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Weekend Request Post: My Greatest Yoga Teachers

Katja Kokko | 8.2.2015

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The subject of the weekend’s request post number two is a very relevant one: my greatest Ashtanga yoga teachers, and what I’ve learned from them. As you might know, my ten-week beginners’ Ashtanga class starts tomorrow. Those attending the classes might also be interested in my background with yoga, and so I’m writing this post with those people in mind – we’ll be focusing on more important matters than my own yoga journey during the classes themselves.

I began practicing Ashtanga yoga in 2009. I had been curious about yoga for years, but hadn’t really been to any hobby groups, much less participated in sports classes, in ages. I was an avid runner at the time, but that was the extent of my exercising – I had no muscles or elasticity to speak of. Endurance was my only forte.

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Inspired by a friend, I went to a hot yoga class, and was instantly sold. That first class sparked such an interest for yoga that I would find myself at the studio at least four times a week, with my social life entirely built around classes. I more or less stopped going to bars; I wanted to spend every hour doing yoga. Barely two months later, I was so in love with this new sport that I began researching the subject further. I found Perti Räisänen’s Astanga book, and after finishing it in the course of an evening, I felt I had to attend a beginners Asthanga class. I liked hot yoga, but felt the practice was missing that something. Reading Petri’s book made me feel like Ashtanga yoga might offer me that missing piece; a philosophy of life, of which the physical practice is only a small, but nevertheless important, part.

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I surfed the net, looking for yoga studios in Helsinki offering Ashtanga classes, and would probably have attended the beginners’ class at Helsingin Astanga Joogakoulu, if not for the nightmare of trying to navigate the studio’s website at the time. Instead, I caught sight of an ad to the beginners’ class at Joogasali Asana, (which has closed since then) and signed up to a class run by Juhana Lauronen.

Juhana is the first, very important, teacher on my yogic path. He was extremely motivating and encouraging; never tired of my endless questions, and was just demanding enough when it came to practicing asanas – laziness was not allowed, and this suited me fine. The beginners’ Ashtanga class swept me off my feet, and I dropped hot yoga. I was still stiff as a board, could barely touch my fingertips to the floor, and my press-ups could hardly be called such – balancing on one leg seemed like an insurmountable task. But Juhana, who told me that he himself had once been among the world’s stiffest people, could now cross his ankles behind his neck and jump from one asana to the next with perfect poise and lightness. In other words, I was convinced from the start that one day, if I only practiced regularly, my body would also be capable of all those things.

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In the practicing of Ashtanga asanas I found, for the first time in my life, a truly motivating and inspiring form of exercise. My weak, unmuscular, and loose body began to change rapidly. After three months I noticed that my biceps, shoulders, and back were becoming more defined. The backs of my thighs were extremely tight, however, with bruises from hot yoga mottling the skin; it took six months before forward bends stopped hurting, and began to actually deepen. Besides inspiring me to improve my physical fitness, Ashtanga also had an effect on my mind, which began manifesting almost right away. This is common, I think. I began to rejoice over my mere existence, and my mind quieted down. This inexplicable sense of wellness was one of the things that drove me to the studio on an almost daily basis.

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The greatest tips I got from Juhana were slow press-ups and building strength. Ashtanga requires not only physical strength and control, but physical strength in order to maintain control. For a long time, surya namaskara (sun salutation) B was a battle for survival for me; slowly, I began amassing strength, my breathing becoming slower and more even. I was meticulous with each press-up, and began practicing lifts as soon as I began the sitting series. I was stumbling left and right, of course, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t care what I looked like. This was Juhana’s influence: I stopped comparing myself to others, and never felt inferior to the student with several years’ practice under their belt, doing their asanas next to me – I simply enjoyed my own practice, and the changes my body was undergoing with each inhalation and gasp.

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After a good eighteen months of practicing at Joogasali Asana, I attended my intensive course, held by Petri Räisänen and Juhana Javanainen at Helsingin Astaga Joogakoulu, around Easter. This turned into a yearly Easter tradition for me. I came away from the course with the full primary series in my back pocket, and a new point-of-view to the practice in general. The course had a wonderful, intensive energy, and I realized I was being taught by true professionals. The assistance and advice were unlike anything I’d experienced before, and I realized that sooner or later, I would have to switch studios. I also attended my first yoga philosophy class at the time; until then I’d been relying on books.

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I finally changed studios that fall, and began practicing under Juha Javanainen at Helsingin Astanga Joogakoulu’s new studio on Annankatu. Juha was a very exact teacher, helping me to advance my practice and motivate me to go further. I attended two of Petri Räisänen’s intensive courses that fall; the next winter I spent a month in Thailand at one of Petri’s yoga retreats on Koh Maki. Petri became one of my most important teachers, and I’ve attended nearly all of his courses in Helsinki since then. I feel that the greatest insight I’ve gained from Petri’s has been, not so much into the physical practice, but the mental and spiritual one; he taught me to approach my asana practice with gentleness, and without hurrying, inspiring me by sharing the teachings of his own guruji and bonesetter masters. Petri has motivated me on my yogic path, inspiring in me a respect for this amazing practice.

After a month at Koh Maki, I began practicing the intermediate series under the tuition of Virpi Karjalainen at upstairs studio on Annankatu. That same spring I also attended an intensive course by New Yorker Eddie Stern, the most memorable part of which was the yoga philosophy classes. To this day, those classes are what I most look forward to in Eddie’s yearly intensives.

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I spent almost a year practicing my asanas on my own. There are stages in yoga when the need for assistance is reduced – usually when you’re focusing on your current practice, instead of learning new asanas. Besides the occasional tip or advice, this is a fairly independent process.

Juha came back to teach at the Astanga Joogakoulu studio on Kolmas Linja that fall, and the downstairs studio was claimed by Maarit Nevanperä. I’d heard so many great things about Maarit that I had to try one of her classes. I never did end up going back upstairs. What I love most about Maarit is her wonderful personality: with a determined yet humble demeanor, she gave her the students her full attention. I can’t help but respect people like this – especially teachers, of which Petri is another good example. Maarit didn’t demand authority, she just had it. With her help, I was able to advance in my secondary series. But the greatest challenge in my asana practice, one which many would have taken as a sign to give up the practice and try something else, was ahead of me. I began feeling a stabbing pain in my lower back, which eventually became unbearable. I remember Maarit telling me that most people would quit at this stage, and that while it was a stage that many people went through, it would pass. I didn’t doubt her for a second, but I also couldn’t see a way out of it. I couldn’t explain the pain to Maarit, and as she’d never had back trouble herself, she couldn’t possibly know how it felt.

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I was upset, because every time the pain eased up, it would come back twice as worse. For six months I tried to understand what was going on, attempting to determine a limit where the pain was normal, and where I wouldn’t make it worse. Every now and then I went to Taina Sandel’s Sunday and afternoon classes, and she is by far one of the loveliest teachers I’ve had – I still miss those classes. An accident had almost literally broken her back, and she had rehabilitated herself through asana practice. A teacher who understood what the pain felt like was a blessing. At her instruction, I began doing three different abdominal exercises at home, every morning and evening. The pain was still there, but I noticed an immediate change in my practice. This was the first time I understood how important the front body – abdomen, pelvis, and upper thigh – strength and control were. The abdominal exercises were the only relief I had found for my pain, and so I continued doing them, like clockwork.

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The following Easter I attended Magnus Appelberg’s intensive course at Rööperin Aamujooga and, for some reason, was pain-free throughout. Magnus’ infectious sunny energy and unusual anatomical approach to the practice made the course unforgettable.

In May came Eddie Stern’s intensive course. The pain was unbearable; after a session on the second day, I was unable to get up from the floor. I didn’t cry but my eyes were tearing up from the sheer agony I was in. Eddie noticed this and gave me extra attention for the remained of the course, for which I am eternally grateful. I’m not sure if my back would ever have healed if it was not for his advice; his words – “your body wants to heal itself” – were also very comforting. Eddie made me pause so he could modify my practice to make it more therapeutic for my back. Maarit also spoke to Eddie about my back. Having a teacher who was interested in rehabilitating me was wonderful.

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The downstairs studio at Annankatu closed for the summer, and I moved upstairs to attend Piia Lehtinen’s summer classes. Piia is the only certified Ashtanga yoga teacher in Finland, which means that she has a teaching certificate for the advanced series from Sharath Jois. Piia understood my situation perfectly, and under her instruction, and with Eddie’s advice, my back began recovering at dizzying pace.

The next fall was a difficult one. My cat Romppu fell ill and required care almost around the clock, forcing me to put my practice on hold for several weeks. I was generally burnt out. My yoga practice was sporadic and I only barely managed to keep myself from falling off the wagon entirely. My teacher, Maarit, was deepening her knowledge of the practice at KPJAYI in Mysore, India, and I felt very lost and alone with my own. Piia had only worked as a stand-in for the upstairs summer morning classes; Taina was teaching an evening course, which don’t work for me, and the teachers of the upstairs morning classes didn’t know a thing about my back. Mixed in with all of this was my own deep sense of frustration. I went to naprapath Loko Löfgren every few weeks for a bit of body maintenance, and we fell into several interesting discussions – Loko being an ex-Ashtanga yogi himself.

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In the winter, I spent an extremely harmonizing, cleansing and therapeutic two weeks on Petri Räisänen’s retreat at Purple Valley in Goa. Despite a stomach bug from hell, the trip was so unforgettable and beautiful that I can still feel Purple Valley in my body. My back pain was all but gone, and the new developments in my body gave rise to a huge number of new insights.

I had decided that I would change yoga studios on my return to Finland, and so I found myself under the tutelage of Magnus Appelberg at Rööperin Aamujooga. I had only meant to try the place out and see if I wanted to stay there or join Piia Lehtinen’s class a Moola. I stayed, and have been with Magnus ever since. The studio on Merimiehenkatu feels comfortable, and Magnus and his wife Riitta have almost become a second family to me.

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Magnus has given me the greatest anatomical insight to yoga since I started, changing my body completely in the process. I had become so conditioned to my back pain that thought it would hinder me even long after the pain itself had disappeared. I slowly began to realize that I also needed to let go of the pain in my mind – once I did, I shot forward in my practice. I feel such amazing joy right now – joy for my pain-free back, and for everything I’ve experienced and learned thanks to it. Since last summer, my practice has been a sustaining one; I’m allowing myself to slowly make my way to a more intensive level of training. There’s no rush, as this practice is a life-long one, and ups and downs are part of the journey.

My new class tomorrow marks the beginning of a new stage in my yogic path. Since last fall I’ve been assisting Magnus once a week, and held a week-long introductory course. The new course will be ten weeks long, with three classes a week and roomful of new students. I am nervous, there’s no denying that, but so far I’ve also been surprisingly calm. I don’t expect perfection from myself. What I want most of all is to inspire and motivate my students to a regular practice, and help them find the comprehensive joy of yoga.

In addition to the teachers I mentioned, I’ve also studied yoga philosophy with Måns Broo, and attended intensive courses by Mark Robberds, Clayton Horton, Kino MacGregor, Charlie Taylor-Rugman, and Sarath Jois.

Rock om – let the practice commence!

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Photos Dorit Salutskij

Translation Katja Nikula

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  1. Michelle says:

    Thank you for this article – it is very inspiring. Please can you advise what core work you did to heal your back? I would really appreciate this information.

    Thank you!
    Michelle