My history with yoga dates back to 2001. I was a college student in Washington DC, and had decided to take yoga as an elective class. At the time, little did I know that it would add so much to my life.
Yoga has been in my life ever since that first confusing class at the university gym. In Washington, I worked at a studio through a work exchange program, in San Francisco, yoga became a regular part of my life, an activity I enjoyed sharing with many of my friends. Fast forward several years, I now live in Istanbul, a fast-paced city where I continue a regular yoga practice to stay grounded.
Compared to 10 years ago, yoga has increasingly become popular in Istanbul with variety of yoga studios as well as multiple teacher training programs. YogaŞala has been my studio of choice and slowly but surely became my home away from home in Istanbul. YogaŞala has three branches in the city; Nişantaşı, Etiler and Bağdat Avenue.
One of the regular teachers I have been practicing with is Sandrine Kamhi, famous for her love of inversions. And I am famous for my fear of them. Sandrine has been teaching at YogaŞala since 2009 and is a beautiful soul whose classes are fun, challenging and energetic. Her classes are in English, another thing I like about YogaŞala as this allows visitors and foreigners living in Istanbul to practice without a language barrier. I’ve also noticed that most teachers at YogaŞala will teach both in English and Turkish, even if there is just one non-Turkish speaking student in the classroom.
Recently Sandrine went to Govardhan Ecovillage, an ashram in Maharashtra created by Radhanath Swami where she took an intense 300-hour Jivamukti training. She came back with loads of information, inspiration and stories to share. I wanted to hear more about her experience so we shared a lovely chat on a rainy Friday afternoon. After all, Sandrine has been one of the most influential teachers in my practice, and I wanted to know her a little bit better. To my surprise, Sandrine doesn’t come from a long background in yoga, in her professional life she had been working as a childrens’ right consultant for an NGO to improve education and childrens’ rights. Her journey to yoga began 12 years ago in Geneva, and before she knew it, yoga became her life. As she says, yoga is a connection for life. She didn’t intend on becoming a yoga teacher because her understanding of yoga was that it was a gift to her, and that she couldn’t be teaching it. She wanted to understand yoga better to simply deepen her own practice.
However, she found so much connection with the spirituality of yoga that she decided to help others feel this connection and the transformation that they can experience in their lives through yoga. Of her last experience in India, she said that she was really taken back by the village and the locals’ energy, and was involved with Annamrita (Midday Meal Program) that provides one meal a day to the village children. She says that she wants to bring together her passion for children’s rights and yoga, which I thought sounded like a perfect marriage. Her style of teaching is Vinyasa, which she thinks a reflection of life itself. Everything in life is a transition and everything is evolving. Therefore, through yoga, we can connect to something that is not changeable; that unchangeable is the true self.
Sandrine is also a lover of Kirtan, Sanskrit chants that are sang in yoga practices and meditation. She recently learned how to play the harmonium, which she started incorporating to her classes as well. Yoga practice with live music is a very moving experience, and I am glad YogaŞala creates experiences like this for its students.
What I love about YogaŞala is its community. Everytime I go through the doors in Nişantaşı, I am welcomed by familiar faces, the smell of freshly steeped tea and a welcoming receptionist. The studios are very clean, all the mats, blocks, straps and bolsters are tucked away neatly. There are group classes all day long, every day of the week, offering many styles and levels of teaching from Ashtanga to Yin.
Every new student at YogaŞala takes their first class for free, which I think is very thoughtful of them. New students can purchase the introductory package which offers unlimited classes for a very reasonable price. This is a perfect way for newcomers to practice with different teachers and try out as many styles of classes as possible, giving them a full idea of YogaSala's offerings. With so many options in the city, I find it very important to allow new yogis try a few studios and teachers until they find the best place for their own needs. Besides regular classes, there are ongoing workshops at all YogaŞala studios, both with local teachers as well as world renowned names like Chuck Miller, Richard Freeman and Hart Lazer. Group lessons can be intimidating for beginner students, but here, each student gets special attention from the teachers. If this wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have learned how to do a headstand on my own. Zeynep, another teacher with whom I practice regularly, has helped me get over my fear of inversions. On a recent class, I noticed that she helped each student try a headstand with assistance, while continuing to lead the rest of the class without breaking the flow.
Yoga is an immersion to the self and through each practice I find myself become more in touch with my body; physically and spiritually. YogaŞala is my place of happiness, the place that helps me become more mindful, conscious and and feel enlightened.
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Photographs of YogaŞala Studio are taken by Seza Bali.