Technology with a heart

John Friend makes some amazing claims about his new wide Manduka yoga mat. “If you’re on a mat that you just stick to and you feel stable, you just go inside. You actually can have an inner opening from a piece of rubber, on your floor. I’m proud to say that everything about this mat will lead to the very essence of your heart.” 

(me: I have a Jade yoga mat. After a while the rubber falls apart, but it’s my fave for grippiness.)

via yoganonymous

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Better teaching: get on your mat and vesselify

I recently did a yoga teacher training and have since even taught a class. I am okay. It will take a lot of work to be a good teacher, to be anything close to my own teachers. Difficult but not impossible. I will continue to practice.

Amy Ippoliti

One teacher who seems to be very interested in improving the quality of yoga teaching in the U.S. is Amy Ippoliti, a senior Anusara teacher. I’ve never studied with her, but I’ve been perusing, and impressed by, her online offerings. She has organized a $500 online workshop called 90 Minutes to Change the World, which promises to reveal the secrets of how to be such a great yoga teacher that students will beat down your doors. I haven’t taken the course, but the feedback seems positive, and the video clips promoting the course are clear, practical and inspiring.

Amy wants her course to offer what she calls “local teachers” (as in, non-superstars, who teach locally) practical tips on how to elevate the level of their teachings and thus pack in the students. One of her big themes is that the best yoga teachers spend the most time on the mat. This jives with what one of my own teachers, Dana Flynn, emphasizes: the necessity of a daily home practice.

Another of Amy’s insights about being a kick ass yoga teacher is the importance of “vesselifying“: dropping into the channel of what makes you unique and letting that divinity [for lack of a better term] pour through you. This is true for yoga teachers, and also for musicians, artists, public speakers. She says that there are 3 ways to vesselify/channel:

1. Pause. Open yourself and be receptive to divine guidance before the class.

2. Drop into your heart and remember why you teach yoga. Is it to help people increase their self esteem? To help students improve flexibility?

3) Have a class plan.

This is a familiar concept, isn’t it, this vesselification? The ability to tap into oneself, getting into the zone, characterizes the greatest performance artists or sports stars. It’s what, in my experience, distinguishes the good from the great in any field. I worked in the government for a while and regularly had to brief a couple of big name, well respected policymakers. It was terrifying but exhilarating. Terrifying because I would constantly be on my toes, but exhilarating to witness the intensity of their focus, their ability to be present and think deeply, instantly, about whatever complex issues came their way. [They weren’t always right, but they were consistently present.]

Yoga that is!

Why I thought Anusara® yoga was force for evil

I took my first Anusara yoga class recently (see here for my review of the pleasant experience), and despite initial doubts (see below), I decided that Anusara was harmless.

As background, from wikipedia: “Anusara yoga is a modern school of hatha yoga grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness, that was started by John Friend in 1997…The emphasis of the school is on a set of “Universal Principles of Alignment” which underlie all postures, “heart opening” postures and the spiritual/meditative benefits of hatha yoga.”

Now, as a public service, I will explain why I harbored suspicions about Anusara, in hopes that Yoga Inc can improve its PR strategy with the outside world. To be clear, below are my ex-ante impressions, Anusara as it appeared to an outsider.

1) Yoga styles are proliferating like rabbits. In this mess, does the world need another type of yoga? Yoga is supposed to help simplify, not distract.

2) The motivation for establishing a new style like Anusara is unclear. One suspects the style is formed not because a superior path to enlightenment has been developed, but as a way for a charismatic yoga teacher to cash in on his popularity. For example, see Bikram.

Bikram Choudhury with two students. Btw, Indian people are not born this hairless. I know.

3) Anusara seems to be a cult of John Friend. For example, the Anusara webpage makes clear that John Friend runs the show—links to his blog and twitter feed are at the bottom of every page; his travel schedule is separated from other Anusara events; “About John Friend” is the first link in the “About Anusara” section; and to be certified, and stay certified, you must study with Friend directly. To the casual observer, Anusara=John Friend, not Anusara=enduring body of knowledge.

John Friend

4) Smells like a business, not a school. It takes some chutzpah, and commercial mindedness, to take an ancient discipline, rebrand it, trademark it, and then charge dues to practice it. The words themselves are proprietary, and teachers—who pay annual fees of nearly $100—must annotate the words to signal that “Anusara” is someone else’s intellectual property: Anusara-Inspired™ or Anusara®.

Anusara yoga greeting cards at 10 for $25.

5) The style seems derivative, not revolutionary–more marketing than innovation. Anusara appears to be repackaged Iyengar with some Hinduism on the side.

6) The words are incomprehensible to the layman. For example, from the website: Anusara yoga’s “highest intention…is to align with the Divine… awaken to the truth that this Divine flow is our essential nature.” I think I can spot the Tantric message here—but other stuff is, uh, harder to follow: “Everything manifests as a result of the dance of Divine polarities, the mystical marriage between Shiva and Shakti that is auspicious consciousness vibrating with Freedom and is full of the highest Bliss…”

7) The not-so-flattering profile of John Friend in the New York Times last year (“The Yoga Mogul”) didn’t help. At best Friend comes off as earnest but cheesy. The article ends with a story of Friend reciting “an ode to creativity” at a private “happening” in an LA loft, while a young woman in tiger face paint “danced and writhed on the floor.”

We ride the tiger. . . .
I taste her hunger
In the burning of my desire
There is no hotter fire.

Ouch.

(See his response to the NYT article here. He says: “…hav[ing] such an extensive article published in the New York Times on yoga, particularly Anusara yoga…is another clear sign that Grace supports Anusara.”)

The end. Please use this information for good, not evil.

Elena Brower @ Vira Yoga (NYC)

I took my first Anusara class recently at Vira Yoga, NYC’s premier Anusara yoga center. Elena Brower is Vira Yoga’s co-founder, and, judging from the turnout at her packed midday Tuesday class, she’s one of NYC’s most popular Anusara teachers. Ms. Brower has made it–blogger at Huffington Post, has Adidas as a sponsor, taught yoga to thousands in Central Park, successful studio, etc.

I had my doubts about Anusara (what does “heart-centered” mean? Is John Friend, founder, a money-grubbing megalomaniac?), but a non-Anusara teacher that I love—an intelligent, critical thinker—came back humbled, energized, amazed after a retreat she took with John Friend. Bah humbug, I thought, but I’ll try it.

Elena’s students were regulars and adored her. She commanded the room. To me, the neophyte, she taught a great, well-rounded class—chanting, skillful asana & alignment, and philosophy.  Elena’s pacing was effective, and she adeptly wove her alignment cues with her philosophy cues, making things (difficult poses, finding bliss) seem attainable.

She mentioned her work with the Handel group, an executive coaching firm. Elena seemed to say that, to be happy, you need to face your fears, hold close to your center, and stop worrying about crap all the time. On her blog, Elena gets into surprising detail about her inner life and work with the Handel Group. I don’t know how a yoga teacher hooked up with an executive coaching firm, but I like it. One of my genius teachers from grad school, Ron Heifetz, was an executive coach. Sounds fluffy but this guy turned 100 of my type A Ivy League classmates into feral blobs, Lord of the Flies-style; then he held up a mirror and said, “Watch.” Ugly. We learned a ton.

Anyway, throughout the class and the poses Ms. Brower reminded us to keep energy and effort pulled into our midlines. Later she tied this physical instruction into her more philosophical advice to stay close to one’s center. (She was much more eloquent than I am.) Leading up to then apex pose, Elena suggested that we “fall into” eka pada koudinyasa. She said it would be fun. It was. I had never felt so light and powerful in that pose than I did in her class.

Eka Pada Koudinyasana

Based on my stringent research of attending one class, I have decided that, despite having worldwide headquarters in Texas, Anusara isn’t a cult. It’s yoga, firmly rooted in the thousand year tradition. And, I get why Ms Brower’s students dig her. She was skillful, honest, and generous with herself. She didn’t call it in. She read the room. Her 10 minute savasana was just what I needed, even though I didn’t know it beforehand. I would like to return–since a few days later some of Ms Brower’s words still stick with me. But I won’t go often–it is expensive ($20/class), crowded, and, well, I’m not still not comfortable putting my support behind a yoga that is trademarked.