For more than fifteen years, J. Brown has been developing techniques to teach people how to practice yoga in a deeper and more fulfilling way. He is also a well known writer, having been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal, and Yogadork.
J. Brown came to yoga by way of his mother's death (see How I Came to Yoga below.) Reconciling that loss, and wanting to be free from the crippling grief and disillusionment that came with it, fueled his passion for learning to make himself well.
First, he gravitated towards an Ashtanga, power vinyasa style. The intensity suited his struggling temperament. After sustaining several injuries, he explored an Iyengar based approach to learn better alignment. But he soon discovered that better alignment alone was not the answer. Despite having achieved proficiency in both the Ashtanga and Iyengar styles, studying with renowned teachers such as Alison West and Richard Freeman, J admits: 'I still had chronic pain and was horribly disillusioned and unhappy.' The next phase of his search would be in India.
In Rishikesh, J. found a rare and special teacher in Swami P. Saraswati. He taught J that yoga practice was not a linear progression towards some unknown thing, but rather a process of learning how to take care of yourself. Back in NY, J. stopped going to regular group classes and devoted himself to a self-practice, ultimately meeting his most influential teacher Mark Whitwell and finding his way to an entirely therapeutic orientation in the tradition of TKV Desikachar and T Krishnamacharya, the "teacher of teachers".
In 2007, After more than a decade as a popular teacher at various schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, J. founded Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. AYC was created to provide a home for yoga practice that adapts to individual needs.
"Gentle is the New Advanced"
Imagine yoga before it was transformed in its journey to the West. Imagine a personalized, breath-centered practice, passed down from individual teacher to student. Yoga for the well being of the whole person; not only the physical, but also the mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies. Something that would provide a vehicle for slowing down and learning to truly take care of ourselves. Something to ease the pains of life.
That something is the breath. The breath moving in and through the opening and closing body, carrying the prana or life force energy, seen by sages but elusive to scientists. Whatever the explanation, this yoga simply makes us feel better. Full, deep breathing into all corners of the body makes people feel better. Feel stronger. Feel more energetic. And it has been doing so for thousands of years.
Yoga changed when it came to the West. New styles and brands of yoga have developed which meet the desires and expectations of much of the American audience. Focusing on the outer, physical achievements, and perhaps losing something in the creation of a standardized, scaled and franchised approach to yoga.
But the older traditions have also continued, and there has been a wonderful resurgence of this 'old-school' yoga. The gentle, therapeutic, breath-centered yoga. Many teachers speak of the importance of the breath in a yoga practice. But just saying 'inhale and exhale' is a bit like the doctor saying 'eat healthier foods'. How do you create a true, breath-centered practice?
In order to put the breath at the heart of this particular practice, we employ a specific technique of breathing called oo-jai pranayama or “ocean-sounding breath.” All of the moving and working of the body organizes around this breathing. The regulation of breath soothes the central nervous system, relaxes the muscles, awakens joy, and focuses the mind. The body and mind are safer, happier, healthier.
What makes yoga practice different from working out at the gym or going to a physical therapist is that the exercises are intended to encompass more than physicality. We are making the body strong and flexible -- but we go about it in a way that also encourages useful patterns of thought and behavior. No struggling. No straining. No striving. Just strong and calm, even and measured work.
By simplifying, slowing, and centering on the breath, we cultivate a more patient mode of engagement. We have shifted our context -- we no longer try to transcend difficulties, but rather learn how to ease them, and enjoy the fact that we are here.
How I Came To Yoga
My mother died of leukemia when I was sixteen years old. In the months leading up to her death, I didn't visit her in the hospital. I went once but after sitting in my car in the parking lot for thirty minutes, I left without going in. I just couldn't. I was not capable of dealing with what was happening. Eventually, I'd be hurried to her bedside regardless: for fear she was not going to make it through the night. I remember the nurse coming into the waiting room quickly and saying, "She's awake!" Next, I see my mother in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of her nose. My sister breaks down sobbing and rushes to her side. My mother is semi-hysterical, crying and exclaiming, "I am not ready to go!"
At the time, I had never exhibited much poise or depth. I tended to be somewhat hyperactive and scattered. I spent a lot of time daydreaming. Yet, in this most crucial moment, something I cannot explain happened.
In a strange flash of clarity that I have been inquiring to understand ever since, I grabbed my mother by the gown, jarring her present and bringing her eyes to mine, and said, "Mom, I love you very much and I'm going to do great things in my life and make you proud of me. I'm not going to come see you in the hospital again." She nodded in acknowledgement and gave me a pained smile. I kissed her on the cheek and walked out of the room. That was the last time I saw my mother.
In the years that followed, disillusionment set in gradually. I moved from Los Angeles to New York, went to NYU and graduated with a degree in the fine arts. After I finished school, things got much worse. At some point, I got very low, so low that I felt I either needed to kill myself or find another way to live. Fortunately, I chose the latter.
Even after making this choice, I had no idea what to do. One of the only things I could think of was going to a yoga class. I'd been exposed to yoga in college and, even in those most cynical of days, could not deny how it seemed to make me feel better. I liked that it was ancient and sacred, and about things that are important.
First, I gravitated towards an Ashtanga, power vinyasa style. The intensity suited my struggling temperament. I gained discipline and some immediate gratification but was still largely hurting myself, only now with good intention.
Then, I explored an Iyengar based approach. I became more aware and technically proficient but the emphasis on accomplishing alignment ended up playing into a lack of self-esteem in me. There was always another variation I couldn't do, my shoulder was never quite rotated properly and, even though I was somewhat impressive on the mat, I was still in a lot of pain.
Ultimately, I found my way to an entirely therapeutic orientation, inspired by the TKV Desikachar/Krishnamacharya tradition. By simplifying, slowing and centering my practice on breath, I was able to cultivate a more measured and patient mode of engagement and a different context for my practice where I was no longer trying to transcend my difficulties but rather learning how to ease them and just enjoy the fact that I am here.
I didn't know it when I started but the course of my yoga practice has been the process of reconciling my mothers death. It's difficult to explain how doing breathing and moving exercises can, inadvertently, carry with them the weight of facing mortality. Something about bringing careful attention to my breath and body, the most tangible expression of the fact that I am currently alive and the very thing that will be taken away from me in death, provides an experience that lessens the burdens I carry and illuminates life's inherent worth.
From this standpoint, overcoming the difficulties that life presents becomes a celebratory endeavor and I feel strangely grateful for my mothers passing. The pain and sorrow I feel because of my mothers death, still just as powerful today as when I was sixteen years old, is what led me to yoga and a deeper appreciation for life's blessings. My life has a deeper sense of purpose as a result.
As a teacher, I get to witness others as they, often unknowingly, reconcile their situations and come to the same reverence for life's majesty. Playing some role in facilitating people discovering yoga and health makes me feel that I am of some use and reaffirms everything I hold dear.
Whenever someone comes up to me after class or drops me an emotional email to tell me how much they are benefiting from their practice, I feel the warmth of my mothers touch and know that I have succeeded in fulfilling my promise.