In Conversation With: Maris Degener
Yoga is a practice - a practice of self-love, of looking inward, of dedicating your kindness to yourself, the people you connect with on the mat and your surroundings. Maris Degener is testament to this.
You may have caught her heart stopping documentary, “I Am Maris: Portrait of a Young Yogi”, which tells the tale of a girl whose self-worth was caught up in body shame and negative self-talk - and whose journey led her to become a yoga teacher at just 16. We spoke to Maris about her life and the lessons she has learnt. And we are so grateful.
For those who haven’t seen your beautiful documentary, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you arrived on the mat?
Today, I am a yoga teacher, mental health advocate, writer, and university psychology student. But not too long ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I was hospitalized for a life-threatening eating disorder. Although the hospital offered me the gift of saving my physical body, I still had a long way to go with healing my mind and soul afterward I was released. My doctor recommended I try yoga ("because it's just stretching!"), and I leapt at the chance to move my body again after so long on bedrest. What I found on my mat, of course, is that yoga is so much more than "just stretching."
How do you move through your days?
With purpose in my heart.
Do you see your yoga journey as a way of healing?
Absolutely. What my teachers showed me was everything beyond the "just stretching." I learned about the Yamas and Niyamas, the eight limbed path, meditation...ultimately, I learned how to care for all elements of myself, not just my physical body. When my teacher Jenni offered me a chance to go through a teacher training, I experienced the healing of finding purpose and a voice for the first time: and that was a real catalyst for change in my life.
How has your experience with mental health shaped you?
So much beauty can come from challenge...but when I was in the thick of challenge, I remember people saying that and just rolling my eyes. It was hard to imagine that beauty was to be found on the other side (or even in the midst) of a challenge that felt so much greater than myself. But the reality is, going through what I did offered me compassion, empathy, and a chance to connect to what has become a large part of my life's purpose: seva, or service. And to be honest, without going through my mental health challenges I don't know that I ever would have landed on my mat, or at least, I don't know that it would have resonated in the same way.
When was the moment that yoga really clicked for you?
I think there were many moments where different elements of the practice "clicked," but one that stands out in my mind was the first class I ever took at Just Be Yoga, where I first began practicing and where I still practice and teach today. I remember just being drenched in sweat, having no clue what was going on, but smiling. I really hadn't been smiling much at all for years at this point, and this one felt so genuine and so effortless in a way I'd forgotten could exist in my body. What I realized is that there was no way to be "perfect" at this practice, and yet, I could still access so much joy in it.
Your teaching focus is on vinyasa flow - what is it about vinyasa that made you feel called to it?
I fell in love with Vinyasa because it offered me a sense of grace and ease that I hadn't found in any other aspect of my life. In a time where sitting still with my thoughts didn't feel safe, Vinyasa allowed me to find what my teachers called a "meditation in movement," and eventually, that made stillness feel accessible to me.
You completed your YTT and became a certified teacher at 16 years old. Did you face many difficulties being such a young teacher?
I did experience some disrespect from students who assumed I wasn't the teacher or should not be the teacher in the room. I won't pretend I was a master of my craft at 16 or that I didn't still have so much to learn (today I still have much to learn, by the way), but I always cared. I had a passion for sharing the practice and giving back to something that had given me so much: and I always saw myself as a vessel for the practice. I said "yes" to every chance to teaching I could: at lunch in the gym at my high school, at 6am before class, at local businesses for teens and children...I just wanted to offer anyone I could the chance I had to connect to the practice beyond the idea that it's "just stretching." And ultimately, that sense of purpose drowned out anyone who questioned my role as a teacher.
Why do you love to teach?
I love teaching yoga because I get to foster and witness transformation. Ultimately my job is to offer a long list of suggestions and my students create the magic themselves, so I see my role as placing the power and autonomy in my students' hands. Something about that fills me up, knowing that at least for the hour that they're on their mat, I can offer them a safe space to be in the driver's seat as I offer a road map to trying a new way of being.
Who or what inspires you - how and why?
My teachers inspire me with their grace, humility, respect for the practice, and patience with me as I took my sweet time figuring things out. Jenni Wendell, Malia Hill, Nicole Harrow, and Jessica Micheletti were my first teachers and I could never say their names or thank them enough.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
You are already worthy.