Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

How I Got Here

The term yoga teacher is shrouded in mystique.  This air of the mysterious springs forth from the fountain of the vague.   It is virtually impossible to judge the qualifications of a yoga teacher through their bio, often the only thing a prospective yoga student has to go on.  It is all too common for these bios to leave out dates, circumstance, and location in favor of allusion.  Terms like senior teacher, teacher’s teacher, expert, specialist, certified, and teacher trainer litter the websites of yoga studios across the globe.  “My humble thanks to my teachers x, y, z, q, w, m, and t for their wisdom and guidance.”  Sound familiar? 

Yoga Teacher Training is certainly no guarantee of qualification.  The Yoga Alliance Standards (on which 90% of Teacher Trainings are built) haven’t been updated in 17 years!  Moreover the Standards are not enforced.  I do not know of a single studio in New York City that fact checks their teachers’ bios.  As far as my own lineage goes, that of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as it was taught by K. Pattabhi Jois, we do not typically have teacher trainings, so it is hard to judge our qualifications even by the subpar and disregarded Standards of the Yoga Alliance.  I have written the following blog in an effort to become more transparent about my own education in yoga.  Hopefully it will shed some light on my ideas, opinions, and methods and from whence they come.  This is not an exhaustive piece by far; there are many things that I have left out.  There are also parts that may seem to go off topic; I have included them because I feel they influenced me in some way (or possibly for a small bit of humor so that you are encouraged to continue reading).  Throughout the blog and in the postscriptum I give a few short opinions and observations – these all stem from my direct personal experience.  I hope you will enjoy my little meander down memory lane.

Yoga teachers are human, just like everyone else.  They can be a source of great support.  They can be a source of great disappointment.  They can be a source of great wisdom.

 Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Let it be known!  I am a Level 2 Authorized Ashtanga Teacher.  I am a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance at the Experienced 500 hour level.

Slow and steady wins the race.  There is no race.

I began the practice of Ashtanga Yoga in 2007.  This was after three years doing consistent practice of Bikram Yoga, though never in a studio with the name Bikram on it, and Vinyasa Yoga.  I started ashtanga because the studio where I was to do my first teacher training, the now closed Yoga Sutra near Bryant Park in NYC, offered the practice and if you paid for the training in advance you were given free classes at the studio from that date until the end of training.  I began my Mysore Style practice in a non-traditional way, having either been misinformed by a member of the staff at the studio or having misinterpreted what the staff member said, I really cannot be sure which.  I took four Led Ashtanga classes, two of which were Full Primary Series and two of which were Half Primary Series (up to navasana), and from there took it upon myself to memorize the series.  I went to my first Mysore Style class expecting to do the entire Primary Series and that is exactly what I did.  The teacher was quite gracious and I think a bit amused and allowed me to continue with the entire Primary Series.  Several months later I was asked to do the first pose of Intermediate Series.  This came as quite a shock as I had no idea there was anything called Intermediate Series.

The first “pains” I got from practicing ashtanga were in my wrists – they were dull and achy, but disconcerting.  I consulted with my teacher and was told they would go away with time and practice.  They did and I have never had wrist pain since.  The second pains I got were in my knees, which is not surprising as padmasana positions were something I’d ignored for virtually all of my yoga life so far.  These pains were also dull, but far more intense than the wrist pain.  Again, I consulted with my teacher and we made some changes to how I went about my asanas and vinyasas.  It took some months, but eventually the knee pain eased and I have not had knee pain since.

I completed my 200hr Teacher Training under the direction of Christopher Hildebrandt (also my second ashtanga teacher, his sister was my first) at Yoga Sutra in February of 2008 and began teaching a few classes publically (I still held a full time office job) by April.  This began a period of three years when I worked seven days a week. 

200hr Yoga Alliance Registered Teacher Training
approx. $2,300
about 6 months in length

Yoga Alliance dues
$55 per year

It was during my 200hr training that I met and studied with Srivatsa Ramaswami, the longest standing student of T. Krishnamacharya outside of the teacher’s immediate family.  Over the next three years I would have the great pleasure to study vinyasa krama, pranayama, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with him several more times.  Mr. Ramaswami is an extremely humble and learned man and my brief studies with him have left a lasting impression on me.   

I took at 100hr Core Fusion Hot Yoga Teacher Training sometime after my 200hr training.  The details are a bit fuzzy on this one.  I took it to get more work at a studio where I was already teaching that had hot yoga offerings.  There’s a lot of pay to play in the yoga biz.  If people really knew what the typical yoga teacher earns per class they would take it upon themselves to put out tip jars and collect spare change for their instructors.   

100hr Core Fusion Hot Yoga Teacher Training
approx.. $700 (I got a large discount for teaching at the studio)
I do not recall the length of time

Trust between teacher and student is essential to the learning process.  Trust is earned by the teacher from the student over a period of time.  Trust can be lost at anytime.

I began my 300hr Advanced Teacher Training, again at Yoga Sutra, in 2009.  This is also when I met John Campbell and Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn, both direct students of K. Pattabhi Jois, who would become my ashtanga teachers for several years.  It was at some point in 2009 when one of the ashtanga assistants reached out to me because Kimberly had expressed a need for an assistant in the Mysore room and he thought I would be capable.  I presented myself to Kimberly and she accepted me as her assistant.  The agreement was that I would practice with John in the morning and then come to assist her Monday through Thursday after I finished at the office for two hours each evening.  Friday I would practice Primary Series with her in the evening.  The first instruction Kimberly gave me as her assistant was,  “we use our words first and our hands second.”  Communicate with the students.  Assisting in a Mysore room is physical demanding, mentally taxing, and can be emotionally demeaning.   As the assistant you are the lowest of the low:  the student is not expected to know and so they are innocent, the teacher knows more than you and is respected, so all problems stem from you.  I have been forced to apologize to people who did not deserve an apology because, in Kimberly’s own words, “it is our job to be the bigger people.”  I was told to ask people to, “please come again tomorrow,” though, were it up to me, I would want to never see them again in my lifetime.  My physical practiced suffered when I started to assist which is only natural, it is a great deal more physical effort that has been added to each day.

K. Pattabhi Jois passed away in 2009.  I never met him.  I went to two memorial services for him in NYC, one small and one quite large.  Both were beautiful, heartfelt, welcoming, and moving.

I completed my 300hr Advanced Teacher Training under the direction of Guta Hedewig in January of 2010.  During this training I met and studied with Dr. Edwin Bryant, an Indologist and professor of religions of India at Rutgers University, Chase Bossart, a direct student of TKV Desikachar, and Dr. Satyanarayana Dasa, an Indian Gaudiya Vaisnava scholar.  Due to a reorganizing of my 300hr training I was allowed to attend any lectures in the next 300hr Teacher Training at Yoga Sutra for free.  I took full advantage of this and was able to study with these fine teachers again.

300hr Yoga Alliance Registered Advanced Teacher Training
approx.. $3,000
around 10 months in length

If my recollection serves me well, and it is quite possible that it does not, John left Yoga Sutra sometime in late 2009 or early 2010 to teach at the Upper West Side location of Pure Yoga.  I remained at Yoga Sutra with Kimberly until she also left.  There was a short period of time when Kimberly hosted a Mysore Style program at a small studio near Times Square called Prana Mandir.  I continued to study with her there, always arriving early due to my teaching schedule and therefore often receiving about half an hour of private lesson before any other students came.

 A candid of Saraswathi and me.  Most unfortunately I cannot recall who took this photo.

A candid of Saraswathi and me.  Most unfortunately I cannot recall who took this photo.

It was sometime around this point when I met Saraswathi Jois, daughter of Pattabhi Jois.  She taught a week of Mysore Style classes at the Soho location of Yoga Works.  She would stand by my mat and have me do tick tocks (handstands dropping into backbends) each morning.  I honestly have no idea why and I’m almost certain I was the only one.

Also sometime around this point I met Dr. MA Jayashree and MA Narasimhan while they were on a tour of America.  Kimberly had studied Sanskrit, Philosophy, and Chanting with Jayashree for many years in Mysore, India and so Jayashree and Narasimhan would later become my teachers as well.  In fact, Jayashree’s family home is the first place I went to in Mysore as Kimberly was staying there at the time.

 Louise, middle front, and some of the gang in 2011.

Louise, middle front, and some of the gang in 2011.

Eventually Kimberly closed up shop at Prana Mandir and stopped teaching publicly for a time.  She sent me to Pure Yoga to continue my studies with John.  At Pure Yoga I both studied with and assisted John and taught for him if he was away.  Both he and Kimberly had been encouraging me to go to India and so in 2011 (now having practiced ashtanga consistently for about 5 years) I did.  I did not go to Mysore that first trip as The Shala was closed during the time of year I was able to go.  I ended up in Rishikesh where I met and studied with Louise Ellis, a direct student of K. Pattabhi Jois.  I had been practicing on my own in India before meeting Louise and had gotten myself into quite a bit of back pain.  Louise mitigated my back pain and set me up to heal slowly; she also introduced me to Advanced A Series, to the Yin Yoga practice, and pranayama as it had been taught by Pattabhi Jois. 

Louise’s Shala Fees
Approx. $300

Upon my return to NYC John continued my education in Advanced A Series up to gandha bherundasana.  It was during my exploration of Advanced A that I developed very intense shoulder pain to the point where I could no longer do vinyasas in the traditional manner.  After heavily editing my vinyasas to reduce the pain I relearned how to do them safely, including downward facing dog.  I still have some shoulder pain from time to time if I am not careful, which I blame more on the physical impact of teaching on the body than on practice.  John then left Pure Yoga and moved to Virginia for a professorship.  Kimberly took over the program and I again began to assist and practice with her.  She stripped me of several of my Advanced Series asanas and my practice was reduced to up through purna matsyendrasana (I was quite welcoming of this change).  I was still dealing with some back pain when Kimberly took over and with her help I completely relearned how to back bend.  I have not had back pain since.

2011 is the year Kimberly founded her YouTube channel Kiki Says and I got on board to help record and edit the videos.  The day I returned from my first India trip I went directly to Tompkins Square Park, all my luggage in tow, to film with Kimberly.  Over the next few years Kimberly and I made over 100 videos together spanning the length and breadth of yoga, health, and natural beauty.  It was a period of very intensive learning for me.

Ashtanga is an extremely compassionate practice.  It is not a kind practice.

I made my first trip to Mysore in early 2013 to study with Sharath Jois, the grandson of Pattabhi Jois.  Kimberly was there on a visit and our trips overlapped by about a week.  She showed me around and introduced me to everyone which resulted in, once she left, people assuming I had been to Mysore several times as I knew where everything was and had quite an array of connections.  Kimberly gave me some great advice during that time, “keep your head down, do your practice efficiently, get in and get out.”  In other words, have respect for your teacher’s time and energy. 

 Me and Kiki, B.B. Canteen, Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Me and Kiki, B.B. Canteen, Laxmipuram, Mysore, India

Sadly, the great American Krishna bhakta, kirtanist, and translator Shyam Das died in a motor scooter accident not long after Kimberly left Mysore.  She was one of the first to hear the news and instructed me from New York to inform Sharath and Saraswathi, as they had both known Shyam.  This was the first time I had ever seen Sharath and Saraswathi, mother and son, together in the Director’s Office when I informed them of Shyam’s passing. 

During that first two month trip Sharath allowed me to practice up to dwipada sirsasana in the Intermediate Series.  I recall one morning Sharath added five asanas to my sequence which lead to a round of congratulations and astonishment outside the shala during coconut drinking time which I found a bit odd (after all, Louise had told me she learned all of Intermediate in one day) and, I discovered later, some viscous comments were whispered behind my back which I found quite silly.   This was the last year that Sharath permitted people to stay longer than three months in a single trip, due to overcrowding of the place.  It was also the last year for rolling admissions.

Sharath’s Shala fees
Approx.. $400 first month
Approx.. $300 second month

I was reunited with Jayashree and Narasimhan on that trip in 2013 and have studied chanting and philosophy with them each trip since, sometimes for up to three hours a day.  I also learned the TM technique of meditation directly from Narasimhan who was a direct student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Anantha Research Foundation Fees
Approx. $120 per month donation

Special Course – TM technique
Approx.. $90 donation
(Learning the technique in NYC costs anywhere from $500 to $960 depending on your income level.)

 Jayashree and Narasimhan sitting in the background.

Jayashree and Narasimhan sitting in the background.

My second trip to Mysore was in 2014, again for two months, and up to vatayanasana was added onto my series.  This is the only trip to India where I lived by myself.  Once my landlord came up to my apartment to accuse me of having invited whores over, since I had had some female friends over for lunch the day before.  I eventually calmed him down after a great deal of yelling, but he still wanted copies of the passports and visa pages of all my visitors from then on.  These were never provided.

After that trip I started my own Mysore Style program, Bleecker Street Ashtanga at Sacred Sounds Yoga with Kimberly’s blessing.  The first day of teaching I had one student and this continued for the first month.  Slowly I built to three and then five; I still remember the excitement the day I had eight students in the room at the same time.  By the six month mark the program was viable (ie. paying for my teaching fees and not losing the studio money).  At the same time I was teaching the evening Mysore Style program at Land Yoga in Harlem.

My third trip to Mysore was in 2015, again for two months, and I finished Intermediate Series and was asked to do the first posture in Advanced.  Sharath gave me supta urdva pada vajrasana one morning during Led Intermediate Series and quizzed me on the posture’s name – I totally went blank and failed his pop quiz, shame on me.  He then informed me jokingly that he would take away my Authorization, but joke was on him as he had not yet Authorized me.  I was Authorized Level 2 by Sharath that trip.

Authorization Level 2
Approx. $1,800

After this trip I started working with people with severe spinal cord injury and degenerative diseases under the guidance of Kimberly.  We would work with the students, most of whom were in wheelchairs, in both group and private settings.  Eventually I began to teach some of these classes on my own without her supervision.

My fourth trip to Mysore was in 2016, this time for one month, and I was asked to do up through kasyapasana.  A highlight from that trip was getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on the way home one night.  Serves me right for being out after dark, Lord only knows what I was up to.  I saw Sharath again when he was on tour later that year.  I have not been able to see him since that time.

 Me, some of my students, and Sharath Jois

Me, some of my students, and Sharath Jois

In September of 2017 I began teaching the evening Mysore Program at Ashtanga Yoga Upper West Side.  There are many familiar faces there from my time years ago at Pure Yoga on the Upper West Side.  I am very grateful to be there.

It has been my great pleasure to host Louise twice at Bleecker Street Ashtanga, once in 2017 and just recently in 2018.  In addition I went to Paris to assist her when she was hosted by my dear friend Nicolas Legrez.

I practice a good deal of Primary Series these days:  more than I would were I in Mysore with nothing to do but eat, sleep, and practice.  I take Primary Series the day before or of travel in an airplane and for a week afterwards.  I take Primary Series the day before most Moon Days.  Sometimes I take Primary Series twice in one week simply because I am tired.

That brings us generally up to date with my yogacation (that’s yoga + education, not yoga + vacation).  I have found Ashtanga to be a versatile system that can be taught to anyone.  I personally have taught or have seen taught the young, old, emaciated, obese, weak, strong, deaf, partially blind, paraplegic, quadriplegic, healthy, infirm, amputated, stubborn, and foolish.  I categorize myself under stubborn and foolish.  I have taught a billionaire.  I have taught several multimillionaires.  I have taught people who worked at the studio in exchange for yoga class because they could not afford it otherwise.  I have never seen more diversity in a yoga setting than in a Mysore room. 

Postscriptum

Having done some quick math based on very conservative estimates I can say with confidence that I have been physically adjusted a minimum of 3,000 times.  I have been adjusted hard and soft.  I’ve had people stand on me, lie on me, poke me with fingers, pull and push on me.  I have found these adjustments to be very useful, both on a physical and energetic level.  I have never been injured by a physical adjustment.

I have hurt myself practicing ashtanga.  It was my own fault and it is highly doubtful the teacher could have done anything to keep me from doing it.  This is why I categorize myself under stubborn and foolish.

A little more math confirms that I have given a physical adjustment to another person a minimum of 35,000 times.  To my knowledge I have injured one person during a physical adjustment.  That is one person too many and I bear the full responsibility, regardless of circumstance.  I strive to learn from my mistakes.

The greatest yogi still living I ever met is my grandfather.  He has never taken a yoga class.