Questions on Yoga :A Conversation with Donna Farhi

Q: Yoga has seen a tremendous resurgence in the past decade. Having permeated cultural familiarity, it appears as though, this time, yoga is here to stay. Very briefly: what is yoga?

Donna Farhi: In its broadest sense Yoga is a return to wholeness. There is an uncompromising belief in yoga philosophy that wholeness is our implicit birthright. But most of us forget our wholeness, or in yogic terms we forget our true nature, and we live in a kind of illusion that we are alone. We suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that makes us feel separate from our authentic selves, separate from others, separate from nature. Even as we are taking a breath in, literally taking the world into us, we still think we are the masters of our own separate universe. Yoga is any practice that restores this original wholeness and sense of connection with the world.

The wonderful thing about Yoga as a life practice is that one can choose practices that suit ones constitution, age, and time of life. So for one person, meditating restores her sense of wholeness, for another it may involve rigorous physical postures, and for others a commitment to service to the community. Regardless of the practice, the ultimate purpose of yoga is to break out of this amnesia and to live every day with a full awareness, appreciation, and humility, that are part of a much bigger picture. Yoga says that when we live with that awareness we are living in freedom.

Q: Many preconceptions result from others attempting to define or classify yoga as a religion, science, or new age meditative practice. What are your thoughts on this?

Donna Farhi: First, there’s nothing new age or new about yoga. It’s a tradition literally thousands of years old, which is to our advantage because it means that the basic precepts of the whole practice have been tested over time and proven sound. Yoga is really more clearly defined as a technology for bringing about an experience of stillness and equanimity. And while it’s not a religion, the practice of the central precepts of yoga inevitably draws people to the direct experience of those truths on which religion rests. So you can be a Christian who practices yoga, or a Hindu or Buddhist or Catholic that practices yoga, because the underlying precepts are the same. What’s different is that yoga doesn’t claim to be the only or best set of beliefs, which is so often the cause of disharmony and violence and bloodshed between different religions. Yoga says that no matter who you are, your essence and heart are the same as those of everyone else in the world.
The basic premises of yoga were set down thousands of years ago by people called Seers, meaning that their lens of perception was so unadulterated, so pure, that they could observe the very workings of Nature. Religion asks us to believe. Yoga doesn’t ask us to believe anything until we’ve proven it’s true for us. Yoga says, “Hhere are some observations gleaned over time through the minds and hearts of clear seeing people about how to live a life of freedom. Check them out for yourself and find through your own direct experience the truth about yourself.”

Q: Why do you feel yoga is becoming more popular now?

Donna Farhi: I think that yoga is becoming popular in America, in particular, because Americans are experiencing a crisis of meaning in their lives. And this crisis of meaning exists on all levels – for instance in the work place with people who don’t find their work satisfying or meaningful in any way. Most of the physical fitness regimens that have dominated American life since the turn of the century have been fundamentally mechanical; they treat the body as some kind of object to be manipulated. If you look at the advertising around fitness these days, the body is referred to in much the same way as a car or a machine. I think Americans are now looking for activities that could be better described as life practices, which enable us to be not only healthy and fit physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. The primary goal of most life practices is to burn calories, but to foster a deep sense of well being on all levels of our lives. And because they are so much about skill building and refinement, they are immensely challenging and interesting and you can do them for a lifetime without ever getting bored. It’s like the difference between someone who makes the commitment to learn to dance versus taking an aerobics class. One cultivates meaning that is larger than itself.

Q: How do you differentiate between “good” and “bad” yoga?

Donna Farhi: Good yoga cultivates a deep sense of self-acceptance and tolerance for others. When I witness someone practicing and living yoga well, they have developed clear perception, concentration, and the skill to respond to any situation with a presence of mind. In my yoga classes that means that the form of the postures is not the goal – you can be as stiff as an ironing board and much less flexible than your compadres in a yoga class and still be practicing beautiful yoga if your practice is fostering that respect and care for yourself.

In this sense the greater and greater emphasis on the form of postures in the West has been a two edged sword. The refinement has allowed us to make the postures much more beneficial, but Westerners are so caught up in external image and the meaning they attribute to those images, that for many Westerners good yoga means touching their toes. The trend in the U.S. in the last ten years has been to judge people’s yoga almost purely from their physical adeptness. We attribute some kind of spiritually advanced state to someone who can put their feet on the back of their head. That is we’ve started to mistake the map for the territory. Quite often this supposedly good yoga is fostering a sense of superiority and judgment towards others who practice any other form of yoga. To me, any yoga that fosters those qualities is bad yoga.

Q: What are your thoughts on “Power Yoga?”

Donna Farhi: Power Yoga is really an umbrella term for a number of quite eclectic forms of yoga. By definition it’s usually quite physically challenging and vigorous. For some people it’s a very appropriate and beneficial way to practice at certain times in their lives, but for others it can be an invitation to serious injury and imbalance. In many instances there are people entering these classes who are not physically conditioned to be doing this advanced work. The unfortunate situation I see developing is that people often see Power Yoga and other vigorous yoga classes as a replacement for a mechanical gym work out. I asked a receptionist who works at one of the biggest yoga studios in America what the most commonly asked question was and she replied, “Will I get a work out? Will I sweat?” Nobody asked those questions ten years ago so in some ways the public has a poorer understanding now than a decade ago about the purpose of yoga. Whenever you take yoga out of its larger context as a whole life practice you’ve removed the yoga from the yoga.
Why is yoga a good way to neutralize negative thoughts such as anxiety, stress, and worry?
I don’t think yoga removes or neutralizes negative thoughts – I think it replaces them with positive ones. And it may come as some surprise to people, but yoga teachers and yoga students don’t have any less stress than anyone else, they just learn how to respond, rather than react, to it in a way that builds rather than destroys their well being.

Trying not to think negative thoughts is like trying not to think of elephants. You stop thinking about elephants when your mind is focused on other things. With yoga the main focus is on what’s happening right now, not what happened yesterday or what terrible things might happen tomorrow. When you cultivate that kind of incremental focus on the here and now you’ve automatically eliminated a huge source of anxiety, worry and stress.

Also with yoga, there’s rarely judgment about bad habits. For instance someone may try for years to give up smoking or drugs – usually from any number of self-coercive strategies. But often through practicing something like yoga a person will find that negative habits simply fall away. They don’t give up the habit, the habit gives them up. It’s an exceedingly common phenomenon. I had a gentleman who wrote to me after attending a week long yoga retreat with me. He had been addicted to dope for over ten years, but after a week of healthy food, deep yoga practice and being around gentle people, he just stopped using drugs. Something shifted in him towards this more positive direction and drugs were no longer needed.

Q: When did you first truly embrace yoga into your life?

Donna Farhi: From the first moment I began yoga at the age of sixteen I was absolutely taken with the practice. I began an hourly daily practice almost immediately after my first class. At the time my family was going through many crises and as a young adult I felt deeply confused and depressed. I would say that at that time I felt extremely fearful, that was the substance of my daily experience of life. But when I practiced yoga I felt that I had some control over those feelings; and regardless of what was going on outside of myself I could make contact with some part of myself that was untouched, safe and content. My situation demanded that I find some kind of self-sufficiency and yoga was the perfect practice to develop that interior strength.

Q: You have said that “the breath goes everywhere so it is a perfect tool for bringing about major transformations.” How important is breathing in yoga?

Donna Farhi: Perhaps my understanding of the importance of essential breath work can best be relayed in a personal account. I had studied formal yogic breathing and meditation practice as well as intensive asana or posture practice, for many years, and I realized finally that I was using these very controlled and manipulative practices to unconsciously suppress my deepest fears. At the same time I seemed to be stepping in the same puddles over and over again-in my relationships, in my work and in my yoga practice. I was constantly getting injured and I was deeply unhappy. A very well known yoga teacher by the name of Angela Farmer introduced me to the idea of working with ease rather than effort, and although our approach is very different, she gave me the courage to follow the scent I was sniffing. After about a year of this work my breathing, which had been very restricted, began to open. And as it opened up I underwent a dramatic crisis in my personal life. I began to experience flash backs to some very traumatic experiences in my childhood which had been a black hole in my consciousness for the better part of my life. It seemed to me that the moment I began to open my breathing I also opened the flood gates for this experience. I cannot say it was an enjoyable experience. But the end result was a profound sense of liberation from the past and an ability to engage with life on my own terms rather than the ones determined by the fixity of my past. I knew then that change happens through the body. Trauma imprints itself on a cellular level in the way the nervous system patterns itself and if you want to change that’s where you have to go. Or as one of my mentors used to say, change happens on a cellular level.

Q: You have mentioned that you moved to New Zealand in order to live in an environment which could foster the deepening of your own practice. Has this been a successful move and how do you foresee your practice of yoga evolving in the future?

Donna Farhi: The move had been very successful on all levels. The pace of life here is much slower and people seem to have a more balanced perspective on life; they are less interested in their careers than they are in their family and friends and in enjoying life. At the end of the day, a life without love is not worth a bent penny. So even though my work schedule is very demanding and I’m on the road about four months of the year, I feel anchored by this cultural perspective. It’s more important to me now to have time with my partner than it is for me to chase fame. Its more important to have time to eat a meal with a sense of relaxation, or to enjoy working in my garden, or to be with my horse, than it is to bolster my bank account. My long-time students in the U.S. say they feel a silence around me that was not there before and I feel a kind of joy and generosity of spirit when I teach that was waning in my last years in the U.S.

The future? One of my primary focuses right now is training teachers and writing. Training a teacher who is going to impact thousands of students seems to be a better use of my energy at this stage of my life than teaching a group of 30 students. My other focus is on developing retreats and trainings here in New Zealand so that yoga students throughout the world can come and have a taste of this lifestyle. Already, we’ve had unprecedented interest from around the world. But one of my long term goals is to develop retreats that are about living a yogic life style. A lot of yoga vacations these days are really a kind of suspended animation for people – its an unrealistic environment where someone cooks for you, cleans, and so on so you can have a vacation. That’s great, but in terms of learning how to integrate yoga into a real life filled with real life challenges, it doesn’t seem to accomplish much. I’m wondering what would happen if people could basically come and live the lifestyle with me for brief periods of time, so that yoga practice becomes a more complete life practice. It’s not a new or original idea at all, but for me it seems to be the next step.

(Excerpted with permission from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness.)

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Written by Donna Farhi

Explore Wellness in 2021