April '08 Interview

Russell Case
With Elise Espat

It is the last day that Russell Case and Sally Evans are teaching at New York’s Ashtanga Yoga Sangha (formerly Ashtanga Yoga Shala). Sally is wearing this adorable white tee shirt which reads, “I heart Ashtanga” in the iconic “I heart NY” format. In our interview (Sally was away on retreat) Russell explained, “A student of ours in Taiwan, Ashley, gave us matching t-shirts as a going away present. Not a day went by when we did not receive chocolate, fruit, or tea. We would place our daily gift without fail on our altar to Guruji at the front of the class and remember that attachment starts with taking gifts. So, you see the gifts went to Guruji. I think the students could feel that, and felt we were not abusing our status.” Apparently, they make a positive impression wherever they teach.

Living Mysore: When did the Ashtanga bug bite you?

Russell Case: I was getting my art degree in Chicago in 1993 when a friend told me to try this yoga class. I thought that was about the most irresponsible thing you could do with your student loan money, but I ended up going anyway. It was incredibly painful. So many girls in that room looked they were having a walk in the park. But, my body was suffering its samskaras.

LM: Like what?

RC: I have scoliosis and I played a lot of basketball and ran the 440 in high school. So I couldn’t have been less prepared to stretch. Spending 10 years sitting on one side in Ardha Matsyendrasana playing Atari and Nintendo exacerbated that problem. I played class 5A high school football in Louisiana and that’s where they grow NFL footballers. I had dislocated my pelvis doing that. I loved it though, being hit and hitting other young men- the intensity of that experience. It was the same kind of need that brought me to examine other high intensity phenomena. When I stepped into the Ashtanga room, I could feel this was the kind of work my body and my mind needed.

When I was 16, I had a psychotic break while taking LSD. I intuitively devised a pranayama kumbhaka system that would relax me enough so that I could fall asleep without panicking. I mean it. I couldn’t be around knives, sharp looking plants or patterns. Couldn’t eat dark foods or sleep in the dark. So retaining my breath would make all that go away. And I was doing forms of Surya Namsakara, Sarvangasana, Balasana, and Padmasana. It all just felt right. When I tried the Ashtanga the first time. It all fit right in. Especially the back bends. Kapotasana dissolves nodes of fear encased in your body. Believe it.

The fella there [at Russell's first yoga class] was this Austrian guy Suddha. His real name was Adolph Wiexler, very quiet... Don’t know much about him other than he was a computer programmer in the 70’s. Had a nervous breakdown and moved to India. Lived on the Sivananda Ashram for 8 years. Took brahmacharya and moved down to Mysore in the eighties and was blessed to teach by Guruji. He was the real deal. I studied with him for three years and then moved to South Korea when I graduated, practiced my practice next to a Buddhist temple near Ehwa women’s university in Seoul for a year. When I got back, I moved to Texas and met Sharon Moon at a Whole Foods and she knew all about Guruji so we started doing yoga together.

LM: Both you and Sally studied with Sharon Moon. Can you tell me a bit about her and your experience?

RC: Sharon is a real Yogananda Paramahamsa devotee. Turned me into one too. She had been doing maybe thirty or thirty five years of daily Kriya yoga. In the nineties as a grandmother she started biking 100 miles a day, lifting weights, she got her black belt in Karate. She’s small, about five feet nothing and a hundred pounds. Fifth generation Texan Jewess. She broke her son’s nose. He’s a big ornery kid.

Like a lot of martial artists, she knows exactly how to follow a teacher. And she followed David Swenson exactly. (He was teaching out of a Whole Foods in Austin at the time.) She knows how to put her head down and listen. Dancers can do that. Football players too, not many other Americans.

LM: Is that how you and Sally met? Studying with Sharon?

RC: Not exactly. I practiced pretty hard with Sharon for another three years and she told me to go to New York and find a real Mysore style teacher. She gave me a real kick in the ass. Wouldn’t give me a recommendation to teach or anything until I found somebody. I was insulted. But I found Guy Donahaye in the East Village (I was getting my graduate degree in painting there). Being with him made me feel like it was just a short hop to India. So after I graduated I flew to Mysore for four months and met Sally. It turns out we both knew Sharon.
I’m pretty sure that calmed her down about me. She liked me enough, just having another reference helped. We started dancing at a full moon party. Six hours later one of us had seduced the other. I’m not sure which, but she took me home, and then I moved in.

LM: You spent a long time studying with Guy. [Russell’s paintings still hang in the entryway of the shala.] Did you catch Steve Dwelley's recent blog post on "yoga fundamentalists"? Guy and Steve have quite the debate. Any thoughts?


RC: I liked Guy’s response. Fundamentals are important. It’s important to at some point in your life, to completely trust your coach. Your coach says do it, you goddamn well do it. That’s how we become team players. And team players are selfless.

I think "coach" is a better translation of Guru than "teacher". Teachers in America aren’t respected as much as a Coach. Richard Freeman hates cults. He hates Fundamentalism because it dulls your intelligence. Your sense of humor is the knife blade of your wits, and cults are never funny.

All the same, Richard has practiced under the guidance of a yoga teacher for 45 years. He’s gleaned everything he can about Tantra and that informs his self-practice. He practices Ashtanga with a sense of awe. The awe is the sinking of the palette into the diaphragm as one opens the mouth to suckle at the teat of infinity. That’s the first vinyasa of surya namaskar.

If that’s not funny, you don’t know what is.

LM: So after you graduated, you went to Mysore to study with Guruji. Any memorable stories?

RC: We were in the second series class on Sunday. About almost finished. I think we were jumping into Baddha Padmasana out of Sirsasana. I was in the front row of the new shala on the right a bit. Guruji yells out “Who is making this presentation!?” And he points to my leg. Everyone in the room looks at me and I’m trying to figure out how I fucked up jumping through or sitting down. He yells again “Who is making this presentation!?!” And then he points to his shin.

LM: What was the big deal? What did you do wrong?
RC: You see, I had a big ole gash on my leg. The last Friday night I was over at Kino and Tim’s house at their pizza party. Sally and I walked out with Robert Wilkins and Carrie giggling and high off cheese. I had tried to kick start my scooter and missed and tore a spoonful out of my shin, meat and skin and all. Everybody thought this was pretty hilarious that I was bleeding so much. But, I limped over to Randy Uncle’s house and he applied a Turmeric bandage to it that pretty well dried it up and kept India out of it.

Sunday during practice the bandage had fallen off and I said to Guruji “Guruji… Motorcycle.” Everybody laughed.

I went up to him to show him after class. He looked at it. And then he showed me his. He had a big scar on his shin and a big grin on his face. “30 years ago I am crashing motorcycle… then, I am selling motorcycle.”

He’s got a pretty good sense of humor.

LM: How about some asana talk...what is the longest you've been in a pose?

RC: Twenty seconds…in Puraka Recaka Khumbaka. That’s when you hold your breath after exhaling after you’ve just held your breath after inhaling. Might as well puke and die.

LM: Ha ha! Okay, so what’s the best advice you've ever received?

RC: Don’t kill yourself the first day out. My coach loved it when somebody threw up and it was always me, but it doesn’t have to be me all the time.

LM: I hope not! Any advice for beginners?

RC: It’s as hard the first time as it will ever get.

LM: I think I read this in David Swenson’s practice manual…Anyway, he says he never tells people to practice Ashtanga, but if they come, he'll teach them.

RC: That’s good advice. When they do come, tell them to go away; see if they come back. That’s going to be a good student.

To view more photos of the last day of their visit, please see our gallery at http://www.livingmysore.com/.

Please visit Russell and Sally's website, http://www.ashtangasangha.com/.

Elise is the co-founder and editor of Livingmysore.com. She is currently practicing and living in New York and keeps the blog http://www.mysoremusings.blogspot.com/.


mousebell said...

russell is so funny! love the interview!

gstar said...


Interesting reading. I've been fortunate enough to attend one of Russell's workshops in Brighton, England.

He and Sally have had a profound impact on the development of Ashtanga practice in Brighton.

I thought these videos of Russell demonstrating Asana on Youtube would be a great compliment to the article:

Eka Pada Sirsasana & Pincha Mayurasana demo

Karandavasana demo