Muuyu recently had the privilege of interviewing prolific yogini Donna (Amrita) Davidge about her life, practice and Kundalini yoga.
How long have you been teaching yoga and what types of yoga do you teach?
I have been teaching yoga nearly 3 decades. For the first 14 years I taught exclusively Kundalini. Then I added Ashtanga, Dharma Yoga and finally Iyengar to my Kundalini teaching and practice. So I teach all of these and have a regular, weekly Kundalini class on Muuyu.
How did you find your way to yoga?
I found my way to yoga first in a class at University of New Hampshire in the 1970’s where I was a distance runner. Later, in my early twenties in the late 70’s, after I had earned my masters as a nutritionist, I picked up yoga again via audio cassettes – remember yoga was not mainstream at that time!
However, my real path to yoga came via Kundalini, which I discovered in NY City in 1985 with Ravi Singh. I had been on an outer journey, adventuring to Europe to model from 1982-1985, which had been challenging in many ways, and the inner journey of Kundalini yoga resonated with me immediately. What drew me to this style was its inner focus, the work from the chakras and with energy. I was an athlete so I was not as concerned with physical prowess as with how the energy worked in my body, particularly as I am high energy and tend toward nervous energy. Having this type of energy is a great gift if you learn how to channel it.
In yoga you often hear mention of Kundalini energy, but what exactly is that?
Kundalini is the life force energy in the body, often envisioned as a serpent as exhibited in the medical symbol. The idea is that the kundalini is awakened from the base of the spine when the shushumna (central spine channel) is opened through yoga and meditation.
For someone approaching a Kundalini class for the first time how should they expect it to differ from Hatha and Vinyasa?
First of all Kundalini is not a left brain yoga! Though it works the brain and, of course, you need both parts for the practice it is very different than, for example, Iyengar, which I love, but which but is very focused on facts and proper physical alignment.
Let me explain that a bit more- our teacher Yogi Bhajan, with whom I studied for about 15 years before he died in 2004, said that Kundalini Yoga was taught to give the student an experience. So for someone used to doing Hatha or Vinyasa I would say simply have an open mind. I often say do not expect a trikonasana or headstand here and no flowing sun salutes. Instead leave your expectations at the door.
How did you get your name Amrita and what is the meaning behind it?
Amrita was given to me by Yogi Bhajan in 1987. Ravi Singh, who had encouraged me to start teaching, said I needed a spiritual name and took me up to Yogi Bhajan on one of his NYC visits. He bases it on your birthday- mine is the same as Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King. Yogi Bajan wrote my birthday 1-15-55 on a small scrap of paper and said “Princess of the Nectar of God, very special name” and that was it. In Sanskrit it means the elixir of immortality and nurturance.
In yoga we are meant to believe our soul is immortal and as I get older I see myself more as a nurturer to students, almost like a mother. I think the yoga retreat I established at Sewall House is a big part of that. Alongside this I am very big into preserving life, being an animal activist and vegetarian for example.
Can you share with us the origins of and current activities at your yoga retreat, Sewall House?
Sewall House originally belonged to my great grandfather, Bill Sewall. I never met him, but an interesting fact about him was that he had been a very instrumental part in Theodore Roosevelt’s life. When TR was a sickly college student he visited Sewall House three times, with each visit lasting for three weeks. Sewall House was, at the time, an informal Inn in this tiny northern Maine town my family had founded. Trekking in the woods, sitting by the lake and rivers, meeting the loggers and climbing Mount Katahdin were all part of TR’s healing and he remained lifelong friends with Bill Sewall. There is one book in particular, ‘Becoming Teddy Roosevelt’ by Andrew Vietze, that focuses on their journey.
I purchased Sewall House in 1997, really on a wing and a prayer. The house had stood empty for 18 months after my great-aunt died and I wanted to maintain the contents, the history, the tradition and the legacy of healing and bring it back into modern times through yoga. I broke my back when I was 22 skydiving and was hit by a cab on my bike in NYC when I was 41 so I truly believe in yoga, healthy eating and nature as healers.
This now is the theme at Sewall House. We have no corporate backers or investors- we are simply run on yogic principles of living in the moment and with as much truth and integrity and fun as we can. We like to think we are as loving and welcoming to our guests as Bill Sewall was to TR and many come back and do become friends.
Since we only have 5-7 bedrooms available at any time (depending on staff and work study) the experience is personalized and much smaller than the many yoga retreats that have come on the scene since I started 18 years ago. We hike, kayak, do yoga and eat together but everyone has private rooms and the area is beautiful and the town is quaint and quiet. We have always offered massage as well.
What is it you hope most to impart to students?
I wish to inspire them to know and accept themselves better, to understand yoga as a lifelong, individualized practice. I like to make people laugh so occasionally in a class I throw in something to make them happy I hope (a story or quote ). I also like to see my students’ progress at their own pace. That way they can make their own breakthroughs without me pushing. I think in teaching we need to create a space of allowing and see what happens. Of course, sometimes we may see something and need to speak and see if the student trusts our intentions. This is what Yogi Bhajan would call poke, provoke and elevate …with love!
What is the most important gift or lesson yoga has brought to you?
The most valuable gift yoga has given me is the ability to work on myself and hopefully set an example to others even if they have no idea what yoga means totally.
The other day I got to speak briefly at a conservation group in Maine regarding an environmental fight I have led in Maine and lost. The loss is really painful because ridges are being dynamited, pristine previously preserved forests are being clear-cut in huge acreage and animals and birds will die and be gravely injured as a result of this. A naturalist I had not seen in years but who had studied yoga with me was at the meeting and wrote me afterward that my words moved her to tears and that despite this battle, which has been very challenging, my light showed through.
I think Yoga shows us how to keep going, not just in our progression from one pose to something more advanced, but to a lifestyle where you can turn to yoga instead of things like alcohol and drugs when you have to face challenging feelings about yourself and your situations in life.
Yoga has been such an integral part of your primary life experiences for over 20 years, so what does yoga actually mean to you now?
Yoga is a lifestyle, yoga is my family and yoga is a path and a journey which changes during different phases just like life and our bodies and minds.
A former student of Yogi Bhajan, Donna also studied with Pattabhis Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, Rod Stryker, Ana Forrest, David Life and Gurmukh. She has worked consistently for the last 30 years as a yoga teacher to a wide range of clients from A-list celebrities to people with life-threatening illnesses. Her joy is to help people pave their own path to a consistent yoga practice and over the years she has shared her expertise through appearances on syndicated TV and radio shows across the States and numerous national publications. Contact Donna at her website or on Muuyu to request a class.