I had an interest in what makes people tick from a very early age. I studied Communications and ended up in Film and TV Production for most of my twenties. It was fast, furious and a lot of fun. We worked hard and we played hard.
In 1999 I did a production with some big name actors and a workaholic boss. We were on a sixteen hour day, six-day week contract and were often at our desks on the seventh day fire-fighting. We lived on caffeine and adrenaline. I burnt out. My body shut down.
I worked all day and as soon as I got home, it was as if someone unplugged me and I lay prostrate and utterly drained until morning.
This pattern continued long after the gig was finished and I knew I had to make a radical change.
Travelling towards change
I was always an avid traveller and I decided to take a year off to travel through India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and on to Australia and New Zealand. I plotted it out on a spreadsheet, took my vaccines, bought a new backpack and set off for India. I had given myself two ample months to explore and move on. India, however, had other plans.
Travellers to this sub-continent say that in the first three weeks you know whether you will sink or swim. Two months passed, and then six and soon I was in Nepal applying for a second Indian visa. I never made it to Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, although I did eventually go to Australia to earn western currency cash to go back and study Yoga in the place that gave birth to it.
What captivated me? Yoga and Freedom. Whether I was amidst the dust, the noise, the heat, the crowds, in the mountains, on the plains or in the jungle, I have never felt freer than I felt in India. It took me six months to stop hearing my mobile phone every time a temple bell rang.
My senses were still programmed to ‘constant on’ after the overload of my life. For the first time in a decade, I stopped, I watched people at chai stalls for hours at end, I wrote, I took time to hear strangers’ stories, I played with children in the street, I watched the sunset every evening. Little by little, I reclaimed myself.
My first few weeks were in the lush valleys of Kerala, India’s most educated and wealthy state. While I was there, I met a crowd of people who were heading to the Sivananda Ashram in Neyyer Dam, near the southern city of Trivandrum so I went along for the ride. Yoga had been on my ‘to do list’ for years, but I had never managed to combine any outside life with my all-consuming film life.
Life in an ashram
The Sivananda Ashram is set in the hills above a huge dam. A frustrated lion roars daily from across the lake which was populated with snakes (or so we were told). We lived in segregated housing, rising at sunrise and sleeping at sunset. There were Swamis (holy men and women) who dedicated their lives to yoga. We were irreverent newbies. We called one ‘The Crow’ for her hoarse voice and another ‘Swami Salami’ because his belly was so big he couldn’t sit cross-legged. I still swear I saw pizza boxes under his bed one night while delivering him food. Segregation did little to dampen the sexual energy as half my dorm were energetically nocturnal lesbians. My experience was of a Yogic Club Med despite all of the spiritual trappings.
Yet, something stayed. We practiced a series of postures, breathing practices, cleansing practices and meditations daily and as water steadily re-moulds stone, my internal landscape started to shift.
I had been a professional gymnast as a child, and had taught gymnastics so the convulated shapes were no problem. But how could we add breath and life to those shapes, how could we use them to re-shape our mindscape as well ?
The beginning of the beginning
I left Sivananda after a month to travel with two German nurses. One night as the sun set on our porch in the middle of the jungle, they asked me to teach them some yoga. I will remember that moment forever. We laid some mats out as the sun slanted rays through the vines. I stood in front of them. I opened my mouth. Words flowed out and magic happened. Instructions, sequences, blessings, reassurance, joy, presence and a sense of profound peace that brings tears to my eyes even now. It was all already there, as if some pre-programmed button had just been pushed.
It was all already there, as if some pre-programmed button had just been pushed.
That was the beginning of the beginning. I spent the next two and half years travelling and learning. I lived in Rishikesh, the self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world where the Beatles famously met the Maharishi. I studied and worked at Vivekananda Kendra, India’s most famous Yoga Therapy Hospital. I studied Alchemic Yoga at the unlikely venue of Bondi Surf Club, and did cleansing retreats in Byron Bay. Along the way I met the person who was to become my teacher for the next fifteen years. Her name is Donna Farhi.
Yoga is a life journey
The people we meet along the way form us in a myriad of ways. The first time I heard Donna teaching it was as if a light went on in every single cell of my body.
Teachers communicate not only by language, but also through touch and pure presence. Finding a teacher that you resonate with is a crucial part of the journey.
Donna taught me absolute professionalism, irreproachable ethical standards, amazing creativity, sixth sense that includes x-ray vision and an integrity that I try to carry through my life. She is not and never was my guru in the traditional Indian sense. She is my teacher and more recently a friend and a colleague. I consider myself extremely lucky to have met a role model like her so early in my teaching career.
The travelling yogi
Since India, I completed another more westernised Diploma in Yoga Therapy to round out my studies at the Yoga Therapy Hospital in India. I qualified as a Somatic Movement Educator, an incredibly profound therapy that I use release pain and tension and achieve balance and ease. I spent over eight years travelling to California, New York and Portland to study Yoga and Embodied Anatomy with Donna’s teacher Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and her right-hand woman Amy Matthews.
Life cycles on and I have become the quintessential travelling yogi, a life I never imagined. I co-teach Donna’s Teacher Training in New Zealand and offer my own workshops and trainings all over the world as well as classes and courses at home in Dublin. When I wander I wander, and in between I stay as rooted as I can to the change of the seasons.
The balance between life's polarities
I am often asked why I chose to dedicate my life’s energy to the practice of Yoga. There are many answers, but at its simplest:
Yoga makes me feel authentic, profoundly peaceful, embodied and real.
It offers me a vehicle to explore life’s questions, and a map for exploring myself from the inside out. It helps me understand how our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and energetic bodies are interpenetrating frequencies woven together. It keeps me curious and allows me be a midwife to my own and my students’ experiences. It’s the place where I can find balance between life’s polarities: strength and fluidity, discipline and freedom, stability and mobility, being and doing. It’s my coming home to myself.
I am an explorer, a scientist, an anatomy geek and a spiritual searcher. I am equally an educator who is passionate about the art of communicating and transmitting knowledge. Inevitably, what I learn I teach. It is my dharma.
I am deeply and profoundly grateful to this ancient practice and to all the teachers and students that have gone before me and paved the way.
Lisa Petersen brings a wealth of knowledge to the EkhartYoga teaching team. She is a yoga teacher, therapist, Somatic Movement Educator and Body Mind Centering facilitator. Meet Lisa and learn more about her style and ethos.
Ekhart Yoga members can practice with Lisa here.