An interview with Simon Borg-Olivier.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Simon Borg-Oliver, founder of the Yoga Synergy teaching style and director of the
Yoga Synergy School in Sydney, to talk about his approach to teaching and some of the more common misconceptions and most
worrying phenomena in the current yoga scene worldwide.
The uniqueness of Yoga Synergy—which is a teaching style based on traditional hatha yoga—lies in its having been developed by two Australian former research scientists, Bianca Machliss and Simon Borg-Olivier, who later became physiotherapists and have cultivated the Yoga Synergy system especially for the modern western body with an understanding of western science. Thus, they have created sequences based on the teachings of both Iyengar and Patthabi Jois in which the experience of flow goes hand in hand with proper alignment.
As the story goes, on a sunny afternoon in Sydney sometime in the ‘80s a molecular biologist and a research scientist sat down on a sandy beach scattering around heaps of cards with photos of all the asanas on them from the sequences taught by Iyengar and Patthabi Jois to select the ones they were going to use in their own style. Is this accurate?
It was never our intention to create a new style of yoga. We have a school which is called Yoga Synergy and we are sometimes called “people who teach the Yoga Synergy style” but we are just teaching the yoga of our teachers: B.K.S. Iyengar, Sandor Remete and Patthabi Jois, amongst many others, who were long time teachers of us and who we have every respect for.
But along the way you develop ways of explaining things that work for you, and you think work best for other people, and you see the best results with. And I think B.K S. Iyengar was one of the first people who said to me that he didn’t teach Iyengar-yoga, he teaches yoga. It just happens that other people call it Iyengar-yoga. So I don’t think of myself as teaching anything but yoga. But other people call it Yoga Synergy or the Synergy of Simon and Bianca.
But what Bianca and I tried to do on that sunny afternoon after scattering around the cards on the beach (laughing) was to reach as many people as possible with our method. So we have really tried to develop the traditional hatha yoga we were taught and make it work for the people of the modern world. So we started with a simple ashtanga vinyasa yoga primary sequence and made some modifications to it based on our observations about the yoga practice of people with modern western bodies and our experiences with them as teachers.
What are these important modifications you’ve made?
One of the things that we noticed was that a lot modern people were getting a lot of wrist problems. So we incorporated a bunch of neural-tensioning exercises at the start which are essentially nerve-stretches. These nerve-stretches—including wrist movements which tension or lengthen nerves coming out of the brachial-plexus around the neck—help prepare the wrists to do movements like the push-up positions. They also prepare the neck to move a little bit more freely and when you do these movements the right way they also loosen up the spine.
Then we also noticed, for example, that because people sit in chairs so much in the modern world the front of their hips are very stiff. And when people who’ve been sitting all day long with the front of their hips contracted, try to make themselves stand up straight they bend their backs further backwards than they should naturally instead of extending or opening the hips. So they constantly stand and walk in a hip-flexed and spinal-extended position which is basically walking around with a squashed lower back.
So, when they come to do their first upward dog in a typical sun salutation such as in the Ashtanga vinyasa primary sequence, what tends to happen is that their lower back is already compressed and they compress, shorten and tense it even more.
So to compensate for this, we introduced a lunging salute which is a version of a “Moon Salute.” And this prepares the front of the hips to open up a little bit. So when you bend the spine backwards in upward dog it is less likely to squash the lower back and more likely to lengthen the front. So this was another modification that we made. And there are many more.
You’ve been a student of both Patthabi Jois and Iyengar. What were the main differences in their approach to yoga?
Patthabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar are both brilliant teachers and essentially the yoga they are teaching is the same.
On a simple level, Iyengar stresses that you should have detail and alignment in a posture, but because the mind can only usually focus on one thing at a time, he stresses detailed alignment, instead of worrying about breathing. He encourages just natural breathing.
Whereas Patthabi Jois would say do not worry about alignment, concentrate on bandha, ujjayi breath and drishti. Just those three things. Iyengar said that yoga teachers should not give more than three instructions in every posture because that is how much people can focus on. So Patthabi Jois said the same. Only three instructions: drishti, bandha and breath. And for me that says the same thing: if you focus on alignment, do not worry about the breathing. If you focus on breathing, don’t worry about alignment.
And so many people doing Patthabi Jois’ yoga were accused by many people doing Iyengar’s yoga that they were completely misaligned. But actually the alignment was still there relative to their own bodies because they had bandha, drishti and pranayama.
But in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s students from Iyengar started to pay visits to Patthabi Jois and with them they brought the focus on alignment. And the students started to get a little bit typically western minded of what they wanted from the practice: they wanted to get good alignment and good breathing at the same time. And to try to do both together, fries the nervous system. It’s not possible.
The thing is that if you follow the instructions that Iyengar gives you, you automatically create bandha and good pranayama. If you follow the instructions precisely that Patthabi Jois gives you, in particular how to learn the sequence, then you automatically get good alignment. So their practices appear different for some of these reasons and many more I could elaborate on, but essentially they were teaching the same thing. It took me a while to realize it. But it’s true.
What are the most common misconceptions amongst yoga practitioners nowadays?
Most yoga that is practiced in the world today and called yoga is about over-stretching, over-tensing, over-breathing, over-thinking and then, afterwards followed by over-eating.
This is a generalization but this is the problem with most yoga practice that most people do. But when you are in yoga, it does not feel like you are stretching, it does not feel like you are tensing, breathing or thinking. And you feel nourished by the practice so much that you do not feel hungry afterwards. Or you don’t feel tired afterwards either. And yet you feel relaxed at the same time and still doing things.
Another common misunderstanding is that mula bandha or uddiyana bandha—people often confuse the two—has something to do with always drawing your abdomens inwards and constantly using the muscles of complete exhalation, namely the transverses abdominis, the internal oblique and external oblique muscles congealed together. If you do this, although it might prevent a little bit of back pain because the spine can’t move, this will immobilize the spine and force every movement into the hip, especially when flexing the hip.
So you will get more problems in the hip, the spine will become stiffer, the internal organs won’t move and the diaphragm can’t work. That means that you are probably going to get more back problems and hip problems as the hip is only moving into one orientation. And also because the spine is not being able to move means that knee problems will come a little bit later too.
But the biggest problem is when people are constantly drawing their abdomen inwards in a way that inhibits their diaphragm. And by that, they force themselves to breath into the chest. Breathing into the chest is fine if the diaphragm is still able to work but 90 percent of the people cannot breathe into their chest if their abdomen is completely relaxed.
What happens then is that you invoke a much more powerful sympathetic nervous system response and in lay terms you put yourself into a flight or fight response. So the feeling you have then is to flight or fight. And this primitive response is useful sometimes, but not to have all day long. So when you’re in flight or fight mode, you will turn off your reproductive system, your digestive system and immune system.
Do most people practice yoga in an inappropriate way? How do you reckon this based on you observing and teaching yoga practitioners for 30 years?
There are always two types of people doing yoga in the world: there are the ones doing really soft, gentle relaxing yoga but very little physical activity. I call this “thatha” yoga. (The word “hatha” means uniting opposite forces in which ‘ha’ refers to heat and high pressure and ‘tha’ refers to cool and low pressure.) Because it is just so soft and gentle. And of course you can really relax when all you’re doing is lying on your back.
And then the other half of the world is practicing a stressful exercise done in a stressful way which I call “haha” yoga. Because they are doing these really stressful things and they get even more stressed by doing them. And it generates emotional responses of fear, anger and aggression. They compensate a little bit at the end by doing ten minutes of the “thatha” yoga, e.g.,they lie down and relax. But real real hatha yoga includes doing stressful things in a relaxing way.
So the relaxation in yoga practice should not begin an hour and a half after you start the practice. It should begin at the moment you get on your mat. And you should learn to do things remaining in a calm state. That is why the only definition we have of physical yoga from the Pantanjali Yoga Sutras is “sthira sukham asanam,” which means that the physical exercise you do should be firm and calm.
I also find it a bit worrying that most of the teachers I’ve met as practitioners are mixing esoteric, Ayurvedic and Sanskrit yogic terms with western scientific terminology and they do not really have the slightest clue what they are talking about.
I am lucky that I have really good teachers both in the West and in the East and I have also been studying at university doing my research. Of course, I’ve got the grey hair to show for it, because I have spent a lot of time doing it. But there were many years when I did not understand a lot of things. And I still profess that there are lots of things I do not understand. My teachers know it much more than I do. And it may take another 20 or 30 years to understand what they know.
So, what I’m suggesting is that a lot of yoga teachers don’t know enough. And they are actually teaching, I believe, prematurely. There’s too much poor yoga being taught in the world today. And it has been taught at a level and with principles which are not safe to the body. If you are teaching traditional bodies, you can teach traditional yoga. But if you teach non-traditional bodies you have to adapt and modify the traditional yoga intelligently and safely. And it has really taken me 25 years to cultivate it and another 15 years of learning yoga for myself. And that’s not easy to do unless you have a good teacher and a good time and place to do it.
You are constantly emphasizing the importance of safe practice while you have online courses. Can yoga be taught safely online?
It is safe to teach yoga online only if you apply the principles that I have just given you.
But there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t listen to what you’re saying and will try more than he supposed to do. But that will happen even in a class one on one. I believe I’ve developed a very effective system to teach people at a distance so they can’t hurt themselves.
You mentioned that your primary motive to teach yoga was your own yoga practice, in which you have experienced so many beneficial things you felt you had to share them. What are these very positive experiences during your practice?
During yoga practice I feel completely connected to. . .
. . .to the universal consciousness?
Yes, but primarily I feel connected to myself. It is the first place I start. Yes, you are probably quoting me because I sometimes say that the definition of yoga I like the most is to realize that our individual consciousness is one with the universal consciousness. The realization, not the attainment, as we are already connected before we even start the practice. That’s the realization of yoga. But the realization of hatha yoga, of physical yoga, as opposed to global yoga is that our brains are connected to the rest of our bodies. And so for me, I get up in the morning to do hatha yoga, some sort of physical yoga practice, to help me circulate blood through my body, to get my nerves firing properly, to get the lymphatic system working properly, to get my acupuncture meridian and nadi-system functioning properly, so I feel connected in that way.
Do you have spiritual realizations during the practice as well?
When you really feel totally connected within yourself during and after the practice, you will realize that you connect better with your family members, the people you call your friends, the people you work with and even the people you don’t know or don’t like. And you realize that this connection grows with each practice. It also grows not just within people and within yourself, but also in the way you treat the Earth. Then, every time you come back to the practice you slowly realize that yoga really brings you to the realization that we are totally connected to everything else and to me that is the most important spiritual realization. And it builds from one practice to the next.
You said that according to Iyengar, it is never wise to give more than three instructions to people when they are being taught yoga. What would be your three most important instructions to yoga practitioners?
Stretch less, tense less and breathe less while practicing. It also applies to running a marathon race.
Éva is professional journalist, who does not really believe in chakras and nadis, and prefers the musculoskeletal and physiological way of teaching yoga to the esoteric babble. She started recklessly practicing Ashtanga yoga five years ago that it left her with a bulging disc and with other back problems. A year ago she got herself familiar with the tenets of the Synergy Style and started practicing Ashtanga in the spirit of Bianca’s and Simon’s teachings and since then her back pain is gone. You can contact her on Facebook or through one of the following sites:
Editor: Thaddeus Haas
Like elephant yoga on Facebook