An Interview with Ganga by Healing Retreats & Spas
Reprinted from March/April 1998 issue of Healing Retreats & Spas Magazine
Interview by Anthony Carroccio
High in a mountain canyon overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where the Santa Ynez mountains rise steeply behind Santa Barbara, Ganga White leans gently into his next yoga pose. He stands at the top of a waterfall near the main complex of the White Lotus Foundation. Ganga has played a significant role in the history of American yoga. In recent years, as one of the founders of the White Lotus Foundation, Ganga has enriched the yoga world with his teacher training and his understanding of the classic and profound roots of yoga practice.
Born in Detroit, Ganga was raised outside of Los Angeles in the city of Tujunga. "After living in Tujunga, taking the name Ganga wasn't too weird for me," he jokes. The name comes from the name of a great Indian river, and implies to keep on flowing. I spoke with him last October on the White Lotus property.
HR&S: What influenced you to begin learning yoga?
Ganga White: Back in the sixties, the interest in yoga was just starting, and there weren't many yoga classes. When I was about 19 or 20, in the middle of the turbulent sixties, I had an inner urge. I had to find out what yoga was.
HR&S: How did people look at yoga then? If I remember correctly, it was treated like something strange, or an extension of the beatnik movement from the fifties.
Ganga White: Yes, even now it still has remnants of those connotations, but back then they'd make jokes. I was on the Joe Pine Show—I'm dating myself here—he's a guy who'd attack people in a funny way, and he just went wild with it. People didn't think yoga was about exercise, but about swamis, fakirs, and snake charmers. They would make jokes about pretzel positions. They didn't know what it was all about, and it took a lot of work and explanation to get people to understand the practice.
HR&S: What kind of yoga was most prevalent?
Ganga White: It was mostly philosophical: meditation, chanting, devotion. The first physical yoga practices that came over were soft, always emphasizing how gentle the postures were, and most of the classes were done with incense burning and candlelight. Just being very mellow. I dove into it quickly, it just seemed natural. I was studying with a few swamis and yogis from India. I practiced twice a day and I lived in an ashram for some months. Then my brother wanted to have a center in L.A., so I opened The Center for Yoga with the help of an advanced teacher. But the advanced teacher didn't like L.A. and soon left, so there I was running a yoga center after studying for less than a year. I had to rise to the occasion and teach, read every book I could, and talk to every yogi I could meet.
HR&S: Did you have one particular swami or advanced yogi who you considered to be your mentor?
Ganga White: I started out in the Sivananda lineage and studied with many different yogis because there are so many disciples of Sivananda. One of them, not very well known in thiscountry, is Swami Venkates. I'm interested in what is true and what works and what has value. If I practiced or tried something for a while and it didn't have value, I let it go, no matter what the "authorities" said about it. I was a free thinker.
HR&S: Do you think yoga should be integrated with whatever else you're doing, or should yoga be the one thing you do?
Ganga White: Yoga can complement and balance anything you're doing, including sports or other practices. Tai chi is one of the closest relatives to yoga and I think it's a great system. But of all the systems we have, yoga has the broadest spectrum of intricate breathing practices and hundreds and hundreds of postures that can be adjusted to any body in any state of health or illness, injury or age. It is infinitely adjustable. Yoga is the most holistic and completely balanced system on the planet. It works on balancing the body, the structure, the glands, the breath, the digestion, and the bio-psycho-physical energy systems. Properly practiced, it brings a person to their highest possibility.
HR&S: If someone comes to you in a state of bad health—I'm in the nine-to-five lifestyle, I get home and watch TV, my back is killing me, I'm overweight—how do you answer their concerns?
Ganga White: The old saying is to start from where you are. Just start practicing and breathing, working with the state of your mind and body. Find the most inspiring, turned-on teacher you can and take classes. Let the river start flowing and it will take you with it.
HR&S: What can someone new to yoga practice look forward to achieving?
Ganga White: We all approach yoga with questions about time: How long will it take and where will it get me? But in a certain way yoga is about the ending of time. There are goals, but there are also no goals. You want to attain certain postures, muscle tone, and relief from stress; those are tangible, reachable goals. But it's also about constantly adjusting, balancing, and tuning your body to each moment. Learning how to do that is an ongoing process rather than a goal.
HR&S: You can get into yoga from either the spiritual approach or the total physical exercise. What's the most common approach right now?
Ganga White: I think on the deepest levels there is no separation between the spiritual and physical. The supreme intelligence works on the physical and the unseen level. There is an enormous, trendy, and solely physical interest in yoga right now, but we like to believe that yoga is so holistic the physical practice will bring people to other levels of spirituality. At the same time, many people are attracted to yoga because of its depth and levels.
HR&S: How does yoga cultivate the spiritual from the physical?
Ganga White: Yoga teaches you an enormous amount about your body and how to control and balance and work with all the different systems. But you also learn about the mystery, because as much as you know, there's an equal or greater part of being that is mysterious and unknowable, the sacred from which comes the simple essence of spirituality: self-knowledge, self-understanding, and looking at the meaning of living and dying on the earth.
HR&S: What other changes have you seen in yoga practices over the last thirty years?
Ganga White: The things that are called new practices now are not necessarily that new. Although they are new to this country, many are ancient practices. Yoga has been handed down and expanded through the centuries, and in more recent times I've seen more scientifice under- standing integrated into yoga. For instance, things like nutrition may have been there, but they have much more precision now. There is a lot of new understanding about body dynamics, body kinesiology, and joint mobility which have expanded our ability to use yoga. Yoga is changing by coming to the West. Some people are trying to commercialize it, and others are trying to strip away any mental or metaphysical side to it. But though you see these kinds of attempts to change it, the core remains the same.
HR&S: In your years of teaching, have you developed any practices that you have labeled personally?
Ganga White: Yes, several. In 1977 I got the idea to do double yoga. I created over 150 postures that two people can practice together, and published the book Double Yoga in 1979.
HR&S: What are the benefits of doing double yoga?
Ganga White: You can support and assist each other in poses you couldn't do alone, or that you can do better than you can alone. It gives two friends or a couple something to do together. We have a lot of fun with it, but it's a very small part of what we practice and teach in our workshops, because I think the individual practice is much more important.
HR&S: What about the Flow Series?
Ganga White: The Flow Series came out of a number of years of practicing Iyengar, Ashtanga and other systems. I originally designed the Flow Series for myself. I wanted a well-balanced practice to do every day that included the major yoga postures. Although it was influenced by the Ashtanga-Vinyasa style, which is sequential yoga synchronizing breath and movement, I developed a very complete, well-balanced practice made up of traditional ancient postures which can be amped-up to advanced levels or toned down to beginning levels. We recommend that people, like the seasons, change their practice — sometimes you do fiery yoga for a few days, then you do a softer practice. Even as an advanced student, you don't want to be cranking it to the max every day. They don't do that with racehorses or any athlete. You want to flow up and down.
HR&S: It seems that your business is alive because of your passions, not your college degree.
Ganga White: If there wasn't passion, I don't think I could do it. I believe yoga is here to stay; it has taken root, and will always be a growing part of this culture. It's hard to say what direction it will take in the future. Yoga is like a plant that you put in a new environment, it slowly grows and transforms into something in harmony with its new home.