Ask devoted students to describe Angela Farmer's teaching, and they'll offer words like freedom, empowerment, surrender, and transformation. They'll describe her approach as soft, fluid, internal, feminine, open, and playful. Many say yoga finally came alive when they walked into her class and had a big "Aha!" about what yoga is really all about.
Some say that after the rigid restraints of many typical yoga classes, the unhurried and expressive movement she offers feels like being let out of a cage. And more than a few traditionalists admit that while they remain by-the-book in public, at home they secretly wiggle ‡ la Farmer.
In her classes, neither Farmer nor her instructions move in straight or predictable lines. They roll and swirl through a spontaneous parade of fluid poses that inevitably point toward inner exploration instead of mastering the outer contours of a pose. Her students might repeatedly move into and out of Downward-Facing Dog, stretching their bodies to the limit in all directions, rooting down through the back paws, swishing the belly around inside the house of the pelvis, letting the kidneys float up like balloons and the heels drop down like roots. These dogs might even hop like bunnies, melt into the ground like dying warriors, or twist themselves inside out, right into a backbend. And then Farmer might gleefully exclaim, "Now promise me you'll never do another petrified Dog Pose again!" She challenges the notion that happiness is a sure sign of success and that pain is an omen of something gone wrong. She tells her students that life comes with deep sorrow as well as joy, and that to open ourselves totally to our fullest expression, we must open to both the light and the dark, the longed for and the banished, the laughter and the tears.
Even when she was a small child growing up near London, Farmer yearned to quench her body's endless thirst for movement. In church, she "would look up at the wooden rafters and choreograph fantastic leaps from beam to beam, swinging from here to there and across to the pulpit and back up into the ceiling again," she says. "I wanted so much to pray—I had a deep religious urge—but the words of the prayers in the church just seemed to flow by without much meaning."
She remembers lying in bed at night, convinced that somewhere in the world a set of exercises existed that would move every cell in her body in a way that satisfied this profound spiritual hunger. Not knowing where to look, she decided to unearth the movements herself. "I would lie awake for hours," she says. "I would try different stretches and turns and twists and movements in my fingers and toes, but somehow I knew something was missing."
Years later, in 1967, the 28-year-old Farmer found what she had been looking for in yoga. Then a schoolteacher, she accompanied a friend to a class on a whim. She watched the poses in a daze, her late-night childhood imaginings coming to life before her eyes.
Long-standing physical ailments, too, made yoga attractive. In her early teens, Farmer developed a rare condition that caused her hands and feet to turn black in the cold and painfully swell in the heat. Uncertain about the cause of this condition and fearing it would lead to gangrene, doctors performed invasive surgery to sever several bundles of nerves running from her spinal cord to her extremities.