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The Yoga of Rules: Mysore Yoga Expands in D.C.

Walk into a Mysore class and you may have no idea where to start.

There is no formal beginning, no call to order, no explanation of what comes next. The class is silent except for even, sometimes labored, breathing. There is no iPod playlist, no calls for “downward dog!” and none of the announcements in a typical yoga session.

Mysore yoga is an individual practice within a group setting. Students do a set of poses in a prescribed order with a specified stopping point, as determined by the instructor. The poses, called “asanas,” are divided into six series; most students stay within the first two series, called primary and intermediate.

Students new to Mysore (even those with an established yoga practice) are given a short set of poses to do before they are sent home with instructions to come back the next day. And the following day. And the day after that.

“It’s the yoga of rules,” said Peg Mulqueen, a teacher who leads Mysore classes at Flow Yoga Center in Logan Circle and Ashtanga Yoga Studio DC in the Palisades. “It’s not just that Mysore is growing as a whole, it’s growing in D.C. And it’s increasing quicker and bigger than any other yoga practice.”

Mysore is named for the city in India where the style of yoga was originally taught. Sri K. Pattabi Jois, also known as Guruji, was the original teacher and acquired a worshipful status among his students. After Guruji died in 2009, his grandson Sharath continued teaching in his place. To have practiced yoga with either is considered a great honor.

Keith Moore would know. He has made five trips to India for intensive Mysore study.

“It’s a style of teaching that has been passed down from teacher to student,” said Moore, who founded Ashtanga Yoga Studio DC. Moore said some yogis are drawn to Mysore because they are tired of distractions — such as music and an instructor’s conversation — in other yoga classes.

“Students want to take away the pop yoga,” Moore said. “They just want to practice.”

Growing in D.C.

Fifteen years ago, David Ingalls opened the Ashtanga Yoga Center in Tenleytown and brought Mysore to D.C. for the first time. By 2011, three studios in the area offered Mysore. Today, there are six. (By comparison, the Philadelphia area has only two yoga studios that offer Mysore.)

And D.C.’s Mysore offerings continue to expand.

In January 2012, Flow Yoga Center debuted a thrice-weekly Mysore program. Within the year, class size had doubled. Flow upped the classes to five days a week and is considering adding a sixth. Little River Yoga opened in Arlington in 2011; within a year, its Mysore program had tripled, according to Tova Steiner, one of Little River’s Mysore teachers. Moore’s AYSDC opened in June of 2012 and has had such high demand that he is considering adding an afternoon Mysore program.

“People in D.C. have been practicing yoga for years now. To an extent, a Mysore practice is a natural progression. [The self-practice] forces the student to be more involved in his or her own practice,” said Jen Rene, a Mysore teacher at Flow Yoga Center.

A Personality Fit

Mulqueen, Rene, Steiner and Moore all agree that Mysore’s self-practice style fits D.C.’s “Type A” personality.

“D.C. has a vibe, very achievement-oriented and efficient. People are very scheduled and on-the-move. That’s why we need yoga. If any city needs the balance, it’s D.C.,” Mulqueen said.

Moore agreed. “Mysore fits with the goal-oriented nature of D.C. It gets behind the idea of being able to do something and then being able to do the next thing,” he said, referring to students receiving additional yoga poses as their practice progresses. And even the busiest Washingtonians can make time for it. “You can’t say you have something else to do at 5:30 a.m.”

Challenges of a Growing Program

The rapid growth of yoga has not been a welcome adjustment for everyone. In May 2012, Ingalls closed AYC, the original local Mysore studio.

Ingalls acknowledges the growth of both Mysore and yoga overall. He believes the additional yoga studios (both Mysore and other yoga varieties) were part of the reason AYC closed.

“We still had our core Mysore program but we stopped getting the influx of new students, who were going to other studios.” The other studios promoted teacher-led yoga through deals such as Groupon, said Ingalls, who now runs the Mysore program at Buddha B on U Street. Ashtanga and Mysore classes, citing the required level of commitment, rarely use such marketing techniques.

“Groupon and other deals tell the consumer that a yoga class is worth less than a cup of coffee,” Rene said. “As a teacher and a student, I have a problem with this.”

Moore had been Ingalls’ principal co-teacher at AYC, and when that studio closed, many of the students and assistant teachers came with Moore to open AYSDC. Moore has seen strong attendance, despite not doing any marketing. “No one is selling anything or trying to make people come,” he said. “It just happens.”

Ingalls acknowledged that Moore may have better luck retaining students at AYSDC, which is nestled in a corner of the Palisades not accessible by Metro. “Keith has an adult group with not as much turnover. There is a lot of turnover in Washington, D.C.”

Future of Mysore

The expanding popularity of Mysore may mean even more studios could offer the option. “I would imagine every yoga studio out there wants a Mysore program because they see how it is growing and everyone wants a piece of that pie,” Steiner said.

The district’s Mysore offerings still pale compared with New York City. “I’m not sure we’ll ever have as robust a community as New York,” Rene said. “There are some really special teachers in New York who had the unique experience of spending a lot of time with Guruji, something that can’t be replicated.”

The D.C. area boasts four “authorized teachers,” who have received permission to teach Mysore-style yoga from Guruji or Sharath, after intense study and practice in India. (By comparison, the entire states of Illinois and Ohio each have one authorized teacher; New York City has nearly 20.)

However, plenty of teachers lead Mysore classes without authorization.

“Authorization does not mean a teacher is a great teacher or that a person without authorization is not a great teacher,” said Steiner, a recently authorized teacher herself. “I learned this practice from a teacher who is not authorized, and he still remains one of the very best teachers I have had.”

Even as Mysore-style classes grow in size and more studios consider adding additional classes, it will ultimately be up to the students to decide if this level of commitment to a particular type of yoga suits them.

“As Guruji would say, anyone can do this practice, so we don’t have to be Type A, young and super fit,” Steiner said. “It is really the ultimate all-levels, all-abilities class. You just have to be willing to take some responsibility for your own practice.”

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