Bernadette Birney on Trials by Fire, Yoga Judgment, and How Being Hated is Freaking Awesome!
The second in a series of “Finding More” interviews of interesting people who have moved through something life-changing, and how it looks from the other side. Bernadette Birney was a Certified Anusara Yoga Teacher and a nationally-known writer who became controversial when she began writing about the ugly skeletons in the yoga cupboard. Michelle Marchildon interviews Bernadette for Elephant.
Michelle Marchildon: Tell me what you’ve been up to, since blowing up your former career?
Bernadette Birney: I’m in a much better place. I’m having so much fun playing with the freedom I didn’t even realize I didn’t have. I’m playing with how to teach my classes, starting in Child’s Pose rather than talking to the captive audience. And I’m playing with alignment, seeing what feels good in my body.
MM: What changes are you making in yoga alignment?
BB: I’ve stepped away from the idea that there are principles or rules that fit all bodies, all the time. I’m not applying the Universal Principles of Alignment ™ in quite so a prescriptive way as I did in the past. I’m interested in how things feel and I’m leaving space for students to have their own experience.
MM: I often wonder why we didn’t allow the student to have their own experience before. That seems absurd now.
BB: Alignment was presented from the top down, and if you mastered it, then you mastered the art of teaching. The authoritarian presentation and groupthink made it easier to ignore the student’s experience.
MM: Well, groupthink is never about the individual, whereas yoga should probably be about the individual experience more than anything.
MM: What are you pursuing now?
BB: I’m writing a Yoga Teacher Training manual that can be used for a variety of yoga styles. This has been incredibly empowering to step into my ability to discern what makes good yoga teaching. I’m questioning everything where I say, ‘I used to believe this, does that still hold true for me?’ Furthermore, I’m combining the art of teaching yoga with my interpretation of the tantric philosophy I’ve learned from Dr. Douglas Brooks. This hasn’t been done before that I know of.
I’m also taking a detour from the yoga highway I’ve been on and spending time on my writing and coaching business. That’s been refreshing.
MM: Is there something you know now, that you wish you knew then, what would it be?
BB: To trust my intuition more. From now on, it’s important to me that any community I’m a part of, whether professionally or personally, be committed to fostering the talents and creativity of its members, rather than imposing a standard, or conforming to someone else’s idea. I’m not interested in being in a community of cookie cutters.
MM: I used to say that you were Public Enemy No. 1 with your outspoken blogs. What’s it like to be the focus of so much anger and hatred?
BB: Being hated is freaking awesome! Okay, maybe not awesome but I learned that not being liked is not the worst thing in the world. It was so liberating. Rather than trying to second guess myself or endlessly please people, I was just true to my own integrity. I don’t think I had that kind of confidence before. The ability to not give a shit if people don’t like me was forged in flame. Tougher skin is a good thing.
MM: How has that helped you “Find More,” as I like to say?
BB: I am a life coach, and I have all these people with talents and gifts but who are afraid of being judged. I used my experience to help others. The world needs to hear from people who are committed and talented and who are not afraid to stand up and be who they could be.
MM: That is the upside to going through major life experiences. If we are lucky, we might learn something.
BB: There is nothing more offensive than being told the meaning of life, by someone who hasn’t gained any life experience. I’ve had quite a time dealing with major life experience, severing my professional relationships, infertility, and financial issues as a result of all this. It has been non-stop. It’s not like I ordered this off the menu. If I could have, I would have signed up for the white picket fence and 2.2 kids. But that’s not the way it came. I would not be the same person today if not for those experiences. There’s really nothing like trial by fire to see who you are going to be.
MM: Thank you for your courageous voice. You were a guiding light to many of us.
BB: I feel the same way about you. It was very liberating to read the voices of other people who were waking up. That was huge for me. I might not be with the majority, but I’m not alone either.
MM: I think that is what authentic writing does, it encourages others to have their own unique experience and not be afraid of the judgment.
BB: The yoga judgment was astonishing to me. Such a backlash of vitriol came to the surface. I think it was too threatening for many to question the protocol and to reimagine themselves anew. Instead of going inside to that scary place, they responded with the big guns
MM: I believe it’s all about fear. Rather than do the work on self, it’s easier to point a finger at someone else and cry “unyogic!”
BB: Yes. However, the yoga I’m interested in isn’t always warm, fuzzy or comfortable. The ability to hold up my most treasured beliefs, question them, and throw some into the fire has been invaluable.
MM: What are you doing now that you never thought you would do?
BB: My days of obsessively feeling obliged to chase after prowess on the mat are behind me. Now I am about asana that supports who I am off the mat. I’m not interested in asana that hurts my body. For now, my practice is a tremendous act of self-love. And it’s kind of hilarious, but I’m interested in Yin Yoga (a gentle, less-muscular practice). I see now that the horizons of the yoga world are broad and there are more flavors to choose from.
MM: Are you calling your yoga a new name?
I just call it yoga. At some point I might find a name, but for now I’m just sticking with yoga. Yoga is good enough.
MM: Thank you Bernadette, for being you.
BB: Right back atcha, Yogi Muse.
Michelle Berman Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga, and Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga. She is a Columnist for Elephant Journal and a Contributing Editor for Mantra and Origin Magazines. She is an E-RYT 500 with Yoga Alliance and teaches Hatha Yoga in Denver, Co. You can take her classes on www.yogadownload.com or http://www.yogasteya.com.