Marie Svoboda was a masterful teacher who brought yoga to Seattle in her 40+ years of teaching. She was the only yoga teacher to have a studio in Seattle in 1969 – mid 70s and continued teaching in the same location until 1998. From the late 60s through the 90s Marie was the hub of the yoga scene in Seattle and was the undisputed queen of yoga in Seattle for these decades.
Marie lived an epic life. She was born in a small town in Czechoslovakia on December 21, 1920 and ended up traveling the world many times over. She danced as a ballerina in Prague, Czechoslovakia and left Prague in 1947 to join and marry her fiancée Ladislav Svoboda who was working for the World Bank in Washington D.C. Marie studied yoga with the famous Indra Devi in the 1950s in Washington DC, moved to Seattle in 1966 and soon thereafter began teaching yoga. May you enjoy her amazing story.
Marie Svoboda’s Lifeline
- Marie Martina Anna Jana Ruzena Vojtova was born on December 21, 1920, in Nova Kdyne, a small town in southern Czechoslovakia. Her father, Frantisek Votja, was a legally trained notary; her mother, also named Marie, was a classically schooled soprano.
- The Vojta family, which included an older son, Vaclav, moved to Melnik, Czechoslovakia in 1925. Melnik is a scenic town where the Moldau River flows into the Elbe River. Melnik’s proximity to Prague allowed Marie to take many ballet classes in the culture-rich city of Prague.
- Marie studied ballet and other forms of dance in Prague through the 1940s and was a ballerina with the Czech National Theater, among other dance companies. It is not clear exactly how her dance career was affected by the brutal six-year Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia that began in 1939, yet it is clear that the arts were squelched under the Nazi occupation.
- She received her degree in physical education at Charles University in Prague.
- In 1947 Marie moved to Washington DC, where she married her fiancee, Ladislav Maurice Svoboda. Working for the World Bank, Ladislav was on temporary assignment from the Czech Central Bank and expected to return to Prague after a few years. However, when the Czech communists took power in a coup in 1948, they decided to remain in the United States and applied for asylum and eventual citizenship.
- Marie gave birth and raised two daughters: Jana and Patricia
- In the mid-50s Marie studied yoga in Washington DC with the famous Indra Devi and began her lifetime pursuit of the practice and teaching of yoga.
- From 1960 – 1966 the Svoboda family lived in the three varied countries of Kuwait, Pakistan, and Malaysia.
- In 1966 Marie moved to Seattle with her youngest daughter, Patricia, as her oldest daughter, Jana, had enrolled as a college student at the University of Washington. Marie’s husband moved to Washington DC and the two separated permanently, though they remained on amicable terms.
- From 1967 – 68 she taught yoga anywhere she could in the Seattle area
- In 1969 she opened her studio, Marie Svoboda Yoga, located at 6 1/2 Boston Street on Queen Anne Hill. Here she blazed a yoga path for many in Seattle. She taught nearly 20 classes a week at this very same location for 30 years until she closed her studio in 1998.
- From 1999 – 2008 she taught private yoga lessons in various places around Seattle and in Eastern Washington
- She died in Seattle on December 16, 2012 at the age of 91
- She is survived by her daughters, Jana Bertkau and Patricia Svoboda and by her three grandchildren
- Marie is remembered by many for her devoted service to yoga and to her students. Marie Svoboda unquestionably is the biggest yoga legend in Seattle’s history.
What Was Marie Svoboda Like?
Marie was a charismatic teacher who held full command in her classes through stern mannerisms and a ballet mistress type of persona. She taught something that was not possible to find elsewhere in the city of Seattle, something completely vital to one’s well being, yoga. She taught Marie Svoboda Yoga. The students kept coming for years on end because she was well-studied in the workings of the human body, was a masterful teacher and was a master yogini who practiced what she taught. She was very articulate and used her words very carefully. She was also quite the show person. She brought her strong background of ballet and modern dance with her when she taught yoga.
Though she stood only 5’2″ in height she projected an enormous aura field and emitted a huge presence in any room, especially in her yoga studio. Marie had eyes like a hawk and would penetrate right through whatever or whoever she was looking at. Her instructions were exacting and it probably seemed to most people that she was impossible to please. With her hawk-like eyes she would make very quick assessments about people and would not hold back with her comments. She told it the exact way she saw it, through piercing assessment that lacked any sense of diplomacy. She knew she was right and kept hammering her point home. Her deep, sonorous voice had a nice rhythm to it, and this steadiness had a somewhat hypnotizing effect on the class.
Marie was a proud woman – proud of her Czech background and proud of her ability to convey yoga exactly and precisely through the English language. Her impeccable English was spoken through a rather thick Czech accent. She was playful, at times, and had a brilliant sense of humor that I was often amused by. Most of her students were too intimidated by the whole show of Marie to “get” her dry jokes. She would have it no other way, as their attention was on the serious work of practicing yoga, just where she wanted their attention to be. In my opinion, her sense of humor and playfulness, though unnoticed by most, were two of the inner tricks she frequently used to keep herself fresh and in the present moment while teaching.
I began studying with Marie in 1971 at the age of 22. I was quite stiff from all my earlier years of athletic competition, and it was quite a challenge for me to get with Marie’s program. In spite of my body challenges, right from the beginning of my studies with her, I knew that yoga was the path for me. The longer I studied with her the more she opened up to me, and over a period of time, she molded me into a different person.
In the 40 years she taught yoga, a lot of different styles of hatha yoga came to the forefront and Marie was always open to seeing what else was being taught in the name of yoga. She carefully watched the explosion of the Iyengar approach to yoga that swept through Europe and the U.S. in the mid to late 70s and throughout the 80s. She studied with BKS Iyengar in India for three weeks in 1980 to experience the man in person. She was diametrically opposed to many of the Iyengar principles such as: excessive holding of any asana, the brutality with which BKS Iyengar adjusted students, internal rotation of the hip joints in tadasana, locking of the kneecaps, the egoic “show personality” that Mr. Iyengar brought forward when teaching, and so much more. She honored his dedication to practice and honored him as a great ambassador in the pivotal position of helping to spread yoga throughout the globe. In the end, she completely honored all the great yogis and yoginis, known and unknown, and all practitioners who ever gave yoga a try, as it has taken multitudes to carry the message of yoga forward.
Personal Stories with Marie Svoboda
Magic in the air: In the second Marie class I attended she was in the process of adjusting me in a particular posture when she looked right through me in one of her see-through Marie glances and said, “You’ve done this before. It’s nice to see you again.” I do not know what she meant by the words; however, that night I do know there was a powerful electrical charge that came from her body and moved through mine periodically during the class (whenever she came up next to me). This particular class is the one that hooked me into hatha yoga practice for good, and this palpable, intense charge of energy that moved through her form that evening was an energy I noticed on many other occasions.
A Medal for Marie: When I returned to the University of Washington in the fall of 1975 to finish my undergraduate studies it was a triumphant moment for Marie. As my yoga teacher she had become increasingly insistent that I go back to college to study and get a degree in whatever I was interested in. She had taken on a rebellious, anti-establishment hippie drop-out (me), who wanted nothing to do with any part of any American institution or any part of any of the well established social network systems, and slowly had convinced me that it was best to finish college and get back into the swing of life. My five year withdrawal from society was done. Upon hearing the news that, indeed, I was back in school at the U of W, she quietly remarked to herself, “I should be given a big gold medal for this.”
There are many Marie-isms (pet phrases she used frequently in teaching that illustrate some of her personality quirks). In her deep, throaty, Czech accented English she would deadpan these sorts of statements, again and again:
- Don’t just sit there like a plumb–you have to move!
- You are strong in all the wrong places.
- Keep your lips on the outside.
- Your feet are your foundation. Arches, arches, arches
- Everything starts from the spine.
- The way you move is the way you look.
- You should never see your elbows.
- Yoga isn’t an exercise, it’s a way of life.
Marie was unique and there will never be anyone quite like her again.
She did not try to copy any style of yoga. She created her own unique style and asked her students to do likewise during their practice time and possible teaching moments. She was dedicated to bringing forward sound principles of movement into the way asana was taught. She was a clear messenger of yoga. She taught pranayama and meditation and many kinds of yogic concentration exercises. Her pranayama and meditation guidance were practical and profoundly deep. She taught that body awareness should be brought forward in as many circumstances as possible. She taught how to walk, sit, sleep, breath, move, practice asana, concentrate, contemplate, and meditate. She taught the ancient system of yoga in the modern context of people’s lives in Seattle.
Marie Svoboda was an incredible being who blessed the Seattle community with her teachings for 40 + years. In her role as the charismatic beacon of the light of yoga in Seattle she helped many thousands of people practice yoga. She blazed a path that I and so many others could follow. The ripple effect of Marie Svoboda’s teachings is not possible to fathom because it continues right through into the present moment. For her physical presence in my life and for the teachings she impeccably relayed, I am forever grateful. Marie Svoboda was an insightful and powerful yoga teacher to be honored by all who practice yoga now. May the message of yoga reach far and wide through all of the present day yogis who are helping yoga to evolve into something even more grand than it has ever been.
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