I feel so blessed to publish this amazing interview with NYC-based yoga instructor, Phillip Askew. My experience with Phillip is recent, but it has already been profound. I first discovered him last year when a fellow yoga teacher from LA shared his youtube videos with me on facebook. When I first saw his “Variations on Surya Namaskara”, I was blown away. I had never seen something so aesthetically beautiful before: he was taking movement to a whole new level, to a form that went far beyond yoga and dance to a true marriage of bodies in a subtle and flowing display of breath and union. I knew I had to meet this teacher, but didn’t know how.
When I found out that he taught weekly classes at Pure Yoga in New York City, I took a chance and contacted Phillip through facebook, hoping that he might reply and be willing to meet me. Just a few weeks later I was in his Monday night vinyasa class (which was amazing) on the upper west side. In speaking with Phillip after the class about his recent travels to Europe, I knew that I wanted to interview him for this website. He had just come back from teaching at Rasa Yoga Rive Gauche, the studio that I went to while I was living in Paris for a year and a half, so I felt an immediate connection. I would like to extend a huge thank you to Phillip for providing such insightful and inspiring responses to these questions, and I think that any yogi can gain some important lessons from what Phillip’s teachings. Namaste!
Caroline: How did you first get introduced to yoga?
Phillip: I was 18 years old & working at a children’s theater when I was first introduced to yoga. My mother & I started taking classes there with a kid who had only taken a few yoga classes himself, & was by no means a certified teacher. He would bring books, & we’d all look through the books and try poses. The most important thing I learned from him was how to breath in the Ujjayi style. The poses felt so good to me, & were so deeply therapeutic, that I wanted to practice them every day. So, I bought my own books and started a home practice. 2 years later, I was practicing 2+ hours a day, 6 days a week, when I came upon a book filled with radical wisdom that rang true for me, & postures that I could hardly even attempt on my own, written by teachers working out of downtown Manhattan- where I was living at the time. So, I got over my shyness, came out to my first Vinyasa class, & I’ve been hooked ever since.
C: You’ve made some very beautiful films of your practice: where do you find your inspiration and what is the process that you go through initially to create such films?
P: I am very much inspired by Dharma Mittra, who 40 years ago created a poster of 1008 asanas that today you can find in almost any yoga studio around the world. Then, there is, of course, the great teacher of the last century, BKS Iyengar, who became famous initially for his amazing public demonstrations. These teachers, by sharing their practices with the world, have inspired so, so many.
Artistically, I’m inspired by artists who play outside the box, revisionists who mix & match conventions from overlapping genres, & play against expectation. To me, that’s what Vinyasa is all about.
My creative process? I shoot first & edit later. I know that sounds simple- but most people trip themselves up editing before it’s time to. I start with a vision, but I don’t force anything. I shoot what happens. I don’t direct my subjects, I direct the shoot around them.
C: How did you get involved in partner yoga work? How is a partner yoga practice different for you than your own individual practice, and what kind of advice would you have for somebody who is interested in learning?
P: I was fresh out of teacher training when I met Simon Park by way of Twee Merrigan. Simon, at that time, had been teaching for over 10 years, sharing his practice, & serving the world open through it. Simon taught me how to give & receive yoga through partnering, & I quickly incorporated his methodology into my own work. I came to consider my private lessons opportunities for me to practice partnering with others. When you come to it from that place, instead of from a place of, “This is such a drag, I’d rather be doing my own practice,”- when you are, instead, doing your own practice, just on other people- it changes everything. & it’s very attractive. So, that affords you a lot of opportunity, to work, to practice, & to serve.
The most important aspect of partnering is connecting. If you’re interested in learning, that’s gotta be your focus. The connection is everything.
C: What do you find to be the most uplifting and inspiring aspects of being a yoga instructor?
P: Doing good in the world. You can’t beat that. There are a lot of different kinds of jobs out there, but not everyone can say that they’re doing good in the world.
Then there’s the community. The love that’s out there for yoga teachers is endlessly sustaining, inspiring & uplifting.
C: How has your own yoga practice shaped your life?
P: Practice brings me back to my Self. Back to what is. Back to the simple & beautiful moment, exactly how it appears NOW. I am healthier, happier, clearer & more powerful as a result; in mind, body & spirit. & therefore, I am more effective in realization.
C: Where is the most interesting place you’ve ever practiced?
P: I used to live on the top floor of an 18-story building on Lexington Ave in Manhattan. My roommates & I had a rooftop patio with a lip at the edge that was wide enough to sit on, ease-fully and comfortably- physically, but psychologically challenging. I remember sitting on that lip with one of my teachers, Jason Nemer, when he says to me, “That’s it. I have to do it.” & he presses up from seated into a full-tilt handstand. I was horrified!! Every piece of me wanted to lunge after him, to stop him. But, of course I knew that that may cause him to fall, or we both. & so, just sitting there, still, became a meaningful exercise in self-restraint, patience & allowing. He, of course, didn’t waiver or fluctuate one iota, eventually floating his way back down to sit, grinning.
C: Who has been your most influential teacher?
P: This, for me, is an unanswerable question. In any given moment my teacher appears to me in myriad forms. For each phase of my life, one teacher rings the dominant chord; but amidst over- & under-tones of teachers past & future. At the moment, Thomas Jones is blowing my mind with The Paradox Process.
C: What is your favorite asana and why?
P: Sukhasana. Because it’s easy. With your spine erect, your mind is alert. But, your body is comfortable & quiet. So, you can sit almost indefinitely. & meditate on the edge of infinity.
C: How do you balance having a personal practice alongside being a teacher who is in high demand and travels internationally to give workshops and classes?
P: This was more difficult for me in my earlier years as a teacher, when I was trying to follow “the rules”- like never practicing with your students. These days, I’m creating opportunity for practice in everything I do. Practice is so integrated into my waking life, I’m always practicing. & so, I sometimes practice asana vinyasa in my own classes, public & private. & my students love when I do! I practice every time I shoot video- really practice. The practice takes on more importance than the shoot. If I wake up in the night, I get up & meditate into the morning. I cook, I make love, I serve others.
C: What does the word yoga mean to you?
P: Yoga is total harmonic union. It is a dissolution of the false boundaries between your self & your world. Almost everyone experiences it at least once in their life, whether they practice yoga or not. Many people experience it on a regular basis. Yoga as a tradition is a system of techniques designed to induce this resonant state.