Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
YJ interviewed Patricia Sullivan in her sunny Fairfax garden amidst her
sculptures and blooming calendula and columbine. Sullivan teaches yoga and Zen workshops with her partner, Zen priest Ed Brown, in Northern California. Visit www.yogazen.com for a schedule.
YJ: What is the essence of yoga to you?
PS: My primary interest right now is the essential quality of attention that you’re using when you do yoga, because though certainly it’s interesting and engaging and probably good for you to learn how to do poses well, that’s not the essence of yoga. So I’m working with integrating the quality of attention of meditation into asana. Sometimes my classes are less vigorous and sometimes they’re more, but we are always cultivating that state of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
YJ: Was it through Ed that you were introduced and exposed to Zen?
PS: I tried to meditate before I ever tried to do asana. I really wanted to meditate, but I just couldn’t do it. I either fell asleep or I was totally agitated. By the mid-’80s when I met Ed,
after having done yoga for about 15 years, I sat down and it was like, Oh, Yes! There was no more adjusting, no more correcting. There was just sitting and being. I have never studied Zen the way a Zen practitioner who’s a monk does. I’ve never sat the long sesshins and done those kinds of things. But it’s become a part of my daily life to sit.
YJ: Do you see similarities in the teachings of Zen and yoga?
PS: Some of the principles from the Vijnana Bhairava are amazingly similar to the Zen teachings. The Vijnana Bhairava is 4,000 years old, but a Zen practitioner named Paul Reps came across a Swami named Lakshmanjoo who was transcribing it. Paul Reps worked with him and eventually presented his own version of all 112 verses in his book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. The philosophy behind the Vijnana Bhairava is that that there is a spaciousness in which everything occurs. It’s not that when you get enlightened you’ll realize that this world is the illusory world and the real one is the world of spaciousness. It’s a nondual perspective that says that the spaciousness is everything and in that spaciousness is everything. Some of these verses talk about the space between in-breath and out-breath. In yoga you can tune into that, or rest your attention in the vertebral column, vertebra by vertebra.
If you set your intention to have this kind of awareness while you’re doing asana, it’s an entirely different experience than if you set your intention to keep your knees as straight as you can in Paschimottanasana.
YJ: Do your students embrace this attitude toward asana?
PS: The ones that stay with me do. And I’m certainly still interested in alignment and structure. The expression of and study of structure is not invalid, because to throw that out is to throw the baby out with the bath water.
YJ: Have you ever had a period of falling out of love with yoga?
PS: In the last five years, I’ve moved away from being strictly Iyengar. I really believe where I’m at now is what I’ve been looking for. Eventually, all of the striving toward doing it “right” was just not satisfying to me. And even with all the emphasis that there is on the therapeutic aspects of Iyengar Yoga, I’ve had some physical problems that were not addressed. But they’ve unwound and are continuing to unwind through this other way of working because I’m so much more attentive to what I’m experiencing, and there’s more breaking down of mental and emotional conditioning the way I’m working now than there is trying to do something “right.”
YJ: So do you feel that you’re more likely to discover healing energy when you’re listening and being receptive rather than directing the body into a particular form?
PS: Yes, and I really like the word “discover” because it means to uncover. To think that with my limited mind I could figure it out is crazy, but when “I” go past the limited mind, the discoveries unfold. And no oneno matter how brillianthas the answers for everybody. We only have the answers inside of us.