from March/April 1998 issue of
Healing Retreats & Spas Magazine
by Anthony Carroccio
in a mountain canyon overlooking the Pacific Ocean,
where the Santa Ynez mountains rise steeply behind Santa
Barbara, Ganga White leans gently into his next yoga
pose. He stands at the top of a waterfall near the main
complex of the White Lotus Foundation. Ganga has played
a significant role in the history of American yoga.
In recent years, as one of the founders of the White
Lotus Foundation, Ganga has enriched the yoga world
with his teacher training and his understanding of the
classic and profound roots of yoga practice.
Born in Detroit, Ganga was raised outside of Los Angeles
in the city of Tujunga. "After living in Tujunga,
taking the name Ganga wasn't too weird for me,"
he jokes. The name comes from the name of a great Indian
river, and implies to keep on flowing.
I spoke with him last October on the White Lotus property.
HR&S: What influenced you to begin learning
Ganga White: Back in the sixties,
the interest in yoga was just starting, and there weren't
many yoga classes. When I was about 19 or 20, in the
middle of the turbulent sixties, I had an inner urge.
I had to find out what yoga was.
HR&S: How did people look at yoga then?
If I remember correctly, it was treated like something
strange, or an extension of the beatnik movement from
Ganga White: Yes, even now it still
has remnants of those connotations, but back then they'd
make jokes. I was on the Joe Pine Show—I'm
dating myself here—he's a guy who'd attack people
in a funny way, and he just went wild with it. People
didn't think yoga was about exercise, but about swamis,
fakirs, and snake charmers. They would make jokes about
pretzel positions. They didn't know what it was all
about, and it took a lot of work and explanation to
get people to understand the practice.
HR&S: What kind of yoga was most prevalent?
Ganga White: It was mostly philosophical:
meditation, chanting, devotion. The first physical yoga
practices that came over were soft, always emphasizing
how gentle the postures were, and most of the classes
were done with incense burning and candlelight. Just
being very mellow. I dove into it quickly, it just seemed
natural. I was studying with a few swamis and yogis
from India. I
practiced twice a day and I lived in an ashram for some
months. Then my brother wanted to have a center in L.A.,
so I opened The Center for Yoga with the help of an
advanced teacher. But the advanced teacher didn't like
L.A. and soon left, so there I was running a yoga center
after studying for less than a year. I had to rise to
the occasion and teach, read every book I could, and
talk to every yogi I could meet.
HR&S: Did you have one particular swami
or advanced yogi who you considered to be your mentor?
Ganga White: I started out in the
Sivananda lineage and studied with many different yogis
because there are so many disciples of Sivananda. One
of them, not very well known in thiscountry, is Swami
Venkates. I'm interested in what is true and what works
and what has value. If I practiced or tried something
for a while and it didn't have value, I let it go, no
matter what the "authorities" said about it.
I was a free thinker.
HR&S: Do you think yoga should be integrated
with whatever else you're doing, or should yoga be the
one thing you do?
Ganga White: Yoga can complement and
balance anything you're doing, including sports or other
practices. Tai chi is one of the closest relatives to
yoga and I think it's a great system. But of all the
systems we have, yoga has the broadest spectrum of intricate
breathing practices and hundreds and hundreds of postures
that can be adjusted to any body in any state of health
or illness, injury or age. It is infinitely adjustable.
Yoga is the most holistic and completely balanced system
on the planet. It works on balancing the body, the structure,
the glands, the breath, the digestion, and the bio-psycho-physical
energy systems. Properly practiced, it brings a person
to their highest possibility.
HR&S: If someone comes to you in a state
of bad health—I'm in the nine-to-five lifestyle,
I get home and watch TV, my back is killing me, I'm
overweight—how do you answer their concerns?
Ganga White: The old saying is to
start from where you are. Just start practicing and
breathing, working with the state of your mind and body.
Find the most inspiring, turned-on teacher you can and
take classes. Let the river start flowing and it will
take you with it.
HR&S: What can someone new to yoga practice
look forward to achieving?
Ganga White: We all approach yoga
with questions about time: How long will it take and
where will it get me? But in a certain way yoga is about
the ending of time. There are goals, but there are also
no goals. You want to attain certain postures, muscle
tone, and relief from stress; those are tangible, reachable
goals. But it's also about constantly adjusting, balancing,
and tuning your body to each moment. Learning how to
do that is an ongoing process rather than a goal.
HR&S: You can get into yoga from either
the spiritual approach or the total physical exercise.
What's the most common approach right now?
Ganga White: I think on the deepest
levels there is no separation between the spiritual
and physical. The supreme intelligence works on the
physical and the unseen level. There is an enormous,
trendy, and solely physical interest in yoga right now,
but we like to believe that yoga is so holistic the
physical practice will bring people to other levels
of spirituality. At the same time, many people are attracted
to yoga because of its depth and levels.
HR&S: How does yoga cultivate the spiritual
from the physical?
Ganga White: Yoga teaches you an enormous
amount about your body and how to control and balance
and work with all the different systems. But you also
learn about the mystery, because as much as you know,
there's an equal or greater part of being that is mysterious
and unknowable, the sacred from which comes the simple
essence of spirituality: self-knowledge, self-understanding,
and looking at the meaning of living and dying on the
HR&S: What other changes have you seen
in yoga practices over the last thirty years?
Ganga White: The things that are called
new practices now are not necessarily that new. Although
they are new to this country, many are ancient practices.
Yoga has been handed down and expanded through the centuries,
and in more recent times I've seen more scientifice
under- standing integrated into yoga. For instance,
things like nutrition may have been there, but they
have much more precision now. There is a lot of new
understanding about body dynamics, body kinesiology,
and joint mobility which have expanded our ability to
use yoga. Yoga is changing by coming to the West. Some
people are trying to commercialize it, and others are
trying to strip away any mental or metaphysical side
to it. But though you see these kinds of attempts to
change it, the core remains the same.
HR&S: In your years of teaching, have you
developed any practices that you have labeled personally?
Ganga White: Yes, several. In 1977
I got the idea to do double yoga. I created over 150
postures that two people can practice together, and
published the book Double Yoga in 1979.
HR&S: What are the benefits of doing double
Ganga White: You can support and assist
each other in poses you couldn't do alone, or that you
can do better than you can alone. It gives two friends
or a couple something to do together. We have a lot
of fun with it, but it's a very small part of what we
practice and teach in our workshops, because I think
the individual practice is much more important.
HR&S: What about the Flow Series?
Ganga White:The Flow Series came out
of a number of years of practicing Iyengar, Ashtanga
and other systems. I originally designed the Flow Series
for myself. I wanted a well-balanced practice to do
every day that included the major yoga postures. Although
it was influenced by the Ashtanga-Vinyasa style, which
is sequential yoga synchronizing breath and movement,
I developed a very complete, well-balanced practice
made up of traditional ancient postures which can be
amped-up to advanced levels or toned down to beginning
levels. We recommend that people, like the seasons,
change their practice — sometimes you do fiery
yoga for a few days, then you do a softer practice.
Even as an advanced student, you don't want to be cranking
it to the max every day. They don't do that with racehorses
or any athlete. You want to flow up and down.
HR&S: It seems that your business is alive
because of your passions, not your college degree.
Ganga White: If there wasn't passion,
I don't think I could do it. I believe yoga is here
to stay; it has taken root, and will always be a growing
part of this culture. It's hard to say what direction
it will take in the future. Yoga is like a plant that
you put in a new environment, it slowly grows and transforms
into something in harmony with its new home.