It’s one of those mornings when the air’s frosty calmness seems to sparkle with crystals and the connection that subsists throughout all things knows no antagonisms. As 2017 draws to an end, Bristol’s suburbs are still dormant, all windows looking homeward. We stare briefly at the descending sky, exchange particles of speech and knock inconspicuously at Mary’s door. Barefoot, radiant and unassuming, Mary invites us in, where the rooms are warm and unabandoned by light, and she introduces us to her boyfriend Jacob, a talented illustrator with a penchant for philosophical ideas.
Sitting down with Mary and Jacob over a steaming cup of coffee, it didn’t take us long to notice the strong bond between them arising from many years’ friendship and togetherness, and the spontaneous play of silent energies that transcend one’s individual self and cluster into a boundless, symbiotic entity. Speaking ardently from an open heart, Mary told us about how she battled with anxiety and eating disorders, how her journey into yoga started by attending Andy Cullen’s classes and why she quit her job in the fashion industry to embark on a path of self-discovery that took her all the way to India, training with Ashtak Yoga School. Showing a keen interest in the anatomy and kinesiology of yoga, Mary developed a practice made up of a multitude of layers, fusing the physical, mental, psychological and spiritual aspects into a holistic journey that is much more than a quest for finding the inner bliss: it is an expansive journey of integration and love, a celebration of openness and simplicity, and a nurturing ground for meaningful human connections.
We finished our get-together at Snuff Mills park, walking among the ghostly trees of winter and their evergreen shadows, attempting to grasp the grand rhymes in nature whilst listening closely to Mary’s account of her daily routine and her ambitions for the future; and then, after exchanging warm and affectionate goodbyes, we departed contemplating the idea that every now and then the dualism of inside and outside loses its pertinence and that every visible form is relevant only as an instance of formlessness or the fleeting source of unequivocal stillness.
What can you tell us about Mary?
She’s pretty awkward, loves being lazy, binge watches TV programmes, eats an obscene amount of porridge for breakfast and tries to read 2-3 different books at the same time. She has pretty bad time-keeping, likes hot drinks to be really, really hot, can’t get enough of Bristol and cycling around, and has somehow ended up with only one pair of wearable shoes.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Running out of class in junior school and feeling mortified after energetically hugging the wrong mum in the playground.
Tell us about your journey into yoga. How did it all start and who or what inspired you to follow this path?
It started with a pretty amazing hatha yoga dvd that I did every Wednesday in my room at University, after a year I pretty much knew the whole thing word for word! I always found myself enthralled by the story of the pose Ardha Matsyendrasana, which one of the teachers explained as the pose was being held. It is the story of a fish who sat fixated in deep concentration as Lord Shiva explained yoga to Parvati; through listening, the fish learned yoga and became enlightened, and he was blessed as Matsyendra Lord of Fishes. The story highlights the virtues of focus and stillness and offers a parable for the transformative power of yoga.
After University I joined a class with Andy Cullen who founded Seven Stars Yoga and Tai Chi, which is a mix of hatha yoga asana (postures) and some of the energy work used in Tai Chi. I’d just graduated and moved back to my parents’ house and was kind of in a limbo of what to do or where to go next, I’d been struggling with anxiety and feelings of low self-worth, and battled with an eating disorder since becoming a teen. I was a bit all over the show to be completely honest but at the end of each class I felt empowered and renewed, everything Andy said seemed to resonate with me. He was so calm and considered and radiating warmth, the first yoga person I’d ever met and my first glimpse at where yoga could eventually lead you. I remember thinking to myself how amazing it would be if I could help other people find this feeling of strength, ease and empowerment through yoga.
You studied Hatha yoga with Ashtak Yoga School in India. Can you tell us more about your time there? What are the major things that you discovered about yourself during that time?
Training with Ashtak was brilliant, the teachers, Dr Guarav and Kate Malik, created an environment that was powerful, provocative and challenging but also very safe and secure. It allowed me to explore many different emotions and ideas that I’d been holding on to, as a group we grew very close and connected with one another.
Prior to the course I had just quit working in the fashion industry for a large international fast fashion brand and, to cut a long story short, the whole thing had become quite conflicting with my morals and ethics. I was, and still am, passionate about my chosen lifestyle as a vegan and continue to explore more sustainable ways of living in this world, but fast fashion is just not a sustainable or ethical business model. The higher I moved into my management role the more HR procedures I had to implement etc., and I realised that when a company is led so definitely by profit, that compassion for the people who work there seemed to always come in last place. I was often very stressed and anxious, worried about how other people were being treated and how I was having to treat people that didn’t feel like an honest reflection of myself.
The whole experience had started to make me much more introverted, I didn’t really go out much outside of work and I seemed to struggle with building new relationships with people, I even struggled with existing relationships and felt like I was closing myself off. Inherently I’m not like that, and studying at Ashtak allowed me to rediscover how much I love having and making real and new human connections and how beautiful it is to love. Our teacher had tireless compassion and love for all things and that was really awe-inspiring. So maybe you can say I really discovered the ability to love and be loved! A consequence of that is a huge increase in your ability to self-love too, something that I think unfortunately is intrinsically very hard for most people.
What was the most challenging step in the learning process?
Realising so much about yourself in such a short space of time can be quite overwhelming, the whole process was a path of self-discovery. However, I think that this is necessary in order to determine how you are going to be as a teacher. Fundamentally you have to cut out all the false crap that you’ve been projecting as the true depiction of who you are, and allow the most genuine version of yourself to exist and shine through. Unlike most things in life you can’t put on an act, fake or pretend to be someone else when you’re teaching yoga, which at first is equally terrifying and liberating. Maybe there are some aspects of you that you don’t really like, inherent behaviours or reactions that are ugly or unwanted. You have to allow for all of them and find ways of reducing what you realise to be wrong or unhelpful and move forward with the things that are right and that serve you, these things in turn will help you to serve others too.
Who was your greatest influence?
Of course there are many great yogis out there whose books and teachings I love and who have really helped me with my own experiences, but my biggest influence and inspiration is my boyfriend Jacob, who never ceases to inspire me with his endless compassion and morality! It's not very often that you meet someone who can remain strong and assertive in their opinions and beliefs but without being attached to them. He is always progressing and transforming with new resolves and challenging himself with new ideas.
How has the relationship with your own self evolved over time?
Honestly I don’t really know how to describe the relationship with my own self, the question kind of implies that there are two parts to me when I am really just this one whole thing. Through practicing yoga I have learnt a lot about my physical self, I like to feel how my body is working and analyse it. When you’re moving everyday it can be different and I have a huge respect for the beautiful and intrinsic way my body is made. Also, how little conscious control I actually have over most of its functions, and love how through yoga you can interfere, connect with and even effect some of these.
What about your relationship with the outside world?
I like what Alan Watts says about humans, feeling like we are on this Earth when as a matter of fact we are of the Earth, just like everything else. I dislike how possessive we humans are over the planet, like it belongs to us and we can do what we like with it. I love how powerful nature is, we went to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh and it was amazing to see how the wildness had started to claim back the space, how trees and plants had begun growing through the buildings and started to break things down. There is a plant in our garden, I can't remember the name, that has grown across the garden and over to the wall finding its way through the concrete and basically tearing the wall down, you must have respect for that.
What is your favourite pose and why?
Ah this is impossible to answer, I can’t pick one!
What would you say to someone who thinks that yoga isn’t for them?
First I would want to know what experience they’ve had with yoga, what they have read or seen that has given them this feeling that yoga is not for them. If they have tried it once or twice and not enjoyed it I would encourage them to try a few different types of yoga and meet a few different teachers. Yoga is very personal and unique to the individual, it is not a one style suits all situation. Something like 90% of our human exchanges are emotional rather than intellectual and for many of us this is reflected in how we learn. For example, at school, the teachers with whom you connected with and had personable relationships with could bring out the best in you, you probably enjoyed the lessons and absorbed the subject more, it's not definitive but yoga is a similar thing.
If you think it's not for you because you aren’t flexible or because you’ve seen too many social media photos of yoga people in advanced poses and you think you’ll never be able to do them, then I would say that I totally understand how you’ve come to this conclusion and why you feel like yoga is not accessible to you. However, this image of yoga is just superficial and advanced postures are not the end goal, yoga can be practiced in many ways and is available to all people, defying age, gender, religion, culture and physicality! There are so many benefits of yoga that can be transferred to everyday life, like increased awareness, focus, the ability to understand and deal with emotional responses, the quality of your breathing, the release of tensions and stress, strengthening and lengthening muscles, nourishing and supporting your body. The list goes on and on, so again I would encourage that person to try it, to go to a few different classes and find the one that resonates with you.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
I have two; the first is don’t blindly believe everything you are told or everything you read, especially in a psycho-spiritual sense, experience is paramount to understanding. Secondly, something my mum always used to say when I was fretting over things late at night is “don’t worry about the things you have no control over!”
What is your recipe for good living?
Smile more! If you’re reading this, smile right now!
What is your favourite dish?
100% some sort of daal every time.
What does a regular day look like for you?
Pretty much every day of the week is different for me right now, but I always like to get up early and do some kriyas and some asana practice before breakfast!
Monday if I feel it I'll go to a mysore style class in the morning, I have a complex love affair with Ashtanga which peaks and troughs. In the day I normally plan some classes and go climbing with a friend, in the evening I work on reception at Yogafurie.
Tuesday I work at a deli, normally spending Tuesday evenings at home with a nice meal and to sit in bed with a book.
Wednesday I am at the deli again and then in the evening I teach two lovely candle-lit yoga classes at Cafe Kino in Stokes Croft.
Early Thursday morning I teach a hatha class at Yogafurie, after which I’ll have breakfast at home and then do some home practice, maybe another trip to the climbing wall, and to grab a coffee with a friend, in the evening I’m on reception again.
Friday I catch up on admin stuff at home in the morning, do some house chores (y’know the fun stuff like sweeping, washing and dipping dates in peanut butter and slopping them in my mouth.) If there is time I try and meet up with a friend for coffee/tea and then practice with Sarah Harlow at Yogasara in the afternoon. In the early evening on Friday I teach a vinyasa class at Yogafurie.
Saturday mornings I do some kettlebell strength training with NDM Coaching run by Nick Moffat (check out his classes in Bristol, they are amazing) and then I’m back at the deli for the rest of the day.
Sunday is pretty much lazy and lovely, centred around finding some tasty vegan food at one of Bristol's many vegan friendly eateries, maybe going for a long walk at Leigh Woods or Snuff Mills. Bristol is quite new again having only moved back here in October last year, so there’s a lot to discover and Sunday is dedicated to that. Unless I’m tired in which case I’ll just take a good old rest! Sunday evening I teach yoga to the Clifton Running Club, another amazing organisation that is not just about running but also looks to help build a network of like-minded people you can both run with and hang-out and do cool stuff with, it’s the brainchild of a lovely guy called Rob Perry and if you live around that area you should definitely look it up! Afterwards it's normally a good Indian feast at home and some binge watching of whatever programme Jacob has discovered for us.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in Bristol?
I like so many of the independent cafes and shops on and around Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft. Cafe Kino (the cafe for cake eating and the basement for yoga) and Elemental are two that I frequent quite often. I love Snuff Mills, Leigh Woods and Ashton Court for a good wander, I also really like cycling around the city as there is a sense of freedom and adventure to it. VX in Bedminster for some dirty vegan food and petting other people's dogs. Wapping Wharf is ace for street food and a nice afternoon. If I don’t want to go too far from home I like a little stroll through Ashley Down and St. Werburghs, ohh and then Bloc or Redpoint are a fave for a good climbing sesh!
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future?
Everything is really new right now having just moved back to the UK and living very differently than before so honestly I’m not really thinking that far ahead. Focusing on the here and now feels more crucial to me at this moment in time. Although I definitely dream of getting better at climbing and when I’m ready I’d like to go on some outdoors excursions or a climbing holiday abroad! Next year I plan on doing my 300 hour yoga teacher training.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What was your last dream?
Strangely enough my last dream was a waking-dream that I had during Savasana in the middle of a Kundalini yoga class. I had a very vivid film-like dream of Jacob and I walking in a field on a warm summer's evening, the air was dry and so was the grass, kind of crisp and yellow like there hadn’t been any rain for a long time. There was a house in the distance that I didn’t recognise and we were walking side by side, there was a small blonde haired boy maybe around 2-3 years old cycling around us on a tiny bike wooden bike, again not a child I know or recognised. It was very vivid and really a nice dream.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart and Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen
A song: John Maus, Hey Moon
A film: The Witch, Robert Eggers
Thank you, Mary for sharing your story with us.