NITARA meets...Mary Powell

NITARA meets...Mary Powell

March 05, 2019

Mary is a KPJAYI Level 2 Authorised Ashtanga yoga teacher and owner of Ashtanga Yoga Oxford, Scoliosis fighter/general awareness builder, Wife, Mother….and to be honest, just one of my all time favourite people! Mary and I met in India back in 2013 and have been good friends ever since…I can safely say, hand on heart, that she is genuinely one of the most inspiring and passionate yogis I know! So I wanted you guys to get to know her a little better :)
We caught just after she'd got back from teaching a retreat in Thailand, and talked all things yoga life, motherhood and practicing through scoliosis - Enjoy!

Ellie: Tell us a little bit about your background, pre yoga life! What was that like?
Mary: Ah pre-yoga, life really wasn't that exciting haha! I was always very sporty: I ran a lot, I went to the gym and took classes a lot, I swam…yeah I was pretty active! I found yoga when I was around 20/21, which was…14 years ago!! I was working in a leisure centre at the time and yoga was added as a new class on the schedule; I got classes for free, so I decided to give it a go! and that’s it, that’s how I found yoga!

..I really liked it, so I just kept going! The class was only on maybe once a week at the time because it was new, but it started to grow. I gradually got more and more into it and started to go to more classes, a few years later I went to my first retreat; which was in Thailand, I loved to travel, so I figured - why not travel AND do yoga?! At the end of that I thought ‘ah I’d love to teach as a job, so I’d get to teach retreats’ ….cut to ten years later and I’ve just got back from teaching a retreat in Thailand!!

But as for how I came to teaching: I decided to do my 200hr training about two years after doing that first retreat (so maybe 6 years after my first class) and it’s just built up incrementally from there.

E: So was that first class Ashtanga? Or did you find Ashtanga later on?
M: Oh no, that was, I guess, like a power yoga/vinyasa-type thing. Then I was doing Hatha for a while before I found Ashtanga; I started looking up yoga on youtube and stumbled across Kino’s channel, which was the spark that got me interested in Ashtanga from then on.

…So I found yoga 14 years ago and Ashtanga 9 years ago.

E: Your a qualified Pilates instructor too right? Did that come before or after you started teaching yoga? and do you still teach it?
M: They were really close together, I think I did that training about a year after my yoga tt.

I don’t really teach Pilates much any more, the last time I taught was maybe 2 years ago, but most of the drills I uses for scoliosis are very much pilates-based. So it’s been a very good accompaniment to yoga for sure!

E: That’s a good segway into talking some more about scoliosis and yoga! What’s your journey with scoliosis been and how has yoga helped?
M: Woah, ok, thats a big one haha!

When I was 15 I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis, and I turned down the oppression which was being suggested at the time: which would have been to have a metal rod put into my back, to straighten my spine.

The doctors said I had quite good posture and I wasn't really experiencing any pain, so I didn't think I really needed the oppression. To me it sounded quite intense and the risks seemed scary: I mean, being so close to the spine, if anything went wrong you can risk paralysis. I don't know the odds of that actually happening, they’re probably not that high, but as a 15 year old with that idea presented to you, you’re not really going to be jumping at the chance!

I found yoga a few years later but I didn't really think about whether or not it was helping my alignment much at all until my teacher training. It took a few years of building body awareness and knowledge…I mean, I was running a lot at the time, which isn’t the best idea when you have scoliosis! but the more I did yoga and the less I ran, the more awareness and strength I built which made me realise how much yoga was helping.

Then when I found ashtanga that effect doubled almost, because I was practicing more regularly and doing the same sequence every day, so I started to notice the changes more and more.

E: Do you think that’s what attracted you to Ashtanga in the beginning?
M:  No I think I was just attracted to Ashtanga anyway because, at the time, I was doing a lot of very high energy workouts: I was running half marathons and spending a lot of time in the gym; and Ashtanga is quite dynamic, so I think that I was initially drawn to the challenge of it. I also really loved watching Kino Macgreggors instructional videos on youtube and I found it fun to practice along to those and try things out.

Now I’d say it’s the familiarity of it that keeps me coming back; and it’s the connection with the breath, the clarity it brings my mind…It’s just an incredibly cleaver sequence! You know, it builds so much strength…I find it really hard to explain, it just makes me really present and clear minded, and thats what keeps me coming back.

…and it’s fun! Sometimes it’s not, but most of the time it’s fun! I do enjoy it, it does make me strong and improves my posture; but, even if I didn't have scoliosis, I’d still practice because of all of the other benefits.

E: Yeah definitely, there has to be something that gets you on your mat, even when you really don't want to practice and more often than not, I think, that’s knowing how clear you’ll feel afterwards!
M: Yeah, there’s never been a practice that I’ve regretted!  

E: So what do you think made you take the leap to go to Mysore for the first time?
M: I can’t really remember the exact sequence of events; but I remember hearing about Mysore, as a place to learn yoga in general, during my teacher training and that kind of sparked my intrigue in the possibility of going there.

Some years later I did a retreat at Purple Valley with Kino & Tim, which was the first pure ashtanga retreat I’d ever  done, and I loved it. That was probably the first time I heard a really positive account of the shala from them and they really encouraged me to go; so I took their advice and I took my first trip to KPJAYI the following year.

That retreat was a real turning point for my practice in general but it really did inspire that call to go to Mysore.

E: So, after a few more of those trips to KPJAYI you were authorised level 2 by Sharath Jois, and you’ve now taken over Ashtanga Yoga Oxford (yay) and teach your Mysore program 4 days/week. How do you find teaching in that way?
(For those who don't know, a Mysore programme or ‘Mysore-style’ is the traditional way to learn the Ashtanga yoga method, it’s self practice in a group setting - more info here)
M: I just love it. I love being able to connect to each student individually, I love building a community of like minded people, I enjoy sharing what I’ve learnt and it’s helped me so much that I hope that I can help others in the same way. You learn life changing things through this practice and I love passing that on, to help others…I truly love it, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I genuinely can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s interesting as well! working with different bodies and personalities and applying the teachings to each person to suit them; it’s so incredibly individual and I really like that, that’s why students get so much more out of self practice classes rather that led ones, because of that individual attention. The teacher has a chance to get to know your body and practice so well, so they gain a deeper understanding of what you need.

As a teacher you have to be so present to be that in tune with someone else and I really like that. When you're in the flow if it, your all there! Sometimes I find that I’m actually more present when I’m teaching than when I’m practicing…

E: Yeah definitely, especially when you’re practicing at home, like you are at the moment!
M: Yeah and my focus is definitely a lot less now I have a baby in the room! ..my practice is generally cut short, savasana in near non-existant haha. So yeah, when I can go to workshops it’s great because I can get that focus back!

E: How has becoming a mother changed your practice? has it deepened in any way?
M: It’s certainly deepened my practice physically; which I was concerned about, I was worried about how my body would cope with practicing post-baby, especially with scoliosis as well…but it’s coped with it well!

I found, with pregnancy, I felt 100% in tune with my body - you get to know it really really well! Plus postpartum I put a lot of work in to re-stabilize my core, so those two things together mean that I now have loads more body awareness than I had before. If i’d worked on my core as much as I did postpartum, before I got pregnant, I would have been a lot stronger!  So I’m way stronger now than I was before…

..but I have a lot less time to practice then I did before because I practice whilst Ethan is napping…which is good, in a way, because I procrastinate less, because I just have to get it done!  It’s not without it’s interruptions, sometimes he will wake up in the middle and I have to cut it short…or its small things like, for example: I don't really practice jumping out of Pincha Mayurasana in the correct way anymore, because the sound of my feet hitting the ground might wake him up!  

So yeah, my priorites are a little bit different now! He is my priority, so I have to just flow with it. There will be days were I’ll take a day off, if we’ve had a particularly bad night before. Or days when I’ll shorten the practice to just the sun sals, standing and finishing postures, or less, but I think I’ve really benefited from some of those shorter practices! Accepting that you're doing less postures is actually really useful, its more sustainable and it means that, actually, you make more out of the poses you are doing. Its a deeper practice sometimes surprisingly, maybe not physically but in terms of your concentration; because when you know a posture so well, it gives you a chance to dig even deeper and really refine it…even after doing those same postures every day for years, there’s still more to learn! Those short practices, I think, are really beneficial and I really recommend people do those sometimes, to increase that awareness.

E: What would you say the biggest lesson yoga has taught you so far, or is teaching you at the moment?
M: hmmm.. though one! It’s difficult to answer because I think that changes depending on what I need. I think the practice goes you reminders for different things at different times…

At the moment I’d say that its 100% teaching me to bring as much presence as possible into everything and to have the ability sometimes to take a step back and let go, I’d say those are the two most important things I’ve learned to remember daily. I feel like I’m good at being present…but the letting go is taking some work! That ones a work in progress for sure.   

You can follow Mary’s story via her instagram or practice with her at Ashtanga Yoga Oxford
She also has a ‘Yoga for Scoliosis’ course on Omstars
All photos courtesy of Michael Drummond
And that beautiful backdrop is Samahita retreat, Koh Samui, Thailand


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