The Soul of Synergy Yoga®
By Lynn Braz
Journalist, Certified Synergy Yoga Teacher
“You have created so much energy through this practice that right now you have enough energy in just your fingertips to light up an entire city, if only you could tap into it.” Peri Ness DeFay says this softly after Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) during her Synergy Yoga class, which is a 90-minute vigorous hatha flow practiced in a heated room. The first time I took class with Peri, I found this information immensely appealing. During Stambhasana, Peri guides us in a standing meditation focusing on drawing energy up the centers of our spines. In Child’s Pose, Peri reminds us that there is healing energy all around us. Several sweaty postures later, after she’s gently sung a relaxation song to prepare us for a deep Savasana, I leave class feeling calm, yet energized. I am hooked on Synergy.
I am also hooked on Peri. This may not sound spiritual, but I think it’s more important to be perfectly honest here: I need my yoga teacher to be someone I admire, someone I can aspire to be like. Or at least look like. Peri emphasizes that hatha yoga is a science, that we are creating energy through scientific asana, in one posture boosting our immune system, stimulating our thyroid gland in another, learning to relax in an instant, to calm and empty our minds. But regardless of how predictable are the results of regular yoga practice – physically, mentally, and spiritually – yoga to me feels more like art than science. I need my teacher to be part mentor, part muse.
Peri looks and sounds like a muse. She won’t approve of my writing this, but I think it’s important to know: Peri Ness DeFay is gorgeous. Maybe it’s her inner light shining outward, the beauty of her soul leaving its imprint on her face and in her eyes. Maybe it’s just the way the genes came together, and she’d be stunning even if she hadn’t been practicing yoga for 38 of her 40 years. That’s right. While ordinary toddlers were busy scribbling their mother’s lipsticks on living room walls and doing other things to earn them the distinction of being in their “terrible twos,” Peri was sitting full lotus with her teachers, Mani Finger and Swami Premananda, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she was born. Which brings us to her voice. I think it’s fair to say that Peri could charm the birds out of the trees with that voice, a strong but soft, deep but feminine tone that resonates with gentle authority in a lilting British accent. Peri stands in the back of the room during class, like a guardian angel, guiding and instructing with her voice. From the rear, she can see everyone in the room and give her attention fully to her students. She could stand in front and demonstrate the postures – it certainly would be a much easier way to go – but that’s not what Synergy is about. “Synergy Yoga is a tool for transformation,” Peri says. “When I see people practice yoga, I see them change.”
Peri’s appearance works both for and against her. A former dancer whose turning point came as a young teenager when she chose deepening her commitment to yoga over accepting an invitation to join the Junior Academy of the Royal Ballet of London, Peri simply doesn’t look like a sage. Further, yoga’s burgeoning popularity in America almost works against Peri’s mission. Finding someone to teach yoga postures is easy; finding a true yoga teacher is difficult. And as certified Synergy Yoga instructor Charles DeFay puts it, ”Peri is the real deal. She’s a real yogi who walks the talk.” Yoga is a spiritual path, a code of ethics, a blueprint for living well. A true yogi lives a humble life dedicated to serving others. Peri doesn’t look like she was born to serve. But, as one of the world’s foremost authorities on yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, notes in his book Light on Yoga, a superior yogi is, among other things, ”good looking.” For me, practicing Synergy has evoked changes from the inside out and, much to my delight, I believe I look better today than I did before I began practicing Synergy. I know I feel better. I’m lighter, not just physically, but in every way.
Synergy Yoga systematically stretches, strengthens, and tones the body’s muscles, ligaments, and tendons while stimulating, strengthening, and detoxifying all the major organs and systems of the body. Translation: Synergy Yoga is an awesome workout. Synergy is practiced in a heated room. While the Synergy flow is similar to Bikram – both Bikram and Peri’s earliest teachers studied with the same guru, Bishnu Ghosh – the most brilliant contrast is Synergy’s emphasis on bringing awareness to the spiritual eye and preparing the body for meditation. That is the purpose of hatha yoga, after all. Before finding Synergy, I had taken literally hundreds of yoga classes in which that vital information was never mentioned. Not one word about meditation, which is now astonishing to me. It’s akin to playing baseball virtually every day for years without being told that the ultimate goal is to hit a home run.
I had no interest in meditation when I took my first Synergy Yoga class. I wasn’t looking to develop spiritually either. I walked into that first class angry, per my usual mood, and walked out 90 minutes later feeling completely peaceful and content. All the noisy chatter that had been going on in my head – worries about work, my relationship, and an impending move – were silenced. I bought a 10-class card and kept on taking classes. In the four years since I discovered Synergy, the quality of my life has steadily improved. I am much more honest and loving, much less angry and selfish and a whole lot more accepting of myself, others and life in general. This is what else Synergy Yoga has given me: the desire and ability to meditate daily, body awareness, better balance in other activities (skiing, for example), the ability to both energize and calm myself through conscious breathing, increased flexibility, strength, and serenity. Oh, and a firm butt.
Synergy Yoga class begins with a prayer, chanting, breathing exercises, and Sun Salutation. Thirteen standing postures, most of which are repeated, are followed by a standing meditation and a quick Savasana. The floor series, an additional 22 postures, culminates with a leisurely Savasana, meditation, and chanting. Because the Synergy flow is the same each class, with consistent practice Synergy can become a moving meditation. Each student works at his or her own level in Synergy, going deeper into the postures as he or she progresses. And in Synergy, progress is noticeable on all levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
Peri doesn’t shy away from focusing on the spiritual aspects of yoga in class. Synergy, admittedly, is not for everyone. ”Sincere seekers” is how Peri describes her students. Synergy students learn the benefits of each posture that extend beyond the physical. In full Cobra, for example, in which we are working deeply in the spine, Peri tells us that the ”great ones” say we can breathe out old patterns, habits and addictions that we no longer need. She tells us that our yoga practice benefits everyone we come in contact with, that we can heal six generations of our families through practicing yoga, that we are creating good karma, that the great ones are smiling down on us as we practice. Without these glimpses into the spiritual realm, yoga is just like any other exercise class, only quieter.
Noelle Richards, 33, a former competitive swimmer and all-around athlete, never considered yoga prior to herniating a disk in her lower back. ”My back injury tormented me for four years before I finally began taking yoga classes,” Noelle says. ”After a year and a half of Synergy I am pain-free again. Synergy is truly a life saver for me.” Once Noelle’s pain eased she continued practicing Synergy. ”The Synergy atmosphere really helps me relax. The focus on breathing is extremely centering. I learn techniques in Synergy that help me in my everyday life,” Noelle explains. ”But the meditation is the best part. Other forms of yoga I’ve studied don’t focus on meditation, and for me the meditation seals the deal.”
Synergy Yoga was born in Encinitas, a tiny seaside town in Southern California best known for surfing and the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of SRF and author of the bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi, is Peri’s personal guru. Synergy’s headquarters, the Yoga Room/Synergy Yoga Center, are located in the building next door to the SRF Temple. To use the vernacular, Synergy is surrounded by great energy. Peri’s earliest yoga teacher, Mani Finger, studied yoga with two of India’s greatest teachers: Swami Sivananda and Yogananda’s brother, Bishnu Ghosh, who learned a specific system of yoga exercises from Yogananda. Mani Finger received Kriya Yoga initiation directly from Yogananda. Therefore, although Yogananda passed away in 1952, Synergy Yoga is derived directly from him; but also includes elements of Peri’s additional yoga studies: Iyengar, Satchitananda Integral, Indra Devi, and Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga. That’s the synergy of Synergy.
Peri’s connection to Yogananda occurred at a very young age. From the age of two until she turned twelve, she practiced yoga virtually every day with Finger and Swami Premananda. The effect was unshakable. Despite some detours, Peri was firmly on her spiritual path. When Peri arrived in Encinitas in 1988 from London by way of Florida, opening a yoga studio was not foremost on her mind. Her intention was to become, of all things, an SRF nun. But elders at the Encinitas ashram convinced Peri that she could be of more service to those seeking a spiritual path if she remained in the outside world. This is key to Peri’s approach to teaching yoga. Bishnu Ghosh wrote ”Asana or correct posture is one of the first steps to God-consciousness because it tunes the body-radio to receive the high voltage of cosmic energy and divine enlightenment.” Synergy Yoga focuses on strengthening the internal energy current for spiritual growth.
In 1992 Peri opened the Yoga Room [now known as the Synergy Yoga Center], which now has over 25,000 students enrolled. There are five main classes: Synergy Original, Gentle (practiced without heat), Intermediate (A 75-minute non-heated class), the 20-minute Flow or Quickflow, and Advanced Synergy (2½ hours of hot, athletic yoga). In 2000, Peri took her more than 20 years of teaching experience – which includes in addition to hatha yoga, Raja Yoga, and certification in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy – to a new level by launching Synergy Yoga University. The curriculum is based in the tradition of Patanjali and culminates, after three years, in a hatha yoga Advanced Certificate. It’s safe to say that graduates of this program will be some of the best-trained yoga teachers on the planet. Additionally, Synergy Yoga University offers a basic yoga certification program, which can be completed in six months. As yoga’s popularity continues to crescendo, Synergy teachers are poised to help students realize the benefits of yoga beyond the physical.
Synergy Yoga University draws yogis from all over the country, from all over the world. Some go on to become certified Synergy Yoga instructors, opening yoga studios, and some seek mainly to deepen their own practice or teach at the Yoga Room. Many are devotees of Yogananda, and feel a natural affinity for Peri and her deep reverence for her guru. With virtually no publicity other than word-of-mouth, Synergy Yoga has blossomed globally. There are Synergy Yoga classes in Canada, Spain, Italy, and Germany. St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco offers Synergy Yoga classes. Psychotherapist Belkis Bottfeld is a certified Synergy teacher who uses yoga therapy in conjunction with talk therapy.
But my favorite Synergy Yoga story is Heike Eichenseher, a professional dancer and choreographer who, while vacationing in Southern California from her native Germany, happened by the Yoga Room and took a Synergy Yoga class. After one class, Heike was hooked. She immediately signed up for the Ten-Day Teacher Training Intensive that was beginning within a few days of her arrival. (This is a recurring theme. Charles DeFay signed up for the Teacher Training program after only one class with Peri as well.) Two years later, Heike is still in Encinitas, now a senior member of the Synergy Yoga teacher training staff. She literally glows with the enthusiasm about Synergy. (She now lives and teaches Synergy Yoga in Germany.)
Despite Peri’s success and the passionate dedication of Synergy Yoga teachers and students, Peri faces constant adversity in keeping her vision of bringing hatha yoga as taught by Yogananda to the world. ”Wherever there is light, there will be an opposing force,” Peri explains. ”Always. It’s the law. Our job is to remember that we are yogis. We have the great karma to be yogis. We are in this world, but not of it.” Synergy has no celebrity spokesperson to land it on the cover of national magazines. It doesn’t cost a fortune to become a certified Synergy Yoga instructor. Synergy is not about glamour. It’s not about publicity. Quietly, intrinsically, word of Synergy has spread beyond Encinitas and the Self-Realization Fellowship. I write about Synergy not for the sake of Peri and Synergy Yoga, but as a service to people like me who are seeking a spiritual path and don’t even know it yet.
Synergy students will often experience emotional releases during classes, posture clinics, and the training intensives. Peri’s compassion and grace makes the Yoga Room a safe place to fall apart and come back together. Devotees of Yogananda tell stories about when Yogananda was alive, every student who met with him thought he or she was Yogananda’s favorite. He had a way of making everyone feel special to him. Peri has that same quality. ”I love every single person who comes through my door,” Peri says. ”I just can’t help but love them. And that’s what we’re doing here. We are teaching unconditional love.”
Yoga helps to transcend the pain inflicted upon us by our egos. It also helps develop discipline. Synergy Yoga teachers must teach the flow exactly as Peri created it. There is good reason for this. Each posture builds on the previous one, stretching and strengthening the body in a natural progression that not only provides optimum effectiveness, it is the safest approach for the body as well. Teachers must practice the entire 90-minute flow at least three times a week (though most practice every day). Peri created a 20-minute energizing flow that can be done anywhere. As Peri puts it, ”No one doesn’t have 20 minutes to practice yoga.” Most importantly, teachers must have a daily meditation practice. Teachers have to behave themselves. Synergy’s purpose is to provide authentic hatha yoga according to the eight-fold path of Patanjali. This means setting a good example for the students. And while most humans will inevitably fall short of ideal behavior, it’s the intention that counts most.
One of the greatest sources of joy for Peri is the knowledge that she now lives in the same town that her Guru, Yogananda, once lived in. When Peri stands on the cliffs that distinguish Encinitas, she looks out at the same view her Guru gazed upon during his days in Encinitas. Encinitas is where Yogananda did much of his writing, and it’s where Peri became inspired to teach the physical aspects of yoga that complement Yogananda’s spiritual teachings. But Synergy Yoga is much more than the practice of asana. ”Synergy for me is multidimensional relationships from the heart,” Peri explains. ”Those multidimensional relationships mean all encompassing life on the planet that helps people evolve. So, if you find a job that you love, that is truly yogic. Yogic meaning according to the Eightfold Path: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. If you follow a scientific path in that way, you have to experience life on earth, connection, job, service, family, and prayers. You have to experience that and evolve. Synergy can help you evolve in that Eightfold Path. Synergy is a yogic path, a scientific path.” Yes, but it’s also an art.
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