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 à‡ 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.
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."
Yoga teacher Donna Farhi recalls studying with Farmer at a time when she herself was pondering leaping away from an established yoga system into her own uncharted waters. "I saw that she was willing to follow her heart regardless of the consequences, and I knew that that must have taken immense courage," Farhi says. "Many soothsayers warned me that to do what she had done would be disastrous. But listening to and following one's own truth is really the path to freedom, and I am thankful that she provided such a clear role model for me and for so many others in the yoga community."
A Lifelong Practice
Along with Victor van Kooten, her partner in yoga and in life, Farmer offers a personal, modern interpretation of classical hatha yoga. "You can learn from all the traditions and teachers, but the most important teacher of all is the one within," she says. "I believe it is time to listen inside again—to feel, to question, to explore, and trust our inner voices, rather than jump into alignment on command."
Entranced by this ancient practice's spiritual power and promise, she's devoted her life to unearthing its profound mysteries and sharing them with others. Farmer, now 61, travels the world on a demanding teaching circuit, living out of several large suitcases. Her long, silver-streaked hair and free-flowing clothes inevitably turn heads when she walks down the street, whether it's in the funky village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, or the Greek island of Lesbos, where she and van Kooten teach each summer.
This creative woman may not be the person you'd want balancing your checkbook or tinkering around beneath the hood of your car, but she is someone you can easily linger over dinner with, listening to stories about her adventurous life.
Searching for her own authentic expression of the spirit of hatha yoga, Farmer has laid the groundwork for a wealth of innovative forms of yoga to bloom in the West.
Claudia Cummins teaches yoga in Mansfield, Ohio. To order Angela Farmer's video The Feminine Unfolding, call (303) 778-9321.