Modern MUSE 03 - Zoja Smutny
We were able to just catch Zoja Smutny as she breezed through Berlin last April. The dancer, healer, artist and yoga instructor has the kind of presence that immediately demands your attention. Gentle, yet forceful, she confidently inhabits herself and her surroundings.
‘I have no home but me’, venerated words by sculptor and author Anne Truitt take on new meanings through the conversation with world-roamer Zoja. Hardly in one place for very long at a time, the founder of Curated Life Retreats, has curated her own life in a way where her home is wherever she goes.
Zoja Wearing the Ade Velkon Worker Jacket and the Maria Morgana Selena Slip Dress in Sage
What dictates what you wear and what you feel comfortable in?
I’ve always cared about what I wear. Even as a little girl, thinking about what I’d wear the next day would excite me. I do love clothes, but I don’t feel like they define me. I feel quite comfortable in myself, and the clothes I wear are a way to present that—a way of being present in my body and in the world. It’s not about being conceited, I just don’t want to be shy about the fact that I am comfortable.
The types of clothing I feel good in changes over time. In my twenties I only liked very tight clothes. Now, while it’s not that I don’t feel like I can show off my body anymore, I gravitate more towards loose and elegant styles.
What you’re describing sounds sensual. Can we talk about sensuality? What does the word mean to you?
It is a very big word for me! I relate more to the word sensual than sexual. Again I think it comes from being secure in my own skin and with myself in relation to the world around me. It’s about embodying who you are.
Sensual is different than sexual. It’s a tease, and an attraction—it alludes but doesn’t reveal all. I’m drawn to sensuality in other people, as opposed to the outwardly sexual. Sensuality belongs in that roam of attraction and desire, but it manifests in many ways. Not everyone has this energy, and I don’t think it’s something that can be bought and put on.
I view sensualism as an extension of mindfulness, pertaining to being fully present and immersed in the current moment—how we embody and interact with our surroundings. I’m curious about how sensuality plays a role in your life and work in general?
As a performer, I spend much time thinking about and developing artistic practices that deal with presence. Less interested in the ‘show and tell’ format, which I often find strange, I always question how we (the audience and I) are going to spend an hour together. I’m interested in the back-and-forth, rather than me ‘showing you something’.
Presence is obviously a big thing in yoga and meditation, which is another aspect of my work that I incorporate into performance, and that has helped me cultivate presence. I’ve come to realize that I can’t control what anyone’s going to think about me, but I can control the energy that I need to exude. It doesn’t work if you think that ‘a body in a space’ is enough.
Part of my practice and routine involves walking. Everywhere that I am and in all places I travel to, I spend a lot of time just walking around. When I don’t have a designated studio, this is also when I create my performance practice.
On these walks I don’t do anything out of the ordinary, I’m just aware that ‘they can look at me’ and ‘I can look back at them’. Often we’re not aware that we’re part of the bigger picture. I’m interested in what happens when we acknowledge our part in the picture that is happening. If you start to look at everybody and they look back at you. To me, it’s about being responsible for your presence. Often you hear people placing blame on others, ‘they did this, and they did that’. But what about you? What vibe are you giving off?
So, I understand sensuality as cultivation of presence. It’s about immersion, interaction and playfulness as well.
Zoja Wearing the Ade Velkon Rib Knit Tee in White and the Maria Morgana Peitha Pants in Sage
I see this relating to your Island Yoga retreats. In your description, you write that ‘yoga is happening all the time’. What exactly do you mean by this?
Yoga on the mat becomes about a traditional practice—one that does work, but I also have my own idea of what yoga means to me. Coming from dance, I also taught pilates for ten years, and while it gives you a nice body, I got bored teaching something that doesn’t go beyond a nice looking muscle or line. With yoga, I always had the feeling that the postures go beyond the poses themselves. Trusting that the asanas were beyond me and were created to allow you to go deeper, whether you want to call it spiritual or not, it became apparent that it needs to happen all the time.
I’ve seen it, especially with the A-types, that they come out, throw their mats down, do their powerful practices and then they’re out. Who cares if you’re not also cultivating a presence and an awareness beyond what’s going on in your own mind? With yoga you’re sharing the space and energy with the people you practice with, so be nice! That’s why I try to share yoga as a way of living. We may call it mindfulness, all though I find the language problematic and that it brings about this image that we need to be constantly drinking juices and weirdly detoxing things. I don’t prescribe to that. I believe in making healthy choices, but you still need to be a good person. Prescribing to those things don’t necessarily make you a good person. And I believe you can both drink wine and do yoga. Why shouldn’t you? I’m not saying to damage yourself, but there can be a balance.
I live in 2019, as a 45 year old international woman. I’m not a yogi. No one in a city like this can be a true yogi as it demands that you function completely outside of the system. We are faced with figuring out how to live within the system—which is not a yogi system. If I need three coffees to get through the day, I won’t pretend, and I won’t feel bad, and I’ll still show up to yoga.
To me, I’m doing yoga right now because I’m present for the situation. That’s what I want to get out of it: to be present, not just with my body, but also with my heart and mind. When you join me on the island, it’s not about the one hour in the studio, it’s about the whole experience. Yoga is about taking in, as opposed to reacting immediately.
Zoja wearing the Maria Morgana Clio Crop Top in Onyx and the Hera Pants in Alabaster
Yes, I definitely relate and believe that you can be a full and complex human being and that this is ok.
Yes, it should be celebrated! It’s interesting that what was originally created in order to wear the human body down in order to be ready to meditate has been taken in such a different direction. I teach yoga, but I don’t see myself in ‘the business of yoga’—I don’t represent that world, and I don’t sit around and discuss poses with yoga people.
The work I do with Reiki and Thai Massage, on the other hand, is something I love to discuss. I can picture myself becoming an old woman by the sea and have people come to me when they need my help. In this work it’s not about me, I’m a vessel. This work is very intimate and one-on-one, and something I want to keep pursuing to build a stronger practice.
When I work with touch one on one I’m fulfilled in a way that I’m not with anything else, but for now, I can’t do touch full time, unless I’m by the sea—it’s too draining, and I’m not a good protector of other people's vibes and energies. For now, I enjoy the four months out of the year in Greece to practice this work, and I let the sea and the sky take care of it (the various energies congregated during a healing session). If I had a small therapy room in the city, I don’t think I could do it.
Do you integrate healing into your other practices?
I’ve tried to merge healing with contemporary art for years, without making it a commodity. I’m also a bit allergic to the current trend in contemporary art, to use the language and perform rituals and shamanic practices.
Incorporating touch into art is challenging in our time. I take it for granted that I touch people in my work, and I’ve always used my hands to correct students in yoga classes. Now, it’s become the norm many places to ask for consent before doing that. I don’t always know how to talk about it—it’s a difficult topic. For me, touch has always been a healing experience, but many people have had different experiences, so it’s an area where I keep learning. I see my job partially to be creating a trustful environment where you can feel safe.
We don’t access this kind of healing touch very often—it’s not like our lovers know how to do that unless we’re lucky. Conscious touch can give us very important information about our bodies, and it’s a loss to have that taken away.
It’s an important conversation because touch can also be aggressive and violent. It’s an interesting time; It’s a really progressive time and also a very conservative time. I’m trying to figure out how to navigate within that.
Zoja wearing the Maria Morgana Clio Crop Top in Onyx and the Hera Pants in Alabaster
Constantly moving and flowing, how do you keep your balance, and where do see the currents taking you ahead?
To demystify, I was born in the Czech Republic to a Czech father and greek mother. Escaping the communist regime, the Red Cross brought us to Canada where I stayed until my thirties. Moving around didn’t come from a place of wanting to discover or jump around, but rather it was embedded in me from an early age to not to be in one place. Coming back to Europe after finishing my studies at Concordia, I wanted to be an artist in Europe, and I could because I already had a passport, and a set up of people.
As I’m getting older, it’s harder to jump locations, and it’s not as fun anymore. On the other hand, it’s great to interact with what’s happening culturally and politically in so many different places—to be engaged with the world in an actual way, rather than reading about it.
Living in Athens, I had such an incredible experience. It was really hard there, because making money there is nearly impossible, and that’s just the reality. Being a port city, there were a lot of refugees, a situation showing you just how fortunate you are to have the freedom to escape at your own will.
I started volunteering to give massages to refugee women—and that was the first time I really got to use a healing practice for the real intent of healing, as opposed to as an economy. We all need healing, but this was about healing of trauma.
The experience showed me that healing is part of what I want to focus on moving forward. I want to find a way that I can keep offering something like what I offered there, without letting go of having an art practice. I’m working on finding a way to integrate it all in a balanced and healthy way!
Join Zoja at one of her Curated Life Retreats on the Greek island of Folegandros.
This interview was conducted and edited by Berlin-based writer Ena Dahl. You can enjoy more of her written word at