Mary O

By Robin Mishell

Mary ObendorferMary Obendorfer, affectionately known as Mary O, is an Intermediate Senior I teacher based in San Diego, but not for long. Mary and her husband, Eddy Marks, are off to Hawaii next year where they’re building a new home with plenty of space for family and gardening. They both teach workshops around the country.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Mary, besides her standing over 6-feet tall, is the immense joy expressed in the sheer delight of her laughter. This self-described slow learner is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate with degrees in Political Science and Computer Science, specializing in data bases.

Q: Tell me about the beginning of your yoga journey.

A: “It began before it began.”

It was real close to my 21st birthday. I was in college and working as a life guard when I found out I had a malignant melanoma. Luckily, the surgery took care of it. They patched me together and said, “Your muscles are not going to work like they used to.” I was in a lot of chronic pain. I couldn’t sit long enough to finish my studies. I couldn’t do anything. I kept looking outside of myself for a fix. I was going for acupuncture, massage, and to an herbalist. I’m a slow learner. It took me a while to figure out that I was going to have to fix myself.

Q: How did you come upon yoga?

A: A good friend of mine had been urging me to try yoga, which I didn’t know anything about. My friend gave me the name of her teacher, Mary Dunn, so I called her. I was this brash, ignorant person. I said to her, “If there’s some kind of dogma that you have to believe in order to participate, then I’m not interested.” Mary said, “Please come and I’ll let you know if I think I can help you.” She was just wonderful. She really believed that I could change. When I didn’t believe I could change, she believed enough for the both of us.

Q: Can you tell us how she helped you?

A: She was such a natural teacher. She just flowed and gave me what I needed, which included support, help, and encouragement. That was a huge lesson in teaching. Asana was painful for quite a while, but it was a different kind of pain from what I had become used to living with. I went to every class she would let me attend until I thought she was sick of me. But she was nice enough not to say so. I never went anywhere else. I had Mary Dunn. She was the ultimate expression of generosity in every way. She wasn’t tall and she called me big Mary, and I said, “No, you’re big Mary, and I’m little Mary.”

Q: How long did it take before you felt better?

A: It was six or seven months before I could move and sit and be decent around my family and friends. It had been the first time that I ever had my world narrowed. That’s an important thing for me to honor. Knowing experientially what an illness or condition can do and how it makes your world a fearful, small place. Because the only direction, when you’re in the middle of all that, is down. It’s a further narrowing.

Mary, with her expertise, belief, and confidence, gave me back the wide expanses to look at. So now, when somebody comes to a class of mine and says, “I have this aching thing, this nagging thing, or this condition,” I feel almost a special duty to try to help. I’m not the most knowledgeable person, but to use what I’ve been taught and understand is what I try to do. It’s because I know how significant that lifeline was for me. It was everything to me.

Q: How did you begin teaching yoga?

A: I finished up school and was waitressing until midnight every shift. Mary Dunn had a trip to India coming up and asked me to substitute for her. There was no formal teacher training back then. She asked me to assist her. I started with that. Then, she said, “Okay, Thursday mornings you teach my class, and I’ll stay in the back of the room and do my practice. If I hear you go wrong, I’ll get up and re-teach the pose that you didn’t do really well. That’s the signal between you and me that you didn’t do a good job and need to sharpen up. I’ll teach to the points you need to know and then I’ll go back and do my practice.” Of course, at first, she was hopping up and down like a jumping jack! It was so typical of Mary Dunn, and so respectful of me as a beginning teacher. She did that for a whole year. She donated a year of her time. It still makes my eyes tear up. She had two young children at home and a husband. She had a busy life, but she made room for me. 

As you’re going through teacher training, you drop your ego and listen to what somebody else is telling you about your shortcomings or areas you need to work on. That helps shape you as a person. 

Q: Do I understand correctly that your life transformed because of the cancer?

A: Talk about being in the right place at the right time. It’s one of those ironical things. This illness. This injury is really going to be the thing that is the making of you. Who would have ever thought, that if not for cancer, I would never have stepped into a yoga class if I hadn’t had that condition to recover from. It wasn’t a direction I ever would have gone in. I was a swimmer, a racquetball player.

There’s something Mr. Iyengar said that has never left my mind. “All of us, every single one of us, have the grace from heaven continuously falling on our heads. And sometimes we’re awake enough to notice it, and then take it in a good direction, in a sense, to take it to help yourself and others for the greater good.” We often don’t have the awareness of that. It’s our task to become aware of that grace, and honor it.

Q: What happened in 1989 when Mary Dunn left San Diego for New York?

A: Everyone in our yoga community was equally bereft. I missed her like crazy. I said to myself, if you’re going to keep doing this you’re going to have to support yourself. You’re going to have to go beyond practicing what you’ve been taught and practice for inquiry. That was my thinking. The month or two I spent each year in India became like a fountainhead of fresh, generous input that would sustain my inquiry until the next time.

Q: Tell us about Geetaji.

A: When I first met her in 1986, she was the expression of energy, effervescence, joy, commitment, untiring, giving, delighted, and delightful. It was like taking an energy bath to be in her presence of possibility and positivism and stick-to-it-iveness.
I mean what an inspiration she is to me. Seeing her stay with some kind of equilibrium when there’s the demands and pains of an illness and injury or conditions bearing down on you… that’s a yogi. She doesn’t waiver in her commitment to her own practice and she transmits what she thinks we can grasp.

Q: Can you tell us something she’s said that has really stayed with you?

A: At her 65th birthday celebration she gave the world a 5-day course for over 600 people in Pune. Someone asked her what her habit for her birthday was and how she liked to celebrate. I still have her answer on a sticky note on the refrigerator. I look at it every day. She said, “For my birthday and every day, I just simply practice.” That humble statement is so inspiring to me. She continues to inspire me in the way she lives and teaches. She doesn’t give up on us. I don’t know why she doesn’t give up on us. It would be like Einstein having to always teach kindergarten! We’re all at such a basic level, and she comes down from her understanding, as all the Iyengars do.

Q: What else can you tell us about Geeta?

A: Her laugh builds with intensity and she’s got the most mischievous smile and those teacher’s eyes. Oh my God. Those teacher’s eyes. They pin you and you know she’s talking to you. It’s such a wonderful and effective combination for both learning and hope.

Q: I can’t help but notice how you infuse humor in your teaching. Can you speak to that aspect of your teaching?

A: Mary Dunn used to say, “Don’t be grim—grin.” My experience as a learner is that it’s easier when there’s humor. It opens me up to be in a lighter place. Don’t work from a fear-based place. Humor doesn’t make the subject matter trivial. It usually helps us to get over the hard, difficult ground
of transformation more easily. 

Am I fired up because the pose is demanding, which throws me back into some past experience that I thought I was done with? Oh God, I thought I was done with that, but there it is again, in front of me. That’s some pretty hard ground to keep plowing every time.

Q: How does the ego play a part in this process?

A: Guruji always correctly says to set aside the ego. Geetaji says as long as the door to understanding isn’t open, there’s no hope. Humor helps me take a look at those serious things. Is this Abhinivesha or is this pure ego? Am I fired up because the pose is demanding, which throws me back into some past experience that I thought I was done with? Oh God, I thought I was done with that, but there it is again, in front of me. That’s some pretty hard ground to keep plowing every time.

Humor is like something you would put in the earth. We just planted some sage and native plants. You have to plow through the earth with gypsum to break through the clay. Humor is like that gypsum that makes the ground receptive to a plant growing in it. I want to grow this philosophy, and humor is nurturing. Every class, I hope that students walk out lighter. More with themselves.

The practice is not only in the asana room. It’s outside in the world. Why did I do that? How did that affect others and myself? Am I still staying on course with my aim or am I off track? The habit that yoga has given you is the habit of reflection. Instead of just act, act, act and the next thing, next thing, next thing. Ask yourself what’s going on, then let that reflection color your next action so that slowly your aim gets honed truer and truer. It’s easy to get knocked off course.

Q: Can you explain the evolution of your teaching?

A: It took me a while to realize that Guruji’s senses of perception and observation skills are so honed that he sees things that aren’t obvious to anybody else or even visible to anybody else. It’s his yoga practice that has honed that and his devotion to it. After some years of practice, I understand a bit more. I’m a slow learner, but I see more than I used to. 

In the public classes in India they shower you, each class, with at least one profound connection they’re drawing. They’ve done all the hard work. My hardest work is to try and catch what they’re telling us. My highest aspiration is to be an accurate conduit for the information and understanding that I’ve been given and shown.

My highest aspiration is to be an accurate conduit for the information and understanding that I’ve been given and shown.

Q: Do you take notes after each class in India?

A: Over the years, I’ve written all my notes into a data base which is really helpful. Now, I can type in a pose or a phrase or a philosophical aspect that caught my attention—maybe something that Geetaji uses over and over again—and every class that she’s used that phrase in comes up in the data base. I can pull up every class where that’s been referenced and look at the whole context. I also write the sequences of the classes and can flesh out some connections. Then I can put this into my own practices and see if I can replicate and understand it. 

Q: Tell me about the rewards of teaching.

A: One of the things that just blows me away about yoga is that everybody who walks through the door of my yoga center has already made a decision that they want to change something or they wouldn’t be there. That thing may be on the outward level—an illness or injury—but sooner or later this art is so deep that it penetrates their entire being. You hear stories of people with other careers who go to the office and say, “There’s this jerk at the office,” or “My boss is a jerk,” or whatever, but in yoga people are there sharing in the idea of transformation. I mean, my God, that’s cool!

Q: Do you plan your classes?

A: I have a systematic, structured approach. I have a plan for each class and each workshop I teach. I check off what I actually taught and the points that I covered. It helps me to have a quiet mind. I’m not the fastest learner. It still startles me to walk into a group of 30 to 50 people that have this problem or that. How am I going to pull this together so it’s a cohesive experience? I still get nervous. I don’t want to waste their time or money. I don’t want to let them down. It doesn’t always go as planned. Like today, I had a third of the class with shoulder issues so I had to switch gears. Geetaji has such a solid understanding that she can walk in to a group of strangers, half of them with 10 different injuries, and she can make it all work.

Q: Can you talk about your study of the sutras?

A: When Guruji said you should memorize the yoga sutras, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” What was totally and completely surprising and delightful was how the chanting had become a part of me. At various times, or in the middle of some fraught situation, a sutra would just pop into my mind and I’d think, “Oh, that was appropriate. I wasn’t reaching out for it—it was just there. It was there when I didn’t even know I needed it!” That was amazing to me. I thought, “Wow, this is powerful.”

Q: Can you tell us about the assessment process?

A: Becoming certified is like following the path of yoga. The side benefits you get from the Asana and Pranayama practice are increased health and vitality. Those are very obvious benefits that people come seeking, and that’s the end of the story for some of them. But some people get pulled in by the beauty of the philosophy.

So when it comes to practicing and applying yourself toward certification, the aim may be certification, but the fringe benefits are what you get from applying yourself to a certain syllabus. You’re being asked to study a body of material that gives you a chance to go in depth in a way that you may never have done otherwise. As you’re going through teacher training, you drop your ego and listen to what somebody else is telling you about your shortcomings or areas you need to work on. That helps shape you as a person. I think that there is so much learning when you go through the process, whether or not you get the certificate. 

Q: Tell us about Guruji.

A: He inspires me with awe. He explained that you learn a little bit every day in regard to your Asana and Pranayama practice. That learning is an asset you obtain like a savings account. You’re building up your savings account. God forbid, if you should ever need to withdraw because of some crisis or demand, then you can gather wealth in that form of stability,
of rectitude, of right action. If something should happen where you might veer off again in a direction you’re not quite sure or clear about, and you’ve just begun that turn, you can draw
on that wealth and it will stand you in good stead. It will keep you going. 

Robin Mishell is a high school English teacher at St. Francis School in Honolulu, Hawaii.