Read more from Juniper and Donna's conversation...

Juniper Glass You teach everyone from beginners to fellow yoga teachers, and you've taught in many locations around the world. I'm wondering if there's something that never changes in your approach to teaching yoga.

Donna Farhi Recently I met up with one of my longtime students who I hadn't seen for about ten years. She said to me, "Certainly you're teaching new things, and certainly your teaching has matured, but everything that you're telling me now is what you told me in my first beginning yoga class." And that kind of surprised me, that there had been that consistency, at least in the student's mind.

I think what I try to establish when I'm working with any group is the understanding that the onus always falls on the student to open up to their own perceptions. And more important than that, to be completely loyal to their inner perception, even if it disagrees with what I'm suggesting. Students must practice loyalty and faithfulness to their own insights. For many people, that permission is just a radical, radical suggestion because they're not accustomed to this way of working. People really have to know that they're in a safe environment, that they can trust me, they can trust the context of the class itself, and that they can say "yes" to their "no." That's what it comes to.

When I'm teaching I try to look at every technique or principle that I present with the question, "Is this work moving the person towards independence, towards their own inner reference systems, towards their own inner teacher?" And if it's moving them towards dependence on me or a kind of idolatry of the teacher, then I immediately reassess what it is that I'm doing with a student or with a group. I've personally always been more interested in the content of what goes on within the person. I have less and less interest in the form of what students present. I think form and content are both important, but ultimately I'm teaching people, I'm not teaching postures. I'm more interested in the quality of the person's awareness, how that's changing. And it's palpable. One would think it's invisible, but the quality of someone's awareness is palpable and that's what I look for when I'm observing and teaching.

JG I'm always amazed at how, when people are given permission to be their own teachers, to bring forward their intelligence, it happens automatically. Often all we need is the encouragement to find out own answers.

DF I have immense faith in the students' intelligence and ability to instinctually do the right thing. And I think because I have such a strong faith, and I carry that belief with me into the world, it sets up a field. So many times students will come up at the end of a workshop and say, "I knew all of this already! This way of working is a direction I've been going intuitively in my own practice, but I haven't trusted it. And now I know."

A deeper level for many people is that they're afraid to know what they know, because often the truth is rather inconvenient. Insight isn't necessarily the easiest thing to live with. For instance, a deep insight might be that I really need to leave my job and what I really want to do is go back to art school, but my rational mind may come up with 101 reasons why that isn't so. But at a deep heart level there will be a conflict until that insight is manifest. It can be a scary thing for people to open up to their insight, because it means their life as they know it will change! Once you've opened to that level of truth there really is no going back because it's too painful to live in that kind of conflict. Given the choice of volunteering for more pain or moving forward quietly, the student who is ready for that larger life goes quietly, takes the next step. I believe teachers most of the time underestimate a student's ability to self-navigate. And because the teacher's underestimating, the students pick up on it as well.

JG Even though I've been doing yoga for years, I still come back to the question, "What am I doing? What is yoga?" In your eyes, how does this practice work?

DF I believe any spiritual practice has to do two things. It has to reawaken a feeling of awe and wonder in life, a connectedness with life. And then on the other hand, it has to make the individual strong enough, clear enough, skilful enough to endure that level of openness, that level of living intensely.

I'm personally not of the belief that, "Oh, well, everything is yoga so therefore I don't need to put my bottom on a yoga mat on a regular basis." I personally believe the function of the formal practice is to systematically temper and strengthen the core of the individual. And on the other hand it's dismantling any kind of scaffolding that you've built around yourself that separates you from living life completely.

I think yoga is one of the only spiritual practices that has an embodied element to it, a very strong somatic component, where one empirically uses the body to draw out what is permanent, and what isn't permanent. Yoga is both a state of being, which we can say is possible in everything we do - it's what we are. And yoga is also a practice. It's two things. It's a noun and a verb!

JG You say that yoga is a "life practice." It's just in the last year that I've started to feel that my yoga, and my work, and my relationships, and all the other things I do in my life, are becoming harmoniously connected. I think what you're saying is that being a "spiritual" person isn't much different than being a person who brings awareness to how they live.

DF The most liberating thing for people is to be in the presence of someone who is completely, unapologetically who they are. Someone who hasn't got any pretences, images or any kind of inflated identity that they're upholding - they're just who they are. So often students have expressed that that, my just being who I am, more that anything, helped them to understand what yoga is.

I remember one student about 11 years ago. She came up to me at a time when I was feeling very much failed in every possible way, not just as a yoga teacher but in my life, period. I had failed. I'd been going through a very difficult divorce, my health had been affected, and I was just struggling on every possible level. And she said to me after class, "You know, I've been watching you this year. You might think you've failed, but I'm seeing somebody who comes in here and you're cheerful for us and you're focused and you do your practice AND you're struggling. It gives me hope that this practice is for real people like me."

It really took me aback. I thought I was the worst possible example of what yoga could do for your life, just at that very moment. And she was celebrating my efforts, my humanness. I just saw, what compassion, what compassion that this person could see the potential in me when I was struggling.

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