What started as a simple quest for Barbara Benagh to improve her health evolved into an amazing yoga career. Benagh, an instructor and workshop leader, holds regular classes at The Yoga Studio and Yoga in the Square in Boston, and the Kripalu Center, and conducts teacher training and workshops around the world.
Benagh developed specialized breathing exercises to help people with asthma and other lung conditions reduce flares and alleviate symptoms. She has created numerous multimedia yoga instruction materials, including Yoga for Stress Relief and Yoga for Beginners.
LoveToKnow Yoga asked her about her techniques, how her students support her, and her love for rock and roll.
Barbara Benagh Interview
Please tell us a little about your yoga journey.
After a few years of excessive behavior left me out of shape and overweight, I began practicing yoga in 1973 in England. At that time, not many people practiced yoga, and I actually tried to find a regular exercise class, but my local adult ed offered only one fitness class - yoga. What great good fortune!
My first teacher, Elizabeth Keeble, was wonderful and I fell in love with yoga right away. I was blessed with strength, good coordination and backbending (forward bends were a completely different story!), so progressed quickly, and naively thought I could teach after only a year. I led classes but I don't think much real teaching was happening!
I persisted and, now more than 35 years later, both my practice and teaching have matured. And I still love yoga. I am grateful for that and for being able to make my career teaching yoga to others and sharing this simple practice that transformed my life.
What style do you prefer to practice, and how did you reach that decision?
My first yoga classes were in the Iyengar method. That style was great for me for the first 10-12 years, but after that, I began exploring other styles, especially teachers who taught with as much focus on the inner experience as on the form of asanas.
A truly great teacher, Angela Farmer, told me in the late 80s that I had an authentic voice and that I needed to listen to it and become my own teacher. So, while I still study a couple of times a year with teachers I admire, such as Richard Freeman, Erich Shiffmann, and Sarah Powers, I practice and teach a synthesis of my personal practice and what I've learned from others.
What do your students give you that you can't get anywhere else? I assume you mean my local students, those people who have studied with me anywhere from a few weeks to 25 years. These students are my friends and community. I love the continuum of seeing a student week in and week out and watching their practice grow and evolve, to know about their lives and see that evolution, and the knowing that they are also taking care of me. On more than one occasion, they have supported and sustained me when I was really ill.
Tragedy Turns to Triumph
After a near-death experience due to asthma, you've dedicated yourself to understanding how our breathing patterns can be improved and retrained. What have you discovered?
I have discovered that a person can have enormous positive influence in handling a life crisis. By researching, experimenting and basically making the effort even when the going is tough, I stayed optimistic that I could manage my asthma with behavioral changes, not just medicine.
I still have asthma, as well as another lung disease, but the flares are so much milder than they were in the past. I discovered I am no longer afraid when I do have a flare, because I have tools to cope with the crisis.
Sadly, I also discovered that many people who contact me for help with asthma cannot find the discipline to practice the simple breathing exercises that so helped me. My yoga practice clearly established discipline and a history of results that motivated me when I needed it most.
What breathing exercises do you recommend that may help people with respiratory problems?
First, let me say that anyone who is on medication for respiratory problems needs to continue to take them until he or she feels confident to wean off them with the help of the physician.
There are a number of exercises to practice. The easiest way to learn them is to read an article I wrote for Yoga Journal. A reprint is available at no charge on my website.
My Yoga for Stress Relief DVD has a section that includes these breathing exercises and more for those who prefer hearing directions and seeing demonstrations. That DVD is available at Amazon.
Deciding on Workshops and Multimedia Options
You host a variety of yoga workshops. How do you develop them, and what do you have planned for the future?
When I am invited to teach as a visiting teacher at yoga centers or conferences, I talk to my sponsors about what they are looking for and about topics that are timely for me at the time.
For instance, with the recession and the stress that accompanies it, I have been teaching a workshop titled "The Art of Simplicity". It offers strategies for seeing our issues involving business and possessions and using yoga to help each of us find more space and contentment in spite of our hectic lives. It is the right topic for the times.
For those who can't take your classes at The Yoga Studio, you have a number of DVDs and CDs available, including many produced with BodyWisdomMedia. What are some of the most popular, and do you have anything else coming out?
The most popular one is Yoga for Stress Relief that I mentioned already. It includes a dharma talk by the Dalai Lama. Yoga for Beginners and AM/PM Yoga for Beginners are also very popular. Another great thing about BodyWisdom's DVDs is that they are all interactive, so each DVD has a number of practices of varying intensity and length.
I don't have any new DVDs planned, though they will be reshooting Power Yoga for Everybody later this year. That DVD is a Vinyasa practice that is a very slow flow and quite different from the typical fast-paced ones.
The CDs are lightly edited live audio recordings of my local classes from Heart of the Moon Media. They are very popular with my local students, students who've moved, or those who've studied with me or with my DVDs. My teaching style requires students to listen and feel, so audio is a perfect vehicle for those who can close their eyes and follow my words.
Once a year, Heart of the Moon puts out one-to-two CDs, with three classes per CD. My workshop, "The Art of Simplicity", will be available soon. I'm also going to be doing a series of workshops to go with each asana article I've written for Yoga Journal, and those will be recorded as well.
More about Barbara Benagh
What would people be surprised to know about you?
People might be surprised that I love rock and roll! I could listen to Neil Young all day long, and often do, loud! And I sing along and dance. My daughter was raised thinking that all Moms do this sort of thing!
I'm also addicted to bicycle racing- not riding them, I love watching them. Every July I'm glued to the TV watching and re-watching each stage of Le Tour de France.
Another surprising aspect of my life is I don't have a yoga room in my home. I've always practiced in my living room and it's been perfect. The mat and blankets live in a corner by the piano. So many people use not having a dedicated room as their reason for not practicing. No more procrastinating!