Beryl Bender Birch Discusses Boomer Yoga

boomer-yogaBeryl Bender Birch is well known as an Ashtanga yoga devotee and as one of the major innovators of Power Yoga, which served to popularize an athletic, flowing style of asana practice in the west. She has now written Boomer Yoga, a guide to how to begin and adapt a yoga practice in one’s later years.

Yoga Guide (YG): What was it like to study Ashtanga yoga with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois?

Beryl Bender Birch: I met Pattabhi Jois in l987 and spent almost 5 months studying with him daily. He was on an extended tour of the U.S and traveled from Helena, Montana to San Francisco to Boulder, to Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Encinitas, and Maui. My husband Thom and I drove across country from New York, at the urging of our friend Clifford Sweatte, one of the first western practitioners of the Ashtanga method. We made the arduous journey with our two Siberian huskies in our ten year old Honda civic station wagon in order to spend the summer with “Guruji”, as we all called him, and study yoga. We had no money, but neither did anyone else as I recall. It was a simple, joyful time. Sri Jois’ favorite pastime, other than putting people in some of the more advanced postures of the various Ashtanga series, was watching Bruce Lee movies. After the second class of the day in late afternoon, we would often all traipse over to a house were he was staying and watch Bruce Lee movies and drink coffee, prepared by his wife Amma. Usually there were only 20 or 25 people in class. People came and went — even then — arriving from various parts of the country — Hawaii, New York, Colorado. David Swenson, Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, all were dropping in and out of the tour. Pattabhi Jois came back to the US in l989, and again, I went to Hawaii for a month to continue my studies with him.

YG: How did Power Yoga evolve?

Beryl Bender Birch: I didn’t begin the study of asana in earnest until l980, when I met Norman Allen in New York City. Norman was the first Western student of Pattabhi Jois and I — through sheer synchronicity — stumbled into a workshop he gave at the Jain Meditation International Center in New York. Watching him practice this rajasic (active), awe-inspiring, athletic form of asana, was unlike anything I had seen before. I had been taking asana classes off and on since l971 and had studied Sivananda Yoga with Swami Vishudevananda, Kundalini Yoga with Yoga Bhajan, and Iyengar yoga with many of the early senior Iyengar teachers like Judith Lasater, Ramanand Patel, and Adil Palkivala. I even began teaching asana classes in Colorado in l974. But this system of asana, called Ashtanga by its primary proponent, Sri K, Pattabhi Jois, was completely different than anything I had seen. It felt familiar in an ancient sort of way. As soon as I saw Norman doing this practice, I felt like I had found what I had been searching for in India years before. And here it was in my back yard. I jumped in to solid training with Norman, 24 days a month, for two years. He took a couple of month long trips to India during that time to see Pattabhi Jois, but I, and the other 4 people studying with him at that time, kept our practice going while he was gone.

YG: What made you diverge from Ashtanga?

Beryl Bender Birch: Immediately I begin to teach what I was learning and I have been teaching either the Ashtanga series, or some vinyasa variation of the various asana series ever since. I never diverged from teaching Ashtanga. Power Yoga was simply a name, the name I came up with in the late 80’s to let people know that this ashtanga yoga practice — unlike most of the yoga taught in the 70’s — was a serious workout — designed to build significant strength and concentration as well as flexibility. It also was a way for “western mind” to relate to this rather obscure version of yoga called ashtanga. In my first book, Power Yoga, published in l995, I detailed the Primary Series of Ashtanga, along with specific alignment instructions, modifications for athletes and beginners, and cautions for poses with potential for injury. I taught Power Yoga in New York City for 22 years from l980 to 2002. My husband Thom Birch, a world class runner and one of the tightest people I had ever taught yoga to, taught with me for many years and together, we trained over 100,000 people through our classes at the New York Road Runners Club.

By the early 90’s we had full time yoga classes going round the clock. I taught privates in the mornings, corporate classes at lunch, and power yoga classes for athletes in the evenings on Mondays and Wednesdays and advanced ashtanga classes downtown on Broome Street on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I started a teacher training program in l985 that continues through my The Hard & The Soft Yoga Institute today.

YG: What advice do you have for seniors who don’t have access to specialized classes? Is it safe to learn yoga from a book?

Beryl Bender Birch: In 2009 my most recent book, Boomer Yoga, was published. It was written for people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who perhaps don’t have access to classes, or who want to start yoga but aren’t quite sure how, or for those who have been doing yoga for years, but want to tone down or change their practice somewhat. Learning yoga from a book may not be for everyone, but if you pick the right book, it can be totally safe and doable. My intention in writing Boomer Yoga was to offer a practice that was hard enough to be challenging, but soft enough to actually do. So working with Boomer Yoga, the book, is a completely rewarding and self contained experience. It is safe, doable, and easy to follow. The important thing that I stress in the book is to ease into the practice. The directions unfold, breath by breath, so that if you follow the instructions you will add a little bit to your practice every day. This is smart and the only way anyone should ever begin yoga practice — whether through a book or in a class. The worst possible thing you can do is to jump into a full-on 60 or 90 minute class as a beginner! It is really important to start with an introductory course or beginners classes.

YG: Any poses that boomers should avoid? I often hear from older people who already have trouble with their knees who want to try yoga as therapy. What advice would you give them?

Beryl Bender Birch: It is also important to study with someone who understands alignment and anatomy. Every body is different. Every practice is an individual path that needs to be determined by the teacher and the student working together. There are no postures that — across the board — should be avoided. There are postures, though, that should not be done by people with neck injuries or with high blood pressure, or by women who are pregnant. Do your research. Watch classes before you take them. Talk to friends who do yoga. You will know how and where to proceed. Oh, and reading any of my books, can be helpful too. All three are detailed and full of stories, anecdotes, and directions for safe practice which can be applied in your classes.

YG: What was it like to study in India when you began?

Beryl Bender Birch: When I went to India in l974, I thought I was the last one on the train — Paul Brunton had already written his classic, In Search of Secret India, Ram Dass had gone to India, met his guru, seen the light, and returned home to teach, and Andrew Weil had come and gone and was practicing medicine and incorporating the teachings of ayurveda and the wisdom traditions of the East into his Integral Medicine. The Beatles had already been to the East and met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and were meditating up a storm. I was pretty sure that everyone who was anyone had already been to India. Little did I know what was to come, in terms of the opening of the East to students from the West.

I was not in India to study asana. I was in search of a path to enlightenment. I spent 6 months in the northern part of the country — traveling from Bombay (now Mumbai) to New Delhi to Chandigar to Hardwar, Rishikesh, Manali and back. 1974 was the year of a Kumbha Mela, a huge spiritual festival held every 12 years in one of four cities on the banks of the Ganges River. This particular year the Mela was held in Hardwar. Tens of thousands upon thousands of sadhus, monks, priests, pilgrims, and yogis, all come to the sacred city for purification and healing. I was covering the festival for (what at that time was called) East West Journal. There were boatloads of naked sadhus, plastered in ash, thousands of them, all making their way to the Ganges. It is illegal (not to mention disrespectful) to photograph them — so I didn’t. But still, it was paradise for a photographer. The sheer mass of Hindu humanity that gathers for Kumbha Mela is beyond description. The streets are packed with tents, vendors, and carts, donkeys and cows, dancing deities and a variety of holy men and women — all migrating toward the River and all hoping to bathe in the Ganges at the same auspicious moment. The smells, sights, sounds are overpowering. I was blissed out on Spirit and enamored with every wandering monk and yogi. For a young Western woman, alone with a back pack and a camera, traveling through India in search of God was an extraordinary experience and a complete sensual overload.

I went to India as a guest and student of a renowned Jain monk named Munishree Chitrabhanu with whom I had been studying in the US for several years. As a result I was most graciously received by Jain families from Bombay to the north and back. My two nights in Hardwar for Kumbha Mela were the only nights for my entire stay in India, when I slept in a dharamsala, or guest house. The rest of the time I was a guest of Jain families in their homes, passed from one to the next, village to village. All Jains are vegetarians, as the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, is the basic tenet of their religion. I was fed as a member of each family – like royalty, and consequently (and blessedly), I was never sick during my travels in India. Oh, and just as an aside, Indian food, in India, cooked by devoted women who rise before the sun to grind spices and spend the entire day preparing meals for their families, is nothing like most food offered by “Indian” restaurants in the United States.

After Kumbha Mela, I spent a month with Jain monks and nuns, traveling, observing silence, and practicing meditation. The Indians I met were amazed that anyone from the West would be interested in traveling to India to study yoga or the Eastern spiritual traditions. Except for the mendicant yogis, most average Indians were not remotely interested in the practice of yoga. Instead, they – especially the young people — were interested in the material goods of the West, like blue jeans, tape recorders, televisions, and cameras (this was before cell phones and Ipods).

The Jain families and the monks and nuns, kept me under wraps pretty good. As a woman, I was not allowed out by myself, but only in the company of several other women. Married women didn’t travel without their husbands or even go out for shopping or socializing except in company. As long as I was under the care of a particular family, they took their responsibility for my safety very seriously. I was chaperoned to train stations and bus depots, and only allowed to go off on my own to my next destination, with much resignation, head shaking, and consternation. Westerners, coming to the East in pursuit of spiritual guidance, were still somewhat of an enigma, especially single women.

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