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A Little Samba in Your Samadhi: Yoga Report from Rio de Janeiro

Meeting NYC Trained Yoga Nomands in Rio de Janeiro
Posted on Yoga City NYC July 19, 2012

In 2007, I did my own personal yoga tour of Brazil and found the scene so baffling and different that I put away my notebooks and never wrote a word about it.

This June I spent a month in Rio de Janeiro and found that things have changed—on the yoga front and beyond. Brazil is now a country on the rise, with a growing middle class, a stable economy, the World Cup coming in 2014, followed by the Olympics in 2016. (And, sadly for me, prohibitive New York City-level prices as well.)

While many Brazilian yoga teachers still consider India the go-to place to train, (and others, rumor has it, train themselves from DVDs), still others are starting to go to the US for training, or inviting US teachers to come south. In short, the yoga scene is growing up with a definite NYC influence.

Within a few days of arriving in Rio, I found a yoga teacher who not only trained in New York but whose class was the best I’d taken—meaning, best suited to my needs and interests—in a good long while, anywhere in the world.

Kimberly Johnson is a pioneer. A dancer, she found yoga at 19 with a Viniyoga teacher in San Diego, and did her first training at Om Yoga – during one of the studio’s inaugural trainings at the original 14th street location. Not only that, but Johnson has done regular trainings with Rodney Yee and was also one of the first teachers to graduate from Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. We had 27 Facebook friends in common.

Kimberly gives classes out of her apartment in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa, set on a hill above Rio de Janeiro. She moved to Brazil for love and now lives here with her 5-year old daughter. Three times a week, I ran down the cobble-stoned streets to follow her precise instructions in English and Portuguese. The classes fit a maximum of 8-10 people in a parquet-floored salon where she also does Rolfing. Many of the houses in these neighborhoods were built centuries ago for rich merchants and French and Portuguese nobility, so above us hung blue and green-glass chandeliers.

One of my first times at Kimberly’s coincided with a full moon. Towards the end of an exacting class with long holds and repetitions of specific movements, Kimberly threw open the three-sided window that overlooked Guanabara Bay and the jutting stones of Pão D’Açucar and said, “Turn now to face the moon. We are moving through big changes as described in both the Vedic and Western astrology. So feel the energy in your nervous system and in your heart, and take courage from your practice.”

Through Kimberly I found what I’d begun to think was impossible: a Viniyoga-style group class that that challenged me physically and nourished me mentally. I also attended her first “urban retreat” that included a long walk in the nearby Tijuca forest where yellow-and-red striped toucans flew and adorable monkeys scampered in the palm trees.

Listening to Kimberly’s bilingual instructions also helped improve my Portuguese. And so when I went down from Santa Teresa to Ipanema in Rio’s Zona Sul (south zone), I was able to follow the instructions of another New York City-trained teacher, Coaracy Nunes.

Coaracy’s 7-year old studio, Blyss is distinctive in Rio—and in Brazil—for hosting a crew of international teachers as well as locals. Coaracy himself is a big-hearted guy who is in love with yoga, and especially the American yoga scene.

“In the US, it’s an open sadhana—but with concentration, focus, and knowledge. People here say, ‘I’m going to India to study.’ I say, go to a Yoga Journal conference! I’m a real fan of what’s going on in the US. It’s a beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary.”

Blyss is located on a busy street in Ipanema, just a few blocks from its famous beach, in a office building with other small health- and martial-arts studios. Its bright green walls and booming sound system make it a lively place to practice. Coaracy, whose NYC training consisted of attending at least 2 classes a day for 3 or 4 years at the old Jivamukti on 2nd Avenue, says his studio is in honor of the American scene. His teacher training is based on all the different styles of American yoga. He’s even hosted Krishna Das there for an intimate satsang.

“Yoga gives you a completely unfair advantage over other people—it gives you more focus, a healthier body, more presence. You can work longer because your back is happy. It gives you more energy and life. How can you not do it?”

Coaracy graduated from NYU’s Tisch School and works in interactive technologies to support the studio. When my bank card failed to dispense any money before his class, he happily hosted me anyway with the advice, “Don’t take it personally! It’s Brazil!”

Several blocks away in Ipanema, near Rio’s much-loved heart-shaped lagoon, is Joana Borges, a Carioca (Rio native) yoga teacher who works with a roster of private clients in their homes. She spent three months completing New York City’s Yoga Works teacher training after already studying with Brazilian teachers Marco Schultz and Pedro Kupfer, who are well-known in Brazil.

While at Yoga Works, Borges roomed with relatives in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and spent her down-time soaking in Manhattan’s yoga scene. Dharma Mittra, the Iyengar Studio, Laughing Lotus, Jivamukti—she tried to hit all the highlights.

“I loved New York City. The fact that you can go to a place with a lot of everything—good food, amazing yoga, jazz, theatre, dancing—whatever you want—was amazing for me. I loved being exposed to that culture and level of excellence.”

Borges, who sold her car in Rio to pay for her training in the US, discovered yoga at her gym while she was a young university student. “I was going to the gym to get curvy like the other girls. I was always so skinny. But then I found yoga and fell in love. I thought I was going into International Relations but instead I got yoga.” She is now starting a line of yoga clothing called Gam Yoga.

Returning up the hill to Santa Teresa from my explorations in Zona Sul, I felt fortunate to find yoga I really like in Rio. Often, it’s hard to find a class I really love, although curiosity (and need!) often takes me to local studios anyway. I still prefer to practice with the group and going to yoga is a great way to meet people. This time in Rio, it’s been a fun and interesting experience.

Himalayan Masters Awaken New York – But to What?

How often does the New York Times offer critique-free write-ups of enlightened gurus from the Himalayas? In early January, their Cityroom blog ran a cute buzz piece on Mahayogi Pilot Baba and his teaching companion Yogmata Keiko Aikawa.

Wondering what was up, YogaCity NYC asked me to check them out. Were they for real? I am not a stranger to working with masters. I’ve been attending the Living Tantra series with Rajmani Tigumait, a Vedic scholar; received hugs from Amma, and had a daily meditation practice created for me by Gary Kraftsow, a senior teacher in Desikachar’s lineage.

Even so. . . Research told me that Pilot Baba was often a headlining saddhu at the Kumbh Mela, India’s enormous, once-every-three-years spiritual festival. As a pilot in the Indian Air Force, the story goes, he had been rescued from certain death by Continue reading ‘Himalayan Masters Awaken New York – But to What?’

Tantra Weekend Getaway

The Scoop on this Misunderstood Tradition

“So how does that work,” asked a New York yogi friend after my weekend Tantra workshop at the Himalayan Institute. “You went up there with a partner or something?”

No such luck.

My weekend at the tranquil ashram in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, was the opposite of a hook up: 10 hours of lecture, 2 asana classes, simple vegetarian meals, and quiet grounds. My fellow attendees were yoga teachers, life coaches, construction workers, students and doctors, level-headed people who either knew Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Institute, or had heard of him through friends and teachers. Unlike the last Tantra workshop Tigunait gave in the late 90s, no one in attendance seemed to expect an orgy.
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Reaching Seekers

An Interview with Max Strom

Born a 12-pound baby with club feet, Max Strom spent the many years of his early life in casts and braces—or in surgery—before he learned to walk. In 2002, he established the center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California, now home to such teachers as Shiva Rea, Saul David Ray, and Eric Schiffman. Twelve years in the making, his book, A Life Worth Breathing: A Yoga Master’s Handbook of Strength, Grace and Healing (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95) collects his insights on yoga practice and life, incorporating stories and exercises for yoga students and teachers.
Continue reading ‘Reaching Seekers’

Radanath Swami: American in Mumbai

In front of tens of thousands of people, the guru motioned. “Tell that young man to come.” But the young man sitting shyly at the very back of the enormous tent didn’t understand. After waving and gesturing to no effect, an assistant went to get him, parting the awed crowd. So Radanath Swami, formerly Richard Slavin of Chicago, met the man who ultimately became his teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Or, some might say, this was how Srila Prabhupada chose him.

On a bitterly cold December night, Slavin, now 59, read from his recently published memoir, The Journey Home: Autobiography of an American Swami (Mandala, $24.95) at Eddie Stern’s Ashtanga Yoga Shala on Broome Street. A slight, unassuming man, he sat quietly in the audience next to one of his students, wrapped in the light orange robe of a monk (unbeknownst to me; I sat down right beside him, Continue reading ‘Radanath Swami: American in Mumbai’

The Big Book

Yoga Studies Institute teaches the Bhagavad Gita

The main lobby of Pure Yoga is covered in backpacks and notebooks. Groups of people, some from as far away as Arizona, England, and India, sit together eating snacks and talking. It looks like a college common room around exam time. But these studious people, ranging from early 20s to late 40s, are not gathered to take a test. They are here to receive the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu text, as taught by Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Michael Roach and his co-teacher Lama Christie McNally.

For eight evenings in November, Roach and McNally explicated the Gita—which is 9th scripture course in their Yoga Studies Institute (YSI) series—discussing the text’s insights into karma and ethical living. The conversation between Arjuna, the warrior prince, and Krishna, the Hindu god (disguised as Arjuna’s trusted friend and charioteer) is a model of student-guru relationship, Continue reading ‘The Big Book’

Continuing Education: Yoga Philosophy

Look down any yoga class schedule and usually you won’t find many offerings for yoga philosophy. Mostly reserved for teacher training programs—and then crammed into a weekend or two—philosophy is usually dwarfed by the popularity of asana, which is just one of yoga’s eight “limbs.” I went on a search to find who is offering philosophy classes in New York this year and was pleasantly surprised. It’s not just reserved for the hard-core student practicing svadyiya—self study—anymore. Yes, it can seem mysterious, but yoga’s deeper ideas offer inspiration for teaching and practicing, and – perhaps most importantly – for life. Continue reading ‘Continuing Education: Yoga Philosophy’

All Together Now

A Practice Space Opens to New Ideas

Like many good things, the “open practice” time at Sangha Yoga Shala hatched out of a conversation between friends. Alana Kessler, owner and director of the 6-month old studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and fellow-instructor Elise Espat both practiced Mysore-style ashtanga but at different studios. They thought it would be fun to practice together.

But when talk turned to action in early October, they decided—with the input from the rest of the studio’s staff—to do something quite untraditional. They decided not to limit the “open practice” to ashtangis, as is customary in Mysore style. Instead they made it inclusive of the other styles offered at Sangha Yoga Shala, including Iyengar. Continue reading ‘All Together Now’

Celebrity Yoga Teachers: A Contradiction in Terms?

At a Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco a few years ago, Gwen Soffer of Philadelphia found herself in an elevator with someone she thought she knew. But as much as she tried, she couldn’t place her.

“I said, ‘Where do I know you from? You look so familiar. Is it from a yoga workshop somewhere, or from Philly?’ The woman admitted she’d been in a lot of magazines.

“Then someone elbowed me and said, ‘It’s Ana Forrest!’ just as she got off the elevator. I tried to joke it off. It was like any other celebrity sighting.”

While we’ve long known that celebrities such as Sting, Madonna, Christy Turlington, and Willem Dafoe do yoga, we now have to acknowledge that yoga teachers can be celebrities in their own right.

This phenomenon raises a conundrum for all of us in the yoga world: How do we reconcile the marketing power and media-friendly images of big-name teachers– think of Rodney Yee, Shiva Rea, Sean Corne, Bikram Choudry, Baron Baptiste–with the precepts of yoga? After all, yoga teaches us to develop a genuine awareness of self—whether that’s through working the body in asana or calming the mind in pranayama and meditation—in order to decrease the strife of the individual ego. And that pretty much nixes self-interest as a viable option for a yoga teacher.
Continue reading ‘Celebrity Yoga Teachers: A Contradiction in Terms?’