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Interview with Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten: "The unique way"

Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten, who are based on the island of Lesvos in Greece, have been teaching together since they met more than 25 years ago. Their teaching style is playful, emotionally freeing and deeply personal.

Don’t expect to be silently suffering through a routine in one of their classes. Yoga for Angela and Victor is about creatively exploring the inner body through asana. The classes are fluid, elegant, feminine and dance-like. Forget straining to achieve that perfect pose. Instead, settle into your reinterpretation. Be free, be creative, let those emotions rise up and then see what happens!

Angela and Victor both studied, although separately, under BKS Iyengar. Angela followed the Iyengar for a full decade before she “began to uncover my own approach and practice that has and still continues to unfold.” Victor studied under Iyengar for 13 years before his path also led to a different calling, and to Angela.

Interview with Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten

Questions: Ilya Zhuravlev, Ksenia Rush
Interview: Ksenia Rush

Now,  with all the life experience you have, how would you answer  the question  what is yoga for you personally?  What  yoga has given to you? What has formed your own approach  for practicing and teaching?

AF: For the first ten years of my Yoga experience I bowed to a masculine authority and became the slave of a system that denied freedom of exploration and personal creative expression. I achieved success and international acclaim, but realized it was all superficial... A technique applied to a body full pain and  fear, a system that was stern and disciplined, but could not touch below the surface.

Once this was understood I began the lonely journey inwards to unravel a history of early trauma, injuries, fear and insecurity.  At that time there was no teacher, guide or role-model....an 'unchartered land'. I felt that I was in a dark cave and yet, as the layers began to release, a process of patience and unravelling revealed itself exciting and deeply satisfying on every level. I felt more balanced, happy and energized. It continues daily... A very personal practice that invites me to listen and wait so as to enter step by step into this temple of my body-story.

This is what I endeavor to teach so that each student finds the courage to explore and discover a  truly unique and authentic approach to Yoga.

Every teaching and each teacher has something to offer... Like a light on the way ....  But however charismatic, seductive or brilliant ... they are only of use if the student is honored, helped and encouraged to pursue an inner path of unwinding and discovery.

VVK: To me, Yoga is the study of my life. All about my abilities to unwrap and uncover all that has been given to me at birth. All my potentials, the feminine side that grows into new directions, as in a pregnant woman, maturing and then materializing ("Matter" being the mother-matter out of which everything in this world is made) and feeding the masculine part of our duality, which allows you to create different items in the outer world, like the many shapes of asanas...

The body has visible areas that we see, skin, muscles and bones, but the yoga system points to the invisible energy level, the nadis and the chakras. We need to go inside and feel and learn to visualize their importance, for it is the energy body that brings the physical body into existence.

Please describe the moment of your first acquaintance with yoga. Something that might have seem a coincidence  at that time after many years is acknowledged as an important turning point in life. If you can, please recall and tell us  time, place and circumstances of your first yoga experience.

AF: I had read about Yoga in my teens, but at that time it was unknown in England [1956] except as "something weird seen by travelers in the East.  Yogis sitting on a bed of nails or naked in a cave staring at their navel"!

I was fascinated but also read that..."When the student is ready, the teacher appears».

A few years later I observed one of BKS Iyengar's first students in UK hold a small class in London.  I was mesmerized and recognized the practice as something I already knew from ancient times.  

I joined the class and soon discovered that my body was tight and painful… Far from the inner awareness of my first impression! Nonetheless I devoted myself to the practice and travelled to India to study with the Master.

At the moment I am reading the book of one italian author, who makes a statement (not new to this world) that  the majority of sickness and disorder in the body comes from the stress, from constant physical and mental pressure that we experience in everyday life. What can you say about the connection between physical and mental blocks? How your approach to yoga deals with this question?

AF: Yes I fully agree with your Italian author! Practicing Yoga asanas only buries our stress and tension deeper unless we find a way to listen to the messages from inside and honor them... The body has a way of asking for help.

My practice had to slow down more and more to get to the deeper layers. 

Some places are covered by too much pain and fear to reveal themselves in a strong practice and so we work over or around them... often very successfully for the audience! Asanas may be the natural outcome of a body opening, unravelling itself like a flower... Then they are beautiful expressions of our nature and deep inner life.  Forcing yourself into an asana is like tying together two legs of a goat and then hitting it to make it run! Stress hides in the joints, the muscles and even the cells. We in the West live in cities of speed and stress. Yoga could be a way to release and revive people but too often it adds more stress and tension!

Have you worked (besides yoga) with any other body-oriented techniques, that help to relax the body and the mind? May be massage? Contact improvisation? Dancing?

AF: In my experience it is the essence Yoga that benefits and inspires all other body-oriented techniques that then flourish from an internal awareness and connection.

Note from the editor: Victor is a great masseur,  who practices it  already for many years!

Angela, your approach to asanas stands out for being very soft and relaxed, for its tenderness and  smoothness.  But at the same  time the practice is very deep and powerful.  What do you think about this inner power? Shakti? Energy? Do the modern people who  practice yoga need it and how they can increase this inner power?  Many citizens nowadays look exhausted, and not so much physically, but mentally and spiritually.   One can clearly see deeper crisis  - the crisis of value system,  lost orientation, in a way the crisis of lost  sense of life. Many understand that carrier and money do not give the desired happiness, so the official religions  do not offer much credibility…   What comments can you give here?

AF: I can only answer from my experience. Without my daily practice... I feel disconnected from my true self and although it may not be apparent to others ... for me it is like a tree without roots in the wind or a sail boat with a broken sail.  We manage for a short time... but then....!

Whatever Yoga style you are drawn to… [and these days there is a Yoga teacher for everyone!] is probably the perfect one for you at this time. Yoga finds its own way into us and offers so much to our thirsty souls and bodies. Ultimately however I do believe we must dare to evolve our own practice in order to be fully present and happy in life.

VVK: Now in my teaching life I am realizing that the male body is made to act, to help, to support and the muscles are always ready for action. A tight muscle tone is limiting the awareness of the energy that feeds it. So relaxation has become the focal point over the ages of yogic practice. The letting go and unwinding is a basic need to be able to listen to and feel the flowing energy, before one is even able to do a pose without the tightening that will block the immediate feedback.

Besides work with asanas and movements do you use some techniques form  the heritage of indian yoga? Like shatkarmas? Pranayamas? Meditation? Mantras?

AF: All techniques have evolved out of deep internal awareness and observation. I do not apply techniques from a tradition but try to understand from where, why and how they came about. From this understanding I find my way to use them if helpful ...and the same with teaching.

Many indian masters have been teaching rather hard (for example Iyengar, Pattabhi Joyce). They said that persistent training of asanas would overcome weakness of the spirit. Nobody was talking of course about traumatizing oneself, but «sport pain»  was acceptable.  What do you think about painful feelings during yoga practice? How would you advise to react and work with them?

AF: There is PAIN and there is SENSATION.

PAIN is when we tighten up somewhere in the body... Maybe in the jaw, the stomach, shoulders, breath etc to defend ourselves somehow.  It is Nature's way to prevent deeper hurt and stops us from deepening the process of release.

SENSATION is when we have an experience of really 'meeting' somewhere in our body. The sensation may be mild or intense with varying degrees in between.  We can play with this as we go deeper... Maybe allowing it to be so intense that it borders on pain, but we do not go so far as to create a tightening in defense..... but stay with the sensation, watching it as it slowly diminishes and the tight place finds ways to  let go.   Very delicious!

Victor, you are also a great painter. Does it influence, and if yes, than how does it influence your practice and teaching? What styles in  paint world art in general inspire you?

VVK: As in painting, my connection with other artist is not connected to any style, but to the presence of the deeper levels of feeling, be it abstract or figurative, impressionistic or realistic or scribbled on rock walls. That same thing is true for a " yoga practitioner" or "holy man or woman". I have to be touched by their warm energy to be able to get into a deeper contact. There are millions of different yogis in India that left me perfectly cold. Yoga has no borders and is not connected to any religion, but every religion was designed to make the yogic connection with the deeper archetypical layers of our existence. That is where the Gods live guarded by Ganesha, our base chakra! And that will always be the case, for ever as long as there is human life on Earth.

Please tell us a few words about Lesvos island, where you live and teach mostly. How does it happen that you settled down there?  What are your personal sensations of this Land? Of its energy? Of the place in whole?

AF: In the early 70's I had been offering spring courses on other islands where life was very simple.....back to nature, sleeping outside and cooking our meals on an open fire on the beach.... "What a wonderful life", I thought!     

It turned out that this was not for everyone and some  students needed more basic comforts so I took just a small group to Lesvos in 1978 to try it out and see if it would be more suitable.

I started in Sigri, a tiny hamlet on the North West of the island.  It boasted one taverna and a windswept beach with a view of nothing  but sea and sky.....

"Perfect", I thought but there were two young children in the group who found it boring so we took a bus across the island to Molivos… A very pretty town built on a steep hillside with cobbled streets crowned by a ruined Byzantine castle.  I taught there high up each morning in the castle at 6.0am as the sun rose, with fantastic views of the sea on three sides, mountains behind, the sound of sheep-bells and sea-gulls, wild bushes of pink and white Oleander and nobody to disturb us!

Apart from the occasional rain-storm it was a grand setting for morning and evening classes and thus it continued each year until Victor joined me in 1984, when  it  became apparent that we  needed an inside studio.  Tourism was creeping in and eventually the castle was turned into a museum. So from the sky our Yoga came down underground to a large semi-basement, un-used storage area which Victor transformed into a wonderful teaching space. That was 1986, and our work then took more focus on the  Base Chakra, the concept of 'roots' and  'rooting',  as well as a deeper internalising of the practice.   

Molivos became our teaching home for the next 15 years. Finally in 2000 we were able to purchase a piece of land in Eftalou about 5 kilometres out of town and slowly our Yoga home was built nestled  into the heart of a beautiful valley, surrounded by olive groves with a five minutes walk to the sea. 

Six years later we held our first course and continue now each year to offer classes for students from all over the world.  Lesvos is the third largest Greek island and provides wonderful scenery, walks, superb bird-watching and plenty of beautiful beaches as well as excellent restaurants, tavernas and cafes. You can find more information on our web-site. We look forward to greeting you in Eftalou!

You have done and still do a lot of workshops and retreats all over the world.  You see many different people from all over the world.  What do you think,  do the modern yoga practitioners, especially the ones coming from the city lack? What are the main questions and  issues that are rising in front of western yoga adepts in 21 century?

AF: Essentially we are all the same and although we may come to Yoga with specific needs and personal expectations I believe that beneath all that we are all simply trying to find  our way 'home',  find a way back to ourselves.

Modern life too often offers so many distractions, that confusion arises and we lose a sense of balance and calm. Small issue becomes big and our relationships and connections are shaken. Maybe unconsciously we remember a simple state of happiness  and the peace of accepting and honouring this miracle of life. This is the thread that tugs at our souls and invites us like Theseus in the Labyrinth to unwind it to the source.

What  do you think yoga would look like  in 100 years? In india and in Western world?

AF: Like a wonderful plant, Yoga unfolds itself....  A million petals and each one unique yet connected to its stem that lies in the very heart and soul of everyone. No need to speculate, but rather give attention to your own 'unfolding' and allow Yoga to nourish your life right now!

Victor, many are thinking, and you have mentioned it with Angela yourselves, that your yoga approach is more female.  This «image» scares away some men, that are used to more strong, wild and powerful practice. What can you say here?

VVK: It is easy to think that the feminine aspect belongs to a woman, just because a woman has a stronger feminine side...Shiva tells us all, that without Shakti, this feminine energy, he is powerless. For a long time yoga was only practiced by men in India, for without the senses turned inward towards one's own receptive and feminine side meditation cannot develop.

Yoga today, especially in America and Europe is really different from traditional yoga as it has been developed thousands of years in India. The human being today lives and works in totally different economical, cultural and ecological conditions.  But still there are many adepts of so-to-say «traditional»  systems, that think that one should follow the instructions given to us many years ago in Sanskrit texts.  What can you say here?

AF: We can be grateful to the vehicle or 'container' that has carried Yoga through the centuries in the form of Tradition. What matters is 'the essence' and like a honey-bee we can extract the nectar that suits us in this life-time.

There will always be someone who thrives on being a part of a tradition with a leader, clear rules and instructions, while others need to sip the essence, make it their own way and fly! All are worthy and honourable if they truly believe in what they do.

VVK: In the Indian scriptures you will find descriptions of all that occurs in life on Earth. And we can use these systems to recognize what we find in and around us, but we also are able to find it through our own watchfulness. Yoga is about awareness realising that energy expresses itself in dual polarities. When we look too much to the left, the right becomes less important and the energy comes to a halt. When you only live in the roots of your tree, you become blind to the branches. So we need to "accept" all there is. That is yoga to me. The detached ability to embrace all that is. Some call it centering, for all parts are equally important, without turning the day into night...

What do you think about vegetarian diet? In indian yoga it is a part of achimsa  - nonviolence policy towards all the living creatures. Nowadays  vegetarian, vegan and even the raw-food diets are very popular in Russia,  Europe and America.

AF: Some of us are fortunate enough to have the choice of what we eat.  This is not the case in many people's lives.   Most important is to be grateful  and take only what we need, holding  no anger or negative thoughts. It can transform the food to nourish our lives. Iyengar once said that if you eat healthy vegan or vegetarian food with bad thoughts it becomes poison.

Eating whatever is provided with a positive and grateful attitude is Yoga.

What does your regular day in Eftalou look like, when you are not teaching? What do you like to do? How much time do you spend together? Do you have many common interests  except yoga?

AF: Here in Eftalou there is no regular day as people come and go with various needs, requests and questions or to help us with the house and land.  The weather can shift from storm to sunshine in a few moments and then back again.   Each morning I take a couple of hours for my practice and meditation .... absolutely essential… It helps me to be open to whatever else unfolds during the day.  I swim about three times a week even in the winter when it is possible to warm up in the thermal hot springs afterwards!

There are always many emails to answer and teaching requests etc. Lots to do around the house and garden and an evening meal to prepare.  Victor and I thrive on the quiet times in winter with just the sound of wind and far away waves . He paints, I read books and enjoy writing. I love to walk in nature and we watch DVDs from time to time. We often have different activities, but being near to each other is the most healing whether in silence or discussion and sharing our experiences.

One of the main aspects your are talking about in your classes is the feeling of the  «home», «roots», stability, that gives in turn flexibility and freedom. Please tell more about this sensation for the contemporary person, who constantly  moves around, and who  daily experiences a severe attack of humangous amount of information,  especially when living in a city, where the life goes on 24/7.

AF:  Many people come to Yoga with expectations and many forms of Yoga offer the promises. Some students hope to find peace of mind, others a fitter body and possibly even a new career as a Yoga Teacher!  Some  hope for a  form of transformation and the elusive word Enlightenment looms like the Gold Medal to an Olympian athlete! All these goals are outside of us and something we must strive for to achieve.  This is the way we understand  how life works because early in life we were taught and pushed into certain directions of behaviour, educational goals and work expectations. To be who we are and where we are and simply unfold this miracle of life within and around us was not part of that  programme!

We learned well and succeeded were we could but many of us retained a sense of loss and aloneness and so we searched further and further. 

Our sense organs are mainly on the front of our body and so we look forward, speak forwards, walk or run forwards always reaching out  and yet too often the goal eludes us. Early trauma, injury and fear push us further out of ourselves and we strive harder even in Yoga to fill the 'aching hole' inside.

Where are we going, what are we looking for and what is happening inside and behind us!

In re-learning how to 'receive' and how to return into and fill out our 'back body' with breath we may  come 'home' or 'back to ourselves'.  Gradually we can feel more comfortable and heal the lost and traumatized parts of our lives and bodies. Experiencing the power of visualisation we can, like the trees, feel 'our roots' and not only establish a stability that enables us to 'Stand our ground and speak our truth', but also begin to physically experience our underground interconnection with others and in fact all of life.

Ultimately in Yoga there is "nowhere to go, nothing to 'achieve' and all the time in the world'' to become the beautiful soulful beings  that we are!

This practice seems simple but it requires a dedication to undo old habits and learn to 'allow' rather than 'do'.  The over-active front-brain must descend and rest allowing the wisdom of our primal body-mind to function in its wise and wonderful way leading us to a state of fulness, calm, health and joy.

Today  they speak a lot about crisis of family. Less and less stability we can see in a relationships, less people are living together for a long period of time.  They want more variability in their «love life», labeling it as their right «to have fun». Please tell us how do you live together for many years already.  Looks like it requires a lot of inner work for begin able to preserve the relationships with the partner, doesn’t it? And what exactly does it require?

AF: Each relationship is different, but when we are attracted to another or feel drawn into a relationship, love at first sight' or sexual desire which act like the scent of a flower to attract an insect have a deeper reason. We open up to each other so as to meet ourselves more clearly. Soon we may find irritation or disappointment settling in  and then we blame the other.  But if we dare to look into the 'mirror' that is presented  we will say    "Oh wow...look at my reactions...I have some work to do here!" As we peel away the layers of fear and resistance in our yoga practice we begin to understand and love ourselves. Only then are we able see deeper, understand and love our partner.

Victor, you have given few masterclasses in Russia, also some Russians have visited you and Angela in Eftalou. What is your impression from the work with Russians? Is there any particular feature common for the Russian practitioners?  Here we are not interested in you being polite and politically correct. Vice versa, we want the critical view from the side, from person with the different  cultural background and mentality.

VVK: We have traveled to many different countries teaching yoga and although each country has specific cultural environments, when people are going deeper into their own living bodies, they go beyond these differences, so we have deep friendships from everywhere. And yes I had a Russian grandfather, so there will be a DNA connection with other people from Russia.

Mentioning already the «female» side of your practice, what impression gives you the female part of participants of your workshop? What do you think about Russian women?

AF: Russian women are exceptionally beautiful and also strong and powerful. I have the impression that some of them do not trust their inner beauty… the beauty of the soul or that they are enough in themselves.  Many strive to achieve a perfect performance in a male dominating practice and feel they must also present themselves in the latest fashion.  This can have an isolating effect as it focusses on the external and diminishes the real power of the feminine in the individual.

It is a joy to have Russians in our classes and I hope that those who come here will find their way to uncover an internal and feminine power that does not require force, hardness or a special apparel... yet will enable them to have quiet and unshakeable stability, serene balance and a voice that is both passionate and authentic.

At the end  - traditional greetings or advices  for  Russian yogis?

VVK: God begins where understanding ends...

AF:  With love and greetings from us in Eftalou.


Written and ediited by: Ksenia Rush