yogi cathy pearson jungle home koh phangan
The Modern Yogi

CATHY PEARSON

500 years ago Cathy Pearson would very likely have been accused of sorcery and witchcraft by the grumpy old men who ran society back then – and for most parts, still do. These days, more than ever, the world needs strong, magical and sexy women like her. On the sheltered platform of her jungle bungalow offering the most scenic vista over the Gulf of Thailand, the Irish documentary film director/producer, yoga teacher and healer tells us her extraordinary story on how she got involved with yoga and about the thrill of creating your own exciting, diligent path through life.

What was your moment of initiation to yoga, Cathy?
My initiation to yoga happened through meditation. I was 19 and I was unhappy and disillusioned in my life and concerned that there was something wrong with me. I was living in Belgium at the time and I came home to Ireland to tell my mum, and she first thought I was overreacting, but then called on a family friend, named Ivor Browne. He was a chief psychiatrist in Ireland, and probably in his seventies. My mum asked him to come over to talk to me. I thought ‘Wow, I’m going to see a shrink, this is really exciting!’ (laughs). First thing he did: he took out a flute and started playing to me which really disarmed me. I was expecting him to diagnose me with some interesting ailment, and he didn’t. He simply asked me if I had heard of meditation, and I hadn’t. He also said that there wasn’t anything seriously wrong, the only issue was that I was identifying myself with my mind, and if I learned how to control my mind and to see who I really was, that there would be no problem.

So I had no idea what he was talking about really, but I liked the music he was playing and he asked me, would I be willing to participate in an experiment with him… I was intrigued; he was this handsome 6’4” foot tall man who looked like an actor with a gray beard and silver hair and he asked me to come to his house every Tuesday evening for the next six weeks. I did and he taught me how to meditate in his back garden, and he gave me some homework too: 45 minutes of sitting meditation every morning, which I became very committed to. And in the sixth week, he did, what he called an ‘initiation’ with me. He basically performed a ‘diksha’, placing his hands on my head and calling in the light, saying that I was a child of God, and that I was ready to continue on my own. Which I did – continuing my meditation for the next two years and then going to India to learn more about it and yoga.

Can you speak about the importance of the breath in yoga practice?
It is probably the hardest part in yoga, because it’s easy to make shapes with your body, especially if you have done some gymnastics at school. When I began to regulate my breath I experienced feelings of mental imbalance and panic due to oppressed fear in my body. It was later when I turned to Ashtanga yoga¹ that I learned the ujjayi² breathing. That was really transformational for me! I could tell from one day to the next how my health and vitality was, just by the quality of my breath. It is difficult to feel well if you’re not breathing well. When I feel heavy and tired I begin cultivating my breath and it immediately shifts the way I feel. Also when I teach yoga myself, I try to explain the esoteric background to what’s happening on the physiological and on the psychospiritual level when you are breathing well: How it afflicts the nadis and the chakra system and so on. There are very few yoga studios that dedicate enough time to explore that entire holistic practice.

Do you try to live the different limbs of the Ashtanga yoga system on a daily basis?
It’s not something I have a checklist on, but yes, that’s what happens if you do yoga over a long period of time. I practise asanas five times a week, sometimes six, if I really haven’t got a lot of other responsibilities. I live a pretty unconventional lifestyle in my little jungle house on top of a hill on an island in Thailand, surrounded by nature, and picking ants out of the tea that I have just made (laughs), and having snakes on the balcony and scorpions in the kitchen. I just stopped chasing a certain kind of career a long time ago. In that regard I’m living yoga every day as it permeates my life, so it’s not just something I do every morning on my mat. It is an awareness practice. You become more aware of your thought patterns, your speech, the company you keep, and more aware of environments that are beneficial to you.

Which career did you chase before?
I spent a long time throughout my twenties working in the international film business, working first as a location manager for advertisements and big studio pictures and service them. In more recent years I have directed and produced a feature documentary ³ which has nonviolence as a theme. There are also spiritual teachings in that film although I tried not to make it too blatantly obvious. Film is still a medium I like to use for creative expression, but the film business in itself can be pretty dysfunctional and hard work involving long hours and not a lot of time to look after your health. It became just increasingly hard for me to maintain that balance and to keep up my practice. These days, I still dip into film from time to time and I enjoy that. On this journey I’ve had to let go of a lot: financial security, many relationships and conveniences. But every time I let go of one thing it is being replaced by something better. And if that is only more freedom.

Who are the influential yogis in your life?
Graeme Northfield and his wife Leonie from Australia are the two teachers that I really admire and have spent some time with. I love their approach because it is really sensible and caring, facing each student as an individual. They developed some very intelligent modifications to heal the body. Randall O’Leary who has a school called Jungle Yoga who is a dear friend of mine as well as a teacher of Yoga philosophy. Emil Wendel is another great teacher of philosophy and of the sutras who, in an understandable way, breaks down the eight limbs into what it is we are doing in Ashtanga and why. Then of course my current teachers Kirsten Berg and Mitchell Gold, who have a really soft approach with the students but still go very deep, being very committed practitioners themselves. I have also recently trained with Rod Stryker and I am very inspired by him.

Which Sutras or texts about yoga do you find to be very inspiring to your own practice?
Can I cheat and have a look in my Yoga Sutras book there (laughs)? Here’s one! Chapter 2 Number 42: “As the result of contentment one gains supreme happiness.” Happiness can be seen as being in a good mood, but then I think in reverse, being in a good mood isn’t necessarily in depth what happiness is about. In my opinion real happiness comes from really letting go of your attachments and desires which we seek outside of ourselves. Being in a beautiful place like this doesn’t automatically make me happy. I can be up here and feel really rough some days, because I’m living through some disconnection, fear or old programming. Real happiness is when you’re really connected to yourself and the spiritual energy that is always there, moving through us, and feeling very steady, grounded and fulfilled within yourself.

How can we stay in that place of real happiness?
Through observing our own consciousness; not letting our minds run amok, showing kindness to other people that we would like to be shown ourselves. Cultivating an easy, daily practice of gratitude helps me a lot in maintaining that state… Being connected to the Great Spirit through prayer, being in commune and conversation with the higher intelligence inside of me. Taking the time of talking to God, or if you don’t like that term, call it the web that connects everything or that force we feel when we are really present. I am talking about the authority that is inside ourselves, not outside.

Cathy Yogi Koh Phanghan

Cathy in her hilltop bungalow, serving us mangoes freshly picked from her jungle yard.


How do you see yoga and its development in the Western world these days?

I suppose there are many ways to wake up and yoga is only one of them – and a very popular one right now. Thousands of years ago yoga was so much more than just asana practice: it was a science of healing. Asana was just a small part of it. As a teacher I feel that this ancient holistic healing practice has been diluted down to asana practice. It’s helpful to purify and condition the body so you can start to feel its energy, but it is only scratching the surface. People might argue with that but I have some good come back (laughs).

How do your friends and family see your passion for yoga?
My Dad doesn’t understand it at all and thinks that it’s a shame that I’m not making more money! On the other side he does see that I’m living a very, what he would call, alternative life and that I’m very content living it. So he just lets me do my thing. My mum just thinks that everything I do is amazing. She asks my advice on everything and says that I turned out really well, and that she doesn’t have to worry about me like she worries about everybody else. So that’s really sweet. And she was very sick recently, for the first time ever… I was here in my world, and had to go back to Ireland while she had emergency surgery. I got to spend ten fun days with her and gave her as much love and care as possible which definitely accelerated her healing process. And after that I thought “Wow, that was really giving it back, putting myself aside and truly putting the yoga to action”.

Do you always look forward to your daily asana practice?
Nooo! (laughs) Sometimes I dread it, I wish I could do anything except roll out my yoga mat, because I feel so lazy, I feel so tired, I’m so exhausted. I once heard that discipline is self love and I would say that I have good discipline and I do my practice anyway. And there are days when I have the biggest resistance that I have the best practice because I feel the biggest shift afterwards.

How can yoga save the world?
I don’t know if yoga can save the world but it can certainly help people to look inside and feel themselves and take responsibility for themselves in the world. I suppose the more of us are doing it, the more our collective grows and the more positive impact we have on humanity. Learning to love ourselves is the biggest spiritual task any of us have. Because once we can do that, we can really love others and see the world through eyes of love.

What is your purpose in life right now?
To let go. To surrender to the moment. And to have fun doing it.

(April, 2014 @ the dream house, Koh Phangan)

Check out Cathy’s website: http://www.yogadeep.com

¹ Under the tradition of Sri K Pattabhi Jois
² breathing technique in which one inhales with a sound in the throat, literally meaning the victorious breath.
³ “Get the Picture” is an award-winning documentary that recounts the remarkable life of John G Morris, the revered Life Magazine photojournalist who was involved in the D-Day Normandy landings. Morris worked alongside many of the greatest names in photography, during some of the most pivotal moments in the 20th Century. 

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