Tzahi Moskovitz is a senior teacher and teacher trainer at YogaWorks, a 500 E-RYT and a YogaWorks certified teacher. Tzahi fell in love with the Iyengar method many years ago after the first class he took with Mary Dunn. After finishing a two year Iyengar teacher training program at the Iyengar Institute in New York, Tzahi passed the introductory 2 assessment in 2012. He is now a certified Iyengar teacher. His primary teachers are Mary Dunn, James Murphy and Carrie Owerko.
Although not my very first yoga teacher, Tzahi inspired me first to go further into yoga and then inspired me to seek teacher training. To be fair, when I approached him with the idea for the interview he pointed out that there are many more senior, advanced teachers in his lineage. Hopefully there will be time to get around to them, but Tzahi is a teacher I very naturally admire. When we met he had recently returned from studying for a month with the Iyengars in Pune, and we chatted about his re-entry; it seemed he was undergoing a kind of mild culture shock coming back to New York City. We spoke in a cafe in Hamilton Heights, Harlem, near where he lives.
YTM: So tell me about your yoga journey, how did you first come to study yoga?
TM: I was acting. I was an actor –
YTM: In New York?
TM: In New York. I was out of acting school and I was doing my first tour in New Jersey and actors, a lot of the time, once done with rehearsals they have a lot of free time, because you just have the show and that’s it, so I had a lot of time and I went to a yoga class. I don’t even remember the name of the neighborhood in Jersey where I took it, nor could I tell you the style. I took it a few times and I felt great after class. I had a little bit of back issue. Then I started practicing when I came back to the city more regularly. My teachers wanted me to take teacher training and I didn’t want to because of acting. And at some point I had a lull because I was back in Israel and I got back and I took YogaWorks − before it was YogaWorks, Be Yoga − training and started teaching very quickly.
YTM: Late Nineties?
TM: About 2000.
YTM: How was your early teaching? You hadn’t been practicing a long time…?
TM: No I was practicing for a few years at that point. I was moving a lot, there was a lot of moving. When I look back at it I don’t think it was particularly great, I was doing a kind of flow-ey class, I also was playing [recorded] music in class back then and music was always a very big thing for me, and so it kind of fit with teaching. I was very – I mean, I still am – pretty young for a teacher. I was really young then, mid-twenties, which I think for a teacher is very, very, very young. I was teaching a pretty vigorous class, a lot of flow and arm balances and things like that. And YogaWorks was purchased and there was a need for more teachers here who would do a more YogaWorks kind of thing, so I was also brought up quickly in the YogaWorks world, very quickly after I finished the 300 hours.
YTM: Did you have a mentor back then?
TM: Beverly [Murphy], who owned Be Yoga, and I studied with Jean Koerner, and Alan [Finger] who was running Be, which then became YogaWorks, and there was a transition. Jenny Aurthur came to town, so there was a period of transition, so there’s a whole layer of teachers, who were in honesty very young teachers. I audited for [teacher] training I would say a year after I finished my training and I assisted about a year and half from that and taught teacher training two and a half years after that, roughly. There’s a whole generation of teachers at YogaWorks who got bumped up quickly. I got work teaching quickly after training and I was acting. There was a period of a few years where I would leave my classes and go do a play for half a year and come back. I think it was the first training I audited at YogaWorks which Jenny Aurthur taught and Jenny basically forced me to take an Iyengar class against my will.
TM: Absolutely against my will because all I really knew, by reputation, it doesn’t have flow and it’s about alignment and I heard there was no interest in breath. And I was really into moving and into breath because I’m not a kind of yoga body person and I thought I disliked alignment because I thought that would mean I couldn’t do all the things I could do and I’d have to do all the things I couldn’t do! So she forced me to take an Iyengar class, I mean she made me go to a Level 4 class. The teacher must have had a heart attack when he saw me in that room! I mean there were some things I really could do, but like they hold Sirsasana for however long you hold Sirsasana in a Level 4 class and never in my life was Sirsasana for more than twenty breaths. There were all these people, just looking at them I thought this is not going to be a problem, they were older than me and not as vigorous, then there they were in Sirsana and I broke a sweat within ten breaths, and they were still in Sirsasana and I went up again and came down, and you know by the fourth or fifth time I just couldn’t go up anymore, it was already four more times than I had ever done and then the teacher said now we’ll start the variations, you know! I would say about a week and half after that I took my first class with Mary Dunn, a forward bend class, and I could still probably remember the sequences pose for pose, and I knew I’d just found where I needed to go and so I started…
YTM: …reorienting yourself…
TM: Yeah. Honestly the first thing that happened was I just stopped classes that were not Iyengar. It just made sense. Especially from Mary I learned things. It was actually very concrete about things that cannot be explained. So it was like she would give an instruction that was as clear as snow and all of a sudden there was this inner space opened that I’d never experienced in other classes. In other classes the teacher would talk about it, there’s this stage or that stage, you meditate and that happens and that was really nice to hear but I didn’t experience it. Mary would give very clear, concrete instructions and then somehow a door would open… So I was studying with Iyengar teachers at the Institute, and the YogaWorks method, whatever it is…
YTM: Well there is a lot of Iyengar influence…
TM: Yes whatever that means. There’s a murky line. And I was becoming a senior teacher at YogaWorks, doing teacher trainings, I taught trainings here and other places. It was coming to me that if the people I really want to study with are in a certain method, that’s where I need to go. It didn’t really feel inwardly like a switch, it just felt like a progression of my teachings, but outwardly it’s a switch because I had to stop teacher training for YogaWorks, because these are things you need to accept if you’re going to do Iyengar training, not the least of which is that it’s going to take a long time, there’s no talk of teacher trainings for a really long time. It’s important to me that this doesn’t feel like a criticism of this yoga path. This is about how I got in. My first introduction was, first you’re going to have to do a two year training, then a first assessment and then a second assessment and that will take you three years if you’re really, really fast, and only then will you be fully certified. I would never have done it where I was ten or eleven years ago. That’s the reality of it. There just came a point where I felt this is what I want to do, so even though it means I have to adjust my schedule, where I teach, I might as well do it. And so that was like three years ago. I applied and started the teacher training, I went through my first assessment, passed it, and very shortly I’ll have my second assessment, which if I pass I will only then be fully certified to teach Iyengar yoga.
YTM: I remember your classes in 2005 and you were doing more of a flow and there was always the music. When I’ve taken your classes more recently it did seem much more alignment focused, no music…
TM: Yeah, giving it up, actually it wasn’t very hard for me. I loved the music when I was teaching with it. I mean, I’m trying to get these people to pay inward attention and I keep providing them with distractions, so for me it didn’t work.
YTM: I remember being in one of your classes and wanting to sing along with the Neil Young.
YTM: So can you describe for me what your goals or aspirations are, both as a practitioner and teacher?
TM: Well, as a practitioner it’s not so much of a goal. I mean there are goals like what it says in the Sutras which are clear in themselves. But what I get from my practice, what the practice has helped me with is to find on the mat and in life ways to create clarity, in terms of contentment –
TM: But you know even if you wouldn’t tell me there was a word like santosha, even if you didn’t tell me that there was an inward space that was being reached, that was my experience. And also, a way to observe my own habits, to observe where I tend to get aggressive or willful or where I tend to give up on myself. It is a pretty accurate mirror of my own habits. As a teacher I hope to help, to look and see clearly and help my students find that for themselves.
YTM: Who are the teachers who can do that, who have you most admired?
TM: Definitely Mary Dunn. In the last year of her life she was very sick, she taught while being very sick. She also wrote a blog, marydunn.blogspot.com, in that year – well not just in that year. I just have such admiration of how she taught life in her yoga. I thought it was actually uplifting and positive. My main teachers now are James Murphy and Carrie Owerko and they’re both great influences on me, teaching and practicing, thinking about teaching and practicing. And also I just came back from Pune, an amazing time, and when you see what Iyengar has done, from really nothing, and his family, Geeta and Prashant – the reality of practicing they’ve created, the opportunities to practice they’ve created, the ways to practice they’ve created for so many people all over the world, the tenacity for teaching and practicing, perseverance for teaching and practicing…
YTM: I’ve heard that Mr. Iyengar still practices many hours a day.
TM: He certainly practices what he teaches. He does the practice. He certainly is there, trying to be clear and fully aware, and he’s going to be 94 soon, that certainly is a great inspiration.
YTM: So I have to admit I was curious about the quote you posted on Facebook from Mr. Iyengar: “I teach you fast like a sea lion in the sea and you learn slow like snails on land.” Maybe this should be off the record, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but out of context this could seem a little, I don’t know, almost arrogant?
TM: First of all, it was a joke!
TM: No, but there is this way –
YTM: He’s fierce!
TM: It was an interesting thing to watch. One of the things that does seem urgent – and it does seem to be urgent to him – is that as practitioners we are fully present, that we don’t do it just for the sake of doing. So he calls your attention to it. So it was just a moment. It was amusing. He was teaching and I was observing that class and he was talking about a certain action in a certain pose and he was just trying to say, “Do this,” and it wasn’t happening, and then he changed it and he said, “Why don’t you try to do this instead?” And it wasn’t happening. And the class was coming to an end, so he just made this joke and it was actually very funny. One of the things that I think is very hard for us here in the West is that there are some things about traditions that are related to yoga that are very hard to grasp. Human beings are human beings but the culture is very different. And I think it’s important for us both as practitioners and as teachers that we are actually trying to understand the core of the teaching rather than judge the culture, or attach to the culture. You know, rather than judge the differences or attach to the differences, if that makes sense.
YTM: Sure. It’s hard to apprehend the culture, especially studying the history, so rich and strange and topsy-turvy. I know I have to approach it with a certain humility but also discrimination to figure out what really speaks to me.
TM: But of course the other thing is that you really don’t have to figure it out. I think that’s a bit of a fool’s errand, because what yoga teaches is that there’s something beyond that. There’s a culture that is more conducive for yoga practices or less conducive, but at the end of the day yoga is about making contact with that within yourself, which is skin and bones and muscles, and consciousness, whatever that is, awareness, and so, when going to India, or when learning from a teacher, it’s not that the culture doesn’t exist, it’s not that there aren’t major differences, but I think it’s kind of foolish to say why does he say this and why didn’t he say that, or I thought that wasn’t very nice, when first of all we don’t really get the culture. And also just as foolish to say, oh he said that, then I should say it too to my students.
YTM: In other words, it has to come from a genuine place, an authentic place.
TM: Yes and I would say that was very true about Mary and it’s very true of the Iyengars, they hold very authentically to who they are. And we’re attuned to when people are not authentic, when teachers are not authentic, when teachers are putting something on. One of the major things that as a student it’s hard for me to get over is pretension. It’s one of the things I’ve tried to train myself to observe, authenticity and presence.
YTM: Are there any other traits you feel you would stay away from in your own teachings, or in other teachings?
TM: Another thing I really appreciate is when a teacher is able to be present but not over-present, if that’s a word, so that the class is not about your agenda. It’s one of the amazing things that James told us in training, it really is not about you. You know as teachers when we get confused we can think it’s about us. So while we are there being of service and we can use ourselves, from the basic ways of demonstration, to instruction, adjustment, personality, the gazillion ways in which you are involved in the class as a teacher, that is not about you. There are a million ways in which a yoga teacher can manage to make the class about them. It’s important the teachers are able to be there, present. Otherwise we don’t go to class, otherwise you just practice at home, which we do all the time, which is great, but when you go to class obviously you want the eye of the teacher, you want the sequence, these are things you want. The best teachers allow you – or help, actually, not just allow you – to create a space for yourself in class, rather than making it about them, what they want, or how they sequence, or how great this is or how bad that is or what they just realized or what they just learned. Even though obviously these are true things, we have just learned or just realized or this just came up for us -- but as a teacher there’s a moment when you have to look at the class and ask yourself, is this about me or them? Am I making this adjustment for this person? Am I doing this instruction for helping them, now?
YTM: Earlier you mentioned that people had told you the breath wasn’t important in Iyengar yoga. But, I mean, Iyengar has written his book about pranayama, for example. So just to clarify, what is your feeling now about the regard for breath in Iyengar yoga?
TM: Well I think there’s a difference between breath and pranayama. In the Iyengar tradition, and also by the way in the Yoga Sutras, there’s a moment, after mastering asana pranayama should be practiced, there is a graduation. He’s written a lot about it, you can find it very easily, in Light on Pranayama and Light on Yoga, he talks about when to teach pranayama, what pranayama to teach, when it is appropriate. It’s not appropriate to introduce it before there’s some basic understanding of asana. However breath is a part of asana, but it’s different than pranayama. So as teachers we look at our students’ breathing and see how it is, and is it strained or is it held or is it aggressive, and we try to instruct with the breath, certainly. So what I was told before I started taking Iyengar, particularly Mary’s class, was actually not true. I was told the classes wouldn’t have rhythm and that there’s no breath and that it was just alignment -- and that was not my experience at all. I felt it had great rhythm, I felt it had a lot of attention to breath.
I remember one of my first teachers would make us sit, meditate, for 18 minutes every class, on the floor, and I mean that is very admirable but the truth is − and I was in okay shape − I couldn’t sit for 18 minutes. So really, all I was working with was the actual discomfort of sitting, and there’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t have any complaints, but my practical experience of it, it wasn’t particularly effective or quieting. And when I started taking Iyengar method, you’d get to the time when you would learn your pranayama and you’d start prone or you’d work supine, you’d work differently with the breath and then I had more of an ability to access that. So that’s not so much a criticism, it’s just for me this is more effective.
YTM: You know, one of the things that drew me to your teaching is that the language is always fresh and I find that does draw one into the moment. Also, the humor, the wit, also something that lets you know the teacher is really there. Not that I go down a checklist of teacher traits, it really is the total being of the person…
TM: I think that both humor and freshness of language or whatever it is, is a reflection of being there. But it’s the same call that we’re asked as practitioners to practice, are you actually there? Prashant Iyengar used this great metaphor, that the mind and the body can be like water and oil, they don’t mix well, but if you add flour, then you can knead them together. And as practitioners that is our job, to use our senses, to use the breath to knead the mind and body together, that’s asana, the unified state of mind, body, breath and senses, and what happens is the senses and the breath are like the flour, and they make you able to knead into one the mind and the body. And so we’re asked both as practitioners and then when you are practicing teaching, are you really there?
YTM: Yes. That’s the question. Thank you, Tzahi.