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 :: March/April 2003 Volume 2/Number 2

Sitting Down With Ali McGraw

Ali MacGraw, actress, video producer, author and social activist, is a long-time practitioner of the art of yoga. In 1995, she produced as well as demonstrated the postures in the video "Moving Into Stillness", with Erich Schiffmann. Today she lives in Santa Fe, NM and travels frequently to L.A., often to study yoga. In January, while Ali was in L.A. studying with Kofi Busia, she talked to Julie Deife about her yoga.

By Julie Deife

Julie: Where is your yoga practice today?

Ali: 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.

Julie: 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.

Julie: Can you think of anything specific that encouraged you to change or grow your practice?

Ali: 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.

Julie: How do you 'experience' yoga today?

Ali: 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.

Julie: 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?

Ali: 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.

Julie: 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'?

Ali: 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.

Julie: What about your personality - Ali's personality - determines your approach to your practice, and how that has changed?

Ali: 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.

Julie: Do you have a meditation practice?

Ali: 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.

Julie: What is your favorite posture?

Ali: 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.

Julie: You are a well-known animal-rights activist. What made you decide to get involved?

Ali: 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.

Julie: Where and when did you find yoga?

Ali: 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.

Julie: Who have some of your teachers been?

Ali: 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.

Julie: Why did you decide to produce a yoga video?

Ali: 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.

Julie: What do you want to be doing in 15 years?

Ali: 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.

Julie: Is humility something you're learning from the practice?

Ali: 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?

Ali: 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?

Ali: 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 my life.


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