Marta Rodríguez Mahou, yoga without authoritarianism
Marta Rodríguez Mahou has taught yoga for 37 years. In her classes, she talks about questioning certainties, dialoguing with your groin, the weight of an astronaut’s bones. “Don’t force lengthening; your breathing itself is what creates space. If you apply tremendous force, what you create is deafness,” she asserts. Marta Mahou’s style of yoga has evolved towards one that is less authoritarian, which doesn’t seek the perfect posture but rather to listen to one’s own body.
At the age of 26 you went to Puna with a back injury. What was a day with BKS Iyengar like?
It was only two hours. The rest of the day was spent recovering. I studied a lot. They had a marvelous library and there I studied ayurveda, books in Sanskrit, sutras by Patanjali. I started off fascinated by posture, and, through the effect posture produced in me, I began to delve into what yoga truly was. Many of the things that I was reading in books, I felt when I practiced. Teaching in India was exclusively based in practice; they didn’t explain why, what happens in your body. Iyengar would simply shout at me or position me and my mind would change, but I didn’t know why, what the foundation was, why a body moves that way.
I met people from the US and they told me about an institute that had been created in San Francisco with an officially recognized, three-year program. It was serious. I decided to go to the US to study so my "western", scientific mind could break down what all of this was.
In a class you told us you worked with bodies…
In the training part, one of the subjects was physiology and another anatomy. Professor Marcia L. Stefanic, a leading scientist from Stanford* was also a yogi and she took us to Stanford University to see a dissection, to see what a human body is like inside. It was part of our training.
You’re one of the few women in Spain certified in Iyengar.
After 12 years, when I came to Spain, there were only men in the Iyengar system, Iyengar clones who imitated the master.
That was the way the master taught to teach. In the US they taught in a normal, sweet way. It didn’t occur to them to yell at you or slap you; here in Spain it did. It went along with the pedagogical model of that time: In loco parentis, in the place of a parent. A firm hand and a beating.
The idea of “spare the rod and spoil the child” was widely accepted. In the beginning I was a bit like that. It was very handy for me to teach the “do it because I say so” way. I knew how beneficial it was and I instilled it as I had learned. Until, with time, I began to realize I was mistaken, because my students would leave. The people who stayed were a bit masochistic (she laughs). I started to have the reputation of a very good teacher, but unbearable, very rigid…
“When you start to practice, you don’t know what you want, it’s the practice in itself that bit by bit reveals to you what’s what, and you want more of it …”
I’ve heard stories from your students, 80-year-old women with herniated discs who, now, after going to your classes, have astonishing ability. I know you don’t like to be called the Virgin of Miracles but...when you see a damaged body, how do you repair it?
There’s a very important underlying mistake. It’s not of my doing. It’s not that I want to seem modest. It has very little to do with me, it has to do with these people who decide, motivated by what I say, to investigate and do the work themselves. I don’t do it; I don’t even lay a hand on them. There’s something in yoga itself that makes them come back again and again. They’re the ones that achieve that mobility. When you make a movement yourself – and no one holds your shoulder and positions it for you – in a certain way, in a certain breath, in sequence, which is fundamental, you get to feel this way. It’s not me, not at all.
You talk about connection-transmission. When you teach, you walk around the rows. Does what you’re seeing nourish you?
Of course. I do it with them. Everything I say, I’m feeling. I’ve been there and I am there. I’m experiencing it inside. A body tells you a great deal from outside when you’ve experienced such a profound journey with your own body. From outside, you see much more than the person himself or herself would see in the mirror. Through that language, you can say something to that person, indicate the direction of a movement and you know it’s going to open up an entirely different world for that person.
You say you see within our bodies... I have the sensation you can see the emotional baggage.
You see that, you can see that. A depressed person has a certain posture. An arrogant boss has a physical attitude. Two people who love each other, who laugh, who fight...everything is in the body.
With years of teaching practice, there are bodies you know you shouldn’t touch, you shouldn’t cross certain boundaries. There are bodies that have internalized the words more. I no longer let their ability to move their joints guide me, as I did in the beginning, but rather I’m guided by the level at which they internalize the discourse of yoga. After practicing or coming to class for a long time, a person understands the language in his/her own body and can investigate a lot more with their body even though it moves less.
The sentences you say in class reach deep inside. How do you prepare a class?
I prepare myself based on the fact that I’m teaching in a place that people come to periodically. In a month, they’ve made the rounds of all the types of movement. Where I do recognize my own art (she laughs), I’m going to be bold and call it that, is in the art of sequencing. How to start in a certain way, and in an hour and a half, journey around another’s entire body to finish up in a calm and neutral situation.
I don’t prepare my talk. I have no idea what I’m going to say. There are days when I’m very connected, I call it being in touch with Marta Mahou, when my ego isn’t there, there’s nothing that gets in the way of what I’ve absorbed in these thirty some years of teaching and me. If there’s nothing between that knowledge and me, then something comes from me that, when I’ve finished I would be incapable of repeating.
I’m always inspired by what’s in front of me, even if it’s a data base. It’s what I call transmission; that’s why this teaching has to be in person. That’s why I don’t make videos, or teach classes on the Internet, because nothing can substitute the bond created between the talk and the silence of the person who’s listening to that talk.
You describe the Iyengar method as one “based on copying and obeying instead of listening and honoring one’s own sensations during the practice, inhibiting student autonomy”. When did you begin to realize the model was obsolete?
When I stopped wanting to go to India, when my body could no longer practice like that, it was broken inside, too forced. I didn’t feel happy practicing and getting onto the mat was an obligation. I started to make spontaneous movements on the mat, to do the postures wrong. In the first phase, I practiced freely, but I continued to teach in an orthodox way. Then I began to teach as I practice. It was a great help to see Ángela Farmer, who I’d known for many years and who had made the same journey with Iyengar as I had. We’ve had great conversations at times of crisis and it helps me that there are other women who have been able to kill their father, so to speak. Sever themselves from the system that, the way it’s taught by Iyengar, is so damaging for the female body. Proof of this is that Iyengar’s daughter couldn’t move after years of practice, she was practically an invalid.
And yet the benefits for the female body are spectacular.
90% of yoga practitioners are women and 70% of the teachers are women. In the ‘80s, the way Iyengar yoga was taught in the US was different from how it was taught in Puna. With a Democratic system like that one, and their insurance, it was unthinkable that you could force someone into a posture without them suing you. Authoritarianism is not in their DNA, while it is in ours. Here it really caught on, in France, Germany, England, we were all little Iyengars. Many women have hurt themselves. There’s a lot of silence about what’s happened. I can’t betray myself: I love my students and I’m not going to hurt them. I was more and more disassociated from my center.
I call all those years of following the Iyengar system body taming.
Is going through that taming necessary?
That’s the big question. Each of us learns differently. I had to learn that way, despite Iyengar. There was something in him that was beyond him, that not even he controlled and that was his transmission. He acted one way, but what he transmitted was tremendously beneficial for me and for millions of people. The thing is that Iyengar was a human being, with his personality; it was too much for his ego to publically rectify and change his way of teaching. Despite the injuries he himself suffered-the fruit of age and wear – due to his own method, he was never able to rectify while many of us have.
The Iyengar method describes a perfect method for Mr. Iyengar, but it can’t hope to work the same way for other completely different bodies. That’s its failing, to make one pattern for everyone. What it’s about really is teaching students to be autonomous, to listen to themselves, to decide for themselves when and how far, without intervening, except when I see they are on a path where they’re going to hurt themselves; instead of imposing a posture, the posture comes from them. That’s the path that’s efficient, the only valid one.
In your meditation classes, pranayama, you talk about seeing trains go by, not hanging on to any thought.
My meditation discourse comes from the mindfulness of Jack Kornfield, among others, from Buddhism. I didn’t learn it with Iyengar, who laughed at those who meditate. He would say, “How are you going to sit looking at your mind if you don’t know where your right hand is?". He said it with certain discernment, although with little respect for others. I meditated before going to meet Iyengar; my meditative side has always been Buddhist.
After doing asanas, a body is much more prepared to breathe.
That’s what they’re for, the whole purpose of practicing asanas is to have the capacity to sit still and observe. It’s the same as what you do in asana, the thing is that keeping your body in an asymmetrical, sustainable position for a long time is very difficult, that’s why you seek out anatomically stable, symmetrical positions to be able to be present and rest, and from there, observe what is happening, because that’s your life, what’s happening in the present, nothing more. This discourse is Buddhist.
What’s the objective of yoga: to see yourself, to be dispassionate or to the contrary, to confront yourself?
When you start to practice, you start for the strangest reasons. I began by copying the postures in a book; other people begin because their backs hurt; others because they want to learn to relax. When you start to practice, you don’t know what you want; it’s the practice itself that uncovers for you what’s what and you want more of that. You don’t know what the objective is, I didn’t know it. I was fascinated by the postural world, with what happened to me when I got into those postures. I wasn’t able to verbalize the process. Now I’m a bit more able because the process now forms a part of me. If someone who is beginning has very profound objectives, they’ll be very disappointed in the first classes, because they’re going to discover that their shoulder hurts, their muscles are sore... when you meditate, you have no escape mechanisms, you can’t turn on the TV or pick up a glass: you’ve decided to place yourself there, in that situation and whatever is there surfaces, which is already major. It’s a very atypical situation in our life: to be with a group of people in silence, without telephones, with no distraction, following the talk of one person through your body; it’s a very therapeutic situation. Each person is experiencing his or her own journey. Each one is facing what’s there in his or her own way. Just the fact of going and staying for an hour and a half is very therapeutic.
Interview by Rocío Westendorp
Translated into English by JoAnne Hadden and Rosemary Samalot Amils
Copyright © Marta Mahou 2019
* Marcia L. Stefanic: Professor of Medicine at Stanford, investigator at the Western Regional Center of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) is a pioneer in research studies on women’s health, aging and the effect of physical activity and diet on chronic illnesses.