Published on August 31st, 2019 | by Noah Chen0
Four Luminaries in Atlanta’s Thriving Yoga Community
by Noah Chen
Introduction: Needs special treatment
This month, Natural Awakenings shines a light on four local yoga luminaries. Each has been nominated by their peers and colleagues for at least one of three reasons: developing the community around yoga, deepening the study and experience of yoga for their students and broadening the audience for yoga. We are pleased to feature William Hufschmidt, Octavia Raheem, Gina Minyard and Jessica Murphy.
William Hufschmidt has been described as a yoga teacher’s teacher and is known as someone who can take his students more deeply into their yoga practice than most other teachers. He is respected by many for his depth of knowledge and experience of Kripalu yoga, a yoga tradition that can be traced back to the prestigious yoga teacher, Swami Kripalu.
“My path to yoga began when I was fourteen,” says Hufschmidt. After breaking his leg in a car accident and going through a tough physical recovery, yoga was the first physical activity at which he felt competent. “After I broke my leg, there was a part of me that always felt broken,” he explains. “Yoga gave me a way to feel into and heal with my body.” Two years after he first started yoga classes, he began filling in for his teacher.
After college, he started working full-time and stopped doing yoga rigorously, but it wasn’t long before he had his first experience with what became his favorite style of yoga, Kripalu.
Hufschmidt had been laid off from his job at a law firm when he realized he wanted a change of pace. “I was not looking to become a yoga teacher; I was looking for a retreat to get away for a while,” he says, and he signed up for a teacher training class thinking it would be just that. While there, he met Yoganand Michael Carroll, introduced him to Kripalu and eventually became his primary teacher.
“There’s a lot more breathwork involved in Kripalu, compared to what other yoga classes have,” says Hufschmidt. “We use breathwork as a way of moving energy through the body.”
While Kripalu yoga can be very physically taxing, the focus is more on the spiritual side of yoga: “The goal is for everybody, no matter the state of their body, to have an experience of stillness,” he says.
“When people practice Kripalu for a while, it becomes about more than just the body. I think if your first teachers are practicing in that way, it does kind of hook you in a different way for the yoga practice.”
His teacher did that for him. Carroll was a graduate of the Kripalu School of Yoga, the school set up by Swami Kripalu when he came to the U.S. Carroll eventually left the school, and Hufschmidt stayed with him and continued as his pupil.
“There are very few yoga traditions in the United States that can be traced back to an Indian person who lived in India in our lifetime,” shares Hufschmidt. “We trace back to a Swami who did a lifetime of intense practice and taught based on his personal experience.”
Hufschmidt has been teaching and practicing in Atlanta since 2006 and only recently has begun setting aside more time for himself. He teaches private lessons for the Synapse Organization, working with people in various stages of substance recovery. He teaches a weekly Tuesday night class at the Neighborhood Church in Atlanta and has three upcoming workshops in October, December, and March 2020.
For more information, see YogaWithWilliam.com.
With a background in Pranakriya yoga and Yin yoga, Octavia Raheem has been teaching yoga since 2006. She currently teaches several classes at Sacred Chill West, a studio she co-owns with Meryl Arnett. As an African American, she is acutely aware of the lack of diversity in many yoga studios, and she seeks to make yoga more inclusive and accessible for all.
“I come from communities that have been systematically and historically marginalized and wounded. Yoga is incredibly healing,” says Raheem. “I believe that yoga can/should/must reflect the vast diversity and beautiful spectrums of black, brown, yellow, and red that thrive in the people of this country. I want to teach yoga because I know my family—my community—needs access to the healing, peace, and beauty of yoga.”
Raheem’s studio, Sacred Chill West, will celebrate its third anniversary in October. “Our studio is truly welcoming to all,” she says. “You will see the heart and soul of the diverse people of Atlanta represented in our classes.”
Raheem knows the challenges facing BIPOCs (Black and Indigenous People/Persons of Color) in Atlanta’s yoga scene. “The way I ‘earned my keep’ at one of the first studios I taught at was to teach and clean the studio. None of the other teachers did that, and I was the only black woman.”
Diversity in the yoga community is one of Raheem’s top priorities. To her, it means not only diversity in who is coming to the classes, but in who is recognized as teachers and figures of respect and authority in the yoga community. “It has affirmed to me that when black women and marginalized folk have access to leadership and ownership in yoga and wellness spaces, it radically transforms the culture, and creates access for so many others to come to the practice,” she says.
To that end, Raheem established a mentorship program for yoga teachers called Held, in which she coaches a diverse set of yoga teachers through “clearing inner and outer obstacles that impede them doing the work they need to do.”
“When marginalized yoga teachers have opportunities in the wellness field, our communities have more access to wellness,” she says.
Raheem also leads what she calls Starshine and Clay yoga retreats for BIPOC women. The retreats provide a safe space for women with similar backgrounds to come together and focus on their health. They allow people to “re-enter families, communities, work and world with more peace and a sense of wholeness,” she says.
All in all, Raheem has been successful in creating a place where diversity is celebrated, and members of all races can gather and practice yoga without feeling targeted. She says in the three years she has co-owned Sacred Chill West, she has “encountered more black and brown yogis and BIPOC teachers than I ever did in any other spaces in all of the 13 years prior—combined.”
For information about Raheem’s classes, lessons, retreats and more, visit SacredChillWest.com.
Gina Minyard has been described by a peer as Atlanta’s best yoga teacher on alignment.
Minyard focuses on fine-tuning the alignment of the yoga poses and, in doing so, has made the practice more satisfying and enriching for herself and her students.
Minyard started her training at Atlanta’s Peachtree Yoga Center in 1999. Within a year she went on to study Anusara yoga, a branch of Hatha yoga, and in 2006, she became the first certified Anusara yoga teacher in Georgia.
“The hallmark of Anusara is that it is an alignment-based yoga,” says Minyard. Its focus on alignment is coupled with the philosophical aspect of Anusara yoga, which leads to deeper personal understanding. “To me, what is so powerful about alignment in yoga is not just that it heals and frees the body, but it is the practice that helps us to enact and embody alignment with life itself.”
While other forms of yoga can focus on movement, breath, or other aspects of the practice, Anusara works on going deeper into the individual poses.
Alignment had not always been Minyard’s main focus within the study of yoga. In her early twenties, she was more into the movement aspect of yoga, but after an accident on a bicycle, she found it difficult to go through the motions of yoga. She gravitated to Anusara yoga not only because its focus on alignment was more compatible with her injuries, but Anusara yoga helped her learn how to take care of her body.
She found that by aligning her body in certain ways during the poses, she could have a painless experience, and her body began to heal.
Minyard credits her insistence on correct alignment, along with “hundreds of hours of training with incredible teachers,” for leading her to become so knowledgeable and respected among her fellow teachers and their students.
She says that her experiences with her own body have given her an ability to “sense” into the alignment of her students, making her a more observant teacher.
“I have a way of teaching alignment that really engages people and brings them to new places of awareness that they haven’t experienced yet,” she says.
Students of all skill levels have found Minyard’s teachings to be helpful. After all, everyone has some bad habits, and asana yoga “requires that we break down habitual patterns and move into new, more harmonious patterns in our bodies and our minds.
“At a certain moment, there’s quite a delight, there’s a discovery that there’s always more than was thought possible.”
In addition to yoga, Minyard also teaches a meditation class. “Where we go in meditation, asana alone can’t get us there,” she says. She sees meditation as “the most profound practice of alignment.” The two go well together and provide her with a calm sense of mind: “It keeps my energy moving. It brings me into a place of steadiness and well-being, no matter what it is I’m facing.”
Minyard teaches several yoga classes in Atlanta, including some at the Yoga Collective, as well as a teacher training class. For more information on her classes and meditation course, visit GinaMinyard.com.
Jessica Murphy is the creator of Atlanta’s only current homegrown yoga festival, Dirty South Yoga Fest. She, too, has been trained under Yoganand Michael Carroll, and is a certified Pranakriya yoga teacher.
Murphy has been interested in yoga since middle school, but, she says, “my mother did prenatal yoga, so I joke that I did yoga in utero!”
Murphy, who has worked many jobs and is currently freelancing as a digital marketer, says yoga is a nice constant in her life, and several factors keep her involved in the practice.
“It’s really grounding. Being a person who does a lot of different things, it’s nice knowing I can go to a yoga class and leave feeling grounded. But along the way, I have really come to love and connect with the yoga community. For a long time, I practiced, but I didn’t have the person-to-person connection. As soon as I started making those deeper connections with people in the community, I couldn’t imagine not having them in my life.”
It was while Murphy was practicing for her 200-hour yoga teacher training that she came up with the idea for the Dirty South Yoga Fest, an annual event credited with growing Atlanta’s yoga community.
Inspired by Atlanta’s yoga teachers, Murphy wanted a way for people to come together and experience what those teachers had to offer. “I was getting exposed to so many new teachers, and I was having such a great experience, it seemed to me that everyone should have the chance to try out all the great teachers in Atlanta,” she says.
Murphy was nervous about how the festival would be received, but they sold out their first year.
“Seeing all the people who came out, I remember walking away thinking, ‘This is what I really love to do,’” she recalls. From that day, Murphy has made The Dirty South Yoga Fest one of her top priorities; she quit teaching so she could put more energy into the yoga festival. And her efforts seem to have paid off: the festival has been growing in size every year.
“Collaborating with people and making new connections—it’s what keeps me coming back to the festival,” she says. “If people keep showing up, I’ll keep doing it.”
While Murphy doesn’t teach a regular class, she is gearing up to lead her first retreat—a surfing and yoga trip to Chile. “I spent a year in Chile learning to surf about seven years ago, so this will be my way to take people with me and do yoga and surf in a country that’s really special for me!” For more info about the Dirty South Yoga Fest and Murphy’s Chile yoga retreat, go to https://dirtysouthyogafest.com/.