This is another in a series of articles that we are publishing on the yogayoga website. If you are interested in further reading, we stock all Donna’s books at the studio.
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Yoga for Enlightened Living
A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA FARHI
Donna Farhi’s teaching skills and yoga knowledge are in demand across the globe. Yet for this rural dweller and avid horsewoman, the richest expression of her decades long yoga practice lies much closer to home. Fiona Marsden spoke with Farhi on her recent visit to Australia.
Donna Farhi was working in her barn, covered in horse dung and hay in her hair. Up came the man who lease-grazes her farm, clearly at odds to explain the contradiction between this unassuming woman and the growing rumours at the local pub. “Evidently, news had gotten around that I was a famous yoga guru living secretly in the country,” says Farhi. He asked what she did when she travelled away from the farm. Farhi explained that she went abroad to teach yoga workshops and mentor other yoga teachers. Not satisfied with this explanation, the man pressed on. Clearly, if this woman was a guru, she must have done something pretty special to deserve the description. “So,” he asked, “have you created some new moves?” Given that yoga postures have been around for centuries, Farhi thought this was hysterically funny. “He then asked straight out, ‘Well ... are you a guru?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just the person you’ve known for the last two years.’ That stopped him in his tracks, because he wanted to put me in some kind of compartment.”
This may be a light hearted story, but it illustrates a key facet of Farhi’s approach to yoga. A teacher for almost 30 years and the author of several internationally successful yoga books, Farhi believes that a regular, sincere yoga practice can help break down our ‘scaffolding’ and reveal ourselves as we truly are. “We all put on different ‘hats’ each day according to our roles in life: man, woman, career person, mother, father, friend, and so on,” she says. “But through many years of yoga practice and teaching, I’ve come to believe that these roles don’t represent who we really are in essence.”
Petite and softly spoken, Farhi chooses her words with a combination of candour and deliberate care. “I believe that at our core, human beings are eternal. I’m not Donna the yoga teacher, or Donna the writer, or Donna the horsewoman. I don’t have to carry around identities all the time like a sandwich board. It’s a huge relief to drop all that; it creates a real lightness of being. It also allows me, when I’m with other people who seem different from me, to remember that there’s a part of them that’s eternal too, and to try to tap into the commonality lying underneath what’s presented as different. Far from being a practice that makes us somehow special or ‘better than’ others, yoga should help us become more loving and connected to them.”
When I listen to the intelligence of the breath, I feel I am being guided by something much more reliable than my mind, my ego, or my ambition.
Twists and turns
Born in the USA, Donna Farhi moved to New Zealand with her family at age 10. At 16, she discovered yoga, and quickly became a serious student, practising every day. She was also a budding dancer, and went back to the USA at age 19 to take up a scholarship. Despite her dedication to dancing, Farhi reached a fork in the road by the time she was 23. “I’d reached a level of proficiency that probably would have enabled me to enter a professional company,” she says. “But I sustained a number of injuries, and was becoming burnt out mentally and emotionally.”
Farhi stopped dancing. “It was a traumatic decision,” she recalls. “My whole identity was fused with the idea of being a dancer. If I wasn’t a dancer, who was I going to be in this world?” She decided to pursue formal yoga teacher training. “I had a sense that it would bring me back to myself,” she says.
Throughout the remainder of her twenties, Farhi was a staunch adherent to the Iyengar method, but ultimately found herself repeating the same behaviour patterns that had led her to give up dancing. “I took things to the nth degree,” she says. “I practised several hours a day, and could do quite complex and sustained postures. But after a while, my practice became very mechanical and lacking in joy. I also injured myself very badly; worse than I had done as a dancer.”
Listening to the body
By the time she was 30, Farhi began to feel that following a particular yoga method (Iyengar or otherwise) would not necessarily bring her closer to herself, nor bring back the sense of joy she was seeking. To put her yoga studies into a broader context, Farhi attended the University of San Francisco and completed a multi-faceted BA including writing, comparative religion, interdisciplinary science, anatomy, physiology and kinesiology. She moved her teaching emphasis towards helping students tune into their bodies and adapt their practice accordingly. “Adults who did ballet, sports, or gymnastics as children often have a sound awareness of their body, the way it moves and its position in space,” says Farhi, “but most people who take up yoga don’t have that background. They may be in their forties or fifties, but they’re in kinaesthetic kindergarten. Many of the classical yoga poses require quite sophisticated movements. Teachers must take care not to give beginner students poses that are beyond their physical ability and kinaesthetic awareness. Otherwise, the students may fudge their way through, never developing a sound basis for their practice. They may also face an increased risk of injury.”
In Farhi’s observation, the way yoga is taught is just as important as the movement or pose itself. “If I take a safe movement, but I filter it through a teaching model that implies, ‘I know how far you can go in this movement, and I’ll determine your threshold point, even if you’re telling me you can’t go any further,’ that’s when inherently safe practices can be made dangerous,” she says. “Even after all my years of teaching, it blows me away how often I’ll put my hands on a student’s back, for example, and find that what I had assumed from what I was seeing, was incorrect. Each student’s body has a unique structure, and needs a unique response. A good teacher should work with a student to find that response by encouraging their feedback about what poses they can do or how a particular pose feels.”
Farhi also feels strongly that, rather than implying there is only one correct way to practise yoga, teachers should encourage students to become better at making choices for themselves. “Some people seem to have the idea that there is one original system of hatha yoga; a ‘pure’ practice that was written down – some kind of definitive Trikonasana (Triangle pose), for example, that we should all adhere to. There is no historical basis for this belief. On the contrary, the yoga tree has many branches that have given rise to a strong tradition of experimentation: cause, effect, change, evolve. Yet many students almost feel they’re doing something wrong if they deviate from what they’ve been taught.”
Beyond the body beautiful
According to Farhi, adapting yoga to our own needs also requires letting go of the ego driven desire to perform or achieve certain things with our physical body. “If you look at the original treatise of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you’ll see that asana was intended as a tool for stabilising our body, our nervous system, and our mental and emotional states. There is not a single sutra that speaks about the importance of becoming flexible or putting our foot on the back of our head.”
Farhi is somewhat concerned that, although asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras, it has become the predominant focus of the way yoga is taught in the West. “In the West we like to have concrete representations of things,” she says. “We look at a picture of an advanced yoga practitioner doing a really difficult asana and conclude ‘that’s good yoga,’ yet we know nothing about their understanding of the deeper meaning and purpose of the practice. When the pose becomes the goal, we strengthen our identification with the body as an exclusive representation of ‘self’ – but the original intention of yoga was that we should do the opposite.
By all means, lovingly care for your body, keep it as healthy as you can, and enjoy its marvellous capacities. But over time, your body will naturally age, grow sick or frail and die. By reducing your identification with the physical body and bringing your attention to the eternal core that lies within, you will experience less suffering.”
Only when we start practising regardless of the circumstances, can we take command of our experiences and make decisions that will move us back towards equanimity
Discipline, stillness, and truth
In the early 1990s, Farhi moved back to New Zealand to be closer to her family. Around the same time, her emphasis on teaching yoga as a tool for better living led her to become increasingly sought after as a senior teacher and mentor. She was also a columnist for US yoga magazines, and wrote her first yoga book, The Breathing Book, published in 1996. “There is truthfulness to the breath,” she says. “When it is too fast, we are too fast. When it is agitated, we are agitated. When I listen to the intelligence of the breath, I feel I am being guided by something much more reliable than my mind, my ego, or my ambition. The breath is a reminder to stay present. We can make 100 mistakes in a day, but each time we can exhale, dust ourselves off, pull our socks up, and start over afresh. When we notice the intrinsic ‘nowness’ of the breath, it is a direct reminder of how forgiving we can be towards ourselves and others.”
Whether you’re a new or continuing student, Farhi believes that disciplining yourself to establish a regular yoga practice is essential to access this sense of stillness and recovery. “It’s only in that deliberately simplified state – whether it’s doing asanas, meditation or pranayama – that you can get a feeling for what’s going on physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. Once you’ve done that, it’s more likely that your practice will help you find some semblance of balance. Then, when you go out into the external world, it stands to reason that you will able to act more skilfully.” For example, says Farhi, if you can identify the first inklings of anger, envy or jealousy, and learn how to contain them so that you don’t harm other people, it’s more likely that your relationships will be harmonious.
Given the potential benefits of a regular practice, Farhi is unapologetically direct with students who make excuses for not putting in time on the mat. “If a student has back pain, for example, I might challenge them by saying, ‘you can’t find an hour a day to practise, but it seems like you have several hours a day to be debilitated by your back pain.’ If students allow themselves to be diverted by illness, busyness, tiredness, boredom and so on, they are merely building an allegiance to impermanent experience. They are letting that sensation or emotional state run their life. Only when they start practising regardless of the circumstances, can they take command of their experience and make decisions that will move them back towards equanimity.”
Good teaching takes time
After almost three decades of teaching yoga to people from all walks of life, and many years as a mentor to other teachers, Farhi freely admits that she is still learning too. “When I started out, I looked at my students as temples of accumulated errors – and I was very, very busy tidying up!” Nowadays, she says, she never ceases to be surprised by what her students can teach her about herself. “I’m learning all the time, although what I am learning has less to do with the physical body and more to do with the nature of the human experience. I have learned to approach people now from a place of kindness and compassion; to see through all the messy details to the innate nature underneath.”
She counsels new teachers to continue some kind of apprenticeship or ongoing intensive study with a senior teacher, and to ask them to sit in on classes to provide feedback on their teaching technique. She advises experienced teachers to stay in touch with what it’s like to be a student by taking up an activity outside of yoga. A keen horsewoman, Farhi spends many hours training horses and studying dressage. “Being a student of something so demanding has helped me remain compassionate towards yoga students who are just beginning or struggling to understand a concept,” she says. Watching the way her equestrian teachers work with students also provides new inspiration for Farhi’s work as a yoga teacher. “They have an ability to prioritise which skill needs to be imparted first, and then gradually build from there, so the student grows in ability and confidence.”
“Horses are very honest teachers because they constantly reveal where my ‘broken pieces’ are,” explains avid horsewoman Donna Farhi.
Yoga in her own life
Now 50, Farhi lives on a 30 acre farm outside Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. She is still in strong demand as a senior teacher around the world, with requests coming in from countries as geographically diverse as Finland, China and, of course, Australia. While she still relishes her role in the yoga world and feels a strong commitment to mentoring those who are equally dedicated to their work, the pull of life on her farm is growing stronger. She intends to reduce her travel over the next two years and teach closer to home.
“For me now, the most profound application of my yoga practice is my relationship with the horses I train,” she says. “Horses are very honest teachers because they constantly reveal where my ‘broken pieces’ are. They teach me about the anger and impatience within me, and my lack of clear perception. If I sit on my meditation cushion and drift off, it’s not going to throw me off, but if I’m not paying attention while I’m sitting on a horse, I might find myself doing an aerial dismount! Working with horses teaches me that there’s a consequence to not having clear perception, not paying attention and not reading a situation correctly. If I thought there was a yoga teacher who could put my nose up against what’s ‘broken’ in me the way that my horses do, I’d be on the next plane to see them.”
“Now I want to spend less time intellectualising the idea of spiritual practice and more time doing and embodying a spiritual practice.”
Farhi is often asked when she intends to write another book, but she hasn’t decided. “I spent many years at the computer writing books,” she says. “Now I want to spend more time with my hands in the soil and with friends and family; less time intellectualising the idea of spiritual practice and more time doing and embodying a spiritual practice. At some point, the dress rehearsal has to be over and it’s time to have that kind of life, and live it out in a way that feels balanced and connected to spirit.”
We wish her all the best in that endeavour.
Fiona Marsden is a freelance health and wellbeing writer. Website: www.healthierwealthierwiser.com.au
This material was originally published in: australian yoga life october-december 2010
Donna has been the asana columnist for both Yoga Journal and Yoga International Magazine (U.S.A.), and has been profiled in four separate publications on exceptional contemporary teachers of our time, including Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. Donna is the author of the contemporary classics, The Breathing Book, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness and Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living. Her fourth book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship is used as a curricular text in teacher training programs worldwide. American Born, Donna now resides in Christchurch, New Zealand where she pursues her passionate love of horses.
These articles appear on this website by permission of Donna Farhi and are all copyrighted materials.
other Donna Farhi articles:
One Woman's Yoga
Moving Inside the Breath
The Window In
Moving Outside the Square / The Sun Salutation
Flexibility & Focus / The Arm Balance Sequence
Coming to Stillness / Janu Shirsasana / Head-to Knee Pose
Supta Padangusthasana / Reclining Big Toe Pose
Virabhadrasana II / Warrior 2
Sirsasana II / Headstand 2
Salabhasana / Locust
Ardha Chandrasana / Half Moon
Finding your Inner Compass / Parsvottanasana / Flank Pose
Yoga for Enlightened Living
A Blueprint for Optimal Movement
Moving with the Breath
more to follow..
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