I first saw Andrew’s smiling face across the room at Dharma Mittra Yoga Center when we sat down on our mats on the first day of our 200-hour teacher’s training.
That day, I was convinced that I had somehow been “led” there – not only to get top notch training, but to also have a meaningful spiritual experience among people who I not only respected but also immediately liked. “We had such an upbeat positive group!” I said to Andrew as we chatting about his beautiful yoga center in Queens and the nature of his work.
What attracted you to yoga and how did you get started?
When I was 18, my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non-Hodgekins Burkett’s Lymphoma. Through his 40-day initial hospital stay, the aggressive chemotherapy regimen caused him to quickly lose over 50 pounds, all his hair, and much of the feeling in his hands and feet. Towards the end of those first 40 days, his compromised immune system also developed a fever, which prompted the doctors to halt the medication and “leave it in God’s hands,” as to whether his body could survive the infection or not.
Three days of antibiotics had done nothing, so I sought out the help of a yoga teacher/healer, Sunshim Park, who had taught my father many years ago. At that time, I knew nothing about yoga or healing, but simply thought she could somehow help him through this.
I found her at her studio in Boston and she agreed to come to the hospital the next day. To make a long story quite short, she helped change his entire mental outlook on the disease so that he soon found himself in remission (Not to mention his fever went from 103.7F to 98.6 within 1 hour of her treatment).
This led me to begin studying Yoga and Healing and gave me a firm belief in the power of the Universal Principle, or God, if you will. I went on to train with Master Park for a year before going back to New York University to study religious studies and psychology with a focus on taoism. Since then, I spent more time in yoga studios then in University classrooms, studying with another taoist healer, Jae Lee, and finally meeting my current and most influential teacher, Sri Dharma Mittra.
What prompted you to open a yoga studio?
When we opened Bamboo Moves in November 2007, there was plenty of good quality yoga in Manhattan, but not so much in the other boroughs of New York City. Queens was dying for yoga and in the first month we signed up over 100 members. The first article to write us up for the Queens Tribune called Bamboomoves “the yoga ambassador to Queens.”
We specialize in helping people empty their minds to create a place of total serenity. Our studio is as green as possible, I call it a karma-free studio because we recycle, “Non VOC paints”, we try to set an example.
Why did you choose to call the studio Bamboo Moves?
Bamboo is a symbol of strength, serenity, beauty, and emptiness. It’s a renewable resource, and the fastest and tallest growing grass in the world. Throughout history, it has been used for everything from food, paper, clothing, weaponry, construction, etc.
Lastly, the two most important qualities are, first that it grows even amidst adversity (with little water or love it still stays alive). As humans we must reflect this, that no matter what the conditions are in life we must keep growing. And choose to rise above our circumstances.
Second, that the inside of bamboo is empty. In other words, its mind and heart are empty and thus full at the same time. This emptiness is what gives bamboo its flexibility and strength. Students of Bamboomoves are taught to value “emptiness” as a state of peace and serenity that allows one to harness their energy so they can make the best decisions for their lives.
When people make decisions from a place of peace, then they can do their “dharma”, or follow their spiritual path. That’s why we call the students “bamboo movers”. They practice Yoga so that they can move their life in a positive direction towards their own Self-Actualization.
How do you take the experiences of yoga off the mat and into the world?
Everyone at Bamboomoves believes in being involved with the community. We call it the “Bamboo Movement” so to speak. We’ve held events for the local chamber of commerce, and taught free classes at elementary schools. Last winter, one of our senior teachers, Stephanie Miller, orchestrated a food drive where we collected over 100 pounds of food for New York Cares.
We have also been collecting signatures and getting support to open a new Farmer’s Market in Forest Hills Queens, which we hope to begin this summer. My partner Kaity Leisure (Co-Owner Bamboomoves) otherwise known as the Bamboo Yogini and I are adamant about helping our students make healthier diet choices, and often recommend to local restaurant owners to buy local and organic. Since we opened 1.5 years ago, there have been at least 4 new restaurants that offer healthy vegetarian options in our neighborhood where before there was none, so in that way I think we are also starting to change our community.
Lastly, this July, Kaity will be leading a group of students to Nicaragua for a 10-day “karma yoga” vacation, where instead of sitting on the beach drinking Margaritas, participants will be helping to build a house for a local community and living there with them as part of the immersion. We plan to donate lots of extra yoga mats to the community as well.
As for me personally, I believe yoga has made me a better person. I am more honest with myself, less selfish about little things, and more compassionate towards others as well as myself. Self-judgement is something we all face everyday, and in Yoga we are taught to “Let go of the fruits of our actions” and “to give everything to God” (from the Bhagavad Gita).
When I head home in a state of relaxed peace after a rigorous hour-long yoga practice, it is a lot easier to “let go” of the daily stresses of finances and family drama then for example spending an hour just trying to escape my life by watching CSI Miami.
I feel like when we help ourselves find a greater sense of health, happiness, and inner peace and then share that with students who in turn share that with their families, and in turn share that with the community – and that can affect the whole world.
What advice do you have for people who want to conquer their unhealthy habits, including unhealthy eating habits?
Bad habits are very hard to break when you feel you don’t have any energy. Most people know what they have to do, but choose not to because they lack the ignition or the charge to call up the will power necessary to change.
In yoga, we believe there is actually a name for this life force energy and a way to channel it. It is called “prana” or “chi” as the Taoist would say. Nowadays this concept of a “life force” doesn’t have to be seen as a mystical concept, as the knowledge that we all come from energy is becoming a common-sense notion.
I believe yoga is one of the best ways for people to change their diet, because yoga opens the energy channels of the body and makes people feel better. When you feel better, you can make better decisions and control impulses better; like choosing healthier foods.
When it comes to food addictions, I think, unfortunately, the marketing of chemical stimulants in energy drinks, coffees, and sodas are some of the worst addictions one can have. And these addictions are so hard to break, because of the physical withdrawal symptoms as well as the psychological problems presented.
Because humans are creatures of habit and like to get into a rhythm with our diet, I often recommend students to kick their coffee/tea addiction with a “Kombucha Addiction.” Kombucha is a fermented tea that supports digestion and metabolism through active enzymes, probiotics, and amino acids, all naturally occurring. Not to mention it tastes great, suppresses the appetite, and any headaches one might normally get from skipping coffee.
You can buy it at the health food store or brew it yourself, and it comes in different flavors. I could write a whole article about the benefits of Kombucha really. Lastly, I think that remembering that old adage, “You are what you eat” or as my Guru Dharma likes to say: “If you eat dead and fried food, you become dead and fried.”
How can yoga affect your overall health?
The main benefits of yoga is that you feel more energy, flexibility, core strength, and a lighter, more joyous heart. Yoga helps you release stress and the causes of stress – which is being attached to the little things in life. Through yoga, people can slow down their hectic minds by focusing on their body’s movement in conjunction with the breath and find a sense of peace and serenity.
People come to me all the time with health problems. There was a 35-year old woman in my class with lupus, she had severe joint pain and was in bad shape. But I also think she was unhappy in other aspects of her life, because she didn’t know what she was meant to be doing. If people would only know their purpose, everything would fall into place, for the mind and body. I believe that disease can originate in the mind.
When she came to the studio, I could see that she needed someone she could trust, completely honest people need to find a way to believe in life. I recommended yoga three times a week for her and after a few months she was coming everyday. After one year and two months she was able to go off her meds. Now she’s doing the teacher training. I saw her as someone who went through a spiritual change that also affected her body.
Yoga is not a miracle cure, but it is so special because it focuses on energy through movement and breath. Practicing every day benefits you 10-times more than other exercises that don’t incorporate energy work. But practicing yoga even on a semi-regular basis (1 to 2 times weekly), you’ll experience a real difference in how you look and feel.
How do you find inspiration?
In my experience, people can change if they have a way to get energy, and there are many ways to do that. Being out in nature is a great way, listening to music, or reading inspirational book can all be great battery chargers. Everyone needs a battery charger, so start searching!
If you find a good yoga teacher, they will become a battery charger that you can keep going back to – again and again. Once you find it though, you need to keep up-grading to a higher voltage by practicing more and more and pretty soon you’ll find yourself standing on your head!
More importantly you will find that by taking care of your body, much of the things that cause stress in your life will fall away and many facets of your life will start falling in to place. This is because when we are in a positive, healthy frame of mind, you will not miss out on good opportunities that you may have otherwise been to overwhelmed to undertake. Health, just like stress, has a snowball effect, and the healthier you get in body and mind, the better your external life will also become.
Before I met my Guru Sri Dharma Mittra, I was already practicing yoga and teaching for over 5 years; however, along the way I had plateaued in my growth and felt my spiritual practice was missing the drive that it once had. Sometimes, you need someone who embodies all your hopes and dreams, someone you admire who helps you attain the will power to choose the higher self, to make the best choices possible for your growth. And Dharma is that person for me.
If someone else has done it, you can too. So when you find someone who has really mastered their body and mind, or at least can control it better then you can; that is a person who you can trust to teach you and guide you for awhile. Having a good teacher/guide who you trust is the best way to progress steadily in yoga.