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YJ Interview: Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD

To better know yourself, says this American yoga pioneer, relax deeply.

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Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, is known to many as the grande dame of American Iyengar and restorative yoga. A founder of Yoga Journal magazine and of the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, and an internationally recognized teacher and author, she has been at the forefront of the yoga movement in the United States since 1971. This mother of three talks about those uncharted early years, her studies with B.K.S. Iyengar, and the evolution of the practice.

Yoga Journal: What drew you to yoga?

Judith Hanson Lasater: At the University of Texas, Austin, I worked part-time at the local YMCA, so I got free yoga classes. I thought yoga might help my arthritis. Taking my first class was like walking into a new life. It completely resonated with me. That was in September of 1970. Ten months later I took over teaching the classes.

YJ: How did your practice progress from there?

JHL: My husband and I moved to California in 1972. I went to physical therapy school at the University of California, San Francisco. Then, in 1974, I helped start the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education and met Mr. Iyengar for the first time. The first pose he taught me was Tadasana, and I was hooked. I got that he was teaching me about the way I interact with the world, not just about the poses. Something magical happens when you find your teacher—their words seem to go into your cells without going through your brain. I studied with him three times in the United States and three times in India.

YJ: How did the idea for a magazine come about?

JHL: We had started the California Yoga Teachers Association in 1974. Some of us said, “Why don’t we make a magazine?” Five of us got together, put $500 on a MasterCard, and started Yoga Journal. It was 10 pages of black-and-white mimeograph. The first issue was May 1975 and cost 75 cents. We sent out a few hundred copies.

YJ: What do you think of yoga’s evolution in the United States?

JHL: It seems a mile wide and an inch deep. I mourn the fact that many people in the United States know about asana just as a way of working out. To me, that’s not what yoga is. It can lead to deeper personal transformation. On the upside, the technology is better. We used to have to go to the carpet store and buy carpet pads for mats. And I like that there are a lot of different approaches to practice. I have faith in the practice. Whatever your practice is, what makes the activity yoga is your intention.

YJ: What lessons can you share about what you’ve learned?

JHL: Follow your nature. The practice is really about uncovering your own pose; we have great respect for our teachers, but unless we can uncover our own pose in the moment, it’s not practice—it’s mimicry. Rest deeply in Savasana every day. Always enter that pratyahara (withdrawn state) every day. And just enjoy yourself. For many years I mistook discipline as ambition. Now I believe it to be more about consistency. Do get on the mat. Practice and life are not that different. That’s a fundamental understanding. I don’t do my life any differently from what I do on the mat.