When I was in the fifth grade, I saw the word “yogi” written in chalk on the sidewalk. I asked around on the playground and heard that yogis in the Himalayas can melt snow in winter and manifest things out of thin air. I remember saying, ' I'm going to go there!' " says Ganga White, founder of the Center for Yoga in Los Angeles and president of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California.
Since his boyhood in rural Los Angeles County, not only has White gone to the Himalayas to study yoga, he has been widely recognized for his yoga teaching. Three times, he has received the title "Yoga Acharya": from the International Sivananda Vedanta Society, from the Yoga Vedanta Forest University in Rishikesh, India, and from Yoga Niketan in India.
White founded the Center for Yoga, one of the first of a new generation of yoga centers in North America. Today it is still one of the most successful. An innovator, White created in the late 1970's the system of “Double Yoga” (practice for two people), and continues to encourage students to go beyond the limits of tradition and to follow their own path.
In 1983, White took over a 40-acre yoga ashram retreat center carved out of a Santa Barbara mountainside to create his White Lotus Foundation.
“Everything we do at the White Lotus Foundation is meant to empower the individual, not make him conform to dogma,” he says. “We aim to awaken the fire of yoga within each student.”
The Foundation's most popular program is the 16-day teacher training course, offered three times a year. In it, physical principles such as body kinesiology and precision and alignment are taught, as well as mental and psychological aspects and a free thinking approach to yoga philosophy. The course is one of the few in the country that is non-dogmatic nor oriented toward one particular system.
"The majority of people come with the intention of learning asanas," White says. "They leave thinking in terms of transformation. We try to give them the inspiration to keep exploring and studying so that they see all of life as yoga. They shouldn't arrive at a place called, 'I know yoga' or
“I am a yoga teacher. That's static and boring!” he laughs.
In his classes, White adjusts the intensity of the asanas according to the needs and abilities of his students. “In the early days I had my students rest between every pose,” he says. “Through personal exploration -- and through the guidance of teachers like K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar -- I found that resting between poses just cools the body down. You lose heat and the flow of energy, which together build into a beautiful state by the end of your practice.” Now, he says, except for very tense, weak, or impaired people, his students don't rest between poses. “My favorite approach for the last few years," he adds, "has been to use vinyasa, linking the poses into a flow that becomes an exhilarating union of asana, pranayama, and meditation.”
Iyengar and Jois are but two of the many teachers who have influenced White. Toward the end of his college days, he studied Eastern religion and yoga with a Zoroastrian high priest. His main interests were yoga philosophy and meditation, and to a lesser extent, Hatha Yoga. After a year of study, the high priest sent White to the Sivananda. He eventually became vice-president, and opened Sivananda centers all over North America. White remained at Sivananda for five years, studying with swamis Vishnu Devananda, Chidananda, Venkates, and Yogeshwarananda, among others.
White left the Sivananda organization because, he says, “instead of liberating me, it started caging me. I found that, increasingly, I was asked to accept a rigid belief system.” He says he was more interested in personal exploration than the teachings of one guru. And, he adds, “some of the leaders were not living what they taught.”
After he left Sivananda, White traveled to India, a country which attracts so many seekers. “When I was there, I met many great teachers, among them Ananda Mayi Ma and Maharajji Neem Karoli Baba,” he says. “It started dawning on me that we yoga students tend to glorify and idealize the past. We like to think that the old masters knew everything. They may have but in their time!” White continues thoughtfully. “But times have changed. We have to stand on the shoulders of the past. We have to become the great yogis. We must integrate contemporary insights and modern science. Otherwise, the wisdom won't be fresh and alive.”
Yet, White says, he does not want a following. “I teach because it seems valuable, especially in a time like this when the world is in a imbalance and accelerated change.” Nor does he consider himself a guru. “The word guru means ‘remover of darkness’. Swami Venkates used to say that a guru is ‘the person, place, thing, or experience that brings about awareness or enlightenment’. We need physical teachers,” White continues, “but not authoritarian teachers and teachings that cage you and become destructive limitations. A person should study where he or she feels rapport, and where he or she is learning.” (White dedicates his book Double Yoga to “those who grow beyond the limits of tradition”.
White is working on several ideas for new books, among them a “revision" of yoga philosophy. “It's very easy to be goal-oriented in yoga,” he explains. “Students look way into the future for perfection. But there is a level at which students can get value, enjoyment, and right practice right now. At White Lotus, we emphasize this from the beginning.”
Some students, he points out, don't look as graceful and aligned as others do. “But they can still reach the essence of yoga--learning to heal and create well being for one's own body and to find joy in the practice right now. I try to get people to this place as soon as possible, because I know that it will keep them practicing yoga for the rest of their lives. If you can get into the place of joy and exhilaration in your practice,” he continues, “the ‘I have to do my yoga now’ becomes ‘I get to do my yoga now.’ ”
Finally, White tries to get his students to see the mystical in the ordinary. “So many students come seeking something sensational or mystical,” he says. “They're looking for kundalini energy, psychic visions, metaphysical experiences, or deeper, more exotic asanas. But life itself is a miracle to which we have become numb. We have to stop seeking and start finding. After years of exploration, I say that the essence of yoga is love. If your yoga becomes mechanical and cages you into a belief system, it’s not yoga. If it brings about compassion and love, it is yoga. Nature is full of immense beauty and sacredness. It's all around us when we stop looking and begin to see.”
Susan Woldenberg is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
(Also see Yoga Journal’s article on “White Lotus Yoga”)