Review: J. Brown Gets Tough

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Gentle is the New Advanced,” an online tutorial series, is J. Brown’s love note to any instructor who has ever felt like a fraud with a jacked-up neck and broken heart. His students, fellow instructors, nod and share their own views while sipping tea in a cozy Massachusetts studio. With creaky floor boards and snow falling against a picture window, this setting presents itself as an affordable retreat, a chance to earn Yoga Alliance credits without leaving home. Brown’s philosophy lands on all of us who pushed through the power vinyasa years only to collapse in a wasted sweaty heap, the only way we could experience savasana.

Through four practice sessions interspersed with four lecture/conversations, Brown admits to sacroiliac instability, possibly from all the full splits he forced upon himself in his twenties. “Man, why did I do all those hanamanasanas?” he laughs in Part 6 — Lecture: Practice Technique. His illustrated workbook highlights a 1997 photo of Brown in an impressive bow pose, toes pointed and chest lifted to the heavens. His practice looks much different today, due to chronic inflammation and a growing maturity that informs his methodology.

In his “radically transparent” style, Brown talks about his mother’s death, an event he sought to understand while simultaneously pushing away his emotions. Despite his advanced asana practice and travels to India, he couldn’t answer a simple question: How does this feel? Numbed out, Brown confesses to practicing and teaching so much that Mark Whitwell encouraged him to get a girlfriend. He did. Today, Brown lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

His methodology now focuses on breathing through core moves — including leg lifts, sun salutes, and bridging — that are building blocks for what are considered flashier Instagram moves like titibasana and side crow. When combined with ujjayi breath, each “easy” asana develops its own personality and level of difficulty. Perhaps I can let go of my flying crane pose with less risk of injury and more room for growth. 

In one of my favorite discussions, a teacher mentions the death of her father. His illness and passing presented itself as physical and emotional pain. She desperately needed to stop “performing” in her classes. Rather, she wanted to offer authentic techniques, something she could do by herself in private. Yet with pressure to maintain large class sizes, some instructors call out intricate sequences they don’t have the energy to do on their own. “If you don’t have the discipline to do this practice at home, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on,” Brown remarks.

Examples of exhaustive, repetitive asanas include headstand and shoulderstand. After a student injured his neck and never wanted to go back to yoga, Brown stopped teaching these poses. “They’re the king and queen of asanas, but I don’t care,” he laughs. Jump backs with percussive donkey kicks fall into the category of compromising behavior. While he doesn’t want to impede on anyone’s fun, he encourages jump backs for those who have first found their “floaty cloud” capabilities. In forward bends, knees can bend. In bridges, he invites full wheels, only if they feel right.

After all that breathing, “feeling right” is easier to judge, which is really the point of it all.