In this episode, I interview one of my own teachers: Nikki Costello. Nikki is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. She has been teaching yoga for 22 years and was previously certified in Jivamukti Yoga and Anusara Yoga. For 8 years, she taught exclusively for the SYDA Foundation, as a hatha yoga and meditation teacher. As part of the organization she taught hatha yoga in retreats and events in North America, South America, Europe, India and China. It was during this time that she began cultivating a practice of meditation and deepened her study of yogic scriptures and philosophical texts.
She lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and teaches public classes at Kula Yoga in Tribeca and Williamsburg and Yoga Shanti. She maintains a well-recognized private practice in New York City, training and guiding individuals on all levels of their health and well-being.
Nikki is passionate about sharing her study and practice of yoga. She has created several unique educational opportunities for yoga students which include: The Teachers Practice, The Mentor Practice, The Sutra Practice and The Enrichment Practice. She continues to lead retreats and workshops all over the world and in 2013-2014 was a contributing editor at Yoga Journal, writing the magazine’s “Basics Column.”
Nikki and I met in her Lovely apartment in Williamsburg looking out over the East River to discuss a variety of topics: tradition, community, the teacher/student relationship and God.
I began first by asking Nikki a most basic but nonetheless important question: what is yoga? No matter how many times I ask this question, I never get quite the same answer, although answers resonate and overlap. For Nikki, that answer was straight forward: integration. In her own experience with the practice, the physical postures led her to a place inside herself where she could start making connections with herself, with the past and the present.
Nikki describes how yoga began for her in a rather unique way, as she reminisced about her early experience as a dancer in a mirrored room. It is in the shift from the mirrored studio of dance to the black box cave of the actors studio that she recognizes the first seeds of a yoga practice, when the focus moved from the outer to the inner domain of experience.
She recognizes that she began walking down a path of extreme diet based on a relationship to the mirror that had her composing herself in a way that reflected a sense of self-hatred. The practice of yoga reversed the flow of attention and enabled her to begin to heal this attitude to the body. “The mirror reflects our perception”, she says. This shift reflected her later yogic realization that reliance on how you see yourself outside must be curbed by “how you begin to sense yourself inside.”
I was interested to hear how such an outwardly technical and precise tradition of yoga (Iyengar) could facilitate this inner experience. Nikki shared that the method does ask us to observe in neutrality and to see fully, but that this is very different from observing judgmentally or critically, so as to “correct” or “scold” ourselves in terms of how we’re articulating the postures. When Nikki observes a student, she is creating a pathway to help see herself with more love. The technical precision is about inviting the student into an exploration of wholeness and how a certain aspect of alignment might be obstructing that wholeness and that experience of love.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE
Nikki expresses two components of practice through an aphorism that came to her recently in meditation: “Knowledge is acquired. Wisdom is attained.” The acquisition of knowledge relates deeply to what arises as our own inner wisdom. They, in a sense, compliment and require each other.
THE STUDENT/TEACHER RELATIONSHIP
When I asked Nikki about her thoughts on the Guru/Disciple relationship, she recalled an experience she had at the Stella Adler school of Acting. There, she had a teacher, Alice Winston, who stopped her at the very beginning of delivering a monologue (mid-syllable, in fact) with “Stop! You have nothing to say!” Nikki expressed that this teacher, with those words, had struck at the very heart of something in Nikki that initiated a series of questions inside herself. In questioning Nikki, she taught Nikki how to question herself. Alice then later shared with Nikki that she wouldn’t fully understand what she was talking about for another ten years; Nikki said she was right. Through this experience, Nikki was led into a process that resulted in her being able, some years later, to create from herself.
The Teacher/Student relationship starts with a question. Parvati asks, “What is this secret of yoga?” That question begins the discourse, “this is what yoga is.” The exchange between asking a question and listening for a response is at the very heart of this relationship. It’s a practice of responsiveness.
I then asked if the process of questioning is constitutive of the very experience of yoga, or if there is ever a moment when we “arrive” at the final answers. “Well, I haven’t arrived yet,” she said. Or rather, “I have both not arrived yet and have arrived many times.” Each time we arrive, Nikki explains, more of ourselves are integrated. More is seen. We arrive, and there is still more.
RECOGNITION AS THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD
Each time we arrive, there is a recognition. A seeing takes place, and Nikki describes this seeing as her experience of God. Without the mirrored distortions of mental and emotional spins on Reality, we can begin to recognize through a clarified perception, recognizing something as how and what it really is.
I asked what it is one sees when they see God, which led Nikki into a fascinating discussion of form and how the qualities inherent in form (as in, for example, the asanas), facilitate the ability to recognize those qualities in oneself. For Nikki, then, the forms of asana were allowing her to enter into the energy behind or within that form. And furthermore, forms of the divine (deities) are mythological expressions to help reflect on how those qualities reside in her.
THE MOVE TO ONLINE STUDIOS
I wanted to get Nikki’s take on the move toward online studios and teachings. Her primary concern was with the fact that, in the context of online classes, the student is generally not seen, and being seen is fundamental to the evolution of the practice.
However, she describes her attitude about online as relaxing a bit and reminded us that it is important that the doors open, for someone, in any way that they can. However, at some point, effort is required to find the teacher that will see you, leading the seeker ultimately to seek out a teacher in a more tangible, physically proximate way.
Finally, I wanted to ask Nikki about her time in India. She has lived in India for a total of three years over twelve different trips. I asked her about how we can reconcile the spiritual abundance of India with the radical poverty that’s there. Nikki responded by discussing the dharma of place. In New York City, there is a boldness, strength, and an energy of going vertically upward towards more material abundance. In India, there is a feeling of endless sky and softness. Nikki talks about how inside her something changes when she goes to India. Something inside of her rests. In her own being, she says she can’t reconcile the differences in her experience in New York versus India. She speaks of the dharma of New York about being an energy of creativity, innovation, invention, making money, and being the best. In India, this is not the energy or the dharma of that place. “That’s not the nature of that land, the dharma of that land. The culture itself is holding, perhaps for the entire planet, the spiritual heart.”
Nikki proposes that we are making an assumption about suffering based on the experiences that we’ve had and the privilege that we’ve been afforded. Everyone in the world is seeking happiness, so it would be an assumption to say that that isn’t happening in a village in India where they have less technology. In fact, perhaps our own Western illusion is that happiness and an end to suffering take place through the technology and conveniences of our culture.
Certainly, the teachings of yoga would say this is an illusion, as fulfillment cannot arrive through external objects but rather by this yogic process Nikki shares of combining knowledge and experience.