She’s one of those people who draw you in easily with her laughter. Self-assured and calm, Valerie Faneco has been a yoga teacher for over 20 years. Her early yoga journey easily mirrors most of us city folk – a corporate figure, escaping stress through a very physical asana practice, only to find that it left her body frequently tired and injured.
The search for alternatives led her to her teacher Frans Moors; he was a student of TKV Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, aka the Father of Modern Yoga, as we know it. And so it came to be that Valerie teaches in the Krishnamacharya tradition, a deep, mindful & fluid practice.
As our chat progressed, it quickly became clear that the yoga we practice, what we see on Instagram, who we call our teachers; they barely scratch the surface of what yoga really is. We particularly like a story she tells us, on finding time to practice (Question 12) – “It’s like brushing teeth. I always have time for brushing my teeth.”
Valerie will teach our first Yellow Space reTreat and Go Deep workshop series in October / November, to simply ‘BREATHE’, she shares a little bit in the interview (Questions 6 & 13), and as we round up the last question, it’s evident from her presence and her gravitas, that she’s got all the qualities we look for in a teacher…
1. How did you come to yoga?
I started to practice in 1993 when I was living in Hong Kong. I had a corporate job and needed stress relief. Back then there was only one teacher in Hong Kong!
2. What is your own practice now? How has it evolved over time?
When I first started, I was involved in competitive sports, so my practice was very physical. I tried several asana methods from ashtanga-vinyasa to Iyengar, Bikram… until eventually I realized that my body was always aching, I was getting some injuries, and yoga was not really helping. So I read about approaches that were more holistic. That’s how I discovered TKV Desikachar and the yoga of Krishnamacharya, his father.
Nowadays I practice daily for an hour, early in the mornings or sometimes late in the afternoon. I do about 20 to 30 minutes of asana with at least the same amount of pranayama. If I am tired in the afternoon I do more postures lying down and seated. I also practice Vedic chanting daily for about an hour then I do more pranayama. It is a meditation for me. It is amazing, because somehow it gives me energy when I am tired, and it calms me when I am agitated.
3. The yoga world is a maze of styles, linked to their ‘celebrity’ teachers (Ashtanga, Bikram, Dharma Yoga, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kundalini & more…).
(i) What would you say to newbies who might be rather confused and unsure where to start?
Find a genuine teacher who has a steady relationship with a mentor and who respects students.
(ii) Where / how does the Krishnmacharya lineage fit in?
Very few people have heard of Krishnamacharya. He was an extraordinary figure yet a discreet, unassuming man, the “teacher of teachers”. A few of his students became famous teachers in the West: TKV Desikachar, Patthabi Jois (ashtanga-yoga), BKS Iyengar are the most famous. Each one evolved his own very specific approach, and they are very different, which is astonishing given that they had the same teacher. But that’s what was so special about Krishnamacharya: he did not teach two people in the same way. Of course, the student who stayed with him the longest was TKV Desikachar, his son, who studied with him more than 30 years.
If it were not for Krishnamacharya’s influence on modern yoga, none of us would be practicing yoga today.
4. We are driven by the visually beautiful –> Instagram is full of images of fit bodies in flexible fancy poses.
(i) What are your thoughts on this?
If I publish videos of myself doing acrobatic postures, I am saying: “Look at me, see what I can do”. And if I am a teacher trying to attract you as a student, the other message is: “You can become like this too if you come and practice with me.” So, I am putting some dreams within your reach: dream of the “yoga body”, then everything that is supposed to come with it, a happy healthy life, looking young and beautiful.
But when you scratch the surface, you see that many yoga adepts face the same challenges/ups and downs as everyone else. Yoga (as defined in the Yoga-Sutra) is an investigation into our own mind. It’s also about cultivating good relationships, good habits… all this to help reach the ultimate goal, which is complete freedom from all kinds of suffering. Quite a program.
You can hardly capture this in a picture! The body is much easier to sense and relate to, hence the shortcut to show it as the focus of the practice, rather than the means to reach a higher purpose. And the result of that is confusion, a sort of blindness. It’s like if you are standing in front of a hill, and you cannot see the mountain behind it.
But it is starting to change, I think. Some students and teachers are becoming aware of this, which is good.
(ii) Do you think this adds stress to people?
I am not sure. But if there is stress, it is self-imposed. You can always “unfollow”.
5. How would you describe the stress levels of people in big cities?
Stress is not wholly “bad”, humans are programmed to deal with some of it. When our prehistoric ancestors were chased by predators, adrenalin triggered the fight of flight response and they ran away. The problem is when pressure is constant: we deal with one stressful situation after another in quick succession or at the same time: you have a deadline at work, your husband is in hospital, there is no one no to pick up your son from school… so you take time off work… which means you don’t meet your deadline… and it goes on and on. No respite.
There are also minor sources of stress that we could avoid if only we recognized them… and some of them are self-imposed.
How does this compare to when you first started teaching yoga?
It was the same. But I find that now people are better informed about possible solutions, which is good.
6. Would you say that the mind & the breath are equally important? The mind is getting more recent limelight with meditation & mindfulness classes.
(i) What about the breath?
(ii) Can it help destress?
The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (15th C. AD) says: “When the breath is agitated, the mind is unsteady. When breath becomes steady, the mind is also steady.”
The breath reflects our state of mind and vice-versa. So both of them are instruments to work with.
But the Yoga-Sutra does not define yoga in relation with the breath, it defines it in relation with the mind: “Yoga is the pacification, concentration and complete focus of the mind’s activities”. This is the most important definition, the essence of Yoga.
Why is that?
Because we depend on the mind to collect and process information in order to understand everything that happens in the world.
We cannot see the mind or touch it, but it is like a busy bee, always there in the background, working… Problems happen when the mind is too full or working overtime, even at night, when we should be asleep. This creates confusion, distraction, mixed emotions, a wrong perception of reality, etc.
The good news is, you can improve your mind. You can look after it, sharpen it, get to know how it works. As you train a puppy to sit, you can teach your mind to be more quiet.
The most useful tool to work with the mind is our breath. Everyone can do it, and besides calming the mind, it brings you many other benefits: better digestion, improved cardio-vascular function, increased energy, amongst other things…
7. How do you convince a yoga student who is so used to a physical practice to move beyond the asana?
I don’t like the word “convincing”. It implies speeding things up, talking someone into doing something they are not ready to do. It is not yoga. The work of yoga is to create a situation where a transformation may happen. There is a great metaphor for this is in the fourth chapter of the Yoga-Sutra:
the teacher is like a farmer working in his field; he opens a breach in the dyke to divert some water to irrigate his plot of land. Then the plants do the growing themselves. He has helped it to happen, but he has not made it happen, he is not the one “doing the growing”. Do you see the difference?
So the teacher can encourage change in many different ways by exposing his students to various aspects of yoga, but he cannot force or hurry anything. Transformation will happen when the conditions are ripe.
8. You’ve been teaching over 2 decades – what is your role? What is the role of a teacher, in your opinion?
It’s an important question, and there are many ways to answer it. But to keep it short, I will quote the Yoga-Sutra again: the teacher’s role is to be a catalyst for change; to create a safe, appropriate environment for students to grow, and observe them as they grow.
I would add that this applies in a one-to-one relationship between teacher and student, not in the context of group classes.
[On this subject you may also ask] In a group class, does the teacher need to demonstrate and practice the entire class with the students?
In Krishnamacharya‘s method, the job of the teacher is not to do his own practice and be followed by the students. It is 1) to be well prepared – not just to have planned his course but also to have solid training in postural techniques including effects, precautions, modifications, and contra-indications. 2) observe the students closely as they go through the practice, and 3) based on this observation, adjust anything a student cannot do (postures and breathing techniques), so as not to put pressure on everyone to fit into the same mold.
Basically, our mission is to help our students on their way to svatantra, which means independence, empowerment, freedom, so they can discover and know themselves.
9. And some of your students have been with you for years, whilst some others are new. What key lessons have they taught you?
So many! I will give you two that are linked: 1) I cannot teach the same things in the same way to everybody, and 2) my students are not my students.
This may sound strange, so here is what I mean: in the majority of cases students come, stay for a while, then they go away. You know, in Vedic times, yogis did not have so many students. They only taught each person what was appropriate for him at that particular time. If they were lucky, maybe they found ONE special student to whom they could teach everything.
I might have learnt a lot of precious things, but without a student apt to receive them, I cannot transmit. I am like a postman with a bunch of letters to deliver, and the address is wrong, or there is no mail box. So I must take good care of students, know them, observe them, and as they evolve gradually give them more. But if they decide to leave, that’s fine too. I should have no regret. It is the best lesson in detachment and selflessness.
10. What are the most inspiring changes in your students, from practising yoga?
One of the classical definitions of yoga is “from incapable, you become capable”. This can be interpreted in many ways. Of course, it could mean: “Now I can do a posture I could not do before”. But it is much more than that. Yoga is what helps to take you from one point to another, to transform you in many aspects of your life. When that happens, it is truly inspiring. For example, a student who was painfully shy becomes more assertive, someone else overcomes a fear of flying, or simply: from strong back pain to mild back pain, or no more back pain. Each person has their own mountain to climb, and every victory on the way up is worth celebrating.
11. Yoga Teacher Trainings are increasingly common these days. We can be teachers in 1 month! A good or bad thing?
Some of my friends run yoga studios. They describe this as a conundrum: studios are under pressure to pay high rents. They cannot earn enough money from group classes, so they offer a teacher training course (it earns more money). It is a vicious circle: more YTTs means more teachers on the job market, who in turn offer more group classes, at cheaper rates. Hence, the necessity for studios to offer new YTT courses.
In the ancient model of transmission, there was no financial transactions: a young person went to a kind of “boarding school” (gurukulam) and lived under the care of a teacher for many years. He learnt the Vedic texts, but also life skills, appropriate diet, pranayama, asana, etc. There was no payment for the teaching and care received. The teacher’s responsibility was to teach, and the student’s responsibility to learn, that was all.
Then one day the student would leave. At that point, he wouldn’t say: “I am ready to teach, come to me”. Rather, people might gravitate towards him. So, you did not decide to become a teacher. You became one if circumstances allowed it.
About one-month courses: you learn a few techniques. Then you guide them. Does it make you a yoga teacher? That is the question.
At the risk of sounding controversial, I would say this: the world does not need more yoga teachers. It needs more people to embrace yoga studies for personal development, apply it in their life, become gentle with the environment and with people around them.
12. We often hear people saying they don’t have enough time for yoga. How do you integrate it into daily life? Can it be short & sweet?
When I was doing my yoga therapy internship in India, a man came for consultation to review his home practice. After he left, I found out that he is the famous CEO of one of India’s largest companies. He is always on airplanes and in between meetings, but one thing he does without fail every morning is yoga. It takes him 20 minutes. When people ask him how he finds the time, he says: “It’s like brushing my teeth. I always have time for brushing my teeth.”
So there are many applications of yoga. This man practices asana for 5 minutes, pranayama for 5 minutes, and then for 10 minutes he sits down to plan his day, reflect and write his journal. This ritual helps him through the day. So it does not need to be long or complicated. Any practice that brings you into focus within yourself, helps you find some peace, is yoga.
13. Tell us a little bit about the upcoming reTreat workshop, and the follow-on Go Deep series at TTT – how did you choose the theme? What can students expect from this?
In these simply BREATHE workshops, I will include some theory to explain the “whys and the why nots” of conscious yogic breathing, and to debunk some myths about it. I will also explain what prana is. One might think prana and breath are one and the same, but in fact they are not. Prana is energy, life force, Qi in Chinese. It manifests through breath, and we can work on it with breath.
And then of course there will be some actual practice. Students will learn several techniques and get to experiment them so they can later do them on their own in real life situations, when they want to manage stress, for example, or give themselves an energy boost.
Most people (even yoga students) do not realize that there is a very broad variety of breathing methods besides “alternate nostril breathing”. They can really support us in life. It’s all there and it’s available. Why not use it?
14. Let’s end with your favourite quote of the moment, or yoga story … please share!
“The mastery of yoga must not be measured simply by the ability to master the techniques of yoga like asana and pranayama, but how it influences our day to day living, how it enhances our relationships, and how it promotes clarity and peace of mind.” (TKV Desikachar)