Denise Payne: Fearlessness And Mercy

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In the 1970s, as a teenager, Denise Payne was introduced to Kundalini Yoga by her teacher Sat Jiwan Singh. It became more than “a life saver”. Yoga became her life’s work through practice and teaching. Many Australian and international yogis have met Denise through her regular Power Yoga and Yin classes at The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali. When not speaking (not entirely fluent) Indonesian or Sanskrit, there is the  accent that reminds us that Denise is originally from Phoenix, Arizona.

It was in Portland, Oregon – her home of 10 years – that she owned Yoga Bhoga and campaigned for the working rights of yoga teachers to continue as contractors. This is also where her son, 14-year-old Charlie, was born.

Denise has a rich and nuanced understanding of yoga which culminates in classes where stories from the Bhagavad Gita are seamlessly interwoven with smart anatomical and energetic cueing, sutras and explorations into bandhas, mudras and pranayama.

At 55, Denise has become even more physically strong and her inversion practice continues unabated. Her motto of being fearless, brave and loving life emanates beyond words and into practice. She holds regular Yoga Teacher Trainings in Jakarta and Ubud, and has travelled worldwide to host training, workshops and courses. Throughout the year, she runs Yoga Teacher Training, enabling Yoga Barn regulars and those who are new to her teaching to be enriched by her experience in yoga practice, teaching and teacher training for over 30 years.

Whether it is her thorough knowledge of the chakras and nadis, or the art of mudra, there are many aspects of yoga which are not commonly taught either in classes nor the standard 200 hour Yoga Teacher Trainings in Australia. Denise’s particular focus is on the koshas and their relation to every other aspect of yoga and life. The body, breath, mind, inner wisdom and sense of bliss are integral to the experience of living yoga on and off the mat. In Bali, the spiritual life is not an afterthought – it is in the morning and evening rituals, the approach to nature, food, dance, art and life. This has been attracting Australian yogis, surfers and spiritual seekers for decades.

While Denise has best been known for her Power Yoga practice, chakras and mudras workshops over the past 8 years at Yoga Barn, and prior through One Song in Portland, she has also won over many yogis with her meditative approach to Yin Yoga. She describes the experience of Yin as “a deeper conversation with the body and the self”.

Yoga has become even more of a sanctuary for Denise now that she has moved back to the United States after 8 years of living in Ubud. As anyone who has faced a major move or life event knows, the practice of yoga can provide a sense of groundedness in uncertain and challenging times.

Denise took time between teaching, planning an upcoming Ubud Teacher Training and finalising her book on Yin Yoga to answer questions.

How did you first discover yoga?

I was 8 years old when I first met my teacher and 15 when I was first introduced to Kundalini yoga. I was kind of a sick kid that wasn’t allowed to do anything really, and being introduced to that was literally a life saver.

Do you feel that you chose to be a teacher or that it was almost inevitable once you immersed yourself in study?

Teaching has always come naturally to me, and my teacher, Sat Jiwan Singh was very pushy and determined to get me teaching, as well. But I never thought yoga would turn into what it is today. Back in the 70’s you did it in a back room, and didn’t really talk about it to friends!

Your classes weave the yamas, niyamas, stories of the Bhagavad Gita, the yoga sutras, chakras and koshas into a vinyasa context. Is this a challenge?

The wonderful qualities of yoga open us up to always learning and studying some new aspect. As I continue to grow and evolve, so do the elements I bring into a class. I do strongly believe in the power of the combination of philosophy and asana, and it’s always a work in progress.

When you first moved to Ubud, you initially planned to write rather than teach. How did you come to join Yoga Barn?

I did want to write, but was really without direction! About 3 months in, I was lucky enough to become friends with Meghan Pappenheim, one of the founders of The Yoga Barn. The rest is history!

What are the challenges of teaching short-term, international yogis in Bali?

I really appreciate this question. There is a lot to be said for the regular students I had at my schools in Portland. It was a natural progression for us over the years. In any given class during the week the most incredible yogis would show up to practice. In Ubud, I feel more of a sense of urgency with students at times. If I feel I really have something to offer any particular student I’ll ask them how long they’re in town for, I’ll give them homework and always ask that they email me with their progress. I also ask for requests before every class to ensure I’m working on what they want to work on; maybe I have some fresh ideas for their technique.

The physical asana practice can take a toll on the body. Have you altered your practice at all to prevent injuries or overuse?

Honestly, it’s yoga that helps me recover from injuries from doing things other than yoga! I just turned 55 and I’ so grateful for the practice. It’s something I’m always making progress with and there’s always work to be done. I’m actually relearning handstands right now to change my technique. I think it would be tough to do that if I didn’t have all the years of yoga keeping me strong.

Yin Yoga is being embraced by major gym chains here in Australia. Can you tell me what role Yin Yoga plays in the system of yoga compared to styles such as Power Yoga and typical Hatha yoga?

That’s really cool to hear that it’s becoming more mainstream in your neck of the woods. Yin is so new, relatively speaking, that interpretation is up for grabs and just about anyone can teach it. I think the tattvas, or principles of Yin Yoga, are essentially the same as a yang practice in many ways. Stillness, holding poses, finding the edge in a pose can be translated equally in both styles. The breath, as I do recommend a soft breath in a yang practice, the meditative qualities, as well can play a roll. Because yin transcends the yang elements of the physical body, slowly creeping into those nooks and crannies of the plastic parts, the role of yin becomes more about a deeper conversation with the body and the self. I love to support a daydreamy type atmosphere, in fact, and allow for the students minds to wander. This might get some thumbs down in the comment box. But, seriously, daydreaming is a lost art. We are so busy being mindful, or scrolling, or whatever. Yin offers the perfect environment for such an important and healing practice like mind-wandering/mindlessness.

Tell me about Waheguru and how this affects your approach to daily life and meditation?

Waheguru translates to Wonderful Teacher. Everything is Waheguru. Samadhi, the 8th limb of Astanga yoga is Samadhi, which means to See Equally. To see equally, one must let go of any judgement and increase their compassion 1000 fold. When you begin to see equally, you see that everything is your wonderful teacher with no judgement. Waheguru!

One of my most memorable moments in class with you was being half-way into the splits and you recounted the story of Hanuman leaping.

I’m so glad you remember that! The philosophy is vast and many teachers play with it so well! I have my moments, glad you were there to witness one of them. But me, I’m a great big chakra geek. It’s how I see students, how i sequence, and most of the language I use in class revolves around the system of the sacred chambers. Every now and again I’ll bust out a story, a few weeks ago it was Trivikrama, however my chakras studies never end, so I always have something new to work with in class. There are so many dimensions to the physical practice and so many elements to focus on for students. That’s the magic of hatha yoga.

The book that you had intended to write when you first moved to Ubud… how’s that going?

Well that book will get written someday. In the meantime I have a gorgeous book coming out on Yin yoga and myofascial release work. It’s based on a class I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years. Hopefully it’s in full swing by the time this article is published.


Interview by Cat Woods – a Melbourne based yoga, barre and Pilates instructor and writer.

Denise is holding Yoga Teacher Training at The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali in September. More details at www.denisepayneyoga.com