Shafts of light pour into the yoga studio through arched windows, revealing patches of blue sky, green sprigs on tree branches and red brick buildings. Sitting with legs comfortably crossed, gazing inward, with our palms pressing together at the heart in the symbolic expression of Namaste (bowing to the infinite spirit), Anthony Benenati’s City Yoga class begins. An invocation is chanted inviting intention and connection. While most his yoga class in Los Angeles ends with the salutation that recognizes the divinity in each other, and ourselves, Benenati wants the thread of that gesture to envelope your entire practice. He would be even more delighted if you engaged in this ego-less connection with others while out in the world.
Putting your foot behind your head is an accomplishment, but are you able to remain steady, strong and generously grounded while in the midst of an argument with your partner? When stuck in traffic? During a crisis at work? Benenati, a senior instructor with 20 years of experience and co-owner of City Yoga, along with his wife Rebecca, wants to know. Can we extend the benefits beyond the obvious physical enhancements of this strengthening and flexibility building practice? Can we give ourselves fully in order that we have more energy for those around us? Rather than allowing our yoga to become a selfish experience, can we offer it up into a generous expression of selfless service?
Benenati quietly offers, “I have no interest in simply leading a class, I want to teach.” His physically challenging, heart-opening classes are a fusion of anatomical intelligence and emotional release sprinkled with tidbits of philosophy. “I knew that I might be for the few, rather than the many.” Dedicating himself to teaching the philosophical foundation of the yoga experience meant potentially sacrificing popularity as the multitudes of students looking for a firmer body and the latest yoga fusion class might lack interest in the roots of the ancient practice. “If you come from a good space, it all comes; you don’t have to worry. If you are worried, then you are not doing your practice.” One of his mentors once told him “take a step toward the student; if they step toward you, there’s a relationship; if they step back, do not chase them.”
The difficult asanas create internal heat. Our breath, gazing point, and our attention to the body’s place in relationship to all of the parts give us a centering device. By dancing on the razor’s edge during practice, by trusting the body and the breath to support our opening we begin to flow more easily. In cultivating this state of presence we are prepared when some external circumstance causes a hurricane to spin inside of our lives. A hurricane is one of the metaphors he uses to teach this universal idea of being calm (in the center) while the rest of the world spinning around you causes destruction.
It was a hero’s journey for Benenati, who found yoga after suffering a disabling injury from power lifting. However, what kept the youthful and handsome 45-year-old Benenati on the mat 20 years ago was the softening of self that came after years of relentless indoctrination in masculine culture. What may surprise you is that this doe-eyed, soft-spoken gentle man with finely chiseled features was a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force and served our country during the Gulf War. There is neither pride nor regret about his military service, only sadness that the war continues. He is reluctant to discuss the topic, except to note how it demanded that he exclude parts of himself. It meant denying the most feminine rivers that have become the essential tributaries of his teaching.
Benenati’s brave, fearless and passionate instruction encourages personal revelation and growth. It pains him to witness the inertia of desire, without intention, or the isolation that may arise in someone feeling alone with his or her difficulties. Benenati will candidly offer that being a yoga practitioner and teacher has not spared him life’s rockier roads. It has, however, transformed and expanded his capacity for moving through those challenges.
Many of these challenges begin for him once he leaves the studio and returns to the humbling reality of three cherished children. They and his beloved wife are the source and inspiration that brings Benenati into his flow, that and his passion for his golf game. It is about utilizing both his feminine and masculine nature. It is about the tension of opposites. It is about tuning in, not out. It is about opening the heart center of our being. And, perhaps most crucially, it is finally and absolutely about deepening our connection to self and others. “Why not bring the heart quality into teaching, why not bring goodness into the practice?” As Benenati says, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Fortunately for us, Benenati is teaching us how to connect more than just our palms together.