I am excited to give you the Second Volume of my Yoga Interview Sessions with Lesley Desaulniers of Prema Yoga in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. I have had the privilege of taking her Sunday morning class on many occasions and I always leave the room feeling lighter. She is wise beyond her years.
TM: When did you start practicing yoga? What led you to the practice?
LD: I started practice when I was 16 yrs old, in my parent’s basement, with a Jane Fonda Yoga VHS tape, but I guess it really began when I was about twenty and a Jivamukti Yoga teacher suggested that I practice Ashtanga. It was a great suggestion, and I was hooked on the practice after my first 5pm led class at Jivamukti about ten years ago.
I remember practicing Ashtanga at Jivamukti for about a year. Then I returned to Boston to finish the degree I had started in Performance Art and sculpture. My teacher at Jiva referred me to his friend Joji Montelibano, whom he met in Mysore India years before and who was living in Boston. Joji invited me to practice in the spare room of his Cambridge apartment, along with his wife and about five others. I lived over an hour away from Joji’s place, and I remember that the commute involved a couple of subway transfers. He didn’t live very close to the subway, and some of my most inspiring yoga memories are of trudging through the dark, the snow, while making a mental list of the million other things I could be doing other than getting to his place by 6:30am – but showing up and practicing anyway. Joji gave me rules and taught me discipline: I shouldn’t eat dinner the night before practice; I should try to eat more raw food; I should try to practice with consistency and detachment. I was shocked that I actually liked rules, and for the first time in my life, I listened. Funnily enough, I became a happier person.
After that I started getting a bit obsessed with the whole yoga thing. I found a spiritual teacher and was led to an ashram that blew me away. So, I sold everything I owned, dropped out of school and moved to the ashram for about two years! I learned so much during those years, and I was later certified by Sharon Gannon and David Life
and I went on to teach at Jivamukti Yoga Center
when it was located above Crunch on Broadway. That’s how I started teaching here in NYC.
TM: What/who are you biggest influences and teachers?
LD: Sharon Gannon and David Life. I am forever grateful and inspired by the things they taught me – as a teacher and a yoga practitioner. Their integrity, wisdom and fearless pursuit of deeper ways to live in connection the earth are unique and precious. I also admire their humor, and the way they express yogic teachings with passion and also with quiet.
TM: What is your favorite piece of wisdom given to you by one of your teachers?
: Last week I asked Radhanath Swami
what to do when I go into a self- absorbed, egoic space – how to ‘bring it back’. He answered, “ Take some time each day for your spiritual practices. It grounds us. It brings us back”.
TM: How has pregnancy changed your practice and your teaching?
LD: In so many ways! I found out that I was pregnant ten minutes before leaving for India this year. My husband was already in India, and we planned to meet in Delhi and then move onto our favorite place – the holy city of Varanasi together. Before I boarded the plane I wanted to let him know, but he was on an overnight bus traveling down a twisty mountain road and didn’t have access to internet. So… I sent him a text message and he called me ecstatic and sleepy from India. I boarded the plane overwhelmed and happy, and the journey had just begun!
Needless to say, our time in India was enlightening in so many ways. After spending time in Varanasi, we traveled on to Uttarkashi. There we met with a holy man named Swami Janarhananda
. He gave us many profound teachings on yoga, sound, and meditation, and after our final morning with Swamiji, he asked us if we had any other questions. Having just found about my pregnancy two weeks prior, I had the baby and my new role of mother on my mind. I asked, “Do you have any advice for us as new parents?”
He became really quiet. Then he said to us, ” Listen. Listen to your child.” Listen. So, I’ve held that advice with me this entire pregnancy – it’s been inspiring and at times daunting! When I practice and teach I am also listening to my baby. Each asana I practice has become a dialogue, and that’s pretty wild. “Okay baby, do you want to do 1/2 moon today?” If the answer from her is no, I don’t do it. If it’s yes, we go for it! The yogis say that during pregnancy a woman’s intuition gets 16 times stronger, and I have felt that certainly. I have tried to let my intuition guide me through this experience, and I have found an inner quiet and watchfulness that is deeper than what I previously knew.
TM: Is there anything profound that you have learned about teaching from yourself or from one of your students?
LD: That teaching is an act of devotion.
LD: Yes, the Authenticity Project started in 2006, when a student of mine, who is a managing director for Goldman Sachs, asked me to come to the Wall St Goldman office and give workshops on ‘Authentic Living’ to the members of the Women’s network there. I put together a program that assisted corporate women in developing self awareness and effective choice making skills, to help them understand that the key to fulfillment in both work and everyday life is being more authentic to your True Self, not changing yourself to conform to some external idea of who you should be – based on societal conditioning or corporate/family pressures etc.
It was very successful, and it was fun teaching yoga philosophy, meditation and some asana in a completely different environment. I taught the workshops for a few of the national Goldman offices, and people responded to the teachings that they were exploring very deeply. They had a chance to step back and look at their lives, where they are placing their energy, and how the way they perceive themselves and the world around them shapes their realities.
I began to see that the program was powerful, and I wanted to offer it to woman outside of the corporate environment. I was invited to teach a group of young women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2008. I added more asana instruction to this program. I started the program in Cambodia with the same two hour workshop that I lead at Goldman, and it was so inspiring to see that it had a similar powerful effect. I added more asana to this program. I would teach the group of women every morning at 5am before they went to school. We did asana and ended with meditation. At first they were shy and self conscious – giggling nervously in low cobra etc, and by the time I left Cambodia they were so confident and joyful – they even learned how to adjust each other in inversions and child’s pose! It was reaffirming for me to see such a dramatic shift happen so quickly within the group. On the night that I left they all gathered together and made me a big dinner. Some of the women had translated the program into Khmer so that they could bring it back to their home villages and teach the women there what they had learned. That made a huge impression on me. I am hoping to extend these teachings – and also what I have learned about prenatal yoga – to young women here in NYC soon. It would be great to even lead an Authenticity Project teacher training of some sort here in the future. I’ll keep you posted!
Lesley Desaulniers has been studying yoga and meditation since 1996, taking her practice to New York, Russia, India, and back. Check out her teaching schedule at Prema.