Riding the Edge at Maya Yoga
- 2012 May-June
Just getting to Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini’s yoga studio in the rain-forested heart of Maui inspires a change in attitude. Head east on Hana Highway (a twisting, rainbow-washed road with a yoga all its own) to find their one-lane, red-dirt road jutting off toward the ocean. As you slow down to dodge the potholes and giant dragonflies, feel your blood pressure naturally drop. Wet ginger blossoms on the roadside awaken your sense of smell. And just when you think you’re utterly lost, the driveway appears smack in front of you.
Follow the stone path to the studio, and discover a warm room packed full of eager students. Squeeze your mat in beside them. As you soak in the prana (life force) at Maya Yoga, you’ll understand what has drawn luminaries such as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Michael Franti to this far-flung sanctuary.
Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini number among the world’s top yoga teachers. Known simply as Nicki and Eddie, they travel the world spreading their unique take on India’s ageless philosophy. On alternate weekends, you might find them in British Columbia or Brazil, but the real magic happens at their solar-powered slice of heaven on Maui, where they put ancient principles to work in their daily lives.
Eddie has a yogi’s slight yet muscular build. His piercing, gem-like eyes are softened by long lashes. His native Manhattan accent never fully recedes, even when he’s chanting Sanskrit. He’s as fierce as a terrier but applies his iron will to the continued practice of surrender. His ankle testifies to this. He broke it while skiing recently and, in true yogic form, sees the injury as an opportunity to revise his approach to asana, or yoga postures. “I haven’t focused on inflammation in 25 years,” he says. “Right now, my whole practice is about it.”
Eddie discovered yoga in 1983, while searching for relief from incapacitating back pain. When he was a teen, doctors removed his left kidney, squashing a disc in his spine in the process. Years later, Eddie was building an elk fence in Colorado — driving 12-foot poles into the ground — and the vulnerable disc gave way. Rather than submit to another operation, he enrolled in a three-week alternative health intensive at San Diego’s Hippocrates Institute, where he fasted, meditated, and studied massage.
“During the fast I saw this father and son sitting on the floor. Their knees were down like this,” says Eddie, sitting in half lotus with his injured leg extended. “I asked the father, ‘How come your body looks like that?’ He said, ‘Because we do yoga.’”
Within 20 minutes of his first yoga class, Eddie knew it would be his life. He got certified to teach Iyengar yoga (back when certification was a rarity) and later, Ashtanga. The former focuses on proper alignment; the latter on connecting movement to the breath.
“I was very stiff and riddled with pain,” he says. “I started virasana (hero pose) on four Boston telephone books, but I did it every day.” Eddie practiced for ten years before he was free from pain. “People are afraid of pain. I changed my body through the process of accepting pain and working through it. I have a completely new body today.”
Nicki’s path to yoga was less painful but equally determined. The dark-haired natural beauty signed up for beginner’s yoga at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “I needed three gym credits to graduate,” she says. From that first class, she too was hooked. “I was not a morning person. Classes were at 8 a.m., and I had to trudge across the cold campus in January, but I never missed one. It was so familiar; it felt like putting on my favorite shoes. I’d found something that really resonated.”
Nicki experimented with Hatha and Kundalini, but her friends warned her against the Ashtanga class. The teacher was too mean, they’d said. That teacher was Eddie Modestini. She finally took his class in her senior year. They fell in love and in 1991 began regularly traveling to Mysore, India, to study Ashtanga under the master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
Nicki fondly remembers this pre-kids, pre-career chapter of her life. “I had hours and hours to devote to my asana practice. I really did treat my body like it was a temple. I was kind of obsessed.”
“We were totally obsessed!” says Eddie. “We did yoga five hours a day for years!”
Their obsession evolved into an innovative style of teaching in tandem. Together, they offer yoga as a spiritual and practical basis for living. Over the past two decades, they’ve taught at top studios around the United States — namely, YogaWorks in Los Angeles and Piedmont Yoga in Oakland — and hosted workshops worldwide. They’ve created two yoga DVD series and regularly consult with various yoga publications. Nicki recently appeared on the cover of Yoga Journal.
As the daughter of diplomats, Nicki especially loves traveling, but her ulterior motive is to lure students back to Maui. “Something special happens here,” she says. “I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s elemental. You can hear the birds and the wind. There’s nothing like [doing] svasana (corpse pose) in this room.”
When they began building on the East Maui property in 1995, everyone asked why the yoga studio was three times the size of the small cabin where they lived. To Eddie and Nicki, it simply reflected their priorities at the time. They cleared the land, replacing invasive weeds with native koa, avocado, coconut trees, and an organic garden. Entirely off the grid, they collected rainwater and relied on a car battery for electricity. They’ve since upgraded to solar power, though the yoga studio remains unwired — electric currents can interfere with the subtle energies of advanced practice.
Constructed entirely out of cedar, the large rectangular studio smells divine. Windows on the northeastern wall reveal the bright blue Pacific beyond an immense tumble of green vines and palms. On the opposite wall, thick ropes dangle from eyebolts — sturdy tools to help students achieve alignment. Portraits of Pattabhi Jois decorate the walls; their dear guruji and friend came from India to bless the studio.
A tapestry depicting a Tibetan goddess hangs beside a carved statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. The Maya Yoga founders draw from multiple traditions of yoga and spirituality.
They built the studio for their own use. In the beginning, they had no intention of teaching on the property. But when a friend repeatedly asked for instruction, Eddie consented — if the man agreed to come every day for a month. He did. And the very first day another student was waiting on the studio steps.
Before long, Eddie and Nicki were teaching to a crowd, six days a week, without any advertising. They’ve since shifted their focus to in-depth teacher trainings and intensives, though they still teach at the studio twice weekly. Students fill in on the other weekdays and when Eddie and Nicki are off island, which is frequent. But whenever or wherever Nicki and Eddie teach, students show up by the dozens. What’s the draw? Maya Yoga offers a compelling mix of physical exertion and spiritual inspiration.
Riding the Edge
Nicki starts class with an invocation to the divine for the strength to always help others in need. As students shift and wriggle while trying to find a comfortable seated position, she encourages them be honest with themselves and look at their bodies. If their knees are higher than their hips, they need to readjust. While nobody sits on a stack of Boston phonebooks, plenty start on bolsters.
Asana instruction follows the traditional Ashtanga vinyasana sequences, with sprinklings of the married couple’s banter. They finish one another’s thoughts and take turns adjusting the alignment of students.
The room reverberates as Nicki leads students through a Sanskrit mantra expressing gratitude for Patanjali, the revered author of the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text that many regard as a definitive source of yoga knowledge. Nicki has a passion for the sutras and shares her intimate knowledge of them and how they relate to each pose.
Sanskrit isn’t the only unfamiliar language spoken in class: English gets a creative makeover. Students are told to turn the “eyes of their elbows” toward one another and to open their “armpit chest” — neither of which makes sense unless you happen to be in a pose like downward-facing dog, extending your arms and lengthening the muscles surrounding your armpits. “That’s where your lymph nodes are,” says Nicki. “Don’t you want fresh blood flowing there?”
To encourage a relaxed concentration, Nicki instructs students to engage Jivha Bandha, the tongue lock. Place the tip of the tongue very lightly on the hard palate behind your front teeth, “like a butterfly landing on a flower,” she says, borrowing one of her husband’s metaphors.
“A relaxed face is what makes it yoga and not exercise,” says Eddie. Tension manifests in a tight jaw and tense face, he explains. Connecting to Jivha Bandha enables you to notice when tension arises and consciously make a change.
To students whose faces have contorted after two minutes holding a lunge, Eddie cautions, “Jaw and hip are connected. That stiffness in your hip is pulling all the way through your body to the top of your skull. Open your hips and free your life!”
“There are people who have practiced as long as I have, and their bodies haven’t changed,” Eddie says after class, “because they don’t know how to find and ride the edge.”
The edge, he explains, is the intersection between attention and effort. In a pose, it’s the point at which you might be trembling but can still breathe. Your brain can’t wander off and wonder what’s cooking for lunch. You have to stay fully present, with the breath, in order to maintain your action. That threshold is where profound learning takes place.
The edge doesn’t have to be spectacular; it can be as simple as loosening up stiff ligaments in your feet. Nicki tells students to spread their toes and sit back on their heels — an excruciating exercise if your feet are tight. “If your knees hurt, back off,” she says. “If your feet hurt, I’m sorry for you, but don’t back off. Breathe.”
“Open feet are the fountain of youth,” pipes in Eddie. Any doubters have only to look at him and Nicki for proof.
Before he passed away, Pattabhi Jois motioned to Nicki, saying, “Yoga, many lives.” In other words, he believed she has been practicing for many lifetimes. He urged them to have children, saying that maintaining a marriage and family is among the greatest forms of yoga. The couple eventually consented. Maya was born in 1998; Matteo, two and a half years later.
“During pregnancy I felt like another pose was taken from me every day,” says Nicki. “I thought I was really selfless in my practice. Then I had my kid and suddenly my time was her time.” The driven yogini was forced to compromise — instead of doing a full practice, she’d do a few poses here and there, while her daughter napped. That’s when Nicki understood her teacher’s message, she says. “That’s when yoga evolved for me from asana to lifestyle.”
“Your family is your ultimate mirror. Your kids learn what they learn from you. And it never ends. All of this never ends, so relax the intensity of your effort.” (That’s from chapter II.46 in the Yoga Sutras.)
Even more than Jivha Bandha, our intimate relationships will indicate when we’re acting out of fear or courage. By integrating yogic principles into our daily lives, we can make decisions that take us in the direction of increased strength and joy. “How we talk to each other is as important as how we place our hands in downward dog,” says Nicki. Whether we’re practicing asana, talking, eating, working, or traveling, each of our daily actions is an opportunity to express our higher selves.
At Maya Yoga, both teachers and students strive to be ethical in their choices, particularly with regard to the environment. Nicki and Eddie were among the first on the island to run their car on biodiesel. Their organic farm feeds their teachers-in-training, and the 200-hour certification course includes ten hours of permaculture instruction with a local farmer. “I think of yoga as a life-support system,” says Nicki. “What we learn on the mat — how to have integrity, how to be honest and compassionate — helps us decide what we do, the company we choose to keep, how we react to things. It’s lifelong work.”
She shares an example from the day before, when she discovered that the very expensive batteries connected to the solar panels weren’t taking a charge. A consultant told her they might need to be replaced. Eddie laughs. “A bill for $30,000 was all up in Nicki’s face.”
Nicki nods and grins, pointing to her Maya Yoga T-shirt that quotes another of Patanjali’s sutras: Te Pratiprasavah Heyah Sukshmaha. “The minute you think you’ve got it all figured out, you must be triple vigilant,” she translates. “Expectations are the root of all suffering.”
In this case, Nicki’s worries were unfounded: the batteries resumed charging. It was just another lesson from the universe to surrender and breathe through the unknown. “And lighten up a little,” she says, laughing at herself. “Life is joyous!”