Interview with Stephanie Spence

How did you get started on your yoga path?

A diplomat’s daughter, I grew up partly in India in Madras, now Chennai. Convalescing from the after-effects of yellow fever, my mother followed the advice of a friend and decided to try yoga. My father organised the best teacher available to the expatriate community in the 1970’s, but alas my mother did not have the patience for yoga. The yogi master was relegated to the children, and as my two older brothers seemed to have better things to do, I at age 4, was the primary recipient of his teachings. My parents reported that I enjoyed the yoga greatly, and I have very vague scraps of memory of doing lion breath with a funny-looking bearded friendly man with big bright eyes, who gave me his full attention. Being the youngest, I was not used to that.

My father was next posted at the United Nations in New York, and my mother sent me to ballet classes. A tomboy at heart, I didn’t like them and soon quit.
It was only many years later, having already studied yoga in depth academically as part of my Masters degree in Religious Studies (SOAS, London) and Comparative Religions (Oxford University), that I rediscovered the asana practice on a 10-day silent meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand. Having had the luxury of clearly observing the effects of yoga in the framework of a silent retreat, I knew then without the shadow of a doubt, that asana-vinyasa was far more effective and powerful than any other exercise I’d known, and more importantly a valuable compliment to meditation. When I returned to London, I searched out the only regular yoga class – Iyengar – in walking distance to my apartment in Notting Hill (unimaginable now that you can find yoga centres on every corner of this now expensive neighbourhood), and attended regularly. The next quantum shift came when a naughty cover teacher introduced us to Ashtanga Vinyasa. Then I was completely hooked and willing to cycle across town, early mornings through cold and dark, to Mysore practice at the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in Bloomsbury.

Inspiration for your quantum yoga?

I soon got heavily into the Ashtanga practice, working on Advanced A & B sequences. To balance out the exhilarating but hyped up effect I would experience, I counter-balanced the Ashtanga with Shadow Yoga, which was much closer the martial arts like Chi Gong, and therefore more calming and grounding. Occasionally I would still do an intensive workshop at the Iyengar Institute too.

However, I found that I would penetrate deepest, when I broke away from any formal style-specific practice, and flowed into a sort of spontaneous and intuitive yoga play. Hitherto inaccessible asana would become possible, but more importantly that elusive and lofty pursuit of “Union with the Absolute”, the definition of yoga I had so often penned down at Uni, in precious moments of absorption, I then realised is not an experience reserved only for dreadlocked sadhus (ascetics) or pure and pious Brahmin (India’s priestly caste).

The yoga scene of the nineties and naughties was political. If you were an Ashtangi, you wouldn’t want to be seen doing Iyengar and vice-versa. They all thought Shivananda and related practices like Satyananda etc. was for lightweights, whereas the Shivanandis believed offshoots from the Krishnamacharya lineage never got past the first four limbs of Patanjali’s system of the Eight Limbs (Ashtanga therefore being the biggest misnomer). Then Bikram exploded onto the scene, and things became really heated.

Meanwhile, I had studied both with Sri K Patthabi Jois in Mysore, as well as BKS Iyengar and family in Pune, and was left dissatisfied. I didn’t know yet with total certainty that I had in fact found my guru in Clive Sheridan, but it is Clive’s pranayama instruction and satsang (spiritual discourse) that make him so invaluable and unique. Without meeting the charismatic Danny Paradise, whose approach to Ashtanga was neither fanatical nor cultish, I probably would have stopped.

Having grown up largely in Asia, the holistic approach to health that Ayurveda offers is second nature to me. I’ve always knows that there is no one remedy that fits everyone, just as there is no diet that is good for all body types, nor can there be a single yoga sequence that fits everyone at all times. I could see the imbalance and damage the rigid adherence to “the system” was doing to Ashtangis, including myself, not to mention Bikram.

At the same time, my study of quantum physics offered a clear explanation why I was advancing faster and penetrating deeper in my free, conscious and creative yoga sessions. When I allowed myself to stray from pre-fabricated sequences, I was forced to enter a dialogue with the mind-body. Here I began listening to the bio-feedback I was getting, rather than overruling it, lovingly and patiently responding to the emotions generated by physical sensations, and always aiming for balance. Quantum Yoga is a listening practice. The transformative potential of any activity increases in direct relation to the level of consciousness with which it is done. This is especially so for sadhana, spiritual practice. As my guru Clive keeps reminding his students: Pay attention!

How do you use to meet and move through challenges?

what or how – can be metaphorical or actual postures, practices (breath, whatever)

Yoga, and here I mean the entirety of the teachings (not just asana), rouses a faculty of cognition referred to as the buddhi, inadequately translated as “intellect”. The English language does not posses a word for buddhi, because it grew out of a completely different worldview. The buddhi is still part of manas, the mind, and therefore part of prakriti (“nature” or all that is not purusha, “spirit”). The buddhi however is that part of you that recognises the inner turbulence as unreal (“real” in the ultimate sense means permanent and uncaused). It is from here that the longing for space, stillness and bliss comes – our root state. The practice of yoga therefore has equipped me with the ability to differentiate between all that is caused by my mind interacting with an ever-changing world that I am navigating to the best of my ability, and that inner sanctum, which is totally unaffected, and was never born, nor will it ever die. I’m passionately involved in life’s ups and downs, but the true Self dwells in a state of impersonal witnessing. Regular yoga practice and the non-dual state of pure consciousness thus cultivated, brings about an emancipation from the ego-mind, and the identification of the illusion of separation. Life’s challenges can now be tackled with powerful and courageous calm, without the blinding and weakening interference of the “little me”. When there is no more voice insisting that life is not fair, no part of you that has an agenda, nothing left to fix, except whatever challenge is immediately at hand, you are free. This freedom gives me the strength to face life’s many challenges.

What has yoga taught you about life? And yourself?

This one is tricky to answer, because yoga has been such a long-standing companion to me. It is as natural and necessary to me as brushing my teeth. Yoga has taught me about myself, that the stronghold of the ego is incredibly powerful, and that therefore yoga is not just a goal, but a practice that I must maintain always. Yoga restored my ability to see the wonder that is life. I have infinite gratitude for the teachings that have allowed me to penetrate so deep, and touch on the primordial bliss that I know lies at the basis of all that is manifest.