by Kara-Leah Grant
Meet Tom Sutherland, an American Yoga Teacher who has trained with both Bikram Choudhury and Tony Sanchez.
I meet him, briefly, at modern Yoga Napier when I was up there at the end of September.
I didn’t get a chance to practice with him but heard from other people in the studios that he was teaching Bikram Yoga in a very different way, with heavy emphasis on letting the breath lead.
I was intrigued.
Bikram Yoga and I have a long history. I have always appreciated the style for what it offers but been flummoxed by it’s founder, Bikram Choudhury.
Over the years I written a number of articles about Bikram Yoga, and Bikram, plus interviewed Benjamin Lorr on his book Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the search for something like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.
When I found out that Tom has first studied with Bikram, but then gone on to do more teacher training with Tony Sanchez, I wanted to know more about his experience.
Tony Sanchez is an ex-student of Bikram, who now teaches his own style of yoga, which Tom describes as an evolution, and more sustainable form, of Bikram yoga. Within the Bikram World, Tony Sanchez is like a ghost – the man who was, and then wasn’t, after he was ousted by Bikram back in about 1984.
Tony subsequently went on to establish his own successful studios in the San Francisco area and taught for nearly two decades. And then, in 2005, he closed it all up, picked up sticks, and retreated to Mexcio where he effectively disappeared from the yoga world.
No more profile. No more teaching. No more anything, except his own practice.
And then, a couple of years ago, he quietly started teacher trainings for no more than 30 people at a time, offering intimate trainings where students were guaranteed to interact personally with Tony. Like Bikram, Tony continues to teach out of the Gosh Lineage, but unlike Bikram, Tony goes beyond the Core 26 postures (including two pranayama). Tony emphasizes:
Learning to modify and create your own systems to accommodate your students’ needs, space or time available.
There’s nothing rote about his system at all.
Tom Sutherland was the first person I’ve come across in the yoga world who had studied both with Bikram and with Tony.
I was eager to hear about this experience, and so asked him to do a Skype video interview. Tom was happy to oblige – he’s passionate about the work that Tony is doing and sees it as the natural evolution of the Bikram Series.
That got me thinking that Tony’s approach could be just what the Bikram World needs right now.
Over the last year in New Zealand, some of the dedicated Bikram studios have begun evolving their studios, choosing to offer other styles.
Yet within this evolution, no one really seems to know what to do with the Bikram Series itself. There’s no doubt it’s a powerful practice. Yet the way that it’s taught is limited, with it’s focus on set dialogue, no adjustments and outdated verbal cues (Lock the knee!).
Does Tony’s methodology offer Bikram Teachers a way to evolve their practice while still continuing to teach out of the Ghosh lineage?
That’s what I was curious about, and hopefully I’ll also be able to secure a video interview with Tony himself to talk about this. But in the meantime, speaking to Tom was incredibly illuminating.
Here’s what Tom emailed me after our chat, giving some further insight into his experience with Tony.
Tony Sanchez asked me on our last day what I had learned over the three week training. At the time I couldn’t give him an answer. I replied, “I just don’t know Tony.” I was still processing the new information, still organizing and coming to terms with my emotional self, and still doing my best to absorb as much knowledge as I could. It was unclear to me then. But now, eight months later, I’ve given it some thought and allowed the experience to resonate within.
Tony gave me a direction. A direction to seek the truth, to ask questions, to analyze what’s in front of me, so that I may proceed forward with the right approach and intention. From this direction I learned that I knew very little of what’s actually important to teaching and practicing yoga. That what I’ve come to know about myself is only the foundation for the deeper work that lies ahead. In this same way my experience at Tony’s training helped me become a more complete and unique yoga instructor. If it wasn’t for Tony I would have been lost, burnt out, and unsure of my future teaching yoga.
Tune in to hear Tom reveal:
On how he found yoga:
“I tried out Bikram for the first time and I really loved it. It was a hot room, it was intense, and there were all these beautiful women around the room and hardly any guys, and I thought I was in the perfect place.”
On Bikram teacher training:
“At Bikram training we’re taught to teach one way and that this is the only way.”
“We’re told to push and push and “kill ourselves,” And that’s not sustainable.”
On Bikram and Tony:
“On Tony’s birthday he (Bikram) sends his lawyer to the studio and he says “Tony, you’re fired, you have one hour to get out of the studio.”
On Tony Sanchez’s Teacher training:
“He’s really gone back to the fundamentals… His biggest thing is about sustainability. We’ve seen how the Bikram series today can sometimes be harmful if not dangerous… Tony taught me how to practice over the long term.”
“We’re not here to fit everybody into the Bikram body. It’s not going to work for everyone… We’re here to provide therapy and to provide health and to get people back into their bodies.”
On teaching Tony Sanchez’s yoga in Bikram Studios:
“It’s been very difficult… I was a very different, very outcasted teacher… I was actually fired from two studios and had to quit from another.”
On Bikram Yoga in New Zealand:
“There’s been a couple of great studios… that are just really open and willing to change. They realise that the Bikram philosophy, and the old way of teaching, is not as effective as it used to be.”
Tom Sutherland on the difference between Bikram Teacher Training and Tony Sanchez Teacher Training
You can connect with Tom Sutherland through his Facebook Page Travelling Yogaman. He’s currently in Dubai helping two studios evolve with Tony’s teaching methods and class formats, including the Masters Core system.