January 2015 Teacher of the Month – Studio Owner Erica Barth

How did you start practicing Yoga? Tell us about your early yoga experiences

I started practicing yoga when I first moved to New York City in 1999.   I was an athlete throughout HS and college and when I moved to NYC was a big “gym rat”.   One of my best friends from college who had practiced yoga growing up, convinced me to take yoga class with her at our gym. Even though it was less aerobic than my preferred kick-boxing classes (1999!) I was surprised to find I really liked it and and it became a weekly date. In 2001 while training for a marathon  I practiced Yoga as my primary cross training. I noticed that among the group of friends I trained with I wasn’t suffering from the same injuries that many of them were having, and became even more convinced of Yoga’s physical benefits.

When was the moment you knew that Yoga was different or special – more than just another “exercise” or way to be physical?

There have been many different moments where Yoga has seemed special, and newly transformative to me.   Over time I moved from being really impressed with the physical benefits – to becoming much more interested in the mental and spiritual components of the practice.  After taking yoga classes regularly at the gym for almost 2 years, I started practicing at the Integral Yoga Institute’s uptown center and loved it immediately.  The classes had some of the same physical components as those I had been taking, but the overall experience was much deeper – I would feel a sense of calm and contentedness in class that would often last for several days. Almost without noticing it I found that yoga had become a committed habit, and I had started to become more curious about my own reactions – both to the physical sensations in the poses, and in our brief meditations and shavasana.   I had never taken the time to slow down and witness my own mind before, and during class I had a sense of “opening up” and “spaciousness” that was incredibly interesting to me.  In many classes I felt like I was learning something new about myself. After practicing for several years I started going on yoga retreats where we dove more deeply into pranayama (Breathing exercises) meditation, the yoga sutras, and yoga philosophy .

When my mom died in 2007 I was in graduate school and already practicing yoga very regularly and meditating, but as I was grieving I turned to my yoga practice even more. While it was an incredibly difficult time for me, I remember feeling the sense that I was able to breathe into the various sensations and pain I was feeling – and then move through those feelings until they arose again.   I don’t believe that would have been accessible to me without my yoga practice.   It was also at that time that I decided to become certified to teach yoga. I didn’t have any plans to teach (and certainly no plans to open a Yoga studio!) I just wanted to immerse myself in more yoga – to allow for the physical release and deep breathing, and to dive more deeply into the philosophical/ spiritual components of the practice.   Being able to spend 3 days a week at the Integral Yoga Institute surrounded by yoga was incredibly healing.

What is your favorite and least favorite pose, and why?

It depends on the day, and there are many poses I love – but several poses that consistently make me feel great are:

Warrior 2 – The opening of the hips, the sense of both strength and balance, being poised in the center – not stretching too far forward and back – all while keeping your heart open feels like it is moving energy throughout my whole body. And I like the warrior metaphor!

Wheel Pose – When I am warmed up and my body is open to it – this is pose feels amazing! I feel centered and grounded in my feet, my shoulders feel open, and my heart feels lifted and light.

Headstand –  The sense of having everything perfectly aligned. Using my core muscles and the entire spine and keeping my legs active as I balance on the crown of my head gives me a sense of feeling both energized and centered.

I know that Yoga teachers say this a lot – but oftentimes the poses you dislike are the ones you need the most , and that is very true for me! Some of my least favorite (and most needed!)  poses are dolphin and pinchamarasana (forearm stand) because my shoulders are very tight. I am currently trying to practice one of these poses for just 3 to 5 minutes a day and it is really a challenge for me… but over time (very VERY slowly) I am seeing a (teeny tiny) opening in my shoulders.

I have also always found malasana (Bead) pose to be a big challenge – I think this one has been frusturating to me because it looks like a pose that others feel so comfortable in (which of course is all just expectation and ego on my part 😉   but I have never been able to get my heels on the ground and don’t feel steady or grounded here.  Like dolphin pose, it is a good pose for me to practice in order to open my hips in that way.

What practices do you use to feel more peaceful, present and content?

I am naturally very high energy  (translation – a little anxious)  and I often need to burn through that energy with a more vigorous practice to then feel centered and calm, so I love a strengthening set of standing poses, or a strong vinyasa flow to feel open and relaxed.   However over the years I have learned that sometimes my body (and mind) need something different than what my habitual patterns are, so I incorporate Yin Yoga and restorative poses into my home practice,  where I really try to think about what I am feeling physically (and emotionally) and will choose a few poses that are very targeted to accessing certain organs and functions of the body, and certain energies .

What Yama or Niyama do your find most helpful in your daily life, and why ? (Yamas are “observances” that are recommended for relating to the outside world, and Niyamas are observances for dealing with internal struggles)

I have always been a very future focused person, so the Yama Aparigraha (Non-possesiveness / non-clinging) immediately resonated with me.  After many years of always looking for (and in some ways finding) “happiness” by achieving or accomplishing the next thing, moving away from the idea that if I just get that next “brass ring” ; that next job, that next relationship – took a real commitment and practice.  Aparigraha is a very easy one for me to explore in Yoga Asana as well, where am I pushing and clinging to get to that next pose?   Where am looking at what someone else is doing in their practice and “coveting” their handstand? (It can be really insightful! )

Consistently committing to this idea of not grasping, not always ahead , and looking for and wanting MORE, has been incredible powerful.   It has created space for me to take risks that I probably never would have taken had I been so set on achieving the next milestone, and has helped to develop a much greater sense of contentment and abundance in my life. By that same token, the niyama Santosha, complete contentment or acceptance, is another wonderful practice that I find useful every day. A commitment to acceptance of what Is actually happening, Santosha feels a bit like the other side to Aparigraha to me, and has manifested in a daily practice in gratitude. I have a gratitude jar that I take a moment to fill each day after I meditate with one or a few things I am grateful for – it can be anything from great coffee to amazing friends – but I take a moment to think about it and write it down – and that small practice starts my day with a deep sense of contentment.

Harlem Yoga  Studio Owner and Teacher

Harlem Yoga Studio Owner and Teacher