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June 4, 2014

Balanced and Awake: Zen and Yoga to Harmonize Mind and Body

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In this interview Letitia Bartlett shares a little about her extensive background in yoga and theatre and the unique perspective that this experience brings to her teaching style. Letitia Bartlett will co-lead with Kanzen David Zimmerman Balanced and Awake: Zen and Yoga to Harmonize Mind and Body retreat at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center this summer.

You have an extensive background not only in Iyengar yoga but also in clowning, miming and acting, and have taught these subjects at American Conservatory Theater and Stanford University. Could you share a little about this unique vantage point that you bring to your yoga instruction?

Moving into teaching yoga from teaching theater has been a natural extension for me as awareness, expression and refinement of body movement have been my main areas of study. The forms have different goals: Acting is focused on performance, and yoga is focused on a deeper understanding of self and peace of mind. And yet, the two disciplines overlap in many ways.

The most direct way to get to both disciplines is through action. What are you doing? As an actor, what are you trying to get or make happen? What is your objective or intention? In the practice of yoga asanas, what are you doing to find freedom and breath in the pose? How do you find the stability in the legs to open your shoulders and chest in the warrior pose?

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Practicing with this kind of inquiry and awareness reveals places that are stuck inside. For a yogi this might be a tight spot in the hip, and for a clown it might be an inability to be goofy. For an actor it might be a challenge to get mad. These obstacles are really an opportunity for us to study ourselves more deeply as human beings and find out what is getting in the way of what we really want.

The voice of a teacher can guide, caress, challenge, tease, tempt and inspire students. But the teacher has to know clearly what she wants, and create an atmosphere in the room that supports working toward that. There needs to be trust between the teacher and the student. And, the teacher should be kind.

Students want to give—they want to reveal the best of themselves whether onstage or in an intimate moment with themselves. The intention and passion of a teacher needs to ignite and begin percolating in the student. There is a transfer that happens as the student begins to access deeper wells inside himself.

On teaching itself, the teacher has to provide a plan, a way of getting there, a series of exercises, a sequence of poses. Lengthen the back of you neck, soften your jaw, press your feet into the floor, help her get up, lead her to the window, give her a drink etc. These imperative commands get a student to explore a variety actions, and hopefully come up with something that is helpful. An actor will find a specific posture or vocal pattern or gesture that triggers the life of the character. A clown will find freedom to expose their vulnerability. A yogi will find a more blissful pose after a minor adjustment is made. Teachers help us get out of the way of ourselves so expression can flow more freely.

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Are there certain yoga poses that you find to be conducive to eliciting joy or peacefulness or any other human emotion?

In general, backbends and poses that open the spine and the chest are stimulating to the mind and open the heart so they bring great joy.  Warrior 1, Camel, the Wheel are all great for this. These poses can bring up fear at first, (trepidation…. this is going to hurt etc. ) But ultimately, at whatever level the student can go, these poses feel wonderful and promote well-being and happiness.

Forward bends bring more surrender, introspection and, hopefully, peace and acceptance. All of the standing poses bring strength and stability to the legs so these poses promote self-confidence and status.

You and David Zimmerman have been offering “Balanced and Awake” yoga retreats for several years now and consequently you seem to have really perfected your offering. One participant from last year described the retreat as “just what the doctor ordered.” 

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Working with David has been a total joy for me.  He has a light spirit and brings a levity into the room that I appreciate. Sense of humor and sense of play—after all we are at Tassajara where as soon as we get off that Stage, we are officially having a Good Time.

Balanced and Awake: Zen and Yoga to Harmonize Mind and Body led by Letitia Bartlett and Kanzan David Zimmerman runs Thursday, August 21, through Sunday, August 24, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. All are welcome.

(Interview by Sachico Ohanks, SFZC Communications Coordinator. Photos by Margo Moritz.)

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