The Evolution of Annie Carpenter’s 40-Year Yoga Practice
Annie Carpenter, MS, E-RYT 500, creator of SmartFLOW® Yoga, is a former dancer and is an international yoga teacher based in Northern California. Known as a “teacher’s teacher,” she has created a well-respected system of yoga practice and teaching methodology. She is the author of RelaxDEEPLY, a CD of restorative yoga, and Yoga for Total Back Care, a DVD produced by Yoga Journal.
1440: How did your early career as an expressive dancer influence your yoga practice?
Annie Carpenter: Most of my dance career was spent with the Martha Graham Company. While it is expressive in the sense that it’s dance theater, it’s also very rigorous and competitive. So it certainly taught me discipline and specificity.
Martha taught that if you didn’t understand what you wanted to say, then you couldn’t be authentic. She insisted on authenticity. You had to dig in with the clear intention of having a story to tell, or at least some meaning that you were trying to communicate through your movement. If it wasn’t real, she didn’t want to see it.
She was famous for saying, “The body never lies.” And I believe that.
When you see a body moving, or even lying there, you can see where there’s congruence or where there’s not. You can see where there’s some holding pattern that is not allowing full or true expression.
I started practicing Integral Yoga when I was dancing. Yoga was a refuge from the intensity of the dance training and teaching, but it was also about expression. One great benefit of yoga is that it increases our ability to pay attention to things that are increasingly subtle. And that, to me, is a rigorous discipline. I think most of us need rigorous discipline to learn how to pay attention to subtle things.
At the end of the day, we also have to release that discipline and just be with what is. That, too, can be scary, but we don’t have to go there right away. We can do the practice with discipline and let it happen. In a way it’s like going in the back door to get out the front door. Martha was always after us to be honest, to find who we are, to find our authentic expression. I look for that in my yoga practice and I try to have my students look for it in their practice too.
1440: How did you come to create SmartFLOW Yoga?
Annie Carpenter: I spent my first 10 or 12 years practicing Integral Yoga in New York with Swami Satchidananda. That practice is very soft, with a lot of meditation and some chanting. We were on a carpet—there were no yoga mats then. It really was my refuge away from the competitive dance world. Eventually I got into Iyengar Yoga because the rigorous alignment approach helped to hold my body together as a dancer. When I stopped performing I really needed some movement, so I got into Ashtanga Yoga. In my late 30s and 40s, I was doing a lot of Ashtanga and getting well into the third series. And, you know, a 45-year-old woman doing the third series is a little nutty! It’s just unnecessary at that point in your life. I had a couple of small injuries, and I thought, “Wait. Why do I do yoga?”
I’ve had 10 or 12 years of each of those disciplines, one at a time, and SmartFLOW Yoga contains a little of each of them—from the breathing practices, to strengthening and stabilizing asanas, to practices of quiet and stillness. SmartFLOW is compassionate and focused on inquiry and the individual. It’s not, “Everybody get into kapotasana and take five breaths and then take a vinyasa.” I don’t shy away from the work—yoga should be strengthening. I’m 60 years old and I want to be hiking for another 30 years, god willing! But just as important is the compassion toward self and others. It’s important to have the patience and the willingness to ask, “Is this the best thing for me for today? Or shall I adjust it? And in what way?”
1440: What were some of the watershed moments in your practice?
Annie Carpenter: Back in the late ’70s, Swami Satchidananda used to give a lot of talks in big locations like Riverside Church in New York City. He was this deep, profound, and wise older man, and I remember how much he laughed. There was so much lightness and laughter. I grew up in a stern, dry Episcopal church that was decidedly not fun. But he was able to be full of mirth without losing any depth. That was so inspiring to me, that the most meaningful things can be lively, fun, and laughable. I hope to create that environment for my students. This doesn’t have to be all quiet and uptight. Unbutton your shirt.
Deep experience, for many of us, needs to be fun, at least at first.
Like so many of us, injuries have been a big influence too. I remember one time I literally slipped on the street and tore one of the ligaments in my knee. I was a strong, asana-practicing yogini at that point, and was somewhat identified with that. But now I had to sit on the couch with my leg up for 30 days! It made me ask, “Who am I?’ That was rough.
I finally said, “Okay, I’ll read the old texts again.” So I invited some friends over and I tried to find activities that I identified as “yoga.” It was a difficult but important seeking process for me to realize yoga is something I do, but not who I am. I think it’s very easy in today’s world to get identified as a yogi as opposed to yoga being something we do that supports our life. It’s something we do to become better humans, better with our partners and our children, and better with the Earth.
1440: Where is your growth edge in your personal practice right now?
Annie Carpenter: The word that has been coming up for me over and over again in the last few years is generosity. This isn’t quite right, but I do think that there’s something about specificity being the opposite of generosity. And I think maybe a truer opposite would be specificity vs. flow.
I’m the kind of person who likes to make sure everything gets taken care of. Lately I’m really interested in having blurry edges. If my partner says, “Let’s go for a long walk,” rather than me saying, “Oh, but I haven’t made dinner yet,” I’m saying, “Yeah. Let’s go for a long walk. We can eat dinner at 8:30.”
I’m trying to be generous with time, with deadlines, and with myself. I was recently in Byron Bay, Australia, and I had five days off. I haven’t had five days off in a really long time. I just hung out by my friend’s pool and went on a bird watching tour. I think that kind of generosity with self bleeds into generosity with everyone.
1440: Where do you think the collective growth edge is for the larger yoga community?
Annie Carpenter: There just needs to be more love. I think that all of the businesses that have grown up like parasites around yoga, where everyone is jockeying for position, has made it a very hierarchical community instead of a loving one. When I first started teaching, you didn’t make a living from it. You had another living and you taught on the side. I know it’s hard, and we all need to get by at the end of the day, and take care of our families, etc., but I think having a collective sigh of love, and recognizing that we’re all in this together would be a very helpful thing.