In honor of YJ’s 40th anniversary, Kathryn Budig chats with her teacher, longtime Yoga Journal contributor Maty Ezraty, about the evolution of her own practice and yoga as a whole. Plus, practice with both Kathryn and Maty at Yoga Journal LIVE New York, April 21-24. Check out the schedule and get tickets!
Kathryn Budig: What is your personal practice like these days?
Maty Ezraty: I’m still practicing Ashtanga and modify as needed. I have always been a slow Ashtanga practitioner. I take my time getting through the series and enjoy spending extra time in the Sun Salutations and standing poses, although these days it can be even slower! I do less of the jumps and spend more time in poses adding preps and variations. I’ll often add restorative poses at the end of my practice using props as needed. Occasionally, I change the practice completely and do more of an Iyengar style practice. It’s a good practice for me to do things differently, to let go of the habit, but truth be told, I mainly stick with the general outline of Ashtanga. I like it. It works for me.
KB: I know meditation has become a big part of your practice.
ME: Six years ago, I began a sitting practice which has completely altered my life. I still choose asana over meditation if I absolutely have to, or when I’m teaching and there is less time available. I think that will change as I get a bit older. Meditation makes my life sweeter, and I’ve grown in so many ways thanks to the practice.
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Above: Maty Ezraty
KB: I was your devoted student when you taught in the Yogaworks Mysore room, but eventually moved over to vinyasa flow after you left. Ultimately, I found that the Mysore practice (I was doing second series at the time) became way too fiery and I burnt out. What’s your advice for someone wanting to do Mysore Ashtanga, especially for those with full and busy lives?
ME: I see Ashtanga as a map and not a mandate. If we view Ashtanga as equaling first and second series and think we have to do the entire series in order to consider it a good day of practice, we are bound to suffer. We will have days and times in our lives when we need to do less. I see the Mysore room as a place for students to learn how to practice yoga as well as learn how to practice what is good for them. Yoga should support our life and not be another demand that we put on ourselves. Our practice should cultivate inquiry, sensitivity, and kindness to ourselves. If we force ourselves to stick to the series no matter what is happening in our body and mind, we have missed the whole point of yoga. Some days we might be better off going for a walk in nature.
Let’s also keep in mind that not everyone should or can do all the poses in first series. As teachers, no matter what yoga style we teach, we should know how and when to modify for our students needs. What better place than the Mysore room, where everyone can go at their own pace? It is a wonderful way to learn to listen to your body and to your needs. The practice can always be modified so that Ashtanga can support you.
KB: Speaking of modifying, you were revolutionary in bringing attention to alignment and use of props into the Ashtanga practice. Did you catch flak from the Ashtanga community for this?
ME: I think some students and teachers view my style of teaching Ashtanga as nontraditional. Pattabhi Jois gave me permission to teach Ashtanga. He knew how much I loved the practice and that I was dedicated. That hasn’t changed, but over time and years of experience, I have arrived to a bigger vision of what we do in the yoga room. It is not important to teach postures or series to people but to teach students the art of yoga. I saw the need to make changes for individuals or they would not come back to class. I would rather have someone in class and take out a pose that is not supporting them, than lose them as a student. I felt that too much emphasis was on accomplishing poses and getting the next pose in the series. I see that as propelling the misery of life—more is better rather than what yoga is really trying to teach us: love, kindness, and acceptance. After all, we will all eventually have to give up certain poses, age will make us face that teaching of nothing lasts forever.
And it is not like everyone can fit into one box. People are all unique and different. I think the word “traditional” has been taken out of context: “It must be done this way—or it is not ‘traditional.’” When things are one way, then we have not taken the responsibility to ask if it is really working. Questioning this can be painful because it demands that we do things in a different way or that we need to re-evaluate what we learned. In my experience, you need to understand your tools and that some work better with different students. If I take out a block to help someone learn how to do a pose, it has nothing to do with tradition. It has to do with compassion for the person that I am teaching.
KB: You are one of the most sought after and respected teachers in the world. Is that a heavy heavy crown to bear?
ME: I often feel pressured when it comes to teaching poses with good alignment because it is not always a popular approach. Everyone wants to do more and have fun doing yoga. As good as yoga poses are for us, they can also be counterproductive. Yoga takes time to understand, new teachers today are not guided like in the old days. Teacher trainings are everywhere and the standards are not good. The amount of hours spent learning to teach doesn’t mean that you are ready to teach.
It can often be discouraging because I feel like the yoga world has grown so fast and that young teachers have so much pressure to fill classes. Not enough time is spent with senior teachers, so they are forced to give the public what they want. Teachers are meant to educate and young teachers today are not given enough support to take time to become teachers. I feel the pressure to support them to really teach yoga.
KB: Do you worry about the future of yoga and the new wave of up-and-coming teachers?
ME: I think it is vital for young teachers to study under senior teachers. There are many good teachers that are not famous and vital for new teachers to experience. What makes me hopeful is knowing there’s still a large audience who isn’t interested in Instagram or trends and instinctively knows what is and isn’t yoga.
KB: Where would you like to see yoga go? If you could pull out your magic yoga dust and make everything okay, what would you wish for the future of yoga?
ME: Sometimes I hope yoga is going to break—to split into yoga fitness and more traditional yoga classes. I hope yoga schools will invest in their teachers and help them put out classes that are not just fitness oriented but geared toward students’ needs. Yoga is so powerful when done with that in mind. Yoga is meant to be a healing art. It is a long tradition that incorporates a lot more than just asanas. My wish is that we can stop the image of “yoga” as an industry or just another fitness modality. I hope we stop mixing it and that we return to what it is meant to be—a healing art for the body and mind that ultimately is supposed to be leading us to greater happiness and acceptance.