Internationally renowned yoga teacher Ana Forrest is creator of Forrest Yoga and a pioneer in the applications of yoga for emotional healing. Forrest Yoga infuses traditional yoga asana sequences with a strong vision of yoga as one avenue for connecting more deeply with our spirit.
In this interview, Ana discusses some of the key elements she integrates in Forrest Yoga, and talks about her pioneering approach to working more consciously with facilitating emotional healing in our yoga practice.
Q: A central part of Forrest Yoga is that you almost always start by asking people to set an intent for the class, or focus on a body part they want to work with. Tell us about the background for this practice?
Ana Forrest: That is part of what I learned to do in ceremonial medicine within the Native American tradition. Setting your intent is very powerful—whether it’s for the ceremony, for the day, or for whenever you teach yoga.
I personally set my intent every day, whether or not I’m on the mat, so that my life runs in the order that makes sense for the intent of the day as well as for my intent for my life. It’s much more powerful that way, instead of just getting up, having coffee, going to work, always doing the same thing. We were not born just to do that; there’s more to life than that.
In the very beginning of classes, I have different themes that I work with depending on the class. Let’s say we’re working with injury. I would give the students a few moments to scan their body using their breath, like they would use fingertips to feel inside for an area that’s crying out for help. It could be a heartbreak, or it could be a low back injury, or a headache. Once students connect with that, we start questing for moving the breath through that area. We keep that focus for the entire practice session. That way, we are moving the energy through the area, and it starts healing.
Q: That’s one of the beautiful things about your teaching, because we usually do the exact opposite! If there is an issue in the body, be it back pain or even more, an emotional hurt, we tend to avoid feeling that area.
Ana Forrest: Yes, the only coping skill we’ve learned is avoiding it. It’s a coping skill. We haven’t learned how else to deal with it. So that’s part of what I educate people with.
My favorite thing to teach is embodying your spirit. When we think of spirit, we don’t necessarily think of it as connected to our cell tissue, but it can be. Learning how to spread your spirit through that whole vast amount of space in the body and being able to feel it, and learning how to eventually fill your own body with your spirit is amazing. Sometimes, it just starts with a little flicker. But that’s the start.
So you make that the priority in the pose. It’s not about whether you’re in full splits or have your feet behind your head. Feeling your spirit in the pose is your priority. That changes everything. Then the priority becomes the quality and energy rushing through you—instead of whether you’re bending far enough.
Or, if that’s too advanced for that day, then connect to feeling your body. If that’s feeling like, “Okay, I got that,” connect to your heart. Breathe and connect to this area.
Q. That’s not always an easy thing for people to do.
Yes, part of the process is to build the courage to feel whatever feelings are stored in your heart or in your back—or wherever. Some of it is really uncomfortable—like your rage or your resentment or your hatred. These are things that are not considered ‘spiritual’ in traditional terms. But these are all human challenges that we must learn to deal with, and that is part of the spiritual road.
So, what I ask in the yoga ceremony is for people to open their mind to learning something about their own condition, whether it’s suffering or heartbreak, or just that your hips are tight! This is an amazing process, because we are not taught that we can do that. But once we do, we begin to become the weaver of our own life. This is ceremony.
So you may have some really difficult elements in your life… For example, people who’ve been drinking or on drugs are haunted by the demons of addiction. But now, from a place of greater insight or wisdom, you can begin to unravel that pattern and re-weave your life in beauty.
Will you change the past? Yes, in a way, because you change the way it affects your present and your future when you decide, I am brave enough. I’m going after this ship. I’m going after it. I’m not a victim of life anymore. Whether it’s back pain, hip pain, sexual abuse, or whatever.
People who are victims of sexual abuse often have a lot of pain in their body, and they don’t understand that this is connected to the abuse. In these cases, there’s going to be a lot of healing—emotionally, mentally and physically. You are teaching the muscles involved how to integrate differently, so that they respond in a more wholesome way instead of responding from the memory of this terrible damage that happened.
Q. You focus a lot in your teaching on helping us be more in our bodies, creating greater embodiment. So this is part of the process?
Yes, this is all part of creating greater embodiment. And it’s also a part of ceremony.
It’s like the archetypal hero’s quest. You go into your own damage and you meet scary dragons. You meet evil. You meet all these things. You’re going on a quest and what you get from this quest is wisdom and treasures. You get treasures for your own healing. You get wisdom. Whatever the life issues are – back injury, broken heart, disconnected, drug abuse, you can solve so much on the mat and go on quest and become the person that you most want to be. That is why I do this.
People sometimes think of ceremony as a sort of La-La Land. It’s not. Ceremony is down and dirty and gritty, not out in La-La Land. In the process of ceremony, whether it’s in a Sweat Lodge or in Sundance or Pipe ceremony or sweating it out on the yoga mat, you have to clear away the nonsense, the confusions to find out what is actually happening, what’s the truth.
We have also put truth out in La-La Land. But it’s not out of there. It’s what you’re doing right now. Are you lying to yourself right now? Are you denying what you’re feeling in your body, because that’s all you know how to do? What’s the truth of what’s happening? First tune in to that, and then let’s start to use these new tools.
So one of the beauties of ceremony is giving yourself the space to learn something new, which means you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. That’s called learning. It’s okay. Not only is it okay, it’s absolutely necessary.
It’s like picking up any kind of a tool. You have to play with it. You have to work with it to get skillful with it. Give yourself the grace of learning time to play with these poses, to play with how to use your breath,
Q. You have a course coming up on YogaUOnline, which we are very excited about! We are looking forward to going on a vision quest in cyberspace with you! Tell us a bit about the course and what you will focus on.
Ana Forrest: The focus is on creating greater embodiment. You will learn how to use your breath as your wind horse. By that I mean that you will learn to use your breath deliberately and specifically. You ride your consciousness into these different parts of your body, so that whether you are dealing with a back injury or healing your heart, you learn how to use the breath in this conscious, brilliant, exciting way to create freedom inside.
And it feels great, even though there can be emotional upheavals, but that’s part of your freedom road. But it can also become ecstatic; it starts feeling really good. Even going after some nasty gnarly thing inside of you feels really good because, oh, my god, you finally have the tools to begin to free and heal that area. That’s tremendous.
So we will focus on how to use the breath. We will venture into other great explorations, like how do you relax your neck and start to de-stress your body in a matter of minutes? How do you turn on your feet? We’ll look at how to create active feet, i.e. spreading your toes, spreading across the balls of the feet, spreading across the heel so that all the nerve endings in your feet wake up. This makes you more firmly grounded and it has many benefits. Your joints work much better with active feet, for example, and if you have back pain or headaches, working with the feet help with that.
On a deeper level, you start to become aware of how you are walking on this earth, which is part of the necessary awareness to become wiser and to become a more wholesome spiritual being.
We’re taught such weird things about the body. We’re taught look in a mirror and that the body has to look like the models that we see in magazines or on TV. And we’re taught to disconnect at the head. It creates such damage between our brain and the rest of our body.
So this is all some of what we’ll go into, but the breath is the key. It is the key to freedom. It is the key to your health. It is the key to your life. What’s so fantastic is when you bring the breath into an area that has been shut down or hurt, something changes. The breath and the mystery are intimately connected. The breath and spirit are intimately connected.
So that’s part of what we’ll be working on: The magic of the breath and how to begin to move in a way that brings healing. Doing some abdominal work, working in the chest; getting the neck to let go; teaching the brain how to get off that hamster wheel of stress and anxiety and habitual thinking and teaching our brain to do something else.
So that’s some of what we’ll be covering in slow increments: learning how to work the brain and the nervous system and the muscles and the emotional archiving. That’s what we will be beginning to explore and experiment with.
But of course, this is an ongoing lifelong practice, because we are so vast and mysterious that the two sessions that we get to have for this online program will be a wonderful beginning. Hopefully whoever’s listening in will get turned on enough to start to quest for themselves.
Q: I’m sure many people in our yoga community already have had the opportunity to have a workshop with you. But even so, we’re really excited about getting an opportunity to learn more from you and join you in cyberspace! So again, thank you so much. We’re really looking forward to this!
Download Ana's full interview here:
Connecting with Spirit - Nourishing Your Starving Heart
For more information about Ana's course on YogaUOnline see here:
Creating Embodiment – Developing Your Body Being
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