Keiko & Kenichi Visit Los Angeles

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In July 2013 my YogaPlus colleagues from Tokyo, Kenichi Nemoto and Keiko Tanaka, made their first trip to Los Angeles to visit various Yogaworks studios. Kenichi (Ken) a student in my first TT in Tokyo (2012), is now a very popular teacher at Yogaplus. Tall, talented, and a former professional vocalist who notably performed in a touring company of “Phantom of the Opera.” Keiko Tanaka, whom passionately oversaw the expansion of the Yogaworks trainings at YP, was the quintessential programming director.

They were encouraged to come to LA and experience the thriving yoga community here and spent a glorious week filled with an intensive program of classes at a number of Yogaworks studios in Santa Monica (Montana Ave. & Main St.), South Bay, Westwood and Hollywood; and mandatory sightseeing.

Keiko and Ken were able to practice with so many popular Yogaworks teachers, including: Vinnie Marino, Mia Togo, David Lynch, Birgitte Kirsten, Chad Hamrin, and Alexandria Crow. At the Montana Avenue studio they took Lisa Walford’s Iyengar class and had a special meeting with her afterwards. They dropped into David Kim’s class at Westwood, and my class at Southbay. In addition, the two made a special visit to Gurrmukh at Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood; Exhale, Sacred Movement in Venice; and Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach for a kid’s yoga class with Grenville Henwood, who has developed “Groovy Kids Yoga” trainings that are taught internationally. Both Chad Hamrin and Grenville Henwood would carry out successful trainings and workshops at YP.  Finally, a special treat for Ken was to be featured in one of David Kim’s class segments on “My Yogaworks.com.

Food became a secondary focus, although Californian fare isn’t as stellar as Japanese cuisine, there are plenty of popular spots in L.A. On our fist evening together we had dinner at Annipurna, a popular vegetarian restaurant in Culver City. Pumpkin Pie at Urth Cafe became one of our favorite treats–their salads were second best. Ken also insisted that we try Unami Burger—Unami is the “fifth flavor”–which often is the secret undistinguishable essence in a dish that makes it delectable.  Additionally, Ken and Keiko had their fair share of ubiquitous Mexican food, claiming they ate more tacos and burritos than they could stand, but we insisted they try Wahoo Fish Tacos. We were able to squeeze in our last lunch of wholesome sandwiches at Fundamental.

For more fun, Ken and Keiko toured the city from Hollywood to Venice Beach. One evening we drove up and down the mountainous Malibu Canyon Road and then headed north on Pacific Coast Highway towards Pt. Dume, where we spent a fantastic evening hiking the bluffs, then viewed a spectacular sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

In all, Keiko said that she was impressed by robust yoga culture in Los Angeles, which is diverse in many ways: people of all ages and backgrounds practicing yoga; lots of men, not just women taking classes (which tends to be the case in Japan). They were both very surprised to the large audience of yogis attending filled classes here at each studio, literally back to back. I told them that yoga is part of the mainstream environment  in Los Angeles, with so many choices of styles at dozens of studios, and of course great teachers, it makes it impossible to not to pick up your mat and participate. Once people see the benefits of consistent practice, they keep going. Furthermore, the studios become a social outlet and mini-communities are formed.

I was delighted that Ken and Keiko were able to visit Los Angeles and gain insight on how they could positively influence the yoga program at their studio in Tokyo, recognize the growing potential of partnerships, and the abundant opportunity for collaborations.

 

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A Visit with Vishnu, Bhudda and Shiva @ LACMA

Class with Vishnu

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a modest but impressive permanent collection of Southeast Asian Art featuring an assortment of statues, paintings and objects.  I organized a trip to visit the galleries with my students on February 8, a week after our hike in Solstice Canyon.

An Indian Prince

Two YoginiA young dancerA princess

Andrea Wagner, a docent at the Museum, who is also a yoga teacher, agreed to lead the tour.  She gave us a special lecture on the objects and the stories associated with the many incarnations of Vishnu, Bhudda, Shiva and other gods in the Hindu pantheon. In addition, we gained valuable insight on the dancing bhodisattvas, lacquered chests, paintings, and golden reliquary figures on display in mysteriously darkened earth toned rooms.

Andrea Wagner Lecturing

I arranged the outing because I felt it was important for my students to have a contextual experience with the many objects associated with yoga. We are typically exposed to the physical aspects of yoga and perhaps some Indian music in class or through kirtans.  Yet, we rarely have the opportunity to delve deeper into the meaning of the images and objects unique to yoga that we often take for granted.  We have seen many statues of a graceful dancing Shiva (Nataraj) or a plump Ganesh in a yoga studio, but do we really know what these objects signify?

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For example, Nataraja, “Lord of Dance” is an incarnation of Shiva–the circular frame of fire surrounding the Lord, represents him as the source of all movement within the universe.  Some other iconographic pictorial elements would include the following: the snake around his waist is Kundalini, the Shakti or divine force thought to reside within everything.  In his right hand is a small drum (damaru) exemplifying the sound, which is the origin of creation or the beat of the drum that is the passage of time. The upper left hand contains Agni (fire), which personifies destruction. These opposing concepts in Nataraja’s upper hands show the balance of creation and destruction of the fire of life. There are many other emblematic details associated with this figure alone. After taking a closer look at the other statues in the galleries, we can be reminded of that a stance, the position of an arm, a hand gesture (mudra) or even the rendering of the shells on Buddha’s head—are all so rich with allegorical relevance.

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One of my ongoing projects has been to reinforce a deeper understanding of the cultural history of yoga. My students said they really appreciated the trip and said we all agreed that we would like to do this again.

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After the tour, a few of us enjoyed a tasty meal of vegetarian food at a nearby Ethiopian restaurant, Meals by Genet, a nice finale for our artistically stimulating evening.

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Yoga/Meditation/Hike in Solstice Canyon

 

“Yoga/Meditation/Hike” is a program that I started years ago while teaching at Santa Monica Yoga. I’ve always loved the meditative qualities of hiking and thought it would be great to create a program that would create stronger bonds between me, my students and our local community.  Over the years, I’ve hosted at least two dozen hikes throughout the nearby Santa Monica Mountains, which features varied terrain and hiking trails.   Notable outings have included: Malibu Creek State Park, Corral Canyon, Charmlee Wilderness State Park Solstice Canyon, Pt. Mugu and Topanga State Park–all uniquely different and easily accessible from the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. The images featured in this post were from a recent hike in Solstice Canyon on February 3, 2013. Students from my classes at various Yogaworks studios throughout the Los Angeles area attended with friends.

The groups have ranged in size, age and abilities with me encouraging everyone to make it to the top where we will always certainly enjoy a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, bucolic valley or a breathtaking mountain range.  Everyone always has a great sense of accomplishment when they complete the hike. In all, it’s a good time for all who participate with lots of laughs, shared stories and the opportunity to connect socially on a personal level outside of the classroom. The hikes are followed by a session of yoga, meditation, light refreshments or lunch at the Malibu Country Mart.

Inspired by the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s (“Wherever You Go There You Are”),  I will occasionally hand out a flier of his essay,  “Walking Meditation” an excerpt follows:

“Try, bringing awareness to walking, wherever you find yourself.  Slow it down a bit.  Center yourself in your body and in the present moment. Appreciate the fact that you are able to walk, which many people cannot. perceive how miraculous it is, and for a moment, don’t take for granted that your body works so wonderfully. Know that you are ambulating upright on the face of Mother Earth.  Walk with dignity and confidence, and as the Navaho saying goes, walk in beauty, wherever you are.”

A “Soulful Yoga Class” for Share-ity

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Last weekend on November 4, I had the opportunity to participate in a fundraiser for Share-ity.org, benefiting the Sanhamatta Seba Sangha orphanage in Bangladesh, India.  Me and a few of my Yogaworks colleagues: Birgette Kristen, Melanie Lora Meltzer, Sarah Ezrin, and Charlie Samos, “team taught” a yoga class to a group of approximately 20 people at Studio Six01 a cavernous and eclectic artists space located in downtown Los Angeles. I have always enjoyed participating in these type of events which support the spirit of giving, community building and service.

The project was spearheaded by Laurie Carpenter who has been communicating with the  orphanage since July, 2012. She has been working diligently on fundraising efforts that will provide many essentials such as food, clothing, school supplies and vocational training. The organization will also be building their first orphanage in Kenya, 2013.

To donate clothing, food, medicine or sponsor a child, please go to www.share-ity.org

A Yoga Teacher’s Quest for Idyllic Representation with Fluid Frame Photography

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One critical aspect of being a yoga teacher is having attractive pictures of your self readily available for promotional purposes.  This ongoing project is not ego driven, but in fact necessary for career sustainability in a market driven culture.  A few of my peers are featured in remarkably striking ad campaigns or gracefully adorn the cover of magazines, they are the quintessential “yoga models” and can perform many fantastic and complex poses in front of the camera with ease.  However, for me the quest for the ideal image has been illusive.  First of all, I lack the “bendy” body that prevents me from doing those exotic poses that are so visually appealing, and therefore feel self-conscious in front of the camera.  Nevertheless, it’s been difficult to find someone to photograph me in a pictorially compelling way. Over the years, I have enlisted talented friends and colleagues for photo shoots in casual settings: notably parks, a faux finished living room, or on a stroll through downtown Los Angeles.  Although I sincerely appreciated these off-the-cuff budget friendly attempts, I have never been fully satisfied with the results. Friends would always say “Oh, what are you talking about, your pictures on your website look great!” In my mind these pictures were merely suitable –to arrange a professional studio shoot someday was always on my mind.

Shortly after returning from Tokyo, I received an e-mail from Kelly Furey whom I met when I taught a community class at Lululemon in Beverly Hills. Now, working for Fluid Frame Photography, she said they were offering a special package deal for yoga teachers. The price was agreeable and so I decided that this would be the time to go for it. I spent the next weeks before the shoot preparing and practicing daily with intensity while watching the pounds.  During this time, I also began think carefully about how I wanted to be depicted, considering outfits in bright colors contrasted with a slick black outfit for a touch of elegance. I even spent an entire afternoon scrounging around Danny’s Warehouse in Culver City searching for the perfect black leotard.

On the day of the shoot, the morning of August 25, I showed up with a bag of yoga attire, an assortment of jewelry, hair and make-up done by me, feeling prepared and in control for once.  Me, and Jessica Kang, a colleague from my Yoga Works 300 Hr. Professional Program, were scheduled back to back and we agreed beforehand to spot each other.  Placed against a pristine backdrop, I posed for almost two hours, asana after asana, until my muscles cramped up and could hardly move. People don’t realize how challenging a shoot is on the body– maybe it’s the lights, the pent-up nervousness, or the fact that you’re doing poses out of sequence repeatedly, but I would be sore days.  Nevertheless, Lisa Joy LoMurray (L.J.), the creative force behind Fluid Frame Photography, was the ultimate professional, patiently and intently snapping away with a high-tech camera, 111 images in all. Young, bright and talented, L.J. has been crafting her skills in the niche of yoga photography and she is assuredly establishing her presence in the field.  She has produced an abundance of wonderful images of yoga teachers in our local community.

Two weeks after the shoot as I was boarding the plane to head home to Maryland for Labor Day, I was able to see the first proofs on my cell phone. I paused for a moment and smiled.  I couldn’t believe what I saw—L.J. seemed to capture a vision of me that I’ve never seen in print.  She was able to make me look captivating in even the simplest and most basic of poses. In the weeks to follow, I would find it very difficult to narrow down my choices to just fifteen pictures, so I went for thirty!

When I reflect on the collection of my yoga pictures from years past, I realize that as teachers, we are always evolving–perhaps through our tireless commitment to the practice, teaching and learning, it is somehow possible for a deeper dimension of our self to shine through.  Finally, I have images of myself that truly gratifying.

http://www.fluidframephoto.com

Yoga at the Los Angeles Ballet Summer Intensive

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For the past four summers I’ve taught yoga to young dancers from around the world who attend The Los Angeles Ballet Summer Intensive (L.A.B.S.I.) to study with Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen and other world-renowned teachers.  The irony is that although I seriously studied to be a dancer when I was younger and never made it into any companies, I’m now on the faculty of the L.A.B.S.I. and teach yoga to dancers and feel very gratified to have this opportunity.

Although many of the students are in their teens, some of them are already in the company as trainees. A few  are even home-schooled or have taken their High School Equivalency exams.  Younger students up to 12 yrs. old enrolled in the summer program have been successfully taught by Amy Rose Stabley for approximately three years.   During this time, I’ve been able to see many students evolve, grow and move on to become talented professional dancers.  For example, Eric Christenson who was a slight, ambitious 12-year-old when I first starting teaching there, has now grown up to be dashing, “princely” and over six feet tall!

Teaching yoga to flexible students with sophisticated body awareness is extremely challenging, on a fundamental level they are beginners, with little knowledge of yoga technique, but on another level, they are advanced and as accomplished as professional athletes. They can easily put themselves into complex poses such as: Eka Pada Rajakpotasana, Kurmasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana with little effort, yet, not be aware of alignment, the subtle nuances, or the intention of the pose.  Ultimately, my goal is to teach them the more subtle aspects of yoga, provide guidance with injury management, and help them to relax after a long week of rehearsals and classes.

At the end of the summer session there is final program. I sit with the parents and friends that come to watch every year and feel proud as I watch the students perform, solos, duets, and various ensemble pieces.  I also think that whether or not they pursue dance careers, this is a positive and culturally enriching way for young people to spend their summers.

L.A.–Revisited

Photo by Yvette Hamaya

Now the focus shifts back to life in Los Angeles along with teaching and practicing yoga. What’s different?  What has changed?  The theme since returning in July seems to be about “revisiting” familiar territory with a new attitude. I got busy teaching right away, navigating my way through clogged streets, highways in endless traffic.  Nevertheless, it was great to come back and see my students and colleagues. Thanks to a great team of subs (Lee Wolfort, Veronica Wolkow, Kiyomi Takahashi, Suzanne Dunn and Jocelyn Kay Levy) I had classes to come back too! It’s not easy keeping a class subbed out for three months.

Before Class at South Bay, 12:00

There have been a number of social events over the past few weeks that have highlighted an undercurrent theme,  “reunions.’  Many of them taking place during summer evenings against a backdrop of extraordinary and magical sunsets that are unique to our environment. One weekend shortly after getting back, I met up with a long-time friend and colleague, Lynn Carmichael, to attend an outdoor event at the Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood. On the lawn of the Hollyhock House, everyone stopped awe-struck, to take a picture of this spectacular Technicolor sunset.  Inspired and appreciative, I stood and thought how this glorious scene made me joyous about the prospects of new beginnings.

By coincidence, I’ve also had the opportunity to re-unite with many of my Yoga Works 300hr Professional Program colleagues over past few weeks. The women from our class (2007) have been getting together for potlucks periodically to celebrate major events or simply connect.  Coincidentally, Keiko Okuno from Tokyo was passing through town and we all gathered for a vegetarian soiree at Brenda Johnson’s house in Venice to celebrate the arrival of Amy Rose Stabley’s angelic baby son, Mateo.

Andrea Wagner, Michelle Sachs, Kiyomi Takahashi, Mateo Stabley, Heather Ehlers, Romy Phillips, Amy Rose Stabley, Keiko Okuno, Brenda Johnson

Keiko Okuno with Mateo Stabley

I also met up with Jessica Kang for an amazing and long-anticipated photo shoot with Fluid Frame Photography—we hadn’t seen each other since she left for Hong Kong shortly after graduating from our 300 hr.  Program, which was followed by stints in Korea & India.

So far, I’ve been able to maintain the positive changes and keep planning for the future.  I’m forging ahead teaching and am also busy organizing upcoming retreats—La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA this fall and Hawaii with David Kim & Yvette Hamaya in the spring.

(For information on the retreat at La Casa De Maria, September 22 & 23, please visit   www.romyphillipsyoga.com