a conversation with tias little


poetry and motion

You can hear the humility in Tias Little’s voice as he reads–how he offers the words of a great poet as a treasure he’s grateful to have found himself.  Earlier in the class he used the projected image of a single fern tendril gracefully unfurling itself to introduce a discussion of the human spine.  As filtered through his eclectic, scholarly sensibilities and his reverence for the Buddhist tradition, asana practice with Tias is an incredibly rich experience: physically rigorous, stimulating to the mind and deeply contemplative.  From his home base in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he co-directs the studio YogaSource with his wife Surya, Tias offers yoga and anatomy intensives and trainings around the world.  He is a frequent presenter at Yoga Journal’s national conferences and is the co-author, along with Surya, of the book Sthira Sukham Asanam.

YT: One of the things that makes your teaching so distinct is your use of metaphor.  You even close one of your new DVDs by reading a poem of Rilke’s.

Tias Little: Yes, it’s one of my favorites.  It invites students to find their ground, their sense of being rooted, and yet also to feel an expansive sense of “sky,” like circling the tower of the spine in seated meditation.  Rilke suggests here that to be fully human we must be both of this plane and not of this plane.

I feel the use of poetry and metaphor brings a kind of spaciousness and open mindedness to the practice.   It develops a kind of psychic flexibility, helping us to avoid the trap of literal, fixated thinking.  Metaphor is an invitation to spirit.  One may recall the Tantric depiction of the chakras; the images of the Buddha in the sky; the lotus in the heart.  The artistic and spiritual imagination are really so close to one another.

Also, in light of the over-emphasis placed on the physical practice of yoga in the West, I feel it’s important to include this kind of poetic, mythological and scriptural legacy in my teaching.  The ancient texts serve to reinforce students’ kinesthetic experience of practicing yoga, that sense of feeling deeply and connecting with the inner reservoir of prana.  They help deepen students’ understanding of the mind/body/spirit connection.   So many students are drawn to yoga because they love to feel that “spanda,” that inner pulsation.  Knowledge of the classic texts and imagery can heighten those sensations.

YT: You also emphasize Western anatomy, using “nuts and bolts” anatomical diagrams when you teach.

Tias Little: I have a scientific side, which acts as a compliment to the metaphoric side.  I love to draw on both [sides] when I teach, so I’m always studying to know more about biomechanics, about how the body’s structures work.

YT: How do you see the study of anatomy benefiting students?

Tias Little: In a pose like Uttitha Parsvakonasana, it’s so valuable to know the biomechanics of the hips, the position of the femurs in their sockets, the various muscles, tendons and ligaments involved.  The best way to learn anatomy is through applied body work, where students actually experience the benefits of knowing how their bodies function.

Many people also suffer from “sensory motor amnesia,” to use Thomas Hanna’s phrasing. They’re cut off from their bodies.  By showing them how their bodies work, by getting them into the “mind of the tissues,” I try to move them into falling in love with their bodies, falling in love with their sensory, motor hook-up.

YT: In addition to the Western scientific model of the body you also teach the Eastern esoteric body.

Tias Little: I find both systems, the energetic and the empirical, to be a beautiful marriage.  If you only use the energetic model of chakras and nadis (channels), you’re not really able to be grounded in the bones, tendons and organs.  If you only learn structure, you can get caught up in that structure with no energetic component.  We need both.

YT: As a teacher with an international following, how do you see your teaching in the larger context of the development of yoga?

Tias Little: Yoga is in its infancy here.  It’s an exciting time, with an opportunity to help model or “grow” yoga.  I’d like to have a hand in shaping it so that it can become more subtle, more sensitive.  With yoga being thought of by so many as a workout, I see my work as being about helping students to deepen yoga’s spaciousness, its contemplative side.

Ultimately, I hope that my teaching can inspire students to find greater peace in their own lives, in their own sangha (community), and that, on a global level, this might help to create a greater sense of ease in the world.  I know that’s a big leap to make, but I’d like to think that what I do is a part of that effort.


Read next >> interview with donna de lory