Emma Balnaves makes an inspiring yoga teacher. In leopard-print tights, wearing tiny jewelled earrings, with her dark hair scrapped back in a small bun, she paces the front of the yoga hall reciting stances in Sanskrit.
“Kar-kott-aka,” she says over and over, as the yogis in front of her move through a lizard-like sequence on the floor. Her voice is at once soothing and commanding—etching the sequence in my muscle memory.
We are here, at Watsons Bay on the eastern rim of Sydney’s sparkling harbour, for a weekend of learning Balakrama, or Stepping into Strength—one of three prelude forms in the school of Shadow Yoga. It is the simplest of the preludes but deceptively taxing; building strength in the legs and stabilising the breath through a flowing series of Warrior stances and Sun Salutations that prepare students for advanced asana and inversions.
“Shadow Yoga is basically a style of hatha yoga that reintroduces the ancient method of preparation for the beginner under the term ‘prelude’,” explains Balnaves, the school’s director and teacher. “The preludes are to prepare the beginner for a safe and unimposed journey on the path of yoga.”
As a long-time student of Shadow Yoga, I have worked with Balakrama for almost 10 years. Yet with each class and each workshop, my understanding of its subtlety deepens.
“There is no time limit put on the mastery of the preludes,” says Balnaves. “The preludes carry the seeds of all the required configurative activities in the advanced stages of hatha yoga.”
Each prelude combines vertical poses and circular rhythmical movements. The aim is to move the breath through the body without obstruction. Balakrama strengthens the musculoskeletal structure, increasing flexibility and helping focus the mind.
The second prelude, Chaya Yoddha Sancalanam, or the Churning of the Shadow Warrior, works with the bandhas to improve circulation. The third, Karttikeya Mandala, or Garland of Light, uses circular and spiral movements to refine the breath. Classes can be meditative or dynamic, depending on the moon and the season. But the Shadow Yoga drawcard is its ability to offer a rare blend of the spiritual and the physical.
Behind Shadow Yoga
The school was founded by former Sydney yoga teacher Natanaga Zhander (Shandor Remete) in 2000. At the time, Zhander was teaching Iyengar but becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of gentle preparatory movements. His background in martial arts, Ayurvedic and Siddha medicine, plus an understanding of Varma Kalai (the 108 marma points on the body), led him to develop the preludes.
In recent years, he has also developed the rhythmic dance Nrtta Sadhana, inspired by Lord Shiva. “The preludes are the preparatory work for the more refined activity of Nrtta Sadhana,” says Zhander, a quietly spoken, nimble-limbed man with wild, wiry hair. “Without the prelude forms of Shadow Yoga, Nrtta Sadhana is not possible.”
Internationally respected, Balnaves and Zhander travel nine months of the year. They teach in Indonesia, Japan, Serbia, the UK, US, Italy, Germany, France, Israel and Austria. Each summer, they return home to give workshops in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. These vary from weekend retreats to three-week intensives with two classes daily and individual asana practice.
Sydney Shadow teacher Penny Cuthbert, who has done over 40 workshops, describes them as “transformative”. “I often feel as if several layers have been peeled away and there is greater clarity of self and the practice,” she says. “But it is a never-ending process. The quality of what is transmitted is priceless.”
Cuthbert started her school, Hatha Yoga Desha, in Sydney’s Leichhardt in 2003, as a dedicated Shadow Yoga space. She prefers the style because students can work without “getting aggressive and over-pushing muscularly”.
“Students with no prior yoga experience take to it effortlessly,” she says. “Students with previous yoga experience sometimes find it hard to let go of other ways of working. The feedback is they find the practice challenging yet feel grounded rather than hyped up from the practice.”
Joining A Class
In class, expect squats and semi squats, standing, sitting, lying, lateral and inverted positions, and twisting, pumping, weight bearing, forward, backward and spiral movements.
“In the beginning, the emphasis is on cultivating the legs and working through stiffness, particularly in the hips and spine and shoulders,” says Cuthbert. “Because the movements are simple, yet challenging, students are able to observe their responses to the activity and observe what is going on ‘below the surface’ rather than struggling to get into a difficult position that may not be appropriate.”
There are only a dozen qualified Shadow Yoga teachers in Australia—in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. Classes are taught in six- or eight-week blocks, one prelude at a time. Early morning intensives are offered seasonally, as well as full-format practice courses for experienced Shadow students, focusing on one prelude and its related asana. There are no props and no mats. “The floor is your teacher,” as Zhander says.
Wollongong yoga teacher Juliet Willetts came to Shadow from Iyengar after meeting Zhander in Toulouse, France, in 1995. She says his classes transformed what yoga meant for her.
“Zhander is compassionate and follows a genuine inquiry into the subject of yoga,” she says. “He offers inspiration by example and makes space for individuals to take responsibility and craft their own journey.”
Her weekly classes attract males and females, experienced yogis and beginners. All are looking for something more than just a yoga class. “Many of those that come to me have an interest in their own self-development and are carrying questions about life and its purpose,” she says. “The classes demand patience, persistence and questioning, and those who come have an appreciation for this,” says Willetts.
Erin O’Dwyer is a freelance journalist and Shadow Yoga student.