An Interview with Master Iyengar Yoga Instructor, Laurie Blakeney
Laurie Blakeney is the director of the Ann Arbor School of Yoga. She is one of only a handful of teachers worldwide (and only 13 in the U.S.) who holds an Advanced-level teaching Certification granted by B.K.S. Iyengar personally. Laurie is truly a master teacher living in our own “backyard” as Metro Detroiters. Few, if any, teachers in Michigan or even in the Midwest as a whole have the level of experience, training, and long-term devotion to the study of yoga that she has. Her credential list is long and includes work as the director and coordinator of the Ann Arbor YMCA’s yoga program (at the time one of the largest Iyengar Yoga programs in the country), serving as the teaching certification chairperson for the National Iyengar Yoga Association (IYNAUS), and being the curriculum director for several teacher-training conventions. She has also mentored, trained, tested and certified junior Iyengar Yoga teachers for many years.
Laurie is a vibrant, lively, and sharp-witted woman in her late fifties. Her vitality and inner strength have a long history. At one point in her life, she was teaching over fifteen classes per week at six different locations spread between Ann Arbor and Grosse Pointe, maintaining her primary career as a piano tuner and technician, raising a young child as a single parent, and pursuing a degree at the University of Michigan in Comparative Religions.
Local Yoga teacher Chris Briney, director of Living Tradition Yoga in Royal Oak and a longtime student and apprentice of Laurie’s, recently conducted an interview with her. It was so rich with insights on yoga practice, teaching, and life, that we have divided it into two parts. The first part will appear in this issue, the second will appear in the next.
Chris: Thank you for taking the time to take this interview with me. I appreciate it and am very excited to be doing this.
Laurie: You’ve very welcome.
Chris: I want to talk a little bit about your history and how you came to be where you are. When did you start practicing yoga?
Laurie: In 1971.
Chris: When did you start teaching?
Chris: What inspired you to become a yoga teacher?
Laurie: Actually, I became a yoga teacher because I was recruited. I didn’t decide beforehand that I wanted to become a yoga teacher. I had been studying, for maybe seven years beforehand. I had this wonderful yoga teacher named Barbara Linderman. I loved Barbara. Barbara was one of my main role models and one of my favorite teachers. She called me one day and said, “This person is moving, can you take over the classes?” And I said, “No way. I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.” And she said, “Yeah, but if you don’t someone with less ability and less talent will take the job.” So, I got talked into it. But I didn’t think—even as a student, when I started, I had no intention of teaching. I just liked doing it for myself.
Chris: When did you decide to make it your career?
Laurie: Actually, when I first started teaching, I had just returned to Ann Arbor after completing my education and training to be a piano tuner and technician. I was starting a business and being self-employed. Essentially, I was in two new careers at the same time. When I started teaching, I was just teaching two classes per week. Then, as I was developing my piano tuning business, more opportunities came up to teach and it was another way, being self-employed, to have some extra income. Of course, this doesn’t address the fact that I absolutely love yoga. But, from a career perspective, for the first 15 years or so of my teaching, I viewed piano tuning as my main career.
Chris: How did you end up becoming a piano tuner?
Laurie: I had been living in Ann Arbor, studying yoga and waiting tables, and I decided that I didn’t want to have a lifelong career as a waitress. So I moved to Cleveland and enrolled in a vocational trade school to become a piano tuner.
Chris: I know that, at one point in your career, you were teaching over 15 classes a week at several different locations in Ann Arbor and Metro Detroit, maintaining your career as a piano technician, and you were single-handedly raising a son. How did you manage all that?
Laurie: Well, things got pretty complicated when I got a divorce when my son, Newcombe, was four. I was pretty worried about money. Again, I got an opportunity to teach for Barbara Linderman when she went on a year’s sabbatical. And there was an opportunity to make pretty decent money teaching, compared to the $6 an hour that I was making. In doing that I recognized that I really liked teaching for myself, rather than being an employee and I started finding other opportunities to teach.
Chris: How did your body handle all that? I mean, when did you sleep?
Laurie: Actually, I went to bed pretty early, and then I did my practice before Newcombe got up. But my body was fine. The reason I could do all this was really because of the yoga. I was really unhealthy as a child, and pretty unhealthy as a young adult. I started yoga when I was 19, and by the time I had taken all this on, my health had improved a lot, and it was because of the yoga. But even when I was unhealthy physically, I had the same personality. I still had a lot of energy and I was determined. I think it was partially my personality type, I’m a busy person and also, I think I’m a very organized person. If you have a lot going on, you have to organize your time.
Chris: That seems to carry over into your teaching. The way we approach the practice, and the way you seem to anticipate where we are going to end up by the end of the class and how you structure the work in the class to have us access the targeted areas or postures in such a deep way, as though you are not just teaching our bodies, but our awareness, our consciousness. For me, as a young teacher, there’s quite a bit of work involved just to put an effective and sensible sequence of postures together. So to teach with the level of foresight and anticipation that you do—that’s very skillful.
Laurie: That’s all Geeta Iyengar. She’s brilliant at that. And she’s taught us [the senior teachers] all how to do that. I mean, there’s nobody that does it as well as she does. When she’s teaching, you feel like you’re in a kind of chess game, and she’s got the strategy for, you know, 10 moves down the board and that’s what she’s going on. I think a lot of people may not recognize that about her teaching, but having watched her teach every year since 1983, I always am kind of watching her every move. And sometimes she pulls a surprise move—I mean, it’s all surprising because of its brilliance. But she opens a class knowing exactly where she’s going to end it, and not just a list of poses. She opens with details, and knowing where the details are going to take you by the end . . . and it’s brilliant. And it feels right on your body!
Chris: Well, having taken your classes for several years now, I can certainly attest to that. (Laughs) So you mean to tell me there’s more to the teaching than just writing a bunch of postures down on a piece of paper. It is a step-by-step process, a building process, and . . .
Laurie: You have to understand it within yourself. You have to have felt it in your body many times. And you have to have imagined having other people’s bodies. It just takes a lot of time. I know that one of your questions was why does it take so long to become a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. The answer is simple: because it does. It takes a lot of time.
Chris: I did want to ask you about that. My first encounter with teacher training was with a program that allowed people to be certified after a few months, even if they hadn’t practiced at all. Then, when I came to Iyengar Yoga I had to practice for a few years before I could even enter the certification process. From there it is at least a three- or four-year process to become certified. It’s taken me five years to become a certified teacher-in-training! And how many years did it take for you to become a senior-level teacher?
Laurie: Well, I started practicing in 1971, and I got my senior-level certification in 1993.
Chris: And there are still higher levels of certification you could pursue if you wanted (Laurie nods). So there’s a pretty big difference between these two types of certification processes. Having experienced them both, I have a sense of why the Iyengar method requires such a lengthy certification process, but I think it’s important to make that clear for the average yoga student or newcomer, and was hoping you could do that.
Laurie: I think it depends upon what people want from yoga. Some trained dancers, or trained artists, or trained philosophers, etc. may have a deeper opinion on what the subject of yoga is about—they might appreciate that it’s going to take someone 15 or 20 years to get expert at it. But someone else who wants to use it as a quick workout, well they don’t care that the teacher understands anything deeper. Of course, I’m with you. It would be nice if everyone appreciated us, Chris, but not everyone cares (laughs), because that’s not their need. One advantage I do think the Iyengar teachers have over others is that is that Iyengar Yoga can be and often is so therapeutic. And the exercising people that get hurt while exercising, and then they do the yoga as a therapy for their injuries, at that point you might expect your yoga teacher to have a lot of training. You’d want your doctor to have gone to med. school. So there is that slight advantage. Once people get to the point where they need more expertise, we have that.
Chris: But Iyengar yoga is more than “the yoga you do when you get hurt.” It has much more to offer, don’t you think?
Laurie: Yes, but it is what a lot of people think. But even for Geeta Iyengar, I’ve been told—people come from all over the world to get healed by Geeta Iyengar. People come with high blood pressure, a heart condition, herniated discs, diabetes, etc. who just want to get better and that’s their main interest. These people may not have done yoga, and have no idea what it’s about, but they have heard that yoga could help heal them, so she helps them heal.
Chris: I think that’s an important distinction because there is a potential for healing through yoga. But, it can play into a certain mindset . . . you know, the “fix me now” mentality
Laurie: Or fix me yesterday
Laurie: Well, yeah. It just doesn’t work that way.
Chris: Actually, it seems to me that yoga is really asking us to understand and develop our awareness so that we can “fix” ourselves.
Chris: So what direction would you like to see Iyengar Yoga take?
Laurie: I think it’s going fine the way it is. I endorse the certification process—even though it’s a lengthy one. The process is always being refined but I don’t think it needs an overhaul. I think it’s important to recognize that people come to yoga more now than before in our area with other brands of yoga as their initial introduction and not to sort of push them away because they’ve been introduced in another method. And I think that opinion and outlook of how to incorporate people from other methods is . . . I’d like to see that develop a little bit more fully. There are a lot of hardcore Iyengar people who haven’t quite come around to including other methods, not being as welcoming. Part of it was we were really chastised. We were told not to integrate, not to intermix. But that doesn’t mean we have to close the doors on someone who, for whatever reason, started somewhere else.
Chris: Yes, well, there is that view that it’s not a friendly or welcoming method, and . . .
Laurie: I’d like to see that change. It’s kind of surprising. Recently I had a couple of colleagues—other senior teachers—here at my studio watching me teach my class. And one of them commented on my teaching and said it seemed so casual. I found that very curious. I guess what she meant by “casual” is that I wasn’t very stern, that I had a hard time being stern.
Chris: (Laughing) That’s funny because, well, that’s exactly the reputation you have—that you’re stern.
Laurie: (Also laughing) I know! So I’m wondering, if I seem casual to my colleagues, what are they doing, because I don’t seem casual to my students. Of course I do smile once or twice in class (more laughter), and there are times when the mood is a bit more raucous, so maybe that’s what she meant. Really, I wish everybody felt that way (smiles). I think what happens is that, once I have a group of students who actually know what we’re about, I think it’s fun then just to get down to all business and that’s the satisfying part of it, you know. And sometimes when you’re too lighthearted or too frivolous, it distracts from the work. And I feel like I have to watch myself on that because I’d often just as soon goof off or stop the penetration of an asana to share a story or something. And that’s a distraction. So you’ve got to be skillful with your reprieves . . . I think part of it is that yoga is such a miraculously and almost mind-bogglingly deep subject there comes a stage where you’re just really taking care of business and chipping away at the subtleties. For some people that may seem stern.
Chris: I don’t see that there’s really another way to do that. With some things, there’s not a casual way.
Laurie: Yes, certain things immediately draw people into a more sober state of mind. What happens, when class is going well, the mood in the room is very sober. It’s very penetrating. It’s very focused. And some people are really frightened by that. They’d kind of rather have more of a little party going on. That’s important to remember about the beginners. You can’t scare them off with all that severity. You’ve got to joke around with them a little bit and let them gain some confidence and gain some comfort.
Chris: Well, maybe there’s not a party atmosphere in the room, but don’t you think that the deep work in the classroom allows for a little more lightness outside the classroom, in one’s life?
Laurie: I think so. The problem is that my social circle is very small. Mostly because that’s the kind of person I am. I think my friends would say, “Oh yeah, she’s a pretty serious person,” but I’m not mean. I’m not judgmental towards other people, I don’t think. People say, “You know, she’s a serious person, but she likes to laugh and she accepts people for who they are.” But in class, it’s not even about the people. It’s about the subject. So, sometimes people feel like who they are as a person is getting criticized, but really it’s just that our understanding of the subject is getting honed. So you have to be a little careful that people don’t take it too personally.
Chris: And at the same time honor what we are trying to accomplish?
Chris: So, what do you hope people gain from practicing with you?
Laurie: Is this that question about what’s my intention?
Laurie: I don’t think that my intention is all that important. I think that what I intend to do as a teacher is be absolutely clear in communicating my understanding of what we’re doing. If I make it clear through my words and my demonstration then my students are going to do what they’re going to do. And their response to it is their own. So I don’t really care about their response so much as my responsibility to explain what I think they should do based on what I’ve been taught by people better than me, and my own practice as well . . . So, do I want them have a healthier body, or do I want them to get this, that or the other thing? I think that what yoga does is fill in the blanks. The really strong athletic people get something different than the sick people. The ill or injured people get something different. The exhausted people get something different. My big thing is to do the best that I can. I hope they are safe. That’s the first thing, to make sure they are safe, and that they have an experience that is transformative . . . penetrating. The main thing is I don’t want decide what they’re going to get out of it. I want them to get what they get out of it, when they do it well.
To be continued in the next issue . . .
Laurie Blakeney will helping Metro Detroit area yoga practitioners “get what they get out of yoga, when they do it well” when she teaches a weekend workshop at Living Tradition Yoga in Royal Oak from September 21 – 23, 2012. For more information, go to http://www.livingtraditionyoga.com, or call 248.591.9155