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As students align their mats before a morning class at Liberation Yoga in West Hollywood, playing a real-life version of Tetris to make them all fit comfortably, hushed and excited exchanges – “I always make class when he teaches”, “He puts me in a good mood” - about anusara yoga instructor, Steven Espinosa, bounce in the air. As he enters the room, there’s an instant upsurge in energy; he greets each student by name with a warm handshake and solid eye contact – a difficult thing to find in L.A. most days – before quickly jump-starting his students’ sleepy bodies into action.
Yogi John Friend founded anusara, a unique system of hatha yoga, in 1997. It is a heart-based practice that celebrates the innate differences, limitations and talents of its students, looking for the good in all things and celebrating individuality. Emphasis is placed on how to live a busy, 21st-century life while remaining centered and uplifted. “From anusara’s tradition, it was really an urban yoga: how to be a yogi and still live in the city with all its challenges and all its fluctuations,” Espinosa says. “This is where the real yoga is – trying to deal with all that’s around you in the city and still walk your path.”
He grew up in San Francisco, training at the San Francisco Ballet in his early years, before moving to L.A. in 1981 to dance professionally. After a long stint as a performer – including many MTV videos and a tour with Sammy Davis Jr. – Espinosa fell upon a career in writing, penning two plays that made it to professional production in New York City. Five years ago, after a potential movie deal fell through, he knew something had to change. “Everything was sort of falling apart. I was starting to fall apart. And that’s when one of my very best friends said, ‘You really need to try doing some yoga.’ I had never done it before. And so I took a class in Pasadena and said – ‘this is really good.’”
Something that drew Espinosa toward anusara specifically was a piece of wisdom from Dr. Douglas Brooks, the Hindu scholar who provided the initial philosophical aspects of the system. “He would say that to want everything is okay - to want things is not a bad thing. A lot of people think if you’re going to be a yogi you’re not allowed to want and you’re going to have to learn how to do without and be happy. That’s not a bad thing, but if you want everything that’s okay, too. Just need nothing.”
Espinosa began working behind the desk at both City Yoga (now Yoga Works) and Center for Yoga, studying with his new mentors, Sue Elkind, Anthony Benenati and Naime Jezzeny, and taking as many classes as he could fit in. “I just needed to be around the yoga as much as I could.” A year into his practice, Espinosa was asked to participate in City Yoga’s first teacher training, and shortly thereafter began teaching at Sacred Movement, becoming the only anusara teacher on the West Side. Mostly a flow and power yoga studio, what Espinosa was bringing to class was different, but people were very receptive. “I was teaching all over town, three to four classes a day, seven days a week for the first three years. I really just wound up loving it. Being in the yoga studio really felt like being at home.”
After spending so many years in the dance world, it was a big – but enlightening – shift into yoga. “I think one of the things I really came to appreciate and love about yoga in general was that it was so opposite of everything that I had experienced. There’s no competition, it’s really just you experiencing these new ways of expressing yourself. My teachers, I think, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, which was the potential to be an inspirational teacher or an effective teacher. And so it felt like I was still dancing.”
In addition to his traditional classes – held at Liberation, City Yoga, Still Yoga and Mission Street – Espinosa teaches private sessions. He mixes up his schedule by taking part in outside projects like bringing anusara to a new studio in Berlin, Germany and acting as the on-set yoga instructor for Legally Blonde 2. And while many teachers feel the temptation to open their own studios, Espinosa finds his joy in traveling to different studios. “I get to teach clusters of populations of people and really spread it and share it. It is really important to me because I feel like it’s a real gift to do that to people.”
Espinosa isn’t an untouchable, feet-never-touching-the-ground yogi. He makes sure to maintain a life outside of yoga, which is a large part of his appeal as a teacher. He continues to write (mainly crime stories), invites his students to go out after class, watches television and eats sugar - in short, he isn’t afraid to be a real person. “As teachers we spend so much of our time in the mode of sharing the good stuff, a lot of time getting to a light place. People feel that they have to be seen only in this one positive way, and I just let my whole personality out. I am all those things and then I’m also all this other stuff too.”
And he doesn’t just share his personality with his students. “My greatest aspiration is to inspire my students. I’ll take the mystery out of it, I’ll give you all the information that you want, I’m not gonna hold anything back. It’s yours to have, it’s not mine to keep. And then it’s like, let’s party.”