A Little Samba in Your Samadhi: Yoga Report from Rio de Janeiro


Meeting NYC Trained Yoga Nomands in Rio de Janeiro

In 2007, I did my own personal yoga tour of Brazil and found the scene so baffling and different that I put away my notebooks and never wrote a word about it.

This June I spent a month in Rio de Janeiro and found that things have changed—on the yoga front and beyond. Brazil is now a country on the rise, with a growing middle class, a stable economy, the World Cup coming in 2014, followed by the Olympics in 2016. (And, sadly for me, prohibitive New York City-level prices as well.)

While many Brazilian yoga teachers still consider India the go-to place to train, (and others, rumor has it, train themselves from DVDs), still others are starting to go to the US for training, or inviting US teachers to come south. In short, the yoga scene is growing up with a definite NYC influence.

Within a few days of arriving in Rio, I found a yoga teacher who not only trained in New York but whose class was the best I’d taken—meaning, best suited to my needs and interests—in a good long while, anywhere in the world.

Kimberly Johnson is a pioneer. A dancer, she found yoga at 19 with a Viniyoga teacher in San Diego, and did her first training at Om Yoga – during one of the studio’s inaugural trainings at the original 14th street location. Not only that, but Johnson has done regular trainings with Rodney Yee and was also one of the first teachers to graduate from Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. We had 27 Facebook friends in common.

Kimberly gives classes out of her apartment in the colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa, set on a hill above Rio de Janeiro. She moved to Brazil for love and now lives here with her 5-year old daughter. Three times a week, I ran down the cobble-stoned streets to follow her precise instructions in English and Portuguese. The classes fit a maximum of 8-10 people in a parquet-floored salon where she also does Rolfing. Many of the houses in these neighborhoods were built centuries ago for rich merchants and French and Portuguese nobility, so above us hung blue and green-glass chandeliers.

One of my first times at Kimberly’s coincided with a full moon. Towards the end of an exacting class with long holds and repetitions of specific movements, Kimberly threw open the three-sided window that overlooked Guanabara Bay and the jutting stones of Pão D’Açucar and said, “Turn now to face the moon. We are moving through big changes as described in both the Vedic and Western astrology. So feel the energy in your nervous system and in your heart, and take courage from your practice.”

Through Kimberly I found what I’d begun to think was impossible: a Viniyoga-style group class that that challenged me physically and nourished me mentally. I also attended her first “urban retreat” that included a long walk in the nearby Tijuca forest where yellow-and-red striped toucans flew and adorable monkeys scampered in the palm trees.

Listening to Kimberly’s bilingual instructions also helped improve my Portuguese. And so when I went down from Santa Teresa to Ipanema in Rio’s Zona Sul (south zone), I was able to follow the instructions of another New York City-trained teacher, Coaracy Nunes.

Coaracy’s 7-year old studio, Blyss is distinctive in Rio—and in Brazil—for hosting a crew of international teachers as well as locals. Coaracy himself is a big-hearted guy who is in love with yoga, and especially the American yoga scene.

“In the US, it’s an open sadhana—but with concentration, focus, and knowledge. People here say, ‘I’m going to India to study.’ I say, go to a Yoga Journal conference! I’m a real fan of what’s going on in the US. It’s a beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary.”

Blyss is located on a busy street in Ipanema, just a few blocks from its famous beach, in a office building with other small health- and martial-arts studios. Its bright green walls and booming sound system make it a lively place to practice. Coaracy, whose NYC training consisted of attending at least 2 classes a day for 3 or 4 years at the old Jivamukti on 2nd Avenue, says his studio is in honor of the American scene. His teacher training is based on all the different styles of American yoga. He’s even hosted Krishna Das there for an intimate satsang.

“Yoga gives you a completely unfair advantage over other people—it gives you more focus, a healthier body, more presence. You can work longer because your back is happy. It gives you more energy and life. How can you not do it?”

Coaracy graduated from NYU’s Tisch School and works in interactive technologies to support the studio. When my bank card failed to dispense any money before his class, he happily hosted me anyway with the advice, “Don’t take it personally! It’s Brazil!”

Several blocks away in Ipanema, near Rio’s much-loved heart-shaped lagoon, is Joana Borges, a Carioca (Rio native) yoga teacher who works with a roster of private clients in their homes. She spent three months completing New York City’s Yoga Works teacher training after already studying with Brazilian teachers Marco Schultz and Pedro Kupfer, who are well-known in Brazil.

While at Yoga Works, Borges roomed with relatives in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and spent her down-time soaking in Manhattan’s yoga scene. Dharma Mittra, the Iyengar Studio, Laughing Lotus, Jivamukti—she tried to hit all the highlights.

“I loved New York City. The fact that you can go to a place with a lot of everything—good food, amazing yoga, jazz, theatre, dancing—whatever you want—was amazing for me. I loved being exposed to that culture and level of excellence.”

Borges, who sold her car in Rio to pay for her training in the US, discovered yoga at her gym while she was a young university student. “I was going to the gym to get curvy like the other girls. I was always so skinny. But then I found yoga and fell in love. I thought I was going into International Relations but instead I got yoga.” She is now starting a line of yoga clothing called Gam Yoga.

Returning up the hill to Santa Teresa from my explorations in Zona Sul, I felt fortunate to find yoga I really like in Rio. Often, it’s hard to find a class I really love, although curiosity (and need!) often takes me to local studios anyway. I still prefer to practice with the group and going to yoga is a great way to meet people. This time in Rio, it’s been a fun and interesting experience.