During our interminable lockdown in Toronto, I’ve come to appreciate classes streamed from two of my usual workout providers even more than I valued them in person. I’ve written at length already about the wonderful Alex and the community they’ve built in our morning workouts that Tracy, Kim and Susan also do. In another zone, I’ve also really come to appreciate live streamed classes from my local studio, Chi Junky — and in that context, have actually discovered my favourite yoga teacher of all time, Amanda Donato. There is something about her teaching and presence that simultaneously makes me feel like I’m exactly perfect as I am as well as inspiring me to reach even deeper and into more complex spaces than I ever have in my 25 years of practice. Via zoom. When I’ve never met her in person. So I asked if I could interview her to try to understand.
1. Can you just tell me a little bit about your background? I know you’re a dancer, but how did you get to the yoga space you’re in now?
I started dancing at 3 years old at a school specializing in Ballet and Jazz examinations in Scarborough. In my adolescent years, I jumped around a few studios as a recreational dancer, with a burning feeling that I needed more. As I transitioned into more vigorous hours and competitive programs in my teens, there were many contradicting moments where I considered quitting. The whole idea of needing to “know” your future at such a young age confused me. Still does. I was also extremely hard on myself and influenced greatly by external voices whispering: “an artist’s life has no promise or stability”.
I studied Psychology in University (still a dear love of mine, and an academic path I hope to continue on), and kept up my dance training as I began working professionally. There was, however, a breaking point in my second year of Undergrad. A perfect storm of neglected anxiety, childhood traumas, and self-induced pressure bubbled to the surface… and I lost my grip on reality.
I don’t remember my conscious decision-making process, but I knew there was a yoga studio down the street from campus. I also knew that a bodily practice had the potential to pull me out of my mind. At least I’d be training my alignment, strength, and flexibility regardless. This was all in addition to seeking a therapist.
My resonance with yoga was not instantaneous by any means – but it felt like an anchor. There was challenge and grit and sweat (shout out to Queenie Phair’s classes)… and it was void of performance pressure. There was freedom. (This eventually leaked into the way I experience dance now). I intuitively completed my Yoga Teacher Training in the summer of 2015, and my reasons for sticking with Yoga are deeply-ingrained… and ever-changing.
2. Do you have a philosophy of teaching? What do you want people in your classes to experience?
I think my teaching has always been enveloped with a deep understanding that yoga has existed long before me, and will exist long after I’m gone.
I have the responsibility of holding space and guiding bodies when I teach – but I never feel like I’m not a student too. I wish for people in my classes to tap into their life energy, creativity, and agency. I wish for them to feel safe and to embrace curiosity… to connect to joy and playfulness. I see the physical challenges I propose as gateways/catalysts for this.
3. Do you have a way you describe your orientation to yoga? What’s the intention or purpose of solo practice for you? What about practice in community? (I know these are BIG QUESTIONS that change day to day — whatever comes to mind is fine ;-)).
Connection is the first word that comes to me here. A solo practice is a way for me to remember how multi-faceted I really am… and it pulls me out of how small my mind likes to make me. The wavering openness after a practice is unbeatable: length and space in my joints… my limbs… my heart. My movement practice does not feel like an epiphany every time I step onto my mat, but showing up feels necessary and keeps me creatively accountable.
Growing up in dance studios… supported by a web of teachers, mentors and peers… was my lifeline. Moving and sweating in a room full of people is still one of my favourite things ever. The energy is unbeatable and community is everything.
4. What do you experience when you’re teaching in zoom — how do you stay in your body AND connected to the people on the screen? How do you stay in your sense of community?
I am in full belief that the in-person class experience cannot be replicated. The subtleties… the nuancing is blurred out with online classes. I also believe, however, that the practice transcends all limitations. When I start a Zoom class, I trust that my intentions and energy will penetrate through screens, and that students will get to intuitively fill in the blanks. I work from a place of celebration: that everyone has gathered at the same time to move in their own spaces. The best thing we can do (especially in these trying times) is to stay with it and remember that we’re not alone. The whole online teaching experience has been this personal case study of how much I can soften, surrender… and proceed to serve my community. I am grateful to every soul that shows up to these classes.
5. What is it you think you uniquely bring to your teaching? I keep trying to articulate why it is that I feel so free to explore with you, what the source of my sense of confidence is. I think part of it is that I feel like you are somehow IN your own body, not self-conscious or something like that, and it invites us to be in the same way. You are extremely good at cueing verbally — I rarely have to look at the screen to figure out what you’re doing — even when you’re encouraging us to try something I haven’t done before. You are very conscious of all of the different planes and edges and sensations in your cuing. And you have all of this confidence that the “hardest” versions of poses are available to us over time — like flying lizard — but I never feel that just staying in the simplest version is “wrong.” Somehow I feel like I and my body can exist in multiple dimensions in time and space and the same time in your classs, lol — like the Cate today isn’t doing flying lizard but she could if she just focused. It’s how I managed, in your class, to do a flow from crow to headstand, back to crow and then a graceful chataranga. It amazed myself. It’s also why I fell on my face trying to do pincha mayasurana. LOL — I forgot I couldn’t do it.
Wow! Thank you, Cate! I am letting your words marinate. Riffing off of what you are saying:
I feel like I am indebted to the movement I am teaching. What I teach isn’t really “mine”, but something moving through me. I don’t plan specific cues or sequences prior to class, which keeps me incredibly present in my communication… and open to what the people in class are needing that day. I no longer resonate with the “right” or “wrong” dichotomy like I used to. Apparently this comes through… hence you feeling limitless going for pincha! No doubt that I am often negotiating with my default perfectionism and rigidity… but the practice feels so much bigger than that anyway. It always wins.
6. Is there anything else you’d like to share about your teaching or your practice or your experience of movement?
My life is enriched when I peel back the thinking mind’s expectations of what “counts” as practice/training and what doesn’t. I’ll go a few weeks without practicing yoga on my own… but immerse myself in running or biking instead. There are times when I feel like I’m choreographing a piece while layering a lasagna and listening to great music. Sometimes reading a book feels like a full-body experience too.
It’s this constant revisiting… listening… softening…. Grateful for it!
Amanda is a professional dance artist, educator, yoga instructor and choreographer from Toronto, Canada. You can find Amanda at her website: https://www.amandadonato.com, where you can sign up for a streamed yoga class or just watch incredible videos of her body moving in dance.