"Okay, let's do a drop-back. Who wants to show how to do a drop-back?"
It's the second day of the Anusara Yoga Grand Gathering at the annual Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, CO. We've just finished a long flow of yoga twists, forward bends, and back bends. Now it's time to play.
Today, as we just learned, that means doing an assisted drop-back, bending backwards from standing into Urdhva Dhanurasana, Upward Bow or Wheel Pose. This yoga pose basically involves standing on your hands and feet, which should be simple enough, except for this one little twist--your belly, not your back, is facing upwards. In short, this is not your average beginner's pose, and dropping back into Wheel Pose from standing is even less so.
"So, any volunteers?" Anusara® yoga-founder John Friend surveys the sea of 600+ people in the hall. "Anna, how about you? Come up here. Let's show these people how to do a drop-back!"
An 82-year old woman separates out from the crowd and, with a few helping hands, gets up on the stage. Friend locks hands with a helper behind her back, with their arms forming a cradle. Anna (name has been changed) lifts her 82-year old arms up over her head, leans backward, bends her knees, and with the support of Friend and his helper, slowly drops back into Urdhva Dhanurasana.
Photo courtesy Mario Covic
"See how easy it is?" Friend beams out over the audience with the ebullience with which he approaches everything from leading 600+ people into complex handstands; expounding on his unique take on Tantric philosophy; and jumping up and down with glee after a particularly riveting tabla solo from Shantala, the band contributing the musical backdrop at the Gathering.
Turning to Anna, "Wasn't that just FUN?! See, how simple it is?"
Simple indeed. The sissies in the audience, myself included, swallow hard, knowing we are doomed to the same fate. We just watched an 82-year old woman go into an assisted drop-back, and we're fresh out of excuses.
So here we all go--dropping back into Urdhva Dhanurasana, assisted by the strong hands of two neighbors. And yes, indeed, it is simple--and a lot of fun.
So, Anna, of course, is a friend of Friend's, so to speak, and has practiced yoga for at least the last 30 years, yes?
"No, not at all" she confides in me later, when I happen to sit down at her table in the dining hall. "I actually don't practice yoga at all. My friend and I just like to go to the conferences whenever we can."
The Yoga of "Yes"
Still, children, don't try this with grandma at home. Friend, having taught yoga fulltime for more than 30 years, knows bodies enough to know what someone can do and what not.
John Friend founded Anusara yoga in 1997, and it has had a meteoric rise on the yoga scene. Today there are over 1,000 licensed Anusara yoga teachers worldwide, and more than hundreds of thousands students in more than 70 countries. Friend himself is teaching workshops all over the world, and this year for the second time was the featured teacher at the annual weeklong Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, highlighting leading American yoga teachers.
In developing Anusara yoga, Friend took on the highly ambitious task of creating a school of yoga that would simplify the teaching of all of the different aspects of hatha yoga, without creating a cookie-cutter practice or sacrificing the depth of experience.
Friend wanted to--excuse the bad pun--put a friendlier face on the traditionally more strict teaching traditions of many schools of yoga, a school of yoga that was easily accessible without surrendering depth and sophistication. He wanted to create a yoga of "Yes," a school of yoga which celebrated life, which emphasized the positive and looked for the good in all things. And, he wanted to offer a school of yoga that would enable its yoga teachers to "lead the students to that magical place where everyone's heart opens naturally and where everyone feels empowered and filled with self love." Hence the Sanskrit name Anusara, which means "flowing with Grace," "flowing with Nature," or "following your heart".
That's a tall order. Even just the first step, reaching proper physical alignment in yoga postures, where each posture potentially touches upon the infinite, can be a formidable task. Friend recalls that when he first learned yoga, every point of alignment for each posture had to be memorized separately. He recollects trying to learn the points of alignment for 60 yoga postures, each of which had about 50 points of alignment. It took him three years to try to learn all of them.
"I found that I was getting very myopic. I was looking at a very small picture instead of the bigger whole," he recalls, "So I started to step back, and ask, 'What do these 60 poses have in common, instead of all of these many discrete, separate things?' "This is nothing which I figured out, I just sort of organized it. These are principles of nature. I just wanted to serve the needs of students in an easy way."
This result was what in Anusara yoga is referred to as the Universal Principles of Alignment, which form the foundation upon which all Anusara yoga classes are taught. And not just the classes as a whole, the instruction for every single yoga posture typically embraces several of the Universal Principles.
The Unconditional Embrace of--Purple Toenails?
I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical at the idea of a "systems approach" to yoga at first. First of all, Universal Principles to me sounded a lot like Universal Truths, just one step removed from urgh, doctrine.
And, while I totally get the thing about the underlying essence, and loved the notion of opening to Grace; I suspected that being told to open to Grace--in every, single frigging pose--could end up feeling very artificial and fake.
But Friend turns out to be a disarming blend of Jon Stewart and Deepak Chopra--part entertainer and funny man, part imparter of down-to-earth, practical, spiritual truths. His teaching is simple, but deep; his expressions so varied, authentic, and sincere, that it never feels contrived, hollow, or manipulative.
"Everything is a bhakti, an offering. May I serve in the best way I can," he says in his down-to-earth, sky-reaching Stewart-Chopra-esque way as he guides us into Vrikshasana, Tree Pose. "Put your heart and mind fully in what you do. Every pose in its highest is an offering of the heart. We open to embrace everything."
Photo courtesy Mario Covic
And as we transition into Uttanasana, Standing Forward Bend, the ever-present jokester takes over, "Reach up--even your finger nails become an extension of your heart--then bow down, extending your heart all the way down to those purple toenails. Don't hold back. It's unconditional!"
A Standing Mudra of the Heart
Anusara teacher training courses are filled not so much with new students wanting to become yoga teachers, as with people who have been yoga teachers for years, sometimes decades. In addition to the growing popularity of Anusara yoga worldwide, this is perhaps the most striking indication that the yoga of "Yes" meets the goals Friend had in mind when creating Anusara yoga. Although already certified, many yoga teachers opt to take the Anusara yoga teacher training (or the Anusara yoga intensives required before taking the teacher training) in part because of the added rigor the system involves, in part because of the community, and in part because the Anusara template succeeds elegantly in simplifying the principles of alignment in postures, while, oddly, at the same time deepening them.
One of the main appeals of Anusara yoga, perhaps, is that its concept of alignment goes beyond the mere physical. The very first principle of alignment is more of an attitudinal or spiritual principle than one of physical alignment.
"The first principle of alignment starts with the premise of supreme intelligence," John Friend explains. "I think of this as the Consciousness, or the Spirit that underlies everything in the universe. It is that which is really the essence of all of us."
In Friend's words, this is an opening to Grace, the recognition that there is a Spirit that we're part of, that is all around us, that really wants us to awaken to our greatness, that will conspire to help us. In Anusara Yoga, even before entering into a yoga posture, the first step involves this remembrance: "Open your mind. Open your heart to new possibilities."
During the three days of the Anusara Yoga Grand Gathering, I discover that the simple act of setting this intention at the onset of each pose really does make a difference. It makes it harder to get hung up on the physical strain of holding a challenging pose, more difficult to harden muscles and mind against the effort, as we often do in challenging poses. And above all, it makes the practice easier--it's easier to sink deeper into the pose, easier to connect with the subtle sense of flow in the body, easier to hook into the stream of Aliveness that pulsates through every moment--even while exerting.
The intention to open to that which is higher sets the stage and weaves itself, effortlessly, through the practice. And this subtle shift has implications far beyond each yoga session. Ultimately, as Friend points out, with regular practice, one is forging a new imprint in mind and body.
"Every time you do a pose with the remembrance of opening to Grace, opening to Spirit, you're building an energetic imprint that will stay with you increasingly outside the practice," Friend explains. "If we take that attitude of opening mind, opening heart to Grace regularly, and if that is the premise of any endeavor we undertake, what a great imprint that is!
Photo courtesy Mario Covic
"In yoga terminology, it's called Mudra. A Mudra is like a seal; it literally means an imprint. Whatever form you take is actually a reflection from inside out of what you're imprinting within your mind-body. Do what you think is the very best thing to do. You'll become what you practice regularly and with devotion over a long period."
This is like creating the reverse expression of Dorian Gray's picture in Oscar Wilde's famed fable. How cool is that? We create our extended body-mind according to our thoughts, emotions, intentions, and habits. And as Friend would have it, yoga can be a means to "physicalize virtue." Every single time you align to the highest, you are entraining a new pattern of the heart. Hey, I can live with that.
"You are a standing Mudra of your heart," Friend says as he leads us into Natarajasana--Lord of the Dance Pose. "You can tell what your Sadhana has been over the years. Your body holds the memory of the fundamental goodness of life. To get in touch with love, we just soften our skin, and we feel."
Alchemizing the School of Hard Knocks
Friend has attracted an impressive line of endorsements from Indian philosophy scholars, like Douglas Brooks, Paul Muller-Ortega, Sally Kempton and Bill Mahoney, Carlos Pomeda, and more. And while Anusara yoga is short on long philosophical discourses, Friend's Tantra-based wisdom is useful for those times when getting in touch with love isn't as simple as just "softening your skin and feel."
In the Tantra-based Anusara philosophy, everything is a play of consciousness; everything is the pulsing of the Spirit. There is no good, no evil; it's all one thing--the pulsing of existential essence, or energy. We are the ones who choose what we make of things.
"I don't just say, everything is beautiful--there's fear in me, sadness, anger," Friend muses as he takes us into Virabhadrasana, Warrior II pose. "That's just the reality. Now, what do we do with it, that's the question?" "The yoga path is how you use the anger, the fear, the sadness. These things are not bad, it's how you use them.
"On our yoga mat, we alchemize all these things, we open to them and then use them to our advantage, turn them into blessings. We have a choice to make. We open to embrace everything. I'll face anything. This is a Warrior with love in his heart!"
And, as we gasp through numerous thwarted attempts at a difficult handstand, Friend turns it into another lesson on the school of hard knocks:
"You get knocked down, you get back up. That's just what life is. You get knocked down, you get back up," he chides. "And you know what, the person who gets knocked down the most, gets to teach! The person who can stay in that center is the one that becomes a master."
May We Be Free From Suffering
Meanwhile, Friend himself would be the first to object to being characterized as a spiritual teacher. When asked if he set out to bring spirituality back into an increasingly physically-oriented yoga world, he explains that his intent for Anusara Yoga simply was to integrate the best of everything he had been taught since starting yoga at the age of 13. And, he wanted to offer up the potential of yoga to help people transcend the limitations that keep them trapped in a limited expression of what they could be.
"You take away all the styles, all the different schools of yoga, and everyone essentially practices for the same reason--to become their fullest as a human being," he says. "Ultimately, yoga is about helping people becoming the fullest expression of what they can be. And that is so fulfilling for me. I've been teaching now for 30 years, and I get more and more humbled by the power of yoga. It's nothing that I do. I just help facilitate the alignment and the environment for transformation and healing to take place."
On the third day of the Anusara Yoga Grand Gathering, Friend invites Ben (name has been changed) up on the stage. Ben was struck by lightening almost ten years back, and for years suffered from excruciating pain from a spinal nerve condition triggered by the lightening strike. He spent seven years going from doctor to doctor to find help for his condition, but no one was able to help him except for prescribing pain killers, which Ben in the process became addicted to.
He went to see John Friend on the recommendation of an acquaintance, who had been helped by Friend. After one session, Ben was free of pain, for the first time in seven years. With the pain gone, he began feeling empowered enough to start a regular yoga practice. He gradually worked his way out of his addiction, now, three years later, has his life back.
"Very regularly I meet people who tell me that yoga helped to change their life," Friend says. What are they really saying? Well, they're saying that their whole view on life, the way that they're approaching and relating to life has radically shifted.
"We have the keys to our own radical transformation within us. The Anusara yoga vision honors the inherent potential, the divinity in every person. We are all co-creators with Nature or the Supreme in this life, and this creative freedom makes life fun, exciting and inspiring. In Anusara yoga, life is viewed not as a hard labor assignment without chance of parole, but as a fun game that can be celebrated each day."
Click here to read the full Interview with Anusara yoga-founder John Friend.