27 May 2014

A Brief Glimpse of Yogi Angela Thomson-Brenchley's Journey into Intuitive Receptivity

My good friend and Yogi, Angela Thomson-Brenchley shared with me her story of coming to yoga and her philosophy and understanding of what constitutes a yoga "lifestyle".

Angela: I "discovered" yoga very gradually. I taught fitnesses classes at a YMCA in the Midwest. I developed an interest in learning and teaching stretching. Really, this was the seed that began to call me toward yoga. The YMCA offered a stretching workshop for teachers. I attended and shortly thereafter began teaching a "Stretch and Relax" class at the Y where I worked. It was a pretty conservative place. The local YMCA association did not allow yoga, as it was considered non-Christian. 

Somehow, someway, I began to realize that I was interested in more than stretching; I was interested in yoga. I began a self-guided study and discovery of yoga. In retrospect--after many years teaching and after completing multiple yoga teacher training courses, I recognize this was (and continues to be) the most important and effective step I took/am still taking in my journey as a yoga teacher. 

I did not have a guru (never have had, don't plan to--different topic!) Back then, I did not have a yoga teacher, other than myself and the books I studied. One was Erich Schiffmann's The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Along the way, I picked up books by B.K.S. Iyengar, as well.  Although Iyengar Yoga is not the path I follow as a teacher, I still refer to those books often and am even currently studying Iyengar Yoga with a certified Iyengar teacher. For me, being open-minded is yogic. I'll take Ashtanga classes. I'll take Kundalini classes. I'll take Sivananda classes. I'll take Yin classes. I'll take classes that thoughtfully mix and mingle lineages.  I don't believe in arguing about who/what is right. I'm open to receive wisdom from many traditions. I use common sense, critical thinking, and intuition as navigation for what I'll call "conflicts among the traditions."  

The next highlight of my journey began when I enrolled in yoga classes offered at California State University, San Bernardino. I took classes there from almost every instructor who offered them, eventually finding myself drawn to take class exclusively with two particular teachers: Amy Wheeler and Beth Lucas--both teachers in the Krishnamacharya lineage, sometimes referred to as Viniyoga. Their classes changed my life. I learned to really focus my asana practice on my breath. They also encouraged slow, flowing asana movement, intelligently sequenced and synchronized with the breath. Both Beth and Amy taught yoga classes in such a way that empowered students to independently continue with a sound yoga practice. As I took class with them and by observing their teaching methods, I was learning how to teach yoga. I also had the wonderful opportunity to train with Amy at CSUSB as a student in her quarter-long professional preparation course for teaching yoga. 

The Krishnamacharya lineage most influences my own teaching. I largely follow its "in" "out" asana sequencing in which one flows in and out of almost every pose with its appropriate breath (inhale or exhale) before holding the posture in a static way. My preferred type of hatha yoga to teach is what I call slow-flow vinyasa. I like to create my own vinyasa sequences. I almost always vary Sun Salutations from their "lineage codified" forms. Often, the practices I design for my students don't contain Sun Salutations at all.  Something important to me is to share with my students breath and posture insights I've gained through my own practice. One simple example of this is Warrior/Virabhadrasana III. I teach multiple ways to approach getting into this pose--no one size-fits-all, no set "it must be done this way always." My latest favorite? Coming into Warrior III from Standing Forward Fold/Uttanasana.   

Rather than "yoga as a lifestyle," I prefer to think of yoga in terms of a path toward wholeness, a life-help, a philosophy in which every practitioner--everyone who practices/tries/attempts--gains from her/his efforts and exposure to yoga. Anything that approaches thinking of yoga as a bunch of doctrinal dos and don'ts that lead to negative judgment, or even relative "evaluation" and hierarchies by other yogis doesn't help. I practice yoga because it helps me feel well, plain and simple.

It's kind of popular right now for people to discount asana. I won't do that. It is so integral to many people's practice. Yoga/union of course is not reliant on asana, but it is a time-tested tool that some of our revered yogis continue late into life, even though we might see them as having "mastered that stage in the journey."  

With my personal practice I have many struggles. I'm human! I scrimp on meditation time. I follow my mind's fluctuations down its myriad paths. I stick with the familiar, the loved and neglect the unknown and new. The best thing for me to remember is that my breathwork/pranayama is deeply therapeutic and to respect its power and give it its due devotion. 

My advice to new yoga teachers? Be open, stay open to others and to yourself. Remember that each practice you lead is an opportunity to give. Feeling nervous? Remember it's not about you performing or coming off well, but about the practice, about growing, about sharing, about moving toward stillness (Erich Schiffmann), ease, and wholeness. 

You can learn more about Angela Thomson-Brenchley's practice and schedule of classes at http://theyir.org/profiles/atb/.

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