By Julie Buckner
On a Sunday morning in late September, Annie Carpenter approached me in class, “Julie, I notice your knees are moving into hyperextension. You need to lift the arch of your foot and work to press your calf forward, even in Virabhadrasana One.” Now, every time I practice Warrior One, I hear Annie Carpenter.
Her voice resounds throughout the yoga community in Los Angeles; she’s a teacher’s teacher. “If you haven’t practiced or trained with Annie, your teacher, or your teacher’s teacher, has,” a well-known instructor quipped. “There are only two degrees of separation between Annie and everyone else doing yoga in LA.’”
Come January, after nearly two decades of teaching in LA, she’ll be moving to the Bay Area with her partner of ten years, Sam Lehmer, and teach at Yoga Tree. She promises to come back to visit often, and to continue offering her trademark 200- and 300-hour SmartFLOW teacher trainings here.
I sat down with Annie the day before her 56th birthday at her home in Venice, within walking distance (she doesn’t like to drive) from Exhale Center for Sacred Movement, where she’s taught for the past four years.
“Why do I hear your voice in my head?” I asked. Her answer, “You know, I still hear Martha Graham’s voice. Voice is one of the most vital tools a teacher has; it allows us to communicate who we honestly are.”
She continued, “I don’t like to make things too flowery. I use very simple, clear and direct language, in much the same way that a Sutra is short and memorable.”
Annie has practiced yoga for almost 40 years. She started as a troubled teen; her Southern parents sent her to yoga to set her straight. When she was a Graham dancer and teacher in New York in her 20s, she studied Integral Yoga with Swami Satchidananda. Later working as a professor of modern dance at a small Midwestern university, Annie practiced Iyengar Yoga and also earned a Gestalt therapy degree. In her late 30s, she became disinterested in “grading people for art;” and yoga, rather than dance, became her dharma.
Leaving her job and marriage behind in 1995, she came to Santa Monica to study Ashtanga “at a time in her life when change was the right thing for her,” said former YogaWorks owner, Maty Ezraty, who was one of Annie’s first teachers in town. In 1997, she completed teacher training with Ezraty and Lisa Walford. “It was,” remembers Walford, “a stellar group of characters,” including Natasha Rizopolous, Russ Pfeiffer, and Karen Voight.
“Annie was a great student; one of my best,” Ezraty said in an interview from her home in Hawaii. “Yoga was in her skin. I knew she was going to teach.”
Asana and meditation are daily practices for Annie. For six years, Insight LA founderTrudy Goodman has been Annie’s meditation teacher. Annie brings, “the same level of dedication, integrity and open-heartedness” to meditation that she does with yoga – with “a beginners mind,” said Goodman.
“Because I practice and because my practice is always changing, I continue being creative and innovative in terms of how I arrive at the aims of classical yoga,” Annie explained.
This approach is the basis for Annie’s SmartFLOW system. “People come to my training because they want to work hard. They want to understand the practice and themselves,” she says. Insisting she’s presenting “methodology instead of formula,” according to Annie, “method implies possibility, exploration, inquiry,” allowing “every student at any level at any time of their life to consider the same questions, pursue the same goals.” Her method also gives teachers, “creativity while still staying true” to yoga.
SmartFLOW grew “organically” from Annie’s understanding that “bendy people, young people, old people, stiff people, or people in chairs,” need a practice that will last a lifetime. “I don’t care if they ever get their feet behind their head. My hope for my students is that they can pay attention and be present to whatever comes, with great acceptance and love.” Presence and attention are major themes in Annie’s work.
Best known for focusing on anatomical alignment, Annie’s teaching ensures safety. But alignment also helps practitioners build capacity for “presence.” “Why do we care about alignment? It’s a way to learn about dharana, taking a single point of focus, then expanding your awareness to multiple points, leading to samadhi: All things present at one time.”
Another hallmark is sequencing. She emphasizes practices that “express certain intentions and create specific effects.” She explains, “The key to my sequencing: Build awareness in a relaxed state and move more and more deeply in a singular vein. Disarm through relaxation and open through a steady build of awareness, then find power and freedom through more advanced asana. Finishing poses bring the body and mind back to quiet, peaceful stillness.”
“She’s sneaky,” said Jeanne Heilman. “She’ll tell you to ‘bend your knee, bend your knee more,’ and then you walk out of class and can barely get to your car.”
Walford said Annie’s most significant contribution to teaching yoga is showing that, “flow can be effectively taught, attending to safe alignment/good biomechanical principles, and stimulate the student emotionally and spiritually.”
With a reputation for being self-disciplined and demanding of students, what few people see is that Annie can also be “playful and silly,” said David Lynch. “She’s also a goof-ball with great jokes and perfect timing,” Heileman said. Ezraty: “She’s a ham.”
As with anyone who’s complex and subtle, there’s always more to the story. People say Annie is harsh, critical, and mean; she’s been known to make people cry. I asked her about it. “My job as a classical yoga teacher is to help people pay attention,” she said. “And while meanness doesn’t help that, being insistent and unrelenting does. Sometimes it feels mean to people because that process is so challenging. I do hope and believe though that they’ll recognize I have so much compassion, because I’m still in the middle of it, and always will be.”
“Annie can be hard and stern but it comes from a place of deep, abiding love of the practice and caring for her students,” said teacher David Lynch. He shared a story about a class years ago. Annie was teaching headstand. “I automatically went towards the wall. She asked ‘Where are you going, David?’ You’re done with the wall.’ She sent me to the middle of the room. Annie knew it was time for me to take the training wheels off,” he said. “She was right.”
“Annie pushes everyone to their edge, which is where we do our best work,” said Kasey Luber of Big Happy Day. Annie’s response, “I’m very comfortable with edges.”
Another student said with concern, “I’ve felt a cold distance, a separation.” But, said Annie, “If you want to be a certain kind of teacher, you don’t get to be friends with your students.”
“Someone recently told me, ‘You’re like the best kind of mean mom. Tough, clear, honest — but underneath, you’re loving,’” Annie recounts. She is a motherly figure for many yogis in LA. “Annie touches people deeply, sustained over a long period, like a parent,” remarked Clio Manuelian.
Anticipating Annie’s departure, there’s lots of discussion about her “softening” over the years, attributed to several things: re-establishing herself at Exhale after YogaWorks; her meditation practice; her relationship with Lehmer; and simply, time. Heileman explained, “There was always a deep, sweet, vulnerable part of Annie that most people didn’t know. Time led her to step into her own voice, and that helped her soften in public.”
I asked Annie how she’s feeling about moving away, knowing she won’t be teaching as many weekly classes. “It’s producing a lot of personal anxiety for me. But, gosh, I need a break. I’ve been pushing really hard for a long time. I’m interested in creating space and trying to be open to whatever comes up.” She continued, “I have a feeling that for the first six months, I’m going to practice like crazy and be sitting gobs. The message of my 50s is to come into better balance.”
With a quivering voice and teary eyes, Tiffany Russo captured the essence of Annie’s gift. “She teaches us everything that yoga’s about, all of it, in an hour and a half.” Annie Carpenter teaches the yoga of transformation.
Annie is beloved and revered by students and teachers, many of whom she’s guided for years. “She’s more than a teacher, she’s a mentor, and that’s why people continue to come back to her room, day after day, year after year,” Russo said.
“On the mat, Annie is the voice in my head. She directed me with a gentle force to teaching. I will miss her, but feel her work with me is deeply imbedded,” Patty Pierce said. The teacher always speaks from within.
Annie Carpenter can be found online at: anniecarpenter.com
Julie Buckner is a yogini, writer, mom, public affairs and marketing consultant, and owner and CEO of InYoga. She recently attended Annie Carpenter’s teacher training program: inyogacenter.com.