Teacher Interview: Mimi Kuo-Deemer (Part One)

Excited to launch a new feature of interviews with teachers finding unique voices within a practice built on tradition. We begin with Mimi Kuo-Deemer.

Mimi Kuo-Deemer

Mimi has been a student of yoga since 1995 and an avid lover of dance since 1978, when her mother put her in ballet school for walking with turned-in toes. Mimi mainly teaches a breath and alignment-based vinyasa yoga that is cross-pollinated with aspects of Daoist and Buddhist teachings. Her two main teachers in the yoga world, Erich Schiffmann and Donna Farhi, continually humble her with the idea that yoga is the art of living, listening, and learning to embody a deeply spiritual tradition. Originally from the U.S., Mimi is the co-founder of Yoga Yard, Beijing’s leading yoga studio, where she taught for 7 years before moving to London. She is the author of the DVD “Vinyasa Yoga: A Steady, Mindful Practice,” is on the faculty of triyoga’s yoga teacher training program, and teaches workshops and retreats around the world.

You have worked with several well-regarded teachers including Erich Schiffmann and Donna Farhi and I would say you have created your own unique teaching that honours their work but departs from it. What are your thoughts on lineage and tradition in practice and teaching?

If you met Erich and Donna in person, or saw them standing side-by-side, you might think there’s very little in common yoga-wise between these two. They look quite different: Donna is very petit and moves with a quick, certain energy; Erich is 6’6″ or so and is what I think of as a cross between Santa Claus and the Buddha. Yet their teaching styles and approaches are curiously similar: both view yoga as an art of skillful living. Donna says it’s about being “present to our own fundamental goodness and the goodness of others.” Erich, as a means of facilitating “profound inner relaxation that accompanies fearlessness. This release from fear is what finally precipitates the full flowering of love.” If there’s anything I believe they have imparted on me that counts as a yogic lineage, I believe it is a deep respect and gratitude for yoga and what it does to keep me open, curious, and enthusiastic about the world.

Erich and Donna were Iyengar trained. Both departed from that tradition to continue their search and evolution in the yoga world. As such, they appreciate alignment, but their definitions of it are radically different from what one might categorize as traditional. Erich says “we are all always an alignment.” All yoga, he believes, is basically a process of listening inwardly for guidance, and “trust into what you find yourself Knowing.”This is hard work, but in theory it helped me discover over the years that a) to be good at yoga all you have to do is listen inwardly; and b) meditation is the key to just about all of life’s most pressing questions. These days, Erich teaches a freeform approach to yoga, or “Freedom Style”, which is exactly that – you do as you are guided to do. Though my classes aren’t freeform, my asana practice is and most of my teaching comes out of my own practice. That and the insight and teachings I gain from students.

Donna’s teachings often present sophisticated models for movement based on universal movement principles. These have helped me refine my sense of awareness in my body, but she shares these not as a lineage so much as a process of exploration and ongoing self-inquiry. So far as I understand it, Donna sees yoga as a means of navigating our body, mind and senses so that we can return to a natural, original state that is, as she puts it, “intrinsically whole, good and free.”When I teach, I try and consider the potential for embodied awareness and often present inquiries into how people might feel while moving through different stages of their practice. To this end, I feel like I’m very much in keeping with Donna’s teachings, which ultimately aim to offer students greater independence and a framework to understand their individual goals and needs.

As my main teachers, I feel that Erich and Donna continually help reveal to me what’s possible, and then I just take it from there. At a deeper level, this is what I am also hoping to offer my students — I try and provide some base knowledge but encourage them to learn on their own, ask questions as they go through postures, find their own expression, and learn that among the greatest things yoga can offer you is creativity, clarity and self-trust.

You are also a photographer and you will soon be offering a retreat combining yoga and photography.  How do these two overlap in your life, practice, and teaching?

This is a question that I contemplate regularly. There’s a quote from the French photographer, Cartier Bresson: “To take photographs means to recognize – simultaneously within a fraction of a second – both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” I think this captures what the overlap of yoga and photography is: they’re both artful meditations on life that give rise to expression.

For me, photography and yoga ask me to look more deeply into what is happening each moment. An artist’s job is expression, and in yoga and photography, the expression happens in the immediate present. Yoga is all about calming the busy mind, and once that happens, it’s written in the Yoga Sutra that “the seer, the Self, then rests in his or her true nature.” Yoga’s about seeing everything more clearly. Photography is exactly the same. Whenever I take photographs, I’m looking through the lens to see what is there – what is really present and happening. With photography, to see clearly is not just something I do mechanically; it’s also my mental place, physical position, and emotional state as well as the person or place that I’m photographing all in one moment. In the best photographs, there is an emotional expression of truth, seen through the interpretation of the photographer’s interaction with his or her environment. And that interaction is deeper when there is a willingness of the photographer as well as the subject to engage at the level of the heart, or spirit.

In teaching yoga, I always try to see clearly. I try and see what is happening at a physical level from students as well as the spirit level. I try and teach from an authentic place and a quiet heart so that I can listen and respond to my environment skillfully. I do the same thing when I’m taking photographs. These days, I do less photography and far more yoga teaching, but at the height of my career as a photographer, yoga made my photography so much richer. In fact, some of my best photographs were probably taken in 2005, when I was in Tibet, India, Bhutan and Uzbekistan photographing for UNESCO. I was doing a lot of yoga then as well as teaching regularly, and every time I took a portrait, I was reaching deep inside me to engage with the people I photographed and let them turn away from the presence of the camera and more toward just the presence of me as a human being seeing them in their most truthful light. This is part of what Ian Teh and I hope to share on our retreat.

Your advanced level classes adopt a more skilful and gentle approach to still strong and complicated poses. This can run contrary to some expectations of a very sweaty, stretchy and highly demanding advanced class. What is advanced practice to you?

I love this question. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be good at yoga quite a lot lately, and where I’m at is this: all you have to do to be good at yoga is be perceptive. You have to feel and sense things to know whether you’re up for doing something categorized as advanced. If you’re moving too fast and basically kamikazeing into advanced poses, the mind doesn’t get any quieter but the body will probably feel terrible and resentful after, and that’s no good.

There’s a Buddhist joke that if you want to really quiet the mind, you could just do it the easy way and take a metal rod and knock yourself out – that would definitely quiet the mind. It wouldn’t be very skillful, but at least you’d stop thinking! In my opinion sweaty, highly demanding classes are kind of just like taking a bat and hitting yourself on the head with it. There are more skillful ways of approaching an advanced class that will still make you work hard but leave you feeling more clear, mindful, and engaged with life. Any yoga practice should leave the practitioner feeling more calibrated by the end, rather than exhausted and more stressed out than when he or she started.

In many ways, advanced classes are perfect arenas to practice some of the hardest yoga there is: non-attachment and letting go. In yoga this is known as vairagyam. A highly skilled yogi is basically someone who does the practice but then lets go of the outcome. We’re often so goal-orientated or competitive with ourselves that this practice remains elusive or non-existent. Non-attachment also means no attachment to the ego. This is hard, especially in advanced classes, but I always try and teach this. Whenever the hard poses are offered, the ego is always right there, crawling up someone’s leg while trying to put it behind the head. It’s not that is wrong, or that people shouldn’t play their edges, but the difference is an advanced yogi will perceive the situation in that moment, and consider the options and then make the best choice with the ego set aside.

When I teach an advanced class, I try and prepare the body through sequence so that the possibility for someone to take a more advanced option is there. I offer what I feel is sufficient preparation for more advanced poses – i.e. there’s a theme, and postures aren’t haphazardly strung together, but sequenced so that the spaces around the joint have been mobilized, and the muscles around the joint space activated and balanced to a more or less degree. If that’s all happening, then perhaps something like an advanced twisty arm balance or whatever I’ve decided is the peak pose is possible. I never try and force or demand anything in classes because I don’t know how people feel, and it’s not worth the risk of injuring someone. I just try and offer options and choices, and give people the tools to make the decisions for themselves with as much trust and compassion as they can.

If, even after offering all the choices, I still see people squirming or pushing or potentially hurting themselves because their bodies aren’t ready, I repeat my favorite David Swenson quote: “the advanced poses are only there to test your ego.”

Click here for part two, including how Mimi uses qigong in her practice.