An Article on White Lotus’ 16 day residential
Yoga Teacher Training Course
From Yoga Journal, March, 1994
By Anne Cushman
the summer of 1990, in the middle of the White Lotus
Foundation’s 16-day Yoga teacher training program,
a brush fire erupted about 100 yards downwind from the
center’s driveway in the Santa Ynez mountains
in Santa Barbara, California. The ensuing firestorm
raged for four days up and down the drought-parched
valley, destroying over 600 homes and melting power
lines for 13 miles. While continuing the teacher training
in a nearby hotel, White Lotus directors Ganga White
and Tracey Rich tuned in to radio reports indicating
that their Yoga center was going up in smoke. But when
they returned to inspect the damage, they discovered
to their amazement that the devastation had neatly skirted
the boundaries of their 40 acres. Flames had roared
to the very edges of their land, defining the property
line on three sides, then had turned back. The only
damage, Rich reports, was a "fine layer of sacred
Magic and miracles have been associated with this site
for as long as human beings have inhabited the surrounding
coastal mountain range. For the Chumash Indians, the
canyon was a sacred healing spot known as Taklushmon,
or "the gathering place." It was blessed,
among other things, with a stream that never dried up,
even in the severest droughts. When an eccentric German-born
mystic known as Yogi Earnest Haeckel purchased the land
from the federal government in the mid-1940s, he built
on this spiritual foundation by constructing a small
Yoga and meditation center–adding, in the 1950s,
a well-stocked bomb shelter where he and his students
could take refuge from radioactive fallout.
ACCOMODATIONS FOR RESIDENT STUDENT PROGRAMS ARE IN COMFORTABLE
"STATE OF THE ART" YURTS! When White and Rich
acquired Haeckel's property 11 years ago, they wanted
to create a shelter of a different sort–a sanctuary
where people could retreat from the fallout of their
daily lives to soak up the healing power of Yoga in
a pristine natural environment. Their White Lotus Foundation
offers a wide variety of workshops in asana, pranayama,
meditation, tantra, and Yoga philosophy, along with
ongoing weekly classes. At the heart of these offerings
is the 16 day residential teacher training program,
a nonsectarian guided tour through the vast and variegated
landscape of Yoga history, philosophy, and practice.
In this high-density, total-immersion course, twice
daily asana classes (one emphasizing a complete, flowing
practice, the other concentrating on alignment, detail,
and instructional techniques for a few key postures)
are combined with pranayama and meditation instruction,
teaching practice, and video feedback. Nightly lectures
address topics such as Yoga history and philosophy,
the physiological and therapeutic effects of asana practice,
vegetarian nutrition, holistic health, and Yoga business
strategies. But far more important than the content
of the course, says White, is the attitude toward Yoga
it seeks to cultivate. Through decades of practice and
study with masters from a wide range of traditions,
White and Rich have distilled a fluid, creative teaching
style that's aimed at "setting people free".
"We're giving you a way of learning and doing Yoga
that's open, flexible, and not attached to any dogma,
ritual, or sectarian approach," White tells the
24 students who have gathered in the spacious, book-lined
lounge on the first evening of the training. "Then
you can leave and study with any teachers you want to–even
the most dogmatic and authoritarian–and still
learn something from them." White himself has spent
more than 30 years cultivating just such an openness
of body and mind. His spiritual journey began in the
mid-1960s, when he undertook the study of Eastern philosophy
with an Indian professor of religious studies who was
also a Zoroastrian high priest. Fascinated by his teacher's
lectures on Yoga, he traveled to India and began intensive
study with various Yogis in the Sivananda lineage–primarily
Swami Vishnudevananda, whose then newly published Complete
Illustrated Book of Yoga was selling briskly among
America’s flower children. White soon emerged
as one of the key figures in the burgeoning Hatha Yoga
movement in the United States. Peter Sellers became
his student; Muhammad Ali requested a private demonstration;
and Donovan narrated a documentary about the "new
spirituality" that featured White doing asanas
on a California beach. Within a few years, White became
vice-president of the Sivananda organization
and began opening studios and ashrams all over North
America, including his own Center for Yoga in Los Angeles
(which he finally sold in 1993) "At Sivananda,
I got a broad overview of classic Yoga philosophy and
learned a lot about traditional Indian systems,"
he recalls. "I met many, many Yogis and swamis
and had very deep experiences of physical and spiritual
opening." However, he gradually became frustrated
with what he perceived as an excessively hierarchical
and dogmatic tradition–and disillusioned by the
gap he noticed between what was taught and what was
lived. ("Once, I walked in on a swami beating up
his secretary," he recalls. "It blew my mind.")
When his increasingly probing questions were ignored–
"once you accept a teacher you're not supposed
to question any more"– he left the Sivananda
organization and began traveling around India on his
own, looking for teachers who would encourage his inquiries.
He found one in Swami Venkates, renowned as "the
laughing swami," a Sanskrit scholar and Hatha Yoga
master whose motto was "never take anything too
seriously." Venkates introduced White to J. Krishnamurti,
who encouraged him to keep on questioning authority
and trusting his own inner wisdom. "I felt a great
release and freeing, as if I'd thrown off a lot of dead
weight," he says. "Instead of an efforting
toward enlightenment, Yoga became a lightening up."
While continuing to study with Venkates and Krishnamurti,
White explored new Hatha Yoga paths as well. He refined
his sense of alignment and Yoga therapeutics by training
several times with B.K.S. Iyengar, including a month-long
intensive for teachers held in Pune in the mid-1970s.
(" There were only about 15 of us in the class,
so you can imagine what it was like - he killed us ,"
White jokes about the notoriously demanding Iyengar.
"If you're a teacher, he likes to break you down.").
He was also strongly influenced by the vigorous, flowing
Ashtanga Yoga taught by Pattabhi Jois, with whom he
studied in Hawaii in the early 1980s.
It was in Hawaii that White met Tracey Rich, a Yoga
teacher from Nashville, Tennessee, whose gentle, intuitive
teaching style–her primary teacher had trained
in the Kripalu tradition–had been laced with fire
by intensive Ashtanga practice. Unlike White, Rich had
never been particularly interested in Indian culture
or traditional Vedic philosophy. "I was a classic
'70s teenager–lots of sex, drugs, and rock and
roll," she jokes.
Searching for something deeper, she sampled Hatha Yoga
in her early 20s and was instantly enchanted by both
the sheer physical pleasure of the asana practice and
the peace of mind it brought her. Finding that her body
easily melted into even very challenging postures, Rich
began teaching after only six months (at the urging
of her instructor, June LaSalvia, a friend and confidante
who "pushed me out of the nest at an early age").
Drawing on her own inner investigations and her love
of dance, music, and poetry, she gradually developed
a playful, spontaneous approach that encourages students
to improvise and explore.
and Rich's "Yoga romance" quickly led to a
long-term partnership, and in 1983 the two merged both
their lives and their unique teaching styles to launch
their Santa Barbara retreat center. "We wanted
to create a place where people could come to have an
experience of Yoga," Rich recollects. "We
wanted to give them a taste of a total lifestyle–a
radically different way of living–so they could
make transformational choices. "
At this they have succeeded admirably. As a visitor
descends the dusty dirt driveway into their canyon retreat,
the traffic sounds from nearby Highway 154 fade away,
replaced by the wind rustling through groves of live
oak, bay, and sycamore. The stucco studio perches on
the rocky hillside amidst landscaped gardens resplendent
with roses, tiger lilies, iris, orange bushes, and fig
trees. While soaking in the redwood hot tub or lounging
on the lawns and sun decks, guests overlook a panoramic
view of valley, mountains, ocean, and the distant sprawl
of Santa Barbara, which seems as remote as another planet.
At the bottom of the valley, Skumuwash Creek–the
name is Chumash for "to have arrived"–sings
over giant boulders of sandstone and granite. Between
classes, students scramble through the woods to a swimming
hole fed by a waterfall, where they dive naked into
icy water and bask on sun-baked ledges. During my visit,
I spend hours lying on warm, water-smoothed boulders,
watching dancing slabs of light, reflected upward from
the green surface of the pool, playing on the undersides
of the overhanging rocks.
At night, guests sleep in yurts or domes tucked away
in the oaks, where we're sung to sleep by crickets,
frogs, and the yapping of coyotes. The full moon paints
black silhouettes on the translucent walls of my creekside
tent, creating a delicate batik of crisscrossed leaves
and branches. Awakened by a rustle in the underbrush
one night, I open my eyes to glimpse the silhouette
of a fox stalking through this diorama like a figure
in a shadow play.
intimate connection with the rhythms of the natural
world is a crucial part of the curriculum at White Lotus.
"I think the waterfall and the wind and the birds
teach you more about Yoga than we ever can," White
maintains. Another important element is what one student
refers to as "the classes in experiential nutrition."
Gourmet vegan lunches and dinners are designed to dispel
the myth that meatless, dairyless, whole-foods cookery
is ascetic fare: We feast on dishes like polenta-spinach
pie with tomato basil sauce; black bean enchiladas with
guacamole, soy cheese, and vegan sour cream; fresh-baked
muffins and breads; and tofu cheesecake with fresh figs.
One evening, a spread of curried vegetables, orange-pear
chutney, basmati rice, and homemade chapatis is accompanied
by sitar music and a slide show depicting the highlights
of White's many travels in India.
All levels of students are accepted into the teacher
training program, from rank beginners who want a comprehensive
introduction to practice, to experienced teachers who
want to expand their repertoire of knowledge and techniques.
In the program I attend, one student is an Ashtanga
Yoga instructor with a body as flexible as a contortionist's;
she has come to learn more about the philosophical context
of asana practice. Another is a former Air Force officer,
stiff as a bayonet, who has just retired after 20 years
in the service. (Like a good soldier, he performs his
newfound practice with dedication, but reflexively stands
at attention between poses.)
Several students come from tiny rural towns with no
Yoga instructors, where they've been diligently practicing
from books and videotapes. Like missionaries armed with
a fresh supply of tracts, they plan to return to share
their newly discovered knowledge with an eager congregation
of would-be Yogis. While Rich and White acknowledge
that two weeks of classes won't turn a novice into an
expert, they insist that's not the point of their program.
"It's like making yogurt–after you put the
culture into the milk, it takes time for the milk to
turn into the yogurt, but the process has been initiated,"
White explains. "White Lotus 'certification' just
means that the culture is in the milk. People have gotten
a visceral, nonverbal feeling of living Yoga–as
well as a comprehensive set of teachings, practices,
and techniques. This culture will continue to work within
them for months, even years, after they leave here."
At White Lotus, the primary vehicle for transmitting
this culture is the "Flow Series," the backbone
of the Hatha Yoga curriculum. All students are required
to practice -- and learn to teach–this challenging
90-minute routine, a carefully sequenced set of classic
postures synchronized with deep, rhythmic breathing.
As Rich explains in the videotape Yoga:
The Flow Series, the graceful, uninterrupted stream
of asanas "builds cardiovascular strength and stamina,
cultivates mental and physical balance and flexibility,
creates great upper-body strength, and tones and stimulates
the internal organs. It increases oxygenation and circulation,
builds excellent back strength, and creates an overall
sense of deep relaxation."
YOGA FLOW SERIES: Tracey Rich and Ganga White The series
begins with Sun Salutations and standing poses to build
heat, strength, and endurance. At the peak of the routine,
once the body is warm and flexible, backbends are practiced
to energize the spine and promote vitality, followed
by calming and introspective forward bends. Twists release
the spine as the body begins to cool down. The practice
concludes with inversions and pranayama to tone the
endocrine system and recharge the energy body. Throughout
the series, the practitioner maintains ujjayi breathing,
a pranayama technique in which the breath makes a whispering
sound as it passes over the back of the throat. This
practice slows the breath down and draws the attention
inward, helping to create a meditative state.
The Flow Series is
designed as a complete, meditative workout that both
stretches and strengthens every part of the body. However,
this standard routine is far from written in stone;
rather, it's presented as an infinitely adaptable skeleton
structure that students can adjust, improvise upon,
or even abandon altogether, as their own needs dictate.
"We believe in adapting the Yoga for the person,
rather than trying to fit the person to the Yoga,"
White maintains. Within the basic framework, easier
or more difficult poses may be substituted as appropriate.
Students are taught how to use props to modify postures
for people with special needs. At all times, students
are encouraged to listen to and respect their own body's
needs–as well as the needs of the people they
"Postures are tools for exploring yourself, not
goals you're trying to achieve," White continually
reminds us. "Your body is not just a vehicle to
perform the ideal asana." When one student asks
Rich–who is using an extremely inflexible beginner
to model Trikonasana -- to demonstrate the pose "correctly,"
she looks genuinely baffled. "But he is doing it
correctly!" she replies. "For his body, with
his level of muscular tightness, this pose is absolutely
perfect." "After all, what does it mean to
be an advanced student of Yoga?" White asks. "Perhaps
you can do advanced poses, but if you're practicing
with a lot of competitiveness, ego, and self-righteousness,
then you're still a beginner." "You have to
continually ask yourself why you're doing this practice,"
Rich adds. "Remember that what you're really doing
is committing yourself to a path of self-investigation
and self-transformation through a physical form."
In some classes, White and Rich abandon the prescribed
series altogether to give us a taste of an entirely
different style of practice. Rich likes to lead us through
dance-like sequences–some vigorous and aerobic,
others slow and soothing–in which the poses flow
into each other in unexpected combinations, shattering
our preconceived notions about "what comes next."
One morning, saying that "the asanas live intuitively
in us," she puts on gentle background guitar music
and asks us to spend an hour and a half improvising
according to our own inner inspiration.
"Don't move until you find your connection to
your own inner impulse. Let your movement be inspired,"
she instructs. In this kind of practice, she says, it's
essential to distinguish thought-inspired movement–based
on ideas about what pose ought to come next–from
body-inspired movement. "Stay still until your
body tells you where to move next," she insists.
"When you practice in this way, your practice becomes
a prayer to yourself." Practice can also be a way
to relate to another person. In a class in "Double
Yoga," White and Rich show us how two people
can flow through a series in synchrony, maintaining
physical contact and using each other for balance, leverage,
and support. On a physical level, this practice can
help us get into poses we couldn't otherwise accomplish,
White explains. On a psychological level, it reveals
our habitual ways of relating to other people. "
Are you expecting the other person to hold you up? Are
you pushing too hard? Are you blaming the other person
for everything that goes wrong?" he asks us. "You
have to meet each other as equals, with attunement and
receptivity and a free flow of information back and
forth, in order for the Double Yoga to work."
White and Rich maintain that this experimentation with
different styles of Yoga practice is crucial. "It's
essential to vary your practice–not just the particular
series you do, but also the attitude you take toward
yourself and your practice," Rich says. "Some
days you want to work at your edge, expand your limits.
Other days you want to be gentle and comfortable."
After all, says White, Hatha Yoga literally means the
union of Ha and Tha -- the energies
of sun and moon. "Any pose can be done in a Ha
or a Tha style -- hot, vigorous, and strengthening
or cool, relaxing, and peaceful. It's important to know
how and when to use either approach ."
Above all, it's essential to keep an open mind toward
different approaches to practice, even those that contradict
your own preferred style. Asserts White, "Hatha
Yoga is meant to be a journey into greater awareness
and understanding, not a journey into more conformity,
rigidity, and external rules."
This same iconoclastic attitude reigns in White's evening
lectures on Yoga history and philosophy, held in the
cozy common lounge adjoining the kitchen. Under the
mischievous eyes of an enormous wooden laughing Buddha,
White offers us "an overview of Yoga doctrine filtered
through my own heretical opinions." He clearly
and succinctly summarizes fundamental topics like the
distinctions between the major types of Yoga (Hatha,
Raja, Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, and Tantra), the eight limbs
of Patanjali's classical Yoga, and the contributions
of various great sages and teachers. At the end of the
training, a formal exam poses questions like "What
are the benefits of the Headstand?" "List
the names of the seven chakras and some of the principles
associated with each," and "What are a few
of the major reasons most Yogis are vegetarians?"
But at the same time, he warns us not to get bogged
down in the letter of the law. "For just about
anything you want to do, you can find sanction in the
ancient texts," he tells us. "Eat potatoes,
don't eat potatoes. Be celibate, get enlightened through
sex. It's all there. The bottom line is that you have
to think for yourself and awaken your own understanding.
White peppers his talks with juicy anecdotes about
the foibles of famous teachers, both living and dead.
He informs us that one well known Yogi with a worldwide
following is actually a former Indian customs agent
who fled the country to escape charges of drug smuggling;
and that another respected organization was once temporarily
taken over by a middle-management Swami who claimed
to be channeling the ghost of a deceased master. Even
the ancient sage Patanjali, the first to formally codify
a body of Yogic teachings, doesn't escape White's irreverence.
"We don't have any idea who Patanjali even was!
All we know is that he wrote down some teaching–we’re
not even sure whose," he points out. "Imagine
that you write down your notes on me teaching this class–and
2,000 years from now, your notes are all that's left
of Yoga, and people are arguing about what they mean.
In the long run, you can't rely on conforming to someone
else's insights. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are only useful
as a catalyst to precipitate your own understanding."
Ultimately, that's the whole point of White Lotus’
insistent challenges to the sacred cows of Yoga–not
to belittle the ancient teachings, but to bring them
to life within each student. It's precisely because
White himself cares so much about the spirit of Yoga
that he insists upon scrutinizing its teachings so critically.
For paradoxically, it's only by questioning doctrines
and techniques that we can contact within ourselves
the living source of wisdom from which they spring.
"We're always looking for strict rules because
life is chaos, and we're trying to resist that chaos
by making a straight and narrow path. But the truth
is that that kind of path is actually very boring,"
White maintains. "What we're really craving, if
we look deeply, is the change, adjustment, sensitivity,
and balance that make life–and Yoga–interesting.
It is my hope that the White Lotus program will help
people discover that truth for themselves."
The White Lotus Flow Series is designed as a complete,
meditative workout that stretches and strengthens every
part of the body. "Hatha Yoga is meant to be a
journey into greater awareness and understanding, not
a journey into more conformity, rigidity, and external
rules." says White.
Anne Cushman is associate editor of Yoga Journal.
This article originally appeared in the March/April
1994 issue of Yoga Journal. 1994 Yoga Journal. Used
with permission. All rights reserved. For subscription
information, call (800) 359-YOGA.