Yoga From the Heart
by CJ Puotinen
Chaya Spencer was not your typical teenager. At 14, she traveled by herself to India to spend summer vacation (with the help of a chaperone) at an ashram her mother had visited while on her own spiritual journey.
Chaya loved India and the ashram so much that she didn’t want to leave, and she came home to New York City determined to do everything she could to spend the following summer at the ashram near Bombay. “I ironed people’s shirts, babysat, and did whatever odd jobs I could,” she says. “I earned enough to go back for the summer, but I ended up staying three years.”
During that time, Chaya traveled around the world with her spiritual teacher, Swami Muktananda, and his entourage. She studied yoga, yoga philosophy, Sanskrit, Indian music, and Indian cooking in addition to her American schoolwork, which she handled by correspondence.
She earned a GED, then went to Sarah Lawrence College, which accepted her on the basis of an essay she wrote detailing her experiences.
In 1990, Chaya returned to the ashram in India for hatha yoga teacher training, and she began teaching classes there. After a break for marriage, a move to New York, and the birth of two children, she resumed her career as an instructor.
“It was after I started teaching again that I found my true direction,” she says. “I had been teaching general hatha yoga as I had learned it at the ashram, but when I started studying Anusara, my whole approach changed.”
Chaya enjoyed Anusara classes because they brought together elements of yoga that she could previously find only by working with different schools or branches. “Now they were all together in one approach,” she explains. “Anusara combines the incredibly intelligent alignment that some traditions are strong in with the element of spirituality and of connecting with your own heart that some other traditions do well. Anusara so inspired me to practice with my whole heart and body, and so engaged my whole being in my practice, that I decided that this was the style I wanted to teach. I completed the Anusara teacher certification in August of 2002.”
Chaya felt connected with Anusara in part because of her spiritual studies. “For the first time,” she says, “I was able to take the spiritual insights I had learned at the ashram and experience them physically, in my body. It wasn’t a mental practice, it was a very physical practice, and at the same time it involved the heart. Anusara yoga awakens the heart while never losing sight of its solid physical foundation. Correct physical alignment is essential because it keeps you safe and prevents injury while allowing you to move as deeply into the poses as your body is capable of moving. Connecting to the heart is important because that’s what lets you find yourself and the truth. Then you transform that spiritual experience into physical action with your body and learn it on a cellular level.”
Even though Chaya no longer follows Anusara founder, John Friend, she still stands by the principles of Anusara Yoga that have worked for her and her students over the years.
Chaya’s own training and practice may be demanding, but the classes she teaches literally offer something for everyone. Even those who can barely move report life-changing benefits from her gentle beginner classes, while more experienced students find their lives, minds, and bodies coming back into balance, even during difficult life experiences. In fact, many students report that a class was so beneficial, it must have been designed specifically for them.
“I think the reason people say that is because they come in with a certain expectation,” says Chaya. “It might be physical or emotional or involve a problem they’re having, but whatever it is, they’re open to receiving what they need, and that’s what happens. Going to yoga means spending time with yourself and connecting with yourself. If you go to class with that intention, it’s only natural that you’ll draw to you whatever you need. Your instructor and the postures are simply conduits that healing energy flows through.
Chaya aims for the optimal and encourages her students to get there in careful stages. “Everyone’s body has an optimal range of motion,” she says, “and an optimal level of strength, and optimal ability. I try to inspire each student to practice at his or her best level, and to do that I rely on Anusara Yoga’s anatomical alignments. They make sense, and if you work with them, they’re incredibly therapeutic. They don’t cause injuries, they heal injuries. The only time a well-designed yoga class can cause an injury is if you’re not being mindful, if you’re not remaining conscious of what you’re doing, or if you’re trying to keep up with the rest of the class even though your body’s telling you that what you’re doing isn’t good for it. Yoga is not a competition. Doing a posture well has nothing to do with what the person next to you is doing. It’s important to be in an appropriate level class and then to pay attention to your body.
“Beginner level classes are basic and appropriate for anyone who is new to yoga,” she explains. “They’re an introduction, and they feature basic poses that anyone can do to one degree or another. The pace is slow, and there’s lots of explanation. A beginner class will typically include standing poses to build strength and teach alignment, seated poses that includes twists, some gentle back-bends, and lots of emphasis on the breath. Our Level I&II classes are challenging, with inversions, arm balances, and other poses that require focus, concentration, strength, flexibility, and careful attention to alignment. Yoga is a mental discipline as much as it is a physical discipline in that you have to be mindful of your body. You have to pay attention. In addition, we have slow classes, which can accommodate everyone and anyone.”
In January, 2005, Chaya moved her Shree Yoga Studios to Saddle River, New Jersey. She and affiliated Anusara instructors offer everything from beginner and Level II classes to meditation classes, gentle classes for those with physical challenges, free meditation sessions, and Vinaysa (flowing yoga) classes.
“Even though we are different instructors offering different classes,” says Chaya, “we are all connected through the Anusara Yoga philosophy. That philosophy engages far more than bones and muscles, and it involves more than breathing and bending. It teaches us how to live and express our fullest potential, not just in class, but all the time, everywhere, 24/7. I’m convinced that Anusara Yoga brings out the best in all of us because it’s yoga from the heart.”