The Making of Anusara.
Why is it that B.K.S. Iyengar’s form in asana is so supreme, so superlative? And I’m not just talking about the alignment articulation, which is pretty much flawless. What I’m pointing to is the intoxicating shakti within these photos.
For me, gazing at B.K.S Iyengar’s form in an asana is similar to sitting in a sacred temple before an ancient bronze sculpture of, say, Kali. The physical form of a bronze Kali in a sacred temple stays relatively the same physically (or should I say physikali) year after year. And yet, energetically she builds power as more of Kali-ness awakens in that particular murti form. Similarly, I postulate that the photos of B.K.S Iyengar in Light On Yoga have evolved in subtle yet significant ways since they were first taken. Durga decade after decade I claim that the photos in Light On Yoga have become less and less an expression of B.K.S Iyengar, and more and more an expression of Hatha Yoga itself.
His form has become direct access to what asana is and what asana does. In other words, what we see now in Light On Yoga is not just B.K.S Iyengar in asana, but asana itself. These photos, therefore, have the potential to deeply inspire any Hatha yoga practitioner who genuinely spends time with them. When I first really looked at Light On Yoga 15 years ago, I said to myself, “I want to be able to do every posture in this book.” My quest was inspired by this question: “How would being able to do each of these postures shift me physically, mentally, and spiritually?”
I didn’t tell anyone about my Light On Yoga aim—there actually wasn’t really anyone to tell. At that time I was the only one among my friends and community that practiced Hatha Yoga. The only other Hatha yoga practitioner I really even knew was my mom.
So, little by little I attempted to do each and every posture. I made a list of all the postures I couldn’t do and crossed them off one by one.
About four years into my practice I hit a wall. I had pushed myself as far as I could go on my own. For example, I remember one year my goal was to be able to do Kandasana by the end of the year. I could barely do baddha konasana at the time! I had never seen anyone do this posture and never been given any instruction on it. On that New Year’s Eve I asked my dad to push my feet into my abdomen. My back was against a wall. My dad, who is very strong, used all of his effort to try and force my feet into kandasana position, to no avail.
It became clear to me that in order to achieve my aim of doing every posture in Light On Yoga I needed guidance; I needed a teacher. Soon after that realization, as luck would have it, I met John Friend. During that first workshop with John, he told me that I could perform all the postures in Light On Yoga if I learned the art of alignment. Sianna Sherman was also at that particular workshop. After asking John about Kandasana he brought me over to Sianna. He asked her to show me the posture. Without even being warmed up she did it with ease! I had never seen anyone move their limbs like that before. As Sianna did the posture John explained the alignment necessary to shape shift like that. I was so inspired. I had witnessed the rare and nearly extinct species called Kandasana. (About 8 years later I kind of got into Kandasana as you can see in the below photo).
The techniques I learned from John Friend seemed magical. Suddenly, I could do what I could to postures I couldn’t even get close to doing before. Not only that, but practicing under the guidance of John Friend gave me a blast of bliss.
For more than a decade I have run Yoga Oasis studios in Tucson, AZ. Early on, Yoga Oasis had a wide assortment of class offerings. We had so many styles of yoga and class levels that students and teachers alike were not sure what the exact differences were in our classes. To convert confusion into clarity we decided to offer just three class titles: basics, expanding, and radical expansion (since then we’ve also added intro2yoga and yogahour). The key thing that defined these class titles was the Anusara Syllabus. Basics utilized postures from the level one syllabus of Anusara. Expanding used poses from the first and second syllabus. Radical Expansion used poses from all three syllabi. For these descriptions to make sense we needed a visual of each syllabus which sparked the idea of making a poster of the entire Anusara Syllabus. The problem of course, is that we needed to captures 350 photos for that to happen. On Nov 21st of 2005, after explaining my poster vision to visionary Ross Evans–inventor of the xtracycle–he said, “Well, You can do all the postures, so let’s get started tomorrow. Milo can take the photos and I will film it.” At that time, I actually couldn’t do many of the postures in the syllabus. But I was willing to go for it.
Little did I realize that a situation had arisen where I would nearly realize my initial dream of doing all the postures in Light On Yoga.
The 8 a.m. photo shoot finally started at 1 p.m. Because we were using natural light for the photos we only had until 5 p.m. We photographed both sides of every standing posture in the syllabus that afternoon (101 postures). This was only possible because I flowed from one posture to the next pausing only long enough to hear the click of the camera. We did the entire photo shoot like this because it was also being filmed for a project that never came into fruition. We agreed that we would photograph the rest of the photos the next day. Even though my legs were exhausted from all the standing postures, I tossed and turned that night knowing I was going to do more asanas in one day than ever before in my life (approximately 450 postures including both sides) Doing the rest of the syllabus in one day was an ultimate challenge that irrevocably changed me. It took about 8 hours of nearly non-stop asana. I felt both utterly depleted and elated by the end of that day.
After sending John Friend the results of our first photo shoot he sent back 150 re-shoots with detailed alignment instructions. The next round after that, he sent back 85 re-shoots. For over a year we did re-shoot after re-shoot. Sometimes re-shooting 25 photos or less took several days due to the alignment refinements we had to capture. I made a commitment with myself from the beginning that I would do as many photo shoots as John required. I told Milo (the photographer and graphic designer for syllabus poster) that I was willing to continue with this process for years if that’s what it took, and there were times when I started to think it would take just that! The day John said, “The photos are done!” was a moment of roaring relief! Wow and woe, what a process.
Evolution: One posture I just couldn’t do, try as I might, and try I did, was Viparita Salabhasana. Here is what John emailed to me to get me into this posture:
Brother Darren,Viparita Salabhasana – You can do everything by aligning with the bigger Flow…keeping your inner thighs back like life depended on it, you must scoop the tailbone strongly to maximize Pelvic Loop. Then extend out through your legs full blast. Have someone hold your pelvis so you can get used to moving your energy more forward on your chest and throat. You must lean forward more with your center of gravity and get more onto your top chest. It takes more strength in your throat and chin and upper back muscles, but you can do it. You are bending too low in your back. The deep bend must happen higher up in your back. You WILL get Viparita Salabhasana following my instructions.” A few months later, sure enough, I got it.
Many of the more advanced postures appear so daunting that we often mentally label them as impossible for us. Suggestion number one: don’t do them. Advanced asana is dangerous. Suggestion number two: if you must, start by visually taking in their form without reaction. See the photos as they are. Then open yourself to the possibility of you becoming that form. Like Hanuman, many of these postures require that we become a changeling. Also Like Hanuman, as Professor Douglas Brooks says, “The impossible becomes yet another possibility.” The asanas that challenge us are often the ones that bring about the most significant transformations in all realms.
In the span of just over one year, John Friend’s instructions for the syllabus photos took my practice to a level that I would otherwise never have reached on my own. Without doing this project, I would never have the depth of relationship I have now with asana. One of my highest hopes is that the poster project will inspire similar such transformations in others. And of course, without my initial Light On Yoga inspiration none of this would ever have hatha happened.
And oh, for what it’s worth: creating sacred space can also allow us to do what would otherwise be impossible. For example, during one of the last photo shoots for the syllabus poster I was attempting to do Valakhilyasana, which I’ve nicknamed Kali-Kill-me-asana. I was capable of getting my back toes onto the floor. I wasn’t, however, capable of getting the front of my shin, ankle, and foot to the floor. After many attempts I concluded without a shadow of a doubt that that asana was impossible for me. My friends in the room assured me that I could do it. But I knew inside that there was no way. No chance. In a state of defeat I sat there in Pigeon prep gazing at the form of Bhagawan Nityananda, a great yogi saint. I had put that photo of Bhagawan Nityananda on the puja that morning to inspire me. As I gazed at Nityananda I felt my awareness soften. I started to take in a powerful energy from his form that took me into a realm of my heart I had never been–what felt like a wellspring of shakti.
Then suddenly, like moving from the depths of water back to the surface, my awareness rose back into the room. In that short period of time I went through a deep inner shift. I turned to Milo with a smile and said, “I can do it.” As I went into the posture all the previous obstacles were still there. Only now instead of a stop sign it was a yield sign. Instead of a red light it was green or even yellow (yes, I nearly ran a few red lights). And yet the deep recognition of knowing I could do it kept me guru going. After getting into the final form I came out and declared that I could and would go deeper. I learned the priceless lesson that in order to shape shift, I must first state shift.
Back in the day yogins did asana for the primary reason of creating a vessel strong enough to contain the spiritual energy of their sadhana. Interestingly, many yogins while in deep states of meditation spontaneously entered into various asanasas the kundalini awakened more fully—my father has had this very experience in meditation. These forms then were expressions of their bliss or the shakti itself. It makes sense then that these asanas can take us to the very bliss that inspired them in the first place. In other words, if asana can happen from the inside out it can also happen from the outside in.
The main thing the syllabus poster project taught me: when a deep desire of the heart spontaneously arises follow its calling. My experience has been that such desires is grace itself guru guiding the way towards and too my own bliss. It always proves to be both a perilous yet precious path.Thanks, sadhana. Interestingly, many yogins while in deep states of meditation spontaneously entered into various asanas as the kundalini awakened more fully—my father has had this very experience in meditation. These forms then were expressions of their bliss or the shakti itself. It makes sense then that these asanas can take us to the very bliss that inspired them in the first place. In other words, if asana can happen from the inside out it can also happen from the outside in.
The main thing the syllabus poster project taught me: when a deep desire of the heart spontaneously arises follow its calling. My experience has been that such desires is grace itself guru guiding the way towards and too my own bliss. It always proves to be both a perilous yet precious path.
Darren Rhodes, a Studio Director and Certified Anusara Yoga Instructor. My mom began practicing yoga while she was pregnant with me. Throughout my childhood she practiced and taught yoga in our living room. My father, an avid meditator and scholar, has consistently shared his spiritual experiences and insights with me. My parents continue to support, guide, and inspire me on my yogic journey as do my many teachers. My primary hath yoga teacher for the past 12 years has been John Friend.