Where is your yoga practice today?
I'm sort of starting over again from the beginning, and
I'm doing very different classes than I used to do. I'm
doing a lot of Iyengar. Chris Stein sent me to study with
Manouso, which has just been a revelation. And I study with
various teachers, all of whom are virtually starting my
practice over. And I love it.
Why is this different?
Ali: I have decided that I would like to imprint on my
body the memory of where the various parts are meant to be. And
the only way I know how to do that is to start some of the fundamentals
over correctly. For example, some years ago I managed to hurt
my shoulder badly doing chaturanga incorrectly. I'd rather be
taught the alternative, or what my body requires now, knowing
that it might change. I find myself listening in a way that I
didn't do 10 years ago, with great respect to Iyengar teachers,
to the microscopic knowledge of how we can work in a way that
does not hurt us. Really listening to a teacher produces a block-out
of all the shadowy madness that most of my life is about, because
I am very high energy, a bit all over the place, and I need tremendous
discipline to shut all that other stuff out.
Can you think of anything specific that encouraged you to change
or grow your practice?
I discovered that it's about making a tiny airspace around me,
my world. Many years ago I heard an extraordinary remark from
Bryan Kest in a very crowded, very work-outy class, and it flowed
over the head of 60 or 70 people in that class as though he was
reading me. And I'm sure it was not directed at me, but I received
it as though it was. He said, "I'd like to think that when
you leave this class you can't tell me who was next to you, what
they were wearing or what posture they were doing." Busted.
I was doing all of that, that ego thing. Why can't I get my leg
up there? I wish I had those stomach muscles. I mean this is nonsense
and to really get it, it's not about getting anywhere, it's being
where we are.
How do you 'experience' yoga today?
I'm trying very hard to listen to my inner voice and follow a
lot of feelings that I talked myself out of for many decades.
After so many years of doing yoga, I'm rather in touch with what's
off kilter, whether it's my physical body or the more subtle stuff.
Whether I can fix it is another story, but I am clear when I am
in my center. I don't even have to stand in tree posture to know
that, I can feel it just by sitting. I'm grateful for this, because
after a lifetime of "looking good", defining myself
by what people thought of me, I often lived far away from my truth.
Yoga has been a crash course in how do I feel "today".
Right this minute.
You don't seem to be the kind of person who allows other people
to define who you are. Why do you think that happened?
I was really involved with other people's opinions of me, and
it got heightened during my film career. I don't have any opinion,
good or bad about it, it just was. It's not the way I feel now,
and I think yoga has a lot to do with that.
I know you have a home practice. What is your balance of the home
practice, class and let's also throw in, 'taking it off the mat'?
I go to class and sometimes I do my own practice. I try to understand
the behavior that goes beyond the asana part and I aspire to behave
that way. I'm going for something more subtle at this point. To
the best of my ability, I do what's outlined by the teachers I
study with, but I really, really think that the proof is in the
behavior. So far I am still trying to do most of my practice in
a class situation where I can't avoid anything. And, I never back
away in class - I go for it. Where at home I might say oh, I just
feel a little sore here, so I think I'll just do it half way.
But I am very disciplined and that is why I go to class. I want
to work everything correctly and to the best of today's possibility.
And I am still cheating at home. If practice is done daily then
that behavior accumulates and it becomes reflexive. And I think
it has power beyond our daily lives.
What about your personality - Ali's personality - determines your
approach to your practice, and how that has changed?
In the old days, trust me, I would have been thinking, when am
I going to really be able to do a great bakasana? Now, I'm clear
that it doesn't matter. What matters is that when a posture is
suggested, I do it very cautiously, with all the information I've
been given, in higher concentration, the best I can, and it will
do to me what it's supposed to do to me.
Also, I'm not the drama queen I once was, and that is because
of yoga. I don't enjoy it. I don't enjoy other people's dramas,
and I don't enjoy mine.
Do you have a meditation practice?
To be honest, the reason I began yoga was to learn how to meditate.
It's a work in progress for me and it's refreshment that I can't
get any other way. I practice, and like anything, practice has
good days and bad days. I think it changes with repetition and
time and also with prioritization.
What is your favorite posture?
My very favorite posture is trikonasana. I feel that's probably
where the dancer meets yoga; I wasn't a dancer except in my dreams,
but there's this soaring feeling, and I love listening to my spine
realigning itself. And no matter how much, how long I do it, I
grow and grow and grow.
You are a well-known animal-rights activist. What made you decide
to get involved?
I've always loved animals and I always thought that they were,
if not better, then the absolute equal of any two legged creature
that God ever created. I can't remember when I wasn't an animal
rights activist. I have always participated in little things like
rescuing animals from the shelter, signing every single petition
of any sort, writing a letter whether it's against clubbing seals
for coats or allowing people to hunt animals. Or, God help us,
the laboratory experiments. I'm very touched on a deep level by
cruelty to animals.
Where and when did you find yoga?
I think in the late seventies. I was making a film in New York,
and the work was especially stressful and demanding. I remember
very little about that yoga class except that it was candlelit
and how I felt when I walked out.
After moving to California, I didn't do yoga for many years, and
I don't know why I didn't. I just hadn't been bitten yet. Then
about 1988, this is literally what happened: I saw a friend who
was looking terrific, and I don't mean California cosmetic-terrific,
because that really doesn't interest me. She just had a kind of
energy and grounding and awareness that was very extraordinary.
And I said, "what are you doing?" And she said, "Yoga.
You'll love it. Come with me, there's a class in 25 minutes."
It was a class taught at Yoga Works. I went over and I was hooked,
and that was the end of it.
Who have some of your teachers been?
I've studied with a number of fine teachers. Living in Santa Fe
now, I'm lucky to be able to practice with Surya and Tias Little.
And I am in Los Angeles frequently to study with Chris Stein,
Jasmine Lieb, Erich Schiffmann and whenever possible, Kofi Busia
and of course, Manouso.
Why did you decide to produce a yoga video?
I was asked to do a workout video, but I had no interest in doing
that. I wanted to do a yoga video with a respected teacher. So
I worked with Erich Schiffmann, and we did a beautiful video that's
been tremendously successful.
What do you want to be doing in 15 years?
It's not so much what do I want to be doing in 15 years, it's
how I want to be in 15 years. I have no idea, ever, what I want
to be doing. If I'm physically lucky, I'll be doing the same things
I'm doing now, which is a enormous variety of things, none of
which define me: it's not Ali MacGraw actress, Ali MacGraw video
producer, book writer. I want to be a person who makes a quiet
difference. I want to be around people who care about their environment
and about everybody's quality of life. In theory that should be
what 'yoga community' would ultimately be about. I hope that I
can marinate in some of the spiritual practices, the stillness
and the practice of humility. Maybe in 15 years or so, with thousands
doing that, we can possibly create a different world.
Is humility something you're learning from the practice?
I hope so, I need to. That, and compassion and connection. Those
are the things that attracted me to yoga in the early days. The
sense that the person who sat at the head of our class, projected
that. Coming out of the celebrity-soaked center-of-attention world
where I had been, I needed to learn that. I'm dismayed - and it
happens in every profession - that in a very human and understandable
way some teachers get kind of caught up in the celebrity of being
a yoga guru. I sort of want yoga to be separate from that, so
that it's a worker-among-workers kind of energy.
Julie: Can you recall a single challenge in your life, where
you were called on to use your yoga?
In 1993 the big fire in Malibu destroyed a lot of people's houses,
including mine, and it happened while I was at a yoga class. I
came back to see what was obviously going to be a house burned
to the ground. And I really did say, "I guess this is an
experience I was meant to be having". And I never felt any
differently because mercifully nobody was hurt and my animals
had been pulled out by a neighbor. So it was only about the stuff.
But I'm not sure I would have been that equanimous without yoga.
Julie: What would you like to say in closing?
I feel blessed that I found yoga again in my early fifties (my
mother actually discovered it in her seventies). I think those
who are beginning it young are unbelievably lucky. The quality
of my life has changed dramatically- not the events- but the way
I handle them and my priorities and my sense of drama. I am happier
than ever and I don't think it's an accident. It's been my experience
that the longer I do yoga, the more I want to know, the more I
am able to understand and the less judgmental I am. Every day
I feel as if I am starting yoga all over again and that excites
me enormously. I fully expect to be doing yoga for the rest of