Girls in yoga pants part deux

My wordpress site stats say that most people stumble upon this blog when searching for “girls in yoga pants”–I wrote about this website (girls in yoga pants) a few weeks ago. I figure that this search is less about the yoga and more about girls in tight pants. Therefore, it may be silly for me to write about a subject to attract more traffic from people who could care less about the yoga, but, on the other hand, why not?

Besides, I do have something else to say about girls in yoga pants, which is: the combo is magic. I don’t know how or why, but I have experienced it firsthand.

Some background: I’ve let myself go. Hair always up in a clip, no makeup, glasses, clothing so unfashionable I’d look like a hobo in northern Canada, let alone on the streets of New York City. Every day I wear the same unwashed dog slobber jeans topped by my husband’s ‘dog coat’–missing a few buttons, too big for even him, one hole, covered in dog hair. Not pretty.

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Ashtanga, NY

Ashtanga, NY - A Yoga DocumentaryAs I perused netflix’s yoga offerings the other day, I noticed this little gem–Ashtanga, NY— available for streaming. If you love yoga and have 40 minutes I very much recommend it.

This short documentary was shot during Sri K Pattabhi Jois‘s visit to NYC in September 2001. (Also known as Guruji, Jois was a father of the modern yoga movement and popularized/founded the Ashtanga style of yoga.)

Every day that month, hundreds of NYC yogis woke up at dawn to practice yoga under instruction of Guruji and family. This is an Indian-style family affair, with Guruji’s daughter (Saraswati), grandson (Sharath), and various other family members serving as Guruji’s posse during his international trip.

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Letting Go (of Wall Street)

While bombshells fall in the yogaworld I am stuck in my head. I wonder: should I open up a yoga studio? I love the idea of starting a business; I love yoga. I need a job.

Could this be me someday?

I don’t have a yoga following, let alone much teaching experience, but the school won’t be about me. It would be about the teachers (from all styles! Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Iyengar, Kundalini, you name it, even pilates!) and the community. It would be a business. My neighborhood has been gentrifying, needs “services”, and could possibly support a studio. I am excited about marketing, sales, HR policy, e.g. running this as a for-profit venture with philosophical, spiritual, physical benefits. I continue to think.

But my insecurities and fears stand in the way. Am I good enough? Do this in New York City, where yoga studios are like Starbucks, one on every corner? Gamble with our savings?

Anything gives me self doubt. I compare myself to others.

For example–the Wall Street Journal profiled this 32 year old guy, a former investment banker now Hindu monk, who recently led a meditation session at the Occupy Wall Street protests. He’s got an MBA, like me, but was more “successful” in the business world than me (he was investment banker at Bank of America), and, having quit the corporate world (as I did) seems to be more committed to his dharmic path (he’s a celibate monk at a Hindu monestary in the East Village, giving talks about mindfulness at Citi and B of A, while I sit around doing very little). I think, I am so cautious; others are not. Why do I think I can do this? What to do?

My mantra these days has been to soften and be receptive, and when I do this, I find his teachings instructive. He says: don’t allow fear, ego and selfishness to stand in the way of making the right business decisions.

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.

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.