I am so excited to share this story. Kira Williams was surprised with Sharath’s blessing to teach and a devastating illness all within a few years of each other.
“I’ve never really seen myself as anything special, just an average girl.”-Kira Williams
The media can paint a picture, that to be successful in Ashtanga, one has to be superhuman. Kira Williams’ story shows what an average girl with an indomitable will can achieve.
APP: When did you start Yoga?
Kira: I walked into my first yoga class last century! lol, it sounds so long ago, but it was April of 1999 and I had just quit smoking and was painfully skinny and was looking for a way to live a healthier life. The gym, where I was working out, started giving a once-per-week yoga class and I joined in. I just wanting to be more ‘flexible’. I’ve always tended to be on the stiff and gawky side physically, so this was an opportunity to open up my body. Who knew I’d get so much more out of it? I fell asleep in the final relaxation part of the class, which was a marvel, since I had also been struggling with a bit of insomnia. I’m a CHAMPION overthinker/overanalyser/worrier, so I would have trouble “shutting my mind down at night”. I had a lot of vrittis in my citta for sure!
I kept up with the gym class, and then that teacher introduced me to a new shala named Shakti that wasn’t far from where I lived. I tried it and was hooked! I went to everything I could put my mat down in, Hatha, Vinyasa, and even guided Ashtanga before I knew what it actually was.
APP: Tell us about your first experience with Ashtanga
Kira: I was getting more and more into my asana practice, but I still had no notion of Ashtanga, or even what yoga could mean as a spiritual practice. At the time (the early 2000s), yoga was still viewed by many with more than a drop of suspicion. I just kept doing as many classes as I could afford, and then practicing at home to supplement the classes I went to. I found myself much more drawn to classes that were very physically challenging. These were more of a challenge for my very “busy” mind. I loved how I could just “let it all go” on the mat. I started studying Iyengar yoga and this appealed to my almost-mathematical sense of logic and proportion and order. The idea of searching for an ideal alignment for my body in asanas was a puzzle I could solve and I really liked that.
I wanted to travel and take a yoga class, so I started looking for yoga conferences to attend (again, we had nothing like that in Jamaica then) and that’s when I found out about Kino (MacGregor – who’s my first Ashtanga teacher). I was drawn to the strength and devotion she showed in her asana practice, at a time when I wasn’t finding much of what I felt my insides “needed” at the time. And so in researching more deeply, I began to be interested in the Ashtanga Vinyasa method. I liked that the sequence appeared to be the same each time and that I didn’t have to create the next movement myself. I could just focus on memorizing the order of the postures and that would be fine.
About a year later (May 2008), I decided to take my first led Primary class. I had no earthly clue what I was getting myself into. But I had decided to go see the guru of the method that was fascinating me so much. This was Pattabhi Jois’ last tour in North America (we know this now), and I asked a friend to help me out. She was amazing, driving me from Fort Lauderdale to the Keys to the shala and sitting in her car for 2 hours while I did heavens knew what. I remember the space being massive, there was easily 200 people in the room and now I was seeing the people whom I’d only ever read about. We don’t really have a culture of celebrity in Jamaica, but I was wowed to be in the same room as Tim Miller (whom I’d discovered in my research) and this was where I very shyly introduced myself to Kino herself. We set out our mats and I was sitting with my back to the altar set up at the front, casually chatting to another student who was fairly new to the practice also. And then. It was as if a wave of silence flooded into this huge gymnasium, you could feel it. I spun around and it was Saraswati and Sharmila entering the room with Pattabhi Jois. Pure, reverent silence. Palpable. He was so tiny and frail and dressed in white as he was wheeled into the room and up the ramp to the raised teaching area, but the voice I heard as he started the very first “OM” , I can feel in my heart to this very moment. “Vande gurunam caranara vinde..” and I just knew. This sense that everything would be OK if I just followed my breath was what I had been looking for. It sounds so corny and almost prosaic, but my life changed that day, and I really had no idea how much.
I went home to Kingston and signed up for a weekend workshop in July with Kino and the one-week Old Shala Mysore programme with Kino and Tim that same September. I had just started a new job and I went without pay that week, because I knew that’s where I needed to be. I’ve fallen many times since then, and had many doubts, but I have never really looked back since.
APP: Tell us about how you were authorized?
Kira: Wow. To this day, I wonder if it really happened. I was in Mysore for my third trip. This was early 2014, and I almost didn’t make it there. A close family member was ill and needed surgery, but I knew I still needed to go. I was beginning to feel more comfortable in my body, but backbending still mystified me. I think I transformed Kapotasana into this huge deal that needed to be conquered and it was constantly on my mind. I remembered finishing Kapo that day I and was doing dropbacks and Sharath shouted at me (I was at the back of the room), “what you did?” and I said “Kapo”, he said “Show me” and I was like “Oh no”, and yet miraculously, I could find my heels without help for the first time and grab my ankles in Urdhava Dhanurasana. Me. Stiff-as-a-board-spindly-legged me. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I went to Sharath to talk to him about how the practice made me feel and how grateful I was and that I didn’t know how to share what I felt in my heart. Maybe he responded to that, because he said “you take level 1 authorization” with a big smile. I was stunned. I’ve never really seen myself as anything special, just an average girl, and here I am, first in the Caribbean to be authorized. It’s definitely trippy.
APP: Can you tell us about your experiance with the virus Chikungunya? What is it and who did you get it?
Chikungunya is an infectious disease not unlike dengue fever or the now more well-known Zika. Chikungunya is a virus transmitted by the female tiger mosquito (Aedes aegypti), it affects the circulatory system and the joints. People with pre-existing conditions like arthritis, diabetes and heart issues were the worst affected. Symptoms include a reddish rash all over the body, mild to moderate to severe joints pain, fever, exhaustion and general malaise.
I remember teaching one Wednesday evening, about a month after the outbreak had gained notice in Kingston. I joked to my students that I probably couldn’t get it with my “weak” blood (I have iron-deficiency anaemia), and my mother had gotten it the week before and we’re close but I kept a bit of distance so as not to be infected. I covered myself with mosquito repellant. I lit citronella candles. The city embarked on fogging in the Corporate Area (Kingston suburbs).
And still, I woke up that Thursday morning barely able to move. I kind of rolled out of bed, tried to shower and couldn’t raise my arms. I had a rash, a light fever and was tired, but that was the easy part. I couldn’t raise my arms above shoulder height. Very mild tendinitis in my shoulders became unbearable agony, and my knees, ankles, wrists and back were affected also. I stayed home for 5 days straight, I couldn’t move, much less teach, I was terrified and angry that so many Jamaicans were affected and we knew so little of what could happen, not only short-term, but on a long term prognosis.
APP: What is the treatment?
Kira: Like other viral infections, there wasn’t and still isn’t a cure or vaccine you can get. You weather the storm as best you can. I took Panadiene (analgesic) for the pain and rested.
APP: What is the recovery time?
Kira: The acute phase takes about a week, after which you begin to feel a bit improved. But the joint pain continued for me for 6 months.
APP: How was your practice before Chickungunya?
Kira: I practiced up to Kapotasana of second with Sharath. I could also practice up to Pincha Mayurasana on some days, straight from Full Primary. I was getting stronger.
APP: How did your practice change during Chikungunya
Kira: My stamina and upper back flexibility disappeared. Chaturanga disappeared. Forget Kapotasana, I could barely get through Surya A, B and standing asanas. I had to skip Mysore that season (2014-2015), and I felt the difference on my last trip. All the fear and tension and doubts that I had worked so hard to make peace with came rushing back. I lost patience with myself. I was angry “I worked so hard and I have to do this all over again?” Of course, looking back at it, I realize how lucky I was. Others have suffered worse from the disease and many, MANY other Ashtangis have surmounted FAR worse.
APP: How is your practice now?
Kira: On my last trip to Mysore, I struggled on the mat, I suppose I felt that I needed to be ‘worth’ the blessing I’d been given the trip before. I told Sharath that I’d been ill and he was so kind and sweet about it, but I was so worried about not “being good enough” again, and I was harder on myself than I needed to be. He had me working on Kapotasana all through the trip again, and I wanted to cry every day on the mat, but I tried and worked through my fears and limitations.
Kapotasana is still a challenge, but now I breath, stop and try it three times each day. Humbling, but a very important lesson.
APP: How did Chickungunya change your approach to Ashtanga and teaching?
Kira: I had to learn compassion for myself and patience as I slowly got back into my practice. I had to dig deep for mental strength I never thought possible. And when I took a step back, I began to look at the alignment in which I practiced. I noticed that my injuries were exacerbated by repeated movements with less-than-ideal alignment for my body. For example, I completely reengineered how I practice the transition of Chaturanga. Imagine how many of these we do in a single practice, it’s easy to see how we can harm ourselves if we’re not completely focused on safe alignment and attention to the breath. So now, even when I have flare-ups from the disease (yes, almost 2 years later many of us who were infected still have joint pain), I’m not impeded from a smooth flow between postures. I was even able to jump back and jump through better than I had before getting sick.
I think the biggest lesson I learned as a teacher was that my job is to hold space for my students, to be there for them as they confront their greatest fears, as they cry, laugh and curse, and then gently remind them to reconnect to their breaths, be strong and keep trying. Never stop trying because all is coming. My teachers taught me that, and I believe it and try to live it every day.
APP: Any advice for those practicing during an illness?
- Honor your body, just listen and don’t push too hard, don’t make a shape to prove a point or just to perform an asana. A pose will take as long as it takes, just show up each day and do the work.
- Know the difference between stretching a bit beyond your limits into a place that might feel uncomfortable, and actual pain. Study how your breath responds to a movement.
- Yoga is FAR more than asana, never forget that
For more information and to study with Kira Williams:
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.