An Italian Yogi in America

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Woman Walking in Field

by Anna Volpicelli

Last October I relocated to San Francisco. As an editor at Yoga Journal Italy, I have observed and written about the development of yoga in my country over the past five years.

Italy is a country that’s passionate about tradition and yoga teachers there largely follow the ancient method of transmission that emphasizes not only technique, but yogic spirituality and lifestyle. Nowadays some younger teachers are trying to create their own styles and break down rigid barriers from past generations. Perhaps the unspoken purpose is to write a modern yoga history.

Italians, in general, are embracing yoga as a way to relax, or as a means of spiritual or self exploration, but there’s a fair amount of skepticism among people who consider the practice just a waste of time or something boring, for “old” or peculiar people.

When I lived in Milan, for example, I'd eat a light, early dinner (most Italians eat dinner at 8 or 9pm), go to bed early, and wake at 6am to go to the studio and practice Ashtanga Yoga. All of my friends, and sometimes my family, considered this an unusual lifestyle. They asked me, “Why do you have to practice every morning at 7?” Most Italian yogis prefer to practice in the evening.

When I came to America, I was overwhelmed by the variety of yoga styles offered. In cities like New York or San Francisco where there is a yoga studio on practically every corner (there are more studios in my San Francisco neighborhood than in all of Milan), students can take their pick from classical Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga to the newer but well-established styles like Anusara, Jivamukti, and Bikram, as well as from an intriguing array of hybrid styles including Hatha Flow, Naked Yoga, and Candle Yoga.

I felt I had landed in some kind of yoga dreamland. I threw myself into a pre-dawn, daily Ashtanga practice and also began exploring yoga “Made in the USA.”

Ana Forrest showed me the deep and healing method that she created using herself as a “human laboratory.” Richard Miller introduced me to iRest, his adaption of Yoga Nidra which brings ancient meditation practice into everyday life. I investigated yoga outside the studio: Off The Mat, Sean Corn, Hala Khouri, and Suzanne Sterling's non-profit organization using the power of the practice to inspire conscious collaboration.

Perhaps my most interesting discovery was Brent Kessel’s Yoga of Money, a practice that combines financial fulfillment with the spiritual path. Spirituality and economics typically are at odds. They speak completely different languages: one material the other more subtle. Kessel applies the techniques and principles of yoga, including pranayama, awareness, honesty and non-violence (ahimsa) to the relationship with money.

At Yoga Journal's San Francisco Conference, I cornered Ashtanga teacher David Swenson and shared some my observations. "You know," he said, "yoga is a tool; it depends on how you use it." That captures the essence of “American yoga” for me. The practice must be practical, but if it's not interesting it doesn’t work.

“How can yoga help my life?”

This is the most important question that we have to ask ourselves, and this is the central question, I assume, that all the teachers I've met in these months have ask themselves. If we relegated the practice to the mat, yoga will be nothing more than a physical exercise, without any kind of connection with our lives. It is like eating pizza without mozzarella. The taste will be good, but there will be always something that you never experienced. It might keep your body going, but it’s never going to feed your soul.

Anna Volpicelli is a journalist, writer, and an editor at Yoga Journal Italy. Now living in San Francisco, she continues to write for the magazine about yoga trends in the US. She's practices Ashtanga Yoga daily and studies with Lino Miele. Follow her at annavolpicelli.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.