NITARA Meets - Svetlana Karamshuk

NITARA Meets - Svetlana Karamshuk

August 15, 2018

Svetlana (aka Svetla, aka Ashtangi Who!) Is a Ukranian-born, London living, devoted Ashtanga Yoga practitioner, not to mention amazing teacher…and general ray of sunshine!

She’s an ex-chemist…kinda! Well, she's turned her love of chemistry into a deep passion for Biology: both through the science and practice of yoga and through her strong connection to food. Through her blog and social media she shares nuggets of wisdom she’s picked up from her daily Ashtanga practice, little snippets of what she's learned as a teacher and creates healthy (delicious, I might add!) recipes to support a dedicated yoga practice.

I met Svetla over a coffee to talk all things: yoga, teaching, travel and, of course, food!  

Ellie: Tell me about life pre-yoga, you we’re a scientist is that right?

Svetla: Yeah I was a scientist, I was in chemical labs so I was literally connected to the lab haha. I was working weird hours because you have organic synthesis going happening, which take ages to happen or, sometimes, it happens really fast and you have to stop the reaction. So often you have to sit there until 12 o’clock at night because you have 10 hours or more to complete the reaction. So yeah, that’s what I was doing, pretty much, all my life.

I was never a physical person - ever! I was never into excise or running, or anything like that. I first went to yoga during a really messy period in my life and I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know if it was proper exercise or what it was at all! It was a really strange thing for me to do, but in my head I just thought “Okay, I want to get out of my comfort zone completely, and do something totally different” and that’s when I went to my first yoga class.

E: Was that In London?

S: No, no that was back in Ukraine and it wasn't Ashtanga. The teacher was quite good, she mixed together a few different styles and, as a person, she was really really feminine; which was what I probably needed at that time. She also led some really amazing Yoga Nidra, which was the part that I enjoyed! So I was like “ok, this bit is worth doing all of those poses!”

E: Yeah, I guess you'd need Nidra if your working late at night too!

S: Definitely…so, yeah, that was it!

E: You don't work in Labs anymore though?

S: I’d say I’ve kind of switched a bit, well, I blog a bit about food and lead lectures about food and nutrition, which is what I’m really interested in and that’s also organic chemistry. I really do love looking at how reactions happen in the body. So, I wouldn't say that I’m not completely done with chemistry, I’ve just shifted a little bit from organic chemistry and materials to working more with the body: with how food works on a chemical level and, what’s also really interesting is, looking at how it works on an emotional level.

E: What does your yoga practice mean to you now?

S: Emm…I don’t know how to explain it, but my practice has been so much about following my gut. Yoga was completely not what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing when I started taking it seriously. I was supposed to be looking for a job, but instead I’d started getting serious about Mysore-style Ashtanga: with that I had to adjust to getting tired and hungry..and all of these weird things. At that time I just really felt like my practice was the most important thing in my life, and even now -when I think about it - it’s still, so naturally one of the most important things to me. Although sometimes I’m like “what? Putting both legs behind my head is the most important thing I do in the day?” but it does feel that way!

Also, it’s easy, you know; It’s easier to wake up at 5am and not think about what you're doing, you just wake up and get on with it.

E: When you get into the rhythm of it!

S: Yeah I think that, when you get over that first Mysore class experience and you feel all over the place, It starts to give you so much self confidence. I remember after the first time I did Kapotasana  thinking that If I can do this, I can do anything. When you're doing these crazy things with your body you start to think that maybe, maybe those other things going on in your life aren't as serious or impossible as you thought. It just gives you some lightness and a different approach to life and your problems.

E: Yeah definitely, that always makes me think if an Alice in Wonderland quote, where Alice’s father says something along the lines of “I sometimes think of up to 6 impossible things before breakfast”, practicing yoga, of any method but Ashtanga in particular, we do about 50 impossible things before breakfast! …maybe after a coffee, before any food for sure!

S: Yeahhhh, Ashtanga is, is, something special to do in the morning-  haha!

E: So, you assist England’s only certified Ashtanga Teacher, Hamish Hendry (!) every day at Dharma Shala (Ashtanga Yoga London) - What's it like working with him?

S: It’s maybe one of the most unexpected but best experiences of my life - I really do learn a lot and I feel like Hamish is showing us ‘real yoga’: He lives yoga definitely, and in every minute of his teaching. I remember the first conference I went to with him, he was asked ‘what makes a good yoga teacher?’ and his answer was “you should be there for your students” and IS really there!

I also try to be there for my students, but that’s often on the physical side of things and I try to understand emotion - but I see how Hamish gives so much space for his students, which is hard to do! To give space for someone to make mistakes, mistakes you know that they're going to make but you also know that’s the best way that they will learn. Also to be there for that person when they really need you, to be calm and steady.

It’s just amazing; especially with Ashtanga, where we have a lot of strict rules, because it leads to many people who are much too strict with their practice in their lives and take it much too seriously - Hamish is really not like that! And it makes my own practice and my own strictness on myself a lot easier, and as a result of that my practice has grown and become a much more solid part of my life. I think it’s really hard to maintain something which always keeps you really really engaged…kind of on the edge of too much and keeps you in this strict box. I think that’s where I was putting myself a lot of the time with my practice and I think that a lot of people do that too.

E: Yeah! I think a lot of people do that, specially at the beginning people think ‘oh Ashtanga is strict so I have to be super strict on myself!’

S: Exactly, and Hamish is not like that at all! He is really open. He’s really open with his assistants too, so he will never tell you off for doing something in a different way to how he would do it, if he disagrees with something we do, instead of harshly telling us we are wrong, he will just show us a different way to do it. He really gives you space to explore as his assistant in the same way he give space for his students.

Sometimes I see some things in the shala that really do freak me out a bit! but you see how easily he deals with it, and that’s what I find super inspiring.

E: What inspired you to want to teach?

S: That wasn't an easy decision for me to be honest, but the more I practiced, people started to ask me to teach them.

I didn't start teaching in yoga studio, I did privates and a class in a company (corporate). I was really impressed when, after maybe the second class, people started to come up to me and say “this is really special” especially connecting breath with movement. And I saw how much their practice changes in just a couple of weeks, just after practicing once a week - that was super inspiring!

I don’t know, I think it came from myself processing consistently and seeing how much it helped me during a crazy period in my life..and I wanted to share that! I felt like I didn't want to keep this to myself, especially when people were asking me to share it, I felt like ‘ok, maybe I can share a little of what I know’. I was assisting another teacher at that time too, for a couple of years in the Mysore room…

E: …Susan Bysh?

S: Yeah! So it felt like an obvious next step.

It was quite hard because I saw a lot of teachers teaching one style of yoga, but practicing another..and that didn't make sense to me. People would ask why I wanted to teach Ashtanga when there are so many authorised Ashtanga teachers already in London.. but at some point, whilst, yes thats true; there will always be more people that want to practice but who aren't necessarily going to studios. So I just decided to share what really inspired me.  

It sounds like it was an easy decision, but I was so overwhelmed by seeing other people teaching yoga and how they keep up their own practice and teaching, it was a lot for me and it wasn't easy to find my own way of doing things. But, what I do, is share what I was most impressed by which is obviously Ashtanga, physical adjustments, the presence of the teacher and really sharing things that you’d never believe your body can do.

That’s what really keeps me doing it and keeps me going through the ups and downs: when you have busy classes or quite classes, you know you have people in front of you who's life is changing through the practice and it’s incredible to watch!

E: What do you think ‘living yoga’ means?

S: First of all I think, at least at this stage in my ‘yoga life’ it's a lot about awareness. Awareness of whats happening in your body and whats happing in your mind. I still see myself reacting to things daily, but the emotions attached to that reaction aren't as deep as they were before. Sometimes I might look anxious or angry or whatever but inside I’m quite still, it’s really different. It's like, I can still see a small part of that first reaction, but, it won’t escalate into a bigger reaction.

As I said, I am nothing like your ‘normal’ Ashtangi in the way that usually I like to try lots of different things and have some variety to push myself out of my comfort zone. But actually having this strict sequence of Ashtanga has been the best way to push yourself out of your comfort zone and explore because it really is so different every time you step on the mat.

Also, when you start to weave some yoga rules into life off the mat, life becomes easier. Especially when it comes to things like, for example: I’ve never been one to kill insects, but I always thought that that was quite a weird thing. No I know that no, of course its not weird, this how we should be! And I am not saying “I’m a yogi, I’m perfect” of course I am not, I still go out and I still struggle to be a yogi with a mosquito in the room!
E: I guess after you’ve been practicing for a long time, yoga starts to come into everything you do. From the way you talk to someone else or the way you treat animals and then it starts to influence your diet- you know - small changes to help the planet, the clothes you wear, buying less…etc. For you it’s food!

S: Yeah! I think that also, sometimes, if you have an argument with someone and maybe you feel anger afterwards; Yoga gives you some kind of understanding to realise that, maybe what the person you are arguing with really needed was some kindness, maybe they are going through something that you don't know. Yoga gives to a bit more clarification of how it might affect them, and how reacting that way might effect you.

E: Yeah, and I guess it makes you understand where YOUR  anger comes from, within yourself - what sparked that? and how that might have affected the other person - where would their frustration have come from? Understanding yourself better, helps you to understand others a bit better..

S: Yeah you kind of just blend. You feel like you are blending all the time! With yourself, with your partner, with the people around feel like you are becoming more natural.

E: That’s very true!…UNION, I guess haha!

Is there a mantra or quote that you've by?… I mean, “It feels like we’re blending” is a good one! But are there any others?

S: I really love the ‘Oṁ Saha nāvavatu’ one, I really like that one. I started to chant it a lot during a tough period in my practice, I chant it all the time and it just gives me some kind of connection.

Om Saha Nau-Avatu |
Saha Nau Bhunaktu |
Saha Viiryam Karavaavahai |
Tejasvi Nau-Adhiitam-Astu Maa Vidvissaavahai |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

Aum! May He protect us both together; may He nourish us both together;
May we work conjointly with great energy,
May our study be vigorous and effective;
May we not mutually dispute (or may we not hate any).
Aum! Let there be peace in me!
Let there be peace in my environment!
Let there be peace in the forces that act on me!

I guess its a standard chant, but it's less about teaching of physical practices and more about unity, about literally being here now and being open and responsive.

E: Kind of off topic, but I’d love to know, where is your favourite place in the world?

S: That's hard! I guess, I love travelling a lot…but it’s more about emotions and people. Like, I’m really connected to my partner and I really love to be with him, so I guess all of the places that we’ve been together have been good places!

I think that quite often you are making the place, so I can’t see that there is one favourite place; It’s more about emotions I think, and that changes as well. It’s about the experience you have in each place.

It’s nice now that, because of the internet and Air bnb, we can do more local things as we travel, you know, staying where local people live and to do as much of the local things as you can - even better when you have friends who live where you are going. Yeah, so its not really about the place, its more about the experience.

However, my most recent ‘woah’ experience was Greece!  I was so in love with everything there. What’s interesting is how the local people treat the tourists! They are genuinely so happy to see you and you feel welcome and supported all the time - which is incredible! They really ENJOY having you!

…Also the food, of course, I’m all about food! Being Vegetarian in other countries like Spain or France it hasn't always been so easy for me. I mean, it’s okay if you don't mind eating Cheese and Salad all the time, it’s good…but that got a bit too much for me. Whereas in Greece there were vegetarian/vegan options almost everywhere; there was Moussaka made with Soya meat, vegetarian Greek plates… and nobody looks at you like you're crazy for not eating meat!

So yeah, It's my new top destination to go back to!

E: Do you find it easy to practice wen you travel?

S: No, it’s completely different, because I’ve never been a home practitioner (I’ve always practiced in a Mysore room) so it’s a totally different experience. When I practice in a Shala/studio it’s hotter so it’s easier, my body is really open and I can do a lot of stuff. But when you travel your practice is just whenever/wherever you can make it to the mat; and maybe you end up doing more than you planned to…then you feel so good! But then there are times when I do less than I would normally practice (and I might skip a couple of vinyasas here and there!) so yeah, I’m definitely still building on that!

I think that everyone who starts to practice at home when they are used to practicing in a studio experiences those kind of thought: “why am I so stiff?” “I can normally do this posture, but today I can’t!” So it’s a practice in itself, and I think I’m over that stage now.

But it is really special when you do practice alone whist your away; I really do love that feeling, when you are travelling and you have a lot of time with yourself. It’s really worth it to wake up and do that, because you have nothing else to worry about for the rest of the day, so you can spend that time fro yourself and then have a good breakfast..and thats a really nice feeling!

E: So, I’ve got one more random one to finish with, just because I’m keen to know your answer! If you were stranded on a deserted island, and you’re only aloud one thing, what would it be?

S: …Yoga Mat? … what else? I was thinking of a bottle of water but that wouldn't last as long, haha! …so yeah I’d say definitely my yoga mat.

E: haha - I thought so!

I hope you’re a little more inspired to practice after that read - I know I am! Keep in touch with the gorgeous Svetla via her website or follow her in her Instagram - @ashtangi.who

You can also catch her assisting Hamish Hendry at Dharma Shala or teaching publicly at Yoga Place.

All photos featured by Oksana Taran

See you for another #NITARAmeets soon!



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