What is yoga? Kest.

In my quest to catalogue what some of my favorite teachers have to say about the meaning of yoga, in a personal quest to figure it out for myself, I like what Bryan Kest of Santa Monica, CA has to say. I’ve only taken one class with him, but I loved it.

[Aside: My yoga crush further deepened when I found this AMAZING video. His hair is Kenny G incredible. His press to handstand is bad ass. His cut-off acid-wash denim pants make me giggle. The jilty editing is endearing. And the teaching is accessible. What I like about Mr Kest is that he speaks plainly, so as to allow a simpleton like me to understand what he says about the yoga.]

Anyway, from his website, this is what he has to say about yoga and asana:

There is no enlightenment at the end of a pose…It seems to me in a general sense we as a society are enamored with the mystical, mysterious, the unseen and Continue reading

Technology with a heart

John Friend makes some amazing claims about his new wide Manduka yoga mat. “If you’re on a mat that you just stick to and you feel stable, you just go inside. You actually can have an inner opening from a piece of rubber, on your floor. I’m proud to say that everything about this mat will lead to the very essence of your heart.” 

(me: I have a Jade yoga mat. After a while the rubber falls apart, but it’s my fave for grippiness.)

via yoganonymous

What is yoga? Iyengar.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. –attributed to Albert Einstein via the internet.

I don’t know if Einstein said this for reals, but it speaks to me. I can’t explain yoga, or the importance of asana in yoga, simply. Sad, and not for lack of effort. Therefore, in addition to looking within, I look to masters for their wisdom. In the below clip from 1976, BKS Iyengar drops some knowledge relevant to these two questions: What is yoga?, and Why Asana? I’ve transcribed the quotes below.

Based on my limited study of the Yoga Sutras, Iyengar’s definition of yoga is familiar. I get it intellectually, but I don’t get it in my bones. This is not his fault. His style isn’t simple, exactly, but it is clear and dramatic. His style also includes an amazing pair of tiny and bad-ass plaid yoga “pants”.

What is yoga? In order to experience…total freedom [in body, in mind, in the self itself], Indian sages and saints introduced…yoga. Yoga is a union with the body and the mind, mind with the soul so that man…lives in a state of peace and poise…Yoga is a means for freedom, and yoga is the end of freedom itself. Yoga means complete… sublimation of the ways of thought which move in various directions. …Man…when he stills the wandering mind…experiences the self which has no color, no form, no shape. In order to experience that self, yoga has various steps for physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual discipline…

Why asana? In order to… conquer this inner oscillation of the self with the mind, we have to come to the concrete: the body, which is the temple… the vehicle of the spirit…As long as the body…is not kept healthy, clean, pure and holy, the mind is not released from the bondage…If this body is abused or negleted, we are neglecting the self, so we are neglecting our freedom…The body…has to be conquered so that the mind is completely freed from the attachment of the body and get itself attached to the self….The subtle body, which is the mind, cannot be known, cannot be seen, cannot be understood, so these asana are meant to conquer the known, so that the known dissolves in the unknown.

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.

Better teaching: get on your mat and vesselify

I recently did a yoga teacher training and have since even taught a class. I am okay. It will take a lot of work to be a good teacher, to be anything close to my own teachers. Difficult but not impossible. I will continue to practice.

Amy Ippoliti

One teacher who seems to be very interested in improving the quality of yoga teaching in the U.S. is Amy Ippoliti, a senior Anusara teacher. I’ve never studied with her, but I’ve been perusing, and impressed by, her online offerings. She has organized a $500 online workshop called 90 Minutes to Change the World, which promises to reveal the secrets of how to be such a great yoga teacher that students will beat down your doors. I haven’t taken the course, but the feedback seems positive, and the video clips promoting the course are clear, practical and inspiring.

Amy wants her course to offer what she calls “local teachers” (as in, non-superstars, who teach locally) practical tips on how to elevate the level of their teachings and thus pack in the students. One of her big themes is that the best yoga teachers spend the most time on the mat. This jives with what one of my own teachers, Dana Flynn, emphasizes: the necessity of a daily home practice.

Another of Amy’s insights about being a kick ass yoga teacher is the importance of “vesselifying“: dropping into the channel of what makes you unique and letting that divinity [for lack of a better term] pour through you. This is true for yoga teachers, and also for musicians, artists, public speakers. She says that there are 3 ways to vesselify/channel:

1. Pause. Open yourself and be receptive to divine guidance before the class.

2. Drop into your heart and remember why you teach yoga. Is it to help people increase their self esteem? To help students improve flexibility?

3) Have a class plan.

This is a familiar concept, isn’t it, this vesselification? The ability to tap into oneself, getting into the zone, characterizes the greatest performance artists or sports stars. It’s what, in my experience, distinguishes the good from the great in any field. I worked in the government for a while and regularly had to brief a couple of big name, well respected policymakers. It was terrifying but exhilarating. Terrifying because I would constantly be on my toes, but exhilarating to witness the intensity of their focus, their ability to be present and think deeply, instantly, about whatever complex issues came their way. [They weren’t always right, but they were consistently present.]

Yoga that is!

Impressions from David Life

This is a great little video. In it, David Life (co-founder of the Jivamukti style of yoga) touches on the meaning of yoga, how he started to teach, the importance of vegetarianism, and how to become a good teacher. He says: “At the time that we started to teach, teaching yoga was…for people who were losers and didn’t have anything else going on in their life.”

I love Jivamukti and have talked about it here.

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.