A traveling practice—whether at a temple or a shala—can give a welcome sense of home.
My husband and I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico this past weekend for one of the most beautiful weddings we have ever attended. The bride, my college roommate and dear friend, chose to put aside every convention of self-importance to set her non-denominational special day on a sustainable farm that also housed and entertained the lot of us for the entire weekend. It was gorgeous, relaxing and a lot of fun.
Over dinner the first night, her husband, a new dear friend, and I chatted about our Jewish backgrounds and how similarly we’d grown up—he in Canada and I in Colombia. Despite the radical differences between the two countries, their Jewish populations shared countless similarities in their approach to worship and community.
Some conventions we both remember fondly and as far less-practicing adults we still appreciate (cantor-driven prayer in Hebrew, to which we sang along phonetically, much like mantra). Some we’ve always questioned (separating men’s seating from women’s). The truly fascinating aspect of our comparison of childhood notes, though, were not these details, but rather that despite the fact that we grew up on different continents and in different languages, the form and fashion of our religious identity was virtually identical.
Driving back from dinner to the luscious farm where we’d be staying for the weekend, I saw the sign for the Nahalat Shalom congregation whiz by the car window, one more adobe edifice in the desert. “Maybe we can pop in for Shabbat services tomorrow night,” I said to my husband. “Uh,” stalled the even less-practicing Jew who grew up the same way I did but remembers religious customs slightly less fondly, “don’t we have a rehearsal dinner to attend?”
Skeptical as he is, my husband also knows me very well and could guess why I’d made the suggestion. He remembers my old habit of visiting temples on Shabbat whenever I found myself in a foreign country, despite the fact I seldom (if ever) attend services when I’m home, just to be able to walk into a situation that is, regardless of the surrounding culture and within the confines of the temple walls, entirely familiar.
Going to Shabbat services in 1993 in the Marais in Paris, I managed a better pronunciation of my prayers in Hebrew than what I had all week in my terrible, highly critiqueable efforts at French. A Friday night spent in the only functioning temple in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2000 felt more like home than had anything else for a whole summer in that desolate, haunted city.
Not wanting to deny me the anthropological curiosity and personal comfort that I derive from this old ritual of mine, my husband was about to agree to go to temple, when I abruptly agreed with him. “You’re right, we do have a dinner tomorrow night. Besides, we’re going to Mysore practice in the morning.”
I changed my mind because I was realizing in that moment that for the last 10 years, rather than visiting temples, I’ve been visiting Ashtanga yoga shalas around the world. Of course, this follows: while I am a selectively observant Jew, I am a fully practicing yoga student. Attending yoga practice fits seamlessly into my habitual six day a week practice. It also gives me that sense of home-full-ness that I crave while traveling.
Visiting a yoga shala in a strange city gives me the same comfort that going to Shabbat services used to. More so, perhaps, in that I can fully participate in the practice, which depends on nothing more than the student’s willingness and the teacher’s quiet guidance.
A traveling Ashtangi often makes a series of sacrifices in order to get our practice in: we go to bed earlier than the excitement of a new situation might encourage; we eat more lightly at night than we might want to when faced with regional delicacies; we squeeze that practice in wherever and whenever we can.
A fire escape outside a European hostel and a concrete deck shielded from full view of a resort pool spring to mind as I think back over the last ten years worth of traveling practice.
So finding a Mysore group in a foreign town is really a luxury. Likewise, it is an honor to be invited in to breathe together with an established practice group. And to actually have a teacher watch over you—that’s the jackpot.
Knowing the teacher previously doesn’t matter, as I’ve noticed that every Mysore instructor I’ve ever encountered is able to meet a new and temporary student (the out-of-towner) at whatever level she currently practices, perhaps asking a few questions, offering some suggestions, adjustments, but mainly the space in which to practice.
Knowing the other students doesn’t matter in the least, since each of us occupies exclusively the world of our personal practice, bordered by the edges of our own mat.
The only thing that matters (and interestingly so, in light of the fact that a Mysore-style Ashtanga practice is self-driven and has us each practicing a different pose at any given moment depending on our start time and the length of our personal practice), is that we show up on our mat, we surrender to the practice, and that we recognize the familiar within the strange-to-us.
This isn’t very hard to do: every one of the Mysore studios I’ve stumbled into in the early morning, possibly jet-lagged, probably clutching map printouts in my hand, has a similar vibe. They are clean, softly lit, resonant with breath, warm, inviting. The teacher stands somewhere in the room, assisting someone, and with one look is able to convey: “welcome, place your mat in an available space and begin. You’ll hear from me when necessary.”
This implicit community between Ashtanga practitioners has allowed me the pleasure of dropping into Mysore practices on Maui, in Boston, and New York, in towns in Florida beside my own. Three years ago I had the pleasure of practicing in the brand-new studio in Washington D.C. under the watchful eye of a wonderful woman with whom I’d chatted over breakfast in Mysore the year prior.
Last fall, I walked into the Ashtanga shala in Charlottesville, VA, only to find that the instructor there was our very own Ashtanga editor on elephant, Thad Haas, someone with whom I had corresponded but never met. Similarly, I crave the opportunity to travel to Ireland to study with friends whom I met in Mysore, or to return to New York to practice with another lovely friend.
On this last trip to Albuquerque, I was luckier than usual not only to find a Mysore studio, but one run by a lovely teacher whom I’d met on one of my trips to India. While we had only spoken a couple of times back then, she recognized my husband and I upon arrival. Such is the intimacy of the Ashtanga universe, I thought.
After our truly rewarding experience at her studio, I decided to ask this teacher, Elise Espat, a few questions about her own experiences as a traveling yoga student and also about how her personal practice has influenced her as a teacher to other travelers.
Elise’s trajectory, like so many of us, has led her through many years of Mysore-style Ashtanga practice. She began in the U.S. with her American teacher, Guy Donahaye and continues in Mysore, India, with the Jois family after meeting the late Guruji on one of his world tours.
No stranger to a dedicated practice or to traveling herself, Elise recalls rolling out her mat in countless hotel rooms and hotel gyms as well as dropping into Mysore groups in Paris and Montreal.
After a decade living and practicing in Brooklyn, she decided to move back home to Albuquerque last summer to open Albuquerque Ashtanga Yoga Shala, a beautifully minimalist space that houses her dedicated Mysore group. In true Mysore-style fashion, she welcomes out-of-town students with an existing practice.
Her traveling and personal homecoming make Elise uniquely qualified to relate to my topic and also to advise her traveling students about the effects of altitude on the body. Towering at just about a mile above sea level, Albuquerque’s elevation has what Elise refers to as a “surprising impact.”
Having experienced it in her own body, she can guide as student through these changes as well as offer the wisdom that “once you get used to it, you go back to sea level and you’re flying.”
Without asking many questions, Elise was able to guide my husband and I through some challenging poses. It was a treat to have a teacher’s input after months of practicing on our own and amazingly energizing to share our practice with other students with whom we didn’t exchange a single word.
Thinking that there might be a chance that she has a trick for quickly sizing up a visiting student, I asked Elise whether she approaches the travelers differently than she does her regular, daily crowd. Somehow, her answer didn’t surprise me: “It is the same. You do your practice and that is all.”
I know my husband agrees, and it seems as if Elise does, too: whether back in Albuquerque or on a rusty fire escape in Europe, it’s the act of rolling out the mat and getting on it that is the homecoming.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta