New Ashtanga studio in Greenwich is up and running

I noticed on the always handy Facebook that some folks were starting to “like” Ashtanga CT.

I put two and two together and got … the new Ashtanga studio in Greenwich, where the Jois studio just closed.

Last we all heard from the Jois shala one of the teachers, Megan, was going to continue in Greenwich. It is she who is behind the new studio, which had its first classes on Monday. Website for it (if you aren’t the Facebook type) is right here. And here’s more on Megan:

Megan Riley is an authorized level 2 Ashtanga instructor originally from Ohio by way of Washington, DC, where she worked in higher education for almost a decade before trading the classroom for the practice room.  Megan started a yoga practice after completing graduate work in creative writing at the University of Maryland. She began teaching under the guidance of authorized teacher Faith Scimecca and made her first trip to Mysore, India in 2009. Megan has been fortunate to work with many incredible teachers of this practice and makes regular trips to KPJAYI to continue her studies with  her teachers Sharath and Saraswathi Jois. Having moved to Greenwich in 2012, she spends her free time roaming beaches, cooking, tinkering on new projects, and exploring Connecticut.

This comment isn’t directed toward Megan, but it is one that comes to mind after checking her site out a little. She’s charging $185 per month for unlimited yoga. That seems to be about the going rate for Ashtanga studios; some are $180, and we know others are higher. But this seems to be where teachers are locked in at the moment. Anyone know why that seems to be a price point for Ashtanga?

Update: Peg Mulqueen has answered the question (which initially included a typo that since has been fixed above; we aren’t calling out any particular teacher here, just wondering why $180 or so seems to be the going rate these days. And we know teachers have to make a living; what seems surprising is the general consensus on the cost throughout the country.)

Posted by Steve

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

Yoga-in-schools opponents won’t divulge basis for coming appeal

Everyone seems to expect that the folks who sued the Encinitas Union School District over its yoga program are going to appeal the judge’s ruling this week that determined yoga isn’t religious.

The opponents of the yoga program essentially have said that’s their plan, but as they won’t divulge the basis for that appeal. However, “several are valid,” the head of the National Center for Law & Policy, Dean Broyles, said, according to this Christian Science Monitor story, which for my money might be the best piece (aside from our own) about the ruling.

What’s particularly noteworthy is its detailing of the Supreme Court ruling that is the precedent against which Broyles effectively was arguing. That case, from the halcyon Warren Court Days, is McGowan v. Maryland. Here’s the CSM:

Several constitutional scholars say any appeal faces an uphill battle because the basis of the ruling is a frequently tested US Supreme Court decision, McGowan v. Maryland (1961), that is clear: Laws with religious origins are not unconstitutional if they have a secular purpose.

“Just because the Ten Commandments condemn murder and theft doesn’t make laws prohibiting murder a violation of church and state,” says Jesse Choper, a constitutional scholar at the Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. “McGowan v. Maryland saved a lot of other religious-looking laws.”

In that case, he says, the court rejected a challenge to laws requiring that most large-scale commercial enterprises remain closed on Sundays. The court found that Sunday closing laws were originally efforts to promote church attendance. “But, despite the strongly religious origin of these laws, nonreligious arguments for Sunday closing began to be heard more distinctly,” said the court.

Moreover, the San Diego case is not the first time a court has rejected a legal claim that teaching yoga in the public schools violates the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion by government, says UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Sugarman. In Altmans v. Bedford Central School District (1996), plaintiffs challenged the teaching of meditation, yoga, and guided-imagery in the public school classrooms, alleging that such classes exposed their impressionable children to “New Age spirituality.” That case found that plaintiffs failed to show that the activities were used in ways that were religious.

What is termed yoga can be delivered as a form of healthful exercise and breathing, in effect, as part of the physical education program, he says. “That is what the judge decided here.”

Now, we’ve been having a fun discussion about whether yoga is religious. But I’d point to the phrasing from the CSM: “the activities were used in ways that were religious.” That’s a subtle difference, right? Whether yoga is religious isn’t the point, if you’re pulling certain features from it — the poses, the breathing, the mind-focus. (I know we still can argue whether you can disentangle the religion from those features.) It might be akin to recreating an explicitly religious act — part of a Mass, maybe, or how about Moses parting the Red Sea or Hanuman jumping to Lanka — within a different context: an acting class or even an “English” class. Any of those might freak some people out, but it sounds like they’d be OK based on this case.

Anyway, we’ll wait and see what the appeal’s basis is.

Oh, and for our readers in the U.S.: Happy Fourth.

Posted by Steve

Jois-connected Contemplative Sciences Center to offer free online courses

I’ve been periodically checking in with the Paul Tudor and Sonia Jones-backed Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia since its $12-million funding was announced a year ago.

There hasn’t been a lot to see, I have to admit. But today, for whatever reason, I finally found the Center’s UVa web home. In other words, those of you who want to know more about this program, with its more-or-less Jois/Ashtanga connections, now have something to investigate. (It’s copyrighted 2013, so I’m assuming it is relatively new.)

What jumped out at me is:

  • The “Contemplative University” will begin offering free online courses via Coursera in spring 2014. From the website: “The Contemplative University will thus function as a virtual University for members of the public, as well as a powerful resource for on grounds teachers, researchers, and students. The Contemplative University will be a profoundly dynamic site where partners from all across the world and social sectors will be empowered to contribute to form a remarkable distributed network of knowledge production about contemplation in all aspects.”
  • The first “Contemplative Institute” will also happen in spring 2014. Again from the site: “The Contemplative Institute is an annual private symposium hosted at UVa each year to explore the possibilty [sic] of transformative impact by new contemplative approaches in a specific social sector.”
  • The “Contemplative Encyclopedia”  will be “a massive and unprecedented reference resource that will provide an elaborate guide to the true diversity and depth of the world’s traditional and modern contemplative practices and traditions, as well as contemporary research and applications. The Encyclopedia will provide, through this structured and deeply layered outline, a way for scholars, students, and the general public to explore these traditions in the past and present, and view audio-video, texts, translations, photographs, and much more.”
  • There also is a page seeking proposals, but it seems limited to UVa faculty and staff.

That encyclopedia sounds interesting, right? At the same time, it also is a bit quaint in our Internet / wikipedia era. But the way lots of yogis/Ashtangis love their deep resources, this could be a hit for a certain circle of the Internet.

The site looks to be still in somewhat a development stage; its contact page promises “More information is coming soon.”

Posted by Steve

Yoga is cool and trendy in India, too

Judging by a quick look, Daily Bhaskar is not exactly the New York Times of India. Not even the NY Post.

But it does have coverage of all the major stories that have been happening in the past month, and which were all over the various papers we saw on our yatra travel. So it isn’t TMZ, either.

Its take on yoga’s popularity is all too familiar — plus there’s a Mysore reference.

Bottom line: Yoga may be converging into one and the same thing in the West and in India. We saw swamis with cell phones. Perhaps sadhus are next. Check it out:

Yoga today is not just about getting that perfect shape, but it is more of a fashion symbol nowadays. Most of today’s Bollywood divas like Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif, Bipasha Basu, Silpa Shetty, etc, and hunks like Saif Ali Khan and others have switched to yoga over treadmills and sweaty workout regimes because they believe that yoga has it all to add to their oomph and glamour factor.

The trend of yoga is not just popular in India, but abroad as well. In recent years, yoga has also become popular in the west, inspiring increasing numbers of people to come and study yoga in India in traditional setting. In Manhattan, yoga studios are a dime a dozen. And since it is fashionable to do yoga, many Hollywood stars too practice it.

Sounds like it is straight out of any celeb mag in the U.S., right? Yoga’s “evolved” from just being about getting that perfect butt. For those who want to spin off into a cultural critique vortex, there’s a lot there to think about involving cultural exchange and influence; the role of information in our development; and what’s valued or seen as status.

But I’ll just note the piece lists “the most reputed Yoga schools providing good Yoga teacher training programmes in India.” They include:

1. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai

Following Patanjali’s philosophy, the center preaches the importance of yoga as a complete science, which treats both, your body and mind through relaxing exercises and meditations. This center in Chennai is a popular destination among tourists looking for a comfortable and relaxed vacation, learning old Indian art forms.

2. Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune

This popular institute also known as RIMPYI, is the core of Iyengar Yoga, introduced by B.K.S.Iyengar. The center in Maharashtra, teaches the asanas of yoga and also the spiritual values of the same. Various students come here to practice the art on a regular basis, while tourists are also welcomed so that the form can be promoted, and thereby providing you a unique experience.

5. Ashtanga Yoga School, Mysore

Known as Power Yoga, a modern form of classical Indian Yoga, the Ashtanga yoga has been popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois, and the center for the art is located in Mysore, Karnataka. Various asanas and importance of spiritual enlightenment is taught here, while tourists can have a leisure time learning the asanas.

“A leisure time learning the asanas?” I can only hope Sharath reads that and doubles down on the folks who are there. Sounds like too many lazy people, right? (I kid.)

More seriously, the list seems to include all legit places; my quibble would be that I probably could have come up with the 10 it mentions from half a world away — I would have liked to see a hidden gem included.

Posted by Steve

Finally, the NY Times learns about the Encinitas yoga controversy

I kept saying that the Encinitas Jois Yoga Foundation yoga in schools controversy had all the elements that make a national news story.

Finally, the New York Times has come to my rescue. On Saturday, it published a piece, “School Yoga Class Draws a Religious Protest.” Here’s a bit:

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.

“Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

Here’s how the Times describes the core of the controversy:

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program’s financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its Web site, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest. Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group’s broader evangelistic purpose.

“There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program,” he said.

“The analog would be if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program,” he said.

Adding to the trouble is that the yoga classes are mandated for students unless they (or their parents) opt out.

But we know all this, right? (NY Times photos from Encinitas of the students are right here.)

Now we can wait and see if anyone finally runs with this story. The Times still helps set the media agenda (even a bunch of Stephen Colbert’s bits begin with NY Times stories, for instance). It stirs things on both the left and the right.

As proof, here are some “follows” that have cropped up on Sunday:

The Associated Press (which could mean that lots of smaller newspapers throughout America run the piece on Monday) had its take.

ABC News, which already did a few pieces, picked up the AP piece.

Update, Dec. 19:

The AP story has run in numerous papers around the country and in India. The pro and con side of this did a radio show here in LA, on KPCC, on Tuesday. There is a “listen now” button at this link. It includes Jois Foundation director Russell Case and Dean Broyles, from the group that has been leading the opposition. Still waiting for it to hit a national radio show.

Posted by Steve

Hindu group comes out in support of Encinitas schools yoga program

The Universal Society of Hinduism has come out in support of the Encinitas Union School District for introducing yoga to its students via the Jois grant, the organization announced on Monday.

This is a noteworthy development because this is the same group that tends to act in support of what I’d call a more traditional Hinduism and an accompanying yoga — in other words, a yoga that is rooted explicitly in the Hindu faith and its intellectual traditions. (It was the group concerned about the Dreamworks version of the Ramayana, for instance.) In other words, sort of all the things about which the parents who have threatened a lawsuit over this program are complaining.

Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, the group’s president, even goes a step further, saying all school districts in America should add yoga to their curriculum.

I’d say, depending on how much this gets picked up, we may have another elevation of this story. We’ll see.

For the most part, though, the Universal Society’s statement stresses the physical benefits of yoga — which the Encinitas school district has been pointing to, as well. Here’s a piece of their release:

Rajan Zed noted that besides other benefits, yoga might also help deal with the obesity crisis faced by the country. According to United States National Institutes of Health, yoga may help one to feel more relaxed, be more flexible, improve posture, breathe deeply, and get rid of stress. About 16 million Americans, including many celebrities, now reportedly practice yoga. It was the repository of something basic in the human soul and psyche, Zed added.

That last sentence might the type of statement that riles things up more, however — the word “soul” would seem to be a loaded one. As we noted in our last piece, the attorney advising the parents is with the National Center for Law & Policy, a not-for-profit law firm that focuses on “the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights and other civil liberties,” according to the group’s website.

So you can see where the Universal Society of Hinduism’s adding its voice might not sit well there.

As a reminder, the heart of the issue is a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation for the Encinitas schools to teach students yoga twice a week. The district has said repeatedly that all the religion has been taken out of the classes (I assume right down to the Ashtanga opening chant) but parents remained concerned — with a lot of their focus on the Jois Foundation and whether it is an evangelical organization.

As soon as I’ve posted this, I’m going to reach out to the National Center for Law & Policy and see if they want to comment to an audience of Ashtangis and yogis. I’ll keep you all apprised of how that develops.

Update: Here’s a link to the first Associated Press story I’ve seen on this. It’s starting to spread…

Posted by Steve