An interview with Anna Ashby

It’s been five years since I first met and interviewed Anna Ashby for the Yogamatters blog at the triyoga studio in Camden. It’s amazing how much our lives – and indeed the world – have changed since then! In Conversation: With Anna Ashby (LINK – https://blog.yogamatters.com/anna-ashby/) presented Anna as Dancer, Yogi, Teacher, Human and Voice and left me wanting to know more – 

“We need to talk to Anna again. We need to go deeper. You get the feeling there is so much more to discover about Anna Ashby. This amazing woman lives and breathes her yoga in a strikingly authentic way. There’s a fascinating integrity about her. She’s on a lifelong journey – an honest, real life, soul-searching journey. And we would love to know more.”

I did get the opportunity to catch up with her again the following year, but it is a great pleasure now to have been invited five years on to interview Anna again about where she is now on her lifelong journey, including her new book scheduled for release in March 2022 and the new chapter of her life that she is now embarking upon. 

We picked up effortlessly where we left off with the ongoing relationship between yoga and dance in Anna’s practice. Even though the physical element has been such a strong strand from Anna’s dance background, yoga has always been far more than simply a physical practice, as she explains, “For me, the yoga practice has always been a means to turn inwards and feel and connect and seek to understand being alive, who and what I am. I think of myself as a dancer underneath it all in terms of the energy of who I am. The yoga is the investigation. I feel like I’m now coming back round full circle and my movement pattern in postural practice has become much more fluid, a fluidity that comes from deeply feeling what’s going on inside and expression that comes from a place of fullness.”

Now Anna has entered her 50s and as she says, “That’s a big time of change for women”. Not least of all, the body itself changes over time. She finds herself at a crossroads, where she wants to live in a way that’s aligned with her values at this stage of life. And so yes, in a way, her yoga practice has changed and yet fundamentally it has not – “Yoga has, and always will be an investigation into who and what I am – more of an enquiry than a certainty.”

When I ask Anna to comment on what else is going on out there in the yoga world, she looks a little bewildered. There’s a style of yoga out there that she admits she doesn’t really get, that’s loud and fast-paced and social media oriented with crazy poses. This is alien to the experience of stillness and silence and space that she values and it all feels too much like entertainment. Is this yoga? “ I’m not saying it’s wrong”, she replies, “It’s just not for me. Maybe for some, this is the way in to a deeper understanding.”

Coming from a disciplined background of learning postural practice through the teachings of the great Indian teachers like BKS Iyengar and drawing from their tradition, which suits her way of learning, Anna observes with some sadness that there appears to be a real lack of study and immersion in the history of yoga and its tradition that then gives the teacher a foundation to innovate. Her deep wish is “to see more of the respect for the tradition so that we innovate from a basis of understanding and knowledge and respect.”

It’s this passion for study and understanding that Anna takes into her teacher training at triyoga, both the Foundation and Advanced Programmes, as she elaborates, “You can’t just say something that has no basis in research or authority of source. So from the very beginning of all the trainings, we try and encourage people to think and question, planting seeds of inviting people to think for themselves, investigate, research, study, explore, feel for themselves. That is a big shift that is happening.” There’s also a shift in the way a teacher interacts with their students, moving away from the 20th century vertical way of the guru/disciple relationship to a more horizontal relationship in the 21st century, where the exchange of knowledge is two way and the teacher can no longer say I know more than you. This is Anna’s approach to teaching: “Every person who comes into a class is a valued member of the human race who holds knowledge of the truth which is the teaching. Every being is an expression of divinity.”

Anna’s also embraced a more somatic awareness of yoga, which she describes as the anatomical aspect of yoga that the West has contributed to the tradition and practice. Working within one’s own experience and felt sense, alignment can be seen as moving into a state of coherence. This leads our conversation onto restorative yoga, the subject of her new book Restorative Yoga: A Guide for Yoga Teachers and Trainees to be released in March 2022.

In February 2020, just before any of us realised the devastating impact the pandemic would have, Anna Ashby woke up one morning and there was this very strong feeling of ‘Write a book on restorative yoga’ – “I don’t have those kind of things happen normally. It was just such a strong impulse.” And then lockdown happened and she suddenly had the time to write it, plus she had the need for a depth of restorative practice herself due to her extreme anxiety about the situation. On top of that, she found herself caring for her partner who got long COVID. She was literally living every word of this book as she wrote it.

Right from the start, Anna was clear in her objective to write a book on restorative yoga focused on teachers who don’t really know what restorative yoga is. She points out to me how restorative and Yin yoga are very different practices, from different branches of the yoga tree, despite being often conflated. Using props is a distinctive characteristic of restorative yoga that Anna traces back to Mr Iyengar, as it circles back around and connects with the tradition.

Restorative yoga slows things right down. Anna finds that tremendously exciting. You can see it in her eyes. Creating the space to recognise when we are out of balance and doing what we need to do to restore that balance creates the conditions for deep enquiry into the nature of self being. This is an alchemical process like no other, a necessary part of human being. It’s an amazing way to empower people to self-practise and understand how the nervous system works. There’s a discipline involved too, the discipline that is tapping into the wellspring of deep investigation and learning, assimilation and illumination, as the nervous system is downshifting and tapping into essence. 

When Anna moves on to explaining how restorative yoga is primarily designed for nervous system health, I ask “How important is it to understand the science of the nervous system in practising restorative yoga?” science is not my thing. Anna’s answer reassures me – This is emerging science, ever unfolding. You don’t need to be an expert. But it’s something everyone should be taught – nervous system 101. Everyone is different and responds to stress in different ways. Simply understand the basics and apply that in terms of subjective experience.”

And then, right there, she’s leading me through a simple alignment, adjusting up through the base of the skull begins to create space – “You can feel directly the difference – do it now….feel the difference of the tone of that….”. She’s right. I can.

For Anna, it really is very simple – “There are postures that bring you back into the now, and you breathe. That’s it. Sometimes that’s all it takes to reset, come back to a grounded and centred state in order to then be able to go forth and be what you need to be in your world.”

This is what’s needed in the world right now with the intensity of the times we’re living in. I have a feeling that Anna’s book is going to become an invaluable handbook for yoga teachers of diverse schools and traditions as we navigate this ever-changing world.

As Anna looks towards the future, she knows that the pandemic caused a shift in the way yoga is taught, as the focus is no longer on a yoga studio and teachers explore online platforms for their classes. Although Anna recognises that this has been hard for many yoga teachers and studio owners, she also finds it an exciting time, saying “We’re at the cusp of seeing something new emerging. We’re seeing the collapse of the way things have been, we’re in the chaos and we might be in that for a little while and then there’s an emergence of a new structure, a new order coming that is yet to be known.”

Certainly on a personal level, this is definitely true for Anna Ashby. After 15 years of living a very complex and chaotic life of toing and froing between Leicestershire and London, Anna is pulling back from weekly teaching in London to create more space in her life and more headspace to feel what needs to be next. She sums it up like this: “I don’t want to fill things up too much. I want to step back and look at new possibilities. I feel very creative and want to tap into that creativity.”

The good news for all of us is that Anna will be teaching the last Yogamatters Online Community Class of the year on Tuesday, 21st December with her student, friend, and model for her book Yvonne O’Garro. The connection between them is strong and Anna describes Yvonne as “very clear and calm, the most positive person I’ve ever met. I’m very honoured that she asked me.”

I’ll be there. Just by talking with Anna Ashby, she’s inspired me to explore restorative yoga in more depth for myself. I can’t wait to read her book!

The post An interview with Anna Ashby appeared first on Yogamatters Blog.

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