~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Tired of Climbing? Slide Into Asana

January 1, 2010
Do you remember the game Chutes and Ladders? The one with the gargantuan ladders that carry you up toward the finish line and the dreaded, snaky chutes that drop you back down to the beginning? I loved that game when I was a kid, but I think I must have played it too much.

I've spent most of my life climbing ladders. Looking up and forward, desperate for the roll of the dice that sends me happily to the promised land of perfect job, perfect mate, perfect body. Even yoga started out for me as just another ladder, one more chance to crane my neck up to the sun. It felt like a magic carpet toward the Mecca of transcendence, if only I could master all the poses and memorize someone else's rule book.

Then I met Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten, a European yoga duo who teach all over the world. Their spirited, unconventional and totally life-affirming approach taught me there's another way to play this game. They've helped me see that the chutes may not be so bad after all. In fact, they've shown me that it's the inward journey not the upward climb that ultimately plugs us back into life.

Victor and Angela say they teach a more feminine approach to yoga, one that counters our overwhelmingly willful, action-oriented, ladder-climbing culture. They're more interested in undoing than doing, in surrendering than forcing, in feeling than thinking. They offer a taste of yin to counter our culture's overactive yang, a bit of moonlight to balance the glaring sun. In this spirit, the game becomes less about transcendence and more about embodiment, about sliding into bliss in this single living dog pose right here on earth.

Walk into their class and you'll hear them say there's no paradise at the top that isn't already inside you every step along the way, and that a picture-perfect pose won't necessarily set off intergalactic fireworks. You'll be encouraged to relinquish will and struggle, to actually feel what it is like to move and breathe, to bloom from inside out. And best of all, you'll be encouraged to play: to move, explore and invent. Your tired old form-fitted dog will finally breathe and stretch and wag its tail!

Victor and Angela know plenty about drive and ambition, the pursuit of perfection wondering whether you'll ever arrive. Separately for many years they studied under B.K.S. Iyengar, father of one of the most popular yoga systems in the West. Their diligence and ability helped them climb the yoga ranks to become two of Iyengar's most coveted students, masters of even the most demanding asanas.

From what I can tell, each of them found the view from the top ultimately unfulfilling. If yoga is a path to wholeness, how can top-of-the-heap teachers still carry some deep, unacknowledged ache inside? That question seems to have led them to a totally refreshing, unconventional, internal approach to yoga. It also led them to each other, and ultimately to a break with Iyengar.

A workshop with this pair is unlike any other. You’ll rarely see straight lines of students moving neatly in a single yoga pose. More likely, you'll find a few people dangling by ropes from the ceiling, some rolling languidly over huge balls, others in pairs exploring a deep twist over a ledge. Victor may be working with a single student, ironing out some kink in a lost hip, while Angela explains an inner-body exploration to a cluster of students. Chances are good, too, that you'll find at least one student nestled under a fortress of blankets, resting quietly back into her inner world.

Angela and Victor teach from the belly, from the deep internal flow of energy they call the "inner body," rather than from muscles. They urge students to root down into the ground, surrendering to gravity in a way that returns lightness and stability to the whole body. And they forever remind us to nestle into the home of our back bodies, a haven in a world so eager to see us jump outside ourselves. In their classes asanas lose their sacred standing.

These two aren't interested in using poses to build well-aligned bodies. To them asanas are "maps" or tools to help explore how energy moves inside. And that means progress isn't judged by the stretch of your hamstrings or depth of your backbends, but by how fully your inner energy radiates through you into the surrounding space. They ask us, where isn't life moving inside? And how can you open your whole being to this vibrant life that is your birthright?

In this light, yoga poses become verbs instead of nouns. They feel less like marble statues and more like living, breathing creatures. You don't do them as much as become them, explore them, feel them. You're asked to move around in them, to go all the way back to their source.

Why would anyone want to do a backbend anyway? Where does it come from, this urge? What emotion could it express? Through these explorations asanas begin to unfold from inside in organic, creative, expressive ways. Yoga becomes beautiful not because you've learned how to put on poses like make-up, but because your inner light illuminates every cell of your body.

Victor and Angela are yoga gypsies of a sort. He's Dutch and she's British, and they don't stay anywhere for long. They teach in Mexico in winter, Europe in spring and make a grand tour of the U.S. and Canada each fall. Their ultimate workshop, though, is a three-week course on the Greek island of Lesvos, with yoga in the morning, the Aegean Sea in the afternoon, yoga again before sunset and then dinner in the village under the silkiest moon anywhere.

Wherever they’re teaching, yoga feels more like an art than a science. Angela and Victor are both artists, and their classes bloom with poetic bits of wisdom and colorful images. Your spine grows from your pelvis like a snake climbing from a snake charmer's basket. Your feet sprout roots that spread deep into the earth. Kidneys grow wings, bellies undulate like sea anemones and backs become soft blankets you nestle into.

Once these metaphors seep in, your own poetry may emerge. You may be a Greek god or goddess after all. You may be bird or a bear or a snake, or maybe even all of them. You may walk out of class with all the world's rivers and mountains and oceans pouring through you and with stars twinkling in your chest.

This more creative to yoga approach certainly has its critics. Some prefer more established yoga forms. Others want a more structured and rigorous approach. Some don't like turning yoga into an emotional exploration, and many just aren't comfortable with the incredible freedom that's offered. A few even say this playful and sometimes free-form approach isn't really yoga at all.
And while it is true that you won't find many of their explorations in a yoga book, their message seems to me closer to the heart of yoga than many traditional systems. If yoga if about plugging in to life, about reconnecting with the deep divine spark that flows through all of us, then Angela and Victor seem to me right on target.

In many ways this approach feels far greater than yoga, at least the yoga with a little "y" so prevalent in our culture. These two offer the possibility of each of us learning to be our own teacher, of moving through life without losing touch with our inner vision. They ask us to let everything we do become a radiant, creative, authentic expression of the unending life that flows through us. Angela once suggested that we "be like a yogi and sweeten everything we touch." That sounds like profound counsel to me, not just for those of us who stand on our hands.

Victor and Angela aren't the least bit interested in disciples or in followers who gobble their approach whole hog and spit it back to others. A class should be like a bazaar, they say. You can sample everything, but please only buy what makes your heart sing. Otherwise, they warn, you'll never be able to carry it all home.

Ultimately, I think these two see themselves less as teachers and more as midwives, helping us give birth to our own authentic yoga. And that's probably their most powerful message: Everything you need to know, all the wisdom and yoga and poetry of the world already lies within you. You just need to stop looking out there to others for the answers, and instead take a closer look inside. Patiently explore your inner landscape, encourage your inner voice to strengthen, and then make space for your truest, deepest self to unfold with boldness and without fear.

Yogis seem to fall into Angela and Victor just when they are ready - when they're tired of climbing ladders, when they're ready to break free of someone else's rules, when they crave a belly full of life again. Maybe you are one of these people, ready to dive into a long, snakelike chute that slides back down to the place where life begins. You may come home with a totally different sense of who you are. The whole world is inside you, after all, just waiting to unfold.

This article was originally published in Yoga International (June 1998)