A Conversation with Tias Little
by Nora Isaacs
Tias Little blends metaphor and imagination with the anatomical, meditative, and philosophical aspects of yoga. His innovative approach is informed by his study of Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen meditation, anatomy, cranial-sacral therapy, and bodywork. Writer Nora Isaacs spoke with Tias about his personal practice, the evolution of his teaching, and his latest project, which takes yoga off the mat.
Nora Isaacs What sparked your interest in yoga?
Tias Little My father taught religion and philosophy at the university level. When he spent a year’s sabbatical in London, my mother trained with Silva Mehta, who wrote The Iyengar Way. I was 14 and didn’t start to train at that point, but my mother was my first influence because I saw her practice at home. When I was in college in Amherst, Massachusetts, I was an English major, and I started to practice as a way to stay balanced. I found that the practice was so complementary to writing.
Nora Contemplative practice is such a large piece of your practice and teaching. When you were starting out, did these aspects immediately appeal to you?
Tias I come from a line of ministers, so I have a rather karmic bent toward a philosophical pursuit. The yoga as a spiritual and physical discipline really flowed for me right from the beginning. I was an athlete and a dancer, and had the discipline of applying myself to the cultivation of form and aesthetics, so I applied a lot of that same disciplined effort toward the yoga practice.
Nora Many of us struggle with discipline, especially when it comes to meditation.
Tias I’ve always been attracted to the meditative part. I’ve had a meditation practice from the beginning, and now I work a lot with the mind. One of the real shortcomings of the current yoga scene is that it is too body-based. That is also important, but there is a tremendous amount of mind training that is necessary to integrate into the yogic discipline.
Nora Do you see this changing among today’s students?
Tias Yes. Now people are finding that the mind and body are inseparable. The students are really embracing the teachings that help us gain insight into our “original brightness,” also known as Buddha nature. They resonate with that and see how it serves to help stabilize their well-being and deepen their practice.
I typically don’t get the yoga population that I call “flow and glow.” My reputation is that my work is in-depth and that I’m education-based. When brand-new students see this, sometimes they have eyes like a deer in the headlights. Then I take time to clarify that working with the mind is what separates yoga from the other physical cultures like Gyrotonics and Pilates.
Nora Learning anatomy has the potential to be dull, yet you manage to make it lively and accessible.
Tias When I studied to get my massage license in the mid-nineties, I studied anatomy and the burners went on for me. My approach is living anatomy as opposed to just teaching comprehensive anatomy, like “this is the ball and socket.” I apply a working understanding of functional anatomy to how the body moves. In that sense, a lot of my inspiration comes from my exposure to bodywork, cranial-sacral therapy, and Rolfing, all of which I’ve trained in. These have really informed my understanding of yoga asana.
Nora I always enjoy your poetic instructions. Do these come from your background in English and writing?
Tias I take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, and poetry is a strong part of my teaching. Just being a language person informs my ability to articulate on the floor. I like to practice mindful speech in how I articulate my directives. I think this impacts how a student can articulate the postures.
Nora I know you spend much of your time traveling to teach. How does this impact your personal practice?
Tias It takes tapas [discipline] to be able to sustain my schedule, especially being a householder on the move. I really cherish my personal time and my own practice, especially study and reflection. It’s a challenge being a contemplative and also being in the public eye, there is no doubt about that. I’m very committed to the yoga class as a contemplative path, which requires having a certain amount of time to do internal practice. For my own personal practice, I sit for an hour and do an hour of yoga postures. The more I can rest in the original brightness, the more I am able to allow and accept all that arises and to be present to it. So I keep my mirror really polished so that a lot of dust doesn’t accumulate. I can pretty much practice anywhere. I can put a mat down in the bus station. I know the pathway in.
Nora Even in a large class, you seem to instinctively understand what each student needs to progress. Is this something that comes with experience?
Tias When I turn my mind/body scanner on, I’m very aware of patterns of collapse, patterns of inhibition, hyper-flexibility, and how all of these things show up in the structure of a student. It’s kind of a totality of vision—not just reading the body, but also how this person feels about her- or himself. It shows up in how they stand and how they move. Some of my work in trauma and recovery has informed my awareness of that—I’m trained to pick up on subtle cues. By working with people and their bodies, I’ve come to understand how strain gets buried in the tissues. Before yoga, I worked with schizophrenic adults and runaway kids. So I come to this profession with people sensitivities, and that informs my ability to help students.
Nora Most American teachers today are second- or third-generation, meaning that they haven’t studied directly with Indian yoga masters as their predecessors did. What does that mean for the future of yoga in America?
Tias It means that there is an American yoga that is taking shape, and I think that’s exciting. I like to stay connected to yoga’s classical teachings, but I also think that everything changes and evolves, and now yoga in this country is evolving in its own way, as it should. I am grateful to be part of shaping that, particularly with the contemplative piece, which is the counter-pose for the high-octane yoga culture.
Nora What is your advice to a student new to the practice?
Tias It’s important right in the beginning to find the time for contemplative practice. Try sitting quietly for 10 minutes in the day, preferably the first thing in the morning before opening up the laptop or getting on the phone. It’s what I like to describe as “empty before you begin.” In addition to learning the poses, you are planting a seed of contemplative practice right from the start.
Nora What is your latest inspiration?
Tias I’m motivated to see how we can take yoga off the mat. One of the real drawbacks of modern yoga is that everyone has their own mat, their own little world, and I wanted to challenge that and introduce the idea of relationship within the practice. So I designed a course called Zen Motion, which puts the mat aside and works with walking, moving, and sitting—and it’s done in a group. It’s basically taking meditation into motion in a group. I’m really inspired to continue building on this; it’s a great way to let go of some of the yoga techniques and work directly with awareness, breath, and relationship between people. It involves both movement and stillness, and it helps people who resist or fear meditation.
Nora Isaacs, a former senior editor at Yoga Journal, is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about health and spirituality and the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age. www.noraisaacs.com
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.