Peg Mulqueen is a rock star of the DC yoga scene. She shares her Ashtanga yoga experience at Flow Yoga Center and is a contributing writer for Yoga Journal and Elephant Journal. She was kind enough to take a break from her complicated yoga stretches and answer some questions about Ashtanga yoga.
1. How did you come to Ashtanga yoga? Tell us about what draws you personally to the practice.
I came to Ashtanga yoga backasswards. I remember the first video I ever practiced to was David Swenson’s in my living room. I didn’t know much about Ashtanga but the jump backs and throughs absolutely fascinated me. Still before I’d make it my home, I’d circle all the way around through power yoga, prana flow, bikram and rocket until I’d finally end where I began. (Funny how that happens, right?)
I can tell you in three words what draws me to the practice – or four if you’ll indulge me: Because it (fucken) works.
2. How did you get involved in teaching? What is the process for becoming an Ashtanga teacher?
I will never call myself a teacher, outright – and especially of Ashtanga. For sure, I am a devoted student and enjoy sharing what I have learned. And Ashtanga demands enough from me as a student, but even more from a full-time, dedicated teacher. It’s not so much a process, which we love here in the West. There’s no 200 hour machine program … no 500 hour one either. Oh, if it were only that simple. The standard is much MUCH higher. It’s a lifetime! But there are important qualities for sure. I asked three esteemed teachers and they described a good teacher as someone (1) who is a direct part of the lineage, with a commitment to share the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois as handed down; (2) who is dedicated to service and loves unconditionally, for teaching will require much sacrifice; and (3) who is a student first and foremost. So rather than teach full time, my role is to support the dedicated teacher, Jen René at Flow Yoga Center – but also all the Mysore programs/communities in DC. You can find more about what makes a good teacher here.
3. Ashtanga yoga has a very well-defined structure. Please tell us a little about the structure and how it affects the practice.
You’re funny! You love structures and processes! Aaah, but I suppose it’s unavoidable. Lets see, instead of talking about the progression of postures and series which I could write a book about, but already so many others far more experienced already have – perhaps I’ll explain how the method is structured. We call this Tristhana and the whole practice, regardless of postures or series, is aligned using these three principle areas of focus: the asana (posture), the breath, and the dristi (gaze). Ashtanga is very specific in the prescription of each and the brilliance is so multifaceted, but for a distractable monkey like me – following the method allows me to move this practice inward which is ultimately, the intention. The method gives me the tools to maintain an inward steadiness whether I’m in a forward fold or bending backwards, catching my ankles. Practice on the mat and carry off the mat – and into life. You see, the practice is a life practice, and not just the jump backs and throughs that once fascinated me so. (And still do!)
4. Your Ashtanga classes are administered in the Mysore (named after the city in India where the practice originated) style, which involves guided self practice instead of teacher-lead classes. Why is this special approach applied to Ashtanga classes?
It is like getting private lessons in a group atmosphere. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. You know, there has been a lot of research in education studying the characteristics of highly effective schools. Over and over again, the one-room school house is named as one of the most successful models. Students are taught individually and at their own pace. It is about as all levels as you get – and students thrive both academically and personally.
In the world of yoga, Mysore style Ashtanga is the one-room school house.
5. Ashtanga yoga has a reputation for being physically demanding. Can you elaborate on this idea a little more? Do folks new to Ashtanga yoga need a certain level of yoga experience before beginning a practice?
Ashtanga yoga is first mentally difficult – especially here in the west. We are used to pre-packaged 90 minute led classes, but the Mysore style is the practice as it was intended to be taught. Mysore, India is the home of the late Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois and the source of Ashtanga Yoga. Yoga is taught to the individual in increments, not all at once. It is mentally challenging because the student must remember. So perhaps a student’s first time, he/she learns the sun salutations and a few standing postures along with the last few seated postures (these are like bookends, though there are many many pages to come between). The next day, more postures (pages) are added – but only as many as the student can be absorbed mentally and physically. So yes, there is a degree of difficulty. I kind of like the way the Washington Post termed it, “complicated yoga stretches.” I laughed when I saw their description of my demo – but seriously, that’s pretty accurate.
Perhaps you learned to play an instrument? You learned notes first, yes? My piano teacher made me play the scales over and over until my brain no longer had to tell my fingers what to do. And then she would add layers of more complicated notes and music. She always knew when I hadn’t practiced, which I was supposed to do daily, and she would chide me, “Discipline Peggy. You must be more disciplined!” Come to think of it, she would’ve made a great Ashtanga teacher …
6. You and fellow Washington D.C. yogi Michael Joel Hall are planning an Ashtanga-intensive retreat to Costa Rica early next year. Tell us about the retreat. Is it appropriate for inexperienced practitioners?
Yes! Michael and I have a very special week planned in the stunning Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. When my family and I visited many years ago, I knew immediately I would return again and bring others. This will be my fourth time leading a retreat there.
We will welcome each day with a Mysore style Ashtanga yoga practice. With two teachers and only about 20 students, it is both the ideal way to learn the practice AND to deepen an established practice. It really doesn’t get any better. In the afternoons, there will be led classes and exploratory sessions including Yin/restorative and Improv/vinyasa yoga.
And of course, there will be plenty of time for surfing long, clean waves (perfect for beginners)! Explore the jungle, book a massage or take a dip in the pool. Oh and naps in hammocks are highly recommended!
Besides the yoga, the surfing and the monkeys – my favorite part is eating. All the meals are prepared on site with an emphasis on fresh organic produce. Expect daily local specialties deliciously prepared by resident chefs. Seriously, the food rocks!