Jelena Vesić: an Interview on Ashtanga Yoga, Freedom & Liberation
We sat down with Jelena, to talk about our mutual favourite topic: the Ashtanga Yoga practice! If you follow Jelena on Instagram, you know a bit about her fascinating life-story: a former ballet dancer, who fled her war-ravaged home country to find a new life in Toronto, Canada. There, Jelena also discovered her love of Ashtanga Yoga, walking away from a Phd thesis to devote her life to the study and teaching of the practice. She also married her teacher, David Robson, and they now teach workshops and retreats together globally. Sound like a moviescript? Read on to find out how Jelena keeps it really real.
Join Jelena and David for their next European retreat, in Italy, May 19-26, 2018.
Supersoul.Yoga: What does Ashtanga Yoga represent to you?
Jelena Vesic: My asana practice is my reminder to stay in my body. Above all, it's my way of remembering to honour my body. It is easy for me to self-criticize and get caught up in finding everything that's not right. I notice my faults and mistakes way before I see my strength and beauty. Daily practice, however, disrupts this behavior. In fact, it pushes me to deal with this side of me. The very physical nature of this practice teaches me to soften, surrender and stay humble. It is through my practice that I've been learning to appreciate my body. Sure, mean, judgy shit comes up all the time. But so does self-praise and sometimes admiration.
Ashtanga does not let me avoid that which I dislike. At first we experience this by being told to do difficult, uncomfortable asana which don't come easily to us. For me, for instances, the feelings of aversion show up most often when I'm doing any pose that requires twisting or backbending. Naturally I'm not good at these, so of course, I don't necessarily enjoy doing them. However, through the Ashtanga practice, I have to face my aversion and discomforts associated with such poses. This, as hard as it is, is deeply transformative. And liberating!
There is freedom in not being able to pick and choose. Yes, it sounds contradictory: how can choicelessness lead to freedom? Because it lets me experience reality as it is and not as I like it to be. In other words, I'm free to feel whatever arises. The feelings of aversion come, and there is no escaping them. I have to acknowledge them, sit with them, watch them, get to know them, and eventually make peace with them. As I struggle in asana, I learn to accept this discomfort, physical and mental, and avoid reacting as I work my way through it.
I do this practice because it takes me to my edge. What that looks and feels like differs day to day, moment to moment. Sometimes my edge isn't physical. Sometimes my edge is anger, sometimes sadness, and yes, sometimes self-pity. And there are days that just stepping onto my mat is stressful, frustrating and scary.
Doing daily practice isn't easy or glamorous. It's messy, complicated, and at times, overwhelming. But I stay with it because all of the work and effort teaches me, over and over again, to be patient and loving with myself, even when I'm at my worst. And that is worth all the struggle and sacrifice.
SY: Tell us about your teacher(s)?
JV: My teacher is David Robson. He is also my husband. So of course our relationship as student-teacher has changed over the years. These days it's much easier for me to get mad at him, and be a 'bad' student. So more often than I'd like, I find myself having to apologize. And I do not like doing that. But I am learning.
I am lucky to have David as my teacher. He pushes me to always try, even when I don't want to. David knows better than anyone, myself included, how to get me to drop my self-doubt and perfectionist tendencies, which are anything but constructive, and get me to surrender, trust and find that deep inner strength. Most importantly, he keeps me accountable to myself and to my Sadhana. It's easy to practice when life is going well, or you're feeling super motivated and inspired. But stick with any spiritual practice long enough and you'll find yourself struggling. What keeps me going when I'm feeling bored, weak and lost is my teacher, and his belief in me.
I've been to Mysore once. In January 2017 I studied under R. Saraswathi Jois, the daughter of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It was incredible to be in the presence of such strong and loving woman. Half-way through my time in Mysore, I fell down the stairs of the hotel lobby, and hurt my tailbone pretty badly. I had to abstain from practicing for a few days, and when I finally returned I couldn't do anything other than standing poses. The experience was, to say the least, extremely humbling. After the initial period of anger and frustration, I quickly came to accept my situation and recognize the lesson within it. During my short practice I began to appreciate my body for its ability to move despite the injury. And I also remember feeling so overwhelmed with gratitude. I was grateful to have this practice – I appreciated it for giving me strength and keeping me strong. Now, any time I have a 'bad' practice day, or I find myself getting frustrated because something isn't working out the way I want it to, I try to remember to be grateful for this healthy, strong body of mine.
SY: Share your favorites with us!
JV: I am huge fan of Alan Watts. The Joyous Cosmology and Does It Matter are two books that come to mind right away. But hearing Watts speak is a treat of its own; for that I go to YouTube. The other two books I cannot recommend enough are Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart, and Sadhguru's Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy. What I particularly like about both Kornfield and Sadhguru is that they, just like Watts, remind us to seek humor as part of our spiritual pursuit.
I am currently reading Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and I cannot get enough of it. Estés tells myths, stories, fairy tales from around the world which are meant to help women reconnect with their instinctual nature, learn to trust one's inner self, and live a deeper, fuller life. She starts by writing: "Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species." Doesn't that sound like something you'd want to read?!
SY: Which cause(s) do you support?
JV: I am vegan for the animals. Ever since I could remember I hated eating meat because it felt so wrong to me. My parents had a really hard time with me as a child because I would find all these ways to avoid eating it. One of my coping strategies was to pick out all the meat that was on my plate and put it into my mouth, and then go to the bathroom to spit it out. I also recall gagging at the dinner table from time to time. My parents were not impressed. Eventually I became vegetarian, and then vegan.
Just a year ago, my husband surprised me with a rescue dog after my late dog, Beba, passed away. He said I was crashing, and needed a lift. And that's how Boksi (short for Boksoon, meaning "lucky girl") came into our lives. She's a rescue from Korea's meat farms, which is just as horrific as any other factory farming of animals.
I am obsessed with dogs. To be honest, I think they are my Yoga. Or I know what Yoga is when I'm in company of dogs. I am always chasing them, whether on the streets of Bosnia, the beaches of Thailand, or streets of India. And now that we have Boksi it gives me double bragging rights – I am a vegan with a rescued a dog from the meat farm. ;)
SY: How do you curate a life that you love?
JV: In theory it's really simple – listen to your heart. However, putting this into practice is anything but easy. One thing I've learned is that curating a life you love isn't always pleasant. You have to be willing to take a risk and reach for it, whatever that "it" happens to be. So it can get messy and complicated. Yes, chaotic too. Curating a life you love is deeply emotional undertaking. It requires asking hard questions, getting to really know yourself, and listening to your intuition. But often we're so afraid of what our inner voice is saying that we do our very best to ignore it and bury it somewhere deep where on one can see it, including ourselves. However, this never lasts.
Again and again, life is teaching me that you cannot ignore and suppress your truth. Sooner or later it always surfaces no matter how much you resists. In some ways you become compelled to follow your heart. It isn't always easy and it does take a lot of courage.
SY: Share something with us that surprises and delights!
JV: "Quitting," my therapist told me, "may be the most liberating thing you do." Of course I didn't believe her at first. But once I finally summoned up enough courage to quit, which took two years, I realized how right she was. Walking away from my PhD after four years of giving it my all wasn't a weakness or a sign of failure. In the words of Brené Brown, it was me daring greatly. And I couldn't be happier for having done so.
And I also have cellulite. I am addicted to sugar, chocolate in particular. And I am not afraid to cry on my mat.
Photos: Sandra DB, Sanjin Kastelan