Today I turned 35. This birthday has some extra significance for me because it was exactly ten years ago that I took my first yoga class. At the time, I was living in Los Angeles and had just moved into a new apartment in Westwood (that’s the neighborhood where UCLA is located).
Life in L.A. can be really difficult, and I was desperately seeking something to help manage the stress of trying to make it in one of the most intense cities in America. Just a few blocks from my place, near the intersection of Westwood and Wilshire, was a little place called L.A. Yoga. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, I would drive by the sign and wonder what the heck it was that they did in there. Finally, on my 25th birthday, I decided to check it out.
Before I take another step down memory lane, I want to explain what this post is really about. It’s about expressing gratitude to all the yoga teachers who have inspired me and helped me to stay (somewhat) sane over the years. It’s also about encouraging readers out there to remember and maybe even thank your own teachers, especially those who have played an important role in your yoga journey. Too often, we go to yoga class and just take, take, take — e.g., I know I’m often guilty of getting my “yoga fix” and then just rushing out the door.
As a former yoga teacher, though, I know how great it is to have even a single student express appreciation for your class. It’s a reminder that yoga teachers (at least some of them) are not just fitness instructors or cheerleaders. Indeed, the best yoga teachers can even inspire you towards being your better self. Or maybe they just help to take the edge off an otherwise miserable day. Either way, it’s the great yoga teachers who can turn a studio into a kind of sanctuary, where the boogeyman and all the other bad stuff out there in the world can’t touch you.
Here are some of the teachers I remember most, along with a few specific memories I have of each.
Jeanne Heileman – Everyone remembers their first yoga teacher. I took my first class with Jeanne at L.A. Yoga, on October 11th, 2002, at 6:00pm. It was called something like Vinyasa Flow Levels 1-2, none of which meant anything to me at the time. I just remember doing my first Sun Salutations in that class and feeling like I had just struck gold.
Terra Green Gold – Terra also taught at L.A. Yoga (before it was bought out by YogaWorks). She had a very popular Sunday night Level 2 class with live music. I remember taking that class on a regular basis, and trying not to laugh at this one guy who was always there, and was always on the verge of falling on his head, especially in Tree Pose. To this day, I have never seen anyone with such poor balance! He was a great sport, though, and Terra created a nice environment where people could laugh at themselves and not take yoga too seriously.
Michael Farewell – Michael was the first yoga teacher to really kick my butt. He would frequently make us hold Warrior II for two full minutes, and I can still hear his resonant voice saying, “Inhale…. Exhale…” as he counted out the time. I would leave his class shaking sometimes. After practicing with him, I could never make the mistake of thinking yoga was easy. Sure, it could be relaxing, but you had to earn it in his class.
Raghunath – The first time I practiced with Raghunath was in a Level 2-3 Vinyasa class at YogaWorks. He walked in, covered in tattoos, looking more like a rock star than a yoga teacher. (In fact, Raghunath was a rock star… he used to be the lead singer of several hardcore punk bands, including Youth of Today.) Raghunath always starts class by playing the harmonium and leading the students in devotional singing. Then he puts the harmonium aside and launches into 90 minutes of what can appropriately be called rock star yoga. The great thing about Raghu, though, is that he was truly humble. It was always about Krisha, and thanking his teachers. If anyone ever complimented his practice, he would always say, “Everything I do is by the mercy of my teachers.”
Brock Cahill – Brock taught me how to fly. If you’ve ever taken a class with Brock — aka “The Gravity Cowboy — you know just how nuts his class can be. In Brock’s class, the motto might as well be “Handstand is the new Down Dog.” We’d be upside-down from the first minute, jumping into and out of Handstand, and floating between arm balances. It was pretty much a Cirque du Soleil show in Brock’s class. The classes did become a bit too intense for me after awhile, especially once I started to develop some serious problems with my wrist. The injury I sustained from doing this type of practice forced me to rethink why I was doing yoga. I eventually drifted away from Brock and his style of practice. But there’s still a bit of the Gravity Cowboy in me, and there probably always will be.
Krista Foster (now Krista Cahill) – Krista served as a nice counterbalance to Brock. She has a grace and fluidity in her practice that comes from her days as a professional dancer. I will never be as flexible or as strong as Krista, but what I did learn from her is that you can bring both intensity and steadiness to your practice. You can be strong without being wild.
There are plenty of other teachers who have had an influence on my practice over the years, but the ones I list here have definitely impacted me the most. It’s been quite some time, though, since I’ve had a connection with a yoga teacher where I felt like they were taking me on a ride or adventure. Now that I’m settled in Chicago, probably for a very long time, I hope to find some more inspiring teachers who can be my yoga guides/partners through the next ten years.