On a balmy evening in the Mission, after a long day at work, I’m almost overwhelmed by the hubbub of 16th Street: vendors peddling exotic flowers and fruits, anarcho-punks posting fliers, grandmothers picking up goodies at the local panaderia, the plaintive throb of trio music permeating the taquerias.
But then, after climbing a narrow flight of stairs and traversing a long corridor, I reach Yoga Sangha and suddenly find myself amidst absolute openness. I’m awed by the way the evening light illuminates the space. Floor to ceiling windows open up to a balcony lined with succulent plants; just beyond, a vista of the city basks in the afterglow of the setting sun. The studio could easily hold a hundred or so students, but as yogis quietly enter the room and African music plays softly in the background, I notice the intimacy of the space.
The all-levels class is taught by Skeeter Barker, a no-nonsense yogi with a gentle smile and the blend of humor and compassion that I always welcome in a teacher. Skeeter starts us off with a brief meditation with a heart mudra, which is appropriate given Yoga Sangha’s grounding in Anusara yoga – a heart-oriented style of hatha yoga that blends tantric philosophy and structural alignment principles, as well as a focus on celebrating the diverse expressions we may all have of the same essence. Skeeter’s comprehensive, effortless method of teaching draws students back week after week – but that might also be a quality inherent in the Sangha itself.
Jayne Hillman and Katchie Ananda co-founded Yoga Sangha with three other yoga teachers in 2004, when it was known as the Yoga Cooperative. “It was a magical idea that all five of us gave birth to,” says Jayne, “but it was clear that the (three other) teachers had other activities they wanted to do, so Katchie and I carried on and changed the name to Yoga Sangha in 2005.”
From Yoga Sangha’s inception, Jayne and Katchie wanted to operate their studio with a strong sense of community, and the principles of Anusara yoga contribute to that. “People feel very comfortable, no matter what level they’re at,” says Jayne. “We have this idea that everyone, at essence, is a representation of universal consciousness. So wherever you are in a pose, even in your resistance to that pose, you can be yourself. And that intention permeates our practice.”
Yoga Sangha’s tri-part vision is: inhale (the yoga practice); exhale (giving back and acting on our values); and intention (bringing ancient teachings into the modern world through yoga classes, workshops, immersions and teacher trainings). According to Jayne, “We’re launching into our larger mission, which is to extend back out and give to the community.”
Yoga Sangha encourages students to use their yoga practice as a way of learning to find what it is they want to give back to their communities. In future teacher trainings, the Sangha will have a service project component. “It’s about getting in touch with what we value and, in our day to day lives, being able to articulate that,” says Jayne.
Part of Yoga Sangha’s commitment to the community is its environmental ethic. The studio was recently designated a Green Studio by the Green Yoga Association. Jayne and Katchie are also keenly aware of socio-economic issues. The studio offers a variety of free classes, sliding scale classes for students with financial limitations, and scholarships. On Sept. 10, the studio will host a “Be the Peace” Yoga Jam, weaving together yoga practice together with speakers, kirtan and Yoga Trance Dance (details at powertothepeaceful.org).
In Jayne and Katchie’s yoga classes, participants are likely to be social activists of some stripe. Jayne explains, “What’s great about the practice is that people who are working towards social change can find a sense of grounding; they can inhale more inspiration into their lives and feel more balanced. A lot of times, when we are working, we are in our heads or emotions, but with yoga, we can move from our center, from a deeper and more effective place.” Jayne, who speaks from ten years of community development work, acknowledges, “It’s crucial to be able to take care of yourself before helping your community.”