“I am always doing yoga.” An interview with Jeanne Heileman

By: Jill Rivera Greene, Conference Blogger

I caught up with Jeanne Heileman on a day when things were not going as planned. Her retreat partner had a change in plans, and she was unexpectedly left to set up and lead an intro session on her own, right after teaching a yoga class. When I called, Jeanne graciously agreed to do go ahead with our interview, despite being in the midst of a last-minute trip for supplies before the evening events began.

You have studied many forms of yoga—including Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vini, and Jeanne HeilemanTantra—and with some of the country’s most renowned teachers. Could you talk about one experience that has had a significant impact on your practice?

I would have to say it was when I started to study Tantra with Rod Stryker. That’s when I realized that all of the joy and excitement I got from working on the physical level could also be found by working internally.

As a Sting fan, I have to admit that when I hear “Tantra,” the first thing I think of is … not yoga. What does it really mean?

It’s not what people think. When I think of Tantra, I think of embracing every aspect of my life, the difficulties as well as the joys, and seeing it all as part of my yoga practice.

Every moment of my day, I am trying to live as a yogi … being stuck in traffic, finding out I have to manage this info session by myself, lack of sleep, body aching … all of these things. It’s about reminding myself in each moment: Okay, this is surrender. You’re not breathing enough. Use your mantra.

In these moments of difficulty, I call on the Yoga Sutras. I ask myself, am I going to believe all the thoughts in my mind? Or am I going to watch them? Sometimes life throws us a little test with the challenges: How’s your yoga doing today? The quality of my mind is the mirror that shows how well my practice is going. This is living the yoga; this is the practice.

Is this an aspect of yoga that you think is often overlooked in the U.S.?

Well … I will speak for myself and say that I had not initially interpreted yoga this way. I was brought up in a very strict Catholic environment. There was a lot of “No, you should do without” engrained in me. And in yoga there’s a lot of discipline. You might think, ”I can’t have this, I can’t have that …”

When I started to study with Rod, I had just gone back to acting … and I realized I actually could do both. I didn’t have to pick one. That was so liberating!

The practices and exercises we did also helped me to realize, I am always doing yoga. I’m doing yoga right now, having a conversation with someone while trying to remember what I need at the grocery store, and hoping to get to the studio in time for my class. Or as I’m sitting and trying to meditate and my body is aching and I want to cry … that’s it, too. The question is, can I accept it, whatever “it” is?

When I do surrender to this … there’s usually some amazing shift. It’s like you can feel a loving caress from the Divine Mother.

It almost sounds like you rediscovered joy …

Yes! Although it was more like I discovered joy, because I don’t know that I ever had it before. Except maybe through coffee.

What are some things you keep in mind when putting together a sequence for a class?

I use a lot of principles from Ayurveda. For example, the weather is really Vata right now, so I’m going to sequence differently than if it was hot and full of Pitta energy. I also adjust my sequencing based on the time of the day.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

I might keep to a similar shape throughout a sequence, to help someone go even further and deeper toward a goal, a peak pose. I also take into consideration who is coming and what is going on in the external environment: politics, financial markets, world events, as well as the state of mind/energy of the students.

In any case, I’m always thinking about affecting energy. It’s not just pose, pose, pose … what I have learned from Rod, in Tantra, is that we want to help the person remember their luminous essence. Do we want to increase that person’s energy, or bring it down and help them calm? I look at where they are and where they need to go to reconnect to their Center.

In my conference workshop [Creative Sequencing that Makes Sense], we will actually sequence a class together, considering various options. If someone doesn’t know about Ayurveda, that’s fine—I’ll cover some of that so that they can follow. Even if you’re not a yoga teacher, it’s fine. This is useful for home practice, too.

I saw on your website that you struggle with scoliosis. How does your own experience of chronic pain affect how you work with students?

Once you have any sort of pain, if it’s really good and juicy, I think it opens you up to your compassion, to realizing that other people are in pain too. As I walk down the sidewalk or drive on the freeway, I look in windows and think, “I wonder who else is in pain?” You realize that everyone’s pain is different, yet the same: it’s hard to breathe, you want to cry and give up, etc.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

When I have a student who has an injury, I’ll ask them to describe it. I’ll try to put myself into their pain because it helps me to understand what’s happening for them and discover what they need.

At the conference, one of your workshops is a “Closer Look” at the Bhagavad Gita. For those of us who have not studied that text deeply, what is something that we might find surprising?

The book is just pure love! It’s about how to give and receive love, and how to be a yogi in the present world.

People should know that even if they don’t know the book, if they haven’t looked at it, they can come to the workshop. A lot of people think it’s going to be heady and difficult to read, like Shakespeare … but it’s so accessible and so beautiful. I will break it down in a way that people can really relate it to this present day and time. Students who take this workshop leave loving the experience, and the Gita.

I am really honored to be part of this conference and have this opportunity to share not only asana, but these other aspects of yoga.

What advice do you have for a new student of yoga like myself?

I used to teach new students … they would take a class or two and then ask what they should do, and I would say, “Promise me that you will come once a week for 6 months.” And they would say “Sure, of course” … but it’s the holidays, things happen. Stay with once a week no matter what. If you have the time and energy, by all means do more, but never drop any lower than once a week.

Then try to appreciate the experiences happening inside your body—not what’s happening on the outside, how it looks, or whether you’re hitting the pose just right. Let the yoga do its job. Don’t you do yoga, let the yoga do you. The rest will unfold as is necessary.

“These ancient practices are bigger than we are.” A conversation with Melanie Farmer

by Jill Rivera Greene, Conference Blogger

MelanieFarmer250x208When talking with Melanie Farmer—whose Pioneer Square practice is a blend of yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish, and massage—you cannot forget for a moment that these practices trace back 5,000 years. But even more remarkable than the depth of her respect for ancient wisdom is how deftly she applies it to every aspect of modern reality, from household clutter to holiday stress.

How would you explain the relationship between yoga and Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is an approach to health and well-being that has to do with how you balance your own needs and heal yourself so that you can be of service to your family and community.

I use the word “yoga” as a verb. Yoga involves taking theories of self-care and actually putting them into action. So in addition to the asanas, for example, understanding your dietary needs and eating well is also a form of yoga.

For those of us who are practicing or teaching yoga but not incorporating Ayurveda, are we missing out on the bigger picture?

What I have found is that if people stick with it long enough, they eventually figure it out. Even the word itself, “yoga” … that’s an ancient Sanskrit word. It’s been the same for 5,000 years. So just by saying it, you are invoking a tremendous energy and power.

I have great faith in the practices and the nature of yoga. People find their path. These ancient practices are bigger than we are.

As a new student of yoga, I find that very comforting!

Right. As a new student, it doesn’t matter where you start. It’s about trusting yourself and the way that you’ve been called to yoga. There may be fits and starts, times when despair can be great, even—despair is a very deep, important aspect of yoga. But there’s no going back.

What is one experience that has had an impact on your own practice?

Melanie teaches a class at her studio.

Melanie teaches a class at her studio.

A turning point for me was when I sustained a very serious back injury. It was really a culmination of everything … being too aggressive with my asanas, not nourishing myself enough, not allowing myself enough rest. I had a son, I was married, I owned a business, I had my training … so I lived with a herniated disc in my lower back for years, trying to heal while continuing to work and teach a full schedule.

Finally, the physical therapists and my doctor said, “Enough. You need to stop. It’s time for surgery.” And I was ready for it. For a time, I could do almost no asana at all.

From this has come a shift away from being so aggressive … It was a good lesson. My practice now is much more about self-care.

How has that changed you as a teacher?

Almost everyone who has practiced for any length of time has experienced some kind of injury. Out of that will come lessons around self-care, ego, and our own vulnerability. If we understand it well, we become better teachers. We are better able to help our students avoid that kind of difficulty and pain.

It’s important to trust yourself and your body. If your teacher is mature in their own practice, when you say, “No, that doesn’t feel right,” they will accept that, and they will respect you for it. They will offer you another option.

At the conference, you’re teaching a workshop on Marmas and Adjustments. What are the marmas, and how can they benefit teachers and students?

A marma is a vulnerable point in the body, where you have a number of different tissue structures coming together: for example, the spine, the elbow, the knee. These are the same points used in Kalari, an ancient form of martial arts, as well as in healing systems like acupuncture.

When teachers are adjusting, the natural places to position the hand just happen to be where the large marmas are. If we understand this, then an adjustment becomes more than just a hand placement. You understand that you’re touching something more vulnerable—and at the same time, more powerful—than what’s at the surface.

Another one of your workshops is about creating a supportive work and home environment. What are some of the things you’ve done to create your own personal “haven” at home?

This workshop comes from understanding the connection between Ayurveda and Vastu. Vastu teaches us that our homes and rooms are like the bodies that we live in. We want these spaces to be balanced, just as we balance our physical bodies. If your home is not balanced, you can’t be balanced.

There are some really fundamental practices that can help. At a basic level, you can look at things like clutter and cleanliness. If you have a lot of things that you don’t need or don’t love– get rid of that stuff. Keep a very simple home environment. Recognize that things are energy.

I live on Vashon, in a little cabin … over the past year I have gotten down to just a few things that I really care about. But it’s been a gradual process. I appreciate the things I have for how they have served me, and then I feel happy to give them away so that they may serve someone else. As we authentically let go, there’s a moksha (freedom). But we can be compassionate with ourselves in the process. There’s no rush; just be ready to let go.

For some of us, the holidays can be a stressful time. Any self-care tips?

The holidays are about wanting to be with people you really love and want to be with, and who love and want to be with you. For many people, this may mean you need to look at the nature of your interaction with certain family members. If you’re starting to feel stressed or anxious, what are you going to do for yourself? Can you limit the amount of time you spend in those family situations, so that you have more time to spend with others?

Wow. I was hoping you were just going to tell me what foods to eat!

If only it were that easy, right? The holidays are so often about going back into the family dynamic and playing out those old roles. Unless we recognize what’s happening, it’s going to feel bad.

But when you recognize this, the food issues tend to go away, because you’re not doing the emotional eating. You won’t want to eat those unhealthy foods once you address the core issues and nourish yourself with good, healthy boundaries.

Speaking of relationships … You have a special one with your retired racehorse, Cooper. How has that experience changed you?

Melanie and Cooper

Melanie and Cooper

We talk a lot about heart opening in yoga, in posture practice. With Cooper, I am learning at a deep level what it means to open my heart. The vulnerability is great, if we really respect an animal.

Cooper has experienced human beings who were violent, and he has a huge heart. I’m trying to have this very subtle communication with him so that he can have what he wants, even if it’s not this training we’re doing together, which—as gentle and respectful as it is—is triggering his posttraumatic stress. At times I’m not even sure he wants to stay in this world. As this stress comes up for him, I have to look at what’s coming up for me: I have to work with my own heart in these moments of fear, anger, and grief.

In the end, it’s really about opening your heart with no agenda at all. That is what’s being demanded of me in this relationship. And that’s the yoga. That’s the spiritual work.