Talking Shop with Barbara Benagh

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Founder of The Yoga Studio in Boston, Barbara has been practicing for 27 years. Her popular classes focus on the dynamics of the breath and are steeped in imagery—"sink your breath into the mud of the belly"—and a soothing, Southern drawl.

Yoga Journal: Who has been the greatest influence on your yoga?

Barbara Benagh: Angela Farmer...I knew her when I was in England, and when I was at a point of being disillusioned and ready to stop doing yoga altogether, she offered something that let me know I could still do yoga.

YJ: What were you disillusioned with?

BB: I was religious about practicing, but I was injuring myself all the time. All the yoga was about what to do when I was hurt. I wanted to find "well" yoga instead of "hurt" yoga. Angela offered this internal perspective that was just transformative. She so inspired me that I couldn't go back to the way I was doing yoga before. It was out of that that my style, which is sort of radical and distinctive, came about, because I didn't take yoga classes anymore. She turned me towards this inward place from which to move.

YJ: Would you describe your style?

BB: My style is very focused on using breath with movement. I'm not unique in that regard—more and more that's becoming important to people, but having gone through some pretty serious respiratory problems, I really can feel where the breath goes and how it moves. It is truly an internal perspective. If I can't see what's going on internally in a pose, I won't do it. What I'm asking people to do is go inside and really observe this inner space. When you give that breath-driven space your primary focus, you have no option but to go slower, and to soften up the surface a lot because it gets in the way.

YJ: Do you teach Pranayama?

BB: I don't teach classical pranayama. My work is almost completely about diagnosing what your basis breath is. Breath is the voice of the central nervous system, so you're repatterning a lot of other stuff when you're repatterning your breath. I work to just get your basis breath coming effortlessly, so that when you're called upon to breathe more deeply, you're going to respond appropriately, naturally, as opposed to becoming exhausted.

YJ: What's your daily practice?

BB: Usually midday. If there are important calls or something like that I'll get those out of the way before. If I'm traveling, I'll practice first thing in the morning.

YJ: Are there days you don't practice?

BB: I'm not gonna give up my practice to watch the soaps, but things can get in the way. My daughter and I went rafting in the Grand Canyon. I tried to practice, and it was just too difficult, so I just meditated, stretched a little here and there.

YJ: Would you share a memorable moment from a class?

BB: The one thing that happened...I wasn't there. A few years ago I was taken ill very severely and very suddenly. When my students got there for class and I wasn't there, they called around, and when no one had heard from me, they knew something was wrong. They found me, unconscious in the hospital. Not only did it happen in that class, but in the next class as well. They sent someone to my house, and he saw that my front door was open and my cherished bike was there and knew something was very wrong.

YJ: That's touching because most people would wait around and then, disappointed to miss their class, they'd go home.

BB: Yes. And when the whole episode was over, I was just overwhelmed that they had been so much more than just these people that come and take. Because I think teaching yoga can be lonely. You know, you are this person that people look to for answers. This was the ultimate struggle, but they were right there. They didn't have to do this at all, and they took such good care of me.

YJ: Most teachers have one lesson they always come back to. What is yours?

BB: If I can instill in students a curious intelligence in their practice, that's what I want to do. Yoga is preparation for living. It instills a curiosity and enthusiasm to participate in life. One of my favorite quotes is from Emile Zola: "You ask me what I came into the world to do. I came to live out loud."