Cover photo from Cynthia Sciberras, Yoga Portraiture – Beach photos from Prue Dudley
I met Monica at a yoga retreat in Paros that she had organized with her husband Gregor Maehle, and it was epic! Check the related article here.
Since then she influenced my practice with her presence a lot, when I step on my mat for my daily practice I remember her voice telling me to nurture myself on the mat from the first breath, to really tune in and listen what my body has to say, and built a relationship of love.
I had the honor to take an interview from her and it’s really important to read what she has to say, ashtanga yoga as it should be, ashtanga yoga at it’s best! Grateful. (You can find Monica’s full Bio at the end of the article)
You can find the Audio Version of the Interview here
Marianna: A lot of people take yoga classes in order to treat their myoskeletal problems. Is ashtanga yoga a therapeutic system? What your opinion on that?
Monica: I think all yoga is therapeutic and I think that ashtanga yoga taught in a non-dictatorial way where there is room to adapt things for the individual can be extremely therapeutic. However, that’s the key, that you can’t just throw everything at any different body regardless of their ability. For example, if somebody has really open hips in the Jois tradition it would be fine probably for them to go through and it would be therapeutic, however, if somebody doesn’t have open hips and they would have to stop at ardha baddha pachimotanasana obviously the therapy is going to be less, and I think people need to be much more pragmatic and practical instead of dogmatic, and just have a look at the individual.
That system was designed for people that already have open hips, who sat on the floor their whole life. Let’s say you have an older person, or they maybe won’t even be old, I’ve seen young people in Mysore come with stiff hips and basically leave limping, never to do yoga again and then, of course, they missed out the possibility of being a therapeutic practice for them to open their hips and the benefits that that brings. It’s one of the reasons that primary series is called yoga chikitsa (yoga therapy) because with the hips open it means that the spine is much more free and mobile.
Marianna: So do you think Ashtanga Yoga is a system for all? Because many people say that Ashtanga Yoga is a very powerful system and it’s not for everyone.
Monica: I think it’s important to recognize that different people are attracted to different styles of yoga depending on their different characters. It’s the same with all the different religions that we have, and I think you can make ashtanga yoga accessible to all who want to do that style but not everybody is going to be attracted to that style. Some people say oh you shouldn’t do ashtanga yoga unless you are younger than 25, but there are some people that they are younger than 25 that don’t want to do anything more than a very gentle practice, and perhaps that is what they need, I don’t know you have to look at the individual. But even if it’s not that what they are attracted to, you can’t force them to do something that they are not attracted to. But I do think that for all who wish to do that style you can make it accessible for them.
I recently had a student in Bali who is 63, she had never started exercising until she was 50, she started doing ashtanga yoga 2 years ago at 61 and if someone had asked me oh Monica I have a student she is 61 she never really exercised until she was 50 and now she wants to practice ashtanga, I would say probably not. But she blew all of my concepts, and my concepts were fairly open, but she blew even the last concepts I had. It is a style that some people can approach and it suits her perfectly, she said she feels that she is getting younger by the day. And I can see she would have been as a young person a little hypermobile so now that she is older and a little bit stiffer is actually quite good for her cause she is accessing the flexibility again of her youth but because she is older she is not going to have the hypermobility problems that some young people have, that come to yoga and already are hypermobile, and then doing a strong system sometimes end up being more hypermobile.
Marianna: Many people don’t take a yoga class because they are not flexible. What do you have to say to them?
Monica: I have to say that I went to my first yoga class when I was 18 and mainly kept going because I loved the savasana, cause I think I didn’t really know how to relax and so that was good for me. And then at 19 I discovered Iyengar yoga and I realized that 1) I was actually really stiff, and 2) I was totally weak, so I thought to myself either I completely give up on this cause I am really hopeless at it, or I will have to really put a lot of effort in and I chose the second.
So from my experience a lot of people come to yoga and this has changed because of the social media. What I was going to say is that early on we would find that the flexible, talented wouldn’t stick with it, and it was actually the stiff people who would continue because they had the need, and so they felt the benefits. While the flexible people would come along and they could do it all so they got bored. But that changed because now the flexible people can post their beautiful pictures on Instagram and get a lot of followers, because people admire what they can do, so that has actually changed interestingly in that way, and I think that’s mainly because of social media, obviously, some people who are talented would also stick with it but I found that a lot of people who you think at the first class, oh my god this is like so difficult for them, they would stick with it because they felt the benefits, because they were so stiff.
And it’s not about how flexible you are, it’s about doing the stretches. I actually think that people who are stiff get more benefits than people that they are already flexible. So I think you don’t need to be flexible to do yoga, if you are stiff you are going to get a lot of benefits from doing it, so I think it’s ideal for stiff people, the flexible people don’t need it as much for that aspect of gaining flexibility. I think we all need yoga but for a lot of other reasons.
Marianna: Many people suffer from panic attacks, depression and other forms of stress, do you think yoga helps and how?
Monica: I think that yoga definitely helps, I recently have had a bit of personal experience with panic attacks with my mum. For example, she did have a lot of major events in her life, like living through the war in Malta, where you know the native house was bombed, bombed bodies on the street, and in and out the bomb shelter for 5 years, she has had a major shock when she was 21 where her husband suddenly died, and she was new in Australia, pregnant, couldn’t speak the language, no family, so often all of these stresses that accumulate, and after a while, the nervous system becomes so hyper-vigilant that the panic attacks are almost like the fuse is blowing up on an overloaded system. So I have been trying to teach my mum how to relax but she doesn’t know how to relax, because she had 6 children, she always worked hard her whole life, so she doesn’t know how to do nothing, she cannot even only watch a movie, she has to watch a movie and knit at the same time.
I think the reason we see so much more anxiety, depression is a slightly different story but panic attacks a lot of these anxiety injuries, a mental disease is because of the 1) the hyper-stimulation that we constantly have, and 2) because of the general insecurity and the madness of the world at the moment, so at least if you have the tools of relaxing yourself you are less likely that your nervous system becomes overloaded, it is like management tool, stress management tools are really that we are learning.
Having said that recently we had some major flooding in the area where we live, and a lot of people lost everything, their homes and their livelihood and so on, and the amount of trauma was palpable in the air. I won’t tell you the story because there are too much details that just led up to that, how it happened, but what happened directly afterwards. I went into a panic mode and Gregor actually was flying out that day, that was part of the stress with getting him out of our property which was a great deal which we managed only God willing to get him out and I suddenly started experiencing just these rosters of panic, and I tried to meditate and that made it worst, and I tried to do pranayama and I couldn’t breathe and I was quite devastated in one way cause I thought I am a yogi, I should be able to handle this but nevertheless my nervous system had got so overloaded, because sometimes you can’t control all the amount of shock that happens in your system when something of gravity happens, sometimes your nervous system is just suddenly overloaded from the state of being OK, to being overloaded.
And amazingly the one big thing that helped me was chanting because the vagus nerve touches every organ in the body but it touches the vocal cords. So I realized talking on the phone to friends, cause I was home alone, really helped, but I realized also that chanting really helped. So I just chanted mantras or japas of “om shanti, shanti, shanti” and that was one of the big things that really got me out of it. So I was so glad that I had that in my yoga toolbox, and I do really love chanting because it is such an easy way to connect inside.
Marianna: and you have such a nice voice…
Monica: I don’t particularly have a nice voice but I think if you chant with focus and chant from your heart any voice sounds beautiful..
Marianna: You inspired me to start practicing chanting.
Monica: Oh that’s so nice, it’s such a nice practice and it’s really the easiest way to connect inside. It is actually the fastest, easiest, the Yoga Sutras talks about this.
Marianna: Do you remember where exactly it is mentioned?
Monica: No, but I am sure Gregor will. He is my yoga-google! I think is in the second chapter though.
Marianna: So, you started meditation before you started practicing ashtanga yoga and now we are all focused so much in the asana. I was never taught pranayama and meditation before I practiced with you, so what do you have to say about this?
Monica: I guess is one of the things that for me was lacking at the ashtanga yoga system with Patthabbi Jois, that he had no spiritual message, “Do your practice and all is coming” is a very ambiguous, I would always think yeah all is coming surely that means the bad as well, like what does that mean? So to me I didn’t project in to that, it was simply a spiritual metaphor that you know you are going to recognise the Divine within you because for me that’s the one of the main driving reasons why I practice all limbs of yoga.
So, because I learned meditation from I think a genuine spiritual teacher, so it wasn’t just the meditation but it was the reason why to practice the meditation which is to connect with that Divine within you, and having already as a young person glimpses of that, there was no way I was keeping that out. When I met Patthabbi Jois and the system was that you did asana until you were proficient then you did pranayama until.. I never really heard him to teach meditation. He taught a couple of Yoga Sutras classes when I was in Mysore but it ended up everyone was just laughing so much that i think he gave up because he didn’t really know how to break it down in a way that the Westerns could follow, so nobody could follow, so everyone would just start laughing and I think he actually gave up in the end.
Marianna: Ashtanga yoga is a really powerful system, practicing with you the last days I received soft, sweet energy. Pure feminine. How did you manage to maintain these qualities?
Monica: Well you know with Gregor we ‘ve been talking a lot about Luna and Solar and i think that the practice is quite Solar, you know developing, and i think because of the fact that I have allowed some of the Luna aspects to come in. Having said that i followed the system as it was prescribed by Patthabbi Jois, and I felt eventually I was really having to override my body’s natural inclinations, and I was injuring myself a lot and at some point I just thought this is ridiculous, like why am I practising yoga. And there where even times that I had injuries and I couldn’t practice and I was devastated, and then I had to ask myself, why do you actually practice? Is it because you can do certain postures and certain series, and then you feel good about yourself, and if you can’t do those then what are you going to do, stop practising?
And that was when I realised that i needed to do my yoga more wholesome, and that i needed to nurture me, not destroy me, and that I couldn’t do this mind over matter attitude of you know just work through it, and keep going, and pushing and so on. And this can be, I realised that in some ways this consumer attitude you know that I wanted to do the next posture, get the next series, complete all of that. And I had to question myself deeply in those challenging times.
That was when I brought in a more nurturing practice for myself, and of course if I am doing that for myself I am not going to do the opposite to my students. So I encourage people to tune in, to listen to their bodies, to respect and love their bodies and to practice in a nurturing way and not in a punishing way, I see this so often that people are punishing themselves on the mat.
Marianna: Especially in ashtanga…
Monica: Yes, I know, and I would be curious to see, you might know if you have been in Mysore recently, but I am imagining that Sharath is mainly attracting a very young crowd, because you can do a certain degree of that while you are young. I said very early in the pace, there is this saying in rehabilitation that “God will forgive you, but your body won’t” and the highest risk of an injury is having had a previous one, so we can’t continue to bash our bodies, especially not with yoga.
So I think I have ever been a very hard, dictatorial type of person, but I think that from my experience and from having practised long enough and being through the highs and the lows, that I probably had become softer. I think it’s important to look at the person, you know like there are some people in the class that they are young, frisky and full of energy and they want to work their bodies harder, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we also have to really keep in check our attitude and how much of that striving is no longer exploring potential but is actually being ambitious, and being driven by maybe not even an external pressure from anybody else, because there is a lot of self cohesion that we do. I see some students who their anxiety expressed as eating disorders and then often there is this drive to exercise really hard, I think that yoga really needs to be on learning how to love themselves again, because this is obviously a reflection a lack of self love, and often that what it comes back is that we actually have a lack of self love and we express that on the mat by giving ourselves a hard time.
Remember I was saying the other day it’s like your body serves you 24 hours a day and actually really, honestly and seriously acknowledge that. And to be in gratitude and respect with our bodies rather than just demanding and demanding even more and when we don’t get it, we get discontented and frustrated and even angry that our bodies aren’t doing things because we want them to do that. When you look at it like that you think oh how could we be so mean, you would never do it to a friend, so if you wouldn’t do it to a friend then you know…
We got to be friends with our bodies, we actually got to love them, because they are just crystallised forms that enables us to exist in this life and carries us through, like I said one day as well, your body is a sacred sight because the divine world is within it, and you have to treat it us such, and not trample all over it.
Marianna: What is yoga for you and do you have any advice for the practitioners?
Monica: I think ultimately yoga for me, not just the physical asana but the whole concept of yoga from when I first see it, what I do is that I make that connection with that Divine aspect of myself and for me, that’s what yoga is. Whether it be meditation, whether be following the breath, whether it be chanting, whether it be asana, but just actually is like my date with God every day. You know where I really just develop that relationship because I think in developing that relationship. That’s what actually has brought my softness because I feel loved regardless of what’s happening in my life, I feel loved, I feel that I have a source, an infinite source that’s greater than me. That I can always get from so even when I am feeling displeased or tired or any of those things, I feel that there is still some well that I can drag from that is greater than me. And developing that relationship I think for me is the most important thing about yoga, but I give it time, I give it a tension just like any intimate relationship that you have in your life.
You need to give in those things and this is one of the reasons Gregor and I are some compatible in our relationship, we respect that for each other that is actually the most important thing in our lives. Even above our own relationship with each other, that our relationship with ourselves, our Divinity is actually the most important thing and we feel fortunate to share that together, and then we have our relationship. I think that’s one of the reasons why, because when we met we have both come into a point in our lives where we just thought no more relationships, that’s it, can’t we bother, too difficult and then we met.
And it was like oh hang on I just decided I don’t want to be in a relationship, oh I just decided that as well and having that freedom and knowing where we really stood we could then travel together on the same path. And that’s one of the reasons why we really consciously chose not to have children because we wanted to be able to devote our lives to that and to teach that, both of us. Because otherwise one or the other part, you know I wouldn’t want to have children and do it halfheartedly, I would probably want to be as devoted to my children as I am to yoga, it’s hard to be devoted to two different things. It is possible, however, but it makes it easier.
Marianna: Βecause of the hard times in the ashtanga yoga world right now, do you have an advice to give to the practitioners?
Monica: I think that wherever you are with your practice before you raise your arms above your head and take the first move, ekam, to actually be with your hands on your heart where the Divine dwells within you, your personal aboard to make that connection and to begin to develop that relationship.
Because one of the things Ι recognized very early in my life is that you come into this world alone, yes there is your family and you make friends and you maybe have a partner and so on, but in some ways, we are always that isolated individual. And when you live it’s the same, nobody can come with you to make it easier, and if you have this knowledge of who you really are, then you realize that you are never on your own, that you and everything is one.
I think to develop this relationship with yourself, and at first for some people that may be so far that they don’t know where to start, but if you just sit even with your hands on your heart and turn inward the relationship will start. It’s just like meeting a new friend, you know it’s like hello, what’s your name, and then you just start and you just continue to develop. That would be my advice, to really start to develop a relationship with yourself, because this is the most important thing we have in our lives.
Marianna: Thank you Monica!
Monica: You are welcome Marianna!
About Dr Monica Gauci:
Monica has studied and practiced Yoga since 1978. She is dedicated Yogi, a compulsive Educator, a registered Yoga Therapist and a rehabilitative Doctor of Chiropractic!
In 1996 Monica was authorized by K. Pattabhi Jois* to teach Ashtanga Yoga. She is registered at the highest level with both Yoga Alliance (ERYT 500) and Yoga Australia (Level 3 Membership).
Since the age of 24 years, Monica has studied many disciplines of the Healing Arts, including Reiki, Australian Bush Flower Essences, Applied Kinesiology, Lomi Lomi massage and emotional release techniques. In 2008 Monica graduated with 1st class honour as a Doctor of Chiropractic. Additionally, she received numerous awards for Academic Excellence.
Monica has published ‘Ashtanga Yoga Beginners Course Manual for Teachers‘ which is a step-by-step guide on how to teach Ashtanga Yoga safely and effectively to beginners. She is also a contributing author to Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philosophy and Ashtanga Yoga, The Intermediate Series in the areas of asana, anatomy, injury prevention and rehabilitation.
In 1996 Monica co-founded 8 Limbs Yoga in Perth, Australia, which they co-directed for 21 years. They now live in a rain forest in the hinterland of Byron Bay where they conduct occasional Immersions. Together offer yoga teacher trainings, retreats and workshops in many locations around the globe. Monica loves to write articles on helping people to heal themselves. She is available for workshops on a variety of topics as well as one-on-one Yoga Therapy consultations and private Yoga tuition.
Monica’s breadth of knowledge, her insight, her calm manner and playful personality make learning from her easy and enjoyable!