Q: How do you differentiate between "good" and "bad" yoga?
Donna Farhi: Good yoga cultivates a deep sense of self-acceptance and tolerance for others. When I witness someone practicing and living yoga well, they have developed clear perception, concentration, and the skill to respond to any situation with a presence of mind. In my yoga classes that means that the form of the postures is not the goal - you can be as stiff as an ironing board and much less flexible than your compadres in a yoga class and still be practicing beautiful yoga if your practice is fostering that respect and care for yourself.
In this sense the greater and greater emphasis on the form of postures in the West has been a two edged sword. The refinement has allowed us to make the postures much more beneficial, but Westerners are so caught up in external image and the meaning they attribute to those images, that for many Westerners good yoga means touching their toes. The trend in the U.S. in the last ten years has been to judge people's yoga almost purely from their physical adeptness. We attribute some kind of spiritually advanced state to someone who can put their feet on the back of their head. That is we've started to mistake the map for the territory. Quite often this supposedly good yoga is fostering a sense of superiority and judgment towards others who practice any other form of yoga. To me, any yoga that fosters those qualities is bad yoga.
Q: What are your thoughts on "Power Yoga?"
Donna Farhi: Power Yoga is really an umbrella term for a number of quite eclectic forms of yoga. By definition it's usually quite physically challenging and vigorous. For some people it's a very appropriate and beneficial way to practice at certain times in their lives, but for others it can be an invitation to serious injury and imbalance. In many instances there are people entering these classes who are not physically conditioned to be doing this advanced work. The unfortunate situation I see developing is that people often see Power Yoga and other vigorous yoga classes as a replacement for a mechanical gym work out. I asked a receptionist who works at one of the biggest yoga studios in America what the most commonly asked question was and she replied, "Will I get a work out? Will I sweat?" Nobody asked those questions ten years ago so in some ways the public has a poorer understanding now than a decade ago about the purpose of yoga. Whenever you take yoga out of its larger context as a whole life practice you've removed the yoga from the yoga.
Why is yoga a good way to neutralize negative thoughts such as anxiety, stress, and worry?
I don't think yoga removes or neutralizes negative thoughts - I think it replaces them with positive ones. And it may come as some surprise to people, but yoga teachers and yoga students don't have any less stress than anyone else, they just learn how to respond, rather than react, to it in a way that builds rather than destroys their well being.
Trying not to think negative thoughts is like trying not to think of elephants. You stop thinking about elephants when your mind is focused on other things. With yoga the main focus is on what's happening right now, not what happened yesterday or what terrible things might happen tomorrow. When you cultivate that kind of incremental focus on the here and now you've automatically eliminated a huge source of anxiety, worry and stress.