In Praise of the ‘Shala’

I always feel a pang when I hear a shala is closing; distance is no matter, so the closing of a Jois studio makes me sad for the students.

My very first Ashtanga class was at Yoga Path in Irvine, California–across from where I worked. I blundered into the Ashtanga class by accident; the Iyengar class was full. I had flirted with yoga off and on for a few years. Suddenly I found myself in a class unlike anything I’d been in before. I was totally lost. I couldn’t do any of it. I didn’t understand the Sanskrit. I was in love.

After that, I went to Ashtanga classes exclusively, and never looked back. A short while later, I bought a special annual membership to save money. It was the most I’d ever spent on such a thing.

The next time I went to class, I found the door locked and the lights off. A sign on the door informed me that Yoga Path was closed, had filed bankruptcy, and suggested I go to 24 Hour Fitness.

I was crushed, and panicked. I had just begun to feel some hope: A way out of constant pain. Even that this practice might offer me a higher study, a philosophy.

A quick search revealed that a YogaWorks close to home offered an “Ashtanga Prep.” So it was that I met Shayna Liebbe, who all by herself, with limited time and resources but unlimited energy, gave me my first sense of what the word “shala” means, and why it’s so important.

I thought I’d take a minute and reflect on what I miss in a shala, or school, for Ashtanga, now that Steve and I are practicing at home.

Number one, I miss the directed study. After my first class, Shayna handed me a little packet of information. It had all the poses (both in diagram and listed in Sanskrit with translations), the opening and closing prayer (and translation), the role of breath, what the bandhas are, what drishti does, and so on. I left with homework. Shayna, in other words, was a teacher–she used to make us recite the yamas during navasana and do backbends to the niyamas.

Small, focused workshops, weekend intensives, Sanskrit and diet classes—Ashtanga shalas have these. All supervised by an experienced teacher. One experienced teacher. And connected to the daily practice.

South we went!
The sign outside Tim Miller’s shala

Most of all, I miss Tim. That 100-mile trip sometimes seems more like a million. I wish I were one of those lucky folks who can roll out their rugs in Tim Miller’s Ashtanga Yoga Center every morning, those that use their practice to contribute to Tim’s ongoing research.

Research. I miss growing and learning with an enthusiastic teacher, who knows my practice, and will adjust according to the progress of my learning, or even how things seem that day—the adaptable teacher.

Of course, there’s also the community (Diana Christinsen, whose shala I called home for two years, uses a Buddhist term: sangha). There’s something really comforting about practicing next to someone you see every day, yet have barely spoken to, but still find solace in the shared experience of the practice.

So I hope the Ashtangis that found a home at Jois find a new home soon…the home that is a shala, and its teacher.

Posted by Bobbie

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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

One thought on “In Praise of the ‘Shala’”

  1. This was great. I love hearing how people “stumbled” their way into Ashtanga, which is how it usually happens for most. I just so happened to have a girl at my college recreation center teach a “yoga” class, but snuck in the primary series without labeling it ashtanga. Which means I was one of those Ashtangis that was thrown into the primary series deep end without floaties. So before I even knew what I was doing, I was in love. And now 5 years later, here I am, practically chasing down the shalas in whatever city I live or visit.

    I love what you said: “There’s something really comforting about practicing next to someone you see every day, yet have barely spoken to, but still find solace in the shared experience of the practice.”

    I hear this from every fellow student when we finally have that moment to sit and talk outside of the shala, sometimes after practicing next to them for a whole year with no words to each other. Ahhh, the language of Ashtanga… No matter where we travel or live, the language is the same….

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