Slow it down. Make it simpler. Make it softer. What is serving you today?
Slow it down. Make it simpler. Make it softer. What is serving you today? These are some of the cues being lobbed at the twenty plus yogis gathered in the sun-splashed practice room at Bow Street Yoga in Somerville’s Union Square. We’ve gathered here in the early afternoon on the Sunday after election day to try something new, to throttle back, to see for ourselves if gentle could really be the new advanced. Brooklyn-based Yoga Instructor J. Brown, the architect of this novel approach, is in town. He has gentle on his mind, and over the course of the next few hours he wants to share with us why that is. Early on, we discover, he is not just “the breath guy”. He favors working, but not struggling… engaging the body in a very measured way.
“Doing your breath is doing the pose. It’s about how your body moves with breath in whatever shape you are in.” Leaning on patience and on gravity, Mr. Brown’s approach is surely a very different discipline from “how far can I take my practice?” So from where did it originate? The afternoon opens with a detailed unpacking…
The arc of J.’s life in yoga continues to be driven by an enduring promise he pledged to his terminally ill Mom back when he was in his mid-teens. He wanted to make her proud. In his presence, as he shares his personal story, you sense that purpose still pulsing in the form of the integrity which fuels his practice and his teachings. From his early years immersed in Jivamukti and Ashtanga yoga then along a Vinyasa trail brimming with high adventure (often on his hands), his curiosity was never quite satisfied. That sense of “there’s got to be more to this” and some chronic injuries eventually found him in India. Seeking all things local in a new land there he (for the first time) sat with his inner questions… those unresolved matters surrounding loss. In this period of introspection and study in the company of new voices comes a dawn where the seeds are planted, and he begins to shed some of the linear approach to yoga to which he had long been attached. Around this time he receives another profound teachable moment in the form of a moment with Mark Whitwell who reminds him that, “there is a tradition for doing your own thing with yoga”. Another light which buffers Mr. Brown’s newly found freedom and in that clarity a permission to instead follow his own natural progression on the mat and thus a shift from focusing on handstand presses to focusing on breath. Back to the states he returns with a more therapeutically oriented yoga on his mind and at the same time immersing himself in the teachings of Krishnamyra and his son Desikachar – of whose traditions he remains a steward. In 2007, after more than a decade of teaching yoga throughout the New York City metro area, J. created the Abhyasa Yoga Center which embodies his therapy centered approach to yoga.
A recent NY Times article referred to a “new subset of professional instructors: the yogalebrity who makes much of her living on the road, not unlike a small-time rock star, appearing at retreats and conferences, posting inspirational quotes fashioned in flowery Pinterest-friendly fonts, and pictures of inner peace found through arm balances or legs over one’s head.” Despite his full life on the road sharing his teachings beyond Brooklyn, Mr. Brown is not about any of this. His workshops are hands on, unscripted and up front with participants tossing questions and J. thoroughly addressing each one. Casting no aspersions on other types of practice, Mr. Brown proposes in our afternoon together that we take the pulse on how we feel today and allow that to be the bar for our practice over the course of the next two hours. As our guided working practice begins, we are instructed to work with a rib-cage breath and to let that (breathe, bhanda, sukha) serve as our barometer.
He wants us to hold fast to that consciousness around the breath, “be diligent”, throughout the series of accessible poses he offers. That diligence around breath and its ongoing emphasis is what struck me as the most distinguishing factor of his Gentle is the New Advanced style of practice… a gateway. For me, it swiftly removed the striving and gave license to savor the more subtle aspects of the poses – poses which I have greeted in the same fashion for nearly two decades. “Let’s use our Ujjayi breathing to make the breath longer and smoother, not necessarily louder. Let’s allow ALL of the working of your body go to that.” Fresh cues like this, which sway from championing maximums, clearly offered a freedom. You could not help but sense a collective exhale in the studio, a steadiness and newfound sense of purpose. Under his guidance, we had a choice about our practice and embraced that to find the poses in a more measured way.
“Inward, when I go there, I am reminded there is beauty,” says J. as we wind down the afternoon, the sun beginning to set. It’s a lovely note on which to finish in a season where so many are seeking correctives to the noise, to the pace, to the nudge to do more. “Open a little valve in your throat and exhale.”
There are lots more intricacies to be enjoyed with Gentle is The New Advanced. Learn more and even experience the practice online through Mr. Brown’s website. Also, tune in to his podcast series in which he and a host of yoga influencers talk shop on everything from the business of yoga to living our yoga. In this week’s episode J. talks yoga history and more with one of the greats, Erich Schiffman. Not to be missed!