Living with Intention - Meet Marti Johnston

by Kim Zanti   (June 2012)
photo by Scott Brown

My dear friend Marti Johnston has always been a searcher. She expresses her yearnings through movement, dance and yoga and passionately seeks to understand how our lives can connect with the divine. Eventually, all of her spiritual quests led to the same open road. The price to start walking on it was total deconstruction of urban existence and surrender to the unknown.

She trusted that even though her life was turned inside out, she could rebuild it, if she placed her yoga practice at its center. Trust didn’t come easy and the path has rarely been clear more than a few feet ahead. But she’s practicing and teaching yoga, going on four years now, in the beach community of Akumal, Mexico.

I asked her to share on my blog, how she transformed yearning into an intentional life through yoga.

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You left a good job with ODC Dance in San Francisco to practice and teach yoga on the beach at Akumal, Mexico. You followed your dream. Who or what influenced you the most to take the leap?

It was time for me to fully step into my real goal–to be happy, to live simply, to keep doing the work Embodying Divine Expression. Based on fruitful outcomes from past leaps of faith, I had reached the point of trust where I knew that if I stepped off the cliff edge, something wonderful would happen. I knew that I could do it. But this time was different in that it was quite unlike how I “normally” manifest, which is usually more by serendipity.

This time, I had torn out a full-page color photo of Shambala Petite Hotel in Tulum, Mexico from Yoga Journal and posted it on my fridge. The good job at ODC had afforded vacation time and enough money to buy a plane ticket. My parting words to my colleagues, at the end of yet another 12-hour workday, were “I just want to live on the beach and teach yoga.” One of my colleagues responded, “That sounds prophetic.”

My friend and I took the red eye from San Francisco to Cancun, then went on to Akumal, which is about an hour south of Cancun. On our first night we saw giant mother turtles lumbering onto the beach, taking hours to dig a nest and lay eggs, then lumbering back to the sea. Witnessing that changed everything. It altered my perspective so profoundly, and spoke directly to my soul. During our 10-day visit our hostess downloaded a ton of information about the turtles and also about the huge environmental degradation happening in the region, threatening the turtles and other critical water resources. This woman is a force of nature unto herself and a fierce environmental activist. In addition to running the family hotel business, she had also formed an effective Mexican non-governmental organization that stood in opposition to development of the sensitive ecological habitat that is Akumal Bay. I was hooked. I shared with her my skills and professional background in the non-profit world. I wanted to work with her, I wanted to do work that would connect me to the divine and to the land and sea and creatures that call this exquisitely beautiful place home.

Then, Pacha Mama, the Creative Force of the Universe, invited me home to the Place of the Turtles in the Land of the Maya on the Mexican Caribbean shore. I knocked on the proverbial door of opportunity and leveraged my organizational skills to do development work for the NGO in exchange for room and board in the family owned hotel. I also jumped up to the beachfront rooftop of my new home (the hotel) and started offering yoga classes. No one actually attended my classes! But, holding the space and time for them allowed me to sink into my own practice like never before. That was the door that opened into teaching yoga in the village at Yoga en Akumal. That diving into the power of my own deeply personal and devotional hatha/vinyasa practice led me to my true purpose.

What is/are the magical quality/ies in yoga that inspire(s) your spirit?

A true and deeply engaged practice of yoga is likened to alchemy. Both transform the base into what is pure, lead into gold. Both throw elements and archetypes into the cauldron for fire purification. The cauldron, the temple, is the body, which has been the laboratory for my work for 30+ years. I like to say that yoga is the system and science that, throughout my body, coheres my experience of dance, dance-making, sacred dance, dance therapy, my studies as a self-styled ‘lay theologian,’ of my attempts to penetrate quantum physics, chaos theory, neurobiology, shamanism. The asana practice connecting to breath holds the key to building physical and energetic heat which burns away impurities.

Asana simply means seat, a posture in which to meditate. While I practice and teach postures and breathing in the context of Hatha yoga, even more essential is my Bhakti practice. Bhakti is the yoga of devotion. This is what the key unlocks, throwing the heart open to love God constantly. This is where my dancing spirit began, in my body, through full-hearted breath, loving god. Direct and personal experience of the divine is called mystical. Sometimes a juicy practice that will include postures, breath techniques, chanting and eventually meditation takes me there, to that moment of bliss, of the union with my Beloved. For me, it is through the body, the physical experience, the asanas, that the pathway is laid.

I also practice as a Jnana yogi, one who seeks knowledge and wisdom in the philosophy found in the sacred writings of yoga and other traditions. A colleague calls it being a Yoga Geek. My intellect finds so much simulation and inspiration in the system and technology of finding one’s bliss! The juice for me is taking this stuff to the mat to check it out and see if it fits.

Throughout your life, who influenced you to make movement your life’s purpose?

The Universe, God, Great Mother, Great Spirit, Cosmic Soul, Creator/Creatrix …. I was beamed in with a mission to usher the divine feminine back into our lives through embodiment. Stepping into our bodies and becoming conscious of the many layers which surround our soul; of using disciplines (dance/yoga) to practice waking up to the present moment through direct observation of direct experience, we find our own Creative power to create our own bliss. Union. Yoga.

How does the light and land of Mexico influence the way you move?

I find myself perched between jungle and sea in this numinous space that is like a portal, a threshold. As I play on this bridge, entering the sea again and again, an ancient lineage of creatures, marine turtles, also cross the bridge, from sea to sand. My movement has become more connected to the water than any other time in my life since childhood, and it is playful. Sometimes it’s like my 12 year-old self. Sometimes it is my mermaid self. And sometimes my movement is just my breath pressing my belly into the sand where Turtle Mama has buried her eggs. I pretend as if I am Her. And when I dance in the presence of others here, I dance upon the limestone earth around sacred fire, attuned to the moon with drumming, ocean sounding, stars vast. And now, I sing when I dance!
Dance and movement comes in many ways. I move on a bicycle here. Spine long, legs powerful. The afternoon light on clouds and sea foam are so beautiful and I like to ride up and down our one road, perching at Half Moon Bay each way to adore divine creator at work! Wow!
The sea breath and sun light in the studio Yoga en Akumal creates a portal place. Literally, we are upstairs on one side of a white arch that is the entrance to our village. With six windows and a glass door on three sides, always the light is at play. Morning and afternoon light are equally delicious. This is the place where most of my lab work happens, intentionally investigating how my moving body embodies the divine. I have found tremendous satisfaction with asanas, with the way they contain so much in their archetypal forms. More and more, my asana practice is becoming less and less. I am adding more layers while doing fewer postures. All of the moving, moving, moving that I have done for these decades is finally settling more to stillness, to hanging out in the spaces in-between. And singing more; love songs to the G.
Sometimes music from my iPod will catch me and start twirling me around. It is fun to go off of the mat (I have a red mat with lady bugs stamped all over). Then I like to see if I can get movement into every bit and part of me, to just dance around, surrendering totally into the body doing what it wants to do.

Whose movement approach has influenced your own?

Authentic Movement is a form of dance therapy developed by a woman named Mary Starks Whitehouse from Carl G. Jung’s theories. Consciousness turns inward to the unconscious realms that the body stores to find the impulse to move. Following the movement thread draws the unconscious into the conscious and is observed by our own Witness. This witness is identified in Yoga lingo as our Intellect or Wisdom body/sheath, the vijnanamayakosha. I move as a mover and witness what the journey is, giving my body what it asks for allowing my practice to unfold. As this sheath, this witness looks outward, there is also a lens turned inward to the sheath of bliss, anandamaya kosha, the layer wrapped around the soul.

The person who created the link for me from dance therapy to yoga is Don Stapleton, with his integration of various somatic and yoga practices into a form he calls Self-Awakening Yoga®. I received my yoga teaching certificate through his center Nosara Yoga in Costa Rica. In that practice, you do something, then stop to observe, free of judgment, full of compassion specifically how energy/prana has been activated. By noticing, we wake up! Awakening consciousness is a fundamental principle for me.

How do you walk through fear?

In the early 1980’s I was exposed to some distilled teachings from the Course in Miracles, expressed through the notion that there is either love or there is fear. Fear is mostly ego based, love soul based. As much as I consciously can, I choose love, I choose living from my soul. That doesn’t mean I don’t get fearful or angry or sad or whatever, but at least I have a tool to reference that has been a pretty reliable guide.

As much as is necessary too, I will look through the lens of common sense and critical thinking! One of the key sorting questions to move to Mexico was “Why not?” Practically speaking I had no ties to mortgage, husband/children/family; my parents were still healthy and capable. Not one of the important people in my life, friends, boyfriend, or family actually lived in San Francisco. We are spread throughout the Western States. With varying workaholic schedules and the constant of traffic to contend with I rarely saw anybody. We talked on the phone. We emailed. We still do! Another key is that I wasn’t attached to the outcome. I sold or gave away most of my stuff which was marvelously liberating. However, with so much unknown, I left myself room to return in one week, one month, or at any time I felt unsafe or if my choice simply did not pan out. That I followed my heart was the important thing. Now it’s been 3 ˝ years, with no regrets.

Find more photos of the Yoga Duet here.


Marti Johnston - Photo by Scott Brown
Akumal Villas

Cabanas Tulum