Linda Munro founded Ashtanga Yoga Paris (AYP) in 2004. Today, she shares with us her experience of practicing and teaching yoga for several decades. With her husband Gerald, she is the author of a book covering the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga (Yoga Chikitsa).
How long have you been practicing Ashtanga yoga Linda ?
Well, my very first yoga class was in 1995. It was a hatha yoga class with Ron Reid1. Soon after, I was in a fairly serious car accident, so I stopped yoga for about 9 months. As soon as I could, I was back to it. There was a teacher at the studio, Diane Bruni2, who convinced me to try her Ashtanga primary series class, it was ALL primary. That was my first Ashtanga class and it wiped me out. I didn’t think it was for me but for some reason, Diane saw more than I could at the time ; she told me I had to try again. Didn’t take long before I was hooked ! Ron later became my Ashtanga teacher and is still one of my main teachers today.
Speaking about that, who are your main teachers until today ? What do you like in those teachers ?
In addition to Ron, I would say Chuck Miller and Eddie Stern were the most significative teachers on my path. A teacher for me has to inspire me and to really embody the yogic life. I should also mention David Swenson, he’s a true yogi too !
However, honestly, I think I’ve learned as much from my kids !! Being a mom has transformed what I thought of as a yoga practice and what I expect from my practice when not on the mat. If I exhaust myself and then feel impatient or don’t have enough quality time with my family, that tells me that my yoga practice is not serving me. It is essential that my practice serves my daily life in a way that brings me more peace and loving-kindness.
I also have to mention the yoga students ! I learned so much from them ; without them I wouldn’t be teaching, and they enrich my life immensely !
How long have you been teaching yoga ? I know you worked in fashion before…
Yep, I worked in fashion for 13 years and was totally dedicated to it. Thought it would be the only thing I would do for the rest of my life. But the universe has something else in mind. After 6 years of a consistent 6-day a week Ashtanga practice, I was slowly, slowly experiencing a shift in consciousness. I wanted to share this life-transforming practice with others.
I was living in Paris for my job in fashion and saw that there was very little yoga in the city so without going into all the details of my private life, a lot conspired to egg me into staying there instead of moving back to New Yor City, where I meant to go back to after my 2 years in Paris. That was 2002. I left my job, gave up my apartment in NYC and fully committed to developing a yoga community in Paris. I was very lucky and quickly had group classes in two yoga centers and a lot of private classes. But I was spending my time in the metro or cafés between classes, going all over the city and even to the suburbs. It was exhausting ! I was talking to one of my yoga students about it and she offered to rent me her atelier in the garden. I could live and work there. That was the first Ashtanga Yoga Paris (AYP) ! That was February 2004 and Gerald moved from India to Paris to join me later in September.
What is it that makes the Mysore style ashtanga3 so special ? For the teacher ? For the student ?
I love Mysore practice and believe in it on so many levels !
As a teacher, I feel I have the ability to really help the students on an individual basis and this is very rewarding. For example, if someone has an issue (which happens often), we can work together to find a way to adapt the practice in a way that is therapeutic.
And from the position of the student, you can really tune into your own breathing rythm. You can go slower or quicker as the day requires. The practice really becomes YOUR practice and is extremely transformative ! It can be harder in some ways, as you have to face yourself, but this is one part that makes it special. In a guided class, you tune into the teachers’ voice or breath, which is external instead of internal. There are benefits to this too, but on a regular basis, I believe in the process of self-practice Mysore style.
Did you start teaching Mysore style classes or guided classes ?
At the beginnning, we only had Mysore classes, morning, evening and weekends. But students were complaining about having to remember the poses after a tiring day at work (laughs). So, I decided to make the evening classes guided ashtanga. Eventually, then students were asking for different dynamic classes, so I added a couple of vinyasa style classes based on the model of Ashtanga vinyasa. As time went by, as the studio has grown, now we have Mysore, Led ashtanga, beginners, vinyasa, restorative and more !!
How has your own practice evolved along the years…it’s been 22 years now… ?
Oh boy, it has changed like day and night !
The first few years were super invigorating. Things were changing so fast ! It gave me energy that I had never experienced before ! I felt so alive that I only wanted more and more. Then after maybe 7/8 years I could see it wasn’t as healthy for me. I was getting overly flexible – to the point of instability. I was identifying myself too much with my asana practice. I had been studying the Yoga Sutras and other texts, almost every evening since about a year after discovering yoga, so I started to recognize that my asana practice didn’t really conform with what I learned in yoga and Buddhist texts. Gradually I tried to integrate the philosophy of yoga into my physical practice.
During my first pregnancy, in retrospect, I was too hard on myself, doing too much and feeling that I « had » to keep that very dynamic practice as an « ashtangi ».
With kids, experience and aging, my practice has become more aware, subtle and deep. I even thought about renaming Ashtanga, here in AYP, into « Mindful Healing Ashtanga » because this is what it should be. Of course, I can’t rename Ashtanga but in my head, this is what I’m practicing and teaching. Nowadays, my practice is probably less impressive from the outside but much more beneficial, serene and deep inside…but nobody sees it ! (laughs)
Also, as a woman aging, as a teacher aging, it is not easy to see younger people doing more advanced asanas than you after a few years of practice. But this is exactly the reason to continue and explore the feelings and the mind and why it would concern me ! Society idealizes youth and the outer container that goes with that (beauty, flexibility), so I use my practice to empower me to be ME and love my practice for ME, not for others !
Again, in many ways, Ashtanga continues to make me feel alive and invigorated, but just in a different way than 20 some years ago.
You started practicing Ashtanga yoga in Canada. In your opinion, what makes it (maybe) more difficult to implement this practice in French people’s everyday life ?
You know at the beginning, in Canada also, it wasn’t mainstream to do something before work. It wasn’t in the culture either. But the avantage over there, is that people have shorter lunch breaks and finish work earlier in the day. The children finish school earlier also. As a consequence, they have dinner earlier and go to bed earlier. And this obviously fits better with the early morning Ashtanga routine. But I see that in France, people are experiencing the benefits of practice before work and then their friends and family see the differences – this motivates people to try the same thing.
What is your opinion on the evolution of the so-called yoga world today ?
This is a topic than can make me feel sad sometimes. I observe a lot of division instead of union, which is pretty much what we see in the political world. If yoga imitates the political world, then the yoga is not working. It should be bringing us together. Pointing our fingers at others and saying « they are not doing the correct Ashtanga » has no place in the world of yoga. The world of yoga needs to practice tolerance and embrace diversity. We should be a model of these qualities to other sectors of the society !
I’ve went through times when I’ve thought to quit teaching because of this dis-union and the examples of those who have been doing yoga for decades who still participate in leading people into division. It’s sad, but then I tell myself, it’s ok, that’s their path and « practice tolerance, Linda » (laughs).
In my personal teaching, I’ve evolved too. I used to think that everyone should be able to complete a pose before moving on to the next. I would go around the room trying to help people push themselves into poses. Gosh, the bad karma I must have gotten from that ! But I realized that it was important to offer modifications to students to learn healthy ways of doing the poses that respected their bodies. I was young when I started and had a body that worked well with Ashtanga. In my first Ashtanga yoga class, I was put in Marichyasana D and Supta Kurmasana !
This never happened to me ! (laughs)
Yes, it’s crazy when I think about it now.
I know that some teachers want to stick to the tradition and criticize me for teaching the way that feels most comfortable for me. Years ago, you had to be able to stand up by yourself from the drop backs before starting second series. I don’t worry about things like this. I look at the overall practice – their breath, their attitude, how long they’ve been practicing and how consistently, and even their personality. Anyway, no one gets enlightenment from binding Marichyasana D. (laughs)
Thinkg about it, if a student feels less worthy because he/she cannot do a yoga pose, yoga is then feeding the flaws that are already present in our society. And we have enough of that, let’s teach something different !
Talking about the business around yoga – because yoga has become a major business – in France it almost feels « dirty » to talk about this financial aspect. I don’t have a problem with it. Hundreds of years ago, a disciple of yoga showed their dedication by doing work for the teacher – cooking, cleaning – and, practicing exactly as the guru demanded. That was the « exchange ». Our contemporary world « exchanges » services with currency. I see it the same as in the old days, we show our commitment to the practice by paying the teacher or yoga studio. When we buy a class card, for instance, this is a promise that we will use those classes within the time agreed upon. « I promise to practice yoga one time a week » or « I promise to practice yoga at least 3 times a week ». These are commitments to oneself, the teacher, but also the community of yoga if the bills cannot be paid, the yoga shala will have to close. So every time you go to practice, you are not only serving yourself, you are serving the community !
Another point, yoga teachers also have to pay rent and bills. I always tell new teachers to be careful about setting clear boundaries. In the early days of AYP, I didn’t set boundaries. You are a psychologist, so you know well that boundaries are necessary ! I too frequently offered to extend the validity of the cards, or I would invite people to come and practice for free. But this led me to have difficulties to pay my own rent and I had stomach aches at the end of the month, wondering if I would make it ! Not so useful to have a stressed-out yoga teacher (laughs).
What would be your advice to a teacher who tries to promote Mysore style Ashtanga ?
You have to be there for your students. Everyday no matter what ! You have to be the stability ! One of my mottos is « Stability before Flexibility » – the Mysore teacher needs to exemplify this by showing their dedication to showing up every day, even if there is only one student ! And often that one student, is the one you have seen every day for the last 6 months, it can feel monotonous…whew…but in the end, your dedication pays off and many others get to experience the magic of Mysore style Ashtanga !
What would be your advice to a student who is curious about Mysore style Ashtanga after reading this interview ?
Well, personally, I believe it is really useful to start with a very beginner class that breaks down the positions within the sun salutations. Learn how to make those key positions – Samasthitih, Forward folding, Upward facing dog, Chaturanga and Downward facing dog – your own. Slowly integrate the breathing and when you feel a certain amount of stability with those, either continuing awhile longer with led beginner classes or going straight to Mysore style. That will depend on one’s personality. Some feel they need more guided practice than others. However, at some point, you may need to just jump into the unknown and discover this beautiful way of practicing Ashtanga !
Thank you so much for you time Linda.
Interview by Flora Trigo.
1Ron Reid is the co-founder of the »Downward Dog Yoga » yoga center in Toronto, Canada.
2Diane Bruni is the co-founder of the « Downward Dog Yoga » yoga center in Toronto, Canada. In 2012, she broke herself free from teaching obligations & took time to rethink her approach. She still works in body movement : https://dianebruni.com/about-diane-bruni/
3Ashtanga yoga self-practice.