Author Archives: Dan

Field Trip: Genny Kapuler

For anyone interested in Iyengar-style yoga, or really just great yoga instruction in general, the name Genny Kapuler is likely to be familiar.

In the event it isn’t… rush over to one of her classes this instant!

I decided to spend my Friday morning in one of the classes she teaches out of her large loft space in Soho.  I left myself plenty of time to make sure I found the space (it’s easy to find).  But I forgot that my wallet was empty of cash which meant finding a bank machine (I think Genny’s studio is probably the only business left in Soho that doesn’t accept credit cards).  This task proved less simple than I had imagined.  In fact the lead time I had left myself evaporated in a wash of frustration.  J. Crew: check.  Boutiques galore: check. Starbucks: check.  Everything you could buy but no ATM.  (JIC you find yourself in my position, try the delis on Prince Street, just west of West Broadway).

I finally made it with cash in hand to the building on the corner of Wooster and Houston Street. Here’s another tip for first timers: take the stairs, even though it’s a 5th floor walk-up.  Anyway, even though I was kind of late, Genny was accommodating.  Clothes and shoes were strewn about the living quarters of the giant loft.  The studio section is large enough to hold many students practicing, yet it has a homey feel that clearly sets it apart from a regular studio.

Class was fantastic of course.  Genny’s experience shines through in all her decisions, and her knowledge and passion for the anatomy are the underlying thrust of her teaching style.  I was moved by her clear and powerful voice, and brilliant directives.  The few hands on adjustments I received were clear and displayed the economy of motion that only experience can bring.  Needless to say, glancing around the crowded room I caught the faces of many of my teachers. It’s so inspiring how to see how after so many years, great teachers and practitioners like Genny keep finding more.

I exited into the rainy morning, feeling amazing.  How could this be the same guy who was cursing on the street a couple of hours earlier?

On teaching yoga

posted by danbean

Like so many before me I decided to take a yoga teacher training, to sustain and lengthen the obsession. Some take trainings to deepen their practice and understanding. I think it’s safe to say that fewer teach.

But as someone with somewhat of a flair for public speaking, or at least plenty of experience, it seemed like a logical next step. As a freelancer, after all, diversity is helpful. Unless your freelance work is incredibly consistent and pays a bundle, a diverse pool of work sources becomes near necessity.

On the outside I thought perhaps the therapeutic work that some of my teachers do with yoga might be a long-term destination for me. Of course like many disciplines the only path to such advanced teaching is through it; one has to teach and study for years and experience firsthand what does and does not work.

The training itself is a lengthy discussion for another time; the demanding work both written and physical, the long hours, the comraderie and of course the not-so-minor injury… I could go on endlessly.

But once you are done it’s like… um…

It’s the other side of the looking glass in that room, man, when you are teaching.

Doesn’t always seem like a big deal but all of a sudden you have a bunch of mysterious bodies in front of you that are just brimming with samskara. Who the hell are these people coming to the studio and what the hell can I do for them?

Like other disciplines the beginners are often the most receptive. Tell them to lift an arm and it goes up! Like other disciplines the students who perceive themselves as experienced can be worse to teach because they already know how to practice and just use your class as a framework to get their prana on.  Yes I’m being sarcastic because for all their perceived know-how most students know a lot less then they often believe they do.   Regardless of how many times one has taken parsvakonasana there are still endless variables.  A truly seasoned practitioner would know this and of course respect the teacher.

And so it was that the newbies suffered through baddha konasana but the slim dancer in the back had to prove she could take the forward bend though the instruction was to sit up straight.   If you are someone who has received a tongue lashing for collapsed arches or one miscounted breath in the Primary Series then like me you are conditioned to the holiness of details, the essence of the yoga practice for me.  So as a teacher one might be limited to how much you can direct those dropping in to class, it makes me curious about the dynamic I want to create.   Being a hardass is perhaps the most unnatural thing for me.  And yet I see how it could be helpful.

In beginning to teach yoga, it’s hard to know exactly what I know and what I don’t know.  Time will tell.  Seems like the only way to grow is to get banged up a little, so here goes…

Kristen Davis, Iyengar Yoga

posted by danbean

photo from yogasanacenter.com

photo from yogasanacenter.com

I’ve really enjoyed taking Iyengar-style Yoga lately, and there happens to be an excellent studio right here in Park Slope called Yogasana.

Founded by the highly approachable Kristen Davis in 2003, it maintains a very high standard of instruction. Since I’ve become a regular at Kristen’s class as of late, I was happy she was so willing to share some of her insights with ElephantBeans readers.

On teaching, discovering yoga, and Alexander Technique…

I think it’s important to know that I came to yoga and the Alexander Technique in the exact same week back in 1993. I was a dance major at Ohio State University, and had suffered an ankle injury that was preventing me from dancing. I had been curious about these two modalities and decided to use my injury as an opportunity to study them. I fell in love with both of them, and since then they’ve always gone hand in hand. I seem to think through yoga in the language of Alexander Technique, and through Alexander Technique in the language of yoga. It’s a continuing interest/obsession of mine to translate between the two modes—to get at the heart of it, the commonality.

I moved to NYC in 1995 and danced—and worked retail. I decided to train to be an Alexander Technique teacher—a rigorous 3+ years of training, all the while exploring different yoga styles and figuring out what I liked (I mostly did vinyasa—Jivamukti and Om). Immediately after finishing my Alexander training I did a yoga teacher training with Alison West. Hers was a small training that was decidedly eclectic—Alison herself was trained in Sivananda and Ashtanga styles, and had many years of serious Iyengar study under her belt. From her I learned a deep respect for the many styles of yoga, but again and again I gravitated toward Iyengar. Like Alexander Technique it seemed to recognize habit in a way that I didn’t see in other yoga styles. The subtle directions, the process of thinking, the use of props, all went well with Alexander and my idea of self-study. I went on to do another teacher training at the NY Iyengar Yoga Institute (which I ultimately did not complete), an apprenticeship under Genny Kapular, and more teacher training with Robin Janis. B.K.S. Iyengar’s intense exploration of his body was, and still is, profoundly inspiring to me.

On balancing strict detail with a sense of levity and lightness…

Your first question about my attitude toward teaching made me recognize how interwoven the Alexander Technique is into my teaching. I’m flattered that you think I’m able to bring a levity to the class. I think that is the only way you can teach a style that is so inherently strict.

My teaching comes out of my own experience, the dialogue between my mind and body as I practice. This dialogue comes out of all my years of Alexander Technique and the way I apply it to my yoga. The mind and body have a symbiotic relationship. The mind must coach and cajole, the body responds, and the mind is rewarded with an incredible sense of peace and serenity.

Step 1. The mind must observe, simply see what’s there, as is, without judgment. Be willing to meet the body where it’s at, in that moment.

Step 2. The mind must put an end to any nonsense—inhibit or stop any habitual pattern, any negative action, any effort that is misplaced.

I say that with a certain strictness, but really this is where there’s a lot of coaxing and cajoling. We are often dependent on these habits in very deep ways (on an emotional level); they don’t release easily. Knowing this, the mind can guide and imagine, but ultimately the body will respond in its own time, on its own schedule, so there has to be a certain looseness, playfulness. You can’t be tied to the fruits of your labor; you can’t take yourself too seriously .

Step 3. Then the mind must tell the body what it WOULD like it to do, direct the actions it wants (the actions that will better organize the body and take it deeper into the pose). There is a cooperation between the mind and body –the action cannot be forced, but must come out of an integrated sense of ease. Again playful, exploratory.

In my own practice I go through these steps a number of times in each pose. In my teaching I try to share this process. And I use this process as a framework for looking at my students—first, to just observe, second to see what is extraneous, what action is being overdone and ultimately obscuring the pose, and third, what action will re-organize the body and bring it into a greater wholeness.

This process requires discipline for sure, and a sort of harsh honesty (to really see things as they are, and be willing to stay with that). I think such an intense focus requires levity to make it bearable, to even make it possible. It’s really all a game. It’s fun! In my own dialogue between mind and body, if my mind begins to take itself too seriously it takes on an aggressive and critical attitude, which only causes my body to become rigid and fearful. I have to be able to step back and laugh at it all—laugh at how my left ribs are always gripping my spine, at how the right side of my neck likes to shorten. I no longer really care if they ever release—the game, the exploration, is so much fun. It’s human nature to have these issues, if I didn’t, either I’m not human or I’m dead.

On Iyengar Yoga, the lineage, and its where it is today…

Like Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar was a student of Krishnamacharya’s. Having suffered from malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis, he often had to modify poses using homemade props of oil barrels, dowels and bricks, in order to accomplish the poses as his teacher asked. When he began teaching, he recognized many of the difficulties that his students had, and modified his teaching to address their needs.

The hallmarks of his teaching include: a teaching methodology of visual demonstration, specific verbal instruction, and minimal hands-on adjustments; precise anatomical instruction and the use of props; many different ways of sequencing, born out of the idea that the yoga practice must be modified to meet the practitioner’s needs–that no one sequence is appropriate for every person, for every day (which also leads into yoga being used therapeutically); and holding poses for longer periods to let their effects fully penetrate, and to find a meditative quality within each pose.

Over his 70-year teaching career, he has codified over 200 postures and 14 breathing exercises, and written countless seminal books on asana, pranayama and yoga philosophy. From the sticky mat we practice on, the restorative poses we do, or the detailed instruction we’ve learned about a pose, B.K.S. Iyengar has influenced many elements of today’s yoga.

To be candid, I am disappointed in the way in which Iyengar’s work is being disseminated. I find that many Iyengar people are quick to codify every statement he makes without looking at the context. A direction he gives is written into law without seeing that the direction was meant for a specific student at a specific time. There is a lot of black and white thinking, that I feel belittles what Iyengar yoga is.

I think Iyengar’s real legacy lies in his authenticity, his creativity and sharp intellect, and his discipline. I use him as an example, a guide, for how to penetrate my own body/mind. I use his props, his verbal instruction, as tools, but ultimately I can only follow in his footsteps, using my own intellect to analyze and adjust, my own creativity for problem solving, my own discipline for practicing with precision and honesty. Thankfully, I do have the platform he built, but to truly follow his example, to find my own authenticity, I must delve in and make my own interpretations.

On sequencing, and how it differs from some other styles…

Yoga in the Iyengar tradition does not follow a set, scripted sequence. The sequencing of poses is complex and requires extensive study, but through experience you begin to learn the different effects poses can have, and the cumulative effect their order has. Standing poses promote stability and strength and can prepare the body to go in many different directions; forward bends are calming and cooling (often given as a prescription for anxiety); back bends are stimulating and have an anti-depressant effect (often given as a prescription for depression); inversions are cathartic and engender a sense of well-being; twists are quieting and encourage an internal focus. Aside from the effects of the different poses the sequence will also depend on factors such as your age, your experience, your energy level, your mental state.

Taking all of these variables into consideration, there are general guidelines for sequencing, but few strict rules. Although, one rule is that Sirsasana (headstand) is always followed by Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), or any similar pose that has a jalandhara bandha (chin lock) action (setu bandha, viparita karani, halasana, etc.). Sirsasana is a heating pose that engages the muscles of the neck. Sarvangasana is a cooling pose that releases the neck muscles, thus creating balance. I have known of a senior teacher teaching headstand and then following it with a lot of forward bends, thus offering the same cooling effects and neck release as a shoulderstand.

I really can’t speak to the sequencing of the Ashtanga Primary Series. I’ve done it a handful of times (and loved it), but that was many years ago, and I certainly didn’t have the knowledge and experience that I have now. I’d like to practice it again and see what the intelligence is behind it. I do know however that the sequence ends with seated pranayama that is done with jalandhara bandha—this would provide a calming and cooling effect.

I want to add here that I love teaching/practicing Iyengar-style yoga—the analytical mind, the ability to be creative, the intense physicality make it entirely fulfilling to me—however, I’m fascinated by Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga. I’m intrigued by the idea of doing the same sequence day after day. That the sequence remains the constant and against that backdrop you can observe the fluctuations of the mind and body. Maybe someday…

On practicing with injuries and modifications…

Modifying poses to meet a student’s needs is absolutely inherent to Iyengar Yoga, and it’s one of the things I love. I believe that your yoga practice should reflect the present moment. There is an honesty to that—a recognition that you may be able to do a pose at one time of the day, but not at another; that the practice of a 20 year old is different from that of a 50 year old.

A group class has its limitations in this way, but I do my best to accommodate each student. Although I don’t specialize in therapeutics, I follow the Iyengar philosophy that any pose done correctly is therapeutic. I want my students to learn that they must stay true to themselves, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses in the present moment, and then I help them adjust their practice accordingly. I think that through this type of conscious practice there are fewer injuries. Personally, I’ve not had any injuries since I started yoga and Alexander technique (except for a sprained foot from wearing improper shoes while swinging on a swing—that’s a whole other story).

Because there is a focus on anatomical precision and a flexibility to the practice (in terms of sequencing, in terms of modifying), I believe it creates a different tone around injury, that it engenders an acceptance and an ability to work with the cause of the injury. Again and again, I see students overcoming chronic pain—back pain, sciatica, headaches, etc. and injuries—knee problems, shoulder issues, etc. I see students’ bodies completely re-organize, becoming more easeful, more free. I see students finding a sort of stability and peace in both body and mind.

On students crossing over from other styles…

I’ve had mixed experiences with this. With yoga’s intense popularity I sometimes get students who are simply wanting the physical benefits and aren’t interested in the self-study and mental focus that my style requires. I find that if the student has an analytical mind, and a sincere desire to learn, we’re a good match. For several years I practiced vinyasa yoga along with Iyengar, so I can appreciate people coming to my class to gain knowledge and insight into their particular issues, and then applying that to their other yoga practice.

Stay tuned for more when Kristen will discuss her pregnancy, and what it’s like to own a yoga studio…

my favorite cup – cafe regular

posted by danbean

As a Brooklynite, I’m likely biased, but it certainly appeared as though coffee culture – and I use that term to loosely refer to single origin, snob sippin’, monied grad student lingerin’, chatty chat cafe culture espresso art stuff – in New York started long after the west coast and started here.

I’m a musician, and poor musicians tend to frequent such places and sometimes there is crossover. One friend became a serious ‘espresso’ artist, mastering the art of the pour, the shot, the tingling shapes and rorschach test-evoking patterns adorning the perfectly-heated infusion of roasted bean and water.

It didn’t take long for me to be drawn in. After all, coffee is a snobby, irresponsible vice, but compared to drugs and alcohol its suspected maladies and behavior modifications are relatively minor. And it was something to do before yoga. After yoga. After rehearsal. Later on. All summer. All winter. Cups. Cups and Cups and Cups and mugs and shots and you know how it goes.

And so it was very fortunate that I lived in Williamsburg for a while, because there was the heart of the burgeoning culture itself; one avenue block away was Gimme! Coffee, lauded as one of the finest institutions of baristadom in the 5 boroughs.  The one gentleman in particular whose name I can’t recall, who during that year succumbed to love and left Brooklyn, made incredible patterns in your latte.  The taste was among the most balanced I’ve ever had, a deep, dark roast but not bitter.  The staff got unfairly punched for being unfriendly.  They were always nice to me – I think some food writers have a problem with fashionable kids and think that you can’t look stylish and be a nice person.  I also enjoyed Oslo and Cafe Grumpy, but all were places where the drink itself was the destination.  The rooms of Oslo and Gimme in particular for me border on the ascetic.  Perhaps that starkness is intended to focus one on the taste of the coffee, taken so seriously.

Still I don’t think these rooms encourage as much of a friendly exchange between patrons.  Like most places in New York you go to be alone or with people you come in with.  Lost is the cafe culture of old where one debated politics and bullshitted with strangers.  Or so I thought.

My favorite cup is easily Cafe Regular, a teeny tiny little storefront in Park Slope on 11th street near the corner of 5th avenue.  Owner Martin O’Connell is who you’ll most often find behind the bar.  In the room, which looks as though it couldn’t even be 200 square feet, one feels very distant from the distant contemporary world outside.  The compactness of the place forces you to interact a little, and O’Connell, who eschews a room full of people working on laptops, has yet to install wireless internet (you can sometimes get a weak signal from across the street).  O’Connell has a masterful, straightforward hand when it comes to making lattes.  The temperature and taste are perfect for me, but you won’t find any precision artwork here.  There is a more rustic, homely quality – think GbV’s Bee Thousand versus, I dunno, a Fiona Apple record.  Sorry, I still like GbV better.

The quality of the drink itself is very important and what pleased me when I moved to the neighborhood a few years ago, thinking leaving the industrial landscape of Williamsburg would stick me with the revolting, unmentionable dreck on 7th Ave.  But the quality of the hang is what keeps me.  O’Connell’s sardonic wit spares no one, and customers are still not sure if the Irishman hails from Beacon Hill, Belfast, Belgrade or Burlington, New Jersey (I’m pretty sure it’s the last one).  Friends that visit can’t believe how easy it is to chat with people, and the ‘Regulars’ span a wide range of ages and professions.  I’m pleased to have a nice room close by in which to lose a few hours of my day…

Political Schmitickel (a bunch of political blogs)

[posted by danbean]

I was trying unsuccessfully to write an article about political blogs, but then I came to the stark realization that I just use them to pass the time when I’m not doing something I’m really passionate about. To be sure it’s good to have a few topical things to chat about when I head into the coffee shop, but suffice it to say if my local proprietor was at all interested in trikonasana, string bass pickups or pranayama, I could probably opt out of the Times, Counterpunch, Clusterfuck Nation and all the others entirely.

One thing that loses my interest during political discussions in general is that sooner or later people take a side, like a sports team, while real-world dynamic are much more subtle and complex. Left-wingers berate the buffoonery of the Christian right but often won’t acknowledge the reality of fanatical Islam. Right wingers become single issue voters on things such as abortion while their candidate sends thousands to the grave as adults. ‘Centrists’ – really a euphemism for conservatives – end up trying to look like the former while behaving like the latter.

In fact as a casual reader, centrism as a school of thought is truly useless and probably why the Democrats lost so many elections in the last bunch of years. You had George Bush saying exactly what he intended to do (and fucking up when he tried to do it most of the time) but then you had Al Gore and John Kerry offering these limp-dicked illusions, not wanting to offend the ‘conservatives’ but wanting support of the left. No one ever comes out and says “I think religion is bullshit. Practice whatever you want but you can’t be part of the Enlightenment and take that shit seriously. So if I’m elected president I will do everything in my power to protect my constituents not only from religious fanaticism, but even the most basic trace elements that permeate the culture from special interest groups (read: Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, etc.).”

Even Barack Obama had to bend over backward to prove what a good Christian he is. In the context of contemporary politics it’s easy to understand, but for a thinking individual it’s yucky to swallow. And he had to have that homophobic reverend dude invocate his inauguration scene. One wonders what other gestures he will offer to appease those on the ‘other’ side of the platform… as if their failed ideas bear any merit.

Anyway at this point I wonder what sites like Counterpunch.org have to offer me anymore, since I can’t really swallow Alexander Cockburn’s comparison of Obama’s inauguration address to… Nixon’s….

Reading the times and keeping up with world affairs at the modest level that I do makes me fairly happy we have a robust democracy, that while threatened continues to exist and offer us a few means to peacefully ‘kill the king’. I think Obama’s presidency is something to at least tentatively be happy about while we reassert our ability as a people to make interesting and progressive movements in our society.

In the meantime I’ll check in periodically to Clusterfuck Nation, but mainly so I can feel vindicated that the fucko rich bitches driving recklessly on the Upper East Side in their SUVs really ARE a part of the problem. I check in with my boy John Robb so I can say, “See! Even a center-right military man thinks the economy is totally fucked!” (sites like his have predicted the financial collapse way ahead of schedule).

So as pointless and meandering as this post is, it is a lot more fun to read than what I was going to stick you with. I’m glad today to have a nice warm house and an outlet for my neat little bursts of vitriolic anger from time to time.

Good Night to All and Namaste