Kula Yoga Project (NYC)

Oh Kula, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1) Intelligent. Teachers are articulate, precise, and don’t dumb things down.

2) Sweet combination of flow + alignment.

3) Creative. The sequencing is unique to the teacher and always enlightening.

4) Challenging. Oh how I sweat. And ache. And feel like a beginner, all the time.

5) Inspiring. How awesome is it to practice next to people that can float into handstand and defy gravity, and know that they are students just like me?

Ok, there are some bummers: no showers at the Tribeca location, a cramped changing area, hardly any philosophy and no chanting — but the asana and pranayama is so kick ass it doesn’t matter. I’m getting the yoga through my breath and my body.

I am hesitant to name specific teachers because they are all solid. But I must give some shout outs to as many as I can, including: Jillian, alignment goddess, Anusara inspired (not in the official trademarked sense but in the lots of study sense); Schulyer, studio founder, bandha work like no other, stealthily develops a theme with such thoroughness I do the apex pose with never before found strength, flexibility, awareness, ease; Kevin, in his Sunday night qijong/yoga class, gets me so out of my head by the end I feel golden light pouring out of my chest; David‘s Vesica practice is intensity-dot-com, as a friend would say, but in the best possible way, he’s the type that would attract rich ladies as private clients (not because he’s a perv but because of his presence); Nikki C is steeped in knowledge–of the poses, the texts, of everything–she teachers Iyengar and is an “old soul” according to my other teacher Dana Flynn; Nikki V co-directs the Williamburg Kula and is also a master of sequencing; who else–Angie, Marisa, Alex, Ariel, Aarona, everyone–they’re all great.

What to say to a prospective Kula student? It’s challenging but accessible if you give your ego the afternoon off. Bring a towel. Overlook the less than swank facilities. The teachers are some of the best around. Don’t expect any dharma talks; if there is one, it is subtle.

Bryan Kest @ Santa Monica Power Yoga (LA, CA)

I love California, but I LOVE California yoga. Sigh.

I attended Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga while visiting Santa Monica last weekend, and the class was awesome: 1) it’s donation based (suggested amount is $14), 2) I worked hard, 3) I loved the mediation practice, 4) the studio was laid back and unpretentious, 5) Brian Kest (“BK”) is funny, and 6) the studio is spacious and bright with a nice big abstract painting on one wall.

I’ve been to other studios with a similar donation/laid-back ethos, but not one with this quality of instruction. And by quality of instruction I mean an equal mastery of both the philosophy and the asana. BK’s yoga philosophy isn’t academic, it seems to be the product of significant self study and compassion for himself and his students. He calls his style “power yoga” which should put me off (“yuck! that’s not authentic”), and I suspect BK would love to put people like me off, but you can’t deny great teaching. I crave a workout and need to CTFO* like anyone else, plus his accent is charming (it sounds Boston to me but apparently he is from Detroit). (BK has an interesting bio. He was one of Pattabhi Jois’s first Western students.) It’s vinyasa style, nothing fancy, but what sets BK apart is the way he communicates the philosophy of non-harming, of quieting the mind–it’s in plain English.

Bryan Kest

BK and his puppies

This yoga is no frills. By this I mean there was no music, no changing rooms, no liability waiver, no sign in sheet, no front desk, no props, no retail store, no shelves for belongings, no Sanskrit, no rule about taking off your shoes. What the studio did have was a bearded older dude who seemed to be helper at large, who took my money for the $2 (skanky-ass) mat rental and advised me on protocol; a large lovely room in which to practice; lots of students; and a teacher who emphasized the breath and being gentle (while having us hold a 15-breath dhanurasana/bow pose). Every now and then BK would say something like “and this pose is called holding your right leg up while bending over pose” (not Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana/standing split). Yoga humor. Har Har.

The gratefulness meditation at the end was the best part. We sat still for 5 minutes and thought of everything and everyone in our life we are grateful for. And I have so many things to list! It is wonderful to remember this. BK said, you do this everyday for 3 months and you’ll never have to do it again. Highly recommended. Yay for California.

Jivamukti Yoga Center (NYC)

As a New Yorker, many of my yoga teachers have been Jivamukti-influenced. Sharon Gannon and David Life (SG&DL) founded their Jivamukti style of yoga in the mid-eighties, when NYC was a (more of a) cesspool and yoga not yet part of the P90X extreme fitness DVD set. SG&DL took the physical practice of Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga guru extraordinaire), added some philosophy, music, chanting, and animal rights, and broke free of the strict Ashtanga series while keeping the practice physically vigorous. eh viola! Jivamukti yoga was born. Jivamukti was the most glamorous yoga show in town, developed by and for Westerners. The combination of physical and philosophical practice struck a chord, and Jivamukti did gangbusters. SG&DL mentored the students. Their students become teachers. The new teachers opened up studios. So on and so forth. By the late 90s, it became known that celebrities were doing it. Russell Simmons. Christy Turlington. Sting. [Here’s a Barnard religion paper on the history of Jivamukti yoga, worth a scan.]

I had no idea this was going on at the time. In 2000, my friends took me to my first class at Bhava Yoga Center on the Lower East Side, a Jivamukti-joint. A little later, I became a regular at Area Yoga in Brooklyn (when it was still on Smith Street), which then had many Jivamukti-trained teachers. For a while I lived near the Jivamukti studio itself and went everyday. Now, 10-years later, I have just completed my 200-hour teacher training at Laughing Lotus in NYC, founded by Jasmine Tarkeshi and Dana Flynn, both of whom studied at Jivamukti. The Jivamukti influence is everywhere I am drawn. The teachers go past asana and attempt to weave in the ancient teachings. They play music and we sing, which makes me happy.

Short story long, it’s hard for me to review Jivamukti Yoga Center with objectivity, as I owe so much to the founders and their teachings. That said, I am totally okay with sharing my biased opinions.

Jivamukti Yoga Center in Union Square has two big, beautiful studios; a gorgeous retail store; a fantastic vegan cafe; and some of the most well trained yoga teachers around. You may see Russell Simmons in class. The studio is expensive ($20 for a drop in class, plus $2 for a mat). The singing is uplifting. The teachers are serious. The teachings are political. The vinyasa is comprehensive, well-sequenced, and challenging. The dharma talks can be inspirational, or they can be annoying. I remember a teacher, after the Japan earthquake and in the middle of the nuclear powerplant disaster, saying something like, “Sending money won’t help. Too little too late. They should have planned better.” No comment on the truth of statement, but it felt unsympathetic and made me sad.

Jivamukti finds a special cause in veganism (no meat, dairy, or eggs). Jivamukti yoga is uncompromising when it comes to politics; for the school, political activism is an outgrowth of spiritual awakening. Intellectually, I agree. But after two years working for the government in DC I find politics dispiriting and don’t want to deal with it at my yoga class.

One of my favorite teachers is Ruth, who is sometimes on the schedule, sometimes not. She has you hold poses forever while she happily chats yoga philosophy. Her classes are packed.

The founders themselves: SG&DL exude happiness and humility. They are excellent teachers. In a workshop with DL did I first understand in my body how to do chaturanga properly.

I have had many great Jivamukti teachers, too many to list, because every Jivamukti teacher is very well-trained and knows their material inside and out. I am grateful that SG&DL did, and continue to do, what they do. I no longer go to the studio regularly, however, because of cost, because I live farther away, because I no longer need to journey to the source to get the nectar.

Elena Brower @ Vira Yoga (NYC)

I took my first Anusara class recently at Vira Yoga, NYC’s premier Anusara yoga center. Elena Brower is Vira Yoga’s co-founder, and, judging from the turnout at her packed midday Tuesday class, she’s one of NYC’s most popular Anusara teachers. Ms. Brower has made it–blogger at Huffington Post, has Adidas as a sponsor, taught yoga to thousands in Central Park, successful studio, etc.

I had my doubts about Anusara (what does “heart-centered” mean? Is John Friend, founder, a money-grubbing megalomaniac?), but a non-Anusara teacher that I love—an intelligent, critical thinker—came back humbled, energized, amazed after a retreat she took with John Friend. Bah humbug, I thought, but I’ll try it.

Elena’s students were regulars and adored her. She commanded the room. To me, the neophyte, she taught a great, well-rounded class—chanting, skillful asana & alignment, and philosophy.  Elena’s pacing was effective, and she adeptly wove her alignment cues with her philosophy cues, making things (difficult poses, finding bliss) seem attainable.

She mentioned her work with the Handel group, an executive coaching firm. Elena seemed to say that, to be happy, you need to face your fears, hold close to your center, and stop worrying about crap all the time. On her blog, Elena gets into surprising detail about her inner life and work with the Handel Group. I don’t know how a yoga teacher hooked up with an executive coaching firm, but I like it. One of my genius teachers from grad school, Ron Heifetz, was an executive coach. Sounds fluffy but this guy turned 100 of my type A Ivy League classmates into feral blobs, Lord of the Flies-style; then he held up a mirror and said, “Watch.” Ugly. We learned a ton.

Anyway, throughout the class and the poses Ms. Brower reminded us to keep energy and effort pulled into our midlines. Later she tied this physical instruction into her more philosophical advice to stay close to one’s center. (She was much more eloquent than I am.) Leading up to then apex pose, Elena suggested that we “fall into” eka pada koudinyasa. She said it would be fun. It was. I had never felt so light and powerful in that pose than I did in her class.

Eka Pada Koudinyasana

Based on my stringent research of attending one class, I have decided that, despite having worldwide headquarters in Texas, Anusara isn’t a cult. It’s yoga, firmly rooted in the thousand year tradition. And, I get why Ms Brower’s students dig her. She was skillful, honest, and generous with herself. She didn’t call it in. She read the room. Her 10 minute savasana was just what I needed, even though I didn’t know it beforehand. I would like to return–since a few days later some of Ms Brower’s words still stick with me. But I won’t go often–it is expensive ($20/class), crowded, and, well, I’m not still not comfortable putting my support behind a yoga that is trademarked.

Tara Stiles @ Strala Yoga (NYC)

Tara Stiles, NYC-based model turned yoga teacher, was recently featured in a New York Times article about being a rebel in the yoga world. The article saddened me, not due to this apostate’s threat to the happy yoga community, but because I realized how out of the gossip loop I was. I had no idea that a controversy had been percolating.

So, last week I headed to her studio to see what the fuss was all about. After careful research of attending one class, I’ve decided that Tara is no rebel (as I had earlier suspected). I enjoyed her class.

Tara had a nice calm energy, stressing the breath, and often reminding us to “take it easy” if we lost our breath. It was like an extended version of her YouTube videos. There were no oms, she didn’t use Sanskrit names for poses, music was more indie rock than yoga, and there was no dharma talk. But these seemed like superficial differences from most other (asana) yoga classes I’ve attended. Same poses, same emphasis on breath, same sitting quietly at the beginning and end of class to focus inward. She started class with alternate nostril breathing and ended class with three long sighs, inhaling through the nose and exhaling softly through the mouth—which gave me the feeling of soundless oms.

Most everything else about the studio was great (save the changing/storage area which seemed inadequate and insecure). Front desk was very friendly. Space is a large and clean modern loft. The price can’t be beat. $10 for a class in the middle of NYC! Class was not packed but full. There was a decent number of dudes. I like to see dudes in yoga class because these skittish creatures are rarely glimpsed in the yoga wilds.

I appreciate Ms Stiles’ appeal. No dogma, accessible pricing ranging from free YouTube videos to $10 classes (which I repeat is a steal in NYC, where studios charge drop-in rates of $20/class), and I left feeling good. Oh, and she’s hot.

That said, I dig my yoga teachers a little more hippie dippie, or, if not that, seriously alignment focused–someone who can throw in a dash of philosophy, lead class in a little singing, or give guidance towards a more subtle body awareness. The NYT describes it thusly: “Ms. Stiles is not trying to appeal to the yoga elite or to the purist. She is going for the firefighter from Long Island who feels intimidated by “oms” and New Age music.” Does this make me part of the yoga elite? I hope so! elite, elite, elite, it just rolls off the tongue.

Flow Yoga Center (DC)

Flow was my yoga base for my 2.5 years in DC, conveniently located down the alley from my apartment and home to some of the best teachers in DC. (Said alley can be seen in the google street maps picture, to the right of the building). I have much fondness for this yoga community, which kept me anchored during my stint in DC. I’d even hang out after class to sit in the lounge and sip the free tea, very unlike me. My first regret: never buying a t-shirt.

Pros: best yoga teachers in DC, diverse class offerings, great location, excellent workshops, and giving back to the community seemed part of its DNA.

Cons: small, crowded, and due to diversity of offerings + my preferences had to plot my schedule carefully. Rental mats were slippery. Mat storage wasn’t dependable–my mat disappeared from storage a few times, only to reappear days later (all to shrugs from staff).

Space: Two floors, three rooms (small, med, large), no showers, standard yoga studio dark pastel color scheme, ridiculously crowded front room (oh how I wanted to get an architect in there to reconfigure the space). Cozy lounge area.

I crept into Flow anonymously in fall 2008, but by the time I slipped away in early 2011 (most) everyone knew my name. My go-to teachers were Gail, Terence, Cory, Rob, Megan, and Mike–teaching from the Ashtanga, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Shiva Rea, Anusara and Dharma Mittra traditions, respectively. The variety of teachings strengthened my practice.

Gail had a devil-may care approach to Ashtanga. My lazy ass tends to find Ashtanga too serious and type A, but she made it fun. Yay Gail! Terence was very precise (Iyengar trained) but threw in sun salutations to keep things moving. His fast-ish pace plus music made the classes more fun than other Iyengar classes I’ve taken, and through his teaching I learned so much about my body in space (my innards, my bones, my muscles). Yay Terence. Cory was (is) one of the most popular teachers at Flow. Great energy, kept the alignment with his vinyasa, dharma talks were not annoying (I mean this with the utmost respect). Megan taught mostly level 1 classes. Long holds, bandha work, a memorable laugh, she taught a deceptively tough class. Last but not least, Mike taught a sweaty, physically challenging class, and pushed me to do things I didn’t think my body was capable of doing. Serious (in a good way) and very funny. I was very happy to tun into him at Kula (in NYC) recently, where he gave me a quick download of where to go yoga-wise in NYC. Yay Mike.

Near the end of my time at Flow, I felt like I plateaued. I needed to develop a home practice. I was one of the more experienced yoga-ers among the regular Flow attendees and started to feel self-conscious. My second regret: not saying goodbye before leaving DC.

Flow felt like an extension of my apartment, and my practice grew by leaps and bounds while I studied there.

Rusty Wells @ Urban Flow (SF, CA): Namastizzle you little yogizzle

Urban Flow is the San Francisco yoga studio that inspired this blog, but sadly I can’t do what I wanted to do, which was publish high resolution artsy photos of this beautiful space. See tiny photo stolen off of internet. The by-donation-only studio (I chose to pay $15) was started by wildly popular Rusty Wells. I attended a packed Saturday morning class, taught by Rusty, attended by approximately 120 people. Even in NYC I haven’t been to a class that big.

Urban Flow Yoga: How This Came To Be

When the Brit and I arrived a bit early, both Rusty and the dude checking us in gave us a warm welcome and were curious about who we were when they learned it was our first visit. The dude at the front desk even offered to lend the Brit some shorts when the Brit said he wasn’t going to stay for class because he didn’t have any clothes (the Brit’s English way of saying that he had no intention of staying to practice).

The studio is in an industrial part of of town, in a loft, and the front room feels like a gallery, with Sanskrit chants painted in black letters on white walls. The yoga practice space is huge, big windows all around and small stage up front decorated with white cala lillies and large pillar candles–it felt open, urban and minimalist rather than the standard pastel clutter. Music playing before class started included hip hop. People were encouraged to bring their bikes upstairs for safekeeping during class. Yay.

The style is bhakti flow: “Bhakti is the yoga of love and devotion to the god of one’s own unique understanding…The flow part refers to the flowing sequence known as vinyasa.” The room was heated, Rusty was shirtless, practitioners were all levels, and the class was tough but not crazy (focus on alignment, long holds). We did pushups. Rusty started us out with some singing/chanting, which I always dig, but what made it feel like a party was the drumming accompaniment and Rusty’s strong voice.

Rusty was joyous and serious but not cheesy. After class he apologized for making me late (before class he overheard me and the Brit making plans to meet at 11am), remembered my name, and complemented me on my beautiful practice. Flattery will get you everywhere, Mr Wells! And then when I returned to the east coast I received a postcard from the studio (the front says “namastizzle you little yogasizzle”) thanking me for my visit. What a great community–makes me yearn for the west coast a little bit.

See some intro videos from the studio here: http://vimeo.com/user4392840