Touted around town as the next Rodney Yee, Isaac Pena is becoming a star in the NYC yoga world. Having helmed the Sankalpah studio until it closed in 2011, he now offers his one-of-a-kind method at House of Jai and Pure. He is a dynamic and sought-after instructor whose classes always challenge and surprise. I took his class for the (shockingly) first time recently, and he helped me fight off the post-holiday sloth. At the end of the intense 90-minutes, he knew as much about my practice as I did—and probably more. (I should really start paying myself some attention.)
Jim Catapano: How did you get into yoga?
Isaac Pena: I was very competitive as a kid. I was on the international karate team, touring around. One day, I realized I didn't want to have a martial arts school...it just didn't feel like me. So I didn't do anything for much of two years...went into that "sloth mode,” and a kind of depression.
I realized I needed to find another skill very quickly, one that also resonated with me. I remember seeing someone on a bus reading Yoga Journal. So I went in search of one! I went into the Barnes and Noble on 21st and 6th...the one with the bridge that no longer exists sadly...and I found one there. A tall, thin woman was standing next to me. She asked me if I liked yoga, and I said, "I have no idea." She looked me up and down, said, "Jivamukti!" and sent me there.
JC: What were your first experiences at Jivamukti like?
IP: I hit it with a passion. I wanted to do something physical, that involved spirituality, movement and breath, and yoga had that. I literally went to 7 am Ashtanga, Noon, 3:30, 5 and 6 o'clock. And back then, Krishna Das was doing Kirtan every Monday, for free! I was in the studio all day, not leaving till I’d walk out with the teachers or go for French fries. That was the only thing that could get me out of there!
JC: Who were your teachers when you were getting started?
IP: David Life and Sharon Gannon were my teachers. I just went to them. Sandy Ferreira, one of my oldest friends, was a student with me in class. Sandy's the only person who's there now that I know from the old days. Everyone else is kind of new.
JC: How did the teachers you have studied with over the years inform your unique style?
IP: Having owned my own studio, half my students are other yoga teachers, so it's kind of nice that I've kept in touch with certain lineages just through that. In coming up with my own movement patterns...everyone wants to take a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and that's how I evolved also. I took a lot of Alison West, I took a lot of David Life...but I definitely wanted to offer the kind of class that no one else was offering. If it's already being offered, why offer it?
I've always loved how articulate teachers like Rodney Yee are. I think the Iyengars and the advanced Anusara teachers have a lovely way of saying things, that bring a texture to movement. At one point, yoga was getting sort of mechanical and linear, and I went back to some ideas I'd learned from martial arts. Especially Chinese martial arts which are all circular.
I love circumducting. I love circulation...because the joint moves on an axis. So it's not going to be straight lines. It's going to be "find the line so that you can move from there." You can't appreciate the bend until you can find the straight. It is a moving philosophy. We do a lot of planks in my class… there's an appreciation for what is, so that you can find the distortedness in all of that.
JC: What's the philosophy behind your class structure?
IP: Life is unpredictable, so why should you know what's going to come next? I like to allow that freedom at the end of class (a choice of postures)...here’s a bouquet of something, choose a rose, choose something else. So that at least at some point that will lead you to a home practice.
Feel your body—what is it asking for? Because your body's always talking…you just have to be able to understand the messages. The whole "good pain, bad pain" idea...pain is just a signal, and you have to figure out what the signals are saying.
JC: What is one key to being a good teacher?
IP: It's about looking around the room, knowing when someone is in need of something. There are two types of people that need attention: the person that looks like they're going to injure themselves, and the person that's so advanced and able-bodied they have no idea what comes next. So it's become mechanical for them, and they need to be given that next carrot. So you have remind yourself, "Ok, I've done a forward bend before, now can I get it from my spine? Can I isolate the spine and get it from my hips? Can I finally straighten the knees?" There's so many ways to do it—no need to do it the same way. Listen to what's being offered, or you're missing out on the lesson.
IP: That was about Glenn Black's workshop, at my studio (Sankalpah)! I really think no one can make general statements. I think anything in print...whether it's a text message or an article...can be blown out of proportion. He's trying to say "this can do this," but wearing poorly made shoes that don't fit your feet can injure you. Crossing the street is a very dangerous thing, but you do what you have to do! Look both ways, or become a master at it like I've had to do...because I'm a New Yorker! I have a black belt in crossing streets. There are so many things that can injure you, that people have to stop worrying about something in general.
One of the teachers who trained under me, a head personal trainer at Equinox, had a desk job for years. Bending over the computer, typing away...two herniated discs through the back of the body. Was it power lifting, or exacerbation from crouching over for years like a turtle? Certain things can get worn out from use. I'd rather use my body, but use it carefully, cautiously and wisely, and on top of all that...adventurously.