Yoga. The word alone can either send you to your happy place, or send shivers up your spine—depending on your prior experience of the ancient practice. Here in the US, yoga gained widespread popularity several years ago when basically everyone discovered that those who practiced it developed a kind of supernatural radiance/flexibility/strength/calm/eternal-youth/ what-have-you. Of course, the price of that ticket is hours of dedication—which can be physically strenuous, and because of yoga’s focus on relaxation and calm, can try those of us with that Western “go, go, go” mentality. But anyone who’s put his or her time in can tell you that the benefits are numerous and well worth the effort. And the level of physical rigor is really up to you. Yoga classes generally consist of between 60 and 90 minutes of simple but challenging physical postures and movements, coupled with breathing techniques that benefit the body and mind.
One local yoga practitioner (“guru” would be almost too apt a term), Anjali Sunita, of Baltimore Yoga Village, shared with us her personal history with yoga, and what makes Baltimore Yoga Village so special. In her words, it’s “the community feel that just cannot be faked. Teachers at Baltimore Yoga Village not only create classes that work out the body, address aches and pains, and some that even become gateways to meditation practice, but perhaps most importantly, they are dedicated to creating community connection. I think that is an underlying need in group classes that perhaps people do not even realize when they come and pull out a mat and drag it to the far corner of the room.”
And we’re here to witness. Walking into BYV, the feeling is truly welcoming and instantly relaxing. The feeling is not that of walking into a gym or health club, but rather, of walking into a sort of sanctuary—a place where you and your neighbors can come to sink deeper into a meaningful practice, and forget the cares of the outside world.
The story of BYV’s founding is a long (and inspiring) one. When asked how she began on her path of studying yoga, Sunita starts at the beginning: “I had a courtship with yoga in my teens,” she says. “As a biracial woman of Indian descent, in part the initial appeal was to look deeper into my heritage. It was a time in my life when I was looking for a sense of belonging and rootedness and feeling isolated in my experiences. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was already learning yoga through theater, with a teacher who was inspirational to me. He saw me as a young struggling teen, frequently depressed, and gave me not only challenging theater roles…as a means to confront my own emotions dead-on and see greater struggles in humanity, but also gave me readings of Western existential philosophers whose writing was based in the Upanishads, Indian teachings where we first begin to encounter yoga in text.”
While studying at Oberlin College, Sunita began to learn yoga postures from her roommate, which spurred her to seek out college professor Hasu Patel, (who remains a force in Sunita’s life to this day) to study singing, Hindustani music, and also pranayama breathing techniques as they related to singing and meditation on the chakras. Even today, Sunita says, “this music is my medicine and I love to share it at the beginning and end of yoga classes and to teach those in yoga teacher training about the power of sound and breath. This was my initial romance with yoga, though not so much about the classical postures, my entrance into this art and science was through some of the deeper means like philosophy, breath, and meditation.”
After college, Sunita spent time in India, visiting her grandmother and studying in an ashram. There, she fully developed her yoga practice — and her ability to teach yoga’s physical poses and breathing techniques, which form the basis of almost all yoga classes. After spending much time in India, she returned to Baltimore and began teaching yoga as a way to share the peace and healing she’d found through deepening her practice in India. After all, she’d seen yoga’s amazing influence on her own life– curing her of eczema, and helping her lay to rest a recurring listless loneliness she’d experienced throughout her youth. If yoga had worked such wonders for herself, why not share that with others?
“As luck and prayers would have it,” says Sunita, “the previous owner of the Ahimsa Yoga Center offered to sell me her dwindling business one day and after some negotiation, I took the plunge to create the Baltimore Yoga Village. The name ‘Village’ was important to me after traveling in India and feeling that sense of home and cooperative community in places there. I wanted to expand programs and create a family/community center feeling, non-pretentious and cooperative. I noticed that I was not the only person in Baltimore who had suffered feelings of isolation and loneliness. I also wanted to make Baltimore a ‘richer’ place than where I had grown up by bringing in a lot of outside guests, teachers, and artists to teach here.”
And the proof is in the pudding. As Sunita puts it, “People leave feeling more connected not only to themselves but to everyone. This may seem lofty, but in fact it is quite basic and at the essence of yoga. People come to get an experience of yoga and leave not only with tools for health of body and mind but also with a sense that there are others with struggles who are committing to a patient practice.”
The studio also gives back by doing community outreach in many forms. “We have four teachers (myself included) who teach in the prison system as well as many in schools, parks and recs, and other community organizations. We are at the forefront of some very important local and international fundraising through our yoga programs as well. BYV tends to draw this altruistic and highly qualified type of teacher who wants to make our city better and together our joint senses of purpose create a community that I feel truly blessed to be a part of.” Wow. Who wouldn’t? “At times,” says Sunita, “classes can get large but still there is not a sense of the studio being a revolving door. Students get to know each other and I am always in awe of the many music groups, community activities, trades, friendships, and celebrations that are born of the connections people make at the studio! Every class is engaging and different; there is no set sequence or lingo. The teachers are truly looking at the people who walk in the door as they teach and personalizing class to the best of our abilities.”
Beyond the more traditional class offerings, BYV also offers some pretty unique stuff. “We serve infants to elderly with classes like momma and baby, tiny tots, yoga for kids, yoga for teen girls, all the way up to yoga for seniors classes. Again it comes back to the village mission. I personally teach the yoga for teens class and it is a joy to teach young women to connect to themselves for a few moments a day and learn to relax amidst the many pressures they face.”
There are always a plethora of events happening at BYV and Sunita is quick to point out that the Workshops and Courses page of the studio’s website is constantly adding new offerings and special events. The studio hosts relevant book signings, massage workshops, and even workshops that dip a toe into acrobatics (taught by visiting teacher Jean-Jacques Gabriel from Philadelphia). Baltimore Yoga Village has so much available—that’s suited to such a spectrum of bodies, abilities, and levels of experience—that there truly is something for everyone. But of course, what else would you expect when creating a village and a community is so close to the center of one’s mission? We’re just grateful that someone so dedicated and generous as Anjali Sunita has chosen to do so in our own backyard.
Baltimore Yoga Village is located alongside The Mill Centre, 3000 Chestnut Ave, in Hampden. A second location, opened in 2009, is at 6080 Falls Road, Lake Falls Village.
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