Yoga instructor Daniela Kosmalski grounds her classes in the philosophy that she studies intensively.
Once upon a time, very few Americans knew what yoga was, and even fewer practiced it. It was just a few decades ago, in fact. But today, yoga is a multi-billion-dollar business in this country, with some 20 million practitioners, and an ever-growing faction of devotees continue to wriggle into those tight pants and take to their mats on a regular basis.
Still, yoga—which means “union” in Sanskrit, as in union of the body, mind and soul—only really caught on in the U.S. after its physical benefits hit the mainstream. Embraced by the fitness boom, yoga-instructor training emerged as a new and profitable market, and here we are today.
“Ever since the ideas of yoga came here in book form and then the gurus started to arrive, it's always been a question of: how do you adapt these ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture, without distorting or corrupting them, or diluting their effect?” says Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda.
Often, however, there are many instances, as yoga evolves in its multitude of modern forms, where the promise of a toned body, of increased strength, circulation and flexibility, eclipses yoga's spiritual roots, which date back 5,000 years to India.
“What I've noticed, being every day at Toadal, most of the time I see the members come every day—which is a challenge for me, in a good way, because I really have to go to my books, to my study, to bring something different every time,” says Daniela Kosmalski, who fell in love with yoga in her native Brazil 17 years ago, and now teaches 15 classes a week between Luma, In-Shape, Toadal Fitness and private sessions.
By books, she means the original scriptures, the sutras. Recently, Kosmalski set aside two of her six classes at Toadal Fitness to focus more directly on yoga's spiritual and philosophical teachings. Less physically strenuous, these classes hum with the refreshing promise of mental and spiritual restoration—and the members love it.
“First I do, and then I can teach,” says Kosmalski. “Otherwise it's fake. Right? I have to do the meditation, I have to do the nidra, I have to do the study.”
Nidra is the state between deep sleep and total relaxation, and just one of ashtanga yoga's “eight limbs,” which act as guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. The eight steps begin with yama, and niyama—the ethical disciplines for connecting with the external world (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-covetousness) and the internal self, (cleanliness, contentment.) Komalski contemplates one yama and niyama a month, and weaves them into the flow of class, while members are receptive and relaxed in their current asana, or pose—the third limb.
She reminds us of drishti, the focus, which can be on your middle finger, or your third eye, or anywhere on your physical body, yet connected to an inner focus via body awareness. And vritti, the brain waves, which become quieted on the mat.
“Several exercises will put yourself into your breath, into yourself,” says Kosmalski. “Breath is to come down, there are breaths to bring fire, to bring energy to your body. I do believe it's a tool of yoga that none of the instructors can forget. It's so important, like the postures, like meditation. It brings self-awareness, body awareness, strength to the mind, flexibility to the mind.”
Pranayama, or breath control, awakens pratyaharda, sensory control, which leads to dharana, concentration on a single mental object, and in turn, a nice state of meditation, or dhyana, which Kosmalski often guides her students into using imagery.
The eighth and final limb is samadhi, or enlightenment, and transcendence of the self, which Kosmalski says she has not reached.
“Knowledge is infinite. I'm just like a little sprout,” says Kosmalski. “To dive into the ocean of my consciousness, there's so much to learn. It's never-ending, because yoga for me is an ongoing practice, it's happening, it's life.”
But even while all of these states ebb and flow throughout the practice, the takeaway result is an enhanced understanding of the total self. During meditation we encounter our demons, our weaknesses and challenges, and it is not uncommon to shed tears.
“The foundation of yoga, the goal, is liberation,” says Kosmalski. “Positive thinking, balanced diet, being in contact with your own true self, the things that make your heart happy, liberation. Even if you weren't born in India, or have the Hindu tradition to adore an elephant, you can practice yoga, because you have to believe just in yourself.”