elise espat

All Together Now: A Practice Space Opens to New Ideas


Like many good things, the “open practice” time at Sangha Yoga Shala hatched out of a conversation between friends. Alana Kessler, owner and director of the 6-month old studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and fellow-instructor Elise Espat both practiced Mysore-style ashtanga but at different studios. They thought it would be fun to practice together.

But when talk turned to action in early October, they decided—with the input from the rest of the studio’s staff—to do something quite untraditional. They decided not to limit the “open practice” to ashtangis, as is customary in Mysore style. Instead they made it inclusive of the other styles offered at Sangha Yoga Shala, including Iyengar.

The idea was that students would help each other, no matter what tradition they came from—a groundbreaking notion given how passionate Iyengar and ashtanga practioners are about their individual styles.

Kessler says the bottom line is cultivating the teacher within.

“In Mysore ashtanga the teacher doesn’t speak. It’s self practice. Everything is adjustments and is experiential. We believe that the body does what it’s ready to do. The foundation of Iyengar is to meet with teacher once a week and the rest is experiential. In both traditions, you’re trying to take the ego out of practice, and let the real teacher manifest in the space.”

Questions arise, however, about the practicalities of this arrangement. How might someone trained in movement and breath-based ashtanga tradition know how to adjust someone from the extremely precise, alignment-based Iyengar practice—and vice versa?

Kessler says it’s a conversation. Practitioners are primarily teachers, and they’re interested in the exchange. Although their knowledge is coming from different modalities, it refers back to the same source, the Krishnamacharya lineage.

“Recently, somebody was having a problem with a trocanter thing on her right hip. She asked Cory, the Iyengar teacher, why. I knew it was a sacrum imbalance because I’d been through that pose and been injured there. Cory gave the exact same answer that I did –we just came to it from a different place.”

Just a few weeks into this new offering, attendance is still growing. The two morning sessions (T/Th 9:30-11:30) and one afternoon (Friday 3:30-5:30) are not times everyone can make. As well, the studio is also still building its Iyengar program, with one certified teacher and another currently seeking certification.

The morning I visited, four Mysore-style ashtangis and two vinyasa practitioners were well into their morning practice. The steady, rhythmic sound of the breath filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional click of the heaters. When it was time for one woman to attempt the deep twist of marichyasana D, another woman got up from yoganidrasana, a supine pose in which the feet cross behind the neck, to adjust her.

It was peaceful in the room, a harmonious balance of effort, grace, and community, unruffled by one student stopping to help another. Providing space to practice and be influenced by each other might help to break down barriers between traditions, but on the most immediate level, it helps foster community.

And as Sangha Yoga Shala—which means “community yoga house”—says in its mission statement, “Only in community can we transcend and truly make a positive impact on the world.”