When Ami Hirschstein was a SUNY-New Paltz student in sociology, she was on the verge of “losing it.” So, she turned to the ancient Indian practice of yoga. “I was stressed out full-time — taking lots of credits, making internships, I really would have gone under if not for yoga.”
Hirschstein took her first classes with Mary Warden at the old New Paltz train station (now La Stazione Restaurant) and it “opened my eyes, got me through college.” Not planning on any kind of career, Hirschstein did what any seeker of wisdom and truth usually does: travel. “I found myself by being by myself a lot, then when I came back to the area, I went to Kripalu (a spiritual retreat in Great Barrington, Massachusetts), which was an amazing experience and where I did some teacher training. I had never wanted to teach, had no intention of doing that, it was my intention to just practice and deepen my experience of myself.” Then Hirschstein met her teacher: Amma. “I had been down on the guru-trip, but when I met her in New York, she just blew me away. She’s an amazing being.” Amma asked Hirschstein if she was going to teach. “It was funny, from that moment everything fell into place.”
At the time of meeting Amma, Hirschstein was essentially living a hermit’s life, living in a little cabin in the woods outside New Paltz with no running water, where she was in deep meditation and continuing her spiritual practice. Two weeks later she was in India. “I was praying for guidance, alone in my little cabin, when there was a knock on my door. It was a friend asking me what I was going to do that winter. She was going to Hawaii and wanted to go on to India. I always wanted to go to India, but was afraid to go myself, so she was to be my travel mate.”
After a few months of ashram and temple hopping to deepen her experiences, Hirschstein contracted typhus in Kerala State in Southern India. “I came close to dying there. It taught me a profound appreciation of life.” After 7 1/2 months she returned, weakened physically, but renewed spiritually. Returning to Kripalu she went into teacher-training in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which is a body/mind-centered therapy that bridged her sociology world. Her first real teaching experience began at the New Age Health Spa in Sullivan County, where she developed and ran a program of spiritual/meditative arts. “Then my teaching really began to blossom, with the mix of people in my classes, doing lectures and I met John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga (the science of body alignment and the art of self expression), and became certified in Anusara (she is the only certified Anusara teacher in the mid-Hudson Valley). A couple years later I opened Jai-Ma. It’s been 14 years this December. At first it was just friends, and then students, then more people came along interested in the teaching.”
Now Hirschstein is not only teaching Anusara to local seekers, but she has been teaching how to teach the practice. “It’s the most difficult and inclusive yoga training in the yoga world. It’s based on Tantric Yoga (there are two schools of yoga: Classic and Tantric), which is called the householder’s yoga because, unlike with Classic Yoga, which treats the body as a problem to be solved and is more about renunciation, an ascetic yoga, Tantric is of the world. It looks at life as a gift, at experience as a gift to be lived. The poses are celebrations, prayers, offerings, with every class having a theme, an intention. It is empowering in a heal thyself way.”
And Hirschstein knows from which she speaks. “I’ve injured myself over the years — it seemed like I was always injured at one time — and I learned how to heal myself. I stretch and engage at the same time. The body is not a prison, but a gift. We can use our bodies to put more harmony and beauty into the world.” Her mission as a yoga teacher is to undo much of what we as a 21st-century technological culture has done: “People are caught in flight-or-fight responses. This shifts energy in the body and creates anxiety, depression, infertility, back pain, digestive problems and any number of other ailments that are caused by the increasing amount of technology that we use. These stimulate our reptilian brain and pulls people out of themselves. I want to teach people to be grounded. To be strong, to not be pulled out of their zone.”
Hirschstein has also written a book of “108 Yoga Poses” available from Alpha Press and available at all bookstores around the area.
“I kind of feel I fell into it (teaching yoga), but I am happiest when I teach and I hope to do the same for others.” ++