An interview with the fascinating Norway-born Ellen Johannesen, who has been a yoga teacher for more than 17 years. Ellen is a KPJAYI-authorized level 2 Ashtanga yoga teacher, and holds a degree in Buddhist studies and Himalayan languages.
Join Ellen at her upcoming retreat in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley!
Describe your love story with Ashtanga Yoga?
My love story with Ashtanga started in 1994 during a tour to New York. I was a dancer then, and a dance colleague dragged me to Jivamukti Yoga Center, which was then on 2nd ave and the coolest place I had ever been. It was where all the dancers and artists of East Village would go to sweat and bend to the sound of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan and other inspirational music. The walls were painted purple and turquoise, Persian rugs covered the floors, and a huge alter on which all spiritual traditions were represented decorated the room.
Sharon and David, themselves previous performance artists, had created this wonderfully undogmatic and genuine space, out of what seemed to be a great vision: – they obviously had a traditional guru and a spiritual conviction, but like true artists they expressed it in a creative and innovative manner. For me this captured the essence of what both yoga and art was about: stay focused and stay true, let your journey be inspired by all the great beings in the world!
Ashtanga was not that big yet, but I had my first Ashtanga class from David on my last day in New York. Afterwards I purchased a practice sheet and decided this was going to be my practice from now on.
Later I returned to New York and practically “lived” in jivamukti for a month practicing all the different classes, attending Bhajans and Kirtans with great musicians, attending video nights and hanging out with wonderful people. Returning home to Norway, I started to teach my friends, so that I had someone to practice with. Whenever I could, I would travel abroad to attend workshops with famous Ashtanga teachers. In 1997 I gathered the courage and the money to go to Mysore for three months. I immediately loved India, and delving into the yoga philosophy was like medicine for my troubled mind: it captured all my intuitions about reality- confirming that all our actions matter! Thus my artistic alter ego, the Karma Consultant was born!
What does Ashtanga yoga represent to you?
Ashtanga for me, represents the one steady component in life, which always brings me back to basics: grounding, the body and the present moment. It is also my livelihood which lets me make a living by doing something I believe is helpful for others.
Tell us about your teacher(s)?
My most important teacher is John Scott. John’s approach to Ashtanga is very functional. Borrowing the Modernist motto, “form follows function,” he always looks for the significance of a pose from a broader evolutionary perspective. In our evolutionary history the body and brain develop together, and Yoga traces these deep rooted patterns. This approach really agrees with my own experience as a dancer in fields like developmental movement and body-mind centering. John sort of thinks like a dancer and moves like a dancer –that’s why I connect with his teaching.
How does your personal yoga practice look like?
I like to practice in the morning and most often I practice alone. I love to be in class, but my living place has mostly been off the “Ashtanga grid.” I like to practice six days a week – but I do not pressure myself to do any particular series on any particular day. I see how the body feels, and then I go. I reckon it is better to practice than not to practice, so I allow myself to play music if that is what is needed. In my busiest school days, I would even memorize Tibetan vocabulary lists while practicing. Sometimes I get great ideas while practicing – and then I have to bring a notebook to my mat! The practice just sorts things out on a physical and mental level!
What tips would you give to a new practitioner of Ashtanga Yoga?
Down the road you might sooner or later run into a lot of politics and opinions about Ashtanga. You don`t need that. What you need is to listen to your heart and trust your own experience. - And to practice with a qualified teacher, someone who has been through the transformative experience of Ashtanga themselves.
Please share your favorites with us - books, sites, resources…Books and films:
I am just reading David Keils “Functional anatomy of Yoga ” in his intro he says that there are no straight answers when it comes to anatomy, so it seems like a great book!
There are several useful Yin Yoga sites which I turn to when I need to stretch: yinyoga.com and Heather Eckart.com. For philosophy: anything by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist Lamas alive today, and also an excellent writer and film Director. And Richard Kings` “Indian Philosophy” gives an excellent overview of the Indian and Buddhists schools and their essential concerns.
What are you grateful for today? ,
I am really grateful for everything I have learnt. I might be the worlds worst career planner, but everything I studied has been very rewarding. It has been an interesting journey where I chose to live my life “in the body” rather than in the office. I am also glad that I started to pursue my interest in Buddhist philosophy and practices. When you start to realize that your mind is your world, learning to understand the mind is the best investment one can do –ever! And I am grateful for all my amazing lamas and teachers.
Pushing fifty I am grateful that I am still here and that my body is not causing me too many problems.
Which cause (s) do you support? What concerns you the most?
I live in Nepal, where the situation is extremely difficult at the moment, so I support projects aimed at helping people in Nepal. I personally know a few people who are running great projects, so I try to help by giving fund raising Yoga classes, collect donations etc., and in general, I try to tell people here about the situation.
Any closing thoughts:
I am very aware of the privileged situation I am in being born in a rich western country, and find nothing less attractive than an “the world owes me”- attitude among some of my countrymen. Until now It has been easy to sit in the far North and isolate oneself, but as the problems are drawing closer, this is not possible any more. I think we need to realize that we are all part of an international community and are responsible for each other. We have learn to tap into the innate goodness and intelligence in ourselves and strive to expand it through practice. - And we need to know that becoming a kinder, more generous version of ourselves, will also make us a whole lot happier !
Photos: Heather Elton