The Teacher of Right Effort

By Jennifer Acker '00

Alisa from Los Angeles writes, “I have been diagnosed with Tempromandibular Joint Disorder. Which poses can help me with this condition? Which poses should I avoid?”

After assuring Alisa that TMJ is a common problem (often resulting from dental work, stress or trauma to the head), Tias Little ’88 responds, “The best pose to begin relaxing the TMJ is seated meditation. . . . Deeply relax your tongue, your eyes, and observe that your lower and upper teeth move slightly away from each other. Soften the skin at the corners of your mouth. These directions are the beginning stages of the practice of pratyahara—the internalization of sensory awareness.” He goes on to list asanas, yoga postures, such as adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), that draw healing blood and lymph to the jaw area, then cautions against shoulderstand, which can put pressure on the tempromandibular joint.

Over the course of several months, as a featured expert yoga teacher and practitioner in Yoga Journal, Little answered other questions—about chronic fatigue, rehabilitation from knee surgery, and postural slumping (which he calls schlumpasana)—with the same compassionate, considered advice. With a mix of literary metaphors and teachings from Sanskrit and Buddhist texts, Little has become known as one of the most thoughtful and intellectual leaders in the field of yoga, a practitioner respected for his rich understanding of yogic tradition, as well as his keen attention to anatomical detail and his focus on quieting the mind.

Little’s workshops, which range from intimate to crowded—he has led a ballroom full of 300 aspiring yogis—bring this written counsel to life. The body is the vessel of our experience, Little teaches. By releasing physical tension and stimulating physiological systems we can improve our health and move toward more attentive and valuable states of mind. He begins his classes with meditation, then proceeds through asanas using specific biomechanical instructions—down to the placement of individual toes. Being an excellent yoga teacher means reading students’ bodies with a discerning eye—a skill Little developed partially through training in massage, cranio-sacral work and Rolfing, a type of soft-tissue manipulation. It also means helping students to become more aware.

When we met over an outdoor lunch early last summer, Little was between back-to-back workshops at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires. He wore loose-fitting clothing, sandals and an attentive expression. He described the visual aids, such as slides and skeletons, he often uses to help students understand the opaque inner workings of their bodies. “Slides help students to grasp how the foot works, the structure of the foot, the structure of the lower limb,” he says, admitting with a smile both genuine and slightly mysterious, “I’m kind of a structural guy.”

Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit yuj, means union, as well as to yoke or bind; to yoke together body and mind; to unite the soul with divine power, or “the infinite,” in order to liberate the human spirit. To achieve this consummation, one follows the system outlined by Patañjali, sometime between 200 b.c. and a.d. 200, in a text called the Yoga Sutras. Yoga also is discussed in several other ancient Sanskrit texts, including the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas and Upanishads.

Little has a master’s degree in Eastern philosophy and has studied all of these texts, as well as many on Buddhism, a topic he became interested in when he was a student at Amherst. From Professor Robert Thurman, now at Columbia, and then known to his students as “Buddha Bob,” Little took a course on Buddhist psychology that inspired him to eventually take his inquiries further. Little’s Website refers to the “spaciousness and compassionate wisdom” of the Buddhist tradition, and he currently studies in the Dzogchen tradition with a Tibetan teacher named Tsokyni Rinpoche.

Now writing a book designed to address “some of the metaphysical and philosophical underpinnings of yoga” and “the anatomical details of what goes on in the postures,” Little believes that reading is crucial to any yogi’s practice. In articles, teaching and conversation, he draws on Indian plays and myths, Zen Buddhism and poetry from Rumi to T. S. Eliot, who, Little teases, was “a closet yogi.” The reading list for his sophisticated teacher training program is broken into anatomy, philosophy and poetry, and features more than 50 books, from The Atlas of Human Anatomy to The Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata and the collected poems of Wendell Berry. One writer and workshop student has described Little as having “eclectic, scholarly sensibilities,” and says, “asana practice with Tias is an incredibly rich experience: physically rigorous, stimulating to the mind and deeply contemplative.”

One story Little likes to tell in the studio is a Rg. Veda myth that, like Genesis, relates, “in the beginning, all was water . . . and from this watery realm all life began.” Consciousness, too, arose from this vast expanse of water. Little says, “I use that myth to talk about the fluid system, the lymph system, the circulatory system, and how we are 89 percent water; we’re a big water bag on two feet. That kind of connection I like to make a lot.” Teaching such ideas in conjunction with structural alignment is “a delicate balancing act,” he says. For the most part, synthesizing the metaphysical and the physical encourages students to simultaneously expand their range of thoughts and their yoga practice—but sometimes the juxtaposition is too great a stretch for Little’s students, who come from all over the country and a variety of educational backgrounds. He notes that few people have received the kind of education he has; he has learned that he sometimes needs to pull back from abundant abstraction, not to be too intellectual.

Little’s broad textual, historical, literary and anatomical knowledge, as well as his provocative use of metaphor, is well known in the yoga community. His peers consider him a serious intellectual, someone with an exceptional ability to fuse ideas with practice, Indian philosophy with the lymph system, poetry with anatomy. It is this synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions, combined with his emphasis on therapeutic work, that has made Little one of the most respected and sought-after teachers in the English-speaking world. There were four national yoga conferences in 2006, and Little was featured at all of them. He teaches at studios across the U.S. and abroad at least two weekends per month—and at least once a year he visits Amherst, not only the home of his alma mater but also his hometown.

The increased number and devotion of Little’s students is due in part to the runaway popularity of yoga itself. Mainstream magazines and newspapers frequently run headlines indicating yoga’s far-reaching influence. “Yoga Assumes a Social Position,” reads one of the hundreds of New York Times headlines devoted to yoga over the past several years. A Harris poll run by Yoga Journal announced that the number of adults who practiced yoga in 2005 had grown to 16.5 million, a 5.6 percent increase from 2004. Nearly every health club and gym large enough for a studio offers yoga along with spinning, step aerobics and kickboxing.

More central to Little’s increased popularity, though, are his clearly articulated understanding of the practice and what he calls his “therapeutic bent.” At the Kripalu workshops he did a fair amount of rehabilitative work, even more than usual. “There were a lot of people this weekend with collapsed arches and bunions and shin splints and issues with the meniscus in the knees,” he says. “I love being able to help people structurally to get more support and empower them to do it on their own.”

The feet and legs, the foundation of the body, are where Little directs considerable therapeutic attention; their importance in maintaining a healthy, balanced body cannot be overestimated. He points out that the invocation sung at the beginning of astanga vinyasa yoga (a defined series of postures that flow into each other, designed by guru K. Pattahbi Jois) begins “vande gurunam charanaravinde,” which means “I honor the lotus-flower feet of the all the gurus.” In a substantive 2001 article for Yoga Journal, Little wrote, “Like tires on a car, when balanced and true, the feet provide a smooth ride, one without disturbance or jarring. But when the foot collapses or distorts, the strain travels up into the hip joints or lower back, and a strong pull or torque may develop.” Through proper alignment, much bodily pain can be alleviated, as can psychological and emotional distress. Students feel the benefits of this structural work quickly, Little says, and are inspired to continue their practice.

For the past two years, Little has been enrolled in a somatic trauma therapy program based on the work of Peter Levine, who wrote Waking the Tiger, a book that draws insights into human trauma from the fight-or-flight response in wild animals. Through his coursework, most of which he does on weekends, Little is learning to help trauma sufferers discharge strain and the remnants of shock from the body. He explains, “I’m drawn to this work because I see so many bodies. Sometimes a yoga teacher will see someone and say, ‘Wow, that person really needs yoga.’ This helps me understand why people are tight, to be more aware and competent in working with people with trauma.” Through this work, Little is taking theories that are being explored in psychotherapy and psychiatry and applying them to yoga. “No one else in the yoga world is doing it,” he says.

Yoga can be a deeply emotional experience, and Little has always taught with this in mind. He seeks to heal, to understand and demonstrate to his students what the body reveals in its posture, level of flexibility and willingness to engage in particular actions. The varieties of trauma are infinite and highly personal, from physical and sexual abuse to car accidents, surgery and high levels of stress and anxiety. The roots of this trauma may be recent or buried in the past. “Especially at a young age,” Little says, “trauma goes so deep into the soma.” Susan Little, Tias’s mother and first yoga teacher (and former director of career counseling at Amherst), says, “When you really open up in a backbend, or whatever, stuff that can be stuck down there can pop out. How many classes have you been in when suddenly someone is over in the corner completely broken up?” Tias says of his trauma therapy work, “I’ve had this inclination for some time that there are issues in a person’s life that have affected their posture, what I call tissue tone.”

In this belief, Little is in sync with cutting-edge medical research that strives to understand mind/body connections and their relevance to disease. While previous studies have linked chronic stress to an increased risk of heart attack, high blood pressure and insomnia, a 2004 study at the University of California at San Francisco discovered that high stress levels cause individual cells to age prematurely. In a study of women who cared for chronically ill children, prolonged periods of self-reported stress were shown to shrivel the telomeres (tiny protective structures on the ends of chromosomes) of the women’s white blood cells, negatively affecting the health of the women’s immune systems. The Boston Globe, reporting on the study, said the research “is also consistent with the idea that stress-reducing practices such as yoga, meditation, jogging or any kind of real relaxation many reduce the risk of certain diseases.”

Little’s proclivity for healing extends back to his college days, when he worked at the Amherst Shelter for Adolescents near Hampshire College. As a senior, he applied and was accepted to several master’s programs in social work, and he believed he would pursue a career as a counselor. Though the pull toward yoga ultimately won out, he has maintained his interest in counseling. The first time he ever taught yoga was during a six-month volunteer stint at the medium-security prison in Bridgewater, Mass. Little reveals matter-of-factly that “the population, of course, was very depressed and out- of-it,” as well as extremely reluctant to take off their shoes. He says, “The guards were more scary than the prisoners.”

When Little moved to New Mexico in 1990 (after a year performing with a modern dance company in Tucson), his first job was teaching yoga to troubled young people at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu. After that he taught astanga in Santa Fe, opening his first studio, Yoga Moves, in 1995. Five years later, Little was able to open a full-fledged studio, YogaSource, with his wife, Surya. In 2005 they renovated to accommodate their growing following, building a space that can hold up to 70 people while maintaining the intimate, tranquil feel of a sanctuary. Susan Little jokes that she enjoys taking classes at YogaSource because she feels like a celebrity. The actress Ali McGraw is one of Tias Little’s devoted students; after class one day she came up to Susan, took both her hands, and said, “What a pleasure to meet Tias’s mother!” Susan laughs, “I’m going ‘Ahhh, Ali McGraw!’”

Though yoga’s popularity brings Tias Little more students, the practice’s skyrocketing growth in this country is not
necessarily cause for celebration. Little is disappointed by the multiple forms of “trendy yoga” that contribute to making the practice “bigger and faster and more physical,” what he calls “flow-and-glow” yoga. Shallowly trained teachers put their students’ health at risk by pushing people to stretch or bend too far too fast. Little is clear about his against-the-grain methodical approach: “I’m encouraging people to slow down and work in a detailed way and get their structure aligned—and then [students] feel the results quickly.”

Little says that these days the most frequently ignored aspect of yoga is meditation, and so he has made that a focus of his work and personal practice. He points out that dhrana, dyana and Samadhi—the three last limbs of yoga outlined by Patañjali—are all states of meditation that provide benefits that simply can’t be achieved through the physical postures. “The transformative power of yoga is what happens on the zafu [meditation cushion], watching that inner dialogue,” he says. “One can look at the assumptions they’re making about themselves and they stories they tell themselves.” Over the years we become “locked” into certain kinds of responses, he says, such as anger, shame, defensiveness, arrogance. Meditation allows the student to recognize these patterns and to let go of them. “Yoga is liberating because it opens up people’s choices. People feel freer and lighter,” Little says, and students enrolled in many mainstream classes miss out on this experience. “There is so much music in classes,” he says unhappily, “so it’s not so much a contemplative class as ‘Get a good workout.’ Power yoga draws the lowest common denominator as an audience. Some of the complexity and sophistication is left out.”

Little seeks to correct this oversight, to restore yoga to its rich, original power. He thinks of himself as an educator because of his emphasis on alignment, therapeutic work, meditation and philosophy. Listening to him talk about his work and witnessing the intensity he brings to the teaching studio, stronger words come to mind: reformer, idealist, even evangelist. In a sense, Little, though by no means a rigid teacher, is spreading the true word, instructions on what is called “right effort” in yogic terms.

A look at Little’s parents offers some understanding of his zeal for teaching. Tias’s father, Binks Little, was a professor in the religion department at Williams College for 30 years, as well as an ordained, though nonpracticing, Presbyterian minister. (Tias’ grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers, too.) Tias’mother, Susan, lightheartedly called herself “the dean who does yoga” back in the ’80s and early ’90s, a time, she says, when “If I said to anybody, anybody, ‘I’m doing yoga,’ you had the feeling people were looking at you cross-eyed and going, ‘She’s really strange.’”

In college, Little was profoundly influenced by a course taught by Donald Pitkin, now professor of anthropology, emeritus. The topic was deviance, “the study of outcasts and schizophrenics.” Discussions and readings in this class resonated with Little’s interest in operating outside the norm. “That’s in part how I was drawn to yoga,” he says. “At that point it was marginal. I always liked exploring the edges and being inspired that way.” Singer/songwriter Rani Arbo ’90 remembers her friend’s passion for this class, which opened questions of identity and asked what was normal. Little “used himself as an experimental case in some ways,” Arbo says, “pushing boundaries through yoga and his own inimitable adventures in the world of college and beyond.”

Another strong mentor who remembers Little’s affinity for margins is Peter Gooding, Little’s soccer coach and Amherst’s recently retired athletic director. Little’s outstanding soccer career culminated in his selection as a first-team All-American his senior year at Amherst. Gooding, who has known Little since he played at Amherst Regional High, argues that, despite his early athletic success, Little is a “very atypical athlete. He’s not an American, mainstream, ‘Win one for the Gipper,’ type of athlete. He’s always approached sports in a more cerebral way.” Gooding says Little was as interested in understanding the decisions behind a style of play as in advancing his own skills.

“He’s always been very lithe, very quick, and everything that he would accomplish in soccer had to do with his technique and his interpretive skills,” Gooding says. Little rarely needed coaching. Gooding asserts Little’s discipline, physical gifts and creativity all pointed toward his becoming “one of the national gems, one of the most prominent people in his field.” He adds that Tom, as he used to be known, before he changed his name to Tias, “was an athlete who always seemed to understand that it wasn’t simply a matter of being able to be strong and run fast; there are all kinds of other intrinsic issues that need to be dealt with to really allow performance and ability to surface.”

Neither was Little ever afraid of performance, of showing off his moves. Arbo clearly remembers her friend doing triangle pose “in the middle of the dance floor” while at a reggae concert in the old gym. His “exhibitionist streak” was very much connected with both his nonconformity and fierce desire for athletic mastery. Even as a member of the soccer team, Little remained individualistic, unconcerned what his teammates thought about his excavation of what lay beneath the surface. He refused to accept simple explanations and developed a habit of asking “probing” questions. “I would have to say that a relationship with Tom was something that he never wanted to be comfortable,” Gooding says. “He always wanted it to be a learning experience. Tommy’s mantra was always to question and challenge.”

Perhaps because he’d had so many strong mentors—his mother a yoga teacher and dean; his father a professor; the intense Gooding; and the Indian gurus B. K. S. Iyengar and K. Pattahbi Jois—Little says, “It’s taken me a good 10 years to find my own voice.” Now, 15 years after the launch of his teaching career, he has developed a distinctive persona, one that is calm, confident and reflective; his voice is both natural and controlled, its tenor rich and never at risk of giving way. He pokes gentle fun at human fallibility but never at genuine effort. He is warm and interested in people, his passion tangible and directed.

The passion for and study of yoga have infused all aspects of Little’s life. He and his wife, Surya, strive to impact the earth as little as possible, which leads them to make decisions that stand out even among their peers. Their house is a prime example. “We built green, non-toxic. From beginning to end our intention was to build an all-natural home.” The walls, which Little likens to a second skin, are made of straw and clay, and the glues and paints are toxin free. The home uses passive solar heating from a southern wall made of glass. Rainwater is collected off the roof, and the gray water produced by washing clothes and dishes is run off into the orchard. The resulting house has been featured in several national magazines and journals. “There’s so much environmental illness,” Little comments, listing chronic fatigue, Epstein Barr and fibromyalgia. “People have these systemic breakdowns from living in toxic spaces.”

Little has become part of a movement called Green Yoga, which advocates sustainable architecture, organic food and organic cotton clothing. Surya runs a retail shop at YogaSource that specializes in natural apparel, yoga props and skin-care cosmetics. The couple drives a Volkswagen bio-diesel that runs on “McDonald’s french-fry oil” and emits less harmful particulates into the atmosphere.

For a margin-skirter like Little, marketing is a particular challenge. As yoga makes its appearance in Dr Pepper commercials, and as yoga togs become everyday wear, Little cringes at the thought of throwing himself into the pool of piranhas hungry for the economic opportunities yoga seems to offer. Slowly, though, he has overcome his reluctance. In 2005 Little released two DVDs. He is creating a product line and increasing his online presence, though he comments wryly on his lack of training: “As an English major at Amherst College, it’s been a challenge to do the marketing dance. Ulysses is not exactly preparation for the Web.”

Throughout nearly 20 years of friendship, Rani Arbo has consistently seen in Little “an intense work ethic, an attention to detail and amazing self-control.” She says, “His rise to master yoga practitioner doesn’t surprise me at all. His rise to being a successful and sought-after teacher is, I think, also a result of all of those things—but even more of the expansion of spirit that results from a true yoga practice.” In college, Little was a seeker, and he remains one today.

At the center of much national and international attention, Little’s challenge is to innovate while staying true to tradition; to make a significant contribution without shading into the mainstream. Though his curiosity and drive are limitless, Little is never reckless. He is always thoughtful, always careful, always plotting the next placement of his foot.

Photos: Frank Ward