Teacher of the Month – Shira Engel talks about stress, NOT quitting, and how sometimes the Subway is our Ashram

Shira_21) How did you start practicing Yoga? Tell us about your early yoga experiences.
Born and raised in New York City, I learned the meaning of stress at a premature age. With a tendency toward overwhelm, I quit most physical activities that I started from gymnastics to swim team. But then, while filling out college applications at a rapid-fire speed, I discovered yoga through necessity at a Teen Ashtanga class at the 92nd St Y. Eight years and over 500 hours of teacher training later, I haven’t quit; my practice has only grown and developed.
2) When was the moment you knew that Yoga was different or special – more than just another “exercise” or way to be physical?
I experienced this through not quitting my yoga practice ever…because I never had any desire to. Something I say a lot in my classes, and what I think makes yoga so special, is that it is the one form of trendy physical activity that is non-aspirational. The practice meets you where you’re at, in the moment. In a culture and society where we are told to be someone we’re not through being told we are either not enough or too much, yoga allows us, literally and figuratively, to take a deep breath and realize we are exactly where we need to be. Yoga allowed me to love my body…and not because my body had to change from what it was when I started practicing. It allowed to appreciate the muscles that were already there, but that I didn’t know how to use. It gave me greater body awareness and proprioception, and, more than that, it reinforces all the positive and gratitude-filled philosophies that govern how I’d love to live my life. I’ve done yoga with a broken leg, in countries where I couldn’t get to a yoga class, and in my old college library during finals week. The accessibility of the practice consistently wows me, and allows for it to be something I’d never want to leave. It’s my healthiest relationship…and teaches me to be more of myself.
3) What is your favorite and least favorite pose, and why?
Ooh, what a fun question! My absolute favorite pose is Triangle Pose, trikonasana. I love the hip opening, the constant mindfulness it requires, the use of the block underneath my bottom hand, and the expansive action of pressing down to lift up (and if you’ve ever been to one of my classes, you know that “Press down to lift up” is my favorite cue, and that the body is my favorite metaphor).


4) What practices do you use to feel more peaceful, present and content?
I practice Metta – lovingkindness – meditation…on the subway. The way this meditation works is that you send loving wishes toward yourself, someone you love, neutral people / those you don’t know very well (i.e. most of the people on the subway anyway), and then to someone you’re not too happy with at the moment. Then, that love gets sent to the community around you. Because let’s be real: as New Yorkers, sometimes the subway has to be our ashram.
5) 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)
My 2016 intention – which I cultivated at the Harlem Yoga Studio NYE 108 Sun Salutations event – is the Niyama of Saucha, or cleanliness. I’m applying it to my apartment, my office, my speech, and my actions. For today, it means abstaining from gossip and being concise in what I say and in my writing (clean speech), putting away my clothes at night…and even indulging in pedicures and other fun spa-like things to keep my body clean.
6) Question of the Month! April = Adikara
How do you apply “Studentship” to your practice and your teaching?
When I am not teaching yoga, I’m teaching third grade. As I teach more and more, I am in awe of how much studentship is required to possess the role of a teacher. I am a much better teacher when I am also being a student. I am in grad school while I teach third grade, which lets me constantly innovate my own teaching practices. Similarly, I go to a bunch of different yoga classes as a student, and that allows me to bring new poses, transitions and dharma talks into each and every one of my yoga classes.

7) What days do you teach at Harlem Yoga?

I teach on Saturdays at 5:45pm! But stay tuned because I’ll be subbing a bunch over the summer and offering a workshop or two as well!