If you ever find yourself in Pacific Palms on the Mid North Coast of NSW/Australia, be sure to make your way to a class with Sarah Downs. Sarah is a well known and much loved yoga teacher in the region, providing carefully designed yoga practices for beginners to advanced students in her cosy and well equipped home studio. 

As a mother of two gorgeous young children, Sarah 'lives' her yoga on all levels. In this interview she shares great advice to beginning yogis, a delicious vegan recipe a la Kris Carr and how 'reversing  the order'  has revolutionised her practice.

Sarah, please describe yourself in a few sentences:


I have been practicing yoga for 17 years and teaching for 13 years.  My main influences and inpirations are Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga and Yoga Synergy (Sydney), which has somehow fused into a creative vinyasa flow, that I practice and teach.  Whilst my yoga is my passion, at the forefront of my life is now my young family and it has been a complete diploma in itself to learn how to combine the two.  My practice has moulded around two young children in a rather interesting way over the last 6 years.

What is your vision & mission?

I don’t have a formal vision or mission, but I do like to consider my practice as non-negotiable, just as brushing teeth is for most people.  I also try to approach life in a genuine and generous way by honouring my life as it is and staying connected to all that is around me.  When all else fails, I fall back on compassion.  I tend to be guided by intuition and what feels right at the time, which is probably why a clear vision or mission is not easy to be clear about.

What brought you to the practice of yoga and how does yoga help you on your path to wellbeing?

In 1994, I was travelling in India and found myself in Rishkesh (at the head of The Ganges, where The Beatles used to retreat to) just after a coup.  There were very few foreigners there and it was a little scary, so a fellow traveller and I found refuge in an ashram that was completely empty except for us.  We attended morning and afternoon sessions with our very own private swami who was mad about the Bhagavad Gita.  I only got a very general gist of it as his accent was very thick and seemed to be devoid of consonants so it was like trying to understand someone under water.  Nevertheless I used to enjoy long walks with him in the afternoon – his enthusiasm and love of life was infectious. 

After that, it still took me another couple of years to get to a yoga class, which was probably at the first Bikram’s Yoga in Australia (Manly) in 1996.  I dedicated myself to 3 months daily practice and then moved onto Ashtanga Yoga.

How does your yoga practise look like? How do you live yoga on the mat and off the mat?

After doing Sarah Powers’ Yin/Yang Yoga & Mindfulness Meditation Intensive in January this year, I have changed the order of my practice.  I start with a short Yin pose such as sitting cross-legged and bending forward, then I move onto a seated meditation.  Following that I do pranayama and then begin my asana practice which involves flowing standing poses, floor poses, inversions and Savasana.

Reversing the order of my practice in this way has been revolutionary for me as it prioritises meditation and pranayama over asana practice.  As a mum, I am sometimes interrupted and if I have done my asana practice and haven’t had time to seal it with relaxation, meditation and pranayama, I can feel fractured and off-centre.  If I get interrupted after meditation and pranayama and before asana, I feel fine. 

The yoga teachers I have admired the most all promote meditation, or the teachings that arise as a result of being still, as the most important aspect of any practice.

As far as living yoga off the mat, I try to stay connected.  I try to catch my critical voice and remind myself of compassion.  I don’t believe you ever get “THERE”, which is a very precious concept as it keeps us learning and journeying.  I volunteer as much time as I can manage to reach out to people (mainly children) who probably would not experience yoga if it wasn’t for my classes.  I try to acknowledge everything that crosses my path as a teacher or a gift and learn from it.  I try to see things as they are and not how I want them to be.  I say “I try ... “ as I don’t always succeed!

Which tradition / teacher / book  are influencing your practice the most?

The greatest influences of the last couple of months for me are Sarah Powers and Yin Yoga as well as Jack Kornfield and his Jewel of Liberation CD Set. 

Sarah Powers draws on Yoga, Daoism and Buddhism and highlight the importance of Yin Yoga (being) in our very Yang (doing) world.  This idea is highlighted by the west’s obsession with the physical practice of yoga (asana) when there are seven other just as precious limbs of yoga that we tend to ignore as they can’t be seen as clearly through our Yang eyes.

Jack Kornfield is a Buddhist teacher and a Psychologist.  He translates the ancient and almost inaccessible Buddhist texts for westerners in a captivating way.  It is not unusual for me to laugh and cry over the course of one of Jack’s CD’s (several times).

I try to incorporate monthly themes into my practice and teaching and usually cover a physical aspect such as “The shoulder”, a philosophical aspect such as Maitri (unconditional kindness towards oneself) and possibly a non-physical practice such as setting a positive intention (Sankalpa).

You have been teaching for 13 years. You taught in studios in London, Sydney and… now you are teaching classes in a little private studio in a beautiful house in Pacific Palms on the East Cost of New South Wales.
How do you experience the difference between teaching in a small community compared to teaching classes in city studios?

Teaching in London is different to teaching in Pacific Palms, but there are also similarities.  Sometimes I would teach at London gyms and there would be a huge range of abilities (and injuries) and I would have to have a range of poses with different variations and degrees of difficulty up my sleeve.  But that can also happen in a class of 3!  I think the biggest change to my practice is space.  I remember going to a fabulous class in London where the teacher said in a very quiet and vulnerable moment “There is enough space for you.” Tears started to roll down my face as, in London, you are jammed into tube trains and there is so much going on all the time and very little opportunity to feel the massive space of the universe.  I am Australian after all!

I feel that since moving here, my heart space has grown.  If I walk on the beach in Sydney and start connecting with people either by looking at them or saying hello, they think I’m strange.  Likewise when I first moved here, it did not feel natural to acknowledge every single person that I passed on the beach.  However now it feels natural and it is also a very heartening experience to run into people I know every time I go to the shop or to kindy or school.  So it’s like my heart has got bigger by living in this community and would have to shrink (in a strange kind of way) to move back to Sydney as it’s just not possible to acknowledge every single person you pass by. 

This highlights the difference of teaching in London and here in the Palms.  There is always a community aspect to my class which everyone participates in.  Whenever new people join the area and come along, they always make connections in the classroom that extend beyond it.  And so do I .. lucky me, huh!

What advice would you give a new yogi in regards of practicing yoga?


My advice does me out of job!  It is better to practice for 5 minutes a day than come to a weekly class.  Although if you can manage both, then all the better.  Once a year, I focus my monthly theme on the 5 or 10 minute practice to empower every student to practice yoga alone.  Everyone has got 5 minutes and even such a small amount of time can make a huge difference to your day and life.  The secret is that it rarely stays at 5 minutes – once you can get around the voice that talks you out of your practice, the practice takes over.  I started my practice by rolling out my mat every day and lying on my back and hugging my knees to my chest!  That was all I “had” to do, but it didn’t stay that way for long.

On a practical level, you are the only one in your skin and if something doesn’t feel right, you should back off, regardless of how inexperienced you are or how experienced your teacher is.  Also being able to turn off your critical voice in a yoga class/practice is a real asset, so try to use that precious time to cultivate kindness towards yourself and others.  We are not born with criticism; it is something we learn .. so using the practice to unlearn it is highly recommended.

Other than that, I would say that once you start practicing, the magic happens.  I know that may sound a little kooky, but if you’re very quiet and attentive, you’ll notice it.  It may not show itself in the way you expected, it may be subtle (or even very loud), but if you’re not looking out for it, you’ll miss it.

The ‘Yogic’ intention is to Practice & Evolve. What does that mean for you?

Practice: Practice is EVERYTHING.  You can have knowledge, but without experience, it is nothing.  Practice is where the murky, grimey, unsightly part of us gets to shine .. Believe me, it’s better out than in!  Not only that, but practice is what makes an average day a lot more meaningful.  It doesn’t ensure that everything is rosy, but that when things aren’t, you’ve got the choice of how you want to deal with them, rather than reverting to reactive mode.

Evolve: The beauty of life is that there’s always more to learn.  I was brought up as a Catholic and I found myself at a Catholic funeral a few months ago.  I was aware of some slight aversion at having to sit through a mass, but recognised it as part of my past and tried to enter with an open mind.  Ironically, the priest turned out to be an amazing teacher .. in his pristine white and gold garments, he raised his right hand and pointed skyward and in his Polish accent, he said “Many people get caught up with religion and worship the finger, and forget that the finger is pointing to the mystery.”  No words can describe the mystery although many compassionate souls try to lead us there.  We can only experience it for ourselves, beyond words, beyond doctrine .. or just beyond.  At least, that is my understanding .. and the thirst to understand more is what I think it is to EVOLVE.

What does a life in equilibrium means to you?

I don’t know .. I’ll tell you when I find it! 

As a working mother of young children, I struggle with this enormously.  Towards the end of my pregnancy with my first child, I went to do a practice and got so engrossed that when the phone rang and I looked up, I realised it had turned dark and 3 ½ hours had passed.  That is no longer possible and I have to pull myself back from the temptation to continually battle with time.  After I had my first baby, my practice fitted neatly into her early morning sleep, then as she started to wake for longer, I squeezed it in later, then it disappeared and reappeared as a 45 minute nightly meditation whilst breast-feeding.   When my second child came along, things changed again.  

My practice has moved all around the clock and I guess that is the most I can expect from equilibrium.  I have become a master at squeezing it into places that I might not have expected to .. on the beach while my children play on the rocks, while the children watch Play School or this morning while they made birthday cards for their cousin (with me practicing on the mat just a metre away).  Sometimes it is easier to fit in while we share the same space .. and it is strangely satisfying to have these two little souls chatting away and negotiating with pencils as I do.

My mum has just come to stay and we were talking about a severely disabled paraolympian we knew this morning.  He said, “I don’t think about what I can’t do, I think about what I can do.”  I think this captures the essence of equilibrium .. it is not about trying to impose perfection on your life, but making the most of what has been gifted to you each day.

How do you live a wholehearted life?

I have a lot of people in my life that I love.  I try to respect my body and this precious human life.  I try to invest in my community with my day-to-day interactions and my work.  I try to remain conscious of what I am grateful for.  I spend some time each day interacting with “The Mystery” (a spiritual practice).

Which projects are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?

I have had to rein myself in as a mother of two small children as there are so many things I’d like to do yoga-wise.  I have a few workshops up my sleeve that I would like to teach to allow my students to go deeper.  I really enjoy collaborating and building community with other yoga teachers and loved the opportunity to teach with Alexa at the Pacific Palms Red Tent Event in March. 

I don’t think I am alone when I say that it’s very hard to consider the future when I am immersed in being a mother to two young children.  I am keen to keep teaching from home, although it is a small studio, and I would rather put on more classes than move to a larger space.  At this stage, teaching around 5 classes a week is workable, but I may increase that as time permits.  I am a bit rubbish at marketing – I’ve had street signs sitting in my garage for quite some time, so I would like to get on top of that side of things. 

There’s a knowing deep within me that yoga is my purpose and teaching is an important part of any advanced practice.  It is one thing to know something and another to articulate it.  I try to live by the premise that you should never hold onto knowledge, but share it.  As long as I am open to new possibilites (even if it is not what I expected), somehow I feel I will be quided.  As you can probably tell, I am a Business Coach’s worst nightmare!

A VINYASA WITH Sarah:

My favourite yoga posture is… Janu Sirsasana (it’s like coming home)

My least favourite yoga posture is…Kukkutasana (but I don’t think I can do it anymore, anyway!)

Post yoga snacks I love
…Chai with honey or a fruit/vege juice.

My three personal health tips are…Lemon juice in water first thing in the morning, being connected to both your inner and outer worlds and a diet heavy on green.

Three things I would take to a remote island…my family, music and a knife to open coconuts.

The ‘place to be’ for me is…wherever I find myself (despite how uncomfortable that may be sometimes).

Two non-negotiable lifestyle choices of mine are…Meditation and a meat-free diet.

When I take a day ‘off’ I…..go to the beach to walk and swim.

A favourite quote that truly inspires me
                  
         "Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be." - Marcus Aurelius


I am currently reading…”The Four Desires” by Rod Stryer, “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” by Jon Kabat-Zinn and “The Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield.  I usually read a few books at once, however sometimes, as with “The Four Desires”, I will dip in and out of a book.  It never ceases to amaze me how I will find just the right passage for that moment.

My favourite books are… “Awareness” by Anthony de Mello, “Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha” by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “The Heart of Yoga” by TKV Desikachar, to name a few ... Don’t get me started on fiction!

Please share with us one of your favourite recipes:

Cashew Cream Cheese (From Kris Carr’s “Crazy Sexy Kitchen”)

*The idea of vegan can be offputting for a lot of people, but can easily be incorporated into any diet.  This can be used just as you’d use cream cheese or hummous, such as on wraps or as a dip.

Ingredients:

2 CUPS RAW CASHEWS, SOAKED FOR A FEW HOURS OR OVERNIGHT IN WATER TO SOFTEN

½ CUP WATER

2 TBSPNS LEMON JUICE

1 TBSPN NUTRITIONAL YEAST (Available from Health Food Stores)

1 TBSPN ONION POWDER

1 ½ TBSNS FINELY DICED CHIVES

¼ CUP FINELY MINCED PARSLEY

1 ½ TBSPNS FINELY MINCED SHALLOTS OR RED ONION

½ TSPN SEA SALT

FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER TO TASTE

Method:
  • Drain the soaked cashews and blend with water and lemon juice in high-speed blender until smooth.
  • Pause often to scrape sides of blender and fold ingredients in to ensure a creamy texture.
  • Transfer mixture to a bowl and add nutritional yeast, onion powder, chives, parsley, shallots, salt and pepper, mixing thoroughly.

Get in touch with Sarah: 

BLUEYS YOGA - CREATIVE VINYASA FLOW    
  • * Balance * Clarity * Grace *   
  • CLASS TIMES: Thursday 9.30am / Friday 6.30am / Saturday 9am 
  • Classes are held in a friendly home studio in Charlotte Bay, just 600m from The Lakes Way on Coomba Rd.  
  • Sarah Downs teaches Creative Vinyasa Flow classes combining Dynamic sequences to strengthen and cleanse with Restorative poses to develop grace and quieten the mind. 
  • With 13 years' teaching experience and her expertise as a remedial massage therapist, she is able to tailor classes to suit all levels and accommodate special needs and injuries.  
  • Contact: phone: 0411 22 44 71, email:  blueysyoga@gmail.com or visit http://www.naturaltherapypages.com.au/connect/blueysyoga/service/19339

Sarah also teaches at various kindergartens in Pacific Palms and will soon begin teaching yoga to school children in the Active After-School Care program.



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