Published in Spectrum Spring 2016 Interview with Mina Semyon
Mina Semyon was born in 1938 in the Soviet Union. She has been teaching Yoga for over 30 years. She was a student and friend of R.D.Laing, psychiatrist, poet, musician and spiritual teacher, who initiated her on the path of awareness through the practice of Yoga and mindfulness. This, combined with an insistence of finding her authentic voice through the study of singing and sound, has led to her unique way of teaching. Her aim is to liberate the mind and body of everything that obscures the spirit of joy, love, compassion, spontaneity and playfulness. Wendy Jacob asked Mina to share her yoga journey with readers of Spectrum.
It is a mellow autumn evening and Mina has suggested meeting at a bistro in North London. She sits alone on the outside terrace and her face ignites with the brightest of smiles on recognition. Encased in black jacket and looking slight and elegant, it is difficult to believe that Mina was born in 1938. Her voice is melodious, with just a slight intriguing accent, but her use of language is remarkable and is one of the reasons to read her books – lyrical prose that expresses her love and commitment to yoga. I asked Mina to share in her own words her yoga journey and her views on yoga today. Can you tell me how you first heard of yoga and about your first experience? I first heard about yoga from R D Laing who was my psychotherapist at the time. After six months of therapy he said: “Talking about your traumatic childhood is not enough, even to a nice chap like me. You need to clear the memory of it in your body and mind,” and he introduced me to yoga and mindfulness practice. How accessible was yoga at that time? R.D. Laing introduced me to Yoga when our families were on holiday in Italy. We hired a Palazzo by the sea with a cook and a cleaner and we had two lovely young girls. My husband’s sister (Note: Nina was married to Arthur Balaskas) and her friend Lolly were looking after the children and I was tired all the time. I asked Ronnie, “Why am I tired all the time?”. “Have you heard of Yoga?” he asked. “I heard about it from a friend of Arthur's from film school who said it made her grow taller and she started talking to trees.” I said. “Let’s all meet in the garden tomorrow morning to practice some Yoga postures,” he said with a chuckle. Eager for my first Yoga lesson, I get up at the crack of dawn and go for a swim and a run on the beach, in order to be in good shape for my first lesson. When I come tearing into the kitchen, I find Ronnie standing there, eating yesterday's ratatouille and talking to Arthur about the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and about Vipassana meditation which, he said, in Sanskrit means ‘insight’; insight into the true nature of reality and going beyond all our suffering. “The Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness should be the foundation discipline for all therapists,” he explained. As I listened to him speak, I felt hope stirring in my heart, that it is possible and there was a way, to stop all the spinning that goes on in my mind taking me on journeys I don’t want to go on any more. After breakfast, we gathered in the gardens of the Palazzo. I found some postures Ronnie shows us easy and feel inordinately proud of myself. Other postures I found harder and feel dejected - swinging as usual from ‘I’m the best’ to ‘I’m the worst’. Arthur (who has played a lot of sports from childhood - tennis, squash, golf, swimming and boxing and considers himself fit) is shocked when he tries to bend forward and the stiffness in his shoulders and legs doesn’t allow him to move very far. When Ronnie asks us to sit on the ground and become aware of our breathing, I can only whimper with frustration. My ribs and chest are so tight I can hardly breathe. No wonder I’m constantly tired and anxious! That day in the gardens of the Palazzo is a very memorable day for me - one of the luckiest days of my life. I had my first experience of being totally absorbed in a moment of stillness. And, I had a strong sense that Yoga was going to save me from the torments of my mind, which constantly cast their shadows onto the present. Back in London, sitting with Arthur and daughter Kira in a taxi at Heathrow airport, I feel like Cinderella at midnight, the carriage has turned into a pumpkin, the horses into mice and my newly found hope into ashes. The first taste of freedom from my habitual anxiety, evoked by being introduced to Yoga, now seems entirely dependent on Ronnie. I’m just about to knuckle under the familiar hopelessness – ‘what’s the use? Nothing ever lasts’, when Ronnie comes up to the taxi and says. “How would you like it if a few of us meet early every morning and practise Yoga together before work?” Wow! Practicing Yoga with Ronnie every day and being part of a group doing something meaningful feels like nothing short of a miracle. We met every day at seven in the morning to practice Yoga, using BKS Iyengar's, Light on Yoga and taking turns being the teacher by consulting the book. Every week we chose one new posture to learn: We discovered health-food shop; I made my own yoghurt and we had breakfast on yoghurt and muesli after Yoga. Then we found a teacher. She stayed with us for a few months. Then came Dona Hollerman. We did Yoga with her for a year - two hours every day. Ronnie Laing came back from his Sabbatical in India and Ceylon, where he went to look into the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. “You’ve certainly lost the first layer of your muscular defences” was the first thing he said to me when we met. What classes did you attend and what were they like? We had lessons with Mr Iyengar. Then came Mary Stewart, who later became influenced by Wanda Scaravelli. We also had lessons with Sandra Sabatini, who was a student of Wanda’s. How did you progress and when did you start teaching? I started teaching after I got divorced, because it was the only thing I knew something about. As I continued practicing and teaching I gradually felt that I needed to find my own way. I found it painful to have to teach somebody’s technique and feel like I am on duty, I wanted to feel uninterrupted when there was a knock on the door and people came to a class. Gradually that became a natural state to be, practicing being present at all times. You are a writer. When did you move in this direction and what was the inspiration that took you in this direction? I felt I had a story to tell about transformation through the work with Ronnie Laing and also the practice of yoga and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible Do you have a 'style' of yoga that you teach? I never prepare a plan for a class. I work on myself and on my own practice to be in the best possible state of mind and body for the class, so that the teaching flows out of that. It’s like tuning a piano; I need to tune myself up and then what I say and what I offer has an energy of its own and seems to communicate and be beneficial to others. When I’m asked ‘what kind of yoga do you teach?’ I say Basmati Yoga! And what I mean is that what you call it doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is the experience of the connection of Mind Body and Breath. If I’m relaxed it naturally follows that I respond to what is needed by my students at the present moment Has your commitment to yoga led to any compromises in other areas of your life? No, because yoga is a state of interconnectedness of mind/body/breath/spirit – a unified sense of being. It is something that I practice all the time and when I lose it, I become aware of it and come back… Fortunately, I have developed skills on how to come back to a centred place without judging yourself. How has your own practice developed? My own practice gradually became more and more a part of my daily life. It became more and more apparent to me that yoga is not separate from the rest of life; it is a desirable condition to cultivate for the well-being of oneself and our relationships with others and ultimately for peace on earth. What are your views on the current yoga environment and the many styles of yoga that are available throughout the world? I have come across some very committed and good teachers and there is a sort of trend that yoga can be too physical and not connected to mind and spirit. You are highly articulate and communicate through a number of mediums. How important is language and communication to you in your teaching? I feel that if I’m really relaxed and in my wholeness, then the words really express and make the experience alive of what I am trying to put across - in terms of feeling the interconnectedness of body, mind, breath, noticing tensions, letting go and allowing the balanced body to emerge. What is your current practice and how do you think this will develop in the future? I did a three week course in Chi Gong with a teacher in China, Luke Chan. I have incorporated it into my practice and teaching. The process of surrendering to the unified being can only continue to deepen. Who has influenced you most in your yoga journey? R D Laing was the one who introduced me to yoga in a period of needing to release all the accumulated emotional and mental patterns and beliefs in order to allow the Inner Being to be revealed. In terms of learning asana, I had wonderful committed teachers starting with Mr Iyengar and several of his students, whom I have already mentioned. Is there anything you would like to say to anyone starting on his or her own yoga journey? I think it’s good to start from where you are - recognising and acknowledging what’s happening in the mind and body, bearing uncomfortable feelings, relaxing, and accepting… Then we can move on and not be stuck. My motivation is to inspire my students to awaken to the unified sense of our whole being — body, mind, spirit — through the practice of Yoga and Mindfulness. It is about listening and tuning in to our body, gradually realising that wholeness can only be retrieved by identifying and letting go of unnecessary holding on. If you can stop straining you might discover that inside that tense, unbalanced body there is a 'sensible body’, which can be effortlessly at ease, with the energy flowing freely and the mind becoming calm. In the midst of the mental storm there is stillness, where we can experience our presence. If only all of us humans on this planet would relax our breath, become conscious of standing from the feet upward, and think of the head as the last to come in line with the spine - like a flower on top of the stem - the world would become a friendlier place! Mina is the author of two books that explore the world of yoga in a unique and inspirational way – The Distracted Centipede: A Yoga Experience - and her latest book: Yoga Stories for Healthy Loving. You can find out more about Mina and purchase her books at: www.facebook.com/mina.semyon