Yoga Written in Stone
rewriting the hearthstone experience, from nature questing to teaching yoga.
Interview with Makaan Burt By Matt Rosenburg
Makaan Burt CYT, has combined many yoga forms and teaches a refreshing new one called Nature Stone Yoga. This form allows the student to drop deep into their own mind-body experience. Makaan has studied yoga for over 35 years, including two trips to India. He is certified in structural yoga therapy. He has completed 14 solo wilderness yoga retreats. In Boulder Colorado, Makaan offers ayurvedic massage, yoga privates and leads workshops in nature stone , hot stone, back care, knee care, anatomy study, spinal curvature and stone yoga for teachers. www.natureyoga.net
This interview also appears in audio form on M. Rosenburg’s site: : www.CafeHolistic.com Matt’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Rosenberg:. Makaan, can you please start by telling us a little bit about your background?
I started meditating when I was 19 regularly and it had a profound effect on me. That was in the late 60’s. It had a profound effect on my relationships with my friends and my school work. I was in college at that point. I practiced yoga just out of books. I started getting intensely into yoga after being in India and seeing yoga first hand, both the yoga of asana as well as chanting and kirtan, and when I came back, in 1982, I wanted to practice more of the yoga and started studying Bikram out of a book. I started teaching that to friends and I had a little class. I was living in an ashram in Hawaii at that point, an ashram that we were actually building as we were living there, and that went on for about two years. The asana part of it evolved from not only books but also from friends. Originally I took workshop classes with Joel Kramer in LA. When I came to Boulder in 1983, I heard about Richard Freeman and I started taking classes with him in ’84. So I studied with Richard for about 10 years off and on. That is when he was still an Iyengar teacher, which was really actually quite wonderful. The Boulder yoga scene was very small and sweet at that point. We were oddities and did not talk to many people about yoga outside of our circle.Then when Richard changed to Ashtanga Vinyasa. I learned that system and practiced that on my own. Yoga was then becoming more popular in 1990.
I made my living being a potter and eventually a drum maker for 25 years. When I started studying with Richard, I realized well, I don’t know enough to become a teacher. His knowledge was so intimidating that it sort of shut me down, and I kind of regret that. I traveled the country doing Renaissance Fairs for 10 year and solo wilderness retreats in the summers.
I didn’t come back to teaching until the year 2000 and that was after studying other forms of yoga as well as Astanga Vinyasa and it was a wonderful time. I decided to become a yoga teacher on a vision quest in 1999. That was a really exciting time for me, and I also decided to stop being a potter and drum maker. Spirit really gave me a big kick in the pants at one point, and that’s kind of an interesting story involving a fire at my pottery studio the same week in ’99 that I was studying with Sri Pattabhi Jois in Boulder. Once that kick in the pants got resolved, it was a very exciting time studying yoga intensively. I took Richards teacher training and started teaching.
After a few years in 2002, I discovered the wonder of Mukunda Stiles. So I studied with him for about four years We studied anatomy and therapeutics intensively as well as yoga philosophy. That changed the way I taught. I began to see that Ashtanga Vinyasa was not really suited for my body type and my age because I kept injuring my hamstrings in the first series.
Right before one of the last of 8 Estes Park Yoga Journal conferences I went to, I had kind of an awakening. That was that I needed to find my own style. So I started looking at all the work I’ve done in nature and the rituals I’ve done in nature, both with my ceremonial dance as well as the vision questing, solo wilderness retreats. I was also doing hot stone massage at that point and I started fooling around in my private practice, doing the
asanas with hot stones as well as cold massage stones. I discovered that it really helped me connect with the energies of
the earth, which I think is really lacking in a lot of yoga classes. I have had so many wonderful experiences on my solo wilderness retreats that it was a very natural evolution.
Matt Rosenberg: Those are two things that I’d like for the listeners to learn more about. Can you dive into those solo wilderness retreats that you mentioned?
Makaan Burt: I started studying those in ’89 with a master questing teacher ,John Milton. He lives in Crestone in the summer.. He has nature quest sites both at the tip of Baja California, in Arizona, near Tucson and in Virginia.
John helped me go deeper. He combines both Buddhist as well as Native American ways of doing what he calls “sacred passage. One of his contributions to my questing was not to use fire and to stick with staying in one place and finding a power spot that I liked in nature and staying there so that I can really delve deep into what that power spot had to offer in terms of spirit and knowledge and the cycles of nature that pass through that particular power spot. He helped me be able to read the rocks, the currents of energy. You can use the currents in every power spot that has energies that pass through it, You can learn to use those to enliven your body and your soul. So he teaches how to read those energy currents that exist below the earth as well as on surface.
I have something I wrote on my second vision quest I could read you.
Matt Rosenberg: Yeah, we’d love to hear it.
Makaan Burt: “One by one, day by day, the issues of marriage, money, healing, fatherhood, and sexuality become resolved through quiet inner guidance.
Many teachers speak to me as I meditate. The feminine sings through my flute. I feel the cool earth energies flowing out my legs and spine, flowing over my head and swirling with the sky energies. My exhale brings this wondrous energy down through my heart and then it flows down to my beloved earth again.”
While questing I do a lot of meditating. I use a cycle of activity. I intersperse meditation with activity.I would either do asana, walk or I would make some liquid to drink, which is usually the master cleanser lemonade, So they were cycles of 45 minutes, and that would just continue throughout the day and sometimes late into the night. When you’re meditating that much, you don’t need much sleep, and I had lots of experiences in the middle of the night. We often went out in pairs and we left signs in the ground to make sure everybody didn’t need any help. And that usually went on for seven days.
The last night on a quest in the Chiracawas in Arizona, I was staying up all night, trying to keep myself awake and just experience the sounds and the experiences and the animal sounds in the night, but I was having trouble. I had been visited by two rattlesnakes on that site, ’cause I was up on this rocky knoll, ’cause there were trees up there too above me. I was trying to stay awake but I was having trouble because it was cold, and I’d get into my sleeping bag to stay warm and then I would get up to do walking meditation. And at one point, I was getting warm again in my sleeping bag and I felt myself going to sleep and I was trying to wake up, and then all of a sudden, there was this long two-minute rattle. And at first, I didn’t know what it was, but then
when it stopped and started again, I knew it was a rattlesnake and it was like five feet away and so…… scary. I couldn’t see it.
And then it stopped and started about three or four times, just kind of a little shorter rattle. It woke me up and I was like wide awake. You know, I kind of laughed. I remember it being really funny. I couldn’t figure out, what it was trying to tell me. It’s like a big mystery It wouldn’t have been so close and been so loud and rattled for so long if it wasn’t trying to say something. I had a wonderful morning because that was right before dawn and I noticed about that it was beginning to get light. I had a wonderful dawn and I watched the sun rise. I just was really thankful, but I still couldn’t understand why or what it was trying to tell me.
After I came off the hill, I asked John about it and he said that rattlesnakes are very psychic and they can feel what you need even though you may not know it. That was the rattlesnake’s hill. I mean that big rattlesnake obviously live there.
So what John said is that it actually intuited that I needed to wake up. It intuited my longing to stay awake. It was just helping me by being my alarm clock.
The rattlesnake is definitely one of my favorite animals, which stands for transformation I was transforming from a Renaissance artist that was very footloose and fancy-free into a more responsible yoga teacher that doesn’t travel much and focused in learning the depths of yoga.
On a quest in Wild Basin in 1999, I was asking the question, “what is it that the spirit wants me to take on as a vocation” I got very clear that I was to be a teacher, that the spirit wanted me to be a yoga teacher.
But the other thing that happened often is that I would have visions or visionary dreams when I least expected them, when I was just relaxing on a rock. I had an experience that involved this whole ritual of me letting go
of my anger. There was both my teenage self archetype and my witness teacher self, my older, more wise self having a little ritual together. The teenager was expressing a lot of frustration and anger, and the older self was helping him process that and go through that.
That was an experience that I had prepared for before going out into nature. The way it played out was surprisingly dream-like. So you just never know on vision quests how things and how visions are going to happen.
Matt Rosenberg: It sounds like when you truly let go of effort and intention and motivation is when your experiences seem to come to you.
Makaan Burt: Yeah, yeah. Relaxation is a key point to letting go into altered states of consciousness. John Milton often said that. Of course, just being out in nature puts you in that state, but then dropping into a place where you can have daydreams that are visionary takes relaxation. It takes letting go and just allowing them to happen. And it’s the same thing in yoga. When people can relax, they often have a deeper experience of doing their yoga, and they allow the energies to come through them and direct the flow of asana and breath.
Matt Rosenberg: Can you quickly define what a vision quest is?
Makaan Burt: A vision quest is a Native American term. A solo wilderness retreat can be a vision quest but not necessarily. A vision quest is where you go out and you seek a vision by doing penance in nature, penance being sitting and waiting for it.
Native Americans fast and sit in one place, and wait for a sign from nature or a vision from nature or a song that came through them or a poem that came through them. And it often was due to the preparation they had done for it. A quester’s questions are meant to clarify and deepened his life and clan issues, archetypal issues of your current life.
John Milton calls his quests “sacred passage” because it often is just an experience of deepening into nature. For me, that included a falling in love with nature. My second quest was the first time I had ever experienced my breath in such a euphoric way that all I wanted to do is just take another breath.
And many people, when they give themselves the space and the time to experience that love of being still, love of the cycles of nature, become environmental activists. And what a sacred passage or a quest looks like is people going out into a pristine place in nature, finding a spot that they are attracted to, which we call our power spots, and staying within a circle of about a 20-foot circle in diameter. It can be as much as 100 feet but staying within that area for at least three days, if not seven days or more. That is so you deepen your experience of that place without the distractions of new places bombarding you.
What John recommends is not doing very much writing, if any writing at all, while you’re out there, not using fires, but just being with nature in its natural state. That’s what it looks like. It’s a lot of sitting, meditating, tree hugging and cloud watching. There’s a lot of tai chi that John teaches. People do whatever disciplines they’ve learned. I use trees and stones for asanas. John teaches many different types of meditations and exercises to bond with earth elements. John Milton’s programs can be seen at: http://www.sacredpassage.com/schedule/index.php
Matt Rosenberg: Can it get a bit frustrating, especially, you know, maybe after the first few days when you’re having trouble quieting the mind and you’re really hoping for something and you’re not getting anything?
Makaan Burt: Almost everybody on their first quest goes through some kind of frustration. The people that I took out, they all had frustrating experiences. Some of them didn’t resolve them on that quest, and yet, they were able to resolve some of their life issues because they had the time to think about them and they considered it to be a very valuable time. Most people get through their boredom after a couple of days. Some people sleep a lot
especially people that are addicted to caffeine. They stop taking caffeine and they sleep a lot, and that’s a very healing time for them. Other people are afraid of the nature sounds, thinking that the animals are going to give them problems. Other people are not afraid. Some people attract certain kinds of animals. Some people attract even mountain lions and the mountain lions come and say hello to them and talk to them. Very few people are ever attacked. The only people that are ever attacked by bears are women that are on their periods, so it’s not advised to go out when you’re on your period if you’re a woman because bears are attracted to that smell.
Matt Rosenberg: That’s good to know.
Makaan Burt: Yeah, it is a passage and the passage is often confrontation. You often face whatever your biggest fears are while you’re out there, and you usually come to the other side of them and accept them for just as a fear or a paper tiger.
Matt Rosenberg: Well, I’d like to do one myself sometime.
Makaan Burt: It’s always a big punctuation in your life.
Matt Rosenberg: Sure.
Makaan Burt: And they also are very empowering. You come back very excited about what you’ve discovered. It’s sometimes difficult re-entering. There’s sometimes a culture shock coming back and being overly stimulated by all the electronic stimulation.
Matt Rosenberg: Would you like to tell how your experiences in nature have shaped your own practice of yoga and your teaching of yoga?
Makaan : Sure but That is another story.
Part Two: Yoga Written in Stone
rewriting the hearthstone experience, from nature questing to teaching yoga.
Matt Rosenberg: Would you like to tell how your experiences in nature have shaped your own practice of yoga and your teaching of yoga?
Makaan Burt: Well as I said earlier, I started using stones for weight bearing, and it was probably because I’m in love with the energies of the stones. I did a lot of meditating with stones in nature; holding stones, finding circles, as well as just sitting on big boulders and stones while I was on my vision quests. But I discovered they give you that sense of stira, which is the Sanskrit word meaning steadiness and durability. You may
have heard the yoga sutra “stira sukha asanam.” Stira is the steadiness. It also is groundedness. Sukha is the comfort or having a good space. Forestein translates it as being in a happy space or a good space. It’s as the same root as sucrose, a sweet.
And then the other reason I use them in teaching is because our Western World is so wrapped up in electronic devices. We go from car to phone, video to computer to TV. We don’t spend a lot of time just being grounded, letting ourselves sink into the natural state of awareness. So the stones help us do that immediately, almost instantaneously without even knowing it. people recognize the stones as — and they don’t actually talk about this until I ask them for feedback. They’ll say it’s grounding and they like them, but I see it in their faces in the classes. When they hold the stones, their bodies relax because it reminds them of where the stones came from.
Some people have spent a lot of enjoyable time looking at stones at the beach or along the creeks and so it reminds them of those experiences. But even if they haven’t, they know it is a natural thing. It is not created in a factory. It’s created by thousands of years of being tumbled by water. These massage stones are smooth because of that. And they have an innate beauty that is subtle. It’s not dramatic. They’re mostly black and some of them are gray or green. It is a kinesthetically visceral experience.
The weight of them also helps people ground. The other part is the philosophy and using nature thematically. I often will use images or elements of nature as themes in class
Matt Rosenberg: You mentioned that by using the stones it reminds people of nature, but would you say that there is an actual scientific reason why it actually has a grounding effect, the stones’ actual frequency, its vibration?
Makaan Burt: Yes, stones are stimulating to the electromagnetic field, which is our haras and our chakras. They have a slow energetic field, obviously, which grounds out magnetic field.
They have been used in India and China for massage over the centuries.
In India it is called Shiila massage which includes other plants as well as warm stones.
Stones that I use in massage have all been tested by a psychic. We’ve spent a couple of hours going through hundreds of stones that I have brought into my living room, and the ones that were harmonic and balanced and exotic as we say in yoga, we save for use just in massage. It was probably about 10% of the stones. And those because in massage they’re laid on the body for a good length of time, I wanted those stones to be more harmonic.
But all the stones that we tested are grounding and not crazy with too much energy.
I’ve never found, out of the many hundreds of people in asana classes that the stones are agitating. 99.9% of the time, people like the stones. The only thing that they ever complained about is that they are cold or too cold and that’s kind of a space heating problem.
Most people really like the feel of the stones and they like using them for balance as well. We balance them on the top of their head. We balance them on the top of the head which takes a bit of concentration to get them just right on top of the head, and then turning the head from side to side slowly while you’re balancing allows you to feel more accurately how your neck is placed in space. For that, we do a lot of twisting poses while we’re sitting and holding stones on top of the head. After we do that, I ask them to take the stone off their head, close their eyes, feel how they’re crown chakra had been rearranged because the stones stimulate the electromagnetic field. Anytime you put something new into an
electromagnetic field and then you take it away, then it’s going to stimulate that electromagnetic field.
Matt Rosenberg: In the class that I’ve participated the other day, we did just that. We used the stones and we put them on the top of the head and then we did some twists. And then after we removed the stones, I definitely felt a stimulation of the crown chakra. And just in the balancing of the stone, it is a meditative experience because you’re very much focusing your attention on the balancing.
Makaan Burt: Yeah, and I’d heard that many times from many students. Some people also feel like the stone is still there after they take it off.
. And that is energy of the stones in your field, the energies stick around. I also wash the stones periodically, and I soak them in salt and the salt water takes away the subtle energies that are gathered in the use of the stones in asana classes just by their handling.
Matt Rosenberg: Okay. You’re saying that the actual interaction with the stone, the stone itself can pick up the energies of the people who are handling the stones themselves?
Makaan Burt: Yes, and I’m not really clear because I’m not a psychic to what extent that happens, but I don’t worry about it too much because people are in a calm state throughout my classes. They’re not doing cathartic rituals and letting go a lot of frustration and giving those to the stones.
The other thing that we do with the stones is warm them up in hot water, quite warm actually, about 100 to 150 degrees. And in workshop settings where I have more time to work, we put them on the marma points, which are the acupressure points in the body. There are major marma points along the central axis as well as above the knees and on the shoulders, on
the third eye, the navel, and many others. The warm stones are very nurturing. They tend to allow people to really sink into restorative asanas in deeper way. People don’t fidget as much. They can stay in Savasana for a longer period of time. So I teach restorative poses in asana workshops, both in the beginning of the class and at the end of the class, doing more active weight bearing exercises and asanas ,Especially in the winter, they become a real nurturing experience.
Matt Rosenberg: You use them for massage as well, right?
Makaan Burt: Yes, I use them for ayurvedic massage. I usually put about 12 stones on the body. Most of them are on the top of the body. Some of them are tucked under the lumbar spine or the shoulders, especially if people have shoulder or low back issues. So that’s how I start my massages. Then throughout the massage, I sometimes use a fairly hot stone, almost too hot to put on the body for very long, and I have to keep changing my hands from right to left when I’m holding them. That is, I’m sliding them with oil on the body. People really love that as well.
The other obvious therapeutic benefit of using stones is the weight bearing aspect of it. We hold them in standing poses very often and sometimes in a version called “happy baby pose.” We put them on the top of the feet and balance them on the top of the feet as they’re upside down. But the weight bearing in standing poses like a way or two is obviously just like using barbells except that you’re using a natural element. I find them to be a better choice than a barbell because you can just balance them on your palms facing up. I have a lot of advanced students which come to my classes just because they like using the stones for the weight bearing and balancing and more advanced standing poses.
Matt Rosenberg: That’s actually becoming more popular, doing asana, holding either kettlebells or dumbbells, and it really makes sense, especially in yoga, to incorporate natural elements to both be grounding and strengthening at the same time.
Makaan Burt: They call it fusion or yoga sculpt, and I’m not a big fan of yoga sculpt because it’s often not very therapeutic. That’s the name that is put to it. It can be very therapeutic. You just need to go at it slowly.
Matt Rosenberg: So Makaan, what are your plans for expanding Nature Stone Yoga to a larger audience?
Makaan Burt: I received a grant that’s helping me make an instructional video, which will have a lot of this philosophy as well as two instructional classes. One class will be the weight bearing exercises we do. The other class will be a restorative class. Then there will also be a section for teachers as to how to heat up the stones and where to buy the stones and how to use the stones thematically in your classes. The video will be done sometime in 2011. And I also am using that grant to promote more workshops around the country.
Matt Rosenberg: I could imagine some people would be wondering how that they could find some of their own stones to start incorporating into their own practice.
Makaan Burt: If you look on my website, there’s a lot of photos of people doing stone yoga. That’s www.natureyoga.net. There’s also written descriptions of it. But also, I’m teaching in Boulder at both YMCAs as well as the Flatirons Athletic Club and Yoga Elements Studio in Louisville.
Matt Rosenberg: I assume that the yoga video, that would be available through your website, naturestoneyoga.net?
Makaan Burt: Yes and there’ll be l a three-minute preview on the website at that. It will be in a variety of other yoga websites like Yoga Download we’ll have it. You’ll be able to purchase the DVD on my website,
Matt Rosenberg: Well, Makaan, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Makaan Burt: My pleasure. Namaste