Finding a yoga teacher you truly connect with can be as powerful as the practice itself. I found this to be true when I started practicing with Rowan Silverberg, RYT a few years ago. I enjoy all my teachers and I am honored to learn something valuable from each of them, but I’ve really found I have a profound connection with Rowan, not only on a personal level, but a spiritual one, as well. She has a lightness of being and true happiness that is contagious! I’ve travelled around following her wherever she’s teaching, as many of you probably have so, I felt it fitting to share a little more about her with all of you! If you don’t know Rowan, or you live across the country or across the world, sit back, and enjoy learning about this spirited teacher!
Welcome to Luna Presence, Rowan. I’m excited to share this interview with my students and readers, not only because you are a skilled and renowned yogini, but because you embody the meaning of what it means to be a traveler on the path of yoga.
Luna Presence: When would you say you began your yogic journey?
R: In 1965, I found the book, Yoga for Americans, by Indra Devi, in my elementary school library and started copying the poses and doing the breathing exercises. I was nine years old at the time. I had a big family and I liked getting away from everybody to do my private yoga practice. In a broader sense, I think I started even earlier, in the small, rural town in western Ohio where I lived until I was four. I liked going outside, just smelling the grass and feeling the wind on my face, watching the horses in the field across from our house. The whole world felt so fresh. That’s what yoga is really about for me – the goodness of being really alive.
LP: Was there a defining moment for you when you realized that teaching yoga was what you wanted to do?
R: I never really had a big plan to teach yoga. Yoga was a part of my life since I was young, but I never thought about being a yoga teacher; yoga was kind of like my little secret. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a gym teacher or an astrophysicist. I think of yoga as the perfect combination of the two! In the early eighties, I discovered Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. I attended retreats and workshops there — first in Sumneytown, Pennsylvania, and then in western Massachusetts. After living at Kripalu from 1988 – 1989, I started teaching. I came back to Cleveland in 1989, and there were only a handful of yoga teachers, so I thought it would be a good idea to get more yoga happening here in Cleveland. I felt so moved to share all that I had learned in that truly transformative year. I am amazed to see how much yoga has grown here in northeastern Ohio in the past 20 years.
When I returned from living at Kripalu, I knew that I wanted to teach yoga in the workplace. I had, and continue to maintain, a strong desire to help people learn to integrate yogic principles into their lives and not just see yoga as an outlet for the tension they build up day-to-day. In 1991, I started teaching yoga to the employees of Progressive Corporation; I taught up to 10 classes a week there until 2003. Now I’m teaching the business staff of the Cleveland Indians; we meet twice a week. It’s really fun and rewarding to work with a consistent group of people and watch their practice develop and deepen.
LP: Of all the styles of yoga you have studied and experienced, why did you connect so closely with Anusara?
R: The first time I practiced Anusara Yoga was in 1994, when I was strongly into an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice. I was at a Yoga Journal Conference and I took a class with John Friend. I wasn’t interested in studying Anusara much at that point, but I still felt a strong connection to John. He has such a wonderful way of getting to the essence of the practice, which is physical, but so much more than physical. I continued my Ashtanga Vinyasa practice, practicing the primary series almost every day, and started getting injured a lot. I was a runner, and also very flexible, with no awareness of my core. So sometimes I’d go into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and I wouldn’t be able to straighten up completely for weeks at a time. It was really scary. People who studied with me back then, about 8 – 10 years ago, know what I’m talking about! I felt very humbled…..to go into a yoga class and say, “OK, everyone, let’s get started,” and I literally couldn’t stand up straight, or go into child pose and not know if I’d be able to get up. But I was just honest about what was going on with my students, and kept trying to figure out what would help. Ultimately, through Anusara’s Universal Principles of Alignment, I was able to learn how to develop integration and core strength, and I haven’t experienced back pain for many years.
So I connected with Anusara because it really helped me to heal. I have shared the things I’ve learned from that tradition with so many students and patients (I’m also a massage therapist) and I have to say, most of the time, they work. It’s like magic! The body really does have an optimal alignment where it is balanced, and if people move in the direction of that alignment, so many soft tissue and joint problems are fixed. I see it all the time: neck pain, shoulder pain, knee pain, back pain, TMJ – people just get better when they learn to be in balanced alignment.
I also connected with Anusara because it takes the physical practice to a spiritual level in a very dynamic, meaningful way. Anusara is basically about celebrating the goodness of being alive – here and now, in each and every moment.
Yet I don’t like to “brand” the style of yoga I teach, because I have learned wonderful things from every kind of yoga I have studied. I try to integrate all that learning into my classes. I guess I am not a fundamentalist in any sense of the word. I’m not out to convince anyone that they really “should” practice this or that type of yoga. There are so many valuable approaches to yoga, and to life. It’s like having a really full toolbox, and using the right tool for the job. It feels natural to draw from a variety of traditions in my own practice, and in my teaching. It’s ALL yoga.
LP: Many of your classes consist of multi-level students, including men and women, young and old. What do you find most gratifying about teaching this type of class, and what is the most challenging aspect of this type of class (for you or the student).
R: Well, the thing I like about this type of class is that it really challenges me to pay attention and give people what they need; challenging the people that are ready for it and supporting people who are not ready with modifications. And reminding people to practice at the level that is truly nourishing for them. I feel so uplifted, teaching a roomful of people, diverse in age and capability, but ultimately joined by a common humanity. I’m moved to witness everyone practicing in their own way – I think it’s liberating for everyone to get out of that “I’ve got to do the pose perfectly, just as I’ve seen it in a book” mentality. Perfection changes from moment to moment, from person to person.
So the thing I love about teaching this kind of class is also what is most challenging.
For the students: I think it can be challenging for advanced students to work more methodically, to slow down and really feel all the little details and subtleties in the poses. Sometimes people just want to do a big, sweaty, athletic practice. And there are times when this is just the right thing. There are also times when this can be habitual and numbing. So slowing down a bit can make more room to feel and be aware of what is really going on.
For the newer students, I always remind them that this is not gymnastics, and to focus on the breath. I see people really taking this advice. It can be challenging mentally, though – to see more experienced students doing stuff you can’t do yet, and just be all right with it.
Nonetheless, I think everyone has a pretty good time!
LP: What is your best advice to a beginner who feels frustrated by their lack of flexibility (be it hamstrings, hips, etc.)
R: I invite people to be patient and skillful in their practice. I let them know I’ve taught people in wheelchairs, I’ve taught people in their 80’s – so it’s important to notice what they CAN do and not so much what they can’t do.
LP: For my men students and readers out there who sometimes feel in the minority in classes, do you have any tips for them concerning their common tightness?
R: Really everyone is in the same boat in yoga. Everyone has challenges and everyone has strengths. It’s just like life: it’s tempting to think, “Oh, that person has such an easy life.” But to really stand in their shoes, you see it’s not as easy as it looked superficially. Since the practice of yoga is fundamentally about consciousness — it’s not about doing this or that pose, it’s about the WAY you do the pose (hopefully as an opening to something greater than yourself – God, the Divine, the great mystery of life, the goodness of being alive, the Source –whatever has deep meaning for you) then the physical form is not the most important thing. The practice of yoga is a way to enjoy what you are capable of physically and learn to go deeper in a skillful manner, without strain and without ego attachment. Of course, habits come up, self-judgments come up, and then we can look at them, laugh at them, and let them go. Those habits limit us much more than tight muscles!!
LP: What is the best advice you were ever given as you advanced your personal practice?
R: Wow, this is a difficult question. I have had the opportunity to study with so many incredible teachers. I have to say it was John Friend’s invitation to begin by opening to Grace – and remember that everything else follows from that opening. It’s a good thing to remember at all times, not just when practicing asana!
LP: If a student was looking to read more about yoga, what resource would you recommend?
R: There are so many great books about yoga. I would have to base my choice of recommendations on that particular student, and what s/he would need at the time. I love A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield. the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam, and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by Chogyam Trungpa, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. I tend to recommend books that are more about consciousness and less about the physical practice, because these writings get to the essence of what the physical practice is about.
LP: Your classes are infused with humor. It’s not unusual to be holding down dog or half moon while giggling about your analogy of how comfort poses are like macaroni and cheese and more challenging ones are hot and spicy. Or describing how we need to simmer in a pose. You have a unique way of taking real-life experiences and connecting them perfectly with the practice. I know your students love this about you. What pose is most spicy for you?
R: Ha! Because I am riding horses a lot lately, ANYTHING that stretches my hamstrings and inner thighs is incredibly intense. I used to be able to go into Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose) without much of a warm-up; now that pose is really challenging for me. But it’s really interesting to have a different experience from what I’m used to, I think it helps me teach these poses more effectively. I’m definitely more compassionate to folks who have tight hamstrings.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose) has also been challenging the last few years because I injured my knee. Ultimately, this pose has helped my knee to heal, and it’s almost back 100%,
LP: Where do you find your best source of inspiration?
R: Truthfully, my best source of inspiration is Christ’s teaching to love God above all things, and love my neighbor as myself. For me, that says it all. If I can keep moving in that direction, letting go of actions and thoughts that keep me from really living this wisdom, I will feel that my life has been worthwhile. All the other teachers who inspire me, like Jack Kornfield, Chogyam Trungpa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Meister Eckhart and other Christian mystics, support me in this basic and eternal task.
LP: What is your all-time favorite quote?
R: I have so many! Here are a few:
“Good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.”
I don’t know who said this, and recently I read it in a fortune cookie. It’s a great reminder to value all of our experiences, and learn from them.
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” –George Bernard Shaw
Here’s one from one of my riding teachers from Maypine Farm, Andrea Stuehr. I tend to pick things apart and figure out all the little details when I’m learning things. Once I asked her about some of the subtleties of cantering and she said, “Just think of it like this: the horse is going fast and you’re going with it.”
And, finally, from my Aikido teacher, Sensei Linda Vecchio, “If you pray, don’t worry, and if you worry, don’t pray.”
LP: What is something that would surprise people most about you?
R: This is hard to answer – I’m pretty much of a “what you see is what you get kind of person,” and I share about my personal life, my history, in my classes. But here’s one thing you may find interesting, if not surprising. I went to my first political demonstration when I was six years old. I stood on the White House lawn in 1962 protesting the Vietnam war with my family, wearing a big sign that read “U.S. OUT OF HANOI NOW.” This has a lot to do with the reason I practice and teach yoga – as an evolution of the peace movement. I saw a lot of people working, fighting for peace but not being as peaceful as they could be internally. So teaching yoga, helping people to be more connected to the source of peace, is one thing I can contribute to the movement.
And if that didn’t surprise you, maybe this will: I love mules and burros. I spent a lot of time in my childhood on the back of a wonderful burro named Pancho.
LP: Thank you so very much Rowan, for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts with us.
R: Thanks for giving me this opportunity to reflect on some of my experiences with yoga, and offer them to your readers. I had a great time answering your questions!
Rowan offers private yoga instruction and Reiki training at her home in Richmond Heights and co-teaches a yoga teacher training program at Namaste Yoga Studio in Sagamore Hills. In 2009, she will be offering workshops at Namaste Yoga Studio, Cleveland Yoga in Beachwood, Westside Yoga Studio in Lakewood, and the Yoga Room in Little Italy in 2009. The location of her weekly classes in 2009 is yet to be determined. For more information, or to contact Rowan, please call 440-263-7362.
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