July 15, 2012

Unique Asana: Air Guitars, Star Trek & Ashtanga Yoga.

Photo courtesy: Mikko Seppinen

Gratitude is the new black (the old one too), and according to yoga practitioner and authorized teacher, Mikko Seppinen, a starting point for yoga.

There are many things to be grateful for, such as the intrinsic subtleties yoga reveals, and well, perhaps a new yoga shala in the 2000 zip code (in Frederiksberg, Denmark). After practicing for more than a decade, Finnish born Mikko (along with partner Helena Melkjorsen) opened Mysore Yoga CPH. Aside from their qualifications, their humbled approach, beautiful wooden floors and prime time location, they have a retro auburn coloured sofa in the welcome room. (I’m in love with that thing.) In some ways, it softens edges and invites a sense of humour and community—and as Mikko often reminds me, “don’t forget the unexpected.”

Photo credit: Mikko Seppinen

I met Mikko in 2009 at Samahita Retreat-Yoga Thailand. He reminded me of a gentle yoga warrior that had been practicing for a zillion years. At first he came across very focused, maybe a smidgen serious, but, as with nearly everything in life, it turns out, he’s much more than meets the eye. After a few rounds of air guitar to Vakratunda, showing off some supreme dance moves during an impromptu groove session before yoga philosophy, and reminding me during some intense moments, to become soft and playful (for example, by hopping up and down in one place outside the shala before Mysore practice—try this, you can’t help but to smile)…he proved that that serious was just a façade.

Mikko has become a very good friend and a wonderful teacher, especially off the yoga mat. I hope you will enjoy our little Q&A…

When did you start practicing yoga and what led you to the mat?

Mikko: I started practicing in 2000 just after finishing my fourth marathon. I wanted to do something different. (Which after all turned out to be not completely different. Both long-distance running and the practice of yoga cultivate a similar meditative experience). The biggest motivator for me to start practicing yoga was the recommendations I received from other people. I didn’t know exactly what I was starting and what to expect but I trusted their judgment and my intuition.

Why do you believe you were drawn to the Ashtanga method and have stayed with it for so many years?

Mikko: At the time Ashtanga was booming big time in Finland. I also didn’t know about any other types of yoga. For me it was just yoga, not Ashtanga yoga specifically. I could have chosen something else, but Ashtanga was right in front of me and there didn’t become any need to look elsewhere.

From the beginning I felt the method was logical, and I became curious to see how it would unfold so I kept on going, even through periods of questioning and resisting. The strong yoga community around me was a very important source of support.

The same reasons still attract me to this practice: the method keeps on unfolding and blossoming in surprising ways and I feel every day like a beginner. It keeps on challenging me and waking me up, and the sense of community is still an important element. It is simply leading me somewhere (physically, emotionally and also geographically) where I would have never thought I could go, showing that anything is possible.

Photo courtesy: Mikko Seppinen

When you started practicing, how did you know which teachers to follow (which to not follow)?

Mikko: I was fortunate to have great teachers. On top of that, one of the biggest Ashtanga studios in the world was almost next door to my apartment. It was all right in front of me inviting me in and as it has been said quite a few times on Star Trek: resistance was futile.

Generally speaking, I think following somebody or something is mostly a question of feeling rather than rationalizing. At least that’s how I have felt—it just made sense to stick with the shala I was going to and its teachers. What they offered felt like a real deal, a balanced mix of physical and mental inspiration and perspiration. Over the years I have practiced with a number of different teachers, taken many steps, twists and turns, but the teachers I have ended up following have offered a sense of integrity, joy, honesty and humbleness. Their teaching has felt authentic and down-to-earth, deep yet practical. And that’s the thing after all: it’s nothing fancy, just something practical we do to straighten us up and to be encouraged to look closer, day after day.

Generally speaking, the most important quality in teacher is that he/she is most of all a student. We’re all differently pre-conditioned and none of us is a superhuman, but having honesty to be openly human and laugh, especially at oneself helps also to make us a better teacher. What I have always valued in many great teachers is how they have been able to remove stuff instead of adding more knowledge. Keeping it simple and joyous, without the need to convince anybody.

What is your teaching style? How would you describe it in three words?

Mikko: Maybe my students should describe this? I have never tried to cultivate any kind of style, except passing what has been passed on to me. Technical knowledge is valuable, but the most important element I have learned from my own teachers has been sincerity. It is not about what you do but how you do it. Having said that, I hope I’m able to pass the essence of something I have experienced which is bigger than me.

So the first word is probably ‘traditional’, even though it’s difficult and even a provocative word for some. To me, it simply means that I cannot invent yoga or not even a style of yoga. The second word would be ‘supporting’. I would like to be able to create a space where people feel safe to open up even though they are challenged. The third, when we really look closer within our selves and our lives, isn’t it all quite funny?! So a ’sense of humour’ should be there too, even if it’s two more words.

What book would you recommend to someone who wanted to go deeper into their practice—more conscious of not only the physical aspect of yoga?

Mikko: First of all, I don’t think there’s only a physical aspect of yoga, or to anything. Even if a person would practice just to become fit, it still changes and challenges something on other levels as well. This is nothing esoteric or mystical, but in my experience we cannot be only ‘physical’, ’spiritual’ or ‘emotional’. What we perceive and what lessons we pick up is of course individual, but for all of us, physicality is an important gateway to increase our state of well-being, meaningfulness and the feeling of being somehow more connected, integrated, and I think that connection is always spiritual, even though we wouldn’t put any label on it. And, stepping onto the mat again and again requires more than just physical action.

Photo courtesy: Mikko Seppinen

Ok, and the answer to the question: practice itself is the best way to understand any lessons, but there are a lot of books to support the process. The world is full of excellent writing and the Yoga sutras are of course an evergreen (and takes a closer look at yamas and niyamas—the essential foundation for yoga!). However, if the sutras are obvious, the space is limited here, so if I could recommend only one I would recommend Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. Just like Siddhartha learns to listen to the river, we can realize that the answers are in the practice and it’s ready when we are. ‘

What are you reading? What/who is currently an inspiration to you and why?

Mikko: I have been recently scanning a number of books. Just to mention a few:

  1. Siddartha by Herman Hesse in Danish (this will take some time to go through as Danish is my fourth language, unless sanskrit counts). I highly recommend this one for summer!
  2. F**k it by John C Parkin. This book has been a good reminder to keep things light.
  3. A Copenhagen travel guide in Finnish. This has proved to be a good reminder of how wonderful is the city I’m living in.
  4. Last Night in Twister River by John Irving. This book was another masterpiece and proved to be a fantastic read while I was in India earlier this year.

The last few months have been intense and full with building up our new shala, so my reading has been quite random. The biggest inspiration for me right now has been seeing the shala grow, people practicing and a true community building up. It has been fun and inspiring.

What has been the most useful criticism you have received from a teacher/student?

Mikko: My teacher Sharath has said to me several times over the years in different contexts: ”too much thinking…weak mind”. I acknowledge that I have received similar messages along those lines for years from different sources, both teachers and students. The essence of it has been to lighten up and not to try and solve all the problems of the world and other people, or to try and know everything about the universe.

This question is actually difficult to answer, which can be seen as good criticism and a reminder to myself to stop trying to protect myself and to struggle openly with the questions, maybe even allow myself to fail openly.

Photo credit: Mikko Seppinen

What is your ‘ pose’ at the moment? 

Mikko: My pose has been early rising. The building up period of the shala challenged my rhythm, but it has been fantastic to feel the element of tapas rising again differently.

As a single pose kapotasana is a good old friend for over ten years, who has been under reconstruction for a while. I feel that on a subtle level it  (deep back bending) corresponds with my base and my foundation, and I’m happy to feel it becoming more solid.

In one week from now an additional pose will be Finnish summer, with plenty of sun (almost) around the clock and a ton of time for nothing.

You can find Mikko almost daily at his shala (Mysore Yoga CPH) in addition to weekly Ashtanga classes at Yogacentralen.

Read more:

Unique Asana: The Beauty in a Car Crash.

Unique Asana: The Angel Opens Her Eyes.

Unique Asana: Keeping It Real.

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