Yoga Journey: What We Find, What We Seek

 

PJ and the Yoga Bums

Patthabi Jois and the Yoga Bums

The beginning

I started practicing yoga in 1995. A close friend invited me to a vinyasa yoga class and then a week later I took a class offered by the New York Road Runners Club taught by Beryl Bender Birch, whose husband Thom Birch was a gifted runner as well as yogi. Beryl and Thom inspired me and introduced me to the concept that practicing yoga was a great way to keep my joints and body healthy enough to continue running for years to come. I loved yoga instantaneously. To me, it was writing in motion: here I was in a room where we flowed and breathed and magic happened in the midst. Yoga was a way for me to break out of my mind, the constant to do lists, the constant writing things as I lived them. In yoga, I just was. 1995 was by no means the yoga boom in NYC, and yet it was there for those who sought it. My journey continued at Yoga Zone, under the direction of Guru Alan Finger, which became Be Yoga and is now back to its original Yoga Works. Alan is the founder of the ISHTA method of yoga, or the Integrated Science of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda.

As with all things that I love, I immediately incorporated yoga into my schedule. No, I didn’t have free time – I was working full time and was a full-time graduate student. But the more I practiced, the more I felt I didn’t have time not to practice yoga. While running provided me the space to dream and think, yoga helped me to ground. Three yoga classes a week evolved into five and ultimately, a daily practice. The peace of mind, gratitude, and overall good feelings yoga produced made me a more productive version of myself. Yoga freed me, before I realized that I felt bound.

Evolution of a yogi

After a few years of practice, yoga became more than just an activity in my life. It was altering the way I lived, the decisions I made. Walking along the streets of New York City, even in the midst of dark and gloomy winter, I felt happier. I didn’t worry as much. The shifts were subtle, but they were real. I was more conscious and careful with my friendships and relationships. Eventually, I wanted to understand what it was about this yoga that was changing my life, transforming me into a version of me that was softer, calmer, more open minded. Thus began the learning years, which consisted of trying every studio I could find tucked away in New York City, reading many yoga texts, to include BKS Iygenar’s Light on Yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita amongst others, and partaking in teacher trainings. Many of them.

It was fitting that my first teacher training—two weeks of ashtanaga intensive at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York—was led by Beryl and Thom Berch. I loved power vinyasa as well as Iyengar yoga, but when I discovered ashtanga, the pattern and flow of it, the progressing from one series to the next, it was true love. Ashtanga was logical to me and its flow kept me challenged and inspired. I loved Mysore style ashtanga in particular, which involved one-on-one instruction as I made my way through the primary series. There was a sanctity in practicing yoga in a room full of students, each of us making our way through our own journey, all of us going at our own pace.

After ashtanga training, I kept up my medley of yoga practices, visiting Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga, Jivamukti, Be Yoga, Dharma Metra, amongst other studios. Each one had its own flavor and vibe that pulled me in. There was nothing as hot, sweaty, and uplifting as Dana Strong’s Sunday night at 6:30 pm Om Yoga class.

After some talks with the teachers at Be Yoga, I was convinced to join their extensive ISHTA teacher training program, to commence on September 9, 2001. It would involve at least five nights a week of yoga classes and a few weekend lock in’s a month, during which time we would meet Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday to learn yogic philosophy, anatomy, Sanskrit, and the asanas, or poses. There was also 19 karma yoga, or volunteer hours, to fulfil. It would take up to a year and was the second teacher training (TT2) to be held at Be Yoga, under the direction of Alan Finger and his teachers. We had our introduction that Sunday afternoon, and amid laughter and a bit of fear and excitement, the 40 or so of us prospective yoga teachers had no idea of the growth, change, and unraveling that was ahead of us. Two days later, the World Trade Centers were hit –on 9/11—and a whole new chapter began for us all.

Yoga as a mode of survival and growth

After 9/11, all of us who worked downtown, myself included, had a few weeks off while the city mourned and attempted to rebuild itself. I felt lost, disillusioned, and panicked. I had been stuck on the train headed downtown as the second tower was struck and was trapped for some time. 9/11 was tangible for me. It involved my friends and colleagues. It involved my city. My spirit and soul were damaged. I could never have anticipated the turn that yoga was going to take in my life – the friendships it was about to introduce me to, the healing it would bring me. Teacher training evolved into a blend of therapy and introspection which prodded me to ask myself who I was, what I wanted, and what mattered to me in my life. The opening up of our bodies, minds, and souls was instrumental in helping me to redefine my goals in life, and what I sought.

Almost a year later, racking up endless hours at the yoga studio immersed in study and instruction, I graduated from yoga teacher training. I had made so many new and wonderful friends—friends who would play a key role in my future—but beyond that, I was a new and better version of myself. My mentors were the first to note how significant my transformation was: I was calmer, lighter-hearted, and clearer on my life’s direction. A few months later I took a leave of absence from work, and ventured to spend three months living with Roman Catholic Monks in monasteries, conducting research for a writing project; and a few months after that, I resigned from a decade-plus career in publishing to pursue my next career. Yoga taught me to breathe through the tight places in my body, my mind, and my life, and it taught me to flow—to connect with myself and ultimately with the universe. I studied the yamas and niyamas and their profound ethical codes and learned to turn the world off and tune into myself via meditation and breathing. My dive into yoga enabled me to face my life with a deep-rooted conviction to be true to myself, and good to others as I pursued my path.

Many gurus, many paths

Living in New York City in 2002, I had the luxury of studying with so many great yoga teachers. There was Govinda Kai, who assured me that “angels fly because they take themselves lightly” for the months I persevered at marichasana D.  From Govinda I learned about persistence, patience, grace, and about showing up each day even if I didn’t get to the next level. There was Eddie Stern who exuded a quiet holiness, and the joyful Pattabhi Jois on all of his New York City visits. Then there were the years of Mysore practice under the guidance of Christopher Hildebrandt, first at Karma Yoga and later at Yoga Sutra, which became our home away from home. Christopher’s sense of humor merged with his nurturing instincts taught me to take chances – to let go more, to find joy in the poses. The yoga classes I took with Sharon Gannon and David Life of Jivamukti yoga also impacted me enormously: their creativity and passion for living were contagious.  There was a beauty in yoga, a grace, a glow that pulled me in. Yoga Bums, a studio run by my dear friend Rosemary Vargas, was the embodiment of all that yoga meant to us—a shared space, a place to just be, a time out zone for us to tune in. There was the month I ventured to Mysore, India with a dear friend to practice Mysore ashtanga with the incredible Sheshadri at Patanjala Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Shala. Eventually, I too taught yoga, taking joy in teaching kid’s yoga and beginner’s yoga—a great feat for me and a lesson in slowing down.

The I am not flexible myth

Over the years, many people have said to me, “I am not flexible. Yoga is not for me.” But yoga is not about our body movements. It teaches us to be flexible mentally.  Emotionally. Intellectually. It instructs us to surrender into the moment as a means of surviving the sticky situations in life. Yoga teaches us to breathe and how to let our breath guide us—to slow down, focus, listen. If we gain some flexibility in our bodies, wonderful. If not, how awesome to have a more expansive mind! But as with all practices, the more one perseveres, the more physically flexible one will become.

Some twenty years later

I still practice yoga on a daily basis. No matter where I live, or where I travel to—nationally or internationally—I always uncover a welcoming studio to practice. Yes, my life has evolved. Yes, I am busy. Yes, I run daily for these same twenty years. As I mature, so too does my practice. In recent years, while I continue to love ashtanga, I have also returned to a steady power vinyasa practice. I like to flow. I like to focus. I like to breathe in a way that enables me to lose all the minutia that sometimes masquerades as my life. I like to lose myself daily so that I may rediscover myself.

For me, yoga is about faith. It’s about recovery and renewal and reinventing. It is about taking a time out each day to nurture myself and connect. It has taught me transcendence and also helps me daily to ground. It is not exercise to me, although sweating and soreness are often a byproduct of the classes I frequent. It is a practice, and for that, I am grateful. In yoga, there is no expert level; there’s nowhere to get to, no prizes to win. We are all always beginners when we roll out our yoga mats, which is the truth in all things in life. Yoga teaches me to accept myself – to find the light within me, so that I may be a light to others.

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