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  • Baxter Bell, MD

Evolution of a Yoga Practice

Baxter Bell Yoga - Evolution of a Yoga Practice over 3 decades
Yoga Asana, circa 2006, Feathered Pipe Ranch, MT

If you have done yoga as long as I have (going on 29 years, inconceivably), you inevitably become aware of and likely try out several different styles of yoga practice. Some of these styles will have connections to certain lineages of Yoga from India, while others may be more modern permutations with only a nodding acknowledgement to the roots of yoga. Regardless of their origins, some will resonate more for you as an individual, given your interests, desires, goals in practicing and understanding of the underlying purposes of yoga. My personal journey has been no different, and it has all contributed to how I enjoy practicing the various limbs of yoga and how I have developed my unique style of teaching.

When I first “discovered” yoga around 1993, I was living and working in Cincinnati, busy as a young family doctor and squeezing lots of very active physical activity in the little free time I had off to devote to excise and my own well-being…such as road cycling, running, rollerblading, rock climbing. Notice any trend? Action, movement, outward focus!

So, when I took my first yoga classes back then, all anchored in the Iyengar yoga tradition, I discovered a new way of being in my body, one that was static, solid, focused, often on subtle internal sensations. I was intrigued by the contrast to my normal way of being embodied, and I appreciated the clarity of instruction and the exactness of yoga postures (asana) that were taught. On top of that, I felt a physical challenge that was different from but complemented my other activities.

But the kicker was Savasana, and the quiet introspection it invited, which was not my usual M.O., and one I did not know I needed until we met. This initial introduction to yoga served me well for the ensuing ten plus years. I did know about one other style of practice sometimes called Mysore practice or vinyasa flow that came from a contemporary of BKS Iyengar’s, Pattabhi Jois, and even took a few classes, but at the time, it did not resonate with me.

Yoga For Healthy Aging
Baxter's Yoga 2009

Fast forward to September 2001, Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, CO, where I spent 3 consecutive afternoons in a large lecture hall listening, with several hundred other curious students, with rapt attention to talks by TKV Desikachar, son of the influential Indian yoga master T. Krishnamacharya, first teacher of both Iyengar and Jois. The “yoga” he shared with us was what I now know is called Jnana yoga, or the wisdom of yoga, which he imparted with relatable stories about his life and the real lives of his family and students. Not only was it relevant to my everyday experiences and challenges, but it was inspiring and moving. He sprinkled the simplest of yoga movement breaks into his lectures, always with movement and breath connected, and always very accessible to the average person- no gymnastics required. I came away from that week suddenly interested for the first time in the possibility of traveling to India to learn more from this unique teacher… more on that in a moment.

Before that took place, I started to sample a few other styles of practice from teachers based in the US who taught at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena Montana, a magical place that played a large role in my own evolution with yoga. One teacher that stands out was Erich Schiffman, a Santa Monica, CA based teacher who, as a young man traveled to England to study at a special school founded by the philosopher T. Krishnamurti, a man who had an influential role in sharing unique insights into meditation with the world. Erich started learning and then teaching yoga there from that time and developed a style of practice that he eventually came to call “Freedom Style Yoga”, and one that I found liberating after the more deliberate instructions from my Iyengar influenced teachers. And I realized that I could enjoy both types of practice and they did not need to be mutually exclusive. I also loved Erich’s way of teaching meditation, a part of yoga that had not been emphasized by my previous teachers, and perhaps I was ready for this next edge of learning.

Come 2005, I finally made my way to Chennai, India to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the teaching center for TKV Desikachar, for a month long intensive with 30 other curious students from around the world. It was a mind-expanding time for me, learning a new style of yoga asana of “mini-vinyasa”, short movements into and out of poses with the breath, that although not terribly physically challenging or demanding, when linked together over an hour of practice always left me feeling physically well, mentally calm, focused and refreshed. There was also equal emphasis on learning yoga philosophy, delivered in an engaging conversational format, the chanting of the Yoga Sutras, as well as classes on understanding the how and why the practice is taught in the way it is. And as my students at home from that time will attest, it had a powerful influence on how my teaching changed upon my return from that unforgettable immersion.

Another pivotal experience was thinking about and writing about the topic of Yoga for Healthy Aging for quite a number of years beginning around 2011, and starting to consider the importance of the yoga practice changing with us as we naturally age. I began to appreciate the importance of maintaining a baseline of ability around strength, flexibility, balance and agility so as to enjoy the “activities of daily living”, but also the extra sauce of those special activities many of us love, such as my tennis playing these last 4 years. And also, acknowledging the readiness of the mature adult to access the benefits of pranayama (breath regulation) and meditation. As I explore my 6th decade on planet Earth, I notice each day how these aspects of the yoga practice grow in importance for my own practice and that of my students.

Mudras, For Healing and Transformation by Joseph LePage and Lilian LePage

My involvement in teaching yoga teachers, yoga therapists and yoga students over the last two decades continually brings me face to face with the myriad of ways yoga can interface with our lives: from helping to deal with real life stresses, assisting in navigating relationships, transition in work, aging, supporting our healing from injury and disease, and laying the foundation of equanimity to meet the inevitable changes and losses of advancing age. Along the way, I have had the honor to meet and sometimes work with skilled and experienced yoga teachers, such as Joseph LePage, founder of his Integral Yoga program, and author of the book “Mudras, For Healing and Transformation”, co-written with Lilian LePage. I mention this book quite intentionally, as another colleague, Mary Northy, generously gifted me a copy of this a few years ago, and it has been my weekly companion to my meditation practice and eventually in my teaching. It introduced another old (yet new to me) aspect of yoga, the use of hand gestures or hasta mudra, to the array of other tools of yoga I love to share with my students.

I anticipate that the coming years will bring new discoveries of facets of yoga that I have not yet learned about, and that my practice of yoga and teaching will continue to evolve in surprising and supportive ways. I hope that is true for you as well. I look forward to sharing new insights and updates with you here on my blog and in person when our paths next cross!

1 Comment

Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette
Aug 15, 2022

Great post, Baxter! I've been practicing since 2001, and I've also seen my practice shift over the years. At 54, I am finding I mostly crave slower practices such as yin, although I appreciate how you thoughtfully incorporate vinyasa with your "mini-vinis," a tool I have been trying to use more in my own teaching.

I also appreciated your last pose about feeling flat. I definitely find myself in the grips of an ennui at times. Being both a psychologist and a yoga teacher, I already nourish myself in many of the recommend ways (similar to when you said "I do a number of these things already with some frequency"), and yet there are certainly ways in which I can…

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