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Alan Finger on How He Didn’t Choose Yoga, Yoga Chose Him

It was practically ordained by Paramahansa Yogananda that Finger teach. Learn more about his journey from young yogi to creator of ISHTA Yoga.

Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world-renowned teachers to your fingertips, offering access to exclusive workshops with a different master teacher every six weeks. In April, Alan Finger will share ISHTA meditation practices. If you’re ready to get a fresh perspective and maybe even meet a lifelong yoga mentor, sign up now for YJ’s year-long membership

Like many master yoga teachers, Alan Finger’s first foray into the practice came early. He started dabbling at age five with his father, Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger, at their home in South Africa. At 15, he got serious about studying, and a year later, he was teaching classes across Johannesburg on the path to systematizing a profound yoga method that would come to be called ISHTA—now studied widely across the globe.

Though Finger had no initial ambitions of becoming a teacher, it was practically ordained by his father’s teacher Paramahansa Yogananda, a father of yoga in the West and preeminent teacher of Kriya Yoga, advanced meditation techniques to move you through different levels of consciousness. And as Finger describes, his first time teaching was almost surreal: “It was freaky,” he says. “I said all of these things and I didn’t know where they were coming from. It simply came through me. From that moment on, I just taught; I didn’t even think about it.” Keep reading for the rest of Finger’s story and more about ISHTA Yoga.

My father was shell-shocked in the Second World War; he had shrapnel in his back, and he became a drug addict and alcoholic. My grandfather was a wealthy businessman, and he tried to get my father involved by sending him on a business trip to Los Angeles. One time at their hotel, Yogananda happened to be giving a lecture. Drunk, my father went to the lecture. Afterward he went up to Yogananda, who said, “Come; I’m going to teach you Kriya Yoga. It’s going to change your life. I want you to go to the Sivananda Ashram in India, and then go back to South Africa where you’ll become a famous yogi, and one of your sons will follow.” And so he did!

I was five years old when my dad came back from India. In South Africa, there’s a very large Indian population, and they brought all the yogis and swamis over. My dad would get them to lecture or stay at our house, which slowly metamorphosed into half ashram, half home. I started doing a little bit of yoga then. Swami Venkatesananda, from the Sivananda lineage, was a major influence in my life. He would spend up to three months of the year at our place. Swami Nishraisananda from the Rama Krishna would come for a week at a time; Shuddhananda Bharati contributed a lot to the tantric part of the ISHTA practice.

By the time I was 15, I had various psychosomatic problems because of the way my father had been for the first five years of my life. My mom got me to go to a psychiatrist, and when my dad asked how it went, I said, “Terrible! That guy can’t help me!” We laughed, and then I said, “Dad, you’re teaching all these other people how to use yoga to get better; I need you to teach me, please.” He told me I’d have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and join whatever practice he was doing, which involved 1.5 hours of pranayama, kriya, meditation, and 1.5 hours of asana. I did it! Immediately, it worked—I felt so much more clear and stable; the psychosomatic breathlessness and lightheadedness I was experiencing all went away. In four and a half years, I missed only two days of practice.

See also Master Class: Rodney Yee’s 3-Step Pranayama Technique for Stillness and Peace

One day, when I was 16, my dad had to travel to a funeral and he couldn’t contact the student who was coming to see him. He came to me and said, “You need to teach Mrs. Lazarus.” So I met her in the yoga center, and I asked, “Is there anything in particular I can help you with?” She opened up and started crying and telling me all her issues and stresses. I explained to her how the nervous system works as it had been explained to me by the swamis, and before I knew it, she stopped seeing my dad and became my student. Then her granddaughters wanted to learn, and then her cousins. When my dad’s back collapsed and he had to have surgery, I took over all his classes. It was never a thought—I’m going to make this my profession—it was just a natural progression.

Developing the system of ISHTA was my doing. My dad was a genius, and very academic. He and all the swamis used to sit together with their books, discussing kriya and Kriya Yoga. But the information that was being handed down was being taken for granted. I wanted to systemize it. I told them, “It’s too all over the place; people have no idea what we’re talking about.” Eventually, I got Venkatesananda and my dad to agree to it, and we started organizing. And then we had to give it a name. My dad liked ISHTA, because it comes from Sutra 2.44—Svadhyayat ishta devata samprayogah—which means, “When you are grounded in self-study you will find the appropriate yoga practice, life’s purpose, and path that really resonates with you.” I love that, because I believe every human being is different. The yoga that resonates with you is the yoga that’s correct for you. Eventually we created an acronym for ISHTA: Integrated Sciences of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda, which are the three sister sciences in India and what ISHTA yoga revolves around.

See also Master Class: 2 Iyengar Variations for an Effortless Extended Side Angle Pose

Things became very tough politically in South Africa. I got in trouble because I wasn’t supposed to go into neighborhoods that were black or Indian, but I kept going there to teach. Eventually the police actually threatened me with house arrest. My wife said, “Why don’t we go to America?” She had friends there, so we moved to Los Angeles. Norman Seeff, a famous South African photographer, was in Los Angeles. I went to see him, thinking I’d get some photographic work with him to make ends meet, but he wanted to learn about yoga. His girlfriend at the time was the actress Taryn Power, and she was totally into it too. I started teaching at her apartment. Within a month, I was teaching two classes a day with 30 to 40 students. So I moved my classes to Norman’s studio in West Hollywood, and one of the people he was shooting was Cindy Williams from Laverne and Shirley. She took my class, and afterward she told me she was about to sign a contract for a new season, and she wanted to write me into it to help her cope with stress. I said yes, and my business grew from there. Robin Williams signed me into his contract for Mork & Mindy, and the director of Family Ties brought me in once a week to teach. I ended up teaching all these stars, which is funny because I’m not into celebrities—it’s not a part of me.

I eventually started YogaWorks with Maty Ezraty. She was looking for a teaching space, so we joined forces. I had always taught ISHTA Yoga, but as yoga was becoming more popular in Los Angeles, I wanted to open a studio that encompassed all different styles of yoga. I later moved to New York City to open another YogaWorks studio, then Maty bought me out, and I went on to open Yoga Zone, followed by Be Yoga, and finally, my first ISHTA studio in 2008.

Over the years, ISHTA has evolved into different teacher trainings, master programs, modules, and manuals. But the ancient secrets of yoga, specifically of Kriya Yoga—how to change and alter your consciousness in the energetic body—haven’t changed. It’s so profound that scientists are beginning to say the same things as the ancients. People come to ISHTA to learn more about the science of yoga—to look a little deeper than just the physical body and to learn how to purify consciousness so it’s not filled with thought and with vritti (fluctuations of the mind), and instead begins to reflect spirit, knowledge, and genius.

See also Alan Finger’s Energy-Clearing Yoga Sequence to Prepare for Meditation

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16 Yoga Poses to Keep You Grounded & Present

This strong, balanced sequence is designed to ground you even as life’s craziness swirls around you.

Whether it’s a big deadline at work, relationship issues, holiday season busyness, or some other stressor, life can certainly present challenges that turn on our fight-or-flight response. This instinctual physiological stress response can serve us well in life-threatening situations. (To wit: the oft-cited running-from-a-tiger scenario.) Yet these days, even stressors that aren’t life-threatening can switch on our fight-or-flight mode—and we stay in this heightened stress state because we can’t physically run away from things like deadlines or soaring daycare costs. The result? We become reactive rather than responsive, and our overall mental and physical health takes a hit. Enter this strong, balanced sequence, designed to ground you even as life’s craziness swirls around you.

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Master Class: 4 Foolproof Steps to Sequencing an Advanced Pose

It’s all about progression with Natasha Rizopoulos’s signature method of designing a satisfying practice.

Want to master the basics of sequencing for advanced poses? Join Natasha Rizopoulos for her upcoming Master Class, Smart Sequencing for Arm Balances. In this six-week online workshop,  Natasha will teach you how to create a clear path toward an arm balance through Natasha’s kinesthetic method. Plus, you’ll access our full collection of nine Master Class workshops to inform and inspire your practice and teaching. Sign up today!

You or your students may find certain poses elusive, but dispelling the mystery through skillful sequencing is a fundamental part of teaching. “Any good sequence is like a good story: It follows a narrative arc, with each chapter bringing you closer to the conclusion or goal of your peak pose. When done thoughtfully and well, it enables students to leave class feeling balanced energetically, intellectually, and physically,” says Natasha Rizopoulos, founder of Align Your Flow Yoga, a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, and Yoga Journal’s Master Class teacher.

If putting together an advanced sequence feels daunting, rest assured: You can put your alignment knowledge to use and build practices that you and your students will love. Here, Rizopoulos breaks down her signature method of smart sequencing for advanced peak poses.

1. Pull apart the peak pose and identify where you or your students get stuck. 

Rizopoulos calls these challenging actions or movements essential elements. “What’s hard about this pose? What gets in the way? Let’s take a pose like Bakasana. Maybe I don’t understand how to engage my belly, so I don’t have the integrity of the center. So an essential element will be toning the lower belly,” says Rizopoulos. If you’re fearful of falling, you may need to focus on balance and extending the sternum away from the naval. If arm strength is a roadblock, you’ll spend time in Chaturanga, strengthening the triceps. “Look at the pose and ask to yourself, ‘What needs to be toned and opened for me to have success? What intelligence does my body need on the way to that peak?’” she says.

2. Start small to prep the body for a challenge.

“I call this initial pose the prologue pose, and it’s usually a seated or supine pose that allows you to explore, if not all, then at least several of the essential elements under conditions that aren’t challenging,” says Rizopoulos. So, for a pose like Bakasana, the prologue pose could be as simple as Child’s Pose since they both teach the posterior tilt of the pelvis and tone the lower belly, she says. “Then reaching your arms forward will show you how to engage your triceps by straightening your elbows,” says Rizopoulos. Since the prologue pose is just the beginning, it doesn’t have to cover each and every roadblock—just a few.

3. Gradually ratchet up the difficulty as you build your sequence.

Now you or your students have a chance to strengthen, lengthen, and educate the body in those areas of difficulty you originally identified as essential elements. “You really need to understand alignment, because if you don’t understand alignment, you don’t know which poses give you the essential elements. For instance, to strengthen the triceps, start by teaching Chaturanga on the knees before getting to a classical Chaturanga. If the idea is to strengthen the hamstrings to eventually lift the heel to the buttocks in Bakasana, I might teach Salabhasana. Then, working on Forearm Plank will teach the neutral posterior tilt of the pelvis and gives you an opportunity to reach your sternum away from the naval at the same time.”

4. Take on the peak pose—and realize the entire sequence was never about the peak pose.

“Today in class we did a big build up toward Parsva Bakasana; everyone in the room tried it, half got it, and once everyone sat down, I asked them if they thought I cared whether they could do the pose. Of course, they all said ‘No!’ in unison. The pose is not only a vehicle for creating physical strength and openness but mental strength and openness. What’s the quality of mind while you’re working on the pose? Are you clear, are you committed, are you present? That’s what’s translatable outside of the room.”

Want to learn more?

Join Natasha for her Master Class on Smart Sequencing for Arm Balances, and you’ll access 8 additional online workshops on essential topics, from yoga nidra to Sun Salutations, for teachers and practitioners. Sign up today!

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Iyengar 201: Play with Arm Balancing in This Tortoise Pose-to-Firefly Transition with a Chair

Using a chair as a launch pad to toggle between Kurmasana and Tittibhasana is a great way to build mobility and challenge your balance. Ready to give it a try?

Join Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Carrie Owerko for our new online course Iyengar 201—a mindful and fun journey into a more advanced practice. You’ll learn different pose modifications and creative uses for props, all designed to help you work with physical and mental challenges. And you’ll walk away with the skills you need to adapt to whatever life throws at you, on and off the mat. Sign up now.

Varying your approach to a familiar pose can be fascinating. You might ask yourself: How can I make a challenging pose more accessible? How can I change my approach in order to gain new insight into myself, as well as the asana? What might I learn by trying familiar things in different ways?

Take using a chair as a launch pad for Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose) and Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose) for example. If you find typically these poses challenging, using the chair in this way might be helpful. In Kurmasana on the chair, you are only responsible for lifting the lower portion of your legs. This is a great way to cultivate strength in the thighs, especially in the knee extension. Since your arms do not need to be pinned under your legs (as in the classic version of Kurmasana), you can get the feel of the sense of direction for the legs, back, and arms required by the pose without the potential strain on the back, shoulders, or elbows.

When you add the step of lifting the seat off the chair from Kurmasana to Tittibhasana, you learn how you must shift your weight onto your arms. You learn how you must center yourself in order to maximize the downward pressure of the hands and lift of the abdominal wall as you float your buttocks up and off of the chair. It’s a fun (and challenging) balance game to toggle back and forth between being on the chair and lifting off the chair. It’s also a great way to build mobility as you learn how to control and refine your movements. You might feel like you are on a miniature seesaw as you move from Tortoise to Firefly and back again. Give it a try!

Kurmasana to Tittibhasana With a Chair

Ready to learn more novel approaches to familiar poses? Sign up for Iyengar 201 now.

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