Beryl Bender Birch is the first lady of Power Yoga. She’s the author of “Power Yoga” and “Beyond Power Yoga,” and the founder of the Hard and Soft Yoga Institute in East Hampton, New York. It was the soft element that struck me as we chatted on the phone together. Beryl embraces you with the warmth and wisdom of a lifelong friend–one with a remarkable life, and the stories to prove it.
A.M. You’re an internationally known teacher now, but what was it like in your early yoga days?
B.B.B. I started teaching yoga in 1974 in Colorado, I was living in Winter Park, and I started teaching skiers. At that point I was teaching more of the Sivananda system and just pushing it up a little bit to make it a little more rajasic a little more active, a little more physical. People would come, and feel great, and by the time I left Colorado in 1980 I’d taught pretty much everyone in town—the ski patrol, ski instructors, the bar owners.
I moved back to NYC and met Norman Allen. I saw him do a demonstration of the Ashtanga sequence and I went oh my God this is unbelievable. This is yoga? This is great! You see the demonstration, and everybody wants the end result. Oh, I want to be strong like that, I want to have a fabulous practice, and he said, “Ok, you want to do this? Six months, 5:30 in the morning, twenty-four days a month, you miss a day, you’re out.” I said yes, and that was it, I fell in love.
I began teaching at the New York Road Runner’s Club, and I don’t think I called what I was doing yoga. I called it stretching and strengthening for the athlete. One day the receptionist said to me, ”Guess what Beryl, somebody came here today, they want to teach yoga, wouldn’t that be cool?” And I said, “What do you think we’ve been doing here for four years?” She said, “Oh, I thought it was just stretching.” I said, “That’s it, we’re calling it yoga.” By 2002 I’d taught over a hundred thousand people the primary and second series of Ashtanga yoga and was calling it Power Yoga.
A.M. Where did Power Yoga come from?
B.B.B. Power Yoga came from a meditation. Bryan Kest and I have talked about it, and we’re pretty sure it popped into our minds collectively at exactly the same moment. We both started teaching and calling it Power Yoga in the late 80s. I had the superior rights to the name because I’d used it in advertising and in print before he did. Warner Bros. put out his Power Yoga videos in ’95 and said they would prevent me from a trademark. Ultimately, the patent and trademark office said no, you use it descriptively even in your book, it’s not trademarkable. So Power Yoga became anything anybody wanted it to be.
Calling it Power Yoga got me thrown out of the Ashtanga church. Patthabi Jois didn’t like the fact that I published that I was a woman, or that I’d published my book (Power Yoga) and that I wasn’t a devotee. Tim (Miller) and Chuck Miller and Richard Freeman and I all met Patthabi Jois the same day at Feather Pipe Ranch in May of ’87. That summer I spent five months traveling the circuit going from town to town taking classes from him. I think over a couple of years I took about 250 or 300 classes with Patthabi Jois. I have a lot of gratitude towards him. I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it weren’t for him.
A.M. There seems to be a sea of behemoth yoga studios and yoga rock stars, and then those of us who are the little local, independents. What are your thoughts on this current landscape?
B.B.B. I think it’s really important to create spiritual revolutionaries. My sangha, what I seem to attract, are people who have been practicing a long time, they’re teaching, they’re more serious about their spiritual journey. I’m not a rock star, I’m not Seane Corne or Shiva Rea or Rodney Yee or Baron (Baptiste) or John Friend, and thank God, because there’s just too much risk of getting hit by flying tomatoes if you stick out that much. I just feel like I’m in a different sort of place then that. But I think that work needs to be done, and I don’t think it’s less than or more than.
Lots of media people ask me what do you think of yoga in the gyms, and what do you think about this article and what do you think about that, and how about it’s so commercial now. I say, look, whatever gets people turned on to it. What turned me on to the Ashtanga system 35 years ago was the physicality of it. It was athletic. It was a beautiful physical practice. I really think there’s an evolution to the practice and the individual no matter what brings you in, whether it’s wine and yoga or chocolate and yoga or surfing and yoga…
A.M. We in the west have often been accused of only caring about asana. How do you bring people to the more subtle aspects of yoga?
B.B.B. Ever since I wrote “Beyond Power Yoga,” one of my campaigns has been to make sure people understand that yoga is not synonymous with asana. I try to teach people the meaning of practice, abhyasa. Practice means making an effort to keep your mind steady. Yoga is about learning to pay attention. That’s what drives transformation. You don’t have to try to transform or be all spiritual, you just have to do the practice. You become more conscious, more aware, you get a little more tuned in to what’s going on in the world, become more compassionate, more joyful. You have more loving kindness—it works!
I always ask people why are you here for this weekend or this training? Why do you want to do this? This isn’t easy. This is a friggin discipline. You could be out partying with your friends. And it gets them thinking about why do I want to do this? Eventually they get around to, you know, I want to be happy, and my stuff isn’t making me happy the way I thought it was going to. I thought I was my name, I thought I was my job, my relationship. You slowly realize that all of those things change.
I really do believe that the bottom line that creates transformation in the individual is the ability to focus your attention in an ever greater and more subtle way, and that follows the whole path of the limbs. I mean, we start with asana and it’s about focusing on alignment, and breath and bringing your toes together—pretty gross when we start. People get more and more refined, start to do pranayama, and start to turn inward. I am just so fascinated by the methodology. I always tell people, I can’t teach you yoga. Nobody can teach you yoga. I can’t teach you to teach yoga. All I can do is teach you a set of instructions and if you follow these instructions, hopefully it will lead you to the experience of yoga. And the experience of yoga is unspeakable. It’s the experience of samadhi. It’s the experience of connectedness, of oneness, boundlessness, merging with God consciousness…even if it’s just for an instant. Patanjali really looked at asana as practice for meditation. It’s what gets you started.
I remember people saying to me, oh, you do that jock yoga, that athletic yoga. What about the more spiritual kind? I would say, uh, this is the more spiritual kind. They’d say, you know, the more meditative kind. I’d say this is the meditative kind, what else did you want to know? It’s funny how people felt that because it was athletic, it couldn’t be spiritual. Separation of mind and body, that’s been around since the Greeks.
A.M. Has the fundamental aspect of what you’re teaching changed a lot over the years?
B.B.B. Yes, oh yes, tremendously. What I focus on, what’s important, the way I guide people to pay attention. I was a little more fundamental in the beginning, we all were. When you’re a beginner you want to get it right. What does it say on the stone tablets that came down from Tibet, now is it this way, or this way? We’d sit around and argue about the most ridiculous little nuances of the practice. Then you realize, it’s not a rigid, fixed, unchanging thing. It is fluid, growing, evolving. Sutra study is so much fun. This two thousand year old text is so applicable to the evolution of consciousness. I’m a real heavy-duty student of consciousness since the early ‘70’s when I lived in California. I’m really fascinated by the parallels between quantum theory and the teachings of some of these ancient texts. So many of the things that quantum physicists are talking about today, like nonlocality and the observer effect, are things the yogis have been saying for thousands of years. My next book is working on those parallels. The one I just finished is Yoga for Veterans. Using the yoga practice to deal with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and PTSD (post dramatic stress disorder) and general anxiety of deployment.
I’m sure you see it. People who come into the studio are in all different places and coming for all different reasons. But most come, when they get started, for physical reasons. They’re tight from running or skateboarding or cycling. I always feel what’s driving all of that is to get under the tightness and get down to the true self. Who am I really? Everybody wants to be happy. It isn’t stuff that’s going to make you happy. Really it’s about giving back. It’s about helping other people get happy.
To hear more of our conversation on our podcast, or for Beryl’s workshops and teaching schedule, visit her website http://www.power-yoga.com/
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