An Interview with Andrea Lutz by Anastasia Shevchenko
In the heart of Berlin, up on the Prenzlauer hill, there is Ashtanga Studio Berlin. Every morning between 7 and 10 AM, a total of about 30 people pass through the studio to do their morning Mysore practice, assisted by two, sometimes three teachers. “When we have more than 12-15 people we always have two teachers”, says Andrea Lutz, the owner of the studio. For her it is important that each person is “seen” and has all the required elements to enjoy their daily practice.
Andrea has now more than 30 years of yoga practice and more than 20 of which she has dedicated herself exclusively to the Ashtanga Yoga method. “I never wanted to have a yoga studio. Somehow it happened by itself “- Andrea is laughing. The studio is now home to countless Ashtangis and there is a nice community feeling to it. As you walk in, you see a lot of yoga mats stacked together of various shapes and colors, there’s a little yoga library for use upon request, and of course many framed photos on the wall: of Guruji, of his teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, of Manju Jois (http://manjujois.com/), and naturally of Nancy Gilgoff (http://www.ashtangamaui.com/)
Nancy is Andrea’s teacher, her inspiration, her mentor, her friend… Nancy comes to the studio every year: sometimes to give workshops or “adjustment clinics” as she calls them, other times to lead a teacher training or a week of Mysore classes. It is her teachings that Andrea follows and passes on to others, and it is thus the direct teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois as he taught Nancy and David Williams, one of his first American students who came to him back in the beginning of the 70s.
Andrea is my teacher. Just like she had a feeling “Ok, this is the woman I want to learn with” when she first met Nancy, I had a similar experience. In fact, when I met Andrea, I have already practiced yoga for more than 10 years, Ashtanga for 4, having met countless teachers. What impressed me right away is Andrea’s dedication to teaching, her passion to pass on this precious knowledge, her intuitive reading of people’s energetic and mental blockages, and her very direct and powerful way of tackling into them.
A: How did you first come into contact with yoga? And, knowing that you have been practicing yoga since more than 30 years ago, how was the yoga scene different then?
Andrea: I remember my first yoga class: I was 17 years old and had some problems with myself at this time [laughing]. I didn’t know where my life was going, what’s happening with myself, and I was not very happy inside myself… I felt kind of lost.
So, I still remember when I came out of my first yoga class – something happened! Something inside myself opened, and I got interested in it [yoga] to learn more about, so I kept coming back.
A: And how was the yoga scene different back then? It was a long time ago…
Andrea: It was a long time ago. The yoga scene was very different back then, because there were none of these yoga centers or big yoga schools.
At this time I was with my teacher, his name was Hans-Harald Niemeyer, and he is still teaching in Freiburg, and now has his own yoga school (https://www.freiburger-yogaschule.de/), but [back then] he was living up on the hill and he had a small yoga space and we went up to him, he was teaching us, so it was very different! People around, even my parents, thought we were in some kind of a sect, or something [laughing]… yoga was something unusal, for weirdos, definitely not like now, where everybody is doing yoga, where Yoga became mainstream – so it was a different thing!
A: So how did you start with Ashtanga yoga specifically and what “hooked you”?
Andrea: When I started practicing yoga I was practicing Sivananda yoga for many years, and then I did some years of Iyengar yoga, some hatha yoga general classes, and I remember when a friend told me about this teacher, Pralad, it was in Cologne, in 1997, she told me: “We have to go there, this is Catharsis!” [laughing] So we went there: it was a small room, Mysore, there were only 12 people, but mat-to-mat, it was very small, very sweaty in there… and I thought: “wow, that’s different!” [laughing] … different from what I was used to in yoga. I liked it right away because I was a lot into movement, I was a dancer at this time. I liked it right away and I got hooked to it [laughing]
A: How did you find your teacher Nancy?
Andrea: Actually the first, let’s say, 10-12 years of my practice I was only taught by men. I saw different teachers at this time, and I was looking for a core teacher. I met Manju P, Jois, and was very inspired by him. He became my main teacher for many years.
To be honest the main reason I was going to meet Nancy, was the wish to learn Ashtanga Yoga with a woman, what is different than learning with a man.
There were not that many women at this level, and this is actually how I met Nancy. I still remember my first class with Nancy and it was… “love on the first sight” [laughing].
A: How has this student-teacher relationship between Nancy and you developed over the years?
Andrea: I only had one class with her and I thought: “Ok, this is the woman I want to learn with”, and so I went right away one month to Maui [laughing] I practiced with her, I stayed in her house, so this is how we became closer. Like every relationship over the years, it became closer, more familiar. And now that I could say that we’re kind of friends, I still respect her very highly as a teacher, and it’s different when we’re in the yoga room than when we’re private having a coffee together… the moment we’re in the room: she is the teacher, and I am the student, and this will stay like this.
A: Yes, it seems important to preserve that kind of relationship.
Andrea: It is very important to have the roles clear. I have experienced this in my own teachings, it can cause problems in the teachings and in the friendship.
A: Over the years that you have been practicing Ashtanga Yoga, which is more than 20 years now, how has your perception of the Ashtanga practice changed? In other words, what is important for you in this practice now and how was it different before?
Andrea: When I started, there was this group of people and then the teacher left and the new teacher could not hold it as well… the practice became too physical. And this is still one of the major problems with Ashtanga yoga… but when I met Manju [Jois] and did with him a 3-week Teacher’s Training, he gave me this love and joy for the practice back, because he was so into it…
Sometimes the problem with Ashtanga is that the asanas are becoming too important: which asanas you practice up to, or you’re allowed to do this, but not allowed to do that… the asanas acquire too much of a value. Practicing with Manju was very nurturing and loving, [I realized] he doesn’t really care if you practice first, intermediate or advanced series, he cares about the practice itself and how you breathe into it, how much you are dedicated to Yoga in all its aspects. This is what opened up my point of view of the practice: [it is] very traditional in the sequence and very much into the breath. The asana doesn’t have to be “perfect”, it is still the same asana and becomes the asana through your breath and your concentration, not through flexibility or something [like physical strength]. What makes the yoga is the concentration and breathing. And you can´t really see the Yoga from the outside, Yoga is what happens inside. As I always say: “you can better hear then see how advanced someone is in the practice”.
A: What would you say is the essence of Ashtanga yoga as taught by Nancy. How does she teach differently from others?
Andrea: Nancy is able to see the energetic flows of the body, and she has this amazing ability to locate them and help you to release the blockages.
She is one of very few teachers still teaching the “old style” of Ashtanga Yoga, as taught to her directly from Sri K. Patthabi Jois. Her mission is to keep this teaching alive, in a time where everything changes so fast. She is travelling through the world teaching extensively the people the “old” method of Ashtanga Yoga. She is very traditional and very strict in her approach to this. She spent a lifetime with this practice and she is dedicated to keep the way she learnt alive.
She still amazes me, when I assist her teaching: how deep she goes into the body and how she can locate where the energetic blockages are. I am still deeply inspired to learn from her.
I always had a feeling that she was “seeing” me and my process through the years. I will be forever thankful how she taught me, always the right thing to the right time.
Anybody who ever felt her hands on them know that her adjustments are light, but they go deep. They are very strong, but not on a physical level – she doesn’t have a lot of bodily strength… it is this internal power that is being transmitted through her.
This is my experience with Nancy and sure, other teachers teach from a different point of view – that’s great, because that’s their point of view. Any teacher can only teach from the point of view where we are and how we see the practice. And every student finds the teacher to whom they connect most, feel “seen” by that teacher, feel connected and have some similarity with. That’s how it works! There are just different ways, and sometimes it’s good to have different information… there are so many great teachers out there you can learn from.
A: I remember once I understood you saying something along the lines that it was important to try different ways, and then stick with the way that resonates the most with you.
Andrea: Well, you don’t have to… I have some students who have never been to a different yoga school. They came – they liked it, they stayed – and they love it. No problem. I wouldn’t tell to them: “You have to go see other things”. Why? If they are happy? Why go?
But what I do see is that in the yoga scene there is a lot of confusion, and a lot of people are seeing a lot of teachers at the same time, and I think this can cause some problems. If you’re into the practice, at a certain point you have to make a decision to a certain lineage, or to a certain line of teachers and stick with it. There are different ways, and they all work. The only thing that doesn’t work if you’re mixing too much. I would never say that what we teach is the only way that works, there are other ways, fantastic ways, but you have to make a decision!
This is one of the major problems of our time: to make a decision, to make a commitment. We have this feeling that [if we choose] we could miss something, that there is other information to be received and not to be missed. There we have to let go: “This is what I’m doing, this is where I stick for it for some time, for some years”. Go for it for 10 years and then if you think you want to do something else – do something else, but don’t jump around too much. Then the magic of the practice will not happen… or, depends what you want… [laughing]
A: It seems that the new generation of Ashtangis, maybe because of the immense popularity of the method, and the enormous amount of practitioners who practice Ashtanga yoga now, are put within a certain system with very specific strict and rigid rules and regulations… How do you feel about that?
Andrea: I mean, you just answered it in a way: it’s out of necessity… when you have a lot of people… The way we teach, well you know, as you come to class, when we have more than 12-15 people we have two teachers, a lot of times we have classes with 3 people teaching as I take assistants in, so it’s quite intense… So I think in the Mysore setting you cannot really see more than 12 -15 people and work with them individually, unless of course you know all of them well, so maybe you can go up to 20.
Now that Ashtanga yoga is so popular and the classes are so big, the only way you can manage is to put up strict rules to keep the people in line.
A: What do you think is the future of this method [of Ashtanga Yoga]? With Pattabhi Jois gone, and with the senior students of Pattabhi Jois getting older and maybe not teaching as much anymore, with the Mysore booming with people, what do you think are going to be the future developments of the method?
Andrea: Even if you say that the senior teachers would not teach any more, we don’t know. I mean, Nancy is 68, Tim Miller is 65, Manju is in his 70´s, they can teach another 20 years, I hope so [laughing]. But they also have very strong students who could keep up this method. Nancy has a very strong group of students around her, and so has Tim and I hope they will continue this line.
Anyways, yoga was never really mainstream, and now it gets mainstream. So what’s happening now? When you have something mainstream, there is always a room for some “subculture”… So this method what we have from the senior teachers, the Pattabhi Jois teachings, it will continue, but it will not be mainstream. It’s too radical in a way, it can’t be mainstream [laughing] I think so.
You know, the people love to feel save, to be hold back, not going to the unknown the things they frighten them. But there is the light, there is the magic, not in the safety. For deep transformation we have to be brave, and for this you need a strong teacher, at least for a while.
In the beginning Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was the only teacher, teaching his method and everybody went to him. Now as he is not alive anymore and there are also so many practitioners around the world, they cannot all go to one person, and so we have different lines developing at the same time. We still have a group of senior teachers who still continue teaching what they learned directly from him. And I always recommend highly to go to meet them.
A: So this is why it is important to follow strictly what the senior teachers are teaching to stay as closely as possible to the origins of the method and be able to pass it on to others?
Andrea: Yes, and then the more you understand, the longer you stay with it and get experienced, the better you can pass it on. Then you can better understand what are the changes and where they are coming from, or what the differences are. Of course there is never-ever a point when you’re finished learning… it’s a lifelong journey [laughing].
When you teach yoga and you are a student of yoga it’s never finished: you learn, and you continue to learn until the end. Nancy always says that she still has “break-through´s”, even though she has practiced now for more than 40 years… so it doesn’t matter how long you practice… there is still a continuation of learning and the same goes for teaching. Sometimes you have to change something if it is not working in the way you thought previously.
A: To finish, what kind of advice would you give to someone new on the Ashtanga path?
Andrea: What I always say when someone new comes to class is that, first, it’s important to start slowly, to build it up over time. I still like to teach the old method, starting with the sun salutation A and then slowly continue it until they build up the whole sequence, but it takes a while … I think it is important that the whole system, the mind, the different bodies [koshas] can grow into it.
Second, practice regularly: make a commitment. Even if it’s just 20 minutes and you just do some sun salutations and the last 3 finishing postures, do this every day, 5-6 times a week, no moon days, for women – not during their period. So just these 20 minutes is a great step to make the commitment to the practice and much better than going once a week for two hours of Led Class full primary or something – I think this is too much. So build it up slowly and commit to it!