On Pratyahara

The world can be a distracting place. . .

As long as I’ve been practicing yoga and as much as I believe in the power of a well-trained mind, I remain overly sensitive. Now, I don’t necessarily mean I’m overly emotional or prone to get my feelings hurt at the smallest probing (although I do have my moments!) but rather that certain senses are particularly heightened, specifically my hearing. I hear everything. I’m hyper attuned to any audio-stimuli: the slightest creaking of a radiator, or even the dull electric buzz of a speaker turned on but not emitting sound catch my attention and hold on.

One day last year I realized we must have a new downstairs neighbor. There I was on my mat: breathing and moving, when I heard the resounding blasts of exceptionally loud music vibrating up through the floor. Suddenly all of my attention was ripped out of my practice and focused on this noise! “How unfair,” I whined to myself, “how horrible!” I sulked around, complained to my husband, and stopped my practice early. When it happened the next week I felt my heart drop. After a few minutes of self-pity I thought about how I could help myself carry on. My solution? Earplugs.

All that noise got me thinking about distraction, which got my thinking about Pratyahara.

Our senses are the means through which we experience the world. How something looks, tastes, smells or feels gives us a multitude of information about the object and can definitely contribute to experiences of great and simple joys in this life: the honeyed taste of a ripe peach, the comforting smell of fresh brewed coffee, or the sudden, unexpected glimpse of the face of a loved-one.

I know I love it when my eyes fall upon a particularly beautiful display of fresh flowers, but like I mentioned, I’m hopelessly distracted by sounds, and I’m sure some of you can relate: perhaps you’re extra sensitive to bright lights, or, like my husband, hyper aware of smells.

The pull of the senses on our mind is undeniable: they show us the good, the bad, and the ugly, often with little warning. And naturally, whether we like it or not, our mind follows. This can lead not only to feelings of spontaneous joy and delight, but also to distraction, anxiety, a lack of focus, and an overall feeling of being out of control of things.

The fifth of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s classical path of Ashtanga Yoga is Pratyahara, commonly translated as “withdrawal of the senses.” While this translation is accurate, for me, a more precise description might be restraint of the senses, or conscious control, connection to, or mastery over the senses.

Now, there’s no doubt that the information we get from our senses is not limited to being either enjoyable or depressing, it can be downright vital! If you’re out in the world, you need your senses about you.

So what are we trying to accomplish when practicing Pratyahara?

My understanding of the fifth limb is that it’s placed specifically between what we might consider the external limbs of the eightfold path: yama, moral restrains and niyama, ethical observances – you can read my blog about them here; asana, posture, and pranayama, breath control, and the internal limbs that follow it: dharana, concentration, dhyana, meditation, and Samadhi, enlightenment. Using the yama and niyama as moral guidelines and practicing yoga postures and breathing exercises are things we can do. We can interact with them. It’s pretty clear if we’re engaged with them or not, and often, pretty easy to measure their effects on our life. Whereas concentration, meditation and enlightenment are often more ephemeral…sure we can sit down with the intention to meditate or to focus in on self-study, but without the limb in between, pratyahara, control of the senses, our success might not be guaranteed, and no amount of “doing” is going to help us gain enlightenment.

Throughout my years exploring yoga I’ve found that some of the best tools to practice reigning in the pull of the senses in order to more fully focus our conscious attention on the meditative and contemplative aspects of the practice are those of the Ashtanga Tristhana, or the or three pronged approach to focus. I use these guidelines during my own practice on the mat, when leading others in Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and even when I teach other styles of yoga asana classes. By constantly trying to fixate our attention on the breath, the gaze, or direction of the eyes, and a connection to the internal locks or bandhas (and sometimes therefore on the external form of the body or its alignment), we systematically train ourselves to reign in the senses. Instead of looking all over the place we look at one place. Instead of fidgeting or fixing our clothing we learn to stand still and simply feel in order to connect. This practice allows the possibility of a more internal study of the self, without the constant pull of external stimuli. How many times have you found yourself looking at someone else’s pose during a yoga class and being instantly taken out of yourself? Just a glimpse of another practitioner can induce a flood of internal dialogue: How is he doing that with his leg? Where did she learn that? How long have they been practicing?

One important thing I’ve begun to ask myself when thinking about reining in the senses is: is this information serving me? As a beginner to physical asana yoga practice, it’s often extremely useful to actually look at the shape of our bodies in order to understand where they are in space. For some it might even be useful, on occasion, to look at someone else do a posture to gain a glimpse of understanding. And similarly, listening to a teacher demonstrate the sound of the ujjayi breathing technique could clue us in to how we might create the sound. Visual and audio input is extremely useful tools in this stage!

But once we establish a steady practice, and more importantly, if we want that practice to lay the foundation of a deeper connection to the greater path of yoga, we must ask ourselves if these external stimuli are still serving us. Do we really need to visually double check the alignment of every single posture every single time? To fix our t-shirt before each pose? To watch others do more complicated postures on the mats next to us? Usually the answer is no; these things simply aren’t serving us anymore. And in the subtlety of that self-inquiry comes the opportunity to choose sensory withdrawal. The point is not that reacting to the pull of external stimuli is always wrong – but rather that we might learn something from practicing connecting to our senses without unconsciously reacting to them. The circumstances are never going to be perfect; your mat could always be a little straighter, your house could always be a little quieter, so how can we practice staking a step back from those pulls? Can we steady the eyes and practice the discipline of not glancing around the yoga room, or hone in deeply on the internal resonance of the sound each breath makes? Great lessons can be learned once the mind can be more directed around the pull of the senses…opportunities for meditative experiences, concentration, and the possibility of a full realization: we are not our thoughts, we are not our bodies, we are not our senses.

And perhaps in a similar way we can start to direct our attention more accurately and effectively outside the yoga studio and off of the mat, and maybe we won’t find our minds pulled by every single small external distraction.

And when all else fails…there are always earplugs!

Have Yoga Mat, Will Travel

**The original version of this post appeared on Land Yoga’s Blog in July, 2018.



Summer is in full swing, and chances are if you haven’t already been on a boat, train, plane or in a car, you will be in the coming weeks. Vacations are a wonderful privilege; a great time to unwind from the ordinary, spend time with loved ones or even explore far-away places. But what about your yoga practice? Carefully cultivated throughout the year only to be lost while you’re out of town for a few weeks?

I’ve just returned to my regular NYC routine after five wonderful weeks out of town in Israel (for the Israeli version of our wedding and a family trip), Greece and Italy (for our honeymoon). Taking my practice on the road isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. I find the benefits of peace of mind and a healthy body far outweigh the hassle of finding time to unroll my mat while on vacation.

Here are my top tips for keeping the prana flowing while out of town.

  1. Keep the tradition (yet stay flexible!)
    Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga is a wonderful tradition ready-made for travel. Since we spend time in class slowly learning, internalizing and memorizing the sequence, we’re not dependent on a teacher’s counts or instructions. This means that with a little dedication, you can keep practicing almost exactly as you would while at home. If you’re new to the method and have any questions or uncertainties, talk to your teacher before you leave for advice on what exactly to do. Similarly, if you’ve recently started learning a more complex or intense posture, ask your teacher how you should approach it while away.

    Traditionally Ashtanga yoga is practiced in the early morning, under the guidance of a teacher, six days a week, taking one rest day (usually Saturday or Sunday) and the new and full moon off. This is an ideal guideline, however, I advise that when you’re out of your regular routine on vacation, that you remain flexible! Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day (or a few days!) or shorten your practice* to fit the available time between beach trips, or even switch around your rest day to fit activities or outings better. The important thing is that you keep some kind of consistency, even if it’s slightly different than you might keep at home.
    On my recent trip, I practiced six days a week, but it wasn’t always at the same time of day, nor did I push myself to make it through my entire practice each day. Instead, I flowed with the plans of the people I was visiting; fitting in my sadhana before breakfast or while everyone else was taking an afternoon nap. On those days I found it hard to stay motivated, I turned my thoughts back to my teacher, Sharath, in Mysore, and to my students at home in New York. Re-focusing on my teacher’s encouraging voice and my community always helps me keep my dristi.

  2. Make practice a priority (but be realistic!)
    Plan ahead. Take a look at what you have on your travel itinerary and make sure you carve out some time for practice. But be realistic…If you have an early morning trans-Atlantic flight which requires you to be at the airport two hours ahead of time, plus a layover and possible jet-lag, seriously consider if it’s realistic to be up extra early for practice! Maybe it is – but my point is not to set up unrealistic expectations for yourself and feel like you’re letting yourself down when you fail to meet them.
    Tell the friends and family you are vacationing with about your dedication to your yoga practice. If others know, they’ll be more supportive of helping you fit it into the routine, and more likely to understand when you turn in an hour early, maybe skipping that extra helping of gelato. Consider inviting loved ones to join in with your practice if they’ve done yoga before (or even inviting them to do a different physical activity or meditation while you’re on your mat). Sharing your healthy habits might be the inspiration someone else needs to make a positive change. I was lucky enough to practice with both my mom one morning and my dad another while on our family trip around Israel after our wedding. Both have done yoga before and were happy to practice alongside me for a short time while I completed my longer practice. My husband also has an Ashtanga practice, and we made it a priority to practice together on our second wedding morning in Israel, and several other times throughout our honeymoon in Greece and Italy.
  3. Visit Yoga Shalas and Studios (make it a part of the vacation!)
    One of my favorite things about visiting a new city is dropping into a local Yoga Shala. Visit kpjayi.org for a list of authorized and certified teachers around the world, and do a quick google search of the area you’ll be visiting to see if there are any studios offering Ashtanga classes. It’s always a good idea to email the studio in advance to ask if they allow Mysore drop-ins for visiting students and to inquire about any special policies. At Land Yoga, we’ve had traveling students from Japan, Brazil, Denmark, England and all over the U.S. just to name a few!
    Taking a class at a studio is a great way to meet locals and get off the beaten tourist path, plus it offers a chance to reconnect with the group dynamic.
    During my recent trip, I took a class at Ashtanga Yoga Tel Aviv where I’ve practiced and taught before. It already feels like a yoga home away from home in Israel! I even took a class at a small, new outdoor yoga studio on Milos, the Greek island we were vacationing on. Yoga Journey Milos offered a great outdoor yoga experience on a secluded beach overlooking the sunset. Back in Athens, we dropped into Mysore class at Ashtanga Yoga Athens 2002. I loved waking up early before a day of sightseeing in Athens and navigating through the sleepy streets to practice. My hotel’s front desk was happy to offer advice about the best route to walk and where to grab a coffee. I’d emailed the studio in advance, and the teacher was happy to welcome me in, where – although thousands of miles from New York – I felt right at home among the ujjayi breathing and the smells of Mysore Sandalwood incense.

One last word of advice: get a good travel yoga mat. At Land Yoga we sell the Manduka eKO SuperLite mat which folds flat like a thin towel, making it perfect to pack in a suitcase. I use my thicker Manduka Pro mat, even for travel, and have invested in a backpack with buckles that allow it to be strapped and carried right on the plane! Happy travels, yogis!

* A note on shortening your practice: I advise asking your teacher personally about this, but in general, if you’re short on time don’t rush or skip postures. Instead begin your practice as normal, taking the correct number of sun salutations and breaths in each posture. Do the series you’ve learned in order, and when you only have 10 – 15 minutes left begin the finishing series. Depending on the time you may choose to complete the entire finishing sequence or move directly to the final three finishing poses. Always make time for rest at the end.

A Yogi’s Summer Reading List

Summer has officially arrived: Happy Summer Solstice! To celebrate here’s my summer reading list. I’m daydreaming of laying out on a beach, catching some sun, listening to the ocean and delving into one of these great books…

The Unteathered Soul


By Michael A. Singer

A gift from my teacher Lara for my birthday back in February, I’ve been enjoying slowing reading this fantastic book for the past few months. Michael Singer uses yogic philosophy to allow us to imagine, practice and experience a mind free from metal chatter, and a self focused solely on openness. Though the subject is deep, his writing is accessible and open to all.

Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana

sharath_sm2By Sharath Jois

Sharath Jois, director of the KPJAYI and grandson of Pattabhi Jois, has released his first book. It’s a practical, no frills explanation of the Ashtanga Yoga method including the eight limbs, primary series asanas and vinyasas, and even a few supplemental postures and breathing techniques. I use this book almost every week (along with Yoga Mala) to consult about vinyasas, breaths or just to feel close to my teacher in India. It’s a must have!

The Power of Ashtanga Yoga

Kino Book

By Kino MacGreggor

This book is more of a detailed practice manual than a sit down read, but in it Certified Ashtanga Yoga teacher and YouTube CelebriYogi Kino MacGreggor, gives her heart and soul. It is an amazing resource for teachers or students without access to a qualified teacher. She offers lovely insight, clear information, and a passionate voice.

Guruji

Guruji

Edited by Eddie Stern and Guy Donahaye

This is simply one of my favorite books. Ever. Released in 2010, I’ve read it cover to cover three times…and it’s over 400 pages long. When I began practicing Ashtanga Yoga seriously in May 2009 my teachers told me all about Guruji. I felt secretly excited and blessed at the possibility that he might be my guru too! Sadly, he passed away a few short days later and ever since then I’ve felt a small longing for this teacher I never met. Reading Guruji has given me the sensation of meeting him, and I highly recommend taking the journey through the eyes of all those interviewed in this fantastic book.

And The Mountains Echoed

Mountains

By Khaled Hosseini

I still haven’t started this one yet, a new title from one of my favorite authors, Khaled Hosseini. I absolutely loved the poetic sadness and glimmers of joy of his classics, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. This man was made to write books, and reading his stories is an honor and a pleasure. Can’t wait to see what this book has in store!

Any summer reads lined up, yogis?

Adventures in Parisian Yoga: Episode 3

Rasa Yoga Rive Gauche & Be Yoga

As you all know I’ve been slowly making my rounds through the Parisian yoga scene, trying classes here and there to get a taste of what it’s like to practice in this city. My ventures these past weeks have been two great studios, Rasa Yoga Rive Gauche and Be Yoga.
Rasa is simply a beautiful space. It’s located near Metro Saint Michel, on the left bank in the Latin Quarter. This section of Paris is home to the Sorbonne and has been the hub of student culture in Paris for centuries. The studio, like many in Paris, is nestled in a courtyard, between buildings. I really like this about Paris…the street view is never the whole story…there are gardens and calm alcoves located just between the exterior facade.
Once inside Rasa is bright, white and calming. There’s a large retail and reception section, with chairs and benches. The main studio has windows right into the lobby area, so you can actually see what’s going on in the class. I stopped by for a late evening led Ashtanga class with Charley, an American teacher, who also runs their morning Mysore program.
The class was quite full, but not overcrowded, and I enjoyed the energy of the other students. Charley keeps a great pace in his class…pretty fast, but not rushed at all. In fact, the class is scheduled for an hour and 45 minutes…and we used the time! He challenged us with specific details on refining our jump backs and throughs, something that weaves his strong teaching style together.
The next week I got a message from my teacher Lara telling me that her dear friendDorion was in Paris teaching. I was excited to make it over to Be Yoga for her evening led class. Be is really adorable. It’s located in a cobble stone alley off the main road, and is covered in a perfect little arch of trees. The front of the studio is painted a jovial green color and it was the perfect, warm, welcoming place to end up on a rainy Parisian night!
Dorion is just about one of the loveliest ladies I’ve ever taken class with. I was happy to catch up with a friend of my teacher! Her class was smart and detail oriented. We took the Ashtanga standing series and some of the primary seated series and slowed it down a bit, to focus on the ease of each posture. I was really happy to see the joy, lightness and care she takes in teaching.
Last week we moved apartments, from the super trendy Oberkampf area in the 11th district to the Gambetta metro stop in the 20th district. It’s a little further out of the center of the city, but still super accessible. I love our new apartment, which we’re renting from the acting coach from Michael’s production. It’s got a great energy partly because it’s been arranged using the principles of Feng Shui, something I’ve always been interested in, but never taken the time to implement fully. I challenged myself to take home practice this entire past week, and have really enjoyed it in this space. This week, however, I think I’ll venture back out to practice in some more studios around Paris!

 

Adventures in Parisian Yoga: Episode 2

Mysore Yoga Paris

I’m finally setting (and sometimes even obeying) my alarm again. I’m trying to get up 7:30am as opposed to sleeping in our haven of a bed till 10:30 with Michael (who deserves that, btw- he doesn’t get home till midnight and after dinner and organizing his thoughts, often doesn’t sleep till 3).

So I’ve finally been able to enjoy a morning Mysore practice here in Paris. One notable difference I’ve seen between NYC and Paris is that here mornings don’t start quite as early. Teachers are at shalas in the US and elsewhere often by 4:30 or 5am (or 1am if you ask Sharath) to practice and then begin teaching by 6. Here the earliest Mysore program I’ve seen is 6:45…Which is fine, by the way, with me!

After India this time around, morning practice is getting a little easier. A little. I’m up early in NY by 5:30am to teach Pilates or yoga, but I normally prefer to practice in the afternoon. My body feels more awake, less painful, less shaky and more ready to find some stillness.

But these days, being on the mat in the morning is fairly enjoyable. I might just be turning into a morning practice person! How’d that happen?!

Anyway, I dedicated a week (last week 9.17-9.21) to exploring this particular shala after getting a few recommendations. Mysore Yoga Paris is located on the right, north bank, along the canal St Martin in the 10th district. From my house it’s a 12-minute velo ride past the quiet water and quaint bridges of the canal to reach the shala.

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The practice space is located in Paris’ Shambala meditation center, a perfectly zen atmosphere that’s got palpably calm, sacred vibes going on. It’s adorned with dozens of tea light candles.

Kia Nadermier is the owner and main teacher, and she’s just lovely. From what I can gather, she’s Swedish, but we speak English in the shala. She’s kind and attentive with all of her students, and her adjustments are really top notch. She’s also a professional photographer, and on the website you can see some portraits of the yoga students she’s done over the past year.

I’ve been having some (normal) back pain, and she’s very helpful in offering advice on how to avoid it and work with the postures, instead of letting them work against you.

The shala is a large room and There are several white Indian cloths (like the men wear as skirts in India, called lungis) in the back that we cover ourselves with for rest after practice. I bought an eye pillow (a frivolous thing I’d never considered until I saw this one and am now quite enjoying it!) and rest after practice is really sublime here in the morning.

There’s a glow about the space and the people at Mysore Yoga Paris. I’m thinking I’ll continue to go back for regular practice, though next week I’m going to check out a few other shalas. I’d really recommend this place for anyone in Paris or visiting that’s looking for a peaceful atmosphere and a very kind, attentive teacher.

Adventures in Parisian Yoga: Episode 1

Ashtanga Yoga Paris, Samasthiti & Make Me Yoga

I arrived in Paris two weeks ago, only to leave again for a few days in Switzerland with Michael’s grandmother. When we finally got back to our apartment, I was feeling a little sick. Let’s just call it the too-much-cheese-chocolate-and-travel syndrome. :/

Last week I was finally feeling almost back to normal and was ready to start exploring the yoga scene in Paris. I’ve gotten a few recommendations from friends, colleagues and fellow ashtangis about where to practice in Paris, but there are quite a few places, so I’ve decided to explore little by little. Yoga is even more expensive here than in New York, so before I buy an unlimited month or delve into a place, I want to try around.

My first stop was Ashtanga Yoga Paris, which happenes to be about a two minute walk from our apartment! I attended the mixed Mysore and Ashtanga Level 1 class, taught by Agatha. The studio, I found out from one of the owners, Linda, has recently moved to a new location. It really is a lovely place, tucked into a courtyard between buildings. The walls of the lobby space are a deep, rich turquoise. The main practice room, the Krishnamacharya Room, is bright, with a ceiling full of skylights and walls tastefully adorned with black and white photos of teachers.

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A class was just finishing as we waited to enter the room, and once in the room Agatha asked those of us doing our own Mysore practice to go to the front of the room while she led the class of semi-beginners behind us. There were probably five of us doing self practice, and more than ten in the led class.

She’s a very talented teacher, and I liked hearing her soft French instructions peppered with Sanskrit. I was a little distracted being in a mixed Mysore and led class, but the language barrier helped me tune that out. I wonder how the experience is for those who understand French..? I’ve never been in a class like that, but it’s certainly an interesting concept, and definitely a good use of time for students wanting an evening Mysore program. Kudos to her for leading a class and giving individual attention to the rest of us!

She gave me a few wonderful, strong Mariychasana adjustments (though only on one side so I felt rather unbalanced). When I got to backbends she encouraged me keep my feet much more parallel that I had them, which I tried with varying degrees of success. Then instead of holding my waist in drop-backs, she helped me keep my feet parallel by pressing in and down on my thighs, which felt pretty lovely.

The biggest surprise was when I stood up she asked if I’d be doing handstand! Sure I thought, why not? I told her that I don’t practice that, but I’d give it a go! Though I’ve never heard of that and it’s certainly not traditional, I suppose it must be a way to begin practicing for tick-tocks, which come sometime after second series. Her adjustment was great, and there I was, doing a handstand in Mysore class.

I liked the studio, the atmosphere and the students. Agatha is a smart, busy teacher! I will certainly go back, especially since it’s so close to our place. I’d also like to try the morning Mysore classes with the owners, Linda and Gerald.

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Next I checked out Samasthiti Studio, also pretty close to our apartment. It’s located right near La Bastille, so I hopped on a velib bike for the 10 minute ride to take an evening Mysore class. In true Dana fashion, I was really early, and happened to meet a fellow student while waiting for the door to be unlocked who had been in Mysore the same time as me! Small Ashtanga world.

This studio is a simple one room space. The practice area is a nice size and takes up most of the space, and in the back there’s a small changing area and place for shoes and bags. I met the owner Caroline, who was actually practicing with us while a young man named Eric taught.

This class was a self-led Mysore style, however, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the completely non-traditional sequence of postures my fellow students were practicing…!

Full disclosure: I got distracted. I know that I should have been focusing solely on myself, but my dristhi began to wander as soon as I saw full splits between standing postures, a warrior three thrown in after parshvotanasana, and an out of order mix of primary, intermediate and third series poses! It was really quite remarkable.

I must say that despite my confusion over why they were doing what they were, all the students were practicing earnestly, calmly, quietly, and breathing beautifully. I guess they’ve just been taught an adapted, non-traditional series of poses…!

Eric, the teacher, was kind and attentive. He was a little insistent with some alignment details and often uneven with adjustments, but he clearly cares and knows quite a lot about what he teaches. He did think I should keep going after my last pose, which I kindly declined to do.

Drop backs were again a new technique (for me) that I quite liked, where he used his whole forearm to support either side of my spine as I went down, and simply pressed into my thighs as I stood up. When he suggested hand stand (I guess it’s a thing ), I this time declined.

I liked the studio, the location, and the teacher, but I’m not sure I will go back to practice there. It’s a bit too distracting to be amongst people doing such completely non-traditional things…I totally love that they are! I just think I’d be better served going there for a vinyasa flow class if I’m feeling creative.

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My next stop was Make Me Yoga, which is literally right across the street from my apartment. I didn’t notice it at first, but as Michael and I were taking a walk the other evening, there it was! It’s got a great location, and a good class schedule. They have only led classes, no Mysore program, but I figured it was worth a visit since it’s so crazily convenient.

I dropped into the 8:30pm led “Ashtanga Vinyasa” class and was very impressed at my use of French.

“Bon soir! C’est ma premiere fois ici. Je voudrais prendre le classe d’Ashtanga.”

The instructor, Laetita, was kind when I explained that I’m an American yoga practitioner and speak limited French. I told her (in French again – points for me!) I’d love to just follow along and listen to the class in French.

There were six of us in the cute little space, and the others were mostly beginners. It was a very slow, basics-type class, which was nice for me to practice physically, clear my mind mentally and hear teaching in French. We practiced meditation, discussed bhandas, and moved through surya namaskaras and the 6 fundamental standing poses before sitting for a bridge pose and then rest.

Laetita was perfect. She made sure I understood a few words after class that might help me teach in French one day, and she gave me gentle suggestions as adjustments, not hard ones. I was more focused in this class, so my drishti wasn’t wandering to the other students! It’s a perfectly cute, kind studio, but not exactly what I want from a class. I think I will definitely go back…you can’t beat the location.

I still have the morning Mysore programs to check out. That’s where I think I will find my perfect Paris fit and I’m really excited. I want to check out Mysore Yoga Paris and Rasa Yoga…but I need to change my sleeping schedule around a bit to accommodate that…right now I’m staying up late, practicing at home in the evening or at one of these places for a night class and sleeping in late in the morning!

More to come from the Paris Yoga Scene…