Yoga in Squirrel Hill – Taya Irizarry of the JCC
Welcome to the first of four EXTENDED features from our Spring Issue, ONLY available here on the Burrow!
Interviews by Mickey Gast
Tell me about how you started to practice yoga-
I started my practice as a teenager. My mom grew up in the 1970’s and she had a yoga book that I would look at as a kid. I began to practice formally at the beginning of college, when I took yoga classes as my physical education classes. It wasn’t until I moved to Pittsburgh that I started teaching. That was about seven years ago.
Where do you teach?
I teach at the JCC and privately. I’m a full time PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught full time for about five years, but decided that I wanted to continue my studies. I doing research on using mobile technology, such as the one in smartphones, to support people who have chronic diseases. We hope that the data that we collect will support the implementation of better health care and health policy.
Who comes to your yoga classes?
The majority of my students are over 50 years old, with a sprinkling of new moms in their early 30s. They’re active people. The real focus in the class is to maintain openness in the joints, as well as stability and balance as you progress in age.
What should people expect from your yoga class, especially if they are beginners?
The style that I teach is focused on alignment. The words that I choose are specific to aligning your joints, your bones and your muscles. We then build on that movement. As a new student, a class like mine is more accessible because I take a lot of time to build the pose up from your feet through every joint. I also move a lot throughout the class to help people adjust so they know where they are in space. I always give enough time for new people to be able to adjust themselves in the pose just as much as everyone else. The movements may be new and exotic for a beginner, but the language is clear and simple. So they shouldn’t feel intimidated. Exactly. I’m not interested in flashy poses, but in poses that can be accessed by anyone to their own ability. I am able to find the ability of anyone in the class, then to push it just a little bit, in a way that’s possible, but they perhaps didn’t really think it was possible. My goal for the class is for my students to keep their awareness in their body, in the present moment, from the beginning until the end. The goal is the alignment of consciousness in time and space.
What’s a good lesson about yoga that you want people to know?
It’s the idea of full conscious embodiment. We have awareness, and often in a normal day our awareness is spread in a myriad of directions. It’s spread so thin that we lose the sense of what it feels like to be in our bodies and to take care of ourselves. So this lesson comes with practice: to sharpen the awareness and bring it fully into the body so that you’re able to sharpen the mind and become clear. It’s something that you need to practice. Even the best violinist in the world practices every day.
What are some of the lessons that you learn from your students?
Every day, there’s a different combination of people in the room. While there are a lot of people that show up every week, they’re not the same person every time they come to class. So depending on how cold it is, what kind of Friday it is for you. That group of people is going to be a different group and have a different attitude every single time. For me, it’s about sharpening my own awareness about who the group is and what their needs are that day. I don’t come with a list of things to do. I learn from that experience every single time.
What would you tell your younger, less experienced self, about teaching yoga?
It would be to truly pay attention to the diversity in the room. To be patient, because you don’t need to talk as much as you think you do. To give everybody the time to get there.
Is there anything that you noticed about teaching in Squirrel Hill?
What makes Squirrel Hill unique is that a lot of the people who live here, also spend a lot of time here. I often walk down the street and see a lot of familiar faces. The sense of community at the JCC is also close-knit. Eye contact and smiling probably come from the fact that Squirrel Hill feels like a small town that you come back to. I live in Regent Square, but this is my big downtown.
How does someone who’s never been an avid practitioner know what to look for in an instructor?
Look for a sense of being taken care of. The instructor has to be looking at the people in the room, instead of being in front of it, just doing their own thing. Also, if you feel lost the entire class and have no clue whether you’re doing things correctly or not, that’s probably not the right place for you. There are plenty of instructors out there who will give you the information to figure out if you know what you’re doing and you know how to take care of yourself.
What’s one secret about yoga that you want everybody to know?
That yoga is geared towards to attention, awareness and self-love. It’s available and it’s not hard. In the end, when you gain a sense of self-awareness and embodiment, that sense of gratitude for the ability to have a body that moves around is very close to feeling that sense of love for yourself. It ends up expanding everywhere, effortlessly.
What else inspires you?
Frick Park inspires me. In Colorado, where I come from, there are mountains, but the parks in the city are flat grass fields. To have a deep, thick forest in the middle of the city is enchanting to me. I’m there at least a few times a week. I chose where I live in the city based on my proximity to Frick Park. That does relate to what yoga gives you: a sense of embodiment, a sensitivity to awareness. When you’re in a forest like that, it’s a wonderful place to feel that sensitive, that aware and that relaxed.
What’s next for you?
The rest of my time is focused on my Phd and research. I went back to school for nursing when I realized that I wanted to reach more people, health wise. I’ve been on that track full time for the last seven years. Another thing that I would like to focus on is crafting a specific type of yoga designed for people as they age. One of my private clients has turned 83. The thing we don’t realize as much when we age is that we might not be so firm in body, but we gain a sensitivity that is specific and very unique. It’s an opportunity to really enjoy every single last drop out of our experience as human beings on this planet. There is something unique to us as we get older, and highlighting that and celebrating it doesn’t happen very often in our culture.
Where can people find you?
I teach at the JCC on Friday mornings. I also teach in private practice and people can reach me via email (email@example.com)