I've been practicing yoga for 11 years and it has changed my life. But since Wal-Mart yoga has moved into SoCal, the quality of the schools has depreciated and both the students and the instructors are worse off because of it. The schools have lost their personality and their uniqueness -- they have no soul anymore. Worst of all, the one thing that matters most to your practice has become a commodity: the yoga instructor.
Most important to this yoga machine besides selling toe rings and DVDs is scheduling Teacher Training -- where the Western cash cow meets Eastern philosophy. Paying a few grand and spending two weeks in training does not prepare anyone spiritually to become a yoga instructor -- that takes years or decades. The cash flow is great for investors and shareholders though.
If you meditate on it for a while, you might come to believe as I do that yoga can't be branded anymore than Catholicism nor Judaism can. As a consumer, don't fall for it.
For the last 5 - 6 years I've been doing yoga on my own. I meditate several times a day and I run a meditation group at my house on Wednesday nights -- mostly with close friends who either are experienced yogis or who've been schooled in meditation.
This may be TMI, but I really miss the idealism I had when I was younger...and my naivete! But people change. I miss my former instructors and love them deeply for helping me on my journey, but the TMZ aspect of the their lives has become too much for me anymore. The one instructor from my salad days -- who IMHO has remained true to herself, her practice, and her students -- is Nancy Goodstein.
I called my first yoga teacher for some mentoring. Elizabeth McLellan-Lamura is now teaching privately in New York City. "Michael, whatever it takes you to get on the mat," she told me. "Everyday it might be something different. Your reasons and intentions can, and will differ each day. Just do what's best for you -- it's your yoga. But get on the mat. Stop thinking and start feeling and breathing." Seems so simple when other people say it. Eternal wisdom. After 11 years, I'm still such a rookie on many levels. I love you Liz.
So last Sunday at 2 p.m. I was on my mat at Yogis Anonymous in front of Ally Hamilton -- a wonder woman no doubt and someone who I feel the Los Angeles yoga scene is in desperate need of. I have studied with her for many years, but while she was at other studios.
Her Eastern wisdom that day did come with a very Western name -- "Hurts So Good" -- and it did. Not because she's a masochist, but because she had us take an extra beat in order to relax while we were finding our breath.
Ally is a wife, a mother of two (including a newborn), and now the co-founder -- along with her husband Dorian Cheah -- of a donation-based school in Santa Monica. (I love people who take chances and bet big on themselves. They think in terms of possibilities, not road blocks, and that's exciting to be around). Donation-based schools focus on the uniqueness of the teacher and promote them, as opposed to the brand.
"We are trying something new here and we have a great group of instructors," she told me after class. "At this point when I practice with someone, I'm mostly interested in their energy. I want a teacher who is spreading some love and some light...someone who has attained a level of steadiness and peace in their own life." On the roster of 20 instructors is Brock and Krista Cahill, Ashley Turner, and Jorgen Christiansson, just to name a few. "We're growing at a good pace and I'd like to add Kirtan and a weekly meditation to the schedule."
Hubby and fellow yogi Dorian is handling the business side of the studio, which broke ground the same day Ally gave birth to their daughter -- July 14. "We got really lucky with the space and contractors," he said. And like any good Angeleno he quickly adds "Plus there's lots of parking right next door to the studio!" If you haven't arrived at your studio and driven around the block 45 times looking for a parking spot, knowing that the only mat-space left is on the stage, you haven't really experienced the duress of studying yoga in Los Angeles.
Now conventional wisdom suggests that when you're trying out a new school, try to take at least five classes with as many instructors. The first one or two might not speak to you, but keep at it.
I took my own advice on this one. But instead of going to the easy choice -- a second class with Ally or one with Jorgen, who I'm also familiar and comfortable with, I took a class with someone I never heard of. And frankly, I was blown away.
Angela Kukhahn has been teaching for quite some time and that I didn't hear about her was due to my own ignorance. I knew something amazing was going to happen in the class because the vibe in the studio was tranquil, mesmerizing, and calming, but at the same time full of energy and life. Thing is, I was 20 minutes early...the room was empty -- or so I thought...
I didn't notice that sitting very still in the front of the room by herself, cross-legged, was Angela.
More and more students arrive and I was going through my pre-vinyasa warm up, stretching and quieting my mind. We then warmed up as a class and began what seemed to be a beautifully choreographed vinyasa, challenging, but peaceful. There were several levels of students in the class, and Angela made sure each could amend a pose with an alternate asana. None of the Level 1 students were blown away, nor were any of the pure Level 3s bored.
One thing didn't occur to me until after the class: Angela was great in that she didn't ruin the moment by talking through the whole class, by reciting the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, nor playing Steve Miller's Fly Like An Eagle -- she landed big points with me for that one.
The class flew by. After the flow and the standing poses, we hit the mats to cool down and stretch before inversions. I was completely lost in the moment. I was lost in the moving meditation of my yoga. I was on the mat. Bending. Breathing and feeling my feelings and listening inward to what their positive intentions might be. I am ecstatic to be back in a spiritually-inclined yoga studio.
Yogis Anonymous is at 1221 2nd Street in Santa Monica. There is a huge parking lot next door with 2 hours of free parking. The studio is well off the street so there is very little outside noise. There are no toe-rings for sale.
Om shanti shanti shanti.