Balancing the Core - The Importance of a Centered Body: An Interview with Donna Farhi

Donna Farhi is an internationally renowned yoga instructor, leading countless intensives and teacher training programs. She is the author of  The Breathing BookYoga Mind, Body, and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness, as well as Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living. In this interview with Yoga U Online, Donna discusses her new book, Pathways to a Centered Body, the importance of the psoas, and her new webinar: Anatomy of a Centered Body: Getting to the Source of Structural Imbalance in the Core Body - The Psoas.

YogaUOnline: Everyone has their own approach to yoga, their own essence of what they feel is yoga for them and how they want to convey yoga to their students. As a teacher, what particularly informs your work?

Donna Farhi: I think the heart of what informs my work is the desire to help individuals connect to that which is animating them. Rather than replicating specific forms, I’m much more interested in helping people to find the connection to their own instinctual, intuitive way of feeling into movement, feeling into their individual structure and how the specific forms may need to be modified, altered, and tailored to their unique body and their unique way of moving in an aligned way.

YogaUOnline: You have a new book coming out this spring titled Pathways to a Centered Body: Gentle Yoga Therapy for Core Stability, Healing Back Pain, and Moving with Ease. Tell us about the book and what inspired you to write it?

Donna Farhi: The book is co-authored with a colleague of mine, Leila Stuart, who has done a great deal of clinical research and work with yoga therapy clients and students on the importance of the psoas, the deepest core muscle in our body. Leila’s approach to a pelvis that tends to tip forward in a deep lumbar curve was to work in a less invasive way, to find pain free effective techniques that could release and balance those muscles. The importance of it being pain-free is essential because the lumbar autonomic nerve plexus is literally embedded in the psoas muscles between the deep and superficial layers. So, if you go at those muscles in an aggressive way, you will trigger a flight response. You will trigger an even more heightened sympathetic arousal in the nervous system.

I became really fascinated with the whole issue of how to balance the core because I was severely hyperlordotic, and my inability to be centered was affecting my horseback riding. Leila gave me some material years ago that I went away and began to test-drive in my own practice with hundreds of students worldwide. About this time, seven years ago, I began to notice in my teaching trips around the world that the primary problems, the primary issues that were showing up to these intensives were not caused by lack of flexibility. They were caused by hypermobility. Students who had literally pulled their bodies apart through doing yoga and were now trying to put them back together again. Then Leila and I discussed writing a small book on the psoas, and that morphed into a much bigger book on core stability over these last two years. The outcome of that is this new book, Pathways to a Centered Body.

YogaUOnline: You have a beautiful quote from one of your writings on our website: “Everything that we do in our everyday lives is dependent in our posture. Our ability to lie down, sit, stand and walk in comfort is directly related to the template of centered body posture. Yet many of us have deep seemingly unchanging structural snags in our body that throw us off balance, sometimes just by years of yoga practice.” Tell us about what you mean by “the structural snags in the body?"

Donna Farhi: Take for example a snag say your sweater: it might begin at the shoulder of the sweater, but what you notice is that the cuff is short on that side. There’s a left and a right side to the psoas major, and with core snags, if there is excessive pulling or shearing force on the upper or the lower fibers, then each will have different effects on whether that pulls the spine into flexion or extension. Then because that’s at the hub of the body, all the other parts of the body are calibrating themselves off of the center point. So if the center point is off balance, your arms are off balance, your neck and head are off balance, your legs are off balance.

So our premise in this book is that when people go about trying to strengthen their core, they often start from a very superficial place; in the general culture, the idea of strengthening the abdominal muscles means strengthening the back muscles. However, if there are deep imbalances in the deep core muscles, then all you end up doing is reinforcing the snags. Our approach is stretching them, releasing and lengthening them. If there are major imbalances between the left and right side, do a little work on that and then begin to strengthen, so what you’re strengthening is a centered body rather than strengthening yourself to perpetuate your old pattern.

YogaUOnline: These structural snags and the misalignments they create cause a tremendous pressure on the soft tissues of the body. I wonder if there is an often unrecognized source of pain that leads back to the very simple principle of structural imbalances that, if addressed, would be extremely effective at eliminating or preventing pain.

Donna Farhi: Well the word “posture” itself is a bit boring, it engenders this idea of a schoolmarm with a ruler in her hand asking us to straighten up. In fact, posture is the central motive for movement. Every yoga teacher out there knows that eighty percent of the people who come in the room have a pelvis that’s either tipped forward or back, or up on one side. There are lower backs that are too flat or too curved, or upper backs that are too kyphotic and so on. Those are the motive of simply standing in a clear relationship to gravity, and it is the basis for everything else. We can go into a very simple structural work with individuals that feeds back into the asana work.

YogaUOnline: Could you tell us more about being physically centered in terms of asanas?

Donna Farhi: Even beyond the issue of being physically centered, I think this work takes people back to the core definition of what asana is, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” These days, the focus seems to be almost exclusively on, “How far can I go, how flexible can I become, what extreme range of motion can I create in a body?” Whereas the central message of that Sutra is not about flexibility. Sthira means to be steadfast, to be strong, to find that part of yourself that is unshakeable. And Sukha: Su means good, Kha means space. If you could find a place that’s centered and calm, that’s going to be a good space, then you can bring that into every situation in which you might become comfortably seated.

Sutra is usually defined as the combination of steadiness and relaxation that leads to comfortable posture. I translate it as stability and centeredness that leads to relaxation, and that relaxation allows us to be comfortably seated mentally, emotionally, energetic pre-spiritually in the moment. That’s a completely different focus for yoga practice. The room is very quiet when people who are focused in this way are practicing. There is a feeling of real peacefulness, because there is no striving towards somewhere else, there is no striving to get somewhere, there’s only coming back to the moment and that is a different focus of practice and that leads to a different result.

YogaUOnline: You have a course coming up on this topic with Yoga U Online: Anatomy of a Centered Body: Getting to the Source of Structural Imbalances in the Core. There are two parts to it: the first course is going to be on the psoas, and the second on the core body, the cylinder of support. Tell us about the course and what you will be sharing.

Donna Farhi: In the first course, I will be introducing people to the anatomy of the psoas. I think it’s really important to understand this controversial muscle. Even now, there’s not an absolute agreement amongst some of the finest anatomists in the world about what this muscle does and doesn’t do. Following the anatomy webinar, I will be offering two video tutorials. The first is on how we can go about softening and hydrating the psoas and spinal muscles with very simple practices that can be integrated into any class. The second video tutorial will be on learning how to release and lengthen the psoas muscles in a non-invasive, non aggressive approach. These are such simple, easy, effective techniques that anyone can do and can be easily threaded into a yoga class as a part of a class, or they can become their standalone practice to be used therapeutically.

The second course will be in the summer, and I’ll be introducing the concept of the core cylinder of support-the importance of transversus abdominis and the importance of multifidus, and how it all fits together. I will bring that material together in a way that will make sense for people both intellectually, cognitively, and experientially.

It’s very exciting to be offering this to teachers; I think it’s highly applicable. I’ve had the good fortune of working with people all over the world with this and having people arrive on day two with stories such as, “This is the first time I haven’t had back pain in ten years,” or, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to stand up without my pelvis being tipped forward,” and they’ve done it without feeling any strain or without feeling that they’re struggling to change the structure of their body.

It’s really working with the intelligence of the body, and the body does want to be centered. Our evolutionary purpose involves standing upright and walking for long distances and being able to work and use our body over our lifetime in a way that the structure can withstand. It’s the direction in which the body wants to go and these are just simple, effective tools for assisting that natural direction.

To listen to the full interview with Donna Farhi, check out her free download: Restoring Structural Balance - Finding Ease in Life and Practice