Finding our own yoga

“We each have to find our own yoga,” Angela Farmer, the luminous 76-year-old yogini, gently encouraged us.  “One of the greatest joys,” she continued, “is to be unbound by tradition, by teachers, by religion.  No teacher or teaching should inhibit your own path.  Only take away what has nourished part of you.  Find what works for you, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel more like yourself.”

Last weekend, I was one of 40 or so people attending Farmer’s workshop entitled “The Yoga of Soma and Psyche,” which was part of the “Yoga and Psyche Conference” at the California Institute of Integral Studies.  I had been eagerly awaiting the weekend for months.  As one of the world-renowned, older generation of yoga teachers, Farmer teaches yoga in a way that might surprise and even offend yoga “purists.”  Eschewing specific applications of alignment and technique for intuitive movement guided by one’s personal experience, Farmer is a unique voice in the yoga world.

As Farmer led us into postures, we began with “snake-dog.”  The pose was downward-facing dog, yet this was not the hands-rooting, thighbones-back, legs-and-arms-engaged, spine-extending, impeccably-aligned pose you may be familiar with.  We were instructed to move how our bodies wished to move, to trust ourselves, to move like animals and nature as we were guided from the inside.  As I glanced around the room, I saw 40 different shapes – undulating spines, arms lifted, dogs low to the ground and hips wiggling toward the ceiling.  A woman who had undergone recent surgery in her shoulder was on hands and knees, as another lay on her belly to rest.

The workshop moved me deeply.  For the past few years, two parts inside of me have been at war in my yoga practice.  There is the voice that is struggling to “get it right.”  This voice feels insufficient and fearful.  This part of me has sought out and studied with proficient yoga and meditation teachers who have taught me hundreds of rules about how to perform postures correctly (alignment alignment alignment), how to meditate properly (time of day, ritual, technique technique technique), how to be a “spiritual person.”  This is the one inside who seeks more training and more understanding and more meditation retreats and who is striving toward an ideal of yoga teacher, meditator, spiritual adherent.  

And there is a quieter voice.  She is the one who remembers the injury 3 years back, and the disillusionment upon realizing that alignment principles and superstar teachers hadn’t (couldn’t have!) prevented it.  She is the one who encourages me to practice postures with little reliance on form or “the right way,” and the one who delights in the relaxation and ease in body-mind that results.  She notices the tension that collects in my body as I study and apply “proper” alignment/breath/sequencing/technique.  And she is the one who begs that I let this all go.

Farmer’s workshop gave us all full permission to listen and trust our bodies.  My wish as a teacher is to to offer my students permission to do the same.  Farmer likened this practice to leaving the church – the church of “traditional,” “established,” formalized yoga approaches.  In most modern yoga practice, we are rarely given space or time to honor the wisdom we each have inside.  Yet if we could each practice this honoring in our postures – “how does this body feel and want to move, at this point in time?” – we might uncover the natural freedom and joy that is at the heart of yoga, a true path of liberation.