Kira Williams: “this life-changing thing we call yoga”

Jamaican Ashtanga yoga instructor Kira Williams on the importance of strength, flexibility, and routine — as told to Kelly Baker Josephs

Kira Williams. Photo by Sabrina Simon

I fell asleep in my first yoga class. It was a group class at a gym in Kingston, and even though I’d been doing weight training and cardio exercises at the gym regularly by then, the first time I took yoga it was so challenging mentally and physically that I fell asleep during final relaxation. Someone had to wake me up! That challenge intrigued me and lured me towards the yogic path I follow today.

That was over fifteen years ago. At the time, I was working as a junior associate at a large accounting firm. I had begun training at the gym to offset the unhealthy consequences of my job — long hours, stressful days, sleepless nights. I wasn’t particularly active before that. Like many children in Jamaica, I gave track a shot in prep school, but I was average at best. I also participated in dance while at high school, but here too my interest and skill were what you might call middling. I wasn’t flexible or strong. I was a thin child, only gaining weight and strength by weightlifting at the gym in my twenties. Nothing in these early years indicated I would find home in practicing and teaching Ashtanga, one of the most physically and mentally demanding styles of yoga.

In 2008, I had the amazing opportunity to take a guided primary series class led by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the man credited with teaching the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition of posture practice from the 1930s until shortly before he passed away in 2009. By then, I had taken different styles of yoga and completed an Iyengar immersion, but I was becoming more intrigued by the Ashtanga lineage. I did extensive research on it, and discovered Pattabhi Jois would be making a trip to Florida. It took some arranging, but I made a way to attend. I remember standing in a room full of more than two hundred yogis, all connected with breath and movement and focused attention, and I was hooked from the very beginning. That day, I also had the chance to meet Kino MacGregor, the woman who would become my root Ashtanga teacher. I took a week-long workshop with her that same year, and Ashtanga has been my major practice ever since.

I practise the primary and part of the intermediate series of Ashtanga. I like that it has a logical structure to it — you warm the body with sun salutations (flowing from pose to pose in harmony with the breath), then you do standing postures, then seated, followed by backbending and then a calming, closing sequence. The postures always follow the same order, and I find comfort in that sameness, that “routine” — I can just dive deeply into the breath and not constantly overanalyse things, which is my natural tendency.

But by far, my favourite part of Ashtanga yoga is how much it is geared towards each and every individual. In the Ashtanga Mysore tradition — self-practice in a group setting — each student practices at his or her own abilities and pace, supported by the teacher. It’s a mostly silent, meditative practice. Imagine being in a room of six or sixty people and all you hear is this deep, calming wave of breath — it’s amazing!

 

At home in Kingston, I teach traditional Mysore-style and Led Ashtanga classes, as well as Ashtanga-based Vinyasa, corporate, and private classes. My students! They are the wonderful, brave, strong, and amazing men and women who show up early in the mornings for Mysore, or turn up in the evenings for Vinyasa classes. I’m honoured every day that people trust me in helping and guiding them through this life-changing thing we call yoga.

This past year I’ve had to modify my own practice and my teaching to accommodate the leftover physical effects of chikungunya. The virus may be mostly gone from the Caribbean, but it’s still felt in our bodies and spirits. I’ve had to call on the patience and acceptance that yoga has helped me build over the past years in order to hold space for the ghost of Chik-V in my practice and my classes.

I am currently the only authorised Ashtanga teacher in the Caribbean. I feel the responsibility of being authentic to the practice, sharing it in my home country of Jamaica, and then branching out to the other islands, English-speaking as well as the Francophone islands — I speak French too! In June, I taught at the first annual Downtown Nassau Yoga Festival in the Bahamas. My hope is to do more events like this, sharing the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga across the Caribbean.

One thing I can say about being Caribbean and practising yoga is that it can present a challenge to our more easygoing, relaxed way of doing things. Ashtanga, especially, may be seen as regimented, but I’m glad I stuck around long enough to dig a little deeper and find that when I let the practice itself guide me, it creates a different experience each and every day. Sometimes I feel strong and flexible and brilliant on the mat, other times I’m stiff and sore and don’t feel like myself, but the practice offers me a place to see all these things, and find peace anyway.

Even so, I don’t know that I feel very Caribbean when I practice or teach, I just love the practice and the breath. What I do notice is that there aren’t many people who look like me in the Ashtanga world. Even when I travel to practise in India, I’m one of only four or five black faces.  There are still a few stereotypes left to be toppled. But slowly, as more people learn about Ashtanga and yoga in general, they’re realising the power and benefits of the practice — things are changing, and it’s wonderful to see all colours and creeds on the mat.

There’s no denying yoga is becoming more popular in the Caribbean. I would like to see its continued growth and for people to keep practising! Whatever style we choose, yoga is a force for positive social change and activism. It teaches diligence and discipline, essential traits for this and future generations of Caribbean people.