The YJ Interview: The Intuitionist
Living in her adopted hometown of Boston but retaining a hint of her native Tennessee drawl, 60-year-old Barbara Benagh says that yoga brings joy into her life every day. A start in the disciplined, alignment-based Iyengar system gave Benagh a method; studying with Angela Farmer gave her an appreciation for an intuitive and feminine approach. This combination of influences makes Benagh one of yoga's most compelling and distinctive voices.
How did you discover yoga? I went to England in opposition to the war in Vietnam in 1971 and worked for the British government as a fraud investigator. I was living in a squat with my boyfriend and we didn't have plumbing, so we'd go to the nearby university and I would wash my hair in the sink. My back started to hurt, and the only exercise class that was offered nearby was yoga. I was fairly skeptical about yoga, so if the class had involved chanting or incense, I think I would have run. I just wanted to heal my back.
Later, Angela Farmer's style resonated with you. I remember feeling sensations in my practice and asking teachers for guidance; they didn't seem to know what I was talking about. Then I went to Angela, and she talked about this energy emanating from the belly, and I was like, "That's it! That's what I was talking about." You know what her gift is? She doesn't teach you how to do yoga. She teaches you to tap into your own curiosity. That's what was so influential to me. She really helped me trust myself, so instead of asking, "Is it OK to move from within?" I just do it.
Your approach is often described as "slow flow." Is that an accurate description? Yes. I really love to get on the mat and start to move and just keep moving. People say to me, "But you move like the glaciers." And that's difficult for some people. But the older I get, the slower I like to go, because I find that there's just so much to observe when going slowly. It's like the difference between driving cross-country and taking a nonstop flight. I can get to San Francisco in five and a half hours. If I drove, it might take me five weeks, but I'd see so much more.
What do you hope to convey to students? The physical practice serves as a catalyst for deeper perception. That's one of the greatest parts of hatha yoga—when you are seeking equilibrium in asana, it wakes up the soul. Students get that. If I can convey that to them and remind them of it and get them to trust it, then I think their practice will bloom and they won't need me.