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Yoga With Insight:
A Profile of Sarah Powers
The well-known American yoga teacher reflects on what has made her life meaningful.
Shambhala Sun associate editor Andrea Miller reports.
The seventh birthday party for Sarah Powers was cut short when her mother suffered an excruciating attack of appendicitis, made her way outside and got into their car, honking the horn in a vain attempt to get her husband to drive her to the hospital. He was drunk, and ignored her.
Their skinny-legged daughter stood in the middle of the chaos, wearing her birthday best—new orange tights and pink hot pants. And all her girlfriends looked at her with faces that seemed to say, What should we do?
“Some children assume everybody is being raised like they are, that whatever they’re experiencing is just the way it is,” she says in an interview. But at that birthday party, “I kept thinking there had to be another way.” A better way to live.
This childhood memory is what Powers shares with me when I ask if there was an exact moment when she began to contemplate what constitutes a meaningful life. Of course, at seven, her quest for meaning wasn’t articulated clearly, but her experience nonetheless planted the seed. Searching for meaning, Powers tells me, has been the driving force in her life; it has led her to where she is today.
Powers, now forty-six, is a yoga teacher who has developed her own approach to the practice. Her numerous articles and interviews have appeared in such publications as Yoga Journal, Tricycle, and Yogi Times. She has made two instructional DVDs, Yin and Vinyasa and Insight Yoga, and she has a new book, also called Insight Yoga. In 2007 she co-founded Metta Journeys, an organization that offers yoga retreats to help women and children in developing countries, and in 2010 she plans to establish Yoga Institute, a teachers’ training program.
From this vantage point, Powers looks back at the little girl she was at the birthday party. “It’s as if that little girl was being held by some inner spirit that would grow later,” she says. “But first she’d have to go through the sadness of many more events like that.”
Sarah Powers was born in 1962 in Arizona. When she was two years old, her upper-middle class family moved to California, where she was raised with her two elder brothers and her younger sister. “We had freedom to explore,” Powers says. “Our parents allowed us a lot of room to make our own choices.”
But her parents were not happy, together or separately. They seemed to be coping with life rather than—as she puts it—“juicy with life.” Her father was often angry and her mother, though more loving, was at times withdrawn. In an effort to save the marriage, her father went to his first and only AA meeting. After that, he never drank again. Nonetheless, the couple separated when Powers was eleven.
Her mother now felt free to explore who she was, which paralleled and complemented the future yogini’s own adolescent experiences. “My mom was becoming inquisitive about the same time I was. We were just twenty-four years apart!” laughs Powers. “So my young years were full of being in Hollywood and Venice and exploring all kinds of people and attitudes—exploring what it means to live a life that feels connected and worthwhile. At that time—the early seventies—that was something everybody was exploring.” The challenge for Powers was learning how to channel the question in wholesome, healthy ways.
“I wanted to push the boundaries of what was acceptable and expected,” she says. “I was really interested in boys and psychotropic drugs, and I loved colorful scenarios. My more intellectual side started to be nourished in college.”
Powers started out studying psychology, but she was unfulfilled by the approach taken by her professors; she wasn’t interested, she says, in “trying to figure out how you can get a pigeon to peck at a light.” Powers changed her major to English literature because writers, she felt, were constantly engaged in questioning what is meaningful. She fell in love with William Blake and, after that, she became obsessed with nineteenth-century writers who spoke about interconnectedness. But that’s hardly a surprise. Interconnection, integration, and synthesis, after all, are key concepts in her life and are today the hallmark of insight yoga, her yoga style, which weaves together Taoism, yoga, and Buddhism (particularly insight meditation).
“I now see how each lineage is a transparent map, which when placed on top of the others widens my ability to chart a course through my inner labyrinth,” writes Powers in her book. “The various traditions act as guides rather than absolute authorities.” In our interview, she adds that her meditation practice doesn’t simply enhance her yoga practice; to her, it is yoga practice. They’re integral paths of self-discovery that are not separate.
As for the Taoist element in insight yoga, it is primarily Chinese medicine—the healing branch of the tradition. “I’ve used Western medicine for surgery and been very thankful that it was there,” Powers says. “But Western medicine tends to work more with suppressing symptoms through the use of some kind of invasive agent, and Chinese medicine tends to have a more holistic view.”
According to traditional Chinese thought, everything in the universe, both organic and inorganic, is composed of a vital essence or energy called chi, and this chi flows through the human body along certain invisible pathways called meridians. For good health, chi, which moistens the joints and connects the interior and the exterior of the body, must have proper strength and flow. The concept of chi can be compared to Hinduism’s prana. Likewise, the concept of meridians can be compared to Hinduism’s nadis.
Powers has studied meridian theory with Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama and his student, yoga teacher Paul Grilley, and she has learned from them that there are three ways one can positively influence the flow of chi while practicing yoga: putting the body into particular shapes to pull and pressurize tissues; manipulating the breath through pranayama, yogic breathing; and focusing the mind on our movements.
She learned what is called yin yoga from Grilley. Yin and yang are the two ways that chi manifests. When we refer to something as yin, we mean it’s cooler, less mobile, more hidden, and feminine. When we refer to something as yang, we mean it’s warmer, more pliant, superficial, and masculine. Yin and yang are relational terms. That is, neither exists in a vacuum, but one or the other is dominant at any given time. Yin yoga is a quiet practice that emphasizes holding poses for long periods in order to work with one’s deep tissues—the bones and ligaments. Yang yoga is more active. It involves rhythmic movement and engaging the muscles.
Powers incorporates both yin yoga and yang yoga in her practice. Both are important, she believes; yin yoga helps us relax when we’re under stress, and yang yoga invigorates us if we lead sedentary lives. Powers works with meridians when doing both yin and yang styles. When she was first studying Chinese medicine, she would look at diagrams showing where in the body the meridians begin and end, and how they flow. Then she’d practice a pose to try to feel which meridian was influenced—which aspect of her physical or emotional health. “It became a piecing together puzzle,” she says.