Anusara instructor Sarah Faircloth recently taught a workshop at Atlanta Yoga Shala that might have been best described as a cosmic yoga dance party with the whole universe invited – the epic story of the Nataraja and the philosophy and mechanics of Anusara Yoga as our guides.
Sarah Faircloth is a certified Anusara instructor and co-founder of Sangati Healing Arts and Sangati Yoga and Massage in Charlotte, NC. She earned her Anusara certification in 2003 from Anusara founder John Friend. Through meditation in asana and life, her teaching embodies the dance in our yoga that inspires us all.
Sarah enjoys interlacing the narratives and still points of yoga philosophy into her classes. In this seminar, our focus was backbends, inspired by the rhythm of the epic Nataraja.
Attitude, Alignment, Action—the ‘three A’s’ of Anusara Yoga, epitomize the foundation that is this dance. It begins with the Anusara Invocation. Set the foundation first, then open to grace.
“Our breath is the sound of our dance,” said Sarah. “We are breathed.”
The Nataraja is a dance about perspective. How can you see the dance from your spot on the mat?
The classic bronze representation we saw that morning is Shiva’s dance. His right foot stands rooted on a conquered demon created by rogue sages intent on destroying Him.
“Inspire each other to dance more,” Sarah suggested, as we twisted our hearts with a wide pelvis in Parivritta Trikonasana.
The story tells us that not only can Shiva dance, but He is also the one these sages did not see coming. So Shiva dances to destroy tired paradigms but also to create new ones.
“We’re all starting something new and ending something new right now in our lives,” Sarah said. “If you can’t think of anything, you’re about to take a breath.”
In this practice, this Anusara Yoga, we reengage with the heart that’s in all of us. It beats like Shiva’s drum in His right hand, the pulse of life, the music of our breath and our dance, our yoga. The fire in Shiva’s left hand is dissolution. Our collective heart rests in between these.
“Scoop the tailbone, lift the heart” to find space in Utkatasana.
We learned that higher hips in Vasisthasana gives us greater access to open our hearts. The next time you’re in Vasisthasana, release with passive muscle energy the effort in the shoulder to the support of the arm that’s always there.
“We reintegrate so that the story shines out in you,” Sarah said.
Shiva’s arms flow four ways. Two hands hold the drum of creation and the fire of dissolution. The left arm that crosses the heart represents the power of grace to conceal itself. And the open right palm is abhaya mudra, the mudra that invites us to be fearless because Shiva knows we all have fear. As you plant your right foot and stand in your Shiva Tree-like pose, your upturned left foot is the power of grace to reveal itself. In fact, everything in the statue points back to the heart.
So raise your left foot, effortlessly. Spread your arms and form your mudras. A serpent chills on your lower right forearm. No big deal. You’re dancing on a subjugated demon anyway.
Sarah remembered that Anusara founder John Friend once asked her to “tune in to the music in the pose.”
Like Shiva’s fire, this Anusara practice can lead to dissolution. And according to this story and this practice, you too, can dance. Isn’t it crazy when you learn that about yourself?
She adjusted me in Bhekasana … “turn your shin in, stick your butt up and don’t lose the connection between your inner heel and hip.”
This tango of life, death and rebirth—our yoga—is meditation. As you flow in your practice, look up and see the pictorial story in the statue.
In one-legged Ushtrasana, you’ll find one thigh in a quad stretch. Press down through the pinky toes in that back foot and feel the mechanics of muscular energy in the Shin Loop.
“Dance into the pose with no pain,” Sarah cautioned. “It’s always blissful.”
When we came out of the posture, she said, “how do we resonate in our practice when we have the pauses after the posture? I want you to feel how you resonate.”
Open your heart, blow your mind. Under the aureole of flames above ensues the classic ananda tandava, the dance of bliss.
“Shiva’s dance is crooked and asymmetrical, just like our lives,” said Sarah. “We all have our own asymmetrical dance to dance.”
Shiva dances on apasmara-purusha, our forgetfulness about who we are. Our insecurities become our dance floor as we overcome complacency and follow our dreams.
“Shiva dances when we offer what we are born to offer, and when we come together as human beings in a community, a tight-knit community like a kula.”
What a kula we had that morning in Atlanta, and what a beautiful dance we have in this practice of yoga.
BW: How did you find yoga?
SF: That could take some time. My Dad did yoga when I was a kid. And so, I would say, yes, through my Dad.
BW: Was he the one who first started teaching you the different postures and how to breathe?
SF: We did different postures. He used to do it a little bit when we were kids. And he has an eastern spiritual path that he also started when we were kids. So I would sit around and talk about philosophy and metaphysics and the cosmos with my Dad. And at that point, he didn’t really do so many poses when he joined this path. His practice was meditation. I explored through books when I was kid and practiced different styles.
BW: Which style did you first start practicing?
SF: There’s this book called Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan. My sister and I found that book when we were teenagers. It’s a basic hatha yoga text. And we practiced that. It’s a really funny book because he talks about how you can do yoga even when you’re vacuuming—we loved that part. It was a nice start.
When I was in college, I took some classes. One was more of a hatha yoga class—it focused on the way your energy is flowing. I also started power yoga in college. I did Ashtanga for a while—practiced that and taught it. And then I found Anusara.
BW: Do you feel that yoga as a practice found you? Do you feel like the practice came to you?
SF: Well, since I kind of grew up with it, I feel like, in a certain way, I was born into it. I think we found each other.
BW: When you first started practicing, what kept you coming back to the practice? Was it the way it made you feel? Was it a stress-reliever or did you just enjoy the asana practice?
SF: Probably all of those things, I think. A stress-reliever in the sense that I felt more connected. I felt more connected to my body, to my breath, to my heart. Worries—my anxiety level would go down, and when my anxiety level would go down with my stress, it would just give me more abundant energy to be with the more meaningful and real aspects of my life. And so, there are physical benefits. I felt stronger, I felt more fluid, more aware, more connected—so many benefits.
BW: That’s great … me too. How did you find Anusara Yoga?
SF: I had a teacher in Charlotte who kept telling me to go to this teacher training, and I hadn’t even considered teacher training. But she told me so many times to go that I decided I should check it out. It was a woman named Suzie Hurley. She is one of the longest practicing Anusara teachers. I started studying with her, and then a year later, I met John, who also came close to Charlotte. So I was fortunate he came to my area, and I just happened to be lucky enough to go. After I met John, I started traveling and studying with him.
BW: What was it about Anusara that you liked so much? What was it that spoke to you about the Anusara practice?
SF: In the beginning, I didn’t even realize the impact of what it meant to open your heart, what it meant to open to grace. I just felt it. I didn’t understand what was happening. But something big was happening inside of me. And I felt—this had never happened to me—in the middle of a class, Suzie was talking about courage, and I was standing in a Warrior II Pose, and I still remember—it was like ten years ago or longer—I just started crying. My heart just opened up. I didn’t understand how, just because she was talking about something, that I could open up my heart in that way, while I was doing a practice—a physical practice. So that was a big indicator, and then when I met John and he started talking about the Tantric philosophy that Anusara is based on, I felt like he was telling me something that I knew somewhere in my bones, that I knew in my body and my heart. But I’d never heard it before. It was a new philosophy that connected with a sensual living and a spiritual aspiration. And I’d never seen those two philosophies come together.
Come to find out, it’s called ‘tantra.’ It embraces a paradox of being able to live through the senses, to enjoy life, and also to keep expanding in our consciousness. That, combined with the beauty and elegance of the biomechanics, the way it felt physically, the way it felt in my heart—I just felt like I was going to burst open studying with him. And I couldn’t get enough of it. I just wanted to keep learning it, to refine and understand what was happening, how these openings were happening, and to be able to really cultivate it in a more sustainable and refined way.
BW: Was there a specific point in your journey that you knew that you were going to teach Anusara? At what point did you know that that was your calling?
SF: It was my calling? Hey, I don’t know if it is my calling! I guess it is. I just fell in love with it. I didn’t feel like I could teach it right away because I felt like I needed to understand it better. It all happened together for me. As far as yoga goes, I wouldn’t want to teach something I wasn’t in love with. Because it moved me, it made me want to share it with other people. So I just started teaching more in that style. I had been teaching Ashtanga and Power yoga, and I just started teaching Anusara more and more in those styles. I found that I could still have a really strong practice and flow and teach alignment at the same time. It’s always a balance because teaching alignment, you kind of want to slow down and get more articulate in specific places in the body to open up the energy, but you can do a combination of moving, getting more stronger, getting more flexible. For me, Anusara gave me an outlet to move in any direction with the philosophy, with teaching the asana, with my meditation practice.
I do feel it has such an amazing structure and network. It has been such a pleasure to teach because there’s such a good structure to the teachings, and there’s a system. But it also, within that structure, within that framework, has so much space. And it always is inviting you, like whispering to you to innovate, to keep creating new ways to teach the essence. So it never gets old.
BW: What currently would you see as your greatest challenge as a teacher?
SF: I teach in so many different venues—that would be a different answer depending on if are we talking about a regular public class, beginners or advanced practice. I guess across the board, the greatest challenge in teaching workshops or trainings is reminding people that their essence is consciousness and to come from that place, instead of coming from a place of feeling lack or not worthy—just to let that go, to soften feelings of unworthiness, from not being connected, and to start to see who we are. I think that’s maybe the greatest challenge, but it’s also the greatest joy. That’s why ultimately why I want to teach yoga.
BW: Do you feel like your yoga practice enters your life off the mat? Do you feel like you take your yoga into your everyday life?
SF: Definitely. There’s no separation. Every moment is an opportunity for your practice. And at the same time, I have specific practices that I do. Scriptural studies are a big part of my practice. I have great teachers. Some of the world’s best scholars in tantra also happen to be yogins and are on the Anusara teaching panel, you could say. My main philosophy teacher is Douglas Brooks. He is starting this really cool online school (Srividyalaya) in February 2011 for those who really want to go deeply into the history of yoga, in its teachings and want to make this practice their own.
BW: How do you deal with difficult situations? Does yoga enter your life there?
SF: Yes, definitely. It’s harder sometimes to practice when there is difficulty or something challenging. But I also think that the yoga that I practice and study is all about challenging yourself to the edge. So if we’re seeking that in the practice, when it happens—which it always will, naturally, in life—there’s more of a sense of welcoming and not feeling as overwhelmed by it.
BW: What is your favorite yoga posture and why?
SF: Oh, that’s such a hard question.
BW: I know … for me I always choose three. There can be more than one, for sure.
SF: They would also shift around. I like Bharadvajasana I, the really simple but elegant twist. I like how when you fold your feet over to one side, the opposite hip gets really settled. So out of basic poses, it feels like a really elegant pose to me. Can I say a whole group of poses? I really love hand balances and backbends.
BW: What is it that you like about backbends?
SF: I love the way that backbends open our hearts. I have to dig deep to go into deep backbends. And I love the way it feels when everything is aligned and you’re just in that flow of a backbend. It’s very empowering. Stuff that’s sort of on the surface of emotional life is released. And it moves us.
Hand balances … I love the feeling of flying and just moving from one hand balance to the next. And just feeling strong and feeling light at the same time.
BW: Is there any posture that you just kind of shy away from?
SF: There’s always postures that I’m working towards. One of the main poses that I’m working on right now is Sirsa Pidasana. For that one, you’re balancing on your forehead. Basically you’re in Sirsasana (Headstand) I. But you go towards your forehead and you stretch your legs and bend your knees, and you reach your feet toward your head. And then you hold your feet next to your head. So that’s one I’ve been working with for a few months, and it’s so much about melting the heart.
BW: I would break my back if I tried that one.
SF: Yeah, you want to go in there with a lot of good alignment. But part of me, when I think about working towards it, might say, ‘oh that’s going to be really hard; I don’t feel like doing it.’ But a bigger part of me looks at that pose and says ‘I want to be able to do that!’ And I love the way it feels, even working towards it. Very deep heart opener.
BW: What was a time in your life that you were most amazed?
SF: When I had my two kids. When I gave birth, twice.
BW: The joy of having children?
SF: Just the sheer amazement of it. Yes, joy, of course! I was amazed by how much I loved them already—both of them—but I was also amazed because it’s a miracle every time it happens. So many things can go wrong. When there’s a being that apparently isn’t in the world and then all of the sudden is, it opens up a window of consciousness, and you remember that we’re all coming from the same place and that we’re all moving in whatever way we are back into that one consciousness.
BW: What would you say your happiest moment in yoga was?
SF: All these questions are making me laugh! There’s been so many times! I think, in general, it makes me feel happy to be with my kula, to be with my really tight sangha, my practice buddies, and to just keep practicing and enjoying the practice. That’s one. And another one is being with somebody when their cloak is released and a light is unveiled. So that could happen when I’m teaching and somebody does a demo or a pose that they’ve never done or they didn’t think they could do it but they can. That’s a delight—to see somebody open up like that. That’s another really happy moment for me.
BW: So the name of your studio in Charlotte is ‘Sangati’? What does that mean?
SF: Basically it means ‘community.’ And the ‘ti’ on the end is an endearment, so it means ‘sweet community.’ It’s also related to the words ‘sangha’ and ‘satsang.’ ‘Satsang’ is a meeting where we would get together and we would share the delight of spiritual collection and being seekers together. So ‘Sangati’ means that ‘community of the heart.’
BW: And what types of yoga do you offer?
SF: It’s all Anusara. I have three certified teachers, three other teachers that are working towards certification, and then another group of teachers that are all teaching the Anusara style. We also offer courses on meditation and pranayama. We just had a Sanskrit scholar come in and teach a Sanskrit course. We host philosophy and asana workshops as well.
BW: Do teachers offer privates in Anusara?
SF: Yes, I just did one today, actually.
BW: Would that be like a regular practice or would you just work on whatever the student needed?
SF: It’s always a specific pose that somebody wants to work on or a theraputic issue, or even just a point of alignment. I had a private a couple of weeks ago where somebody just wanted to understand Kidney and Shoulder Loop better. So we just did a series of poses where they could really understand it and I could see that they were embodying it in those two loops. Not just knowing it in their mind but really embodying it.
So privates are such a wonderful forum for really seeing if the student is embodying what you are teaching because you can see, even through a series of basic warm-ups, if they’re doing the principles in their body. Sometimes a student is going through some things that are challenging and may need to talk a little bit and then move into more postures. So yeah, it’s specific, as you said. It always depends on what the client is asking for and also what they need.
BW: When you travel and give your seminars, is it just in the southeast or elsewhere?
SF: I’ve been all around the country. I go to Hawaii every year. I’m going to be helping a friend up in North Hampton co-teach her teacher training. I taught in Europe last year. But I do really love coming to the southeast because I love that I don’t have to travel as far, and I have a family, so I’ve had to say ‘no’ this year and just keep it where I’m not traveling every single weekend. I never like traveling every single weekend, but I don’t want it to get to that place, at least not right now, where I am, owning a studio and having a family. So I’m in sort of a really nice balance with that right now.
Sarah Faircloth is a certified Anusara instructor and co-founder of Sangati Healing Arts and Sangati Yoga and Massage in Charlotte, NC. The kula at her studio in Charlotte is source of light and inspiration. Sarah continues her svadhyaya today with renowned Eastern Religion and Philosophy scholars, Douglas Brooks and Bill Mahony, among others.