figure this out. We want to let people be beginners, so we must be also. We brought the imam here as a way of bringing a little more social responsibility into the yoga community. I say this with the full awareness that there are yogis in New York who are phenomenal activists and doing incredible things. I could list a number of them, but the majority of the community is into feeling good and calling it radical, but it’s really just trying feeling good. And that’s limiting— even if you’re really damaged, that’s not a place that’s going to actually make you happy. I come from the Gandhi school that we are all political. It’s time for us to wake up.
KK: Who has had a big influence on your life, your work?
AP: The biggest influence in recent years has been Thomas Droge, my Qi Gong teacher. His teachings liberated me. He has a way of speaking about the energetic body and how our bodies move through the world and the seasons that I find completely revelatory.
I also get a lot of my juice from art and the Gita. It’s very feminine—putting them together to get inspiration. The biggest teacher is difficulty, heartbreak and loss.
KK: A lot of people are experiencing a loss of faith right now in our government. What are your thoughts about practice as we enter spring?
AP: I find spring to be an anxious season, kind of adrenalized and overstimulating. Too much light. For whatever genetic or personal reason… So for me, it’s very much about grounding. Thomas talks about us busting out of the ground, breaking out of something, stretching… For me, it means more protests, now when I stand at the next protest I’m not going to be as cold.