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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

Angela's Asanas

February 5, 2010
As a small child growing up near London, Angela Farmer remembers sitting quietly in church, utterly bored, yearning to quench her body’s endless thirst for movement.

"I would look up at the wooden rafters in the roof and choreograph fantastic leaps from beam to beam, swinging from here to there and across to the pulpit and back up into the ceiling again," she said. "I wanted so much to pray, I had a deep religious urge, but the words of the prayers in the church just seemed to flow by without much meaning. I wanted to pray with my whole being – with my body, my heart, my soul."

Farmer remembers lying in bed at night, convinced that somewhere in the world a set of exercises existed that would move every cell in her body in a way that satisfied this profound spiritual hunger. Not knowing where to look, she decided to unearth the movements herself.

"I would lie awake for hours," she said. "I would try different stretches and turns and twists and movements in my fingers and toes, but somehow I knew something was missing."

Years later, in 1967, she found what she’d been looking for in yoga. Entranced by this ancient art’s spiritual power and promise, she’s since devoted her life to unearthing its profound mysteries and sharing them with others. Throughout this journey, fiercely determined to find her own way, she’s wrestled with some of the more rigid dictates of the established yoga tradition. And just as she so longed to do in her childhood church, she finally abandoned many of these conventions, in search of a more internal and freeform approach to yoga that finally allowed her to soar.

YOGA PIONEER
As a result, Angela has earned more than a few critics, who complain that her original and free-spirited re-interpretation of yoga misrepresents the tradition’s aims and essence. But along with Victor Van Kooten, her partner in yoga and in life, she’s also earned a position as a pioneer in the west among those offering more creative, personal and modern interpretations of classical hatha yoga.

"You can learn from all the traditions and teachers, but the most important teacher of all is the one within," she said. "I believe it is time to listen inside again – to feel, to question, to explore and trust our inner voice, rather than jump into alignment on command."

Ask devoted students to describe Angela’s teaching, and they'll offer words like freedom, empowerment, surrender and transformation. They’ll describe her approach as soft, fluid, internal, feminine, open and playful. Many say yoga finally came alive when they walked into her class and had a big "Aha!" about what yoga is really all about. Some say that after the rigid restraints of well-posed forms in typical yoga classes, the unhurried and expressive movement she offers feels like being let out of a cage and finally soaring to the rafters. And more than a few traditionalists admit that while they remain by-the-book in public, secretly at home they wiggle a la Angela.

In her classes, neither Angela nor her instructions move in straight or predictable lines. Instead they roll and swirl and bob through a spontaneous parade of poetic and fluid poses that inevitably point toward inner exploration, reconnecting with the vital streams of life inside, instead of mastering the outer contours of a pose.

YOGA IN MOTION
Students might repeatedly move into and out of downward facing dog pose, stretching their bodies to the limit in all directions – rooting down through the back paws, swishing the belly around inside the house of the pelvis, letting the kidneys float up like balloons and the heels drop down like roots. These dogs might even hop like bunnies, melt into the ground like dying warriors, or twist themselves inside out, right into a backbend. And then Angela might gleefully exclaim, "Now promise me you’ll never do another petrified dog pose again!"

A life-long spiritual seeker, even Angela’s long, silver-streaked hair and free-flowing clothes speak of originality and freedom. She travels the world like a gypsy on a backbreaking teaching circuit, living out of several very large suitcases. Her shining face and charismatic demeanor inevitably turn heads when she walks down the street, whether in the funky village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, or the faraway Greek island of Lesvos, where she and Victor now have a home. One can almost imagine Angela walking right out of the hauntingly mystical and otherworldly stories of Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This creative and free-spirited woman is just the sort of woman you might love linger over dinner with, listening to captivating stories about her adventurous and unconventional life. She might tell you about the impressive and off-the-wall ways she brought art and movement to life for children as a schoolteacher in the 1960’s, or about how she found a way to pray with her whole body in the seven years she danced as a Sufi whirling dervish. She might even tell you how vividly she remembers her first glimpse of yoga at age 28, when she accompanied a friend to a class on a whim.

In that class, Angela watched the poses in a daze, her late-night childhood imaginings come to life. Six months later she met B.K.S. Iyengar, and was transfixed by the intensity of his presence and the intelligence of his teaching. She studied with him for the next 10 years, eventually rising to such fame that some of her students called her "the feminine Iyengar." And yet, in the late 1970’s Angela grew frustrated with the Iyengar approach, realizing that despite tireless practice and mastery of even the most demanding asanas, she remained largely unchanged within, still lacking "the peace, the quiet acceptance of life as it is" that she so longed for.

INNER JOURNEY
Sculptures of Indian dakinis caught her eye while visiting a temple on the coast of India and inspired her on a journey inward, into what she calls a more feminine, sensual and nourishing exploration of energy and movement, one that slowly began to incorporate elements of dance and creative expression she had explored so joyfully as a child. She’s been following that inner journey, and a radically different style from Iyengar, ever since.

"I'll always be grateful to Iyengar for the intensity with which he works and the awareness that he insisted on bringing," she said. "I think he's a brilliant teacher. It’s just that I think you have to do what you can with a teacher and then move off in your own way. Instead of always desperately struggling up somebody else's ladder, you have to thank them for what they gave you and then move on and climb your own."

For many, Angela is the first person who challenges the notion that happiness is a sure sign of success and that pain is an omen of something gone wrong. She tells her students that life comes with deep sorrow as well as joy, and that to open ourselves totally to our fullest expression, we must open to both the light and the dark, the longed for and the banished, the laughter and the tears.

Take one look into Angela’s soft blue eyes and it’s clear that she’s made this journey into the darkness herself, perhaps more than once. Her dramatic break with Iyengar, after she finally stepped too far beyond the bounds of his teachings, left her feeling like "a fugitive" who’d been "excommunicated." Some students were warned they’d be blacklisted from the Iyengar system if they studied with her anymore, and Angela’s classes shrank from 60 students to six overnight. A long, difficult period of soul-searching followed, and one senses that this period left her with a bruise or two that lingers to this day.

Longstanding physical ailments, too, have forced her to journey deep inside. In her early teens, Angela developed a rare condition that caused her hands and feet to turn black in the cold and then to painfully swell in the heat. Uncertain about the cause of this condition and fearing it would lead to gangrene, doctors performed deeply invasive surgery to sever several bundles of nerves running from Angela’s spinal cord to her extremities. This experience left her with what felt like "a belly full of barbed wire" and diminished sensitivity in much of her body. It also left her with intense and chronic pain that lingers to this day. She traces her probing, internal focus in part to her attempt to heal from this traumatic surgery.

"The upside of that operation is that I've been forced to work more with energy, moving it out constantly through to the extremities to try to bring life back to my hands and feet," she said. "And I’ve had to do a lot of stretching to open up scar tissue, which is very, very deep and runs right back through to the spine. I think if I’d have been more healthy and normal, I probably wouldn't have spent so much time on it, and who knows, I might have done something quite different."

FREEDOM AND FORMLESSNESS
That Angela offers her iconoclastic approach to a centuries-old tradition overjoys many, confuses some and infuriates a few. Her critics say her teaching lacks structure or clear-cut technique. Some are confounded by the immense freedom and formlessness of her classes. And her most vehement critics suggest that Angela has strayed beyond the world of yoga altogether into the more amorphous land of creative or improvisational movement.

Even Angela admits the word "yoga" feels a little small for what she really teaches. She seems more interested in offering students the possibility of finding their own way back to the original meaning and purpose of yoga, to the deepest vitality possible, than in arguing about it’s strict definition anyway.

"Anything that is alive has to keep changing and keep evolving, and it's the same for yoga," she said. "The essence remains the same, but it has to keep coming out in different forms with each person who teaches it and with each generation. You learn from the past, but only if it nourishes the information and confirmation that's coming up in yourself."

Yoga teacher Donna Farhi recalls studying with Angela at a time when she herself was pondering leaping away from an established yoga system into her own uncharted waters.

"I saw that she was willing to follow her heart regardless of the consequences, and I knew that that must have taken immense courage," Farhi said. "At that time, to break away from the mainstream was tantamount to career suicide, and many soothsayers warned me that to do what she had done would be disastrous. But listening to and following one's own truth is really the path to freedom, and I am thankful that she provided such a clear role model for me and for so many others in the yoga community."

Farhi is not the only teacher to have followed Angela’s pioneering example by launching into a more eclectic and personalized approach to yoga. Other popular teachers like Erich Schiffmann, Barbara Benagh, Mary Paffard and John Friend have chosen to step outside various yoga systems to offer approaches that, while perhaps not as freewheeling as Angela’s, still mark a departure from the conventional dictates of the yoga tradition.

In her willingness to lead the way, searching for her own authentic expression of the spirit of hatha yoga, Angela has laid the groundwork for a wealth of innovative forms of yoga to bloom in the west. And in her commitment to spreading her own wings, ignoring the bounds of convention along the way, she has shared a profound vision that offers the possibility of freedom to us all.

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This article was originally published in Yoga Journal  (July 2000)