Alana Kessler believes life is her greatest teacher and so far it's been quite a ride taking her from her roots in Orthodox Judaism to becoming a yoga teacher and opening Sangha Yoga Shala when she was 28. It all started one early Monday morning during her freshman year at NYU when she decided to take a vinyasa class at a local Crunch Gym. While she was drawn to yoga from that class, it took a while for her to realize how much it would change her life, ultimately helping her work out issues with her family and heal from bulimia.
YogaCity NYC’s Dar Dowling recently caught up with this dynamic young yogic rock star to find out more about her journey.
Dar Dowling: Did you have any idea that yoga would have such a profound affect on you?
Alana Kessler: I was a sensitive child, constantly questioning and searching for rational answers to irrational human behaviors. Overtime, this resulted in obsessive compulsive and control issues, as well as a decade long struggle with bulimia.
As the years went on, the disease completely took over my thoughts, my relationships with myself and others, and my ability to engage with the real world. I was a functional food addict, but I numb inside, completely unable to connect intimately or empathize with others. I had become a fiercely defensive know-it-all, guarded emotionally, and my self-esteem was shot. My body felt like a foreign object to me - never good enough. When I started practicing yoga, I definitely went for the exercise, calorie burning activity. But then something amazing happened, the yoga started working on me harder than I was working the yoga.
DD: How has your practice evolved?
AK: The asana practice became my life laboratory, a place where I reconnected with my body and spirit, allowed myself to try and fail with levity, non-judgment, discovery, compassion and grace. Through this physical practice, I cultivated an intimacy with my own humanity in a way I had never experienced before, resulting in an authentic ability to relate to others, become still and sit in the uncomfortable places in my consciousness that had been numbed by my eating disorder for the better part of my teenage and young adult life.
When I began Mysore practice, the desire to show up clear-headed, hydrated and healthy overrode my desire to binge and purge the night before. The discipline served as a nontraditional recovery program. I felt how important the attributes I acquired in my asana classes were and committed myself to practicing them in my extended classroom – my life.
DD: You were raised in a very Orthodox Jewish family how did you bring those two worlds together?
AK: For me it's about forgiveness and letting go of the need to be right. I don't believe there is a universally correct method of offering devotion; it's just what you connect with as your portal to the higher power (if you believe in that.) I fought from a hardened place for many years, fiercely defending my ideology and philosophy but found letting go and just choosing to live and engage, helped to create a fluid space where my family and I were able to participate in each others worlds at a level that was comfortable and pliable.
Whether we chose to or not, agreed with or not, understood or not, the door was always open to explore without expectation or demands. I am very grateful and proud of how far we have come in our understanding and relationship with each other.
DD: It's great that your family helped you open your studio, how did that happen?
AK: When I decided to open up Sangha in 2009, I had a desire to create a space that represents all the ways yoga creates union. I believed that a yoga space could be a tool to cultivate the accessible, open minded community I longed for. The glitch was I needed a capital investment to get it off the ground. I am passionate about the “business of yoga” as a practice and feel strongly about respecting and navigating the financial realities and sacrifices that come with choosing yoga as a livelihood. That period in my life was especially difficult because in my mind, my financial independence from my family was the anchor of my individuality.
I will forever be grateful to my Ayurveda mentor, who encouraged me have my family invest in the studio.
When I was confiding in her that I may not move forward with my vision because of the entanglement with my family, she encouraged me to change my mind. She told me that I was given a karmic “golden handshake” and that my success in actualizing my vision was predicated on including them.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to appreciate how reconciling my relationship with my family taught me how to communicate effectively with respect and boundaries, soften to receive others as a means to connect and support from a place of authenticity, and find a way to be interdependent as a human.
DD: What was it like telling your family about yoga and your spiritual journey?
AK: My family and friends were skeptical and sometimes judgmental of my lifestyle, and my approach to spirituality. Not many of my peers from the Orthodox community could relate to me. I felt different, which was a strange combination of empowering and isolating. I often compared it to coming out of the closet. The rituals I connect to are different than theirs, creating a disconnect and sometimes a confrontational environment, which caused me to retreat from many social and family gatherings. I have an introverted side that enjoys time alone and solitude, so for a while I didn't mind the lack of community. But over time as I continued to practice and learn about myself through Ashtanga, leading the community at Sangha and engaging in personal relationships of the heart, I realized how lonely I had become.
It became clear reconciling and nurturing the emotional relationship with my family and reconnecting with friends from a new emotionally available place was a priority and an opportunity for growth and love.
DD: You call Ashtanga your Magic 8 ball - why?
AK: Well, think about how a Magic 8 ball functions - you ask for something, you move it around a little and it gives you an answer. It's not always clear or sensational but there’s activity, something shifts and then you can repeat. This is how I approach my practice.
To me, stepping onto my mat is a daily ritual of offering my body as a vessel for information that I may have consciously or subconsciously have asked the universe for. Through my daily practice, I often discover misalignment, stiffness, graspingness, fear, over flexibility, laziness, ego, repeated patterns, and major imbalances that reveal themselves through my physical body. Over the years, I have come to recognize and make connections between these physical revelations, and happenings that occur in my life off the mat.
DD: There are lots of new teachers in your studio, and from time to time, no one shows up for a class. I know you have a “fix” for this – can you talk about it? And how has that “fix” helped you grow your studio?
AK: I am a big fan of taking life as your biggest teacher. In the end, we are all students of life, even if we are teachers. There are no short cuts when it comes to acquiring the content it requires to teach yoga. To me, there is no better teacher training course then 9 months to a year of teaching to small and sometimes zero attendance classes with enthusiasm, consistency, commitment and humility.
This is where the tapas lives, this is where as teachers we cultivate all the qualities we talk about at the beginning of class. It’s how we find our authentic voice and really cultivate the ojas, we will need to truly hold a safe, open and supportive space when the students do come in larger numbers. Its hard on the ego for sure, but when the classes are slower, I think what a gift to be the only student in this conscious space I designed today, and practice support in surrendering to this experience so I can learn something about myself and attract those that want to learn this as well.
This philosophy has successfully helped me build, support and proudly collaborate with a stellar team of diverse, articulate, knowledgeable and generous teachers and human beings who truly see yoga as a practice reaching far beyond our four walls at Sangha.
DD: Anything new on the horizon?
AK: We have a special Baby Fingers/ ASL workshop coming up in January as well as some other family friendly programming. I am thrilled to be collaborating with YogaCity NYC as a host and panelist for their Deeper Learning Series on March 14th. The topic will be: The Middle Path: Yoga As A Tool To Navigate Your Life, Relationships and Career.
DD: Sounds awesome, see you there.
AK: Btw, we have also included a new pricing option for $99 all-inclusive unlimited month (with autopay) for all of our regularly scheduled classes as a means to offer increased accessibility for yoga and support a consistent practice.