Joanne Darby Ashtanga Yoga

People Of Yoga Films

 

A portrait of

Joanne Darby

Date: 12th April 2024 | Location: Purple Valley Yoga Retreat, Goa, India

 

Joanne Darby is a senior teacher of Ashtanga yoga. She began studying yoga in 1976 and continues to this day, teaching with her husband Mark Darby. She lives between Montreal, Canada and Costa Rica.

 

 

I love hearing stories that resonate deeply with me and Joanne Darby’s, with over 50 years since she began a spiritual practice, is one that captured me. Her profound journey through decades of practice and personal growth is such a wonderful and tender narrative. I had the honour of sitting down with Joanne, who is a highly renowned teacher within the Ashtanga yoga tradition, and what unfolded between us was a rich conversation on the deeper connection to the spiritual aspects of yoga.

How Joanne and I met

 

Joanne Darby with Scott JohnsonI first crossed paths with Joanne a few days before my retreat in April 2024 at Purple Valley in Goa. She and her husband Mark Darby were leading the retreat just before mine. Knowing they were there I arrived a few days early before my retreat to connect. It provided the perfect opportunity to get to know Joanne and Mark, sharing meals, practice ideas and many stories with them. I was particularly drawn to Joanne’s soft, wise energy and wealth of experience practicing and teaching Ashtanga yoga. We spent hours chatting, connecting and gettign to know each other. Importantly, this relaxed time we spent together allowed us to build a rapport that would later translate into an inspiring and genuine conversation on camera.

‘India is so ingrained with spirituality…’

Joanne’s discovery of yoga begins with India captivating her. In the 1970s, when international travel was far from the norm, she ventured into the spiritual heartlands of India and Nepal. These early travels were not just about exploring new cultures but were pivotal in leading her to yoga. Joanne shared:

“When I started my journey, I started when I was 26 years old. That was 1976 and I was definitely a traveler. My travels lasted eight years basically.”

A pivotal moment in her journey was reading Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” while in Bali, which ignited a deeper spiritual quest. She recalled:

“I realized, wow, there’s a spiritual side of myself that I’ve never really looked into,”

This led her to Dharamsala, where she studied Buddhism with the Dalai Lama and other Lamas. While there an earthquake during her studies profoundly impacted her perspective on life and death, underscoring the impermanence and unpredictability of existence.

‘…because one day I was reading about death, that death can happen to you any time. And there was a major earthquake happening at that same moment. My room started to collapse a bit and the monks got us out of their place. Many, many people died. And I’m like, wow, you know, this never left me because death is always there. We never know but you have to be ready.

‘We were always reading the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita…’

Our discussion delved into the philosophical underpinnings of Joanne’s practice. She shared how when studying with Pattabhi Jois in the early 1980’s she would read a lot of the ancient texts:

…even with Pattabhi Jois, we were always reading the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita. We were constantly reading those scriptures, and eventually, it rubs off on you. You can’t deny it…’

Joanne shared how even now, reading a chapter of the Bhagavad Gita each day profoundly shapes her worldview. This daily ritual isn’t merely about maintaining a routine; it’s a spiritual practice that continually influences her understanding of life and the universe. Her reflections highlighted the transformative power of yoga, not just as a physical discipline but as a holistic approach to living.

‘…even after ten years, every day one chapter, you read something one day and it’s different the next. There’s always something new in those scriptures that speaks to you.’

‘When you go back to the West, it’s a totally different environment…’

Joanne shared the struggle of moving back to Canada, finding work and then, for 15 years, giving yoga up to raise a family. She let go of her practice altogether…

‘I had very little time {to practice}. I had two children, and when I was 42, I had a third child. So, three children to look after—that’s a dharma in itself. But I always kept the Buddhist teaching of compassion, love, and kindness. That stayed with me…’

When she talked about reconnecting with Pattabhi Jos in 2000, and then going back to India to re-establish her connection to her practice, you could see how empowering that was for her. The universe even helped her…

‘When we went back to India, I told Darby I didn’t want to come back. My oldest son was with us and wanted to study yoga. The universe sent me an inheritance from my aunt, so I said, “That’s it, I can stay in Mysore.” It’s what the universe does—if you’re meant to do something for your path, the universe sends it to you from nowhere.’

‘It’s like a seed that is planted and it’s growing…’

One of the most poignant moments in our interview was when Joanne spoke about her current practice at 75 years old. Her words were a beautiful testament to her journey of yoga:

“So this is kind of, you know, at this time in my life I’m very happy, I feel blessed and very grateful for what happened in my life. And, you know, I can feel still that with this practice, it’s just growing. It’s like a seed that is planted and it’s growing. You know, you cannot hope for enlightenment overnight, you know. It’s something that grows and when you have to purify, purify your soul. And it comes with time and with when the universe thinks you’re ready for it.”

This quote encapsulates the essence of her experience: the slow, steady growth of wisdom and the importance of patience.

Capturing Joanne’s People of Yoga Portrait

 

Visual Choices

To visually capture Joanne, I chose to film her outdoors, surrounded by the natural beauty of Purple Valley. Framing her amidst lush greenery and the gentle sounds of birds provided a serene backdrop that reflected her connection to nature and spirituality, natural rhythms and spiritual awakening.

Joanne’s Impact: A Personal Reflection

Conducting this interview with Joanne was a deeply moving, experience. I always love connecting with teachers who have been practicing for a long period of time.

Joanne’s story of dedicating herself intensely to yoga, then pausing to focus on family only to return with renewed vigour, left a lasting impression on me. It’s a beautiful account of the resilience and adaptability that yoga cultivates in us.

I believe Joanne’s story will resonate on multiple levels. It underscores the importance of integrating family and personal practice, showing that one can find a balance between worldly responsibilities and spiritual pursuits. Her narrative is intimate, tender, and filled with the lightness of life’s delicate moments.

It’s a true privilege to share this portrait.

In essence, Joanne’s journey with yoga is a beautiful reminder that the practice is not just about physical postures but about cultivating a lifelong relationship with oneself and the universe. Her story is an inspiration to all who seek to find balance, purpose, and spiritual depth in their lives.

Ready to join us?

Check out the details of how to join our online and in-person classes and membership

Details here

 

Full Interview Transcript with Joanne Darby

 

Scott: Hello.

Joanne: Hello.

What’s your name?

Joanne Darby.

Hello Joanne Darby. Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I grew up in Montreal, Canada and I’m still, that’s my main house. We have another property in Costa Rica which [my husband] Darby loves very much during the winter time mostly.But this is our home, it’s still Montreal, Canada.

Beautiful. And what has been the main contemplative or spiritual practice of your life?

Well, you know, when I started to travel, I was a traveller naturally, but after when I started to discover the spiritual part, then my first focus was a bit of the study of Buddhism, but then I got more into the Hindu philosophy, and that’s been the background of my life basically.

So like the Buddhist, Hindu philosophical process.

Very, very similar, it’s the same basically. And Buddhists are more structured. Hinduism is like so wild and so vast. There’s a non-stop learning from the Hindu literature and philosophy.

Do you mind me asking, did you go travelling to discover spirituality or did you just go travelling?

No, when I started my journey, I started when I was 26 years old.

What year was that if you don’t mind me asking?

That was ’76 and I was definitely a traveller. I gave all my money to my mother and I said, I’m going to be travelling for six months, so here’s finding money, send it to me. And my travels lasted eight years basically.

But the beginning, yes, for the first couple of years, all I did, I did so many countries in Europe and Africa and India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and all these countries for about, I would say about two years. And it’s in Bali that I said, oh, maybe I’ve seen enough.

But I read that book, Siddhartha, by Herman Hess, and I realised, wow, there’s a spiritual side of myself that I’ve never really looked into. It was there but never tried to go deeper and tried to find what’s the purpose of life and why we’re here and what life is all about.

So I went back to Dharamsala and studied when the Dalai Lama was there at that time. I studied with some Lama for a few months and then I learnt a lot.

It was an interesting time because one day I was reading about death, that death can happen to you any time and there was a major earthquake happening at that same moment. My room started to collapse a bit and the monks got us out of their place.

Many, many people died.

And I’m like, wow, you know, this never left me because death is always there. We never know but you have to be ready. Do you feel that?

I’ve got this lovely image, of just going back on what you shared there, this lovely image of you sitting in Bali reading Siddhartha and it being like a moment going, I’m away, I can follow this.

Yes, because when I was reading the story of the man and seeing that his path was first, was spiritual life, then he went into a male mundane life and then later he got tired of it, you get tired of all this abundance of all this fancy living and then he started to go back into searching, into finding God or his own self.

Yes, and then again, so you were able to, because you were away and you were in that part of the world where you could start to look at yourself and go to places where it’s real life, you were able to really follow that.

Oh yeah, because when you’re in India, the country is so ingrained with spirituality, you can’t, it’s there, it’s in you, you’re part of it and you have time, of course you don’t work, so you have time, you don’t have a family, you have time to analyze yourself and go into meditation if you can and other aspects of the, you can search, search in the inside.

And then again this moment when you were at the earthquake, another moment about death where you go, oh it’s fleeting, right, that can almost send you deeper, right?

Yes, and it never left me, because you never know.

You hear of people getting car accident or anything and if your spirit is not in the right space, your karma is not so, so good, you know, you never know, so it’s a very interesting experience.

So how did that experience compel you then after the earthquake? Where did you go, what did you do next?

Oh yes, because that, the early, my health was starting to go down because there is not so, a healthy place to live and there was months soon coming also, so I met, I saw somebody on a roof doing some asanas and I said, where did you learn, what did you do, what are you doing?

And he said, oh I learned this in Pondicherry in the south of India in an ashram called Gitananda and he says, they’re starting a course now, very shortly, I said, oh maybe that’s the time to go.

And so I went down there and I stayed six months, it’s like the whole kit of yoga, you know, a bit of asana, a bit of chanting, but it was a big, a lot of shatkarma, some fasting, everything was there, but it was really a deep cleansing for me, especially after so many years of travelling.

So then I got even more, even more deeper in the philosophy of Hindu philosophy and when the course finished I went to, one of the teachers was Vish Vanat, which was Pattabhi Jois’s nephew, which lived in Bangalore and I went there and studied with him for a couple of weeks and he was teaching me every day only Sri Anima Skaar, that’s all I did for two weeks and then he said, go and meet my uncle in Mysore, so that’s when I met Pattabhi Jois, I went there and he says, come tomorrow for the class and that’s when I met Darby, Darby was there for a week before me and some French students, very small group, four or five students and I said, oh, I might try this for a month or so, see what happens and then I really got into it, you know, and so I learned because Pattabhi Jois at that time had very few students, he was teaching us very quickly and my body was quite supple because of all the cleansing so I could just move on, move on for me, it was kind of no pain, just kept on learning new pastures, of course, it was very, very interesting and Darby was there and I kind of got friend and then Pattabhi Jois.

One time Darby left and when he came back he comes to me, Darby needed a place to stay, so he comes to me, he says, Darby’s a good man and Darby needs a home, a place to stay and I was living in Pattabhi Jois’s back house, so he says, oh, Darby can live with you and I’m like, oh, you know, I didn’t expect this but it happened and we were friend already and then from being friend we became lover and that’s what happened and he married us and so this story of us started in Mysore in 1979 or 1980

It sounds like when you’re travelling, I’m reminded about going travelling, you’re on this amazing process just seeing what happens.

Yes, you live for the moment, you know, things change, you’re always, that’s why I love travelling You meet new people, you see new mentality, you absorb everything that is around you It’s like we’re not, it’s so beautiful to be able to travel, I mean, it’s quite a blessing You had those, it sounds like those years when you were in India, travelling in Asia They were really focused on spiritual practice though Oh yeah, even with Pattabhi Jois we were always reading the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita We were constantly reading those scriptures so eventually it rubs into us, you know, you don’t, you can’t deny it

What did you, if you could expand on how the philosophy helped you understand yourself, what would you say?

You know, because books like Ramayana and all this, it’s like our Mahabharata Every aspect of life is described and how the reaction of the people towards that event, you know Some are good reactions, some are bad reactions and you learn from that, that oh, this is how you react to that type of reaction, to situation And I think it brings us a lot of knowledge about life and how to accept what happens and how to react to different situations

We also, in our new practice of Kriya Yoga, we read the Bhagavad Gita every day, one chapter every day And even that, every day you repeat, I mean how many times I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, it’s been over ten years every day, one chapter You know, you read it one day, something, you read something, next day is a little different But there’s always something out of those scriptures that come

And I suppose because you’re reading the same thing over and over again, each time you read it, it chisels in a little bit differently.

Yes, definitely, depending on the opening of your mind, you know The mind, our Kriya teacher always says, you know, try to open your consciousness, you know Our consciousness is very limited, and with meditation and with practice, you will try to open it And you see more and more and more deeper into yourself and your universe

So what was the movement out of India, Asia and into some kind of more normal life like?

Whew, that’s, you know, when I had my second child, my mother said, that’s enough, you have no more money, you come back home So we had to go back to Canada, and we needed to work, look after family, and that was the challenge You know, living in India, learning yoga, you know, it was all, wow, this is life, you know, you don’t want to do anything else But when you go back in the West, in a total different environment, we were vegetarian, my family is like, what are you doing, you know We were, don’t forget it’s in the 80s, people were not vegetarian in those days, practicing yoga, what is this, you know And we had to work to financially, and one of the teachers, like Yuteshwar always says, keep your spirit in the sky But keep your two feet on the ground, you know, you cannot just float around the world, you have to work and make a living for you and your family So we both had to work, which is a very difficult time, but on the other hand taught us a lot about

What was difficult about it?

You’re going back to normal life, stress of working every day, we were not very little practicing yoga because we had not the time and the energy And meeting people that were not into the yoga world, you know, there’s some good people, but some, you know, so we were like strangers in our own country.

Did you let go of the whole of like study, which is like reading as well?

Well, I had very little time, I had two children, and when I was 42 I got a third child, so I had three children to look after And that’s a, that’s a dharma in itself, you know. But I always kept the Buddhist teaching of compassion, you know, that stayed always with me, you know, the kindness, love. That kind of teaching always stayed very deep in me, so I tried, you know, you try to be, understand and be compassionate to people who don’t understand what you, who you are and what you’re doing

And I suppose compassionate for yourself as well because of all the kind of changes that are happening for you, right?

Yes, it was difficult time, and in fact when I had the opportunity, when we met Pattabhi Jois in New York in 2000 and he told us, “Oh, if you want a certification, come back to India.” It was like impossible, it was like not possible to go. We didn’t have the finance, but he, we managed to get the money and when we went back to India, there was no way I told Darby I don’t want to come back, and my oldest son with us was with us and he wanted to study yoga.

So, the universe sent me an inheritance from my aunt that same time I was there, so I said, “That’s it, I can’t stay in Mysore’.” It’s the sign That’s what the universe does to you, you know If you’re meant to go do something that is for you, for your path, the universe will send it to you Like from nowhere .

So that gave you, almost like the universe said, “No, you have to keep, you can practice again now” You’ve done this part now, here’s something back for you…

So I managed to stay five years, travelling to world, and Darby came to India all the time and I went to Canada when my son had a summer holiday, my youngest one And this way we met people from around the world, you know So afterwards, when I came back to Canada, we started to teach internationally because we met a lot of international people.

So you travelled for five years from 2001?

Not travel, I stayed in India five years with Pattabhi Jois and that was the time when he moved from Lakshmipurum The first year he was still in Lakshmipurum with a small group of 12 students in a room to Gokulam when they were able to put 50-60 people. So I was there during that transition.

And Darby was in…

He would come like a couple months a year, and Mia would go to Canada a couple months a year, and we did that for about five years.

How old were the children?

My young one was nine years old at that time, and he went to Indian school for five years. He was doing great, it was interesting for him.

Amazing…

Yeah, but when he came back to Canada, we went to college and university, so he did well.

This is really powerful, so I love this fact that you realised you needed to be there, so you just decided to stay.

Yeah, there’s just no way, I was so happy to be in Mysore.

And also that Darby supported you.

This is also a blessing, I mean, he’s a good man He was, I’m sure, some husband, when I say no way you’re coming back home, but he supported me And also he was able to come, and for him too was a good opportunity to come in Mysore all the time.

So it sounded like, what happened after that, what happened after those five years?

Well, I went back home because finance were a bit not so good again, my inheritance was over. So I went back to work for a couple of years, and then Darby started to travel, and he wanted me to travel with him. So my boss said, you want to travel, you want to work, you know, so I said I want to travel with Darby. So then we managed, we’ve been travelling together since 2011 or something like that, nine even.

And how’s that been, when you look at that travelling now, that you’re doing now, compared to what you were doing from 79 to 84 and you’ve got that big chunk in between, how does it feel now to be doing the travelling and the teaching and stuff like that?

Well, in 2011, we met our Kriya Yoga teacher, that was after Pattabhi Jois died. Because when Pattabhi Jois was alive, he was kind of our guide, our guru, and when he died, we said, we maybe need something more spiritual, more deeper than just asana. Even if you read, it’s not, it doesn’t, you just don’t get it, you know So when we met that teacher, it’s been a whole new journey He was, he brought us an old Kriya Yoga, it’s called, and he brought us a whole new dimension We can do one hour, two hour, three hour, it’s up to us, he wants us to increase but of course, there’s time factor and other things, but this is our main practice now. Because at 75, you know, you don’t feel like doing advanced series here in no way, you know. You’re happy with just breathing in your practice, slow, you know, slow practice Mostly focused on the breath I mean, I still have the flexibility, but I don’t have that strength to keep going for hours. So we do this, this Kriya Yoga practice for one, two hours a day and plus the asanas, so this is kind of enough. And also reading the Gita and other scriptures.

So this is kind of, you know, at this time in my life I’m very happy I’m very, feel blessed and very grateful for what happened in my life And, you know, I can feel still that with these practice, it’s just growing It’s like a seed that is planted and it’s growing You know, you cannot hope for enlightenment overnight, you know It’s something that grows and when you have to purify, purify your soul And it comes with time and with when the universe thinks you’re ready for it

Beautiful, thank you Joanne. So if you would share one thing that you’ve discovered about yourself All the way through that period from 1979 to now If you could share one thing that you’ve learned about yourself, what would you say?

Just to be grateful for what happens to you all the time And also, you know, things are sometimes good, sometimes are not so good But you have to always look at the positive side and the present is always the most important. Because a lot of people live in the past or in the future But what’s happening now, that’s what will guide your future And always keep a very loving positive attitude towards life And be always grateful and thankful for what the universe gives us

Thank you Joanne, it was beautiful, thank you so much…

 

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