Interview with Lino Miele
November 17, 2002
Renowned in Europe, where he teaches for most of each year, Lino Miele is the author of Ashtanga Yoga Under the Guidance of Yogasanavisharada Vidwan Director Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois. The 166-page tome is a lengthily researched rendering of the first and second series of Ashtanga Yoga and its benefits. With explicit instructions regarding the correct format of breath and movement for each pose, the book is considered a "Bible" of sorts among Ashtangis. Scientific rather than philosophical in its presentation, it epitomizes the "practice and all is coming" aphorism promoted by Jois.
The last day of Lino Miele's Ashtanga 2002 workshop in Mountain View, California featured the Italian native's trademark full-vinyasa class. The next two hours of yoga would entail coming up to standing, or samasthiti, between each posture of the primary series. This would increase the difficulty of an already demanding Ashtanga practice in which Miele has become an instrumental lineage bearer. "Breathe in," Miele called out in his singsong, Italian-accented voice, and made a fluid gesture with his hand. "Breathe out," he said and moved his arms out. "Straight arms, head up, open chest. Do your best. If you don't know a pose, don't do it."
Community and communication are perhaps Miele's biggest gift to the Ashtanga tradition. In addition to writing the book, he was instrumental during the 1990s in starting the now defunct Ashtanga Federation. "The thinking at that time was we didn't like to be lonely so lets do a union to bring us together," Miele explained. "There was no money involved. Just a community. With a computer now everyone can find each other and there's no need so we closed it." More recently, he published a poster of asanas and leads Mysore-style practice along with his wife at the Ashtanga Yoga School of Rome. In 2000 he opened the Astanga Yoga School in Copenhagen with his long time teaching partner Gwendoline Hunt. He also spends two months of each year leading an Ashtanga camp in Kovalam Beach, South India. The November 2002 workshop was his second trip to Mountain View, and he would touch down in Ohio and Chicago to teach before heading back to Europe.
Miele's early life was not indicative of a future as a globe-trotting yoga researcher and instructor. Raised in Rome during the 1950s by a family of dry-cleaning business owners, Miele grew up to become a freelance technical director for the stage. Until he was 35 years old, his existence was typified by 20-hour days on the set. "That was my life," he says, describing the intense world of performance. "I was not thinking of yoga at all. I thought yoga was for people sixty and over."
However, Miele's wife and partner in teaching, Tina Pizzimenti, had a long-standing interest in the ancient practice. While he was busy on the set, she did yoga at home using books. However, her practice eventually rubbed off on her husband and their mutual interest in yoga blossomed so much that the couple set about searching for a teacher together.
"It was a problem finding a teacher in Italy," Miele recounted after class, pausing to sign copies of his book. "We met some, but there was no...charisma. So we decided to go to India for six months." The couple worked their way south from Rishikesh, yet found connecting with a teacher as problematic as it was in Italy. "Maybe the problem was with us," Miele shrugged. "We were looking for something, [asking] 'what is this something?' My wife remembered reading a book that said there was somebody in Mysore. We asked people about him and they said there is only one man."
After a six-month quest, they were led to the doorstep of the master of Ashtanga yoga, Jois. In Jois, Miele and his wife found what they were seeking. The only problem was that they were out of money and had to return to Italy. Nonetheless, they set about practicing and returned to India the following year.
"When I started this yoga, there was very strong energy, this feeling, like picking something up from the floor," Miele remembered. "There was too much fire in me and this yoga cooled it down." However, his path from beginning student to teaching was not instant or without pain. While Miele now practices the fourth series of Ashtanga yoga, his present fluidity was hard earned.
"Guruji was talking 'purification, purification, purification.' I was sleeping all the time. I started to feel everything: Ache over here, pain here. One day I woke up and I was paralyzed from the waist down," Miele remembers of his early days of practice. "I called my wife, 'Tina! Tina!' I can't move. I was so polluted my legs became rigid. It was not drugs or drink, [it was] the stress of my life. Staying up late at night and going to sleep early in the morning, and the bad food. The first two years each time I went to Guruji I'd have two weeks of dreams about everything that happened to me in the theater. It was like a washing down. Then the third year, no dreams."
Miele's understanding of his own process has translated into a palpable compassion for the level of effort Ashtanga takes."At first, you sweat a lot, it hurts," he told his American students. "Pretty soon you feel like this." Miele then pantomimed a weak-kneed wiggle, contorting his face to mirror his student's expression. "But slowly, slowly. If you don't know the pose, don't do it. Don't worry. Let's not be so serious. At the end I make you fly."
Consumed by his own process, Miele was not thinking of becoming a teacher when Jois asked him to perform a demonstration during a 1993 trip to Europe. "I was shaking," Miele says of that first exhibition in Switzerland. "Guruji asked me, 'Why you so nervous? I'll count the names of the postures, you do them.'" Soon after, on what would become his annual visit to India, Miele received Jois's certification to instruct. It was an unasked for conference.
"I was thinking of my practice only for six, seven years," said Miele. "Finally Guruji said, 'What about a book?'" The result of Miele's self study and continual questioning of his teacher was the slim and spare Ashtanga Yoga Under the Guidance of Yogasanavisharada Vidwan Director Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois. Miele is quick to point out that the book, published in 1996, is not complete because it doesn't have the benefits of the advanced poses. "Guruji got tired so there is no second book, but I wouldn't finish it."
Why not? "Then it would be my interpretation. Guruji is the teacher. When he is still alive you shouldn't do that. He's been teaching many, many years. I never 'teach.' Guruji told me to teach." Nonetheless, his sense of humor coupled with his background in performance have made Miele a much loved and seemingly natural leader.
Interspersing Sanskrit with English and the occasional "bene, bene," Miele peppered vinyasa instruction with small, carefully timed breaks to expand on an instruction or offer joke and gesture filled encouragement. "We have to enjoy ourselves. What else do you do in the morning? Have a cappuccino and croissant? No, you do yoga."
Among the people to whom Miele has transmitted the Ashtanga Yoga tradition are his family back in Rome. "My father had a heart attack at 60 years old and his doctor told him to do yoga, so I show him some poses—'jump through, jump back.' After six months he started to feel so good. At first they were 'my son, he is changing.' Now they say my son does yoga," Miele smiled. "My grandfather was 95 when he died and on his last day he was doing yoga. He would sit up in the bed and do his exercise. Only three positions but he said, 'I do yoga.'"
After class, Miele called everyone, including those who were simply watching, together for a group photo. He answered a round of questions and patiently signed copies of his book. More than an hour after class had ended, Miele sent the last of his students off with a hug.
"When you start you find a teacher and you stay a long time," said Miele. "For the rest of your life you have them in your mind. Even though you find other teachers, you have them. I have faith in Guruji and I believe in the system."
Finally, Miele rose to go home with his hosts. "You understand more and more that yoga is not being more flexible. You can call everything yoga. You can be smoking and call it yoga," he paused. "Discoveries are continual."
© 2002 Deborah Crooks