A radiant, energetic appearance, Sandra Carson is an EkhartYoga teacher who teaches Anusara Yoga, Vinyasa and Yoga therapy and is also a wife, and mother of three beautiful daughters. She was born in the Netherlands in 1971, married an American with whom she lived in Canada, the United States and England before returning to the Netherlands with her family.
Sandra is a passionate yoga teacher – not only on, but also off the mat – with a deep motivation to explore the essence of life and to “live life to the fullest”. We meet in a wayside restaurant, her lovely ten year old daughter Maya, who has the flu and wears the cutest giraffe suit ever, sits quietly with us at the table (leaving every now and then to investigate the place). After ordering our tea we are ready to take off…
You moved around quite a lot in your life!
Yes, I always have been a bit of a wanderer… The first time we moved I was six months old. My family (mother, father and older brother) lived in different places in The Netherlands, from north to south, also in the west…and later in my life I moved to Toronto, Canada with my husband.
Your husband is American… How did the two of you meet?
I was twenty-one and working as a flight attendant. During that time, Chris was working and living in The Netherlands. Although everyone always expects a romantic airplane story, we met through a mutual friend in Groningen, my hometown! So, we met, dated, fell in love, moved in with each other… and then I became pregnant. During my pregnancy we moved to Canada. In retrospect, that was a pretty big step; being pregnant and not working and not knowing anybody made the first six months probably the toughest of my life….but we settled and I gave birth to my oldest daughter Emma. After two great years in Toronto we moved to upstate New York for a year where our second daughter, Mente was born. After that we moved to New Jersey where we lived for four years. Maya, our youngest, was born in New Jersey.
When did yoga come into your life?
I started my first yoga class in Toronto. I found it a bit strange, but really liked it. After giving birth I stopped practising though, being a mother took all my attention. It wasn’t until living in New Jersey a few years later that I tried it again.
It was almost like coming home. That sounds a bit dramatic, but my whole life I had been searching for what I wanted to do, I never could really find anything that gave me the feeling I belonged, that I was in the right place. I loved being a flight attendant, but there was always this little voice telling me: “this is not what you really want”. When I started doing yoga it felt so good, so right! Funny because I come from a very ‘regular’ family. Eastern practices or spirituality were not a part of my childhood.
There was not much room for spirituality when you grew up?
Well, actually my father was my first guru.
Ah…In what way?
…He just is a guru, he also looks like one…well, to me! (laughs). One of the definitions of a guru is: “that which guides from the darkness into the light.” My father has had a childhood without meaningful spirituality and sorely lacking in love. He managed to take the negative aspects of his upbringing and turn them around. He is a man without formal education or spiritual practices and yet he has said things to me over the years that have made such a profound impact on how I view myself and my relationships, things that were so true and meaningful that I am convinced he is a great spiritual being!
But to the world, he does not look like a guru, and he does not talk like one either. My father has taught me that teachers and teachings come in all forms and sizes.
Any example of what he taught you?
One profound teaching is something he told me several years ago. When I was a teenager and I was struggling with myself, when I was troubled and confused, he had faith in me. He trusted me beyond my own behaviour.
That has really helped me many times to not get stuck in the moment but to see beyond the outside and look at the essence of situations and people. And to trust that it was going to be OK. This has been very powerful in relation to my own daughters, especially with my eldest. I discovered my actions and reactions would often be based on fear: “I have to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand! How can I stop this?” I was acting from my own fear and my actions were not helping but rather making things worse. Remembering his words made a world of difference to me.
What I also learned from him is that a teacher doesn’t have to be someone you like. Because a lot of times he rubs me the wrong way and there’s conflict. There’s a beautiful expression: “Gurus can hide in plain sight”; they look just like you and me….this is actually a tantric concept too. The tantric masters live in the world, you might not recognize them. Yes… he is and was a big influence on my life, as if he prepared me to absorb and recognise the teachings and studies that I do now more quickly.
Can you tell us something about the teachings of Anusara and what attracted you to this form of yoga?
Anusara Yoga is a physical yoga based on a non-dualistic philosophy. It has very clear alignment techniques consisting of five steps that you do in every pose to align your whole being, body, mind and heart. It’s a very positive teaching.
When I finished my first my (Vinyasa) teacher training, my teacher would bring in some Anusara alignment. At first I was very resistant, I just wanted to do flow and not think about alignment so much. But then I noticed what it did for me, I became more stable and open. It was like getting the manual of your car going “Oh..this is how it works!”
By that time we moved from America to England and I went to an Anusara workshop by John Friend. The whole method was immersed in this beautiful, elegant, uplifting philosophy. I found that sometimes yoga methods could be very much about what was wrong: the stiffness of your body, the weakness of your muscles, how the mind drifts off…don’t do this, fix that…and here was a philosophy that said look at you! Your body and your mind are the greatest gift! Do you realise how wonderful it is to be alive? It was like appreciating the car and polishing it up instead of the focus on fixing it. This different approach deeply resonated with me.
I can see how this approach suits you as a person, bringing out the positive and strong energy you have.
Yes…I think I’m basically a very positive, joyful person. Of course not always and my children will attest to that…(big smile)
When I first became a yoga student I was really excited about becoming a yogini, and became very strict in my practice and my diet. I had to be perfect. And It was more and more about not doing, in a sort of righteous, rigid way. When I started to do Anusara this all changed… Not the physical practice, that was quite intense…but the whole starting point is different. The tantric approach tells you you are completely free to begin with. It was a new way of thinking about myself and my life. But that took some time. It took me seven years to get certified because for a long time I didn’t think I was good enough. You know, even as a yogi, you are still struggling with the same shit as everyone else, having doubts, being angry…
So when did you feel you were good enough?
A few years ago I did an Anusara teacher training in Paris that was like a test for me. It had a lot of training hours and I felt it would tell me how far I was. And after the training I finally felt ready to start giving Anusara classes as they should be. Well, it is an ongoing thing…I often still feel I could have done better after teaching a class.
What are you trying to bring across in your teaching?
What I hope to bring across is that there are several levels of practice. If people just want physical yoga in my class they can have that. There is nothing wrong with practising to become stronger and more flexible, with wanting to be more relaxed after class and feel good about yourself.
That’s totally fine. But doing a class or practice can also be a great opportunity to learn more about yourself, to go deeper. From being more aware of who you are you can make informed choices. With that I mean making conscious choices in how to express yourself, how to be authentically, uniquely yourself and give yourself in the most true and clear way possible. On your mat and off your mat.
How do you bring that across in your classes?
Well…I work with quotes sometimes. I worked with a quote in a class today that says: “Your life is a gift, do with it what you will”. You know, you can feel inclined to act in a certain way but you don’t have to. You can’t hide behind “that’s just who I am” if you are grumpy or whatever. The freedom you have gives you the sole responsibility to act the way you want to act, because you are aware of the fact you have a choice.
Most of my classes have a theme, something about yourself or your life that you can study more closely.
The theme means to inspire to cultivating a certain quality, like having courage, being strong, forgiving, celebrating etc. In a physical way you can access something that goes deeper.
That is typical of Anusara yoga; it is taught with themes, heart qualities in a physical practice. In this way it interweaves philosophy and alignment with the physical.
What is awareness to you?
Awareness is knowing who you truly are, deep inside, the deepest part of your being. And to see the qualities that you possess, the talents that you have, knowing what “makes you tick”. The practice then is to cut through the layers that hide this part, like the opinion you hold of yourself, which usually tends to be negative. So, it is knowing who you are and what is obstructing your view of yourself.
Life is short, so how can you experience life to the fullest? Life is not just about being happy, there is suffering too. It’s about having a full on, complete experience of life, opening to everything, allowing everything to be felt, so nothing gets stuck. You know how negative stuff can kind of find its way into your body or your mind and you don’t want to talk about it because it makes you angry or sad…and you just push it away. So instead the practice is about opening up to let life move through you, so that you are fluid enough to adapt to any kind of situation. Sometimes you need to focus, and sometimes you just need to be open. A tantric teacher said it like this: “The purpose of life is to be fully alive”. And that’s it.
You sound inspired…
To me this is what life is about, how I want to live my life. And what is important in my own practice lately is to live life without shame. I think shame is really a big one for all of us, our “bad sides”. When I look at the many things I am ashamed of, things I say, or how I look or how I act…even with this Anusara Yoga that I have been practising for so long, it is still there. They are like little devils telling you you are not good enough, you won’t be able to to this…
Do you emphasise this also in your classes?
Yes…well, this is tricky…when you do a physical practice you are always playing with your boundaries. I try to take my students to a next step, a little further, but you can’t always get there. I can’t always get there myself.
It is that edge, that’s the place where it get’s interesting because that is where you start to come into unfamiliar territory, where for example deep doubts about yourself can surface. Only when it comes up and into your field of awareness, can you start to deal with it and “polish your car!” I hope to create space in my classes to explore this playing with edges with interest and curiosity. It is about being fully present in the pose, expressing yourself fully instead of trying to fit into a “perfect” yoga pose. This way the pose becomes you and not the other way around. This is where you meet yourself and also where you find your demons… But the darkness makes it possible for you to see the light. Anusara is not just a happy-happy yoga, in the darkness you can sometimes find yourself more clearly, more purely I think.
How is the Anusara approach different from other yoga methods?
Many yoga methods are based on Classical yoga philosophy, on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The main essence of classical yoga philosophy is that it is a path of pulling back from the world, of non-attachment, letting go and turning inside. Anusara yoga asks the question: “Okay, I have turned inside, now what?” The reality is that we still have a body, we live in the world, most of us want to have relationships. So, after you turn inside you get back into the world and engage again. And this is very specific for Anusara yoga. Anusara is a yoga of engagement. It’s for people who are out there, in the middle of life, with jobs, relationships, with feelings and thoughts.
Remember that book/movie called Into the Wild? In the end the guy wrote down: “Happiness is only real when it’s shared”. We experience ourselves, our happiness and sadness in connection to other, that is when it becomes real.
By expressing what we feel, and share it with each other, like we do now in this interview, it is brought into relationship and something is more is created out of that. making a connection, that is what yoga is to me.
Very true. Last question, what does spirituality mean to you?
This is a word that is used so often, being a ‘spiritual’ person… What it means to me is being as authentic as possible. To be you, be completely you. To know yourself and to express yourself. There is a beautiful quote from Douglas Brooks* saying: “Yoga is the virtuosity in becoming yourself.” It’s my favourite; just that. Everything is right here, built in who we are. Isn’t that beautiful?
*Douglas Brooks is a philosopher teacher in Rajanaka yoga. (www.rajanaka.com)