Chanting gives me immense joy, clears my head and I truly feel connected to the Divine: Martina Cifra Krizikova

Martina Cifra Krizikova who lives in Zvolenska, Bratislava, believes yoga is about healing and celebrating life with its “flaws, imperfections and wishful thinkings”, and not just about getting that all too perfect “asana performance.”

A student of Vedic teacher Smt Shantala Shriramaiah, Martina spoke to CSP about her journey in Yoga and chanting. So immersed she is in her practice, that apart from her mother, even her  five year old daughter taught bits of mantras to her mates at kindergarten. “I was sent videos from other parents showing their kids chant mantras they learned from my daughter. How cool is that!” says Martina.

Martina says her journey in Yoga started without much fanfare, and was almost “very cliché-like”. “A friend suggested we try out yoga and we went to a full led primary series Ashtanga Yoga class - which was of course way too difficult for me back then - but during the first sun salutations I knew that this was something I wish to keep doing for the rest of my life.” The year was 2009, when she was 28 and she says she still remembers vividly, “how those postures, focused gaze and breathing made me feel. I felt that I had arrived. I was home.”  How is the yoga scene  in your country? Are there are a lot of followers for the authentic tradition?

Our yoga scene seems very young and immature to me. Most people think modern postural yoga equals yoga. There are many yoga studios offering various styles of yoga, but that has nothing to do with some serious study or a teacher-student relationship for that matter. Moreover, there are still many preconceptions in the society such as when you practice yoga, you must also be Hindu. Or when men practice yoga, they are certainly gay. It would be funny if it weren’t sad, actually. On the other hand, there are definitely small groups of serious yoga practitioners whose origin can be ascribed to a great Slovak yogi, Mr Milan Polasek, who not only studied and practiced but also taught yoga to people when it was forbidden during the communist regime back in the former Czechoslovakia. You see, it was extremely difficult to get hold of any yoga literature and, moreover, it was basically forbidden to travel. Despite all odds, Mr Polasek persevered and his books on yoga are a true gem and remain a great inspiration for a serious yoga practice till today. In any event, the yoga community, albeit small, is steadily growing.

You are three generations of teachers? Can you tell us more about your team mates?

My teammates are my mother, Dana (65) who became a pilates instructor once she retired from her office job and who has been practicing yoga with me for years. The second team mate is Janka (48), a dear friend and certified Ayurvedic therapist and yoga practitioner, who helped me immensely in finding balance in my life. Chance had it that we got together and run a mini shala, where we teach in small groups (max 8 people) or hold one on one sessions. We have a very personal connection with each student, whom we try to help with combining our forces.

Your focus seems to be women in Yoga, Pilates and Ayurveda. How are the three connected?

The connection became apparent in hindsight. Usually, many people in the West are in pain due to hours of sitting in chairs on end, with lots of indoor time and too much of the wrong food too often and they seek pilates to alleviate symptoms, improve posture and build basic strength. Then they get better physically and become interested in yoga because it’s more accessible to them. So we introduce more practices, including breathing and meditation (maybe chanting) and eventually they start following simple Ayurvedic principles of a daily regime, food combinations, etc., and over time they become a different person altogether. As for women, over the years we realised that the women coming to our mini shala all displayed very similar health issues, ranging from menstruation, digestion, hormonal imbalances to depression…you get the idea. Since we are three women, each a mother of two, from different generations, we wanted to share our experience on how to get out of that mess. We realised there is nowhere much specialised information or individualised teaching that would specifically take into account women and their special needs. We have quite an impressive track record of women who managed to conceive, recover from various ailments, deal with their menopause, etc. So, that’s the connection for us.

Women undergo so many changes to their body throughout life. How does Yoga help make these transitions?

It’s truly remarkable how strong and adaptable female bodies are or rather can be. Through its function a woman’s body is naturally aligned with elemental rhythms of mother nature. Moreover, women’s bodies naturally provide gateways to spiritual transformation and yoga is just an ideal tool for supporting them. The main events triggering such transformations can mainly be: menarche (first menstruation), menstruation, ovulation, orgasm, pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, lactation, abortion and menopause.

However, due to the modern lifestyle in the West and I believe more and more so in India, people are plagued by chair culture and especially for women, the combination of sitting for far too much for far too long, in tight clothes, eating the wrong food or food combinations, barely any time spent outdoors, add to that gender inequality, gender-based violence (I don’t want to get into politics, but you get the idea) and high levels of constant stress, all of the above and much more has catastrophic ramifications for their health and hence for spiritual growth. Moreover, the typical Western lifestyle leads them away from deep intuition and inner wisdom. Women often feel disconnected, discouraged, disrespected, disregarded, depleted, disempowered and demeaned. In such a state, it’s hard to conceive, give birth, breastfeed and, simply put, raise children to become fully fledged members of society. It’s a vicious cycle.

From an anatomical point of view, yoga asanas help to keep the body strong and flexible, nothing new there. From a physiological point of view, asanas help to keep the internal organs massaged and toned, provided with fresh oxygenated blood in order to function properly. Other, more nuanced, practices, such as pranayama, meditation (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi), yantra, chanting, yamas and niyamas help to align the doshas, provide clarity of mind, a deep reconnection to self, innate wisdom and deep awareness. In my opinion, yoga in its broadest sense can serve women as a strong tool for empowerment on many levels and for the development of earth-honouring spirituality. God knows our society is in dire need of that given the current global crises.

Why did you take up chanting and how has it impacted your practice?

I was introduced to chanting pretty soon, since in the Ashtanga lineage people chant an opening and closing mantra with the practice. I always liked it. Then I attended the first of many workshops with Eddie Stern, who is a yoga teacher and also runs a Hindu temple in New York. We did a lot of chanting each day as well as pujas and I could feel the effect it had on my mind. I was brainwashed by mantras…(laughingly), or rather there were just mantras in my mind, everything else was still. I felt incredible. I was hooked. I learned a simple Ganesh puja from Eddie that I used to practice regularly for quite some time. And I learned the shanti mantras by heart that Manju Jois introduced at his workshops. I simply secretly recorded his chanting at the workshop and learned it by heart. I also learned to chant parts of the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras at intensive yoga retreats with a great scholar, Mans Broo, organised by my teacher, Petri Raisanen.

However, I got seriously into chanting, when Shantala Sriramaiah started teaching in Brussels and since I was occasionally working in Brussels, I always tried to make it for her classes, which were during the day so I could only go when I was on standby duty (I work as an accredited freelance interpreter for the European Institutions). Shantala, first of all, corrected the many mistakes I made in the shanti mantras, that’s when I realised that chanting the Vedas is a serious undertaking. I was ecstatic when Shantala introduced her online platform, so I could finish each course at my own pace, since I was able to attend maybe 1 or two classes in Brussels in person out of the whole course. Then the pandemic happened and Shantala started teaching online, which was an excellent opportunity for me. I was at home with a newborn, so all things considered, it was a win-win situation.

My practice is mainly chanting at the moment, it gives me immense joy, clears my head and I truly feel connected to the divine (it sounds silly, but simply I cannot put into words what chanting does for me).

My 5 year old daughter taught bits of mantras to her mates at kindergarten. I was sent videos from other parents showing their kids chant mantras they learned from my daughter. How cool is that!

Do you have any stories to tell about recovery and positivity from your students/clients?

Next year it’s going to be 10 years since I started teaching. I never planned or imagined I would be teaching. It somehow naturally evolved. It all started with a colleague who was already desperate because after hip-replacement surgery, she got thrombosis under her knee and no medication seemed to work. Doctors were telling her that she needed to have her leg amputated soon. So, my colleague asked me if I thought yoga could help. I was convinced that it could. Long story short, the thrombosis disappeared completely, much to the bewilderment of the doctors.

Thanks to yoga I’ve met many wonderful people who were very determined to change their lives for the better and were willing to work hard for it. My job is then quite easy and most of all enjoyable. Basically, the pattern is always identical. They take up the practice, they learn to focus for longer periods of time and become quiet, absorbed in themselves…and slowly things start to change. They become empowered, confident to be able to deal with whatever life throws at them and they sense better who they truly are and what they need to do. Many students become close friends. I’m grateful to be able to witness their journeys of transformation.

You seem to have learnt from many teachers, both Indian and Western. How do they differ?

This is an interesting question. I’ve met teachers, both Western and Indian, who were very inspirational, keen to share their knowledge and very humble. However, I’ve also met teachers, both Western and Indian, whose workshops (the most expensive ones!) were rather about them telling stories about themselves, gossiping about other teachers and dealing with any subject like a dogma. So, I’d say there’s only a very nuanced difference and that is that the Western teachers weren’t born and raised to become teachers and they definitely lack being part a family lineage of teachers, so in a way their way of teaching can be more accessible to the general public (in the West) on one hand and maybe “plagued” by their personal life story on the other. Indian teachers embody the teachings and their presentation is very clean, direct and devoid of any personal twists so to speak, which is a good thing but a person already needs some level of knowledge, otherwise they might have difficulty in following.