This experience left her with what felt like "a belly full of barbed wire" and diminished sensitivity in much of her body. It also left her with intense and chronic pain that lingers to this day. She traces her probing, internal focus in yoga in part to her attempt to heal from this traumatic surgery.
"The upside of that operation is that I've been forced to work more with energy, moving it out constantly through to the extremities to try to bring life back to my hands and feet," she says. "And I've had to do a lot of stretching to open up scar tissue, which is very, very deep and runs right back through to the spine. I think if I'd have been more healthy and normal, I probably wouldn't have spent so much time on it, and who knows, I might have done something quite different."
Six months after her first yoga class, Farmer met B.K.S. Iyengar, and was transfixed by the intensity of his presence and the intelligence of his teaching. She studied with him for the next 10 years. But in the late 1970s, Farmer grew frustrated with the Iyengar approach, realizing that despite tireless practice and mastery of even the most demanding asanas, she remained largely unchanged within, still lacking the peace and quiet acceptance of life that she longed for.
Sculptures of female Indian deities caught Farmer's eye and inspired her on a journey inward, into what she calls a more feminine, sensual, and nourishing exploration of energy and movement. Her yoga style slowly began to incorporate elements of dance and creative expression she had explored as a child. Determined to find her own way, she finally abandoned many of Iyengar's conventions, in search of a more internal and free-form approach to yoga. Farmer's break with Iyengar wasn't without consequences: Her classes went from 60 students to six overnight.
Beyond Traditional Asanas
Her original approach to yoga delights many, confuses some, and infuriates a few. Her critics say her teaching lacks structure or clear-cut technique, that she has strayed beyond the world of yoga altogether into the amorphous land of improvisational movement. Some are confounded by the formlessness of her classes. Others say her approach is too sensual or psychological or emotional. Farmer admits the word "yoga" feels a little small for what she really teaches. She seems more interested in offering students the possibility of finding their own way than in arguing about the strict definition of yoga. "Anything that is alive has to keep changing and keep evolving, and it's the same for yoga," she says. "The essence remains the same, but it has to keep coming out in different forms with each person who teaches it and with each generation. You learn from the past, but only if it nourishes the information and confirmation that's coming up in yourself."
Nonetheless, Farmer says she will always be grateful to Iyengar for "the intensity with which he works and the awareness that he insisted on bringing. I think he's a brilliant teacher. It's just that I think you have to do what you can with a teacher and then move off in your own way. Instead of always desperately struggling up somebody else's ladder, you have to thank them for what they gave you and then move on and climb your own."