On Following Your Heart- A practice biography by Ellen Johannesen
This summer I had the privilege of practicing yoga with Ellen Johannesen; a former dancer from Norway, who’s currently teaching ashtanga yoga and Buddhist philosophy lectures all over the world. Practicing with Ellen and listening to her sharing some of her knowledge, was simply wonderful and definitely one of my highlights this summer. Ellen has been practicing and teaching yoga for well over 20 years, and her dedication to the practice and the yogic lifestyle is just so inspiring. In this post Ellen has been kind enough to share a bit of her story about how and when she got into yoga, and what this practice has taught her and shaped her life.
ON FOLLOWING YOUR HEART -
A practice biography..
1994 was the year: I had my first professional dance job in Norway in the Olympic Winter games opening show. It was also the year I went on tour to New York, was dumped by a guy - and fell in love with Ashtanga Yoga:
Yoga was not yet "cool," but Jivamukti Yoga Center was; it was then a creative and spiritual hub on second avenue, attracting a growing crowd of east side performers and actors. A dancer-colleague dragged me along, to my first yoga class claiming "this is much cooler than dance classes, “and she got me hooked at first headstand: there we were sweating, moving and standing upside down to music. We received spiritual instructions at the beginning of each class, which were led by teachers who defied the traditional image of yoga instructors as "soft" or "alternative" people. These former Manhattan performance artists were big personalities who led the class with a firm hand, played great music and chanted in Sanskrit with conviction!
Upon returning home to Norway, I started teaching my colleagues this "great new thing " I had discovered, the Ashtanga primary series, and I soon had a little group of co-practitioners. This core of colleagues was my first Ashtanga community and we practiced and taught together for years. Together we also started a yoga studio, the first one in Oslo to offer Daily self-practice classes.
I first visited Mysore and Pattabhi Joice in 1997 and I returned a number of times to study with him and Sharath. During my many trips to India I got deeply involved in the Eastern wisdom traditions, which I could say completely changed my life. It was as if I had struck upon a deep core of truth, a sense of purpose that I had always missed. During a stay in Mysore I received my first Buddhist teachings, which led me to spend nearly 3 years in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery before I moved to Nepal to study Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy at Kathmandu University. During these years I maintained my self-practice rolling out my mat in tiny rooms, guesthouses and monasteries. I practiced during the hot Indian summers and during the freezing Himalayan winters. I practiced with sweat rolling down my spine and with numb fingers on the chilly floors of unheated houses.
Many times I found myself waking up thinking, "what are you doing here and how did you get here?" How had I diverted so far from the lifestyle and values of my family and old friends? But my Ashtanga practice kept me grounded whether I freaked out over living alone in a monastery among 5000 monks or over taking up academic studies in my late forties!
I have now lived and studied in Kathmandu for more than seven years and consider it my home but I should perhaps say that it is my yoga mat that is my true home?I do my practice in the morning as I have done for the last 20 years, and whatever challenge follows during the day seems like no big deal compared to that. I feel as if I am part of the greater community of all those who shape their lives around their practice and show up on the mat or meditation cushion daily.
A blessing that comes with "solitary" self-practice is all the little "aha´s" that occur in practice: quite often the solution to problems, or a flash of insight spontaneously emerges in my mind during practice. When the right amount of challenge and relaxation occur there is some sort of intelligence that kicks in and I sometimes have to get the pen and paper out and note down my "epiphanies." To me this proves that Ashtanga yoga is so much more than a physical practice: it is the routine that (within its given structure) at all times provides just enough challenge to bring you into the state of flow, which is an extremely potent place to be intellectually, creatively and physically.
Read more about Ellen on her website Ashtanga Nepal