by Ali Modell
In this recurring column, we ask Chicago-area teachers to interview their teachers about lineage and the teacher/student relationship.
Being connected to a community and plugged into a teacher is vital to the yogic process, something Tias Little knows a lot about, as the founder of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Little began his yogic studies as a youth, and as an adult, Little and his wife, Surya, studied within the Ashtanga yoga system. Ashtanga was a vital source of inspiration and maturation, as it helped them establish a consistent daily practice and connection to a teacher. Now, as a practitioner, he works closely with his Zen and Sanskrit teachers, who continue to inspire him. Little’s focus as a yoga teacher includes in-depth anatomical detail stemming from his training as a bodyworker, paired with in- depth meditation instruction stemming from his training in Buddhist meditation and classical yoga. He continues to honor the Krishnamacharya lineage, the father of the Ashtanga and Iyengar styles of yoga, which form the basis of most modern styles of yoga. Little is also influenced by various other somatic modalities, which combine to form a rich tapestry of teachings.
Tell us about how you began your yoga journey.
Little: I started in the Iyengar system, as my mother began studying the Iyengar method in 1978 in London. Having been an athlete for many years, I suffered many injuries. I was a soccer player and remember doing Triangle pose and Warrior I in the kitchen, which helped to rehabilitate my ankles and knees. Another strong influence that drew me to yoga was my inclination toward the contemplative experience. I used to do regular meditation practice outdoors long before I had any formal training.
What particular modalities, methodologies and teachers continue to inspire you today?
Little: Recently, I’ve really focused my studies and interests in the healing and contemplative arts. Bodywork and medicinal practices like Rolfing and osteopathy have been inspirations of mine. And the body awareness and movement system of somatics has been a real complement to my traditional yoga practice as well.
I also have an ongoing practice of working with dreams and find there’s quite a bit of connection between dream-time and yoga nidra, as both practices allow one to connect into the subconscious.
I have so much gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had and the insights I’ve gained from working with them. I think of teachers like beads on a mala. As a teacher, I am just one bead amidst a whole string of beads. Being a teacher is to be part of an ongoing process of discovery, change and growth. It is critical for me to connect to tradition, for that is what gives strength and continuity to my work. It is important for all teachers to avoid becoming isolated from the mala of teaching, but to connect to the richness of a tradition.
How does your own study inform Prajna Yoga, your yoga approach/ school, and what is Prajna all about?
Little: We chose the word Prajna, meaning deep understanding or wisdom, for our school because it’s so ancient. It suggests knowing something at the deepest level. We connect to the classical practices of yoga, or the Eightfold Path, which are a progressive framework for how to live ethically in the world and further work with one’s own internal processes. We are also influenced by the traditional teachings of the Buddha, especially Zen and Vipassana meditation. We honor the teachings of BKS Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and emphasize a high level of anatomy in our training. Thus our approach is interdisciplinary, weaving together classical yoga, Buddhist wisdom and a deep knowledge of anatomy.
How do we honor tradition while bringing in new ideas, and how do we balance them?
Little: It’s really a high-wire act to find the middle ground between adhering to tradition and also being inclusive of contemporary ideas. The Buddha taught a three-pronged approach to meditation practice and one of the three prongs is upaya, which means skillful action and making teaching accessible and relevant to whatever kind of audience is at hand. With Prajna Yoga, we teach in a way that is dynamic, changing and creative, and it is designed to be relevant to the current culture. It’s always evolving. I’m not sure where my work will be in the next five years, but I know it will continue to evolve. There can be dangers to adhering to a static belief system about how yoga is supposed to be; remaining open to many possibilities is important for inner and outer growth on the yogic path.
What is next for Prajna?
Little: My excitement is really around how mindfulness is taking hold here in America. Prajna is based around that—the importance of tracking the nuance of breath, sensation, thoughts and perceptions. I think we’ll continue to evolve more in that direction. Everyone can benefit from mindfulness, whether they are a school teacher, bus driver, nurse or yoga teacher.
Do you think it’s important for a student of yoga to have a teacher, or can someone practice without a guide or community?
Little: I think it’s really important to have a teacher. It’s kind of ironic, because there are so many people standing up to teach yoga these days, but it’s rare
to find a teacher who can really guide others. I think that a one-to-one relationship is important, like the psychotherapeutic model, where the client is able to move through their own kleshas, or holding patterns, with the guidance of their coach or therapist. And that is also the yogic model, where there is a strong student-teacher relationship.
This presents somewhat of a challenge for me, as I have so many students. But at Prajna Yoga, we do have a mentorship program to help students make progress. It is also important to have a teacher, for as one becomes more experienced and evolved on the yoga path, it is easy fall into old patterns and get out of the habit of a consistent practice and internal growth. As I continue to grow on my path, I am always seeking the help of my teachers: my Zen teacher, my dream teacher, my Sanskrit teacher.
Tell us about some unique features of the Prajna temple and how it fosters student learning.
Little: Our retreat center was created in part to celebrate beauty. Beauty
is important for the human spirit. We are just outside of Santa Fe in the foothills—in the mountains with the cottonwood trees, underneath the big sky. Our temple has a Japanese influence, expressed in the courtyard gate, the round windows in the temple, and throughout the landscaping. Our building is an ecological, completely green facility. It provides for a really remarkable experience for anyone who comes in to practice.
Is the “goal” of yoga the same for everyone, and is the practice goal-oriented?
Little: It’s really problematic when yoga becomes goal-oriented. People use
the practice to lose weight, become fit, or as a cardio routine. For many practitioners, the aim is to achieve postures, but I believe that the goal is to heal, from physical, psychological and emotional suffering. One goal in yoga must be to heal the divided self. In order to heal the divided self, it is good to ask the question, “What is the common root for all beings?” This suggests healing the collective; the collective of people, nations and the whole planet. One such goal is the health and sustaining of our planet—and this is something that is vital to connect to, one that all beings everywhere must support. Realizing that health is one of the goals of yoga.
Learn more about Tias Little at prajnayoga.net.
Ali Modell is a dedicated yoga enthusiast and student of Tias Little since 2006. Committed to honoring the art and science of yoga, she is also a soon-to-be practitioner of East Asian Medicine focusing her studies on integrative medicine and structural integration. Learn more about her work at alimodell.com.