Tapas is not just on the mat. It’s how we live our life: An Interview with Genny Kapuler
photo: the all watch
How are you inspired in your practice at this point in your life?
Genny Kapuler: It’s like the siren song. It calls me. It is my inspiration. I get up and practice. On the weekends I just practice in the morning. During the week I don’t have enough time in the morning to also do the inversions, because morning class starts early. The older I get the longer it takes me to do everything. I need more time to practice. During the week I separate the inversions in the afternoon, and the inversions energize me for the evening classes.
What do you think are the most important elements of practice?
GK: Commitment. Over and over, every day, day in and day out. Then it creates a path.
How do you understand yoga as a method for transforming the body and the mind?
GK: It is very mysterious, the way the threading of the mind and the weaving of our own experience into the body creates so much resonance with our world. Even now when we are living in such a difficult time politically and environmentally, I find that yoga supports my trust in life and people.
Do you have a teacher or teachers?
GK: I feel like Mr. Iyengar is still my teacher even though he is dead. I think of Geeta Iyengar as my teacher. There are certainly really important teachers in my life, people like Mary Dunn and Farique Biria. Their teachings are in me. But I rarely go to class.
Do you have a primary focus now, between asana, pranayama, meditation, or is it all blended together?
GK: I separate them. I do pranayama in the early morning, and inside the pranayama I can be led to meditation, and then asana. Separate them out. That is how I was taught.
How does your practice look different now than it did ten years ago or twenty years ago or thirty years?
GK: It gets more subtle. I think it gets more subtle every day. Every time you do adho mukha svanasana, it’s different. So over and over, my practice transforms itself into something deeper, and something that changes my moral compass more and more, so there’s more and more effect on who I am as a person in the world. My practice continues to strengthen me, to hold my equilibrium in dealing with the stresses of daily life.
Also my practice expands off the mat into my entire life as a wife, mother, and friend. Cooking dinner, keeping the dirty dishes out of the sink—this is also a part of my practice that is changing.
What has changed the most for you in practice, with age?
GK: I have to be more gentle with myself. I can’t throw myself around in the same way. I used to be very sturdy in a way that I’m not any longer. I have to be more careful, to be very aligned and extended and aware of my sensations and feelings, to warm up systematically.
How do you see your practice in ten years?
GK: I have never projected too far in the future in terms of plans. I am of the generation of “be here now.” I cannot envision my life without practice. There are already asanas I can no longer do or have to modify. This feels right. It is okay. It is just the way time prints out in the body. Practice is the warp and weft of my life. I feel so fortunate for this gift from the Iyengars, and all my many teachers.
How have you figured out how to communicate or translate your experience to beginners?
GK: I just keep starting over again. Like any study, yoga is very repetitive. The Iyengar system says you start with the container. Start with the feet if you’re standing, the sit bones if you’re sitting, the back of the head if you’re lying down. And so I do that. I start with the outer form and move in. Beginners who just arrive can quite quickly feel change in themselves. Yoga is not the ideal form for everyone. It requires tapas, burning zeal, the heat of deeply focusing on the body and breath.
Yoga is a wisdom tradition, but in our culture there’s a fetishization of youth. What do you think about that?
GK: Not everyone is interested in wisdom. A lot of people are just interested in fitness. When I see some of the youth who are very fit and very held and tight, I don’t always see grace in them, in all the meanings of grace. And even when I was young I was more interested in being softer and slower and more introspective, so that for me this has always been my focus. I’ve wanted to be more searching, rather than performing. It’s a weakness in our culture at this time, that it’s so involved in presentation more than in feeling and reflection.
Of course, there is also a place for those who are more athletic, Yoga is a vast ocean. There is room for all who desire to navigate its waters. I want to teach all ages. The young are our hope. They are our future.
What do you think is important to teach younger yogis?
GK: To be authentic to themselves and to pay more attention to their own specific process. It’s so tempting to see Mr. Iyengar in the book and go, wow, see what he’s doing, let’s try to do that. Not that that isn’t a good idea. I look at his book all the time. But the more we see our self, the more we really live our own life. Then the yoga really begins.
Tapas, practice, is not just on the mat. It’s everything. It’s how we live our life. The whole process of practice, it draws your senses in. Drawing your attention in allows you to feel when your mind is going out, when you’re not paying attention. It’s a good mirror, reflecting where you are. I’ll practice even if I’m distracted, even if my mind is not really there. I’ll think, oh, did I just do that? Wow, where was I? But that’s part of the practice that day.
Why do you think it’s important to have some kind of practice?
GK: I would say it’s important for me because it gives me a scaffolding for my entire life. It strengthens me so that I have the resilience to deal with all the things that come up in life. Practice is where I turn to for the strength to understand what’s happening, what so often is incomprehensible but requires that I stay engaged.
You also have a rigorous reading practice.
GK: I read a lot of what Mr. Iyengar writes. It helps flesh out the classes. I get inspired by what he says. This week I was reading his comments about how it’s “the quality of our attention that is our intelligence in practice.” He keeps directing me. I love to read poetry and I love to read fiction. I like to read good writing. I like to read lots of things. The stillness in my body when I read balances all the motion in my day.
How did pregnancy and menopause change your practice?
GK: When I became pregnant, I stopped dancing and performing, and when my son was three months old was when I started teaching yoga for the first time. So that’s 37 years ago. When he was little, I would get up early before he would get up to start practicing my yoga. It very quickly became what I used as my physical discipline, and then I loved it more and more.
My menopause coincided with him leaving, going to college. So again I could go to it for support, to balance me hormonally. I also used traditional Chinese medicine and other things to stay balanced hormonally. Inversions and restorative were very helpful.
Yoga is supposed to fit at all points in our life. You can do a practice when you’re really strong and happy and feeling good, and it can be really vigorous, and you can do a practice that’s very quiet and introverted and filled with grief , and they’re both going to serve a function.
What are the other modalities and disciplines that you integrate into your thinking and teaching?
GK: There’s many. The Iyengars want me to keep them separate from the Iyengar teaching. I’ve trained in Body-Mind Centering, which gave me all the knowledge of sensory anatomy, physiology, and the patterning of babies, a study of motoric development and evolution, which I still think about.
Mr. Iyengar will talk about evolution and involution. I see how we’re strong and we feel like we’re evolving, and something happens and we fall down and we involute. We don’t feel very evolved at that moment. It’s a process that Body-Mind Centering helped me understand. I studied craniosacral and shiatsu, Alexander Technique and Tai Chi, Qi Gong and Aikido, decades of modern dance that predates my yoga. I’ve always been a physical person. I like physical language.
How do your anatomy studies come into your teaching?
GK: My study of anatomy is fundamental at this point. I love the body. I love people most of all. Human movement is always interesting to me. When I see people in class, it’s not just the people who move beautifully and can do the most elaborate poses. Everyone can look really beautiful if they’re focused, if they’re present, if they’re lining themselves up. You can see them weaving themselves under your eyes, you see the fabric of themselves becoming clearer. This makes teaching meaningful. I see transformation in my students.
Right now I’m very involved now with the body as a sri yantra, the geometry of the body, and how to use the five senses and the five winds and the five organs of perception and organs of action. It’s the literal geometry of how are you sitting on your sit bones, how are you standing on your feet, that I’ve been working with. It’s very exciting.
You grew up in Brooklyn. You’ve lived elsewhere but you’ve mostly lived in New York City and upstate. Why have you chosen this place for yourself, your family, and your teaching?
GK: After college I went overland to India and back. Then I lived in European for two-and-a-half years, in Italy. I came back to New York because I felt like I couldn’t get it together in Europe, and right away I started dancing and performing. This is my home. I’m happy living here. This is my world. I don’t find it a contradiction that it’s urban and noisy and busy. There are so many wonderful people, so much wonderful art, such good conversation. It’s a good place to be.
How do you deal with the stressors of living in a big city?
GK: My husband and I have a place in the mountains. It’s green and sweet six months of the year, the air is soft and clear. It’s quiet. So it’s worked out really well. I didn’t realize it would be such a gift.
How has your practice and your teaching helped you move through experiences with birth and death?
GK: My practice keeps me together. It’s like eating well, sleeping well, having friends, working—and practice. It’s a fundamental part of my life. I’m grateful for it all the time. I feel fortunate. But it’s a phenomenon. There are so many of us who have realized that this is a key piece to our being able to balance our nervous system, to return to a serenity when things are too stressful, when the shadow starts to overwhelm us.
How do you approach injuries and healing?
GK: I recently injured myself, and I’m not used to that. I’ve learned an enormous amount. There’s a great quote of Verlaine where he says, “A little trouble is a light. A big trouble is a sun.” This for me has been a big trouble. I couldn’t do full arm balance and pincha mayurasana and urdhva dhanurasana. I’ve had to rethink how I’m using myself to have gotten myself into an injury. So it’s been a huge sun for me.
As one ages, is the mind better or less able to stay focused and strong while teaching?
GK: I am always more grateful for the opportunity to communicate what I understand about yoga. Teaching becomes deeper.
How does one maintain energy and vigor after teaching for many years?
GK: I’m beginning to cut back on how many classes I teach. This saddens me but it is practical, otherwise I get too tired.
Do you have recommendations for how women should approach practice over a lifetime?
GK: The specifics of practice as we age become ever more personal. Sometimes I have to cinch in my hips to keep them from aching, or do more backbends to keep my upper back from collapsing, or transfer my weight more carefully through my feet. More than male or female, practice becomes individual. Iyengar Yoga teaches us to observe ourselves with ever more subtlety. The etymology of subtle is from “finely woven cloth.” We need to weave ourselves carefully.
Aside from the people I love, my practice is the most precious part of my life. It is vast like nature, holding in it the sun and the moon, the sea and the sky. Though one ages, the inspiration for being alive just continues, all that we love continues. It always feels like I’m going with the current. You get up and you jump in the river and swim. I don’t fight it. There are many things in life that I fight. Life presents terrible struggles. Practice is not a struggle. It’s a delight. Not that I don’t hit my head against cement with what I can’t do. I come up against what I can’t do. But then I have to look at that
the wisdom series is a collection of interviews with teachers on how practice evolves over a lifetime.