Yoga Teacher Unplugged: Jenny Mac Merrill
“Feel free to pick my brain about any of these body shapes as we try them!” she reminded us, dancing across the room and prepping to help someone rise up into a forearm balance.
I subbed my first yoga class for her in what now seemed like years ago, and watching my friend and teacher, Jenny Mac Merrill, guiding us magnificently and just gracefully through tonight’s practice, often times while singing, is always like coming home to practice, laugh and sing with the best of your friends.
“Who’s having fun?!!” she asked.
We started the class shaking out our Dogs, moving our hips in tango with the music. I always remember great music in Jenny Mac’s class, even when the soundtrack was just our breath.
Singing “go or FLOW to Down-ward Fac-ing Dog!” Jenny Mac encouraged us to take “baby steps” in our next posture, Parvritta Trikonasana, twisting our Triangles breath by breath and ever so “slooooolwy,” as she suggested.
She quietly elevated my right forearm in the posture, while telling the class, “you can reach up with that right arm as you breathe way down into a Loooong spine.”
We changed the paradigm from there with backwards vinyasas and eyes-closed vinyasas.
“Lift ALL TEN TOES in your flat back and then exhale it out,” she said as we met back at the top our mats.
“And smile in Utkatasana … it really does help you relax when there’s so much going on.”
Back in Tadasana, she asked us to maybe let go of a controlled breath and just allow our bodies to breathe naturally. “It just makes me feel so peaceful sometimes,” she said.
Suggesting we use our own hands to inner-rotate our own back thighs in Peaceful Warrior, Jenny Mac planted another student’s back heel securely on her sticky mat. Her class always reminds me that we can often times be our own best alignment teachers.
“Relax the head, jaw, face,” she said as we flowed effortlessly to the floor.
“Asana allows a chance for that inner judge to come in,” she said, “but the purpose is exactly the opposite. That’s where our edge is; the challenge is to let that go.”
As we moved towards Savasana, she said “I’m going to slowly turn the music off as you get comfortable, and as you start noticing the sounds in the room and maybe even outside, let them be little cues to go even deeper. There’s nothing to do now but relax and let go.”
“Let’s see if we can UN-do a little with our yoga practice. Maybe see if you can release the busy-ness of the mind.”
‘I might start there with that thing for tomorrow,’ I thought.
Before I knew it, I was sailing in Savasana, and I had forgotten all about it.
Q & A
BW: How did you find yoga?
JM: When I moved to Chattanooga, I had some friends that were going to ClearSpring Yoga studio, and they really loved Sue (Sue Reynolds, co-director of Clearspring Yoga), and they encouraged me to go and try it out. But at that time I was very against anything that seemed to be a fad, so I was resistant to it. But one friend pushed me to go to Sue’s restorative class, and that just really hooked me in. It was all about honoring your body and giving yourself permission to rest.
BW: Do you think yoga found you?
JM: Yes. I really do, and I think teaching yoga really, really found me. It was one of those things that just kept coming to me. Everybody was pushing me to do it. My friends who got me to go to ClearSpring, they just wouldn’t give up. And I as I started teaching, all of my teachers started pushing me to teach. It was like they weren’t taking ‘no’ for an answer.
BW: What kept you coming back to yoga when you first started practicing? Was it just the way it made you feel or was there more of a spiritual side opening up in your life?
JM: I think it was a combination of everything, and it was a right place at the right time type of deal also. Previously, up until that point in my life, I had a lot of negative energy, and a lot of resistance to everything. I was almost 30 years old at the time, and I had just started to feel physically ill. I had heartburn, I had no energy, I couldn’t sleep, and I felt like that was something very specific to me, that no one else could understand—only I felt that way. I felt dull, I felt sluggish; even things that were fun didn’t really feel that fun. Things that were supposed to be exciting didn’t really feel that exciting. At one point, I felt like ‘I’m too young to feel this way. What’s wrong?’
And it was that very first restorative class when I remember Sue read some sort of quote about how everything in nature needs a chance to rest. When plants go through their life cycle, then they lay fallow under the ground and regain their energy from the earth, and something about that just really spoke to me. It was just very sweet and touched my heart. So I thought, ‘well, I’m going to give this yoga thing a chance.’ And in some way, it slowly started to draw this more positive energy out of me—more kind, loving energy out of me and back in to me. I started doing more strenuous classes, taking it a little bit more seriously, coming more times per week, until I started doing Ashtanga Yoga. And then I started to realize that I could build positive energy in my body, on my own, without any external forces … and that the more I worked at it, the more energy I could build … and that I would feel better if I practiced than if I didn’t. It didn’t matter what kind of practice I did or how long, but I knew that if I got up in the morning and I did my practice, I would feel better all day just knowing that I gave that to myself.
BW: What teacher first inspired you the most, and also what school or type of yoga first inspired you the most? Was it Ashtanga that kind of got you into a rhythm or a base practice, and did it change from there?
JM: It’s really hard to say, because at the very first, it was a restorative practice that really hooked me in. But then, after that, Stephanie Rider came in (co-director, Clearspring Yoga) with a strict, very technical, Iyengar background, and for some reason, the science of that—learning about the anatomy and the dynamics of alignment, became very exciting to me, and it was something that I could really kind of fix my mind on in practice. So that started to speak to me, and as I got stronger, I wanted to take it a little bit further and challenge myself a little bit more. So yes, Ashtanga Yoga, where I had the privilege to work with the amazing Asha Wolf really pumped it up to the next level. I think it was Ashtanga that really began to draw this prana out of me and back in to me. And I found that if I could keep up a regular practice of it, I started to vibrate on a higher level.
BW: Do you think that Ujjayi Breath had anything to do with it?
JM: Oh, absolutely. And not only Ujjayi, but learning all different types of pranayama. Before I learned the Ujjayi Breath, I learned the valoma one, the valoma two (anuloma valoma, alternate nostril breath), I learned about the kumbacha (breath retention) and about the Breath of Fire. And I think that that’s one of the most powerful and healing parts of the practice—learning how to breathe correctly; how to use every section of the lungs, which most adults don’t do.
BW: I find myself not doing it sometimes, not taking deep breaths, getting back to that shallow breath, especially when I’m stressed about something. It’s easy to do.
JM: Especially in regular life. But it’s interesting because now that I’ve practiced with that and used all of that for so long, now, I’m taking a bit of the pressure off of the breath in my asana practice and really allowing the body to kind of use its own wisdom with the breath. And it becomes a different thing.
BW: You talked a little bit about that in tonight’s class … when you suggested maybe just releasing the controlled breath and returning to the natural breath, and just seeing how peaceful you might feel …
JM: I think that part of what can happen, at least for us as westerners, is that we’re always striving, we’re always pushing, and we’re always trying to do, do, do. And I think that you have to really allow the practice to evolve and allow it to be something that is healing for you. As your body changes, as the demands of your other life change, I think it’s really important to allow the practice to adapt to that so that it is something that’s healing; it’s not just another thing on your schedule that you’ve got to do, you’ve got to do right, you’ve got to get through it and move on. I think that as a yoga teacher, it’s really easy to fall into this trap of trying to maintain this level of practice, this type of practice that maybe you perceive that your students want, that will pay the bills—let’s be honest—that will keep people coming in to the studio. And you can kind of lose sight of what the practice is actually about. So I think it’s really important to let it evolve and to listen to the body, listen to the breath, rather than listening to the mind and letting it control the practice.
BW: Was there a specific time that you knew that you were going to be a yoga teacher or was it just the constant encouragement from everyone else in the community to go ahead and do that?
JM: I wouldn’t say I wanted to ever be a yoga teacher, and I don’t even know that I even fully consider myself a yoga teacher now. I feel like I’m a student of yoga who was strongly encouraged to lead a class.
BW: I don’t know if you remember, but you did the same for me. My first class was subbing your class.
JM: Yeah, that’s true.
BW: I almost threw up before I walked in there.
JM: Yeah … very nerve wracking! So the same thing happened to me. People started encouraging me to teach, and I said, ‘no, no, I’m not ready! I can’t do that!’ And Jennifer Busch, (Instructor, North Shore Yoga), in one of her classes, said, ‘yes you are, get up, right now, and finish the class.’ And so, I thought, ‘I’ve got to do it; everybody’s looking at me,’ and I stood up and started talking and all of the sudden, I couldn’t believe that what I knew just flew out of my mouth. Yoga, as a practice, at that point, had been so healing, so transforming for me that I felt like I had to share it. If all these signs were pointing towards me teaching, I thought, ‘well, then I have to share what’s been so healing for me in my life.’ And I did find that sharing what I knew made me feel even better. Even now, when I go to teach a class, sometimes I think, ‘I don’t have the energy for this tonight; I don’t know where it’s going to come from; I don’t think I can do it.’ But then, after the class, I feel like the students give that energy back to me.
BW: What type of yoga do you currently teach and why?
JM: There’s two types you could say that I teach because I teach a group of gentlemen that have been playing golf their whole lives, and they have pretty severe back pain because of it, as well as some physical limitations due to reconstructive surgeries and so forth. So I teach mainly back-care yoga to them. And it’s not only a release of tension, but there is also some strengthening and just basic back-care maintenance. I also teach a flow yoga class. I just call it ‘flow’ because we flow through at lot of postures, we talk a lot about flow of energy through the body, flow of the breath.
BW: Do you offer privates as well?
JM: I do offer privates.
BW: And would that be like a flow class or would it just depend on what the student needs?
JM: It would depend on what the student needs. Even with my flow class, it’s really going to depend on who shows up as to how I teach the class—what I sort of perceive is the energy of the room, the physical capability of the students—I really sort of try to leave it open to what comes through. I would say that’s a really important thing about what I try to do in the class—I try to open myself up to what I’ve learned, to what I’ve experienced and what I see from the students—and just allow that teaching to come through me. I kind of think of myself as a conduit for the practice, as I’ve experienced it.
BW: What currently is your greatest challenge as a teacher?
JM: I’ve been practicing for almost eleven years now, teaching for about five or six, and as I am getting older, my body is changing a little bit, my own personal practice is starting to change, and I find my body wanting to move towards stillness. But I’m wrestling a little bit with this attachment to this level of strength, this level of fitness that I’ve achieved with my practice. So maybe I’m having a hard time finding a balance between how much I push myself to stay in a more vigorous practice and how much I allow myself to let a little bit of that go. I do believe that, like we were saying tonight in class, that yoga was not meant for fitness. It was meant to be a lead in to meditation practice. I read somewhere that there’s three stages in a yogi’s life: the first stage is about beginning to grow and open the body, learn how to use it and how to become strong. The second stage is about maintaining your health, your well-being, your stamina, your strength. And the third stage of a yogi’s life is about moving into stillness and preparing for the transition to the next plane of existence. I’m not saying I’m there yet, but energetically, I do feel a shift, and it’s a challenge to my ego, it’s a challenge to what I teach, to try to find a balance there.
BW: That is a challenge. Even as I’m 33, I’m finding things that I can’t do any more … like I’m not as strong as I used to be when I was younger, maybe I should get back into this or that and start doing more …
JM: Right. And then you get the stiff neck or the hurt shoulder. American, modern day life is stressful business. Maybe you have a stressful day at work, and you’re hunched over that computer, or you had a really stressful phone call or moment in the car, and if you take that stress onto the mat and ask yourself to do 37 vinyasas, you might actually make all of that tension worse. But at the same time, for me, yoga brought energy into my life, brought strength and a level of vitality that I probably hadn’t ever experienced. So it’s hard to know how much to ease back, how much to allow that to let go and trust my relaxation practice, my breath work. When you’re a teacher, there’s also an expectation of the students—what you’ve given them before, what kind of experience they’ve had before that maybe they hope to recreate. And so I grapple with that as well.
So how much do you just trust your practice and believe in what you’ve experienced and what you’re going through now, and allow it to change, and how much do you try to provide a service for people? It’s quite difficult. If you really let your teaching evolve as your practice, and you really teach what your practice is, you might find that you lose half your students because they’re not willing or ready to go where you’re going.
BW: That is a hard balance to keep, for sure … you keep answering my questions ahead of time, but just briefly, again, how does yoga enter your life ‘off the mat?’
JM: Well, I really think of yoga, at this point, as more of a way that I live my life. And maybe it’s not something that I consciously think about when I’m going about my daily business, but it’s fascinating to me because as I teach a class, I find all of these little things coming up. When I’m trying to explain a principle or maybe even when I’m just talking about alignment in a pose, sometimes it’ll just fly out of my mouth how this relates to everything that we do in life. I’m trying to create balance, or I’m utilizing my breath. Or I’m standing on my own two feet on the ground, or I’m opening my heart to people.
BW: Do you use your yoga in difficult situations? Do you feel like you go to your yoga practice when times get stressful or you don’t know what to do about something?
JM: In best case scenarios, yes, and then at other times, that can also be a little bit of an ego trip as well, an expectation as well, when I forget about it and I fall into my old habits or surrender to my reactive mind. Then there’s that expectation of ‘what kind of yogi am I? Shame on me!’ And that’s a real slap in the face. But I think of all of those things as your edge. So when you first start asana practice and maybe you get into Triangle pose and your hamstrings are screaming out, or it’s Down Dog and you can’t get the weight out of the shoulders; those are your edges, at first, and you open the body and you learn how to balance the pose and the poses become easier. So then you try to hold longer—you try to use a stronger breath—and those things become your edge. Then maybe there’s poses that you avoid because you’re uncomfortable, and then you start to work with those and how to do them more efficiently. Then your edge moves a little further. And eventually I think the edges of your practice begin to go beyond the mat to where maybe there are places in your life where you’re working too hard or maybe you’re avoiding that uncomfortable situation. You’re avoiding that edge. Those become the places where you work. The beautiful thing about a yoga practice is that you never ‘master’ it. In my mind, there are no master yogis. If they are, or they think they are, I don’t know if it’s yoga any more.
It’s an evolution of the body, of the mind, of the spirit. It’s a constant work in motion, and I think that it just keeps circling back on itself. In asana practice, you learn all these poses; you expand, you expand, you expand, and do more and more tricky stuff, but then you go back to a simple lunge and you say, ‘wait a minute, what if I take this back to the beginning, get the blocks out, prop it all up. I might get up much higher but I find beautiful alignment in my hips, beautiful alignment in my spine, and now I’m really feeling all of those things they were talking about.’ I didn’t understand when I got in my first yoga class because all I wanted to do was get in the most advanced variation of the pose. So it’s a constantly evolving thing, and if I can look at every part of my life from a yogic perspective, it becomes a challenge. Almost like school or something, where everything is a chance for a lesson, everything is a chance to find equanimity. So in the best of times, I’m using yoga all the time.
BW: For me it’s when I feel like I get stuck about something or I don’t know what to do, I’ll look back and realize, ‘wow, I definitely wasn’t using my yoga there …’
JM: But actually, you were. You just came up against an edge. In the Buddhist tradition, they say those are the times to be the most grateful, and that somebody in your life who maybe is the hardest for you to deal with, you should thank them because they’re showing you your edge. They’re showing you where your work is. But it’s hard to see it when you’re in the heat of the moment.
BW: So, what is your favorite posture and why?
JM: Warrior II, I love! Right now, something that I’m really fascinated by and working with is balance in all ways, like we talked about tonight in class. So I think of Warrior II and simple Downward Facing Dog. I like a pose where I can really experience balance in every way. Balance between every side of the body, balance between how much I’m grounding, how much I’m lifting, balance of effort and ease. Balance of the upward flow of energy, and the downward flow, balance between expansion and contraction. For me, right now, I’m feeling that a lot in those poses, and it’s a nice place to be.
BW: What is your perceived nemesis posture and why?
JM: For me, right now, it’s extremely difficult to find any kind of balance in shoulder stand. I have, let’s say, a bottleneck of energy right now in the neck and the shoulders.
BW: How do you know it’s there? Do you feel it throughout the day or just in different postures?
JM: Right now, I’m feeling it throughout the day, all the time. I recently had an experience in Janka’s class, (Janka Livoncova, Instructor,Clearspring Yoga), where we did a supported backbend for quite some time, and I felt a real blockage in my heart. It felt like congestion, and we worked through that area all through the class. I felt that it was quite a bit of release through that heart space, and it felt better there. But ever since then, it’s like it all got jammed up in my neck and my shoulders. So I find that shoulder stand is a very tricky posture to do correctly without compressing the neck.
BW: Some days Shoulder Stand feels great for me, and then other days, not at all. Then I say, ‘what am I doing? I don’t need to do this today.’
JM: Exactly, and why are you? Even before I had this release in the heart space, and this congestion up in my throat, even back when I was doing Ashtanga all the time, that posture has always been a challenge for me. I have a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders. So I can’t even do Plow first thing in the morning. No way, my neck says ‘get out of this right now, I’m going to hurt you.’
BW: What was the time in your life when you were most amazed?
JM: The first time I was put before a class. Even until the last second, I was saying, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this,’ but I surrendered to it, and opened my mouth and out it came, with force, with gusto, with great zeal. I was truly amazed at how easily it all came, how much passion I had behind it. I’d never had anything like that happen to me before.
BW: Was that your happiest moment in yoga?
JM: No, because there was probably a lot of fear and a lot of trepidation around it as well. I recently went on a retreat, with Asha Wolf, ‘Spirit of the Horse’ (link to Asha’s website). It was amazing—so beautiful. I had encouraged Asha to have that retreat—she’d had one the year before, and I wasn’t able to go, so I emailed her and said ‘I really want to go to the ‘Spirit of the Horse,’ would you do another one?’ She said she was thinking about it and would see if she could put it together. And she did and so I talked it up to all of my students and really encouraged them to go, and I was able to get four other people to go with me. As we were driving down there, I started to think, ‘geez, what if these people don’t like it? What if it’s not what they were expecting? What are they going to think about me? What if they’re unhappy?’
The first night we got there, one of the first things that we did, again, was a restorative class, and one of the first things Asha said was to really let go of your expectation, to let go of your role. Letting go of who you are in the group, something like that. Basically letting whatever’s going to happen unfold. I thought, ‘you know what? She’s right.’ These people chose to come because they wanted to come, because of something that happened in their experience. And it’s easy to think that’s it’s all about you when you’re the teacher and these are your regular students. So at that point, I thought, ‘I don’t have to take that on.’ I’m just going to let myself be the student. I’m going to experience this workshop for myself. As it turned out, it was the most beautiful workshop I’ve ever done. It was a lot of work with the horses; everyone learned quite a bit about themselves, including myself, to where we all almost felt like the entire weekend was tailor-made, just for us. It seemed eerie that way.
Towards the end of it, we were all outside in this beautiful pasture, with horses all around us, watching us practice. They actually came up to the edge of the fence line to watch us. They were whickering and nudging each other, and at one point we were all in Downward Dog, looking at each other and the horses, saying, ‘they’re watching us, they’re watching us!’ It was just an incredible, beautiful moment. We all felt very much in harmony with nature, with the animals, with everything, and it was very touching and very gratifying. Not that I had given this to them, but here was my teacher, someone who brought so much healing, so much joy, so much empowerment into my life, and I was able to share that experience in a way that I know was hugely meaningful to all of these students as well. That’s another thing that’s really important to me about teaching … is that what the students give to the teacher is bigger than what, I’m sure, they receive.
The amazing JennyMac Merrill teaches Flow Yoga at ClearSpring Yoga in Chattanooga on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. If you are in Chattanooga, check out ClearSpring’s website to sign up for one of her delightful classes.