An Interview with Patricia Sullivan
By Joyce Englander Levy, June, 2015
I had the privilege of speaking with one of Rodney’s first teachers, Patricia Sullivan, last week while she was still glowing from a recent trip to Hawaii. Patricia is going to be teaching at Yoga Shanti at the end of this month, so I was hoping to get to know her a little, in order to make a genuine introduction to all of you. Her kindness and warmth allowed us to feel like fast friends. More and more, as we advanced in the conversation, I understood the depth of her knowledge and experience. Yet the tone of her voice carried nothing but kindness, humility, and curiosity. She shared her journey with me—with us—but she also inquired into what we are doing here at Yoga Shanti.
Patricia Sullivan: In a certain way, it’s hard to combine [the traditions of] alignment and flow in one studio, unless you have teachers of both traditions who welcome the other. I had been doing Iyengar yoga for years and years (and years), but the approach was getting so strict and patriarchal…. Being an old hippie, and coming from a background of questioning authority, I started having a hard time with a teacher who was so authoritarian. And yet I learned so much by approaching yoga in that way; not in the way of following the rules, but in the way of looking deeper into what detail and precision can bring to a yoga practice—how it trains the mind to really become more and more intimate with itself, with the body, and with the heart. If you’re open to that—if you want to engage in a thorough, life-changing practice, and surrender to that level of detail in your asana practice—then everything can flower from that. If you’re not taking it as a way to just do the pose better. It may improve your posture from the outside, but really what’s happening is the total alchemical transformation of the whole being. It can sneak up on you.
So, anyway, at some point, I was turned on to ashtanga. I guess it was sometime in the Eighties with Richard Freeman, and I quite liked his approach. Then, years later, I was living in Hawaii, and Eddie Modestini and Nikki Doan introduced me to the practice. They knew that I was a sculptor and an artist. They called me because they wanted me to do a portrait of Pattabhi Jois because it was coming up on his eightieth birthday. I took class with Nikki, and I appreciated her more gentle approach to the practice.
Joyce Englander: So what are you working on in your practice now?
I often start out with some breath work—something that centers me and allows me to settle into meditation. Working with kapalabhati, and following that with jalandhara bandha and breath retention.
I teach kapalabhati in a very slow way. There are a whole lot of people who can’t relax their belly for the in-breath if they do it too quickly, so I started slowing it down, and then slowing it down more. Now I can see that everyone in the room is keeping pace and their belly is actually relaxing so that in-breath can actually flow in without effort. Then we add the jalandhara bandha, and it’s really quite blissful. It’s a very simple way to begin the class, and bring everyone together.
Then I start working on floor poses, where I’ve found a marvelous unwinding effect on the back. The first few poses are more still. We hold. Then we might start doing some repetitive twists, that might last for 5-10 minutes—but I’m changing the way I’m doing it every few times I go back and forth. You end up using a lot of different parts of your body to stabilize and stretch and mobilize everything. My students seem to really love this. Then from there it changes. We might do sun salutations, but they’re slow, with lots of details. We do a couple of standing poses, sometimes more.
I have also studied a lesser-known postural realignment therapeutic methodology for people who have chronic injuries and chronic pain. It adheres with yoga nicely.
What’s it called?
It’s called Egoscue, after the man who started it. He was a marine in the Vietnam War. He was shot. He had a long recovery, and even after he recovered he couldn’t get comfortable in his body. He looked in yoga books and anatomy books, and he noticed that he never looked like the drawing of an anatomically perfect man: you know, where the ears line up over the shoulders, and over the pelvis, and over the knees, and over the ankles. He realized he didn’t look like that, and he wondered if he did, would he be out of pain. Then he started taking exercises from yoga and the marine corps and physical therapy, and he mixed them up, to try and get the parts of his body that weren’t working to turn on or off accordingly. He started helping people in the marines, and then through word of mouth, and going to the houses of people who were in pain.
You have to see people’s asymmetries. Where are their rotations? What do they do when they aren’t in tadasana? Then what do you do about it? For many of us, doing yoga is enough. However, this work can be very therapeutic for people with longstanding injuries, or big asymmetries like scoliosis.
So in a sense you have become a specialist over time. You’ve gone beyond being a general practitioner.
You think when you do yoga that your whole body is awake. But that’s not true. There are plenty of ways we can be fooling ourselves, or be asleep. Opening the heart and mind is a lifelong journey, just like the asana practice.
What brings you to Yoga Shanti?
Rodney and I have known each other for a really, really long time. We attended classes at the [Iyengar] Institute in the Eighties together, along with Richard Rosen. We were on the same trip to India together in the mid Eighties. His path was East Bay, and mine was San Francisco. I was leading teacher training at the Iyengar Institute there, starting in about 1987. I started teaching at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Training Center when they realized how helpful yoga could be for people who are sitting in meditation.
When I came to feel like I didn’t want to teach at the Iyengar Institute anymore—when I felt it was becoming too confining for me—I had just resigned, and I received a phone call from Rodney. He wanted me to teach in an advanced-studies program that they were beginning at the Piedmont Yoga Studio. So that began our deeper relationship. It was such a well-thought-out eighteen-month, 600-hour teacher training.
After Rodney moved, I kept my relationship up with Richard, who popped in on one of my classes in Ojai last year. After that was when he recommended I come to teach at Yoga Shanti.
If you could describe your teaching style in three words:
Awareness, acceptance, and self-love.
What are your daily rituals? Daily routines?
The way I start my day? In front of my altar with pictures of my loved ones who have passed away, and other inspiring people. I light a candle before I sit down. That’s really taking the larger world into my practice. I often read a few pages from a book for inspiration before I began my breath work, meditation, and practice. Those are the constants. Where it unfolds from there, I don’t really care so much—although, I love being able to end with some kind of longer inversion.
Whenever I cook, I have a figure (that I made, actually) on my stove, with a candle; so I always light a candle when I start cooking. I just do a little bow to her. She’s my kitchen goddess. You know, so that there’s a sense of connecting with everything, and kind of blessing the activity, because it can seem so mundane and so boring.
Sometimes I chant. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of dhrupad—it’s a form of classical Indian singing. I took a class in it because, you know, I bring chanting into my classes, and I wanted to know more. I don’t chant so much before I practice, but more in the evening, while I’m cooking—and, boy, that helps. It opens the subtle body. It’s very calming to the nervous system. The nadis are more open and you’re more grounded, so that which can seem to be a chore is suddenly part of another expression of being fully in the moment. You forget that, if you don’t light the candle and do the chant. But it’s not like I’m standing still while doing the chant. I’m working. I’m bringing it into the rhythm of the work. There are a lot of moments in cooking when you don’t have to be thinking, you know? So bringing in a chant can be very helpful.
What guides your food choices?
Nutrition, of course. But I live in an area here in California where you can get organic everything; grass-fed everything; pasture-raised, humanely treated chickens, so that if you eat eggs you know that they’ve been out in a pasture, etc. I like things that are light and easy to digest, but I’m very light myself, so I have to be careful not to eat too light, because I get too vata. I have to eat grounding foods. I like to make things that I can at least have one day later.
What trips you up? In some ways it’s the things that trip us up that keep us practicing.
Doing too much, and not leaving time for just being: that cultural disease. I never would have been drawn to Iyengar yoga if this wasn’t true, but I’m a perfectionist. That’ll trip you up. I always wish I could let good enough be good enough. Excellence can arise out of good enough. You know there is that saying, “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” which is like saying perfection is the enemy of satisfaction. So I work with contentment, which I find comes from gratitude. When I remember to be grateful, I am content. It’s amazing how effective that can be.
Sculpture artwork by Patricia Sullivan