Teaching What “Is”—
Interview with Jill Satterfield (by Genia Gould)
Hanging from silks, or sweating in heated rooms, taking poses to extremes. These are among dozens of ways that yoga is being taught in our country today. In North Brooklyn alone, WG recently wrote about 17 studios in a two-part series in January and March called “OMMMM My God, So Many Yoga Studios.” This month, I had the opportunity to meet renowned Vajra Yoga and Buddhist meditation teacher Jill Satterfield, who moved to Williamsburg in March. We spoke about the yoga scene and her thoughts on its fast-growing popularity. While applauding the benefits of asanas (poses), she takes issue with some of the ways yoga has developed. She reminds the yogis and yoginis out there to remember the practice of quieting the mind.
Satterfield, blonde, youthful, 50-ish, has the calmness and openness of someone who’s done a good deal of spiritual work. Her path began with overcoming a life threatening physical condition—the peristalsis activity in her gut, normally a function of the autonomic nervous system, shut down. In chronic pain and with a serious prognosis from Western doctors, it propelled her into many years of seeking—Eastern and Western therapies, yoga and meditation practice, and over a hundred long, silent retreats.
She was finally able to do what Tibetan monks and yogis have been able to do for thousands of years. Through deep study of herself, she learned about the body mind connection, and was able to restore normal function to her intestines—confounding her doctors and modern medicine.
Satterfield’s been teaching yoga and meditation for more than 25 years, but in the last ten years her focus has been on promoting and developing a nonprofit organization, School for Compassionate Action, which is about bringing her knowledge out of the yoga studio to patients and health care professionals in hospitals and incarceration facilities, rehabs, and schools.
She is featured in magazines and has had the distinction of being named “one of the four leading yoga and Buddhist teachers in the country.“ She teaches regularly at the Tibet House in NYC. She is on the faculty of Spirit Rock Meditation Centers Mindfulness for Yoga Training and the Kripalu Institute’s Integral Leadership Program for young adults.
WG: What do you think about the yoga scene right now?
JS: I think the way that yoga is being practiced right now is like a two-sided sword, it’s great because it’s bringing people into their bodies, it draws communities together, it gets people interested in a different way of living, you know food, health, maybe low-impact living and so on. The flip side, and there always is one, might be that it is a bit harsh, depending on the style—there can be a lot of pushing too far, over efforting going on. It’s like anything in our culture, there are superstars and gurus and the “best,” and it’s rated and faster and harder. It’s become more extreme in some studios.
So, you’ve moved away from the yoga studios? Why is that? Yes, for the most part. The reason I’m not involved with yoga centers per se is because the yoga I enjoy and am fascinated by isn’t what’s being touted right now, or the most well known way to practice. I still teach in yoga centers, and Buddhist centers, but when I offer a class or workshop I try to make sure that the description of what we are doing is clear so that everyone knows what they’re getting into! I place more emphasis on the subtle, the mind, being awake in the body, rather than just being able to hold an extreme posture. It’s more challenging to be introspective, to be contemplative. It’s more challenging to be with what “is.”
It’s quite difficult to be introspective and aware of how things are when you’re moving very quickly, listening to music and being told when and how to move, when and how to breathe. You can’t meditate when you’re moving a mile a minute. You can’t smell a flower, or absorb its colors when you speed by it.
For those who have a yoga practice, what do you recommend? I would suggest taking the postures they find most liberating—easiest, actually—and spending some time with them, really sink in and explore them. There’s a quote from the poet Kahlil Gibran, “I saw the ocean in a dew drop.”
If you take one thing and fully examine it, you see all things. It’s like Indra’s net; everything’s reflective of everything else, if you practice one pose and really stay in it with whatever is present, whether it’s being present with your breath, every sensation that rises and falls, watching and letting go of the thoughts that go through your mind, with the emotions that come up, with the energy, with the whole process of being in something for a while. Then, you can really meditate in the posture, really embody the pose. We’re always in a pose of sorts. Just sitting at a desk, we’re in a seated pose. If we’re in the body, whatever the body is doing, we can meditate for a few seconds, minutes, etc., just by being awake.
Is this is directed at people who are teaching yoga classes? It is teachers who are leading the students, so if a teacher is more introspective, they will hopefully teach from that introspection. If a teacher is more into the physical, they will come from there. The most important thing is to actually practice alone, a lot. Take the initiative to really break something down, to question, to inquire. I think the better teachers are those who really inquire and take the time on their own to practice, to look. A teacher is really deep down a student—and an investigator —someone who isn’t simply accepting what someone else has said, like, oh well, if you’re tight here it means or this. Or this chakra means this or that, but someone who seeks their own experience before believing something is true.
Guidance is important, and it’s essential to have someone in our lives who might have traversed the path longer than us, had much more experience, someone we can check in with, get instructions from, learn refinements from. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. It can get a bit narrow inside our own small mind, a bit askew or jaded, if we don’t air ourselves out with fresh perspectives, direction and advice.
The work comes in when we utilize directions as path, and actually walk it to see where it goes! We need to get inside ourselves and test to see if we can have the experience that we’re pointed towards, and if we don’t, we might question it. You don’t have to buy everything that you’re told. And there’s a lot of that going on right now.
The work you’re describing, is it not just about a physical transformation, but also spiritual transformation? Well, it’s both, because we can’t separate the two. A physical transformation can create spiritual transformation; a spiritual transformation definitely creates a physical transformation. Usually that’s how it goes. The spiritual creates a physical transformation. For instance, let’s say you’ve been practicing yoga for ten years, and you still have that nagging spot in your body somewhere, that no matter what you do, no matter how many postures you practice, it never changes, it’s still achy or tired or stubborn or troublesome in some way. That’s because you haven’t addressed the primary reason it is that way. It’s most likely not a physical issue. It’s an emotional area, a place that we might have stashed away some unpleasant thoughts or feelings and clamped down around them to keep them from coming up and reminding us! The subtle body is the emotional body; it’s unseen and not usually how we’re taught in the West to relate to ourselves.
We’re much more focused on the seen, the physical, the scientifically proven, and the written about, the one on tv talked about by the celeb. Is it like psychotherapy? Yes, but it’s not completely through words. For instance when I have a private session with someone, we talk so that I can get to know him or her and why he or she came. We work together with words, sensations, emotions, the consciousness of breath and its patterns. All is rooted in the body, not just the conceptualization of what you “think” might be going on. So, it’s really mind-body therapy with a little bit more weight or emphasis on the body. Because in talk therapy we can conceptualize the hell out of everything. We can assume, we can judge, and we’re still cut off from the neck down, because we’re not feeling what the body is holding. The body holds memories and feels emotions and thoughts before the mind actually cognizes them. That’s fascinating to me. If we aren’t conscious of our thoughts and emotions as they arise, they won’t just magically disappear; they go into the body, stay on as a memory, and shape tissue.
So, if we get intimately in tune with our own body, we can feel what we’re going to think and what we might be just about to act upon (and the repercussions of those thoughts turning into actions) before they carry us away. We can feel emotions starting to rise in the body, and with that information and those clues, we can take a moment, pause, make a choice, and not have to be swallowed by or lose control of our emotions. For instance, in the case of someone who’s angry a lot. Once they know their body a little more, they can feel the patterns, the very beginning stages of an outburst. One has time to take a pause and quell, rather than continually losing control. So the body offers us this incredible mirror or portal into the mind and heart. The mind and the heart kind of wear the body. So the body is the physical house for the mind and heart, for consciousness. And our consciousness has a lot of influence and can actually shape the physical body and more frequently than not, it does.
What is yoga and meditation? One way to look at it is as meditative movement. In other words, you’re trying to keep your mind in your body at all times, rather than allow music to make you move, or move your mind into a zone. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with music while practicing, or working up a sweat, or challenging one’s limits, but there are many ways to practice. I just offer a practice that’s not a vinyasa power flow. Just different, not better than.
Do you think the asana has become so popular because it’s tangible and easy? Well, it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s tangible for sure, and we’re a physical society, and there’s a lot of emphasis on being in tone and in shape here. And it makes us naturally feel better when we exercise. The hormones kick in, it’s great.
Does the Buddhist tradition distinguish itself from a lot of the yoga practices? Well, the Buddha practiced yoga and all the ascetic practices of his day, he was a seeker, and he followed some of the extreme practices that were thought to be paths to enlightenment. And after his enlightenment, he came up with, or he realized, what he called the Middle Way—the middle between extremes in practices or being you could say. There are some yoga practices in Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition, but most of them are secret.
Secret? Because it’s not just posture, but it’s often a combined posture and visualization and breathing, and you have to be really prepared mentally, emotionally, and physically for these practices. They’re very, very deep. They’re not just handed out like candy. Most of them you have to have done a three-year retreat before anyone will teach them to you.
You just mentioned visualization, is that another practice? Visualizations are a fantastic practice. We have this in our own culture. Athletes visualize: a skier might visualize his/her course over and over again, and a dancer might visualize the steps to his/her dance. One might visualize one’s own goals. We visualize all sorts of things, that’s been going on forever. But some cultures have ritualized them. Tibetans, for instance, have quite an extensive offering of visualizations, and the visualizations are meant to do different things, not to keep us separate from what we’re visualizing, but to embody and embrace and live the attributes of what we’re visualizing. Visualizing was one of the key components that helped me heal. When I was on 10-day retreats, I started to visualize my gut working. I visualized the action of peristalsis over and over and over again. In my mind I was imagining that my gut would remember how to work properly, I was reminding it rather than listening to this death sentence of, they’ll never work again, you cannot retrain them, relayed by the doctors. I also visualized moving energy through my body which then became a physical sensation, so I was literally moving a sensation around in my body which was like a vibration. What I was doing was trying to vibrate tissue open or vibrate it so it would become alive again and thriving. It worked.
Has someone guided you in this? No, it just came to me. That’s what was so beautiful and wonderful about meditation, about calming and clearing the mind, because when the mind is clear and has more space, not confused with things or riddled with thoughts, insights occur, wisdom is actually there. We tap in. We have access to our larger more open, sky-like mind. So what I experienced I don’t think I made up, but I just accessed. I had quite fanciful visualizations with colors, and flower petals moving around in my belly, fairy dust, and silvery sparkly vibratory energy.
The ways in which the visualizations occurred were personal to me, but the thread, the similarity to other ancient practices were obvious once I was taught some of the other traditions. Years later when I met my first Tibetan teacher, I was describing how I healed, he said oh yes, that’s bliss, and I said, oh really? (surprised) And he said, oh yes, it’s just consciousness. You should teach this, you need to teach this.
What are you teaching exactly? How to move energy, consciousness, mind, prana, chi—whatever you like to call it.
Is it your main focus now to teach energy work? Energy work, hmm, not per se. I’m not giving someone energy healing or anything like that, but I am teaching someone how to unlock themselves. And teaching the subtler, more refined states or ways, let’s say, of being. It’s about being more at ease, it’s about having more space in the body and the mind and the heart. Life becomes more pleasant, enjoyable, richer, more dimensional, more colorful, more flavorful, more intriguing. Less personal. There are limitless benefits. There are many doors into the mind, and one is through the body, that’s where yoga postures can come in.
How is compassion linked to your practice? It’s a path for me. I’m continually working with keeping my heart open and taking action from being compassionate. It’s not necessarily as easy as making pie! It does take some consideration and diligence to do, for instance, at the very least, just to notice when we’ve shut down.
So what you are describing above comprises a spiritual practice. When it’s just the asana, are you saying those things are not necessarily being cultivated? Yes, not as much.
There’s always going to be someone like me who’s going to say, you know back in the day, or if only they did it like this, I don’t want to sound or be like that. Let’s just say that there are a lot of different ways to be in the world and many different paths to take, depending on what you’re ready for, interested in, or come in contact with. There are a multitude of causes and conditions that come together to create a moment and subsequently a choice.
Was it your illness that got you into this type of spiritual work? Yes, out of my own discomfort, chronic pain to be precise! Pain of any kind is usually what puts most people on any kind of spiritual path. Most people do not seek out a spiritual path because they’re extraordinarily happy. It’s usually when we’re in trouble physically, or looking for deeper meaning, and ways to open our hearts when we seek out something that might enlighten us, show us a better way to be in the world.
Are you making sure that the spiritual and the physical are not taught one without the other? I can’t make sure, but I can suggest, because I think that’s the most potent. I wish I could have everyone I see experience the mind/energy moving in the body, the incredible sensations that can go along with it. It’s truly a trip, and a meaningful one at that!
Can you tell us more about your not for profit school? It’s called the School for Compassionate Action; yoga, meditation and emotional support for people in need. We offer a teacher training, and a variety of mind opening workshops that focus on one’s own inner development, and the organic blossoming of the inner fertile ground, which is compassion. Compassion is active, it is synonymous with action because the more compassionate we become the more we need to help others when we see their plights, their suffering, their vulnerabilities.
The people who come to our workshops or do the training are therapists, yoga teachers, schoolteachers, social workers, nurses, anyone interested in expanding their vocabulary to help others to help themselves.
We offer classes to, and teach others, how to work with people living with chronic pain and illness, trauma, addictions, and at risk youth. The faculty is comprised of yoga and meditation teachers, psychotherapists, social workers, therapists—all of whom have a committed personal practice of meditation and yoga. It’s a very dynamic and new way to go forth in the world, and quickly becoming a new profession. We are getting PhD students, people getting their Masters degrees, and culling the best people who possess multi-faceted skills to create what I see as a new health and wellness paradigm. This isn’t being taught in the universities, or yoga studios—yet.
Is there anyone who cannot benefit from this work? Not that I’ve met. I’ve worked with people in hospital beds, in wheel chairs, people who are obese, kids who are suicidal, some of the wealthiest people in the world, with some of the most famous. I haven’t met anyone who can’t benefit from meditation, body awareness, kindness and understanding.
Once we see that we are all in this together, once we begin as individuals to embrace our humanity, to begin to be nice to ourselves and then to eventually be kind to ourselves and to eventually love ourselves, everything opens up. There’s not a separation between me and you, or you and anyone else, or them, and us. It’s about being human. Isn’t that a wonderful way to live, to fully embrace our textural, dimensional, colorful, rich humanity?