The Mysore-Rome Connection
Italy-based Ashtanga Yoga Teacher Susanna Finocchi has been coming to Mysore since 1995 and feels that everything has changed but is still the same…
In December 2021, the Sharath Yoga Centre (SYC) in Mysore reopened after two years and in February 2022, I finally got to meet Italy-based Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Susanna Finocchi. I only had online conversations with her before that, and they were formal and brief. But even in those fleeting interactions, she had the talent to make me feel light-hearted with her skill for talking about the most serious subjects with humour and earnestness.
Susanna came to my home in Mysore for lunch, and as most conversations in Mysore start with origin stories, I asked how she started practising Ashtanga. “I practised yoga for the first time in Italy when I was in my late 20s, with my mum’s yoga teacher. It was a very calm style of asana practice. Ashtanga came to me through a dear friend. You know we all have a friend who does the coolest things (laughs). I had a friend like that and she insisted that I try Ashtanga. She had already been to Mysore and studied with Guruji Pattabhi Jois. It took me two years to finally try Ashtanga and my first class was in Rome, with Lino Miele and Tina Pizzimenti. At the time they were the only people teaching Ashtanga in Rome. Since that first class in September 1993, I didn’t stop. Can you imagine? I didn’t know that this one class would change the course of my life. After that class and a few months later, I started practising by myself and that’s actually what drew me to Mysore-style Ashtanga — I knew it was something I could do by myself. Most other styles and sequences depend on a teacher, as does Ashtanga, but in a Mysore-style class, because the sequence is pre-set, you need your teacher’s guidance to learn the asana sequence but after that you have to have self-discipline and practise on your own. For me that happened from the beginning of my practice,” says Susanna.
Before the Ashtanga Yoga Nilaya was established in Gokulam, Sri Pattabhi Jois was teaching Ashtanga at Laxmipuram, one of the city’s older neighbourhoods. This was in the early 90s and most students who were practising at the time were the first to get an authorization to teach Ashtanga yoga. These include some of the most well-known teachers of the practice like Eddie Stern and Richard Freeman.
“It was a very different Mysore. Most of the cars on the road were Ambassadors and Padminis, and the only scooter was a brand called Bajaj. It was so clean that when I first arrived, I felt it was cleaner than Rome. My first trip to Mysore was in 1995 and when I attended my first class at the shala, I felt like I entered one of Dante's circles from The Divine Comedy (laughs). I have to say, I was intimidated. But then I started practising and that experience was completely different from any previous experience. The depth and concentration with which everyone practised was contagious. My first adjustment came from Sharathji because he was assisting Guruji at the time. It was in Ubhaya Padangusthasana. Even the students were so interesting. None of them had regular jobs or conventional lifestyles, and they all used cycles to get around. The entire experience was surreal for me because I didn’t speak very good English then so I was looking a lot and listening a lot. (Laughs). But I did adapt easily to Indian culture. It didn’t feel very different from Rome — the noise, the traffic, the honking, getting cheated by taxi and rickshaw drivers, the beautiful chaos,” recalls Susanna.
She founded Ashtanga Yoga Copenhagen and was the main teacher there for almost 18 years. The shala gave her a deep understanding of the nuances of teaching yoga, and it was in Copenhagen that she felt aligned with her authorisation and an inner will to teach. “My students made me a teacher. A piece of paper can tell you that you are allowed to teach but you have to feel it from within as well. You are going to be responsible for other people’s well-being on so many levels. You have the responsibility of all your students and every student is different. It’s important to like what you are teaching and live it. When those things come together, you will have something genuine to offer your students. I felt that in my shala in Copenhagen.”
The inevitability of change is absolute and in 2019, Paramguru Sharath Jois opened the Sharath Yoga Centre in Hebbal, and this new beginning has encouraged a new wave of Indian students to visit Mysore as Ashtanga is gaining currency with the younger generation. The students of the early 90s were people who didn’t approach yoga as a career. They came to Mysore, studied, practised and teaching happened organically. “But, these days, people choose yoga as a career. I am not saying it is good or bad. I am saying it is different. I like change and I am all for it. It’s wonderful to see so many Indian students because these young Indians have so much to offer -— there is much to learn from them because the culture of yoga is already inherent in them. At the same time, the more senior teachers from the west or even new students from the west are still at the shala but now, there is more of an equal exchange of energy and knowledge and mindsets and culture. So we can all expand our knowledge. Of course, people always find reasons to complain. They complain about the shala moving — but they don’t mind travelling by aeroplane, then taxi or bus — yet they complain about travelling a few kilometres? It’s bizarre. Making a choice to follow a lineage and taking the effort to visit your teacher every year is challenging. But that’s also part of your learning process. It takes tremendous discipline to practise every day wherever you might live and then take time off and travel to come to Mysore, and then registration is always a process…This is not easy but it is also a beautiful process even if it is hard. We treasure the things that come to us when we work for them. You change the course of your life when you come to Mysore.”
The location of the shala is not the only thing that’s changed. Ashtanga Yoga is now a world-known practise and Susanna feels this has led to unfortunate misinformation. “Some people think Ashtanga is only for athletes — this can be true or not depending on what you want from the practice. There is space for everyone if you know how to find your space and hold it. Know why you are practising and don’t become obsessed with how your practise looks. Ashtanga is a very aesthetic practice but on the way, you realise the importance and beauty of the culture, the philosophy, etc. Asana eventually will lead you to that. Despite all the change, there are some things in India that still remain, and I love that Indianness. For example, when I first came here, I thought it was rude when I entered a shop and was ordered to sit and then given tea and get asked the most personal questions (laughs). Everyone is so direct. I have come to love that culture and understand how easy it is for Indians to form friendships and meaningful connections. That’s very special.”
War & Peace (and Yoga)
Susanna was conducting an Ashtanga workshop in Germany when we did this interview and there’s an air of anxiety and uneasiness in Europe because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. I reminded her of something a Tibetan monk once told me — when you face the worst that life has to offer or are in a situation like that, you use it as an opportunity to create positive change and good karma. “I totally agree with that. These negative times demand a positive practice like yoga and we should learn to redirect that energy so we can use it for positive change. There was already so much fear and stress because of COVID and now this war. It’s just horrible. War destroys everything. I wish more of the vibes we feel in our shalas when we practise spread and create awareness. War and negativity is an opportunity to apply our yoga practice to a world that needs it most. Spiritual practices bring to light our own faults, so we can clean and purify our own mind and a pure mind only spreads purity. Even the people who create war are still human and therefore, they can be reformed. Even a politician can create positive change. These people have the power to make a better world. To create a better society.”
Vedanta teaches the “art of correct contact” with the Self and the object world. Spiritual practices like yoga and meditation purify the mind and create inner wisdom “that helps us to move beyond petty thoughts and think big, says Susanna. “I would be miserable without yoga. It gave me self-confidence, inner strength and self-acceptance. It teaches me to live in harmony with myself and by extension, society and the world — with peace and joy.”
For further information on Susanna and her teaching, follow her Instagram handle @susanna.finocchi.3