Meet The Teachers: Morgan Curtis

I highly recommend getting to a class that is lead by Morgan. She holds a great wealth of knowledge and the ability to offer that in a clear and compassionate way.

Currently she teaches the Raja yoga class on Saturdays 12-1:30. Below she speaks about what to expect in this class, as well as her own development into the study of yoga.

ImageHere is Morgan hiking around Nachiketa Tal in northern India

* Do you remember what first intrigued you about yoga? What made you want to go deeper, and eventually learn how to teach?

My introduction to the broader tradition of Yoga came through reading the Bhagavad Gita in a college course when I was 19. Reading it for the first time left me feeling like a hole had blown open through the top of my head. Although I couldn’t explain why at the time, I was completely enthralled by this text. I carried that first translation with me almost everywhere I went for the next several years, re-reading sections of it and writing notes and reflections in the margins. When I was 21 and finishing my last semester of college, my thesis advisor talked me into attending a Hatha Yoga class with her at the rec center on campus. To say that I was a high-strung student would be a bit of an understatement, and I think she was hoping to inspire me to seek relaxation and integration in my life. As with my introduction to the Bhagavad Gita, I was drawn into the practice immediately. I started practicing with my advisor 2-3 times a week, rearranging my schedule to allow myself to prioritize attending yoga classes. Within the first month of practice, I knew that I was going to want to teach yoga at some point. My first Hatha Yoga teacher incorporated ayurveda, philosophy, pranayama, meditation, and asana into her classes. I feel very lucky to have had an integrated introduction to the practice, and such a practice brought very swift changes to my life. I stopped eating meat within the first month and felt a sense of calm that I’d previously not known in my life. This profound impact led me to want to both know more (study deeper) and to want to share the practice with other people. Finding Yoga felt like coming home to me; it’s a continued process of homecoming, actually.

* Since then you’ve studied with many knowledgeable teachers, most recently Debbie Mills. Can you speak about how she has impacted your teaching?

Studying with Debbie has completely reoriented my approach to life and therefore also my approach to teaching. Debbie’s primary focus is on subtle energetics, and her teaching focuses on helping people move through gripping patterns that block the flow of prana. Practicing in line with this means exploring places of fear and discomfort and learning to sit with the sensations and emotions that arise. To me, this is a more liberation-oriented approach to practice than focusing on the (still important) psychological and physiological impacts of a regular practice (e.g., reduced stress). Since beginning my studies with Debbie, I’m more aware of energetic flow in my own practice and when observing students and am also able to build sequences that account for what I’m observing in my students. Debbie has also taught me how to approach teaching in a way that balances nurturing students while also holding them accountable for working through their holding patterns, even when it isn’t comfortable.

* Your class, Raja Yoga is based on Patanjali’s 8-limbed path of yoga. Could you speak more about how this tradition shows up in this 90 minute class?

Patanjali’s 8-limbed path, termed Raja or Ashtanga yoga, is a holistic approach to yoga that focuses on what, in our context, we might look at as both “on-mat” and “off-mat” practices. The first two limbs focus on ethical precepts and behaviors toward ourselves and others. These show up in class as themes we focus on and explore throughout the rest of the practice. So, for example, the focus of one class might be ahimsa (which translates variously as non-violence, non-harming, compassion). At the beginning of class, we would set an intention together of exploring this quality in our practice, noticing how we are tempted to push ourselves past our limits or how we engage in destructive, negative self-talk when we can’t do something. We would also work to notice and practice compassionate, uplifting self-talk during the practice. The idea behind this is that we use the mat as a laboratory to begin exploring and cultivating these characteristics so that we can take them off the mat. The next two limbs, asana and pranayama, show up more obviously and directly, since each class includes an asana and a pranayama practice. Pratyahara is practiced either through cultivating witness-consciousness as a way to detach from (i.e., begin to observe) our senses or through practices such as shanmukhi mudra. (Additionally, savasana can be seen as a practice of pratyahara when practiced in a manner that truly cultivates withdrawal from our senses.)  Meditation practices at the end of class focus on training the mind to concentrate on one object (this is dharana). This practice is meant to set the stage for the next two limbs (dhyana and samadhi) to arise naturally. We use different meditative techniques and sit for varying lengths of time, depending on our focus.

* Why is breathwork so important in an asana practice? 

There are many ways to answer this question. First, one of the primary goals of asana practice is to prepare the system for meditation. Asana practice reduces rajas (agitation) which makes it easier to sit with stillness. Pranayama, when it follows asana practice in this manner, is meant to reduce tamas (dullness/heaviness) in the system, thereby bringing a person to a more sattvic state that makes a meditative state more likely to emerge from the practices that follow. These practices are all meant to work in tandem.

Even if you aren’t working toward meditation in your practice, focusing on the breath and building up breath capacity are really critical for other reasons. A deliberate breathwork practice, in the short term, can help calm the mind and body and regulate the nervous system. Longer, deeper exhalations help detoxify the body by ridding the lungs of the old air that we hold in them by not taking full breaths. If your asana practice is breath-centered (which, I would argue, it should be) then working toward greater connection to your breath will allow you to engage more fully and more presently with your asana practice. Deeper breaths mean slower movement in your asana practice and a deep relationship with the breath means that you will notice when your breathing changes, even in subtle ways, that suggest you need to do something differently in your asana practice. That last piece is something that is cultivated over a long period of time in practice, but it’s also critical to moving your practice to a place that will allow you to practice in ways that are the most beneficial to you.

* What do you like best about East Side Yoga?

East Side Yoga feels like a community in a way I’ve never experienced at any other yoga studio. The students are really dedicated and connected to the space and the teachers and vice-versa. Moreover, Stephen and Elsa are committed to maintaining a grounding in yogic principles and pushing the envelope of the teachings that are offered in Austin. It’s exciting and inspiring to be a part of this endeavor.

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About eastsideyoga

your neighborhood yoga studio! with our warm welcome, peaceful vibe and experienced yoga teachers, we aim to transform the body and bring stillness to your mind through the timeless teaching of yoga. eastside yoga is a friendly community of people who love yoga and meditation. we strive to nurture beginners and help deepen your yoga practice. our yoga studio and class schedule are convenient for residents of the east side and downtown austin.
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