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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.

The Path to the Yoga Sutras

The Path to the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga by Nicolai Bachman

Many serious yoga practitioners pore over Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and any reputable yoga teacher training will require this foundational text for its students. But just as many people find the mysterious aphorisms, Sanskrit, and multitude of commentaries intimidating. Nicolai Bachman, a Santa Fe-based Sanskritist and yoga teacher, has compiled The Path of the Yoga Sutras to address this issue.

Rather than going through the sutras verse by verse as most commentaries do, Bachman spotlights the text’s core concepts (51 by his count), following a similar structure to the Yoga Sutras home study course he released last year. Continue reading ‘The Path to the Yoga Sutras’

Yoga Is

Yoga Is: A Film About the Transformational Power of Yoga written and directed by Suzanne Bryant

Yoga Is is Suzanne Bryant’s paean to yoga, an homage to the practice that held her together while her mother was dying of breast cancer. In gratitude, the former journalist explores yoga’s mysterious power—to engender love, happiness, and transformation—through interviews with such yoga world celebrities as Sharon Gannon and David Life, Alan Finger, Baron Baptiste, Seane Corn, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, and Shiva Rea. She also travels to India (though we see her there mostly with American teachers). Skillfully produced, the film charts similar territory to Kate Churchill’s thornier 2008 film Enlighten Up! but with a much less critical eye. Still, this is a good documentary for newcomers unfamiliar with yoga’s higher purpose, showing without a doubt that yoga is more than a sweaty workout.

published in Yoga International, Fall 2011 issue

Yoga Woman

Yoga Woman: Never Underestimate the Power of Inner Peace a film written, produced and directed by Kate and Saraswati Clere

“Women have made yoga an international phenomenon and a multi-billion dollar industry,” observes Yoga Woman, a documentary from sisters Kate and Saraswati Clere. While yoga benefits both genders, Western women now dominate the practice, and they’re bringing issues such as body image, fertility, and family/work balance to the forefront. The film attempts to spotlight women of every age, race, situation, and nationality (though it remains U.S.-centered), and includes moving footage of pioneer teachers Patricia Walden and Angela Farmer, Seane Corn’s crew of yoginis building a birthing center in Uganda, and Indra Devi, “First Lady of Yoga,” who pestered paterfamilias T. Krishnamacharya until he accepted her as his student. In the end, Yoga Woman is a testimony to yoga’s transcendent power to calm, heal, challenge, and transform both individuals and societies.

published in Yoga International, Fall 2011 issue

Fierce Medicine

Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit, by Ana T. Forrest.

This generous and straight-talking book showcases Ana Forrest’s intelligence and creativity as a healer, while dipping into memoir to detail the extreme abuse she suffered as a child. Born crippled, Forrest (the creator of Forrest Yoga) was imprisoned, drugged, starved, and raped from the age of two, and started drinking alcohol at four. At six, she began working in a nearby stable to escape her sadistic family, and, at 17, while working as a horse trainer, she attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff. As remarkable as her recovery from these soul-crushing experiences is her perspective—rebellious, inquisitive, and clear-eyed.
Continue reading ‘Fierce Medicine’

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?’

War & Peace of Mind

The U.S. Military Embraces Holistic Healing

The U.S. Military’s ideas of fitness are changing, and in some surprising ways. In December 2009, the Department of Defense brought together over 70 experts to explore the possibility of a holistic approach to health that includes physical, psychological, and spiritual health. The results, published in the August 2010 edition of Military Medicine, outlined the radical new concept of “Total Force Fitness”—eight interconnected concepts for health, half of which focus on mind-body, spirit, community, and psychological wellness.

Ideas about holistic health are more often heard in yoga studios than in war rooms. But with thousands of service members coming home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), brain injuries, chronic pain, and sleep disorders—and many thousands more expected as wards in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down—the military is looking for a broader range of effective long-term treatments. Continue reading ‘War & Peace of Mind’

Field Notes

Developing Educational Standards for Yoga Therapists

What is a yoga therapist versus a yoga teacher? Is yoga therapy clinical or relational or both? Should training standards start low (200 hours) to be more accessible, or start high (1,000 hours) so that they are rigorous and safe?

These are some of the hard questions that the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) has been debating since the fall of 2009 in an effort to establish minimum standards for yoga therapists-in-training.
Continue reading ‘Field Notes’

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.
Continue reading ‘Tantra Weekend Getaway’

Lulu Bandha’s LuluVu (media)

Lulu Bandha’s LuluVu, lulubhandas.com

At LuluVu—the online studio counterpart of California yoga community Lulu Bandha’s, helmed by Kira Ryder—simply signing in gets you several free classes. Monthly packages, workshops with visiting teachers (think Eric Schiffmann, Dana Flynn), and highlights from retreats are reasonably priced. And, the abundant offerings are frequently updated so there’s no shortage of inspiration.

published in Yoga International, Winter 2010-2011 issue

Yoga Anatomy Online Course

Yoga Anatomy Online Course by Leslie Kaminoff, yogaanatomy.net

With 25 years’ experience teaching anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff launched his popular Yoga Anatomy course in an online format this fall. The nine-month intensive covers three major areas—breathing, the spine, and the articular body—and inlcudes instructional videos, weekly online chats, and homework. Even better, it counts as 144 non-contact credit hours with Yoga Alliance.

published in Yoga International, Winter 2010-2011 issue

The Guru in You

The Guru in You: A Personalized Program for Rejuvenating Your Body and Soul by Yogi Cameron Alborzian

Former male supermodel Cameron Alborzian has written a compulsively readable book on yoga and ayurveda, littered with stories from his modeling career, personal life, and therapeutic work with clients. The Guru in Yoga aims to get people on the path of health and healing by helping them set clear intentions, work with breath and asanas, and apply ayurvedic techniques. For those who can’t afford Alborzian’s handsome services, this book is a helpful alternative.

published in Yoga International, Winter 2010-2011 issue Continue reading ‘The Guru in You’

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’