By Peter Appel
Peter: Rowan, tell us a little bit about yourself…
My name is Rowan Cobelli. I’m a full-time yoga teacher from the Integral yoga tradition. I’ve been teaching yoga for about twenty years full-time, and I’m running a lot of classes per week, so I have a lot of hands-on experience with people. It’s been around seventeen classes for twenty years now, so a lot of class time.
I’ve trained teachers in a variety of different countries, within the Integral yoga tradition, which is, I guess, a unique style of yoga. I guess every school has its own characteristics. The Integral school is a very holistic approach to well-being, very much based in nature’s way.
I’ve also trained as a movement and dance facilitator. I’m interested in many dynamics of free movement, yoga psychology, and the integration of the psychological approach with emotional recognition, and how that moves – how that moves in the body.
Peter: How was your way? How did you find your own understanding and the way back to your body?
Rowan: Well, I’ve been moving in what I would call, a path to authenticity. I think that’s what I feel that I’ve been doing. When I first started moving, it was just moving according to what the teacher would say: “Put this body here, put that arm there”, and without any real listening to what this system wanted. I would just do the timing of the class, or the timing of the tutor, or whatever the tutor was saying, and somehow I’d feel like I just have to hold it as long as possible, or just hold it as long as the class was holding. But as I’ve developed in subtleness, and in my own experience of the body, I’ve learned to see more, in my own experience, and that’s come about through a quietening of my own mind, and a willingness to look directly into my own experience.
Initially, I had to move through a lot of psychological blocks, or what I would call – things that would govern my behavior, that would override the truth of what this body was presenting. So for example, the body might be saying: “No”, but the psychology might be saying: “It’s too important for me to be accepted within the group”. Or: “This doesn’t feel right in my body”, but the psychology might be saying: “It’s too important for me to be the strongest”. Or: “It’s important for me to not be the weakest”… So the psychology would always override the wisdom, that whatever was going around in the thinking realm would always override, really, what was harmonious within the body. And, it’s been life, that’s really taught me, in a way, that that doesn’t work, that that always leads to never quite feeling that you’re moving from your own truth.
It’s like it promises a lot, the mind, when it gives you something, like, “Make friends with these people, present the best side of yourself”, it promises a lot. But in reality, it’s a weak position, it’s coming from a weak place, because, it’s coming from, like, begging, you’re kinda begging for recognition, or begging for acceptance, or begging for love, or something like that. And I’ve learned, you know, that it’s not strong to move like that. And there’s been a movement on all levels to move from authenticity, in terms of what is genuine in my own body. The timing, how long I hold, how the forces in me move, when the forces in me wane, when they wax, when they build, when they dissipate. And I’ve learned to listen to those rhythms, I’ve learned to become aware of those rhythms, and it feels like I’ve gone from being a controller, into a businessman – where you’re kind of, like, negotiating with the body – into a servant. So now it feels like, I’m just listening to the wisdom of the system, and, it delivers more when I learn to get out of the way.
Peter: Is this something that has come gradually, or do you recognize some turning points, some important situations or experiences that led you deeper into yourself?
Rowan: Yeah, there’s been a variety of turning points, but I’ll say that it’s progressive, I’ll say that it’s like walking – the analogy that’s given is like walking through fog, that you don’t know you’re getting wet. And then one day you look down and you see that you’re saturated. You know, I think it’s – I think you just practice, you get on the mat, you move. And it takes – I think the qualities that are needed is a real sincerity and a thirst to know the truth. I think – because there’s so much confusion, potentially, there’s so much subtle confusion, and you know in yourself when you’re really not – somewhere in yourself you have an intuition – that you’re not quite genuine, or, that you know you’re selling yourself short somehow. And I think that deepens over time, I think you become more honest with yourself, like: “You know what, I’m actually not comfortable”, or, “This doesn’t feel good for me”, or, “You know what, this isn’t actually what I wanna be doing.”
It slowly dawns on you, that you’ve been living a – not living a lie, but more that you’ve been just moving in a rhythm that no longer works for you. And, I think it’s just a willingness – a willingness to look, and a willingness to be authentic, and a real sincerity to the truth, that opens that for you, it opens that vision. Also, the capacity to ask for help, and when you are stuck, and in the dark nights when you really get lost, to just go to people who inspire you, or who you see to be good facilitators, someone who’s gone deep in their own experience, who can also guide you out of so many subtle traps, or subtle places that you can get caught, subtle belief systems that you believe, that just don’t serve you anymore, or ways of seeing yourself that you’ve never really questioned to be true. So a lot like that, I think.
Peter: So, when you’re doing – or let’s say, letting yoga do you, when you do the poses or let the poses be done, how do you feel? How does it feel in your body?
Rowan: Oh, it – you know, it feels wonderful – it feels like it’s – it shouldn’t be allowed, it’s so good [laughs]. It feels – you know, and this is the fun, this is the irony about the class, cause when you go – when you first start teaching students, there’s a lot of effort needed in the body, that’s not needed, and the students are practising with psychology, try hard – gotta be right – maybe the people come with perfectionist attitude, “It has to look like this”, and it’s so tight, you know, mentally it’s so tight, and physically it’s so tight. But what is available, you know, is just to drink the bliss, to drink nectar, to have, like, honey in your veins, like beautiful, beautiful beauty, and dedication and devotion and depth that you never knew was available, and you can access that through, you know, through yoga, you access it through the body.
In art, the artist, they act this out through painting, and maybe the marathon runner accesses that through running. But for me, you know, I’m a yoga practitioner, and I access that depth in life through the movement of form, through the movement of posture, through asana. And then, through asana, I start to uncover the depths of myself, you know, the depth, which is a subtle sensitivity into the feedback of the body so I can become more clear on what the body is saying, and how to get out of the way of flow.
When I’m not seeing that, I’m creating – I’m holding disharmony, unaware that it’s disharmony. Just not aware. So, you learn to hold the muscle and the tissue in a way that facilitates the optimum, so the system – it knows what to do itself. Like, I could put my arm in a position, and the body will have an internal reaction, and my responsibility is to give myself the best, and to get out of the way. To be quiet, to feel, to sensitize, and then allow myself to be guided into the inner alignment. What happens is the energies of the body, they flow well, they start to flow well, and in the harmony of how they flow, the mind becomes quiet. When the mind becomes quiet, it has a deeper capacity to go in, when it goes in, its attention is drawn away from the confusion of the mental level, and it becomes aware of something much more subtle inside itself. The consequence of that recognition is bliss.
Peter: As a teacher, when you go into the class, what do you see when you look at your students?
Rowan: Yeah, I watch people walk into a class, I watch how they come in. I watch how they move in their bodies, I watch how their faces are, either relaxed or showing stress. I watch how they put their mat out, and if they’re comfortable in their own skin. If they can sit down and be quiet, if they need distraction, if they’re looking around nervously, there’s so much you can see through just how a person is in their space. So I’m noticing all of that, I notice how people are in their own environment, and how they are able to rest for themselves, and that will govern the tempo, and what I choose for that class. I see whether people can’t relax, and I see people – I notice, or, I’m able to see now if people are in conflict with themselves. Because it manifests as an inner fight, and that is obvious in their face and in their body, and then in how they move, because it normally shows me, you know, they move in a way that dishonors themselves. They’ll hold something that’s not comfortable, unaware that it’s uncomfortable. They’ll be governed by their psychology, so they won’t be trusting their own rhythm, or even aware of what that is. So I feel that my job in that class environment is to facilitate the process of trust, where they start to look into their own experience directly, rather than just listening to something which I’m telling them. The trust is that they start to look into their own experience, and I guide them into waking up to what is more and more harmonious in the physical form, but also what attitude will promote space in their mental realm, and what attitudes would actually cause a lot of contraction, and I’ll bring that into the class.
Peter: Why is it so? I mean, I know no other animal as tense as humans. We get so easily stuck in our own dramas and own stories. Why so?
Rowan: Well, you know, according to yoga psychology, animals move from instinct, and they don’t have that discrimination component to their mind, like we do. But it’s also, you know, from a spiritual perspective, it’s a great blessing to have that. It’s said in many different traditions that it’s only because we have the discrimination that we can really go to a liberation, like a living heaven on earth, or really wake up to what all the spiritual masters say. To wake up from the illusion of life, and many traditions teach that that’s only possible in the human form. So animals move from instinct, and they’re very fluid in their movement, which is beautiful, but we have a gift, we have the gift of discrimination, and we have the gift of discernment, and we have the gift of choice, and we also have a phenomenal capacity to know our self, in a way that isn’t intellectual. We have a way to really wake up from the illusions of separation, to really see that we are not so separate from everything. We have that capacity as a human, and yoga really is designed for that, you know, it’s to show you the permanent in you.
Peter: But it seems like first, we have to become animals again, like returning to and finding our bodies again and getting that smooth movement back…
Rowan: Yeah, in a way, you know, what we’re doing is we need to put order in the mind. That’s first. It’s very difficult to let a system, an individual organism thrive if it’s in very deep conflict. So first of all, there needs to be some kind of structure that brings organization, like for example, if people are very happy being vegetarian, they have a mindset and a structure that, they just – it gives them a way to be happy with what they’re doing. And there are many structures in life, you know, in many different traditions, in many different belief systems, but when people follow a certain belief system, it gives them – in a way it gives them rest, because they just feel happy, that they’re doing something which is good for them, which is more important, right? That they’re just – it puts some order in them, and that order initially is useful, because it means the waves of the mind are just not so fluctuating, they’re just not so big. And it’s from there that we can really explore more subtle things, when the mind is a little calmer. Before that point, the ego personality is just trying to get its needs met all the time – “I need to do this, I need to get calm, I need to –”, it’s too obsessed with itself. So putting order, it helps the system relax, it helps the person relax a little, and things aren’t so urgent. And then we can really explore. Now the system is more stable, calmer, more energy, more relaxed, more happy with itself. Then it can go deeper, like – “Who are you really?” – “Have you seen that your nature is peace?”. But it’s only really in the tranquility of the mind that you can really go to what’s deeper than that. So tranquility of the mind and order of the mind – a good first stage, a needed first stage.
Peter: Yes, the fascinating play between rules and freedom…
Rowan: Well, it’s interesting, because in some classes I play music, and I say to 20–30 people: “Okay, just move for 15 minutes, and I come back in a moment. Get on with your own practice.” And I see people are lost, and they feel that they can’t move and they copy, and they start to look for reassurance and they lie down or they stop or they go through the motions of something. And, so I realize that to be able to do that, the people need to be brought to a certain level, and that level is to learn to feel confident enough that they are able to trust themselves to move. And this is why I talk about “calming the conflict”, because so many people are in conflict – one thought in opposition to another – and we have to quieten that down a little, or not pay so much attention to that level, and you come in, and you come into the body and you learn to trust movement itself, what feels good, what feels right. You learn to feel rhythms, that normally maybe we don’t see. There are many rhythms inside the body, and when you hold a position you can become aware of that. So, the rules are to give you sensitivity, the rules are there to give you concentration, the rules are there to give you a framework, in which you can go deep. And then, when you go deep you don’t need the rules, when you go deep you follow your own inner journey. So, I say the rules are needed to give a structure for it can help that person go deep in whatever, not only yoga but in everything. The rules of drumming, the rules of art, the rules of meditation. There are certain frameworks and guidelines, but the rules are there to free you, to show you that you’re already free. The rules are there to show you who you are, that your essence is not bound and has never been bound by anything. And when you’re aware of that, the movement becomes not a search, it becomes a celebration. So the movement itself is the prayer, the movement itself is the celebration, you’re no longer in a search. When you don’t know you’re free, the rules can give you order – like I said, order, structure – the rules can give you a framework for you to develop subtleness, concentration, and sensitivity.
Peter: Well, you can also see it in free dance, people are afraid of moving. You can see it when people are supposed to speak in public. How did we develop this fear of our own body?
Rowan: You know fear is such a condition of the ego of the person, the personality. The poor thing, it sees everything that’s separate from itself, you know, and in its very nature the ego – it’s a very unstable structure. It’s always unstable, and it’s always looking for stability. But in a way it’s beautiful, it’s the path, and it’s the instability of the ego, combined with an intuition that it knows that there’s more that is the spiritual search, it makes the search. And the search is never found through stabilizing the ego, the stability is found in seeing that you’re not the ego. The ego is terribly insecure, but it’s also very innocent, it’s very sweet, it’s very beautiful, the way that it moves, and you learn to see that insecurity from peace, you learn to see that you’re okay in it. Yet, when you’re not aware of your essence, you feel always that you need to make the ego secure, so your whole life, and your whole money, and everything you do is invested in trying to get the ego secure, but the ego is never gonna be secure, it’s an unstable structure, and you have to see that you’re not that, you have to see that the ego is just something that moves in you, and it’s not you. And then you learn to have compassion and love your ego, and that is actually the strength. You see, the strength is in seeing that you are the permanent, you are peace itself. And the ego is just one thing that moves in you. But if you don’t know that – you think you are the ego – then, yeah, it’s a difficult ride, it’s a difficult ride…
You can follow Rowan at http://rowancobelli.com/
Interview: Peter Appel. Filmed by Linus Appel. Edited and transcribed by Finn Appel.
Footnote: The word in the background is “myötätunto”, which means compassion in Finnish.