This is an interview with Ann Marie Johnston. When I first arranged to talk with Ann Marie, I didn’t realize she lived in Melbourne, Australia, so we needed to adjust to the 18-hour time difference. Ann Marie is the founder of YogaMate, a global digital platform (website and app) connecting yoga professionals to their students and communities by providing them with tools and resources.
Rob: What originally motivated you to do service work?
When I reflect on how privileged my life is, I feel immense responsibility to give back in a meaningful way. You see, I grew up in a family where ‘giving back’ was simply considered a way of life. My school, Presbyterian College, had the motto, ‘While you live, you serve,’ which further instilled the expectation that we are meant to give back of our time and money.
Over the years, dabbling in varying roles, I never found a way through my professional career to make the difference I hoped to. When yoga entered my life, I knew I had finally found something I believed in that could make a real difference to others. Wanting to align my work and purpose, I began the mental and energetic shift away from a career as a marketing consultant, and towards a career sharing yoga.
Once I finished my yoga teacher training, I wanted to give time teaching as part of my contribution to society, yet I found it a real struggle to find local yogic charities to work with.
So with YogaMate, it was not only imperative that I give profits back to yogic charities, but it was a natural decision to create a free directory for yogic charities to better connect with teachers wanting to give their time.
How has yoga impacted your life?
For nearly 20 years, I lived with Persistent Depressive Disorder. My everyday life was permeated with a general low-grade depression, melancholy, and futile sense of “what’s the point of it all?” Despite taking medication for many years, I still felt a general sense of hopelessness about life.
In late 2008, I took a course that introduced the concept of being in the present moment. It was the first time in my life that I had been encouraged to stop the incessant chatter of the mind, and ‘just be.’ With this newfound tool under my belt, and an introduction to breath work, I launched into a study of yoga. Self-directed, I read books, began practicing asana, and introduced meditation into my life.
Over the years, a shift took place and my melancholy dissolved. One day it occurred to me that I no longer felt hopeless, and yet I was still mindlessly taking pills. I stopped cold turkey and never looked back. (NB: I do not advocate this approach—going off medication should be discussed and managed with your doctor.) I began to reflect on other ways in which my health and well-being had improved. My chronic headaches were gone, my allergies nearly non-existent, nor did I still experience symptoms of IBS. My relationships improved; I was less competitive, more compassionate and less judgmental.
Because of my experience, I wanted to better understand this question better, so I enrolled in a 500-hour teacher training. Though I had no intention of teaching when I began the course, mid-way through I realized: ‘how can I not share this with others?’
Before my teaching career could really take off, I sustained a significant (non-yoga related) back injury that ruled out my physical practice. My focus returned to breath work and I committed to a consistent meditation practice. In fact, it was during a meditation in May of 2014 that I conceived the idea of creating a digital platform to help spread awareness around the depth, breadth, and healing application of yoga.
Once the initial seed had been sown, I threw myself into creating YogaMate, a platform that enhances credibility for the therapeutic benefits of yoga, and helps ensure yogic tools are accessible to everyone. I honestly didn’t realize the mountain of a project I was about to launch into!
With a deep sense of purpose and commitment, and amazing support of the broader yogic community, I have since poured two years and significant savings into developing a platform that helps share the healing power of yoga with everyone.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your teaching experience?
Much of my ‘teaching’ (sharing) is done through YogaMakesLifeBetter – a blog/vlog I started when I was recovering from back surgery. Having readers and viewers share their challenges and successes both strengthens by commitment and inspires my own practice, and encourages me to be fully open and present.
In my local classes, it’s particularly rewarding when I see people connect to their breath, come into the present moment and find their inherent peace. Even if it’s only initially temporary and fleeting, I’m rewarded knowing that I’m sharing tips and tools that are always freely accessible. It’s like handing someone the blueprint to a happier life.
What have your students taught you?
My students help reinforce that I have the choice of how I meet my own challenges and that the only thing any of us can control is our thoughts. I’m constantly reminded that no one’s life is perfect and that every one of us has what can seem like insurmountable challenges. Seeing how some people move through life graciously, despite their challenges reminds me to stay grounded and be mindful of my own thought patterns. By choosing my thoughts, and where I place my energy, I am proactive about how I approach and engage with life, rather than passively allowing it to happen to me.
What, in your mind, is the relationship between a practice of mindfulness and greater social change?
Being mindful – particularly of your own thoughts – is the game changer. When we work on auto-pilot, it’s nearly impossible to think about the greater context.
When we are mindful – when we are aware – we see the inequalities, the injustices of life , and we can no longer just sit on the sidelines and pretend it’s not happening. Being mindful—awake—creates the impetus for action.
What are some of your ideas about, or hopes for, the future of service yoga in the next 10 years?
Though yoga is certainly not a quick-fix, I believe it truly has the power to transform lives and change the world in both subtle and significant micro and macro ways. I further know that if you can breathe, you can practice yoga—though not every teacher is right for every student. So with this sincere belief, my hopes are to help make yoga accessible to everyone, by connecting the community to the right teachers.
Beyond YogaMate, I personally aspire to help get yogic tools recognized as a crucial addition to national school curricula of the world.
I wonder how my own life would have been different had I been introduced to these freely accessible yogic tools when I was in my early teens, when my depression started. I consider everything I was taught in school, some of it immensely beneficial (some not!) and I can’t help but think that the current system lets us down. To reach 30 years of age without ever being encouraged to stop the monkey mind is a tragedy.
Help make yoga more accessible to those who can benefit most. Learn about ways to get involved with the Give Back Yoga Foundation.