Angela Farmer and Viktor Van Kooten: Yoga of Inner Wisdom
Interview in Yellow Springs, November 2009
Maxim Yasochka, Olga Sydorenko
Well known yogi couple Angela and Viktor are now practicing and teaching yoga for over than 30 years. They both started with Iyengar yoga but with the years new way and approach for yoga evolved. Now they call their approach "Unwinding Yoga". We met them on their annual workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In this interview Angela and Viktor are sharing their ideas on yoga practice, mind control, handling social life and own desires, role of brahmacharya and others.
But, first, let us tell you a bit about the seminar itself.
Yellow Springs, Ohio, is a small village in the moderate climatic zone. And what, do you think, eighty yogis could be doing here? The village is truly small, but still charming, blooming with cozy restaurants and shops. For some magic reason Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten, famous students of the great master of yoga posture – Iyengar, came here. Yogis from the neighborhood and from far away (Atlanta, New York, Cleveland, etc.) were attracted to them like to two big magnets.
Small roadside hostel, tiny room, cold floor in the shower, fresh country (“spiced up” with horse dung odor) air behind the window, - this was our perception of that place. Saturday morning, we had hardly woke up when a basket with fresh fruit and hot timber tea with lemon and honey were already waiting for us. In a little while, we headed to the practice hall, jogging through a farm road past luxuriant reddish-yellow tree crowns and single store American houses, making the fallen down golden leaves rustle under our heavy boots.
This was a school gym, a huge one. The practice area was a mat-to-mat, elbow to elbow one. The abundance of footwear exposing their tops to us was scattered around the gym entrance. We came to the place half an hour prior to the class, but, still, were the last people to come. So, we hardly found some space in the distant corner on left, changed in a typically yogic manner and started to get to know people around us. Firstly, we came up to Angela, Victor, and those whose who organized the event. Then, they presented us, as we were kind of exotic guests, to the whole big public of eighty yogis, each of whom decided coming up to us with all types of wows and questions about the aim and soundness of our distant trip was a must. Luckily, practice began very soon.
Angela and Victor are a very harmonic couple, and wonderfully supplement each other. Angela is pure femininity, and for her respectable age she is extremely graceful, exquisite, and flexible. She emphasizes on deep aspects of practice, applies intuitive approach to it, and uses a lot of figurative phrases. Angela is the principal first violin in this duo.
Victor brightens up any serious atmosphere with his jokes, brings philosophic standpoint into discussion of body works, and gives clear explanations about bio-mechanics of the process. Both, they give classes in quite a soft, relaxed mode, which, to us, is quite unusual. Feels like you even have time to take a small nap between two asanas. If you're not taking notes at the same time, surely. Angela and Victor are an inexhaustible source of practical advice, deep thoughtful comments, and hints about the practice. Our fingers got to be tired most, as we were taking copious notes.
In fact, thanks to such relaxed mode, comes the deep understanding of what happens during the practice, self-consciousness and body consciousness awakens. After every block of a class they give time to all the present to share their ideas. This is not a stage to the public communication, they offer to ask questions, to describe recent feelings, sensations, to listen to others and how they lived this block through, and which visualization worked better in this or that case. The openness of our group was a big pleasure for us.
Angela and Victor manage to find time for contact with each and every participant during both the class and the brake. Their communication style is very open, easy, full of wisdom, reflecting awareness of the self and the body, unfolding true intention to share all they know with you, and is completely ingenuous one. Probably, this helps to reveal the ability of others to communicate and also to smile.
Max, after making up during classes for lost sleep, packed his knapsack in the evening and headed to the airport in the morning. I am staying to enjoy the classes, the company of two wonderful teachers, and fresh made juices, - in the village of yellow springs.
“What we are doing in the last several years, can be called as anti-training. Usually, we do not say it frankly, but this is exactly the way we teach yoga,” - with this words, in his natural joking manner, Victor began the first class for the teachers. The concept of a yoga practice class in Angela’s and Victor's perception is closely associated with drilling – this is the impact of many years of their study under B. K. S. Iyengar, who is famous for his severity and captiousness.
After letting through all the knowledge which they perceived during decades of studies and personal practice, they came to the conclusion that understanding of yoga in general and own practice in particular should arise from within for every practitioner. And this understanding is unique for every person. Under conditions of strict system this is not easily attainable. This is the reason why yoga of Angela and Victor – is the yoga that one creates for himself according to personal needs and inner feelings.
The role of teacher here is not in teaching the students exactly what he was taught and the way he was taught, nor it is in setting the limits or rules, - it is, first of all, in helping others to hear the inner wisdom of their own body. Helping others to set deep contact with their own selves also goes to that. This all is to “come closer to the true self every time that one practices”. And the role of the “correct” asana performance is minimized here. Opening, relaxing your body, filling every small piece of it with breathing, awakening areas which we may have forgotten or hidden for some reason - is essential.
Guiding their students Victor and Angela aim not to use direct instructions about what to do and how to do, but to invent very picturesque descriptions. Instead of lengthening a leg or relaxing a hand we imagine that our leg is “a ship departing from a quay”, and any tension in the hand “dissolves as does the salt in the water”. And this really works, because the “body loves images”. The majority of people in the class are likely to create their own images which are a lot more intimate and natural for them, and they are supported by these great teachers. Setting deep contact with your body and doing exactly what your body wants can be many times more challenging than following detailed instructions, Angela believes.
Interview with Viktor and Angela
Question: Why and how did you start practicing yoga?
Viktor: I don't really know why. I've started yoga when I was 12 years old. I did it by the book, which I've found in my father's cupboard. I took it into the garden and did all the poses that I saw there. It was called «Sport and Yoga». When I was 26 I was working in my art studio day and night. So I felt I became a little too stiff and I've picked up yoga again. I attended classes of Donna Holleman, who was my first teacher. Than at 1971 I've met B.K.S. Iyengar in London. I've also met Angela at that time and it was a little difficult for me, because I immediately fell in love with her while being already married.
I became very much involved with Iyengar. He forced advanced certificates on a small group of people who didn't like to bring certificates into yoga. But by giving us those high certificates he hoped that we were going to fall for them.
So my beginning of yoga evolved basically because I needed some physical strength & comfort. I was always very interested in the meditative side, which came to me through Maharishi yogi at the same year (71), so I began practicing yoga and meditation at the same time.
Question: Why did you went on practicing yoga?
Viktor: It was very important for me to remain an artist, however, I become very much attracted to yoga teaching because people were seem to get kick out of it. And I was in a sort of demand. Iyengar also pushed me around the world with teaching. So I became more dependent on yoga in terms of my income. And I didn't have enough time for art anymore. But in the back of my mind I've always thought, I'm going to do art again one day.
And in 1980 I become close with Angela and I painted cards (with yoga pictures) for her. Than I started publishing books for yoga between 1992 and 2000 I've made 4 books. And I was happy with this, because I was able to join yoga and art by illustrating those books.
Question: Angela, what about you? How & why did you started yoga practice?
Angela: When I was a child I didn't know anything about yoga, but I had a feeling that there must be something like this. I loved movement, I used to lay in the bad at night and tried to move every part of my body. And I had that idea that somewhere in the world there must be a kind of set of exercises that would work out every part of the body. I was probably about 7-8 years old at that time. But I couldn't find anything similar to that so I did other things. I ride my horse and bicycle. I was organizing different sport activities for children in the school, like jumping, racing, etc.
Later I've read about yoga and there it was said that a teacher appears when the student is ready. So I thought OK, I'll wait. Than I was going to many different things in London and one of them was an esoteric society. At that place a friend of mine came up and said he found a yoga teacher. So we went to the class of a women, who've been studying with Iyengar. At that time Iyengar was invited to England by a famous violinist to help him with his health and yoga practice. Some people organized a class with him during his stay in England. And that woman told us to go to the class of Iyengar. And that was how I started.
Question: Why did you go on practicing yoga?
Angela: I think, my search was always through the body. I've also had my spiritual side, that was longing for satisfaction. And church was not really satisfying that. I wanted to pray with all my body. I've always looked for something to express myself through the body. I actually was able do this in the esoteric society, in fact I've become a turning dervish there. And I've realized that a turning might become a prayer. That was really satisfying. But I was only doing one thing - just turning in the same way. While yoga acts with the whole body.
When I've met Iyengar, I felt, he can go deeper than any other form of movement that I've met. So I continued with him for quite a while. It was making me stronger but only on the outside. And inside I was aching for my own life to open up. I was good in yoga and I could earn my living by doing it, but I was not finding those parts of myself that had been lost earlier in life. I had several traumas and operations and other things that had diminished my body's energy and were buried inside. It took me 10 years to really understand that. The way of Iyengar yoga was too military for me but I didn't want to leave until I didn't know the reason for leaving. But as soon as I knew the reason, I left. I didn't really know where to go. I thought I needed another teacher so I went to Pattabhi Jois and others. The answer came from inside when I realized I have to find my teacher within myself.
Then I've got a message from a temple. It was a temple of the God of the Sun on the East of India. There are a lot of beautiful female sculptures. When I saw them I realized that I've always denied my own femininity because I wanted to be strong and have strait path. So I tried to make my body as Iyengar wanted me - very strait, but there was always something that did not work... And on this temple there were a lot of beautiful female creatures and I saw that they were not just beautiful in a sexual way but they were a kind of dakinis . Previously I thought that one can not be a women and do yoga, that it was only a male way. And than I realized that in my body I could be a woman and do yoga. This realization gave me a huge shift in my deeper unconsciousness, in my physical body, practice as well as in my teaching. My practice began shift and change, I slowly stopped doing things that hurt me.
Than Viktor and I came together and we were unwinding the poses and yoga, we tried to see another way to practice yoga. And we also came more into the energy field.
Question: What would you recommend to the people, who start practicing yoga?
Angela: It's difficult. I think that the best way is to look at different teachers and find a teacher, whom they are happy with, who touches their heart. Now people have much more opportunities than we had. The danger with systems is that it confides you... but I believe that everyone finds own way. Sometimes, like with us - we went the way that punished us. That's because we've abused ourselves before. And by having a punishing teacher is like banging with the head over the wall - eventually you wake up and think what the hell am I doing this for? And than you find your own path. So I think everybody is going to find a teacher that's best for them. And there is a karmic reason why they have to learn from that teacher. Personally I do appreciate that Iyengar honored body and gave it enough attention.
Viktor had a voice coming through to him, that told him "go to Iyengar but not for what he can teach but for what he doesn't teach you". As for me, regarding doing that kind of yoga for so long I eventually woke up to understand what trauma is and how we continue that trauma in ourselves and how we let other people to traumatize us continually until we wake up. My whole feeling about yoga was around that aspect - of going back in unwinding my trauma.
Viktor: I think that all yoga is designed to bring more awareness to the practitioner. And if you do the yoga whatever style you practice the result would be that you get deeper insights about who you are. The isights you get give you deeper understanding of who you are and show you the path, which you start to follow. And than you have to dare to follow the insights that come out. They might be rejecting the style that you have been doing for that time.
It took us 8-10 years of following Iyengar in every single move that he did to understand that it didn't work for me in the same way it works for him. It took a while to understand it and it took a courage to go my own path. I've got some help from Angela because we were in love and the rest of the world didn't count that much anymore so it helped.
Question: What is the role of man-woman relations in yoga practice? What is the meaning of Brahmacharya?
Angela: I believe that brahmacharya means to love God or Goddess in everything you do. In everyone and especially yourself.
I think it depends on which path you're following in yoga, you can go in any direction. If you want you can follow a very strict path to refine yourself more and more in a very specific way. And this way is a kind of traditional one especially for men in hindu yoga. Personally I think I started on that path which was very attractive for me because it means one thing - that you can leave behind all responsibility and you don't have to get involved in many things, with which other people are dealing with. And you can go in this wonderful strait spiritual journey up to the mountain. But probably you do have some aspects in your life that you don't want to look at.
When you're honest with yourself regarding who you are and you really see that now it is time to let go a lot and devote yourself to your practice - that's great. But there is another path of finding a God that is within - a God in everyone and everything, and this path is a challenging one. On this path you have to face yourself and too learn how to slowly see that any part of your life however bad or awful it was is a part of the gift that you're given to learn from.
Talking about me, actually fairly recently I become able to use all those awful things that happened in my life. But first when I come to see it I couldn't be thankful for that...I thought I could have had much nicer life without all that, but now I see there wasn't another way, that without what I experienced and grew through I wouldn't have had such a rich insights. People are very important in my life. And this understanding gave me ability to understand and feel into people more, especially to those, who have had terrible things happened to them, when they were young. And I could never have done that without what did happened in my life. And now finally I feel grateful for that.
Question: There is an idea that true yogi shell be living out of the society. What's your opinion on that?
Viktor: Most of the time it's officially after they are 60 years old, than they are allowed to go to the forest, etc. I think that the other path is more tantric one, it's when you take life as it comes to you and you become more receptive to the layers that underlie and every aspect of it. So the maya or the game appears to be there but if you live deeper it changes you.
And in a man-women relations the tantric side is to recognize the God in the other person. You learn how to adore another person more than you adore yourself, but in the end you also learn how to adore yourself. So it helps to connect with others and than find yourself. If you go out of the society you have to confront yourself directly and than may be find somebody else later so that you respect the other person as much as you respect yourself. So it depends on who you are and what you want to do, what path you want to chose.
Angela: I think there are lots of tensions on the brahmacharya path. You can see a lot of teachers saying that they do that and than it appears that they are falling apart in it. I think it makes you unbalanced.
There are some people who don't really need another person, who don't have a sexual desire to get involved with anybody, they are quite happy by themselves following their own path. But I know a few people whom you can not even imagine being in a relationship or being married because they just seem to be between somewhere.
I think if you go to this mental idea of brakhmachria your mind goes so fast and you get so seduced by the wonderful spiritual ideas. But what was left behind is going to bite your back, so you'd better become friends with those hidden parts of yourself first.
That's why we spend a lot of time in the base chakra - to feel that we're really connected with the Earth and honor that. Because when you do that - you're more honest with yourself. For it's so easy to get carried away by ideas. And there is the same danger while being a teacher, because everyone comes and adores you and you begin to think that you're a very special, that you doing something very special. In fact you are special and unique, but if you get carried away by that idea, you lose your guardian, and that's when things begin to go wrong. So when you come back all the time to the Earth and into your body you can be more honest.
Viktor: It must be terrible for a young person to be told by a teacher, that they shouldn't have sex ever. And they hold themselves for several years and than suddenly it leaks up that their teacher had sex with many other people... Than they reject their teacher plus they feel "shit, I have to have sex as quickly as I can before it's too late" :) And they go totally overboard.
It's really difficult to find an honest down to Earth approach, when you accept everything that God gave us in this creation. And to study every little thing that is around without rejecting anything...it's crazy to reject sex when you feel the drive as long as you totally get obsessed. Because there is the challenge that we get obsessed with so many things in life that we don't see other things anymore.
So in yoga we at least have a chance to become a little more and more detached without rejecting anything. Because this detachment gives an ability to see things more clearly from a distance and more purely in the way they are rather than fantasizing about them.
Angela: I think there is a tendency in Russia because it's a dynamite and powerful place, Moscow is also known as a Shiva place. So there is a danger of being very intense because of that energy there. That's why many people there take yoga to such extremes, they want to go further and further in practice. But what about the rest of life? what about an Earth, what are you doing for nourishing yourself and other people? What you do is just pushing yourself in more and more extreme poses that look sexy. And it happens everywhere, in America too.
Question: What do you think about desires? Should we get rid or accept our desires and why?
Angela: I think you should make friends with all the parts of yourself. The real path is not to leave out or kill any parts of yourself, you just have to go inside yourself and know them better. All parts of the body have their voices and energy, you have to honor all of them.
Energy of any of the desires can be used beautifully. For example desires to be rich and powerful - rich and powerful people can do wonderful things. Or if you want to have a big and fast car, you go inside yourself, find this part of you that wants this and talk to it: "I know you want a big and fast car, I understand you need it, but why do you really need it?" And that part of yourself, that was hurt, starts to open up... It's like a little crying child - when it is listened to it starts to open up. So I would not deny any part of yourself.
Viktor: You don't deny it but keep it for yourself if possible - the desire, cause when you have a desire it can be easily picked up by somebody else and you cam be misled. So when you keep it for yourself you don't let other people to mislead you by offering some special techniques of obtaining desired things. Desires have their dangers, but everything has its dangers, detachment could be totally cooling and frightening for other people if you're too detached. Everything in this world has its positive and negative sides. What we think that this sattvik yoga practice, that we're trying to bring out to create space to let the polarities move a little bit away from each other, so you can see things in its own place and play with these things without being played by them and tricked with them or biased.
Angela: I wonder, if you look at all your desires, you can write down all your desires and look at them again and decide which are the most important... Cause you might want a big house or becoming powerful and rich, but there might be some desires, where you want to help other people. And when you look at your desires from a distance you may discover that those altruistic desires become more important. Because I believe that all people are initially good but then we become somehow twisted for various reasons... And if you do have a desire rather than trying to make it happen, do sit back and have a vision of how it could be, try to see it more and more clearly... Than probably you desire to get a big car might transform into a desire to have a bus that carries lots of people :)
Question: Mind and practice. It's easy to control ones body and it's not so easy with the mind. Why it's so difficult to control one's mind? What is the place for mind controlling in yoga practice for you?
Angela: I don't like the word control here.
Viktor: Control is not what we're doing. Control has its tricky side - it stops you from being free and listening. So if you become aware and become a listener than the body and the mind controls you...when you think that you're controlling your body or a mind, than most probably this are your thoughts that control you... If we put our foot this or that way we might think, we're controlling our foot. But if we're listening to what our foot wants to do, thats a very different thing.
So it's a kind of feminine approach to yoga, which is very receptive one, it's about how you listen to whatever comes through your body, mind and soul and other people. You are not controlling in that sense, you are just observing and letting it be. Controlling one's mind sounds very strange for me, I don't see it this way...
Angela: Undoubtedly, there is a yoga for mind... In India I've met one very evolved teacher, it was fascinating to see how he showed other people a kind of reflection of their minds in an intellectual way. And he quite quickly would help their minds to see itself and come back to a quiet place. He attracted very clever people... But you have to met a really evolved teacher to find yoga for your mind.
When my mind starts spinning off in crazy directions, if I can remember to come back into my body through yoga stretch or simply by centering inside & connecting with the Earth, connecting with my breath, seeing where my body is not relaxed and letting it drop, all the disturbance of the mind is gone in the flesh. And I feel very quiet and in my own place. So I would say get back into your body if your mind is carrying you away. If you want to do a mental yoga than find a very good raja yoga teacher.
Viktor: If you want to control your body go and live with Iyengar for a while and than you come to the conclusion that you can not control your body at all. He always finds faults and mistakes in what you do. And it goes on and on like a body training.
You can also un-train your body as we do and go deeper and deeper relaxing it...and there is no end to anything... So there is no end for control as well. And if you control you become very disturbing to your surrounding not only to yourself, because you close off and become very fanatic in being a perfect pose searcher or a perfect mind searcher... And there is no perfect body and perfect mind...
Angela: There is a beautiful balance between the mind and the body as long as they are respecting each other. And I think that mind can be very crystal clear and you can use it to carry out amazing things in life. Some people have done this - they've created wonderful structures of art and philosophy, medicine and other kinds of things. As long as it comes to a balance in your person it doesn't start trying to control your life, if you use your mind to crate somethings in order to create things better and not to control. When you do yoga where you're controlling your body all the time, the mind is always faster than the body, so the body intelligence get suppressed and than you have your problems. Cause it's like a sort of slave driver beating his slave all the time.
Viktor: I think the whole image of Arjuna in the battlefield taking Krishna for his overmind which is the deeper mind that created body mind. Just see how questions come up from Arjuna and how they are answered by Krishna are quite interesting to just study your own desires and wishes and how to deal with them. I think that Bhagavad Gita has quite a lot to offer to those who are researching control. Because I think most of the control is very stupid & very low level, for most control is about not doing things when there is no real reason not to do. This approach stops the whole world turning in the end. So we have to be careful with control.
Angela: Angela: I think if we look at the positive things like what can you do, what do you want in life, you have to search deeper and find out what you really want, because you can get it and you can do it. Controlling can be used but in the right places. I see this with the people in the class, when you give them a little freedom and encourage them, wonderful things happen - people start to open up and shine. And when you try to make them do something like in Iyengar method, they all have to look the same and nobody looks happy - their browns are frowned while they're trying to do a pose...
Question: Is there any success in yoga? What do you perceive as the goal of yoga?
Viktor: I would say it's based on refinement on listening deeper to what beauty of life offers you, the beauty of your body and mind and surroundings. To be able to discover the deeper interaction and interconnection of everything in this life. To be able to refine your nervous system and make yourself a better listener, to develop yourself further.
Initially yoga was developed for men in India who usually not used to listen very much, women are more inclined to be attentive. To listen to yourself, to deeper feelings of love and desire. Men tend to be put into certain situations where they have a goal and they go for it no matter what. And yoga stops them, makes them reflective. And that's the good reason for men to do yoga.
For women now to do yoga becomes more and more important because women become like men, they become goal oriented, they want to get something they didn't get before. So they need to listen to who they really are and what they really want. So they also have to become more reflective.
Angela: For me yoga is just what makes me more comfortable being who I am.
Question: Do you think that yoga for men and women should be different?
Angela: Some men can get a lot from the feminine way; but I think men have to be careful now because women get stronger. And it's really important for men to re-find who they are. For they were given a role in the past - to just took care of everything and they had the women working for them. And it was a kind of easier - they've took this role wether they liked the role or not. And than suddenly the roles being reversed because women are coming out and showing that they can be who they want to be and that they don't have to have a man - which is very shattering for the male world. And I think what men need now is just find how wonderful they are in being who they are. They don't have to fulfill that role anymore if they don't want to. Each person just has to find out who he\she is. And a woman might discover that she is not going to be that sweet and beautiful barbie doll, which she might thought she would be while she was small. She might be quite strong & confident. I like to work with women because I see so much unfolding, and so much shining is to come out, because they are still feeling overwhelmed by the roles... But I think it's the same for men.
Viktor: I think the Ayurvedic knowledge about different types of men and women is very important. Now our yoga approach is about doing your own thing and finding who you really are... if you fell like being more tamasic at the moment just be until you find out that there is not the whole what you are, that you have to do something more... Every one have to find his own temperament in yoga practice and that is the same for men and women.
Question: Do you keep to any particular diet?
Angela: I don't eat meat for more than 30 years, however, I'm not a strict vegetarian - sometimes I can eat an egg or a fish, rarely but I do. I don't keep to any particular diet. I just listen to what my body wants and I give that to it. Any diet is a constraint towards one's body, I've abused myself enough previously, so now I don't want to follow any diet rules. Viktor plants many different greens, so we eat plenty of greens and vegetables. I'm a vata type, for me it's better to eat a little bit but often, of course its not always possible during workshops but when at home I try to follow it.
Viktor: I like greens, vegetables and fruits. Sometimes fish. And as a true Dutch I love cheese. I know it's hardly a yogic food, but I eat quite a lot of cheese.
Question: Tell us about your yoga center in Greece.
Viktor: Angela has been teaching in Greece for more than 30 years now and I joined her in 84. Than we've found a yoga hall but there was too much noise around our hall - at that time many houses were building around. We decided to leave the island but suddenly a friend of us came along and said there was lend for sale. And we decided to buy it. Now we have our own yoga center outside of the town and we're very happy there.
Angela: It's a wonderful place, where people can come from all over the world. That's a beautiful island with an olive valley, it's a powerful land, where any healing magnifies ten times and you can feel it... it's only 5 minutes walking from the sea...
Question: Your wishes to the readers of the Wild Yogi magazine.
Angela: I would wish that they really find a joy and comfort in getting back to their body. You don't have to do an amazing pose to be a yogi but just start listening to yourself and become more comfortable with who you are.
Viktor: You don't have to search for yoga fare away, just follow who you are and everything is going to be OK.