Interview with Wendy Newton, by Donald Johnston
Wendy Newton is a senior teacher at ISHTA Yoga, a lead trainer in the ISHTA teacher training program and serves as a mentor in the ISHTA acharya community. She has been studying with Yogiraj Alan Finger since 2002, and was recently initiated by Alan into the ISHTA Yoga lineage as Yogiraj, or yoga master. She is currently co-authoring a tantric interpretation of the Yoga Sutras with Alan, and gives workshops and lectures on this new material as well as other yoga-related topics. Wendy has a private practice in energy bodywork and yoga therapy, and runs The Table, a small non-profit urban ashram space for yoga and art practice in Brooklyn with her husband, Yogiraj Peter Ferko.
1. How did you know that the ISHTA lineage was something that you wanted to practice and immerse your life in?
In my life, I have moved from an intellectual way of understanding toward a heart-centered, or intuitive, or embodied way of perceiving and being in the world. In my practice, this has involved an evolution from a more narrowly defined, devotional, and truly disciplined way toward a more encompassing and expansive approach to my practice. When I was sixteen or so, I wandered into the Sivananda Center on 24th Street, and that was my yoga for many years until I met Peter, who introduced me to ISHTA. Sivananda is a very traditional practice rooted in Vedanta. I practiced this way for a long time, but always felt there was something keeping me from immersing in that particular yogic path. When I stepped into ISHTA, I was fully ready for the shift, and I knew immediately that these were the tools that I needed to move energy properly in my life. The path through teacher training and into teaching classes and then teaching full time just laid itself out like a book from there. Not without challenges, of course, and over many years. But never questioned. It was like the moment when you are working very hard on something, deeply engrossed, and you pull back and you see the big picture and all the possibilities. That’s what ISHTA felt like to me.
2. What were the milestones in your teaching and practice; how has your approach to teaching and practicing changed with time?
As I have gotten out of my head and into my heart, my teaching has shifted. As a newer teacher I was much more interested in all of the connections between the philosophy, energy anatomy, and sequencing of whatever I was teaching. I would almost write a treatise for each class I taught, with fully fleshed out sequences. At some point I realized that all this thinking about philosophy and sequencing was really just my own process of understanding, and I started to get a sense of what was relevant to the students and what wasn’t. So it was a big milestone for me when I noticed that I was feeling more connected in the moments when I would drop it all and just be in the room with the students and listen to them. That took a couple years for me. It’s not that I don’t have a lot of thought process around my teaching now. It’s just that I have the ability to step back and evaluate and let it settle. My intention now, as a more mature teacher, is to try to ignite in my students their own process of understanding the lesson in whatever way serves them best. They don’t need to know how I got there. They just need to get there.
3. Planning for class, what is your approach and how/where do you begin? i.e., with music, a sutra, building to a peak pose, incorporating philosophy, or see who shows up?
My teaching comes out of my practice. It has to arise out of what’s coming up for me, or it is just a mental exercise that I don’t fully connect with. Sometimes it starts with a theme or a thought; other times it starts from the physical body. Wherever it starts, I am constitutionally unable to not search for connections. So however it presents itself, I always like to leave myself enough room to meet the students where they are. The real magic of a class is having a deep intention about what you want to teach, but enough latitude to make it apply to whatever is happening in the room when you walk in. Sometimes if I leave it too open I find I’ve gone on autopilot. But if I make it too specific, it can get didactic. The magic is somewhere on that spectrum.
4. What challenges have you experienced as a yoga teacher?
For me, the most important thing to remember is that teaching yoga has to come from the higher self, from the place of connection with jiva atman. If I come from the ego, I am coming from a place of fear (will I be successful, have enough to eat, be loved…), and it pushes me deeper into my patterns and feels draining. The challenge for me has always been to live more of my life in the awareness of the big picture, or at least navigate the world of the gunas with some grace. Staying in balance and working from the satvic pole is both the challenge and the cure.
5. What are the lightest and most fun moments for your students and you during your yoga classes? What about classes you have taken from other instructors?
I love it when I make eye contact with someone and get their confidence, like sharing a little secret about what’s going on for them. A little adjustment, a little shift of attitude, can be life-changing. Sometimes there’s a moment in class when there’s been something very charged… maybe everybody’s working just a little too hard, or the energy is really tense for whatever reason, and then I make a joke or call attention to it in just the right way at the right time even if it’s totally goofy, and everyone just gets it. It’s the moments when people get that shift in awareness, and I was with them, and they get that that’s the yoga working. That’s what keeps me coming back. The possibility of growth. As far as other teachers’ methods go, I’m always in awe of the many brilliant ways of working, and I feel indebted to all those teachers whom I have tried and failed to mimic, and in doing so, found my own way.
6. What are your recommendations for new teachers during their first year of teaching?
Get out of your head. Get out of your own way by invoking your teachers and the lineage. Get to know your own process so you can move beyond it to a place of true connection. Give yourself time to let this happen. Allow yourself to be where you are… always.
7. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our alumni about your experience with ISHTA over the years?
Gratitude. I am grateful to have followed my heart to ISHTA, and I’d like to extend that gratitude to everyone who has come through the ISHTA trainings for being on the ISHTA wavelength.