Profile: John Berlinsky
A Relationship with Change
Mysore-style yoga in the tradition of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois is a purist's practice with a congruent teaching standard: to receive authorization to teach, a Mysore instructor must have made a number of trips to India to study with Jois and receive his permission. While a large percentage of yoga classes being taught today are influenced by Jois's Ashtanga Vinyasa system, classes that teach its exact sequencing under the guidance of a qualified teacher are in the minority. San Francisco Bay Area Ashtanga students are fortunate to have authorized Ashtanga teacher, John Berlinsky, as a resident. Whole-heartedly committed to carrying on Jois's lineage, Berlinsky has been providing a needed anchor for the traditional Ashtanga community at YOGASTUDIO Mill Valley for a decade.
There, a varied group of professionals, full-time yogis, parents, and athletes share an intense two hours of practice each morning. The thriving Mysore community in Mill Valley is a testament to Berlinsky's commitment to practice. The Washington, DC native gets to the studio before dawn six days a week along with his wife and fellow authorized Ashtanga teacher, Lea Watkins, to complete their own practice and then instruct the often packed Mysore-style class. Given the demands of traditional Ashtanga, his track record is noteworthy.
First exposed to yoga as a teenager, he recalls being influenced by an early reading of Be Here Now and Iyengar's Light on Yoga. After graduating from Vassar College with a degree in Art History, Berlinsky moved to New York where he happened upon a "Stretch and Relax" class at his local gym. "It was 1987," he recalls. "Then, yoga was something your mothers did. It wasn't cool like what it is now."
He quickly realized the "stretch" class was a yoga class. At the same time, the teacher, a pre-Jivamukti Sharon Gannon, recognized that Berlinsky had already done yoga. "I teach a real yoga class," she confided, inviting him to a class she taught in an East Village basement. Berlinsky began regular practice with Gannon, going on to help renovate the first Jivamukti Yoga Studio before leaving the Big Apple and eventually moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, venturing into teaching along the way. However, it wasn't until 1993, that he took his first class with Jois during one of the Ashtanga master's teaching visits to Encinitas, California.
In Jois, Berlinsky found his teacher and his calling. Within a year he quit a job in Berkeley's AIDS research program, to go to India for three months. His intention was to teach full-time after his trip. "At that time it was considered career suicide to quit a job to teach yoga," he notes now. But within two weeks of his return to the states, he was teaching five times a week at YOGASTUDIO Mill Valley.
Ten years and four more extended trips to Mysore later, Berlinsky is still with the studio, which has since tripled in size. Such stability and consistency are key concepts to the approach he and Watkins take to teaching, a characteristic of Jois's tradition, which, while physically challenging, is methodical and to some, slow-going to a fault.
To many, Ashtanga's formal, unvaried sequence of postures can be unrelenting in its demands. But within this highly structured form, Berlinsky finds the beauty and merits of Ashtanga. "Ashtanga is not about changing it up. It's not that kind of yoga. Everything comes through daily practice," he says. "Traditional Ashtanga, taught with a correct intention, is a system of balance and moderation. [Jois] teaches people slowly, respecting people's limitations and evolving them slowly."
Berlinsky and Watkins' Mysore room reflect Jois's approach. People of all ages and physical abilities practice side by side, some of them having been with Berlinsky since his first days teaching. Those just learning the opening sun salutations of primary series practice mat-to-mat with veteran yogis practicing third series.
"The Western mind wants to acquire this practice. We want it fast and it's already a demanding, challenging practice. But it's not linear. Change comes over time," he explains. "You have a relationship with these 30-40 asanas and that relationship is changing and that relationship has to do with your relationship to yourself. There's an astounding variety of age, body type, temperament [among students in the room], but they all have a relationship to this practice and that creates this vibe."
It's a vibe he and Watkins, as well as the core group of 25-35 students who have been practicing with them for years, relish. It's not uncommon for students to commute more than an hour each day to get to class. "Ashtanga is about the practice, not the teacher and teaching is just like practice," he says. "I consider it a highly creative experience. What we have here now is so sweet. I'm incredibly grateful for it."
For more information on John Berlinsky and Lea Watkins' teaching schedule, go to www.yogastudiomillvalley.com.
© 2006 Deborah Crooks