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I Didn’t Choose Yoga, Yoga Chose Me

Alan Finger reflects on his journey from young yogi to creator of ISHTA Yoga.

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My father was shell-shocked in the Second World War; he had shrapnel in his back, and he became a drug addict and alcoholic. My grandfather was a wealthy businessman, and he tried to get my father involved by sending him on a business trip to Los Angeles. One time at their hotel, Yogananda happened to be giving a lecture. Drunk, my father went to the lecture. Afterward he went up to Yogananda, who said, “Come; I’m going to teach you Kriya Yoga. It’s going to change your life. I want you to go to the Sivananda Ashram in India, and then go back to South Africa where you’ll become a famous yogi, and one of your sons will follow.” And so he did!

I was five years old when my dad came back from India. In South Africa, there’s a very large Indian population, and they brought all the yogis and swamis over. My dad would get them to lecture or stay at our house, which slowly metamorphosed into half ashram, half home. I started doing a little bit of yoga then. Swami Venkatesananda, from the Sivananda lineage, was a major influence in my life. He would spend up to three months of the year at our place. Swami Nishraisananda from the Rama Krishna would come for a week at a time; Shuddhananda Bharati contributed a lot to the tantric part of the ISHTA practice.

By the time I was 15, I had various psychosomatic problems because of the way my father had been for the first five years of my life. My mom got me to go to a psychiatrist, and when my dad asked how it went, I said, “Terrible! That guy can’t help me!” We laughed, and then I said, “Dad, you’re teaching all these other people how to use yoga to get better; I need you to teach me, please.” He told me I’d have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and join whatever practice he was doing, which involved 1.5 hours of pranayama, kriya, meditation, and 1.5 hours of asana. I did it! Immediately, it worked—I felt so much more clear and stable; the psychosomatic breathlessness and lightheadedness I was experiencing all went away. In four and a half years, I missed only two days of practice.

One day, when I was 16, my dad had to travel to a funeral and he couldn’t contact the student who was coming to see him. He came to me and said, “You need to teach Mrs. Lazarus.” So I met her in the yoga center, and I asked, “Is there anything in particular I can help you with?” She opened up and started crying and telling me all her issues and stresses. I explained to her how the nervous system works as it had been explained to me by the swamis, and before I knew it, she stopped seeing my dad and became my student. Then her granddaughters wanted to learn, and then her cousins. When my dad’s back collapsed and he had to have surgery, I took over all his classes. It was never a thought—I’m going to make this my profession—it was just a natural progression.

Developing the system of ISHTA was my doing. My dad was a genius, and very academic. He and all the swamis used to sit together with their books, discussing kriya and Kriya Yoga. But the information that was being handed down was being taken for granted. I wanted to systemize it. I told them, “It’s too all over the place; people have no idea what we’re talking about.” Eventually, I got Venkatesananda and my dad to agree to it, and we started organizing. And then we had to give it a name. My dad liked ISHTA, because it comes from Sutra 2.44—Svadhyayat ishta devata samprayogah—which means, “When you are grounded in self-study you will find the appropriate yoga practice, life’s purpose, and path that really resonates with you.” I love that, because I believe every human being is different. The yoga that resonates with you is the yoga that’s correct for you. Eventually we created an acronym for ISHTA: Integrated Sciences of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda, which are the three sister sciences in India and what ISHTA yoga revolves around.

Things became very tough politically in South Africa. I got in trouble because I wasn’t supposed to go into neighborhoods that were black or Indian, but I kept going there to teach. Eventually the police actually threatened me with house arrest. My wife said, “Why don’t we go to America?” She had friends there, so we moved to Los Angeles. Norman Seeff, a famous South African photographer, was in Los Angeles. I went to see him, thinking I’d get some photographic work with him to make ends meet, but he wanted to learn about yoga. His girlfriend at the time was the actress Taryn Power, and she was totally into it too. I started teaching at her apartment. Within a month, I was teaching two classes a day with 30 to 40 students. So I moved my classes to Norman’s studio in West Hollywood, and one of the people he was shooting was Cindy Williams from Laverne and Shirley. She took my class, and afterward she told me she was about to sign a contract for a new season, and she wanted to write me into it to help her cope with stress. I said yes, and my business grew from there. Robin Williams signed me into his contract for Mork & Mindy, and the director of Family Ties brought me in once a week to teach. I ended up teaching all these stars, which is funny because I’m not into celebrities—it’s not a part of me.

I eventually started YogaWorks with Maty Ezraty. She was looking for a teaching space, so we joined forces. I had always taught ISHTA Yoga, but as yoga was becoming more popular in Los Angeles, I wanted to open a studio that encompassed all different styles of yoga. I later moved to New York City to open another YogaWorks studio, then Maty bought me out, and I went on to open Yoga Zone, followed by Be Yoga, and finally, my first ISHTA studio in 2008.

Over the years, ISHTA has evolved into different teacher trainings, master programs, modules, and manuals. But the ancient secrets of yoga, specifically of Kriya Yoga—how to change and alter your consciousness in the energetic body—haven’t changed. It’s so profound that scientists are beginning to say the same things as the ancients. People come to ISHTA to learn more about the science of yoga—to look a little deeper than just the physical body and to learn how to purify consciousness so it’s not filled with thought and with vritti (fluctuations of the mind), and instead begins to reflect spirit, knowledge, and genius.

See also Alan Finger’s Energy-Clearing Yoga Sequence to Prepare for Meditation

About our contributor

Like many master yoga teachers, Alan Finger’s first foray into the practice came early. He started dabbling at age five with his father, Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger, at their home in South Africa. At 15, he got serious about studying, and a year later, he was teaching classes across Johannesburg on the path to systematizing a profound yoga method that would come to be called ISHTA—now studied widely across the globe. Though Finger had no initial ambitions of becoming a teacher, it was practically ordained by his father’s teacher Paramahansa Yogananda, a father of yoga in the West and preeminent teacher of Kriya Yoga, advanced meditation techniques to move you through different levels of consciousness.