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Erika Halweil on Ashtanga Yoga, Modern-Day Vinyasa, and Creating REAL Intentions

YJ's May cover model offers guidance on how to navigate the commercial yoga craze.

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I started practicing vinyasa yoga as a teenager. 

The style at that time, in the early to mid-90s, was a vigorous, breath-oriented form of vinyasa. Most classes varied in their approach and offered a wide range of asana. You never knew what was coming. I had a teacher back then who told me that yoga practice is a workshop for our lives; since we don’t know what’s coming next in life, we shouldn’t know what’s coming next in our practice.

I later studied with as many different teachers from as many different traditions as I could. 

I wanted to learn everything and then find ways to incorporate those lessons into my own teaching. Twelve years into my practice, I landed on Ashtanga Yoga. By the time I got there, I had all of this amazing experiential information from which I could draw. I already had a relatively open and strong body, and I had begun cultivating a relationship to my breath. The funny part was that my initial resistance to embracing Ashtanga was due to the idea of a set sequence. And yet, what I discovered—almost immediately—was that you can do the exact same practice every day, and yet it seems totally different and new; it’s somehow both familiar and unfamiliar. I realized that’s actually more like daily life than free-form vinyasa. Every day I wake up, shower, practice, eat, work, care for my family, sleep, etc. Most days are the same on paper, but at the same time, each one is brand new and completely different.

My practice determined my life trajectory. 

I started teaching before I graduated college. I’ve never had any other career, and I’ve never needed to supplement this career with any other work. When I told my parents, in 1998, that I was going to be a yoga teacher, my father said, “I think that’s a bad idea; yoga has already peaked.” Twenty years later, we’re still laughing about that conversation.

In the age of corporate everything, when profit is more important than product, we must all be wary. 

I tell my students that now, more than ever, it has fallen on them (the seekers) to work hard to make sure they understand the intention and the true message of yoga. Yoga is a complete system, and when practiced sincerely, without interruption, over a long period of time, the result is an improved quality of life. If practices, such as pranayama or the study of yogic philosophy, are removed from the balanced whole, it can lead to a state of imbalance rather than peace. 

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