The Art of Being Happy

“India still surprises me.” Certified Ashtanga Yoga Teacher, Founder of Omstars and the Miami Life Centre and author of six books, Kino MacGregor, has been coming to India for over two decades, and while India still surprises her, this interview with Kino and getting to know her was a pleasant surprise for me. I had done an Instagram live with Kino two years ago and I’ve collaborated with her team at Omstars so when I found out she was in Mysore in December last year, I approached her for this interview and invited her to my home (where I work from). Around the same time, Canada-based Certified Ashtanga Teacher Harmony Slater featured Kino on her Finding Harmony podcast and as this happened a week before my interview, I listened to Harmony’s podcast with Kino as research for my interview. 

In addition to Ashtanga, friendship, love, and farming, Harmony and Kino highlighted Kino’s new book about making ashtanga accessible. When I met Kino, I asked her to elaborate on what this means because the ashtanga community is known for its adherence to prop-free practice so I asked Kino if it is still ashtanga if it is modified? There's a couple of things. If we go back to Pattabhi Jois, his teaching was always breath, mental focus and asana. So there’s three elements present in an asana. There's three elements present in the ashtanga method and when these three elements are present, then this constitutes the firm foundation of the practice. So if you do a series and the postures are ordered in a particular way, but you're not working on your mental focus or you're not breathing deeply, even though those asanas may be arranged in a particular sequence, it's still not going to be ashtanga yoga… So when we have breath, emphasis on body awareness, emphasis on breath awareness, and emphasis on the mind or mental focus, then we have the foundation of ashtanga yoga. When we get too stuck in defining that more, we can lose sight of the way that Patttabhi Jois really meant to teach asana as part of a tool for spiritual development. I think what many people missed is that he was always willing to adapt the series to each student. Some people don’t want to do anything to damage the lineage and they want to keep how they’ve been taught strict and pure, and that’s fine. It comes from a good place. But when it turns into a dogma that becomes, ‘you do this or it's not yoga,’ that becomes dangerous because then, instead of yoga being adaptive or having the ability to meet the student where they are, yoga begins to be exclusive, competitive, elitist and judgmental. It's the exact opposite of the way yoga is designed to be. So when we think about adaptations, and if we're going to call it ashtanga yoga, they should always fit within the rubric of breath, body and mind. If these three elements are present and we're facilitating the student's ability to go within, and we're helping them do the work of the practice that generates that internal fire of purification, then we don't really have anything to worry about. But if we're doing adaptations that take students away from breath, body and mind, if we're doing things that take students away from the tools to work on their spiritual sadhana, that’s when we're moving away from the lineage. Think about it. Even if it is just using a block. For some students, giving them a block will help them go deeper into their practice whereas for another student, you may give them a block and it may take them out of their work. So the teacher has to be very attuned to ‘how he or she can help the student truly get the foundation of breath, body and mind.’ Right now, what I found is that teachers have no idea how to adapt the practice. So you have students that come in that have two total knee replacements and a metal rod holding up their spine and they have organ dysfunction that prevents them from doing the postures in the same way that someone without those disabilities would. In such cases, I found that ashtanga teachers don't have the tools to understand how to adapt the practice. Teachers just have no instructions about how to do that and they don't know that it's okay for them to be creative and to meet that student and adapt the practice. So I started to create an accessible version of the primary series and even some second series asanas, which can be very beneficial and therapeutic. What I've done in the book that I'm currently working on, which will be out in a year, is to have one chair option and one floor option that are considered sort of adaptations or variations in the asanas while staying true to the series. It's up to the teacher and student how to use those and how to figure out what a student should do and shouldn’t do. And there's the idea in ashtanga yoga that you should be grounded in one asana before you get a new asana and what that means for each student is really between teacher and student. So we can't apply this ‘everyone should catch, everyone should do this, everyone should that’ approach. That's not even how Pattabhi Jois and Sharathji have been teaching. So when students create a dogma out of how they have uniquely been taught, they've missed what's been going on in the broad spectrum of what's actually happening in the room, you know?”

Kino is not a rebel. If you’ve been following her work, you know this is a woman who lives without fear and is not weighed down by external judgement. Meeting her though, I didn’t feel a sense of rebellion it was confidence. I meet a lot of yoga teachers and students from across the world and I often observe students from the West take on a completely new identity in India and confuse being Indian with being spiritual. This results in cultural appropriation more than inner personality development. What delighted me about Kino is just how herself she is there isn’t a trace of Indianness in her. One of the debates in the Western yoga community is the separation of Hinduism from spirituality. But, is this debate fair to the Hindu community because to them, it is their faith. Kino feels, “it's a super good question for reflection and I do think situating oneself with humility in the space of how one is interacting with this knowledge is very important. It's so easy from the outside looking in to say ‘Oh, well, this is wrong with this culture,’ because you're judging it from standards that are within your own culture. It's easy from the outside to look in and say, ‘this is wrong.’ But from the inside to evolve and grow is so much more difficult. I think it's easy for people who have been trained in the higher level, critical thinking skills of social justice movements of the West to take that same lens and apply that to cultures that are not their own. And it becomes really easy to export a certain type of thinking. In the US, a lot of communities bring up Hinduphobia and I think that is a very valid question within the United States because Hinduphobia is real from non-Hindu communities. When you experience trauma of race in a white dominant society when you're biracial or you're multiracial and there is real lived race trauma that you deal with every single day, the aspects of your culture that you might not even think of if you were raised within India, become apparent and you will downplay elements of your culture to fit in into the white dominant society. There are a lot of Christian churches, Jewish synagogues and Muslim mosques in the US that are terrified of Hinduism. Whereas in India, it’s flipped the Christians are the minority. I think it's really important to culturally place context in how you interact with each experience. It’s a balancing act. For example, if you’re half-Indian born and raised in the US, be aware of what it means when you come into contact with Hinduphobia and similarly in India, if there is a sense of overt nationalism, those issues should be addressed, too. I don't think anybody can do anything other than contextualise themselves. But, I'd really like to say that yoga is a gift that comes from India's rich spiritual history and we cannot divorce the benefits we get from yoga from the long history of yoga in India. We cannot wash out the spiritual elements of it. We can integrate the spiritual elements of it into whatever our personal practice is with an acknowledgement of the origin of the roots of yoga. My understanding is that before the British Raj, the kind of philosophy that was present in India was more referred to as Sanatana Dharma and that this is the origin of yoga and the way of truth. So when we think about the history of the knowledge of yoga, we have to go long back and then acknowledge that and it's completely impossible to divorce yoga from its roots. If we don't have the core teachings rooted in the spirituality of the practice, then what are we left with? Just stretching, and that's not yoga.”

One of Pattabhi Jois’ most quoted sayings is, “99% percent practice, 1% theory.” As a student of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga…, all of which are Indian schools of philosophy, I cringe everytime I hear this because yes, practice is important, it is essential and without it there is no experience. But, the scriptures put that experience into context (spiritual progress), so what does Kino think about the theory vs practice debate. “One of the reasons why Pattabhi Jois said less theory is because in Western universities, the whole pedagogical framework is a challenge. You're meant to challenge your teachers. You're meant to challenge and find out the problems of all of the texts. So you're meant to deconstruct things. When you approach the sacred spiritual teachings of the yoga lineages from the paradigm of ‘how can I see what’s wrong with the vedas’ or ‘how can I see what was wrong with the sutras,’ this is the completely wrong approach because yoga and Indian philosophy have a different pedagogical framework. These slightly confrontational deconstructivists would do the same at the shala and talk about how a certain sutra or veda contradicts itself and Pattabhi Jois would just tell them to practise, practise, practise, and that is why he said only 1% theory. But if students want to study philosophy, they should do so along with a strong foundation in practice as well. Philosophy without practise and practise without knowledge of the scriptures are both incomplete. And it’s not like Pattabhi Jois didn’t teach philosophy, he was a professor of Sanskrit and philosophy. It’s just that he would say a few words in English and the rest was in Kannada so a lot was lost. It was up to us students to pursue that knowledge.”

When I collaborated with Kino and Omstars two years ago, it was to provide more Indian teachers with an international platform and opportunity because even the spiritually developed have to earn a living. But given the corruptive nature of money and fame, I asked Kino how a yoga teacher can offer authentic teachings and earn enough money to be independent and remain uncorrupted by greed? “There are a couple of different ways we can think about how we want to give back to the teaching we've received. For some people that will lead them down the journey of becoming a teacher, and for other people that may lead them down the path of contributing to the yoga community in a different way. You know, Pattabhi Jois always used to say that not everybody needs to become a yoga teacher. So I think first and foremost is to really consider why you want to teach? What's your motivation? Are you choosing this as a career path or is this something that you’ve been organically drawn towards? There are many people with gifts that can contribute immensely to the lineage that aren't related to teaching, so that's something everybody who's considering being a yoga teacher should take pause and reflect on do you have some other gifts that are actually a better way for you to contribute to the yoga community? And if so, do what you do with yogic values. So if you’re a banker, be a banker but never lose your commitment to the yamas and the niyamas. If you’re a politician (and we need politicians with moral and ethical foundations), be a politician with yogic values. You don’t have to quit your job or vocation and always choose teaching yoga as a career. You can always have that job and teach yoga as charity too. But, if this is your main career, and if being a yoga teacher is your main livelihood, then you might not have the space to be as charitable. That’s ok. If you make the decision to be a studio owner, first of all, understand that if you own a studio, you’re running a business. Even the ashram has to balance the budget, you know. We need to have some sort of cognizance about keeping a balanced budget. Make a business plan and then understand that keeping the studio alive and keeping everything sustainable with the goal of providing a service to the community is what a successful business is. If you want to start smaller and go more organically, you probably need a second job to support yourself financially and let it build slowly. If you're someone that can take on a lot of extra things to make ends meet, then I think that you can make the transition faster. But the number one thing I would say to anyone who's struggling with the idea of being a yoga teacher, is don’t think about ‘how am I going to make it?’ Don't rush into teaching. Stay with your practice. Practice. And what will happen is that if teaching is something that's in your path, at some moment, people will start asking you. For example, say you work at a large corporation or you're an engineer, or you work in data processing, if your colleagues know you’re practising yoga, suddenly someone might ask you to teach and it can start that small. But continue your practice and wait for the world to ask you and let it happen organically and slowly. Let it evolve. By then, you'll have a firm foundation of your own personal practice. So then those questions about ‘how do I make money?’ and ‘how do I do it ethically?’ They'll start to naturally be resolved.”

I’d been talking to Kino for over an hour and had a few more questions left in the interview about yoga and spirituality, but the conversation organically moved into the feminism space. It went there when I shared an observation I had about women a few years ago. Living in Mysore, I meet women from across the world and what I thought were issues specific to Indian women, are issues that plague women across the world. At the same time, I avoid generalisation because not all of us have equal resources or opportunity. I studied feminism in college and despite that, I find the word vague at times because it has mutated into so many strains from what it was originally meant to be. Kino thinks we should, “rephrase the concept of feminism as intersectional feminism so that we understand that the concept of equality isn't just about women's liberation. It's really about the liberation of all inequities. When we can take a look at the intersectionality of who we are, this allows us to see what we share on some planes with some individuals and what we have on different planes with different individuals. So we may intersect at the level of biological gender identifying as female and then also being heterosexual. We can have an intersection of privilege at all of those different points. Then we can have some places where we don't intersect. I may have some different privileges and disadvantages than you and you may have some different privileges and advantages than I do. We need to see and understand those points of divergence and the points of intersection where we meet and the points of divergence where we are different. The key with the concept of intersectionality is that we can have more places of intersection with more people by understanding the different compartments of identity identity that makes us who we are. It's more of a meeting and coming together, and less of an action plan. It's more of a dialogue and less of a definition. In that way, we don't necessarily need to be putting anyone in boxes and saying, ‘women of the east and women of the west, or even women, period.’”

Kino has been practising Vipassana for years and as I practitioner of the same meditation, I asked her about her experience with Vipassana or any form of meditation. While asana practice as a daily sadhana is a great foundation for meditation, I asked what she would recommend to students who have been practising asana for a few years but wish to move into deeper states of meditation. “I’d encourage anyone that's been doing yoga for more than two or five years to start doing a daily sitting practice. There are a lot of people who are resistant to it but I place an emphasis on it in my teaching. I find that when people get over the fear of what it means to sit in silence, they really see and experience the benefits. It's really just about getting over that initial hurdle of fear and then the benefits just immediately start to express themselves. And if it’s just not for some people, that's okay too. It’s like with yoga tradition, for some people, ashtanga yoga is not their path and that’s ok, they practise another tradition…Some people choose the path of japa, some practise transcendental meditation…it’s all ok and it works. I really just encourage anybody who's been doing asana for more than two or five years to think about opening up to some contemplative practice. We really have to have the teacher’s encouragement to start opening up to the more subtle aspects of the practice and this I think is very, very, very important. It's really just fear that prevents people from doing it. If we look at what Patanjali says in the yoga sutras, only the experiences born from a mind of meditation are free from samsaras and karmas. So at some moment, we need to enter deep into a meditative state. How we get there is what the teaching is all about,” explained Kino.

When I was transcribing this interview and listening to our conversation, I felt the same lightness when I was around Kino in person. I realised why I felt so comfortable. I was in the company of a happy person. That’s really the most surprising thing about Kino. She has all the depth and profound understanding that comes from decades of spiritual practice and yet, she carries it so lightly (but always with respect). It’s the same feeling I get when I meet the Buddhist Monks at the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Bylakuppe (a few hours from Mysore). They’re child-like and deeply profound simultaneously. Kino’s new book is called Act of Love and it’s her first non-asana book. She said she wrote it because she wanted to, “take into account the spiritual intersection that I’m at. It takes into account my years of Vipassana meditation. It takes into account my strong foundation of dedication to asana practice and some personal religious experience that I've had with Jesus.All that comes through in my teaching. In the book, I shared a very revelatory experience in which I felt a spiritual presence that came through me and simply said the words ‘let everything you do be an act of love.’ I have imbibed that in my life and my teaching. The book contains stories from my teaching as well as personal stories and it breaks down what love is and what it means to act with love across all the roles we play in life, personal and professional.” Kino is happy and she does everything with love, and that’s proof that the practice works. After all, don’t we all practise yoga to find happiness and love for the self.

For more information, visit Kino Yoga.