A Yoga Master Speaks
On a recent frigid January morning in New York City, Alison West was working on cheering her roomful of yoga students. “Experience joy through liquid light coursing through your arteries,” she instructed them. Her communication with the class was somewhat hindered that day as she had lost her voice. “Pure joy, in yogic terms, is an intrinsic part of our being that we obscure as adults,” she adds in a whisper. “A child wakes up in the morning and experiences joy for no apparent cause, while we grownups look for causes for our joy.” Her laryngitis is somewhat ironic, as she’s just come back from a ten-day silent retreat. But normally, aside from backbends and handstands, what West does extremely well is talk.
Alison West, Ph.D., E-RYT, co-founder of the Yoga Union Center for Backcare and Scoliosis, is known for her dynamic and precise instruction and pioneering principles of practice. She has studied both Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga extensively, along with the philosophy of yoga and meditation. West is considered a teacher’s teacher; she conducts “gold standard” biannual 200-hour teacher training sessions. Her yoga therapy specialties include yoga for physical problems such as scoliosis, as well as for anxiety, depression, asthma, and diabetes.
But that’s only a piece of the story. West, who was born and raised in Europe of American parents, has a doctorate in art history from New York University, worked on the curatorial staff of the Frick Collection and taught art history as an assistant professor at Columbia. Her study From Pigalle to Préault: Neoclassicism and the Sublime in French Sculpture, 1760–1840, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1998. She also somehow managed to pursue a career as a contemporary dancer after studying ballet, though she came to yoga not through dance but from helping a friend with scoliosis.
She certainly doesn’t consider her academic career wasted. Anyone trained in analytic thinking, she feels, has acquired a skill that’s important for teaching yoga. Every school of yoga has a different approach to language. Anusara, for instance, is verbally and philosophically predicated on opening the heart and body; Iyengar uses clarity to describe physical alignment; Ashtanga is silent apart from utterances of the names of poses or breaths and places importance on positioning the gaze to focus the mind. “Having trained as an art historian, I’m used to comparing forms with heightened visual acuity,” West remarks, and this visual sense helps her take in bodies and poses so as to compare what she sees with the “ideal,” although she is careful to point out that there is no absolute in the form of the pose. Different traditions have different approaches.. But what makes her that teacher’s teacher is her eloquence.
“Speech inspires students to find something in their practice they might not otherwise have,” says West. Poetic allusion, lyrical speech, “inspired vision”? She uses them all. “The right metaphor helps students find a state of mind that’s normally inaccessible,” she continues. Still, when she uses a phrase such as “directing energies” (which she says in yogic terms is very real, but to a Western mind merely a metaphor or simile), she’s also conscious that for some such “spiritual” language is meaningless. It’s irrelevant, as far as she’s concerned. “The great thing about yoga is that it meets you where you are, and this doesn’t prevent anyone from doing it.”
If it’s not the same, it’s not the same
There’s no one way of saying or explaining something in yoga, in West’s opinion—”Simile, parable, demonstration, laughter — they all have their uses.” Demonstration, she says, is “writing with the body.” She may deliberately limit her teacher trainees’ ways of speaking to discourage them from using language that is too florid or to prevent them from trying to be too original: “I want them to be in command of what they want to say and gain confidence this way first.” West’s style may not be the enthusiastic, “Hike your tush!” type, but some teachers, she says, succeed by being colorful and vivid—the end result can put people at ease in a down-home way.
The one thing she feels every teacher must be is authentic, though each may express ideas differently and find his or her own imagery. For West, that imagery is all from her own practice and from life all around her. “I might say ‘Lengthen the sacrum,’ or ‘Lift the pubic bone,’ for instance. They’re different, but they may achieve similar results—only one will focus on the back of the body, the spine and bones, while the other is engaged with the soft front of the body and activity there,” she says, “and each has its own effect on the central nervous system.” These subtleties are important to West. “I often say, ‘If it’s not the same, it’s not the same,’ and what I mean by this is that something may be similar, but not identical. It’s important to really understand this talk of variation to fully appreciate change and how to grow.”
West says that she could never think of practicing yoga without concluding with the “corpse pose” or “savasana,” which is when students lie on their backs and let go. Savasana is said to help the mind and body relax and release stress and tension. “This lets students process the knowledge they might have gained in class, much the way sleep helps us process the day before,” says West. “We’re letting go of all doing—doing nothing while remaining conscious of doing nothing—that way we’re close to hearing silence.”