Teacher Feature: Tess McDaniel

It was a snowy day when I arrived at Tess’s house with my 8-month old daughter. She greeted us at her door with a warm smile and big hug. After bringing in some Apeiron mats, a car seat, and what seemed like endless bags, we got settled and acquainted. I’ve known Tess for some time but never had the opportunity to really connect. I was curious to learn about how she found yoga, her trainings and teaching style, and what motivates her as a teacher.

As we made our way into her bohemian themed home, she led us to her kitchen table where I unload my belongings (including baby) and we dug right into the interview. The conversation flowed with ease as we moved through the questions; just like a perfectly sequenced vinyasa. Her authenticity as a teacher and virtuous devotion to the practice was palpable. Tess’s depth of study about yoga asana and philosophy is vast and well-digested. Hearing her effortlessly use Sanskrit with precision and accuracy, reflects her travels and study in India with world renowned teachers.

Given her extensive training, globetrotting, and teaching experience, Tess maintains a presence of humility and devotion; often citing essential teachings from the Yoga Sutras. A theme that arose in our conversations was recognizing the power of the Ego to interfere or serve as a motivation for the practice, especially in the age of the “InstaYogi.” She is fiercely honest about the struggles of her own journey. It’s clear Tess is conscious of her shadows and the deep habitual grooves of behavior created by the mind.

She offered so many little gems of yoga wisdom that I needed to hear during the interview. Our conversation almost felt like a Dharma talk. By no means preachy, but there was so much value and truth in her words about yoga. While sitting with her, and then again as I transcribed the interview, I found myself getting caught up in the richness of how she describes Yoga and the love she’s cultivated for the sacred practice. Tess is a teacher who Lives Limitless by embodying Yoga on and off the mat in a way that is all her own.

When did you start practicing yoga?

Before I started practicing, I’d been interested in New Age and Eastern Philosophy and studied the Chakras and subtle anatomy of yoga philosophy. After getting clean, I found support in yoga and the yoga community. My first training was in 2012 at the Center for Health and Healing in Toms River. This introduced me to Vinyasa and sparked a desire to learn. In 2015, I completed a 300 hour training in Sampoorna Yoga in Goa, India. I’ve also dedicated time studying and practicing Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India at the Pattabhi Jois Institute.

Were you hooked immediately, or did it take some time for yoga to become part of your lifestyle?

I have to admit, initially I felt conflict with the asana practice. When I found Vinyasa and was immersed in it in my first teacher training, I experienced how much it made me confront not only my ego, but my mental patterns, the Chitta Vritti. I started seeing how much my mind wanted to run away from uncomfortable situations which is what asana practice can really bring about. The more I started to confront it, the more I saw how necessary it was. At first it was really challenging and I did not like it. But after a little while, it felt like home. It was a tangible experience of confronting my reactions to the world around me. I eventually saw the value in it, but in the beginning, I was overwhelmed by the intensity.

How has yoga helped you overcome personal challenges or obstacles in your life?

Yoga has become a barometer for growth. It’s been a way for me, especially with consistent practice, to see how I’ve progressed on my spiritual, mental and physical journey. It also has become a clear reflection on where my mind is on any given day, because it constantly changes. The practice shows you so visibly where you are then. Do I feel distracted? Mentally conflicted? Everything I experience on the mat is a reflection of my mental experience.

Yoga has also taught me the language of letting go… the ability to not be too attached to the outcome. As amazing as social media is, it has this ability to present this picture-perfect yoga, which can make it very ego driven for the practitioner. It’s shown me to not attach to the asana to my ego in those experiences --- to allow what happens on my mat be what it is. Astanga in particular has given me a sense of structure and discipline. It takes it back to angles, shapes, dristi, and keeps me focused.

Do you have any mentors or teachers who have inspired you throughout your yoga journey?

All of them! Every class I take, I get something from the teacher. During my first training Joell Lanfrank was a huge fixture there and she was one of my first teachers. I was so inspired by her ability to be authentic and to keep it light-hearted. She was a huge inspiration to my teaching style.

What is your teaching style?

I teach Ashtanga as well as Vinyasa. I like teaching Vinyasa because it allows for creativity and enables me to play while giving a space for my students to play. I also enjoy teaching Ashtanga for the opposite reason. It allows my students to reflect and establish structure. I think both have value so I appreciate teaching both.

What have been some of the biggest benefits you’ve found - mentally, physically and spiritually - since you’ve started doing yoga?

The ability to have a place to go to commune with myself. Within the universal playground we all live in, there are so many external distractions and obligations, so many people to appease, so many environmental factors we have to cater to. I greatly benefit from seeing the reflections of my character, even the flaws and shadows that come up. Seeing how this manifests within provides the ability to acknowledge them and confront them. Maybe work through them but maybe not --- just to have the conversation and be aware of them. It’s made me realize how I talk to myself. It wasn’t until I started practicing diligently that I saw the depth of certain Samskaras, patterns that are ingrained and that I need to move away from.

What has incorporating yoga into your lifestyle taught you about yourself?

The mat is a direct reflection, and by practicing consistency you see very visibly how your mind reacts to obstacles, discomfort, success, to all of it. Those lessons are what to take from the practice. When you achieve growth in any yoga practice, when we get a level of proficiency, we want to attach to it. Like we have achieved something but there is no arriving, it's all an inevitable flow of high and low.

What is your favorite pose and why?

I really like back bending, partially due to my ego because they come naturally and I do them well. But I also love that it creates space in my heart. I feel so cleansed when I do backbends because I feel like I am expressing a part of myself that doesn’t communicate through words or other modalities. It provides a more visceral experience with the heart.

Do you have a mantra or quote you live by?

It varies from what I need in my life at any given point. I operate in extremes. When I am in a certain high or low, I seek for a different mantra or affirmation to help me stabilize and get through that period. My mantras are as transient as my life experience.

With Ashtanga I open with the prayers of Patanjali and close with the peace mantra. I love Ganesha Mantra prayers because I feel like I impose so many obstacles on myself. When I speak Ganesh mantras, I feel cleansed of that.

Air, Earth, Fire or Water - Which element speaks to you the most in your practice?

In my practice, it depends on what I am trying to balance. One that I am confronted with a lot is my earth element, part of my sun sign. I can be very Kapha, very lazy… so that’s something I have to bring fire to, to not let it take over my experience on the mat. The goal is to bring our elements into some kind of harmony. Often times, it is a combustible experience in trying to find that symbiosis.

What advice would you give to someone who feels too intimidated to try yoga for the first time?

It is not about the pants or the pictures, and being perfect is not the point. At lot of times, especially when we first enter a studio setting, we feel very intimidated. We see people doing things we can’t imagine being able to do. We see people fitting into a stereotype of what we expect yoga culture to be, and it’s not about that. You don’t need to fit in any box. It’s all about having an honest experience with ourselves, and I know it is easier said than done. Of course we want to grow in our asana practice, but if we can disconnect with our ego enough to understand it is not about the achievement but rather the process. It’s not about the advanced asana but rather the amount of work, tapas, initiative, and self dedication it takes to achieve that. That’s the process. That’s what I want to aspire to. It is cultivation rather than reaping the rewards.

Our mantra is “Live Limitless,” and we aim to inspire people to pursue their passions free of self-doubt or the pressures of societal norms. How has yoga helped you live limitless?

I can’t say with certainty that yoga has helped me live limitless yet. However, it has shown me that all of the limitations I’ve experienced are self-imposed. It has shown me the limitations I’ve put on what I can or cannot do. And it has shown me how to break through them or how to at least confront them.

Our perspective is everything. Knowing that we can break free of the limitations because they are in our own head is empowering and terrifying. It offers an opportunity to confront the shadows and the dark heavy stuff in front of you. Yoga helps you to peel back those layers and get to that soul shine, to that elemental light that is encapsulated within us all. Breaking free of limitations is more about awareness of the limitations I put on myself and how I can confront them, not necessarily battle them. We’re taught darkness is bad, but our strengths can be our weaknesses and our weaknesses can be our strengths. It is all transient.
By: Rebecca White