Life is Messy, There is No Instruction Manual: An Interview with Djuna Passman

Djuna has been a longtime student and teacher at mang’Oh, and she was a part of our first Teacher Training class. With her extensive background as a dancer, choreographer, and writer – she infuses her classes with creativity, intelligence, and her quirky humor.

When and how did you first come to yoga?

Yoga and I did not hit it off immediately; it was not love at first class. I had taken classes here and there, but yoga just wasn’t for me…or so it seemed at the time.

My regular practice began in 2006 when I started going to yoga classes at the local YMCA with a friend. I wasn’t really into it, but I went every week to support her. Several months later she asked me to join her at a yoga studio in our neighborhood. At that time, my life felt like it was falling apart professionally and personally. After a few weeks I found myself going to the studio to take class almost every day. I felt better, more grounded, sure of myself, and able to make difficult decisions. None of my problems went away, I just became more capable of taking it all in stride.

A year later, when I moved back to New York to pursue my master’s degree, I knew my yoga practice would be essential in helping me deal with all of the major changes occurring in my life. I googled yoga studios near my new apartment and discovered mang’Oh. After my initial trial week I knew that I had found a safe place to continue deepening my practice.

You wear a lot of hats.  Aside from being a yoga teacher, you are a choreographer, baker, writer, editor…how do you juggle all these things that you love to do?

All of these things are a part of what makes me feel fulfilled and how I connect with others. I must find time for them to feel whole. Sometimes I am able to keep all the balls in the air, and sometimes one or more balls drop on me. It’s also about knowing what needs my attention when, prioritizing.

Karen Maezen Miller eloquently addresses how we use our time in her book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. She asks, “Where do you invest your time, your life, your love, knowing that whatever you pay attention to thrives?”

When and why did you decide to do the mang’Oh Teacher Training?

I was part of the inaugural teacher training at mang’Oh in the summer of 2011. The year leading up to that I had been unexpectedly laid off from what felt like my dream job. The hospital I worked for went bankrupt (I found out about it on the 11 o’clock news the night before my work week began). I was fortunate to find work shortly after, but I was burnt out, unhappy, and sick every single day I was at work.

I felt lost and confused. I had uprooted my life, moved across the country, and spent two arduous (and expensive) years earning my master’s degree. How on earth could I walk away from a career that had just begun? And yet, I did. I spent some time on unemployment and doing freelance work as a dance/movement therapist and editor while trying to figure it all out. During that time period I continued to practice regularly at mang’Oh, and I had begun researching different yoga teacher training programs, but none of them felt like what I was looking for.

When I heard that mang’Oh was starting a teacher training program, and four of my favorite teachers were leading it, I knew it was time for me to finally take the plunge.

Describe your Teacher Training experience at mang’Oh:

Intense. I was not expecting to delve so deeply into my emotional and spiritual selves, but I am so grateful to have had the space for that. I felt supported by the teachers and the other students from start to finish – I still do. Having a small group of eight women allowed for everyone to have the time and space needed to practice teaching, ask questions, and receive individual attention.

I loved having four different teachers. I can get very wrapped up in there being one right, perfect way of doing things (a remnant from a lifetime of dancing). Having four strong teachers leading allowed me to experience different ways of approaching material. Within the program everyone had a study buddy and a mentor, which was immensely helpful. My study buddy and I got together every week, usually in Central Park, to practice teaching, go over material, or simply meltdown or share a long laugh. My mentor was there anytime I had a question, doubt, or simply needed a little extra support.

The week long retreat at Lifebridge was truly magical. To be able to escape for seven days and just focus on yoga was a gift. It was a tremendous amount of work, and at times it felt overwhelming, but it was all worth it. I genuinely cannot imagine having done my teacher training anywhere else.

Tell us about your journey post-mang’Oh TT

It’s been a bumpy ride. I had to first get out of my own way and lay aside self-doubt to teach an audition class for Erica so I could teach at mang’Oh (that took a few months). I was very fortunate to have one of my teachers help me get jobs subbing and teaching at places where she taught. I taught at studios that were horrific commutes from my home and at times that no other teachers wanted to teach. I struggled to make ends meet and wondered more often than not if I could truly sustain myself teaching yoga, but I stuck with it.

Slowly I began to refine my voice and vision for myself as a teacher. I made connections in the yoga community outside of mang’Oh. Two years ago I found myself teaching kids once again, I had taught dance and creative movement prior to teaching yoga.

My weeks are now filled with classes and private sessions for adults, kids, moms and their little ones, and older adults with serious health conditions. I wake up every morning excited to go to work.

Who has influenced you, both in and out of the yoga world?

The mang’Oh community has greatly influenced me. I fondly refer to mang’Oh as the Cheers (remember that TV show?) of yoga studios. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. I have felt welcomed and supported by the teachers and students at mang’Oh from the day I first walked into the studio almost eight years ago.

As a teacher I feel the responsibility to extend that same warm welcoming and support I received to everyone who comes into the studio. I find myself doing the best I can to create that at the other studios where I teach as well.

Outside of the yoga world I am influenced by anyone who is unapologetically and authentically him or herself. Anne Lamott’s writing and Pina Bausch’s choreography influence how I view the world and engage creatively and emotionally within my own work and life.

When you are not a yoga teacher, where can we find you and what are you doing?

Going for a long walk in Brooklyn or through the streets of Manhattan (I love the energy of the city), it is my time to think and my form of meditation.

Baking with my 5-year-old sous baker, we’ve been creating messes in the kitchen together since she was 18-months-old.

In my kitchen, a glass or wine or mug of coffee in hand, experimenting with new vegan recipes, and baking or cooking for friends.

When it’s warm I love to read and write outside at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens or in Central Park.

In the summer there are weekly escapes to Fire Island…nothing humbles me more than walking along the shoreline and nothing is more meditative and soothing than a long swim in the ocean.

Describe your perfect day in NYC…

A bagel and coffee outside at one the coffee shops in my neighborhood followed by some time writing, dancing, and relaxing in the park.

A yoga class in the afternoon to center myself.

To feed my creative side, some time at a museum or a show at BAM.

Ending the day would be an intimate dinner with close friends.

What is something that has surprised you in the last year?

This last year has been challenging for me on multiple fronts. On numerous occasions I thought, I can’t teach today, I’m not strong enough, I’m too sad, too broken, too angry, too ungrounded. It was on those days, when I showed up with all my flaws and weakness, allowed myself to teach from the heart of my own experiences, and taught the exact class that I needed, had I been practicing, that I felt the deepest connection with my students. Students would come up to me after class and share personal stories or simply express gratitude for a class they felt helped them delve deeper into their physical or spiritual practices. I realized I do not have to be perfect. I do not have to have my life all figured out, because really, no one does. I do have to show up for my students, be present, and teach safe, well-rounded classes. When I am honest and authentic with my students I give them permission to be honest and authentic.

What moment do you regret most in your life…and what would you do if you could go back to that moment?

This is going to sound so cliché, but I honestly have no regrets. If you had asked me a few years ago I would have given a different answer. Today I can acknowledge that I needed every experience and relationship to bring me to where I am today. Every time I think, “Oh, I regret…” I recall a door that was opened because of that experience or a lesson that was learned.

Life is messy. There is no instruction manual (I really wish there were). My dad always says, “There are no accidents.” We make mistakes, in hindsight we reflect upon all the could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, and then we move on (hopefully). A regret means holding on to something in the past that we cannot change. We can, however, choose to grow and become stronger so we do not make the same mistakes again.

What advice would you give to someone looking to do what they love?

Listen to your gut. Take time to regularly check in with yourself so you are very clear regarding what you want. The people who say it can’t be done or try to steer you off your path usually fall into two categories: those who care deeply about your well being and want the best for you (listen to the advice they give but do not let them scare you away from your path), and those who are unhappy in their own lives and afraid to have a courageous, strong example of someone actively working toward a greater purpose (these people tend not to stick around very long – painful, but part of the process).

Keep in mind that doing what you love is not easy – it takes a tremendous amount of work and courage. For myself, those times when I felt ready to give up, when I thought I simply could not make it all work, those were the times when I would journal, meditate, and silently ask the universe to guide me… more often than not, an opportunity would present itself allowing me to keep going. I have gotten what I have needed, not always what I have wanted, to sustain myself and continue pursuing what I love.

I honestly believe that if you are meant to do something and you stick with it things will fall into place.

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Thanks, Djuna, for opening yourself up to us, letting us learn more about you and for giving so much of yourself to the students and staff of mang’Oh!

To learn more about Djuna, visit Djuna Passman, Yogini Yenta, and Little Rants From the Big City.