Susanna Harwood Rubin
Visual Artist, Writer & Certified Yoga Teacher, Susanna Harwood Rubin
Posted on: February 16, 2012 | Go to profile
Though she divides her time between the art studio and the yoga studio, Susanna’s work is anything but divided: her classes offer a multiplicity of ways for students to experience their inner beauty, interweaving myth, poetry, philosophy and a physical practice. She travels regularly to South India to study the traditions of Rajanaka Tantra with scholar Dr. Douglas Brooks, and teaches internationally, while based at New York City’s Virayoga. Her artwork is in many collections, such as the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Addison Gallery of American Art. She has regularly lectured and written for MoMA in addition to several other magazines and blogs. Susanna is an innovator in spiritual wellbeing, and supports the Srividyalaya Matriculation School in Madurai, South India, which gives underprivileged children access to a complete primary and secondary education, as well as the Breast Cancer Fund, which researches environmental factors in women’s health.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: I would ask her to outline what she was passionate about and to come up with as many different ways of supporting and directing that passion in her life. I would ask her to get really clear about what she needed and what she wanted out of life – her essentials and her desires. I would ask her to think about what made her life feel meaningful on a daily basis and whether that might be something that she could structure a career around or whether her job might support that meaningfulness in another way.
Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?
A: Social Networking has transformed my career in the past couple of years. Through blogging and using Facebook, I have been getting recognition for my writing, which has absolutely shifted my position in the yoga world. I am beginning to be invited to teach in more places nationally and internationally, and people are inviting me to speak and to write for their publications more and more. I find that I spend a couple of hours a day doing it about four times a week. This is a lot, but it is working, so I clearly need to keep it up.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: OOH! fun. My style is casually body-conscious and sexy. I go more toward a french or Mediterranean aesthetic – slip dresses and sandals are my perpetual favorites – streamlined jeans and a beautiful tank-top (dressy or not). I love to dress up, but nothing kittenish or vampy. I favor a timeless elegance more than an of-the-moment trend. Not much make-up, natural hair. Groomed but not fussy.
ON Personal Finance
Q: What are your top 3 personal finance tips for women?
A: Put money away with every single paycheck, no matter how small the amount – pretax is best, so an IRA or something similar.
Pay your credit card bill in full every month – don’t have debt.
Make trade-offs. You want that coat? Cook at home for a week!
Q: Which book(s) has had the most significant impact on your life and why?
A: I read voraciously – mostly literature, but also lots of yoga texts, biographies, food writing, and essays.
Proust definitely is my all-time favorite writer. And, yes, I really read it all. His exquisite prose, his close attention to the quotidian, his finding beauty in a particular note, taste, or gesture, and his brilliant descriptions of the metaphysical experience of memory being unlocked through the senses blew my mind when I first read him years ago. Still does.
In terms of contemporary writiers, I love Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Geoff Dyer, Alain de Botton.
Q: What are you most passionate about, and how do you incorporate it into your career or everyday life?
A: I am by nature a joyful person, but I am also passionate, which is not the same thing. By passionate, I mean that I experience the full spectrum of emotions deeply and that I embrace life in all of its wildness-I dive in, open to joy, but also heartbreak - I’ll take it all.
I choose happiness. This is important. Happiness for most people has to be a choice and then a practice. Once you decide that you really want happiness to be your default state, you have to cultivate it in the smallest ways. One of my happiest moments is my morning tea. A moment of quiet – a cup that feels good in my hands – a delicious taste. Every morning I am reminded by the rich simplicity of this small moment of how much beauty there is in the world, and I feel utterly happy.
So when I see an amazing artwork, have a great yoga practice, eat a great meal, have an great conversation, write a great sentence, finish a drawing, etc, I revel in the joy of it all. Happiness and joy are at the center of my life.
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite destinations?
A: Paris, because it’s where I came of age, had my first apartment, food shopped and cooked completely for myself for the first time, learned how to dress, learned to speak french, and I feel utterly at home there.
Chidambaram, India because it is where Nataraja danced – my spiritual home-part of me resides there.
The ocean – any beautiful clean salty ocean – the sound-smell-taste-feel of it
Q: It is a common saying that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Can you share a story about a time when you experienced a mistake, and how you eventually came out a winner because of the lesson it taught you?
A: Early on I auditioned for a couple of yoga jobs. At one the guy had us in a group interview and immediately took a dislike to me, which was strange – almost as if he had mistaken me for someone else. It was evident to everyone. He was openly critical and unpleasant to me. Immediately after, it had been arranged that I was to sub a class at the studio, so I asked him if he still wanted me to continue and he said yes. I taught the class, got two people up into handstand for the first time and they loved it. At the end, thinking that I had won him over, I asked him what he thought. He proceeded to rip me apart for over a half hour and I was stunned, never returning to pick up my paycheck. I was completely traumatized by his verbal abuse. But he said one thing that stuck with me: in speaking of another yoga teacher, he observed that she never spoke in an apologetic way. Everything that she said and did was with conviction. It was the one thing he said that wasn’t mean-spirited and it stuck with me.
The second audition was a huge group class at Crunch Gym – about 45 teachers – all different styles – numbers picked out randomly, so we just had to get up and teach whatever. Since everyone was nervous but wanted to show their skill, they kept instructing difficult poses for the right side and we were all completely sore and uncomfortable as a result. I accepted the absurdity of the situation and decided not to instruct a challenging pose that might get me hired, but to do something that I absolutely knew would benefit the entire room. So instead of handstand or a balancing pose, I sat everyone down and taught Baby Leg Cradle – left side first. Everyone laughed and was grateful and I exited knowing I would not get hired, but I didn’t care.
Q: What are the beauty items you could not live without?
A: Disposable contact lenses, Pratima moisturizer, and Pangea Organics lip balm. I’m almost completely organic/all natural in this area. And I love black eyeliner and lately mascara
ON Cooking & Food
Q: If you were stranded on an island and could have an unlimited source of 3 foods (and calories were not a concern), what would they be?
A: I love cooking and my best childhood friend was Sicilian, so I grew up being put to work in her grandmother’s kitchen, for which I am grateful every day. My approach to cooking is about smell, taste, and instinct – I don’t like to measure and I never copy a recipe exactly. I go to the farmers market three times a week and try to cook with the seasons as much as possible.
My essential foods are 1. pasta with a garlic-basil-tomato sauce, 2. oysters, 3. stinky cheese. These will all be paired with wine.
Q: What’s your best buy ever?
A: My best buy ever was a used but never-worn Proenza Schouler coat from a high-end used clothing store – long and form-fitting with leather trim and a long diagonal zipper. I bought it for approx 1/5 the original price. I continue to worship it.
Q: Who are your favorite designers?
A: My favorite designer of all time was Mayle, but she recently stopped designing. I like a lot of clothing from Calypso, Catherine Malandrino, Isabel Marant.
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite places to shop?
A: Paris – the Marais; Nolita, NYC; Indian Markets in Tamil Nadu
Q: What place in the world has the most sentimental value to you and why?
A: Probably the grass in my parents backyard. They still live in the house where I grew up and playing in the lush grass and clover is a powerful childhood memory.
Q: Oprah has that great section in her magazine “What I know for sure.” What do you know for sure?
A: I know for sure that beauty can be found in the smallest moment, the tiniest gesture or exchange. It is never not present. I know that beauty and joy reside at the core of every individual human being. It is simply a question of access.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: I am a Yoga Teacher, a Visual Artist and a Writer. I have been deeply engaged in art making and in writing since I could hold a pencil. Yoga appeared more sporadically throughout my life, and finally surged into the forefront in the past few years.
Upon completing my MFA, I dove into the heart of the art world, where I had immediate success showing extensively in the US and in Europe. My work was written up in Flash Art, The New York Times, Sculpture, Paris Télerama, and is represented in many private and public collections, such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Berkeley Museum, and The Addison Gallery of American Art. In addition, I was awarded residencies at Art/Omi, and at the American Academy in Rome.
Simultaneously, I was lecturing and writing for MoMA, ultimately co-writing a book entitled Looking at Matisse and Picasso, in addition to coordinating outreach programs for NYC public schools and Community Organizations. I collaborated closely with Harvard University’s Project Zero to write and implement Arts Education Curriculum in New York City as well as in Caracas, Venezuela. In my last couple of years on staff at MoMA, I created and implemented art-based creative writing courses.
In the midst of all this, I had cultivated a strong yoga practice, which was truly my refuge from the intense politics of the art world. And then… 9-11 happened, and the only thing that felt deeply meaningful to me was yoga. This surprised me. Then it turned my life upside-down.
Unbeknownst to me, the yoga that had been speaking to me so powerfully was Anusara Yoga, and with some coaxing, I decided to participate in a Teacher Training, which eventually led to my becoming a Certified Anusara Yoga Teacher. Day One of TT in January 2002, I met Tantric scholar Dr. Douglas Brooks. Everything that came out of his mouth was oddly familiar, as if I were hearing my deepest thoughts articulated for the first time. The direction of my future was sealed. I realized that my path was as some sort of artist-yogi, and that I would have to invent myself because the paradigm did not yet exist. Ten years later, I am expanding my teaching in order to connect more deeply with the greater Yoga Community, and am excited about this new direction.
Inspired by my years at MoMA, I continue to take great delight in distilling complex concepts into clear and vivid language, although my focus has shifted from Analytical Cubism to Hindu Tantrism and the most refined and artistic alignment system I have ever encountered. I discovered that writing bridges the gap between my artist self and my yogi self. The writing is the connector.
I wrote a weekly column called Finding Beauty about yoga, creativity, and cultivating beauty in everyday life for SocialWorkout.com for over a year and I now write for Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. I recently launched a course called Writing Your Practice in collaboration with the Yoga Teacher Telesummit, which uses Yoga philosophy to drive the practice of writing. I was in a museum and a gallery exhibition this past fall, and am currently working on a series of small drawings. I love my teaching, my artwork, and my writing. At the core of everything I now do is a profound embrace of creativity, of thought, and of beauty.
Q: What are 3 characteristics that you believe define great leadership?
A: The 3 qualities that I believe define great leadership are passion, a structured vision, and integrity.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the weeds of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: My vision for my career is of living a wildly creative hybrid life of Yoga-Art-Writing. I plan to combine the three in ways that have just begun to percolate. Combining the Yoga and Writing pieces have been the clearest part of this. The artwork often tends to be separate, which partially has to do with the art world’s suspicion of anything an artist does that is not strictly art making. The yoga has profoundly influenced my artwork, however, and these three areas continue to evolve together in surprising ways.
When I have a set-back, it is generally related to losing sight of the big picture because I’m tending to the details of daily life. When I hold tightly to my meditation and asana practices, I do the best. Carving out the time is essential – tough these days, but I need to continue to remind myself. In addition, travel is utterly inspiring for me, and I try to move around the world on a regular basis, reminding myself of the richness and beauty of utterly different ways of life. I find that my writing comes alive as a result.
Q: Do you (formally or informally) mentor anyone? If so, who and why is it rewarding?
A: I mentored literally hundreds of NYC Public School Teachers during my years at MoMA – it was a big part of my job. My goal was always to make them feel comfortable, empowered, and to recognize their own innate abilities. This is what I now do when I mentor new yoga teachers. I teach skills, but I am most interested in helping people uncover their inherent gifts and to recognize the power of their own voices. The Sanskrit word for this is Adhikara, meaning your individual gifts, what you, in particular, bring to the table and can offer to the community. In a sense, being a yoga teacher is like being a mentor, because we can assist people in connecting with their inner beauty
Q: Is there an example in your life of a time when others were against you or your dream, yet you persevered?
A: I cannot think of one huge specific incident, only a collection of smaller ones. I know, however, that my ability to go for what I want and to fight for what I believe in is rooted in the fact that I am blessed with a phenomenal family who offers me unwavering support and unconditional love. They believe in me in my most challenging moments. This helps me to recognize my own love for myself, for which I am unendingly grateful.
bell hooks wrote a very interesting book on love – some of it I liked and some I didn’t, but she pointed out that the love we feel is our own, not dependent on any outside object, which is really just a target or an expression of our love. The Tantric tradition puts out that our very nature is desire or love. Everything we truly need is within. In the moments when I really get this, nothing can shake me.
ON Taking Risk
Q: How do you overcome feelings of insecurity, fear or discomfort when deciding to take a risk?
A: When I walked away from a successful career at MoMA, it was difficult. I knew it was not what I wanted to do, yet loved many things about it. I had earned wonderful opportunities for myself within the Education Department, such as writing books, creating programs in Caracas, Venezuela, and producing videos in collaboration with Harvard’s Project Zero, their Arts in Education think tank. My boss told me that she absolutely believed in me and that she saw a great future for me there, but I knew that my life was as an Artist and as a Yoga teacher and I had to follow what I loved. Leaving the prestige, my ascending museum career, and stepping into a realm in which I had no institution to back me up was terrifying. It was also the best thing I have ever done for myself. I had to cultivate an absolute conviction in my abilities – as an artist, as a yoga teacher, and now, as a writer, and have faith that they would offer me even more than what I had. It has been great and I still have so much I want to do, but I listened to my heart on this one, and it keeps rewarding me in the most surprising ways.
ON Time Management
Q: How do your prioritize your time?
A: I do so many different things that I have to create a structure for my activities. Sometimes I make little grids of “to do” Post-its on my desk and go through them methodically so that I can have little moments of satisfaction of each time I finish a task & peel it off. I tend to be creative at night, so I often let it flow, but make up the sleep via a nap the next day. I always prioritize several things however: talking with family and friends, eating healthy and beautifully presented home-cooked meals, practicing yoga and meditating, and taking a long bath or shower at the end of the day. There are so many things I want to do –and such short days, but I know that if I don’t take care of myself in these ways, I feel depleted.
ON Giving Back
Q: Can you share with us an experience of giving that was extremely rewarding or transformational?
A: I support Planned Parenthood, Naral, The Breast Cancer Fund, The Srividyalaya Matriculation School in Madurai, South India, and The Akasha Project (which brings Yoga to under-served NYC populations).
My work last year teaching Yoga to at-risk teen girls in East New York through the Akasha Project was extremely special to me. I wanted to offer them tools to find their stable centers at all times and to recognize their own beauty. I support causes that empower women and promote education.
Q: What are the top 3 things that you do to stay healthy?
A: Yoga, including Meditation and Pranayama
Eat organically as much as possible, cook as much as possible, be very discerning about food
Use essential oils, organic beauty products
I work so much that I am sometimes sleep-deprived, so I have finally taught myself to nap this year. That may not sound like much, but it has been very exciting for me!
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite places to get lost?
A: The winding back streets of Rome, the jungle – lost in its sounds and smells and all of the green (not too lost though!), and great museums such as the Metropolitan Museum and the Louvre
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite restaurants?
A: SO hard to choose…in New York, Mary’s Fish Camp for dinner and Morandi for brunch. In Paris, the Marche des Enfants Rouges (an outdoor market) has a North African food stall that is outrageously good.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top values that make up a meaningful relationship?
A: For a meaningful relationship, it is essential to have love, trust, loyalty, and compassion.