“You’re going to die,” he said, as I shut the door to his second floor studio on Columbia Road. For in your face yoga in the Adams Morgan area of D.C., I knew I had come to the right place. The only place to start at YogaChai is with a beginner’s mind.
“Not now, hopefully,” he added, “but probably one day.”
Alex Paraskevas and wife, Autumn Wilson, brought YogaChai to this D.C. community to pass along the yoga that had changed their own lives. The gift they share at YogaChai as managers and instructors can also be passed on to our children. Yoga is pushing the traditional boundaries once again.
Alex is no stranger to breaking boundaries with yoga. Last summer, Alex taught yoga to the University of Maryland football team, in an experiment that was designed to bring greater flexibility, speed and agility for the players, and maybe a little awareness on the side too. What began as optional became required for the players as coaches realized the potential in yoga. Flexibility in the hips made the team more explosive and faster. In this way yoga was introduced to a group of young men that might not have ever taken a class. Read the Washington Post article about Alex’s days with the Maryland football team, right here.
Alex, a French native, completed his yoga teacher training under the late Yoga Bhajan, and has studied with many teachers, including Dharma Mittra and John Schumacher.
Alex loves to challenge his students to reach for their potentials. Iyengar alignment techniques are blended with the freedom and spirit of other yoga styles.
We talked about finding the strength within ourselves to go from ordinary to extraordinary. We worked with blocks, straps, hips, and Anusara-style alignment techniques. We worked on my ever-tight shoulders with Gomukasana.
And then Alex sat down and answered a few questions for Namaste Y’all:
Q & A
BW: How did yoga find yoga and what did it do for you?
AP: My first formal experience in yoga was in undergraduate school at McGill University in Montreal. I woke up early one morning and decided to give meditation a try, encouraged by a good friend of mine, David. All I knew was we were going to sit for a little less than a half hour, walk slowly in a circle, and sit again for about a half hour. To help time pass, I was advised to try and count my breaths from one to ten: if I lost count, I was to begin at one again. I was told it was very difficult to get to ten. I remember making it to ten once in that hour, and it took tremendous focus, as my body was not used to sitting for such an extended period of time. My lower back was hurting from just sitting; my hips felt really tight, and all the swimming I did at the time didn’t seem to help make this experience any more peaceful, as my shoulders were weighing me down.
Something truly amazing happened that day. I had planned to go study at the library for a few hours until lunch time. The idea was to do some homework without too much pressure, as I was under no deadlines at the time. As I sat down to study, the ability to concentrate and focus on what I was doing was so powerful that in these three hours, I had done all the work I had planned on doing for the week. It was as if I had found within me this pool of superpowers; what a blessing that was.
BW: You taught our yoga class while holding and demonstrating with a student’s 2 month old infant, and it was beautiful, and I felt a sense of calm during the class, even while I worked on alignment intricacies that I found frustrating at times (probably because I don’t work on them enough). How can babies help us teach this practice, and what do babies teach us about patience in yoga postures?
AP: Babies and children, in general, are our teachers, our mirrors, because they pretty much do what we do. Children don’t live in the past or the future; they live in the now, especially babies. And that hour we spent with this little baby was a huge chunk of his life, while it may have been only a spec of time in mine. I think of that when being around my own children: that 1 year in a 3 year olds life is one third of their lives while a year in my life is, well, a much smaller portion.
As babies develop, they naturally do yoga asana, so none of us are new to yoga. We just come back to something that is very natural. Before walking, for example, babies will spend time on their stomach (tummy time), where they will develop strength in their spine. After that, we see babies doing Palakasana or Plank, like a high push-up. They may even get up and swing themselves back and forth while holding something for balance; this again develops their strength and balance for what is to come next. Usually, after those poses, they will get into Down Dog and from there, walk their hands back to begin standing. All this happens in stages and takes the time it takes, longer or shorter; some steps might be skipped also, but in the end, they grow into their independent selves.
Our yoga postures also require practice and patience, so that we can be strong and soft in the poses, so that we can be graceful. This takes discipline, which incidently, is most likely the most important thing we can do to help our children develop.
BW: Do you ever practice out in the city, where do you practice and what is something beautiful about practicing yoga outside in D.C.?
AP: I do practice on the playground at times, although nothing too extensive. As a way to open my body and to get the kids to do something different, I may hop into handstand and hang out there. The funny thing is the kids will come and want to do the same thing, so I usually indulge them and help them along. I love the outdoors, especially in D.C., which is very green. However, mosquitoes and other creatures are not a great thing to have around if you want a more thorough practice. What you do want is a flat place and no bugs. We have enough bugs on the inside that any more added to the mix might just make us want to stop.
BW: At what point does yoga help us find the extraordinary within, and how do we apply that feeling to our life situations?
AP: That is a good question, and I don’t have a definite answer. I have noticed that with a regular practice, people become more happy, more joyful, stronger and less rigid, both physically and mentally. I think to go from ordinary to extraordinary takes a commitment, a discipline like yoga. It helps us be better human beings and to get closer to our potential, which is extraordinary.
BW: What can we take from asana practice to help shape our thoughts and focus our lives for change?
AP: Well, change is the only constant, so we should not just be ok with it but embrace it. Take a pose you think you can’t do and practice it more in different ways. All of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible—you are doing the pose. Or think of Down Dog straight out of bed, and then practice a rigorous practice for a while, and try Down Dog after that. It will be easier.
Asana is a great tool to fine-tune and strengthen the body. The mind follows and is able to better focus so that we can achieve what we are looking to achieve off the mat.
BW: You taught yoga to the University of Maryland football team. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like and what you saw it do for the team and the players, not only as athletes, but also as people?
AP: On a practical level, it helped make them more flexible and improve their speed, less prone to injury and more focused on and off the field.
What was most striking to me is how they responded to a question about a rival team. At the beginning of their yoga experience, they didn’t speak so highly of their rivals, especially the good teams they had played and lost against. Towards the end, I asked them about these rivals again, and the team as a whole was humbled. They were grateful to have people to compete with and especially great teams that could not only inspire them but also teach them to be better.
What I saw was a group of individuals having a better connection not only within the team but also more confidence in who they are as individuals. They had a clearer vision and tools to take them from ordinary to extraordinary, and they had the score to show it as they went from 4-11 to 11-4 (+or- a few) from one year to the next.
BW: Do you have a favorite yoga posture or do you have a focus on a particular type of posture in your personal practice and why?
AP: Different poses for different days, depending on what my being needs. I always practice Sirsasana and Sarvangasana, and will focus on different aspects like strengthening in the spring because it is a great time of year to strengthen and detox after winter.
BW: What amazes you about this life?
AP: The power of kindness, laughter and love—more powerful than any weapon to create lasting change.
Thanks, Alex … Namaste!