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The Spiritualist: Durga Devi

January 11th 2013 / Catherine Turner

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She's gone from an NYC indie singer to being one of London's in-demand yoga teachers. Catherine Turner finds out how London's most rock'n'roll yoga teacher Durga Devi made the journey from band to yogi

London's hipster crowd rush to squeeze their mats into her classes (devotees include Sam Taylor-Johnson and Thandie Newton), and it’s no wonder. With her glowing energy and edgy tattooed look, Durga manages to make chanting and chakra balancing cool; plus, the physically challenging Jivamukti-style she teaches produces a graceful, honed dancer-style body even if you'll never be size 8.

At a time when we're drowning in yoga fads (yoga-lates anyone?), Durga's authentic approach is the real deal - down to serious mat work, hard study and over 11 years of teaching. I got an insight into some of her yogi wisdom…

CT: How did you get into yoga?
DD: “In the early '90s, I was living in New York, singing in a band, working in clubs and bars. But having been a gymnast when I was young, I was always into being fit. Lots of my friends were massage therapists and yoga teachers and they were all talking about this new style, 'Jivamukti'. I hated the gym and was dabbling in spiritual things like Chi Gung and had tried gentle forms of yoga, but nothing resonated. Finally, around 1996, I went to my first Jivamukti class and was hooked. It had that spiritual thing, yet wasn't too hippy and made sense in a sort of 'rock and roll' way. I went every single day. Back then, the founders Sharon Gannon and David Life were teaching at the original centre (in the East Village, Manhattan).”

CT: When did you become a teacher?
DD: “It was around the time of 9/11, I knew things had to change. Practising yoga opens you up to think about what you truly want. Eventually, I decided to end my marriage, train as a yoga teacher and move to Europe. It was scary. Plus, Jivamukti training was notoriously difficult, but on a retreat, someone suggested the 'Laughing Lotus' course (a centre in NYC). I applied and started as soon as I could, meanwhile doing Jivamukti every day. After three months, I graduated and began teaching; then Sharon Gannon wrote to me and asked if I would join Jivamukti. I was given a mentor, named Yogeswari, did an apprenticeship, and went on to do advanced training.”

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Above image by Olga Gorodilina

CT: Durga Devi is your spiritual name, what does it mean?
DD: “It's very auspicious to be given a spiritual name by your teacher - they do it by picking up on a vibration and characteristics. Mine was given to me about 10 years ago by Sharon (Gannon). Devi means goddess, and Durga means warrior, the protector from evil, who destroys the lower ego.”

CT: Which style is best for beginners?
DD: “I'd say try lots. YouTube is a great way to experience different classes. CDs and DVDs can be good too. I recommend the Jivamukti Basic Class Volume 1 CD, £25, (www.jivamuktiyoga.co.uk) and I like books too - I read up on classic styles such as Satyananda (www.satyananda.net). Above all, be practical - you need to go regularly. Ask yourself: where is my nearest class, can I get there easily, will I be able to keep it up?”

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CT: Is flexibility important?
DD: “Lots of people think they're not bendy enough for yoga. Our bodies are all different. I was flexible from being a gymnast when I started, but I found the breathing difficult. It is a challenge physically at the beginning, and you have to be disciplined. Yoga goes beyond the physical - it's more about spirit. Hardcore practitioners get caught up in the poses and that's often about ego. I can't necessarily do the things I used to. Showing up is one of the biggest steps. I had a student in NYC who had one leg and part of his arm missing and he had a great practice.”

CT: Should we be shy of chanting?
DD: “It can be strange at first, singing out loud in Sanskrit (the ancient Indian language) but if you join in, it becomes a very powerful and meditative part of class. I have a group 'The Mighty Power of Love' with four other musicians (they've gigged recently in London and Leeds) and perform Kirtan (longer chanting sessions) where people can listen and join in.”

(The band will be releasing on iTunes, but in the meantime, get a taster at Durga's website - see below).

CT: Do you practise daily?
DD: “At the beginning, my life centred around physical practice, but lately, it's more about meditation, chanting and study of the ancient vedic texts. Eventually, it's about bringing a yogic attitude into your whole life, being mindful in everything. That's what I try to do along with a busy teaching schedule. A day might be: get to the Jivamukti studio at 6.40am, meditate for 15 minutes before teaching the 7am class, then breakfast and teaching more classes and workshops.”

CT: What about diet?
DD: “I try to eat natural foods as far as possible. I'm lucky I don't have a sweet tooth and love greens. I feel it in my body if I eat chips, so my instinct is to be veggie and avoid anything heavy. My favourite snack would be hummus and pitta bread, and I do drink coffee, but also green tea - especially Dragonfly Organic Green Tea, £1.89 (www.dragonfly-teas.com). Everything in moderation; I'll have a glass of wine. You can get too uptight and it's important to keep a sense of humour.”

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FYI, Durga's super healthy breakfast at our meeting: avocado dribbled with olive oil on rye toast and green tea at her favourite cafe Pizza East Portobello, London.

CT: What's your beauty routine?
DD: My latest discovery is Nutiva Extra Virgin Organic Coconut Oil, £10.89, (www.planetorganic.com). It's great for skin and hair. I'll eat a spoonful from the jar, or warm a little in my hands to use as conditioner or body moisturiser. I always use cruelty-free products if I can - I love REN skin care. I rarely wear make-up to class, maybe a little MAC face powder and black eyeliner when I go out, and I always have a million lip glosses in my bag.

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Plus, I can't live without my flat iron. I can get ready in five minutes, I think because I was in a band with boys who wouldn't wait. I love to burn incense at home too - my favourite at the moment is Maroma Encens D'Auroville Incense Sticks in Sandalwood, £2.50 for 10, (www.himalaya-uk.com).

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Find details of Durga's classes in and around London at www.durgadeviyoga.com.


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