“I want to enjoy this—let’s just see where the conversation takes us,” were Ratnadevi’s words as we sat down to begin this interview. And that sums up why I want to give you a glimpse into my yoga teacher's wisdom, which is a combination of acceptance, curiosity, and joy. “Changing the qualities of our days is the highest of the arts,” Ratnadevi says, quoting the 19th-century poet and philosopher Thoreau. She speaks of changing the qualities of our own days from being self-obsessed and worried to becoming more playful, spacious, and curious. She approaches both her own life and her yoga practice in this way.
Ratnadevi grew up in the small town of Dorsten on the edge of the vast Ruhr industrial zone in Germany. Her early years were strongly influenced by music, and she learned to play the piano, organ, and cello. Her mother was the caretaker of a church, and the whole family contributed musically to special feast-day services. Ratnadevi speaks highly of the experience of community when one plays music with others, and describes such moments as probably the most harmonious times she had with her family. And music appears to have succeeded where the more formal teachings of Christianity failed to touch her young heart:
“I was struggling with the expectation of sensing the presence of God, which didn’t happen,” she says. “The more I tried, the less it happened, really, but what I enjoyed was the silence in the church when I was practicing the organ on my own. The sense of spaciousness and listening to the sounds petering into silence . . . it felt very special.”
Being naturally inquisitive, seeking God with her intellect was automatic. Ratnadevi explains that she was always asking questions, and spent hours with her girlfriends philosophizing about life. However, she came to a new understanding of spirituality when, through her Christian education and on two separate occasions, she encountered a nun and an abbot who happened to have interests in Zen Buddhism. While the first led her through a body-scan meditation, the latter taught Zen meditation (inspired by Graf Durckheim) as well as movement improvisation. These experiences were new to Ratnadevi, and she realized that not everything could be figured out in her head—suddenly, she knew that what she needed was a spiritual path that also involved the body.
Ratnadevi then went on to gain a teaching qualification in music and movement at Folkwang Hochschule in Essen, Germany. Her main subject was DalcrozeRythmics, which involves music and body improvisation, and as such Ratnadevi engaged regularly in bodywork that was very mindful. She explains that the classes included an element of enquiry and that students were encouraged to be curious about and verbalize their experiences.
While in Essen, Ratnadevi encountered Buddhism again through the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now called Triratna). She regularly attended Buddhist retreats led by one of the order members, Dharmapriya (Mike Sherk). Dharmapriya also happened to be a yoga teacher, following the Iyengar method, and his retreats included a combination of Mindfulness of Breathing meditation, Metta Bhavana (Loving-kindness meditation), and yoga. He had a strict approach to the practice: they would get up at 6 a.m., do a “double meditation” of two 45-minute sessions with a stretch in between, followed by yoga asanas and, finally, brunch, at around 11 a.m.
Ratnadevi explains that she had confidence in the Buddhist teachings on the nature of suffering, its vision of liberation, and its methodologies—they made perfect sense to her, to the extent that she felt as though she had always known them. Moreover she says that she felt good after the morning practice, and while she is unsure whether it was the yoga or the meditation, she often found herself floating towards the breakfast room. She adds, laughing: “Maybe my blood sugar levels were just low!”
However, while Ratnadevi is very grateful to Dharmapriya for his generosity in offering her free one-on-one yoga classes, which laid a foundation for her life, she had a mixed response to his disciplined and rigid approach: “I was used to questioning things, including the physical. If I did a movement, I wanted to know what happened physiologically. Why do it this way rather than another? I didn’t take any movement as a given, and this didn’t seem to be encouraged,” she recalls.
Eventually, having a strong foundation in teaching bodywork, Ratnadevi’s path naturally progressed to teaching yoga herself. And although today her classes are rooted in Iyengar, she draws on other styles of bodywork, such as Feldenkrais, Pilates, and dance. She also has a love of improvisation following on from her study of DalcrozeRhythmics.
Ratnadevi recalls an exciting encounter with Angela Farmer, an English dancer whose approach to yoga was very sensuous, emphasizing enjoyment and finding one’s own “form” through trusting the body. “It is less willful, goal-oriented, driven. It is a more feminine approach, but also a more creative approach,” she says. This attitude is certainly encouraged in Ratnadevi’s own classes, and in my view, makes her a very special yoga teacher. Combining this with Feldenkrais movements, which Ratnadevi explains are very ordinary movements, allows us, as students, to naturally bring mindfulness, playfulness, and kindness to our everyday activities.
I asked Ratnadevi if there are times when she does not feel so connected to her body, and she explains that this often happens while she is at the computer. She notes: “I easily become all head- and task-oriented, and I forget that I have a body till it aches!” In order to remain mindful of her experience, Ratnadevi takes a moment as she turns on the computer to pay attention to her breath and look out of the window. And yoga is her most powerful tool when it comes to stress.
This is especially important when faced with the challenge of growing older, which takes on an additional significance for her as her livelihood depends on teaching yoga. Ratnadevi, who is in her fifties, speaks of various aches and pains, and explains that she works with the Buddhist insight that she is not her body. Instead of solidifying her experience, she becomes curious about and interested in the particular sensations, finding that taking Refuge in awareness itself creates a sense of freedom. She explains that in any moment, it is perfectly alright to have that sensation—that it is only when we imagine that it is going to last forever, or get worse, that our lives are negatively affected.
“It's the quality of life in any moment that is most important,” she concludes. ”And I find that yoga—or whatever could fall under that umbrella—done in this non-striving, accepting, curious way is a really, really important part of my journey of self-development. I can’t imagine not including that—a very important dimension would be missing.”