Kino MacGregor maintains that she never was an athlete – no dance classes or soccer teams or tennis matches in her past. If you browse through this striking gallery of photographs taken by Rene Merino, however, you might beg to differ.
Kino’s discipline of choice is ashtanga yoga, a kind of mind/body pursuit that takes a lifetime to master. Kino has been at it for 15 years, most of them as a teacher, all of them as a student of what she describes as a “dramatically more traditional” line of yoga.
“Ashtanga yoga is connected to the historical past,” says Kino, who has been to India 14 times in her study of this centuries-old system. “It has a methodology of postures that you can trace back through four generations of teachers.”
The first of those was a forest-dwelling yogi in northern India, who confided his techniques to a young man who had tracked him down after hearing of a legendary yogi who lived alone in a magical valley. After seven years of study, the student asked what gift he might offer his teacher. No gift, replied the yogi; simply take this yoga out into the world.
Two hundred years later, ashtanga is attracting an international yoga following. Much of its allure is the intrinsic mind/body/spirit connection of the poses.
“Americans are quick to brand and copyright everything,” Kino says. “But this is not brandable. It’s about history and humility. You can’t own this kind of yoga. The most important thing about it is to respect the tradition.”
She tells the story of ashtanga and how to study it in her second book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga. Her own odyssey, chronicled in her first book, Sacred Fire, began at age 19 with a chance class after injuring both Achilles tendons. She instantly was hooked, and made her first yoga pilgrimage to India at 23.
“When I did that first yoga class, it answered questions for me that I didn’t even know I had,” she says. Based in Miami, she has carried the ashtanga message to 50 cities in 20 countries, her 500,000 miles of travel equal to 25 circumnavigations of the globe. Her weekend workshop and book signing at Balance Yoga and Wellness in Mid-City was her third trip to New Orleans. (“The French Quarter is cool,” she found, although when asked if she had sampled one of its iconic dishes, the vegetarian replied, “What’s a beignet?”)
Ashtanga includes six series of athletic poses. Basic postures, says Kino, are accessible to everyone – an assertion somewhat belied by the pretzel-like contortions she slips into with ease (see above).
“Really, you can just hang forward if you can’t touch your toes,” she says. “People think you have to be flexible to do yoga, but you really don’t. Sun salutations are the most foundational poses, and those simple movements can be a complete practice. There are infinite permutations.”
Mainly, it’s all about balance – not just physical balance, but internal and external balance, mind and body balance, workday stress and spiritual balance. That, maintains Kino, offers health benefits beyond mere fitness.
“If you come into yoga for fitness, it evolves into health and healing, and then becomes spiritual.”
Certainly Kino exhibits an amazing sense of balance, strength and flexibility in her own demonstration of ashtanga poses. Her one to two hours of daily physical yoga practice (plus 20 minutes or more of meditation) have paid off in a suppleness that would put a Cirque du Soleil headliner to shame.
But it’s not about the backbends, really.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Kino says. “Before yoga, I was weak and insecure and unsure of myself. With yoga, the first time I was able to do a headstand, I thought, wow, if I can do this, what can’t I do?
“Maybe yoga’s greatest lesson is that, in our mad rush to the future, to get what we want and to get it now, it teaches us to relax and to be who we are. And then you’ll realize that things come to you.”
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at email@example.com.