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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.
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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’

Lotus of the Heart: How Meditation Lead Me to True Love

An Essay for Valentine’s Day

The way Francesco broke up with me was as simple as it was shocking. It was a Saturday afternoon in July and we’d just seen a movie at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Riding the subway back downtown, we sat side by side, him in an inexplicable and smoldering silence. Then he got up and walked out of the train. I never saw him again.

Dumbfounded, I was left to fill in the blanks myself. We’d only been dating for three months, seeing each other about once a week. Steady and sweet, he was the first guy in long while who seemed to enjoy being in a relationship rather than fighting it. He called me, took me out, complimented me. For more than a year, I’d dated men whom, I’d realize too late, were playing the field. Francesco’s availability was refreshing—in fact, it was a relief.

Until that fateful Saturday. Nothing had gone wrong as far as I could tell. Had something bothered him about the movie? Had he met someone else? Was it me? Continue reading ‘Lotus of the Heart: How Meditation Lead Me to True Love’

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.
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Documenta Brazil 2008

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A still from “Jogo de Cena” (Playing) 2007 by Eduardo Coutinho.
Coutinho ‘interviews’ actress Fernanda Torres in a fake ‘audition.’

Rhythms of Brasilidade

WHAT does it say when one of the filmmakers featured at a documentary film festival is 40 minutes late for his scheduled round-table event? True, it’s Friday night in New York, and it’s storming out. True, Brazilians have a more elastic sense of time, and the filmmaker had just arrived from Brazil. Maybe he had gone to some other event that had run late?

“I’d like to say I went to see a wonderful film from Estonia or Mongolia,” said a sheepish João Moreira Salles when at last he took his seat in the already-started panel. “But I did not. I went to see James Bond.”

So went the second day of Documenta Brazil, a documentary film festival hosted at the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University that featured 23 well-chosen films from 21 contemporary Brazilian filmmakers. Continue reading ‘Documenta Brazil 2008′

Off the Couch and Onto the Mat

A few blogs picked this piece up including the Utne Reader: Best of the Alternative Press.

At the Intersection of Yoga and Psychology

IN EARLY August 2008, Margot Andersen’s newly-married, 29-year-old son was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy highway in Chicago. For Margot, a social worker in Chicago schools for more than 13 years, the pain of the sudden, tragic loss was overwhelming. Enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program, and recently trained in LifeForce Yoga, a type of yoga focused on mood management, Andersen turned to methods she knew would have an immediate affect on her emotional stamina — yogic breathing, visualizations and mantras.

“It’s what’s gotten me through this past month,” says Andersen, 56. “Otherwise I’d be in bed, I’d be horrible.”

When she felt too exhausted to complete daily tasks, Margot used LifeForce’s breath of joy to access untapped energy. To calm down enough to sleep she practiced nadi shodahna (alternate nostril breathing); San kalpas (intentions) and mantras (chants) gave her the strength to leave the house.

“When I had no energy, and could feel myself sinking, I used the breath,” says Andersen. Continue reading ‘Off the Couch and Onto the Mat’

Mala Yoga: Small is Beautiful

Mala Yoga sits on the second floor above a corner real estate office in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, at arguably one of the cutest intersections in the neighborhood. With coffee shops, restaurants, a Montessori school and a small independent bookstore nearby, this could be Main Street, USA. The church spire rising in the distance completes the picture.

But it’s Court Street, a bustling, residential part of Brooklyn. Run by three yoginis, two who left white-collar careers for yoga, Mala has only a sandwich board outside to mark its presence. It gets most of its students from walk-ins and word of mouth.

Opened in November 2007, Mala bucks current trends of expansion and franchising as one of the smallest studios in the city, at just 700 square feet–including the bathroom. Continue reading ‘Mala Yoga: Small is Beautiful’

Studio Spotlight: Om Factory NYC

AcroYoga Finds a Home in New York

It’s surprising to get off on the 17th floor of a pre-war factory building, high above the crowded, semi-seedy streets between the Port Authority bus terminal and Penn Station, and walk into the bright colors and clean lines of Om Factory NYC. With a garment factory staffed by Cantonese-speaking women across the hall, Om Factory is an oasis of positive vibes, smiling faces, and good old-fashioned hard work.

The Friday night of my first AcroYoga class at Om Factory, I was exhausted. The staff at reception, and the space itself, was immediately soothing. From the glittering sliver clothes hooks, to the marigold-orange and avocado-green walls, to the gold-edged sun yantra in the Yantra studio, Om Factory was clearly constructed with love and enthusiasm (and maybe a little bit of obsessive planning). Continue reading ‘Studio Spotlight: Om Factory NYC’

Yogi, Take me to a Higher Place

The Search for An Advanced Yoga Practice

Practitioner at Kula Yoga Project, TriBeCa, NY
Published in The New York Times, Thursday Styles section, May 2008

WHEN Raquel Prieto moved from Northampton, Mass., to Boston in January, there was one thing she sought as urgently as an affordable living situation and a job: an advanced yoga class.

As a dedicated yogi, she wanted to work on meditation and on poses, or asanas, requiring a lot of strength and flexibility and a deep mental focus.

Even after spending $700 and two months trying out studios, she still hadn’t found a place she could build on the advanced practice she developed in a Northampton studio. So she patched together a combination of home practice, classes at a nearby yoga center, visits to a meditation center and trips back to Northampton.

“I’m not thrilled,” said Ms. Prieto, 23. “It’s hit or miss.” Her search for satisfaction, she said, “was a huge emotional thing. I got depressed.”

With a yoga studio seemingly on every corner, it might appear counterintuitive for any yoga class to be in short supply. But Ms. Prieto’s experience is not unique; many seasoned practitioners report having a hard time finding challenging classes.

The reason is simple. Yoga has evolved from a passion for the few into a mainstream pursuit. There are 15.8 million adults practicing yoga, according to Yoga Journal’s recent “Yoga in America” study, with almost one third of them practicing for a year or less. The study also found that the number of people interested in trying yoga tripled from 2004 to 2008 to an estimated 18.3 million.

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Celluloid Dreams: Sao Paulo

The Rise of a Little Film School in Brazil

AT 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, students wait anxiously to be buzzed in through the heavy, wrought-iron gates at 142 Rua Dr. Gabriel dos Santos. Beyond lies a large, colonial house with a broad, wrap-around veranda. As students march upstairs to the old-fashioned classrooms, the wide-plank steps creak noisily underfoot. upload11.jpgBy 3p.m., schooled in the basics of documentary film making, they’re back on the street—shooting their first video on a digital video camera.

While this scene might sound typical, these students are not from New York University’s illustrious film school, nor the well-funded School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They won’t be driving off to Sundance anytime soon. (If they go, they’ll be taking a 10-hour international flight.)

Rather, these students are enrolled at Academia Internacional de Cinema (AIC), a small, independent film school that’s located in the residential Higienópolis neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil.

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Between Poses, a Barrage of Pickup Lines

The Phenomenon of Inappropriate Yoga Guy

Published in The New York Times, Thursday Styles section, August 07

THE words “Do you come here often?” are not sweet nothings when you are going into final relaxation during a yoga class. Nor do most yoga practitioners welcome someone who flirts shamelessly as mats are positioned during the lull before the teacher arrives.

Now, a popular online video starring a lech named Ogden has the yoga community chuckling in recognition and talking about the problem of men who come to studios in search of phone numbers rather than enlightenment.

The comedy sketch, aptly named “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” has racked up nearly 1.8 million views since its debut on YouTube in June — no doubt the biggest hit to date for GoPotato.tv, an online comedy network in Los Angeles, which produced the video starring Avi Rothman.

Wearing a goofy headband, Ogden “Oms” far too loudly, brags about the retreats he has attended in Nepal and Mexico, and makes eyes at Kimberly, a buxom long-haired beauty, during class. He even grabs her hips to perform an adjustment (a correction usually done discreetly by a teacher).

Continue reading ‘Between Poses, a Barrage of Pickup Lines’