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.
• DONNA FARHI is coming to Amsterdam in 2014! You'll find more information about her yoga workshops & intensives here.
One Woman's Yoga
An Interview with Donna Farhi
Joseph Roberts: How did you come to yoga?
Donna Farhi: I was 16 and going to high school. My family had been in crisis since we moved to New Zealand from the States when I was 10. By the time I was 16 the family was pretty much disintegrating.
JR: Why did your father move you?
DF: I don’t really know. I think he had the idea that New Zealand was going to be a safe and good place to raise children. I think what was going on with the Vietnam war scared him a little bit. I don’t really know his reasons. He’s always had wanderlust, always moved all his life and of course we moved with him because children go where their parents go. But I don’t think he realized how dramatic a move it would be. It was essentially a foreign country. They might as well have been speaking a foreign language. It was like going back in time 20 years.
At that time New Zealanders had a fairly strong anti-foreign or anti anything different sentiment. So, there I was, this 10-year-old very precocious little girl from the US with a voracious appetite for learning. I found myself in a school system that was essentially a follow-through from British colonialism. It was like something out of Oliver Twist really.
I didn’t fit in, and my spirit, which was always very connected to movement and dancing and to all things poetic and lyrical, felt compressed from the moment I arrived. In everyday terms I felt frightened at school. I was ostracized, teased and by the time I was 16 I was pretty desperate. I’d say I was clinically depressed, though in those days we didn’t have those labels.
A physical education teacher offered a yoga class and it was elective. Only the really weird kids went. About six of us showed up while the rest of them went off ice-skating or whatever else there was offered for elective time. I was just mesmerized by the effect the class had on me. I felt safe and calm and it was the first time I’d felt like I belonged to anything. Within a week or so I’d gone out and collected some yoga books, and within a few weeks the teacher stopped teaching because she was heavily pregnant, so I asked permission to go into a tiny little concrete room off the main auditorium of the school and use my elective time to practise yoga.
The principal thought this was some guise for truancy and a few weeks later I was pulled into the office and he sat there like the cat that had caught the mouse and just couldn’t believe a young girl was practising yoga by herself in a little concrete room with no windows. The teachers would come in and have a look occasionally and there I’d be doing whatever, sitting meditation or breathing practices or asana practices. I just knew this was going to be something I would do all my life.
I think the incredible imprint of that early experience was that even without knowing the philosophical backdrop upon which yoga sits, just through the simple practise of slowing my breath, sitting in simple movements and focusing my mind I could conjure up this place of peacefulness inside me. I practised religiously, I think because I had to. I felt that every other aspect of my life was so out of my control, but this was something I did have control over. I took to it like a duck to water.
JR: What happened next?
DF: Fairly soon after I started practising yoga I became involved in theatre and realized quickly that the movement part was the axis which I wanted to explore. So I jumped in the deep end and started studying dance full time. That in itself was a journey. I think I wanted to study dance because I felt very connected to God when I danced. I felt that was the way I could express that connection, through my body, and it had always been that way when I was a child.
I studied and got very technically proficient. I reached a point one day where I realized I was just a machine that could do clever things, could do double pirouettes and balance on one leg, but I lost the thread of why I was dancing. It didn’t make sense to me any more and I think it was confusing for the people looking on from the outside because it appeared I was ready to enter a company. But, it was like the world just stopped and I realized that I had lost whatever it was I was connected to through dancing.
I wanted to find it again and had the intuition I would find it through submitting to my yoga practice in a deeper way. So I began to study yoga in San Francisco. I was always given the advice to find the best teachers. So, I travelled to India. I found a teacher in San Francisco who had a two-year waiting list and I kept calling until she let me in a few weeks later. I travelled to Greece and England and studied with teachers who I thought were exceptional.
Then I did exactly the same thing with the yoga as I did with the dance. I think we have to make the same mistake many times before we get it. I chose Iyengar yoga, a type of yoga that is very form oriented, very challenging physically. I became adept and completely identified with the body. I knew after a few years of practising in this way that there was a certain dishonesty going on within me and I could not in all honesty teach in the way I’d been taught. There was something else coming through for me.
So, I thought, “Here I am. I’ve come to the end of the road once again. I have to find the heart of this, the spirit.” I began a deep, deep inquiry. It felt like jumping off a cliff. I can recall at that time wanting somebody to tell me what to do, what structure. I remember a particular interview I went to at Antioch University in San Francisco. I thought perhaps if I went to university I’d find some sort of structure that I could slot myself into conveniently and I would arrive at the answers. This fellow was very perceptive.
I came in and told him I’d been teaching yoga for a number of years and writing for journals and an asana column for Yoga Journal by them. I asked if he could tell me about his program and he looked me square in the eye and said, “All the hairs on my back are on end since you’ve walked into the room. What you’re doing already is what our graduates hope to do when they leave here, so there’s absolutely nothing here for you.” At that point I felt absolutely crushed.
Then he went on and said that when Schoenberg was struggling to come up with a structure for how he was going to compose his best work was before he got it. He said to me, “I sense that you’re on to something and if you slot yourself into a structure or another myth you’re not going to fulfill that journey for yourself.” I went out into Chinatown and just cried my way from one end of the city to another because I felt like I’d been cast out into utter darkness.
For many years teaching and practising was stabbing in the dark. I was trying to find a way back to a natural and loving way of being with the practice and that’s what I’m sharing now, especially with people who want to train as teacher. It’s to teach from the heart, from the essential message, of the tradition, as that is so desperately what people need to hear when they go to a yoga class.
JR: What is that essential heart?
DF: I think first and foremost it is to meet every person who comes into the room with an unconditional accepting presence, and to see them as already whole; to recognize that each of us has some degree of fragmentation. We come in with our problems and our neuroses and our physical conditions and our history. So, to see through that and to be seeing each person as whole - and everyone’s desperately wanting to be seen in this way - is healing, to hold the vision of wholeness in the faith in my own wholeness and the wholeness of the student.
The other message which is perhaps counter to how some would interpret this tradition is that I think we all have an inner teacher and if we’re listening and quiet we’ll be given those answers, whether those answers are how to move or what to say in this moment, what to do or not to do in this moment. We all have that wisdom. I feel my job as a teacher is not so much to share my wisdom but to create a context in which the other person can discover their unlimited access to their own wisdom-nature.
It is like setting up a dinner table for guests. You set flowers on the table, prepare the cutlery just so, prepare the meal and then because there’s this expectation that something special is going to happen, something special does happen. I have that expectation in every class, and I think that sets up a field for people to awaken to the wonderfulness of this moment when we just stop long enough to pay attention.
I have a high expectation of teachers.
JR: To set up the context. Could you talk a bit about the difference between teaching teachers rather than students?
DF: Teaching teachers challenges me probably more than any other kind of teaching I do in that I have to break down what may be intuitive or unconscious for me as a teacher. It may be information that I arrived at intuitively or unconsciously and now I have to make that process conscious within myself, stratify and codify it. Deconstruct the steps to this process and help the teachers I’m training become cognizant of those steps. It’s important that they’re cognizant because they have to know where in this series of steps is the student. Where do I meet this person right now, how can I most effectively work with the person who is before me?
I think what is also very challenging about the model that I’m working from is that it’s not formulaic. It’s not paint by numbers. It’s a model that demands a deductive awareness on the part of the teacher to listen and respond to the students. The other part of the model which I think is terribly missing in most teaching that goes on in our culture is that every technique a teacher uses needs to be assessed in terms of whether it’s moving a student towards independence and freedom or whether it’s moving them in the direction of dependence.
That totally alters every word that comes out of your mouth, because you’re guiding a process of inquiry rather than telling the person what it is they should feel or how they should feel it. It’s a very different model for teaching, but I’ve worked from different ones and it does bring the student in direct contact with that force which is animating them. That’s the main thing I think that’s missing at the moment in the popularization of yoga.
The public is being misled in a sense that yoga equals asana, all these wondrous and crazy looking postures. In its essence, yoga has nothing to do with the posture or gymnastic physical feats. It has to do with using the body to connect to that animating force. So, if I’m practising asana it’s to connect myself to that which animates me: to the universe, to life and to nature. If I’m doing meditation or a breathing practice or karma yoga the goal is not to get your foot on the back of your head.
In the last decade yoga has very much gone in the direction of objectification and a complete 180 degrees from the original purpose of the tradition, which is to recognize its paradoxical nature. It’s got a strong somatic base and the purpose of that is to use the body to directly experience that we are more than our body.
JR: Could you describe a direct somatic experience?
DF: Well, somatic is any practice that’s embodied, anything that brings you into the sensation of the physical body.
JR: So it’s a presence that comes with that?
DF: Not necessarily. It is what makes yoga such an extraordinary tradition in that it has this strong basis of embodied spirituality. But there’s a paradox and this is where I think those of us in the West have tripped up.
We have this strong embodied portion to the practice but the purpose of those embodiment practices is to directly experience, not as something intellectual or that “I think,” but directly in-body knowing that while my body is a lovely thing to have, I am more than that. The direction yoga has gone in the last decade in the West is to use the practices to build up the body as our exclusive identity. So, now we have yoga for abs and for keeping you forever young and yoga that’s going to make the body more beautiful and perfect.
Now, it can generally make the body more beautiful and healthy, but that’s not the ultimate purpose of the practise. We call this losing the plot. What is the real storyline here and where did we lose the plot?
On the upside I would say there is a groundswell internationally now. Everywhere I travel to teach there’s a groundswell of people who have done these physical practices to the nth degree. They’ve done their 30-minute headstand. They’ve practised and practised the physical poses, have taken it to the limit and are now asking the question “Is this all there is?” in the same way that someone who collects houses, cars, beautiful women and money in the bank might pause and ask that question.
People who’ve been doing these practices are now asking that question and I see my role as a bridge for people who’ve been working with a very physical practise of asana and are now looking to use it within the context of the whole tradition, rather than as a practise unto itself. It was never meant to be done just by itself. It was meant to be done in relationship to the whole tradition.
JR: What’s closest to your own heart now?
DF: In the last year I’ve noticed a profound shift in my spiritual life - my whole life - it’s all the same to me. I feel an immense comfort in just being and a faith in life that wasn’t there so much before. I always saw the universe as an essentially hostile place and I don’t any more, I don’t experience it that way any more.
I feel it very strongly in working with people now because when I walk into the room there may be a little anxiety before I show up to teach 50 teachers, but after a few minutes I just feel so at ease. I feel such a trust in just being, that I don’t have to know the answers. I can be, as I tell my trainees, in an intelligent unknowing state, and to be teaching from and to be with everyone from that place. There’s a great joy in that and it sets up a joyousness in the room, too.
So, I’m taking immense satisfaction from teaching and practising and being at the moment.
The other thing is that I have a huge passion for horses and studying natural horsemanship. I’m taking my yoga into my relationship with my horses at home. I think that’s going to be my next big yoga, the study of horsemanship.
JR: I have a daughter who’d love to help you with that.
DF: I have two horses at home. I have an Arabian warmblood waiting there for me that has only been ridden a few times, so I have a very exciting project to go home to.
JR: I don’t know much about horses, but I remember the first time one started galloping I had no control.
DF: They’re strong teachers. There are many metaphors between the practice of yoga and the practice of being in partnership with horses. It takes a great deal of training, skill and patience not to control the horse, but all of that work is to be able to ride and allow the spirit of the horse to come through without fear.
I’ve learned more from my horses in the last seven years than I have from any formal yoga teachers, because they put me right up against whatever is stuck in me. If I’m working through a problem with my horse it’s because there’s something stuck in me and the horse has found it and we’re not going to progress until I figure out what that is in me that needs to be resolved, be that unresolved violence or impatience or a lack of acceptance, whatever the issue is.
They’re masters at it, and they’re thousand pound masters. You need to pay attention.
JR: I guess this could be said about all relationships.
DF: The big one with horses is you have to overcome your fear of death, because they’re so immensely powerful that if you’re going to be in partnership with that immense power and not contain, distort or constrict it, you have to have a kind of fearlessness. And you can’t pretend, they know.
This material was originally published at : http://commonground.ca/ in November 2004
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.
One Woman's Yoga
Moving Inside the Breath
The Window In / Following the Breath
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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