Irreverence Embraced: A 'Challenged' Catholic Charts Her Own Yogic Course

Freedom and expansion with yoga

Anusara yoga teacher Bernadette Birney finally found what she was looking for.

"I was always a seeker and never really felt at home," says Birney, who characterizes her childhood as "very naughty Roman Catholic." "I wanted to believe, but I just didn’t."

Turns out, "there’s a lot of us in the yoga community," she laughs.

When Birney discovered the Rajanaka Tantra philosophy of yoga and Dr. Douglas Brooks, an accomplished Hindu Tantrism scholar, her spiritual longing finally seemed sated.

"I found the thing that I had been looking for — and someone who had access to it," she says. She calls her spiritual guide "the most brilliant, funny, irreverent, generous teacher that I could ever possibly hope to encounter."

From guilt to gratitude

In a way, Rajanaka Tantra, which suggests that life is a gift and that at birth we are free in a vast sense, released Birney from pent-up Catholic guilt. "It’s a freedom tradition — and very different from other yogas, which are about trying to get free!"

Bernie

It’s easy to see why Birney’s focus as both a student and teacher of yoga "leans heavily toward cultivating the capacity to expand," she says. "The universe is always doing it, and we can too — in our bodies, our hearts and our minds."

The freedom that comes with Rajanaka Tantra philosophy and Anusara yoga has allowed Birney to accept and embrace her own irreverence and happily paradoxical persona.

In a yogic metaphor, Birney describes herself as Supta Virasana pose. "Often initially cranky, it snarls if you try to force it to do anything it doesn’t want to. There’s just no way it’s going to open up before it’s durned (sic) well good and ready. However, once it opens up, freely and of its own accord, you’ve got a friend for life."

Less preaching, more living

Birney says it’s a gift that now she can share the knowledge of freedom with others — not by glossing over the realities of life, but rather by telling it like it is. "Life is not a problem to be solved by yoga. It’s short, it’s sweet, and there are no breaths to be wasted. Do yoga as a way of loving your life," she says.  

Bernie

But she won’t preach about these things in her classes or in her quirky blog musings at BernieBirney.typepad.com. "I have a really low threshold for piety — for people who present themselves as being better than they are," she says. "I don’t sit around and pray all day. I think there’s time for reality TV. I scribble in my notebooks. I have a glass of wine."

Her mission is making yoga’s physical and spiritual traditions accessible to a modern world.

"We’ve inherited so many teachings. Douglas is the last of the lineage. The tradition will morph and live in our lives, or it will die," she says. "The best way I could serve the yoga community is to live it and imbibe it. Living a happy, full life would be just fine."

Birney’s advice for facing your yoga fears

We asked Birney about the most common reasons people give for not trying yoga and how to overcome them. Her appropriately honest advice:

"I don’t have time." 

"I know, neither do I. Nobody does. If you want to do yoga, you’re going to have to make the time. Interestingly, if you do, you’ll find that you manage the demands on your time better, with more mental clarity and fewer panic attacks — double your money-back guarantee."

"I need a more serious workout than yoga offers."

"Rubbish. Do five Sun Salutations A, followed by five Sun Salutations B, and then tell me that. Once you catch your breath, that is."

"I don’t want to chant 'Om.'"

"No problem. Skip it. Yoga is about embracing freedom and making meaningful choices — not about being forced to do things that make you squirm. At first, I too couldn’t resist opening my eyes to take a peek around while everybody Om-ed. I thought it was weird, with a capital W. Now, all these years later, here I am, completely hooked. Chanting acts as a sort of Pavlovian bell: It creates an internal shift immediately. It’s a small act of the best kind of magic — the everyday kind."

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