Nea Ferrier’s matter-of-fact honesty is disarming and talking to her, I felt her quality of maitrī or friendliness, which is one of the four ways that Sage Patanjali prescribes for a spiritual aspirant to purify the mind (Sutra 1.33 of the Samadhi Pada). The senior Ashtanga Teacher is the founder of Nilaya House Dubai and her international retreats are held in Europe, India and the Middle East. Living in Mysore, I’ve met every Ashtanga personality type and Nea’s capacity to adapt to and respect more than one form of spiritual practice is refreshing. While she stays true to the Ashtanga lineage, she is open-minded enough to experience the benefits of a different practice when her body needs it. She is aware of the changes in her body, and these changes inspired her to study Ṛtu Vidyā, and she’s using that knowledge to create awareness of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
I interviewed Nea on Zoom and came away with a light-hearted but profound conversation peppered with her infectious laughter…
Excerpts from the interview.
How It All started:
Nea: I was raised in a Christian family. My grandparents were Baptists, my parents weren’t Baptist but we went to a church called the church of Christ and I was really religious as a young girl. When I turned 12, I was baptised and I fervently wanted that. So I continued going to church and when I went off to university, I read women’s studies and started questioning the kind of patriarchy surrounding organised religion. I lost interest in it and went in the opposite direction because I felt constrained by the code that I’d be raised in. I wanted to explore and see what happens if I just do whatever I want. So that's what I did in my twenties. I just did whatever I wanted. That meant staying out all night and partying. I would go to nightclubs and bring my sunglasses because I knew I would be out till sunrise. I was living like a hedonist (laughs). At the time, I was in Hong Kong and it’s how everyone was living. As a result of that rollercoaster life, my emotions were also on a roller coaster. I did attend a few yoga classes in my twenties but it wasn’t in a spiritual context. I wasn’t managing my finances properly, I was out every weekend drinking and arguing with my boyfriend all the time. I was volatile and delusional to the extent that I was expecting my boyfriend at the time to propose to me, and instead, he broke up with me by email on my birthday! (laughs). I can’t even recognise who I used to be back then. But that break up was a big one. I was in Japan then for two weeks on work and I remember one day just taking a walk and questioning all of my decisions and when I looked back at my patterns, I realised alcohol was a big problem.
So I did some research and read this book called How to Manage Alcohol Abuse and the book said the first thing I should do is to give up alcohol for a month. I thought this was going to be very difficult and I had no idea how to get through the weekends without drinking. That’s when I thought of practising yoga every day and I suddenly had all this energy. It was almost intuitive and looking back, I know that was the start of my journey and I became very involved with yoga and started reading everything I could on the subject.
On Finding Faith in Mysore:
Nea: So I was practising yoga but when I tried Ashtanga Yoga, that was a turning point for me.The studio I was practising in was closing down and I asked the teacher what she was planning to do and she said, “I’ll probably just go back to Mysore.” I asked her what Mysore was and she gave me this moon day card with a photo of Pattabhi Jois and said this is the guru of Ashtanga Yoga. So I immediately decided that’s what I want to do. She asked me to go see Alexander Medin, a certified Ashtanga teacher who was in Hong Kong at the time and he became my first proper teacher and guided me to go to Mysore. And interestingly, my faith came full circle because while in Mysore, I spent time at the Anjali Ashram at the foot of the Chamundi Hill. It’s a Catholic ashram, and even though I was practising yoga, I still had my Christian upbringing and I was so confused as to how these two things could sit together. I remember praying for clarity because I believed so much in the things that I was raised with, but I was also really into yoga as well, and the message that I got was, ‘You have been born with an intellect to make your own choices and to follow your own path through your spirituality.’ And it was in that Ashram that I found out about a very progressive Catholic priest who was teaching the Yoga Sutras to his congregation. It was just the thing I needed to keep going. I am no longer a practising Christian but that was my first understanding of faith and helped me on my journey and that’s a beautiful place, too.
Nea: So that experience of drawing away from organised religion and understanding that Jesus’ teachings were not in conflict with what yoga teaches was when I began to understand the depth and acceptance of spirituality. Another profound experience was when I visited Varanasi. On that trip, I baptised myself in the Ganges and it was symbolic for me as I was starting a new journey and letting go of the conditioning that was holding me back from going deeper into yoga.
On Nilaya House, Dubai
Nea: I opened Nilaya house in Dubai and that was ten years ago — I started by renting space in a hotel. It was perfect at first and I was very content with that situation. Then the hotel raised their prices and I just thought, “I want to have my own place. That's it. I want my own shala,” and that’s what I have been doing since. It started as a place just for Ashtanga yoga but I have added more styles and teachers so we have Iyengar classes as well. My advice to students would be to stick to one practice when you begin or it can get very confusing. Once you’re established in a practice, I see no reason to try other styles. For example, once a week, I do an Iyngar style practice and I really don’t think that any one style is better or stronger than the either. They’re just different approaches to achieve the same effects.
Nea: When I turned 40, I read a book called Wild Power which was about menstrual cycle awareness. I started taking note of which date stage I was at for my menstrual cycle and that awareness made me appreciate how this cycle is built into our system. I also find a lot of women are unaware of the alignment of their asana practice with their menstrual cycle even though this knowledge is essential. So I make a point to educate my students about their cycles and I’ve even incorporated these teachings in the retreats that I’m hosting.
Nea: India is my life’s great love affair (laughs). The first time I went to India was with an Australian group tour and at the end of the trip, everyone was sad to be leaving but I just knew I’d be seeing more of this country. I knew it was the beginning of a long love affair and we’ve been in this affair for almost 20 years.
Nea’s next retreat will be held in Rajasthan, India. Find details here.