Have you been practicing yoga for years, yet still feel there’s something missing from your practice? Do you practice the asanas (postures) in a piecemeal, one-step-at-a-time way rather than integrating the parts of the poses into graceful, whole-body movements? Is your yoga more like intensive exercise than a spiritual practice leading toward balance and unity?
This is where Patty Townsend found herself a decade ago. Trained in Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga styles, she had practiced and taught yoga in California for more than 17 years. Iyengar yoga is noted for close attention to precise muscular and skeletal alignment. Ashtanga is commonly known as “power yoga.” It is physically demanding, with participants moving through a fast-paced series of sequential postures.
Despite her solid background in yoga, Townsend yearned to deepen her practice.
Then she discovered the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, founder of the El Sobrante, CA-based School for Body-Mind Centering. Bainbridge Cohen’s work is an experiential study of movement based on anatomical, physiological, psychophysical, and developmental principles. It is based on the assumption that the mind is expressed through the body and the body through the mind.
Central to Bainbridge Cohen’s work is using the body as a laboratory for inquiry and discovery. “It’s a way of fully inhabiting your body and knowing from within,” Townsend says, “not from thinking, but from actually accepting and experiencing the body fully.”
Townsend integrated her understanding of Cohen’s work into yoga, creating the Embodyoga system. She teaches Embodyoga at the Yoga Center Amherst in Amherst, MA, and has trained nearly 300 teachers.
Embodyoga in some ways, contradicts the way that some yoga is taught in the United States, Townsend says. “Traditional yoga can offer a hierarchical system in which the mind is trained to think in terms of what is right or wrong, and the teacher tells the students what to do. As a teacher, I can guide and give information,” she says, “but the student must do the internal inquiry and exploration herself.”
Embodyoga encourages students to find their own power and trust themselves. “The purpose is not to transcend or overcome the body,” Townsend says, “but to bring the embodied experience of unity into the fullness of life.”
Wholeness in practice
Townsend says whole body support and whole body integration are keys to Embodyoga and to helping prevent the injuries that many yoga practitioners suffer, especially in the shoulders, wrists, and back.
Whole-body support means accessing body systems we may have ignored to support the yoga asanas—systems such as the fluids, the organs, the glands, and the nervous system. “Many of us rely on only our bones and muscles to support the poses,” Townsend says. “We can learn to access these other body systems and find our practice to be not only more fluid and enjoyable but more powerful as well.”
One of the reasons people are injured practicing yoga, Bainbridge Cohen believes, is that “they move farther with their skeletons than the organs underneath can support. In all yoga postures, it’s important that the organs are actively involved, not just passively brought along as the skeleton moves.”
In addition to whole-body support, integration of the entire body into the practice is important. “Many of us learned yoga moves in an intellectual, one-step-at-a-time way,” Townsend says. “Whole-body integration means that, in yoga asanas, the energy flows without interruption along the path of the bones and through the joints without sheering forces across the joint or any part of the body. This not only guards against injury, but encourages the body to move as a whole, all parts in relation with one another.”
Final piece to the puzzle
Yoga instructor and author Donna Farhi, who lives in New Zealand, also incorporates Bainbridge Cohen’s teachings into her practice. She has found that she is able to do things she’d never been able to do before. “Yoga postures that once seemed like impossible puzzles I could only piece together detail by excruciating detail suddenly began to fall into place effortlessly and I saw and felt the whole ‘picture’ of the movement,” she says.
Trikonasana or triangle pose is a good example, explains Townsend. Often, students go into the pose in a series of mechanical, non-fluid movements such as positioning the legs and feet, extending the arms, then bending sideways. The core may be contracted, which impedes breath, and the limbs seem disconnected from the core.
Townsend instructs students to move into triangle by yielding into the mat and pushing earthward from the center, reaching through the upper limbs and rotating around the axis of the navel. “There is a fluidity to the movement,” she says.
As a teacher, Farhi has noticed that incorporating whole-body movement into the poses “frees yoga students from depending on teachers to spell out the details of every asana; instead, they learn to trust their own inner perceptions to show them the proper alignment of any pose.”
A Good Fit?
Embodyoga might be for you, if you want to . . .
Learn to weave postures, breath, and movement into progressive depths of experience
Discover the grace and wisdom of the body-mind-spirit in movement and in stillness
Develop a depth and beauty in your yoga practice that remains when you step off the mat
Learn to perceive the tangible support of organs, glands, muscles, and bones
For more information, visit www.embodyoga.com or call the school at 413-256-0604.