My legs trembled and my hamstrings were stretched to the maximum as I strained to get my fingertips within shouting distance of my toes. A gentle hand touched my shoulder. "You're doing great, Joe," said Dora, my yoga instructor. All hope was not lost.
Yoga Darsana, just off of Alhambra's Main Street, is unique in that it offers the practice in three languages. When the owner and lead instructor Dora Hassenbein, who was born in Peru, started offering classes in her native Spanish, however, she did not expect Asian students to be among her most enthusiastic. But they came, and told her that not only do they learn yoga, they also have an opportunity to learn another language. (That class is also attended by her 81-year-old father, her oldest student.)
I'm a strictly English-only yoga student, but if I felt so inclined, I could also try and brush up on my Mandarin as well. But I'm not sure how well it would go — I'm at a first-grade level at best. Still, for other long-time students, Tina Jen and Danielle Ou teach classes in Mandarin.
Regardless of the language, the poses are the same. Yoga Darsana — which means mirror or sight in Sanskrit — specializes in Iyengar yoga, a style emphasizing awareness of body movement. The Iyengar style is also known for the use of aids such as belts and blocks to make it more accessible to a wider range of ages and physical conditions. “We don’t rush through the yoga forms," Dora explained. "I demonstrate each form and help the students perform the form correctly."
Dora, who has been practicing yoga for 15 years, traces her interest back to her childhood in South America. Her grandfather practiced meditation and had books in Spanish about non-traditional religions that included pictures of yoga practitioners and different types of poses.
The road to opening a yoga studio in Alhambra, however, was a winding one. Seeking a better life, her family migrated from Peru to Montebello, where an uncle lived. It was the early 1970s and Dora was a teenager. After graduating from Montebello High School, she moved to Europe, where she met her husband Wolfgang through friends in Germany. Because she was the “only daughter of a very old fashioned Hispanic family,” the couple moved to Alhambra after they were married to be closer to her parents. They lived there for eight years, before moving to San Gabriel, where she has lived for the past 18.
After teaching at other studios, including the nearby Yoga House and Mission Street Yoga, Dora opened Yoga Darsana in 2004. At first she was afraid it would be hard to start a business. Instead, she found that Alhambra was very helpful. There weren’t any local yoga studios and city officials were enthusiastic and supportive, especially as part of their efforts was to revitalize and broaden the appeal of the downtown Main Street business district.
The business is a family affair. Wolfgang helps her run the studio, including teaching occasional classes. One of their three children, Nicole, 28, who is a substitute teacher at Alhambra High, taught a children's class for a time.
Of her 125 students, the majority are Asian, with most being female, which is typical in yoga classes. There is typically one male in each class. “If we get lucky there might be three men in a class," Dora said as she smiled.
Health concerns are the most common reasons students come to her class. Many tell her that their doctors refer them specifically to Iyengar yoga to relieve stress, high blood pressure, lower back pain, and other ailments. As a result, Dora often tailors her classes to address specific physical problems. For example, if a student has a stiff back, Dora can include yoga postures that can help decrease pain and increase flexibility.
“Because of yoga, I can sleep because my back doesn’t hurt,” Sally Wu, who has been attending Yoga Darsana for six years, told me.
I can attest to how yoga relieves stress by providing a respite from everyday concerns. We have busy lives and our minds are in constant motion, thinking of what we’ve done, where we need to go, and what we need to do. Because yoga postures involve coordinated and specific movements of the body, including the legs, hips, and arms, it requires your full attention and can be a welcome and needed diversion from those concerns. So instead of thinking about what I need to do at work tomorrow or remembering to do the laundry, I can focus on making sure my warrior pose is sufficiently warrior-like.
All this is part of Dora's vision for the studio. When she opened Yoga Darsana, one of her goals was to foster a sense of community and to make yoga accessible to all people. Now, she sees the friendships that have developed and how students bring in avocados, lemons, and cookies to share with others in her classes. “I believe that yoga is for everyone," Dora told me. "For moms and aunts and cousins. For everybody."