Alex Sharry

March 4th, 2019

In the beginning, I called Alex Sharry “Ass Alex.” I initially used the shorthand to differentiate her from another yoga teacher named Alex at my studio. The nickname had nothing to do with Alex’s own ass — it didn’t refer to anyone’s anatomy in particular but to the actual word “ass,” which she said a lot. Alex used it instead of “butt” when she taught, as in: “Get into downward dog. Stick your ass out and lift your sitz bones up.” I continued to (privately) call her “Ass Alex” even after the modifier became unnecessary. The “Ass” came to serve as an asterisk, signaling something different and special about my favorite teacher.

When I met Alex, I felt self-conscious about my relationship to yoga. I was hyper-aware of the clichés I embody as a white twenty-something paying for pricey yoga in Brooklyn. Every time Alex tossed “ass” out into a hushed room full of reverential yogis, the word cut through air tense with expectation and punctured my sense of self-seriousness. Hearing “ass” dropped so casually plugged me back into my body when my mind wandered. Alex’s playfulness reminded me to allow some ease into my practice, to acknowledge doubt and frustration without succumbing wholly to them, even to giggle a little. In certain poses, she cued us to unclench our asses. Over time, I tried to follow her instruction both literally and more metaphorically: Loosen up.

Alex’s verbal tic inspired me to ask the questions about yoga, mindfulness, and community I’d been grappling with. Our conversation reflects the openness she embodies and the curiosity she encourages in her students.

Alex teaches at The Studio and Sky Ting Yoga in New York. Her practice is informed by Katonah Yoga theory (read more about it here), Chinese medicine, and Taoist philosophy.

Excerpts from our ongoing dialogue, conducted primarily by email, can be found below.

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How did you come to yoga? You’ve mentioned [in other conversations] that you came to New York to study journalism and that you were a gymnast when you were younger. Did yoga initially relate to either of these pursuits? Did you use the skills developed in those fields—critical thinking, discipline, etc.—as you deepened your practice?   

I spent the majority of my youth running around in leotards with massive amounts of gel in my hair to keep my pony tail intact.  I have to say, although I am so glad I didn't pursue gymnastics in adulthood, it truly gave me so much. For one, it dropped me into my body and gave me my physical coordination and an inherent strength and athleticism that I use a lot, but also when you're a competing athlete you learn psychological techniques to navigate pressure, stress, fear, failure, success, and physical pain that I still feel connected to today.  After gymnastics, I played sports...soccer and track.  I thrived in track and wound up getting a scholarship to run at a school in Lawrenceville, NJ called Rider.  

After about a year running at a D1 school, I realized I was only continuing to develop one piece of myself, the piece I already knew, the athlete, the physically adept, but there was a whole other world I knew I wanted to explore...I knew I was creative, that I loved words, and that there was a part of me in there that had a flair for performance and using my body and voice to connect with others, I just didn't know how.  I was dating a boy at Rider who was also on the track team and we had (dumbly) made our class schedules the same for the following semester. When we broke up, I didn't want to be in all the same classes so I jumped into a creative writing course that was for juniors and seniors (I was still a freshman). It was with this young teacher named Mickey Hess who I still occasionally keep in touch with today. That class changed my whole trajectory and introduced me to a whole group of people, writers, performers, poets.  I realized there was this other world in language where I could also thrive, so (long story short) I transferred to Eugene Lang's creative non-fiction program at The New School and spent the latter half of my college experience exploring journalism and creative non-fiction. I wanted to be a war journalist like Mailer, but tap into the vault of my deepest sadnesses like Didion. It was a really wacky and creative piece of my life where I got to adventure into my internal world, feel all the feelings, and have weekly writing inspired catharsis amongst other vulnerable youths.

I graduated from Lang in 2009 and there were no jobs in my field that would bring me any sort of financial stability.  My student loan bill was overdue, I needed a job, so I started working in advertising. My mom has worked in that field for majority of her life, I think this decision made her feel proud, however I was miserable.  I felt so trapped and I didn't understand the environment at all; I worked there for about nine months. There was a Crunch Gym by my work in midtown and I decided to join and take their classes. I did pilates, ballet, and then I found yoga.  There was this teacher there named Catherine who would dim the lights and play really great music - The Knife, Jose Gonzalez - it was then that I realized yoga doesn't have to just be weird and slow and boring! It could be fun and hip and cool.  A few months later I had researched some TT programs in my neighborhood and picked one at Jaya Yoga, which is in Park Slope and Kensington. I gave my notice at the advertising agency, and worked some odd jobs (babysitting, waitressing) while I embarked on my 200 hour training.  

Everything in my life came full circle at that point; being in my body physically, continuing to explore my psychology through ancient texts, theory, and movement, and using my voice, ability to articulate and create with language.  It's been a long journey getting from there to here, but I feel every single thing, even the job in advertising that taught me how to compose myself formally and professionally, led me to here.

Do you remember the first class you taught alone? How far away does that hour feel now?

Yes.  It was a Y7 class early on before they even had a space.  They were doing a pop-up right above the Roebling Tea Room (RIP) and I was the first teacher to teach.  I blacked out, like literally don't even remember anything, ended class in 35 minutes (was supposed to be an hour), and yeah...it was a disaster.  I always share that story in teacher training because that hour feels like yesterday. I am always so nervous before classes, workshops, etc. I care so much about what I do and I always want to give people the best of me.  It's why I get burnt out and exhausted so easily. That little tidbit just came to me while writing this, I hadn't really thought of it or articulated that before. [The] thing that constantly gives me solace and that I fall back on time and time again is theory.  Having good theory will always give you a landmark in class, no matter your mood, the day, the students in the room, the feeling or emotion, theory is a neutral source from which to pull guidance from, and it hasn't failed me yet!

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Your classes often use the physical as a means of accessing the emotional or psychological; you speak easily of the mind-body connection and make the work of yoga—the opening, revolving, and reaching—parallel to the work one can do and within oneself. Did that synthesis come immediately or easily? What was your evolution in terms of the physical-mental reciprocity of yoga?  

I've always felt pretty tapped into the mind and the body and have worked them both in harmony with one another my entire life.  I don't believe there to be any disconnect and it behooves us all to stop using yoga to "form the mind body connection" because that connection is already there.  Everything one does physically is informed by the psychology, and vice-versa.  Throughout my life, I didn't know how to articulate this, but I think I inherently knew it because when I was navigating the yoga world as a young teacher, I was searching for a way out of the fluff that is so prominent in this field.  True theory is so full bodied and dimensional because it's experiential and I believe that's what separates the teachers from the healers.  The teachers I have always been most drawn to are the ones who have so obviously proofed the material they're teaching in their own lives...to name a few, Abbie Galvin, Ally Bogard, Elena Brower, Dages Juvelier Keates, and Nevine Michaan.  Finding these women throughout the years has been the truest blessing of all.  The Katonah theory teachers us that the physiology informs the psychology; meaning, how we hold ourselves physically will inform the information tracking through our psychology.  That little nugget when I first heard it made my mind explode. It's everything I was looking for summarized in one short sentence. It makes this work so hopeful and puts the power to inform ourselves daily in our very own hands.  

Your practice seems deeply grounded in relationships of mentorship and partnership (I’m thinking of Abbie Galvin and Nevine [Michaan, founder and creator of Katonah Yoga theory]). How were those relations established? What has this structure and support brought to your life?  

I think this word is thrown around a lot and is losing its potency.  Having a mentor is one of the most important relationships you will ever have.  Abbie Galvin has been mine for the past five years and these five years have been the most transformative in my life.  I'm not crediting all this to her, but I do believe she helped me into womanhood and reminds me to rise into the realm of my vision, to keep an overview.  Hers is the voice I hear in big moments, she's kind of become the [jiminy] cricket on my shoulder when I need it most. The structure of our relationship is pretty unstructured actually.  We definitely don't keep formal boundaries or hide any pieces of our lives with one another because she's not my mentor in "how to be a yoga teacher," she's my mentor in "how to be a human being with a big world and abundant history" and in doing so, she has made me a more powerful teacher.  Without her, I don't know where I would be.

As someone who values mentorship, what does the road toward assuming the role of mentor look like to you? Can you envision yourself in an Abbie position in the near future?

To be a powerful mentor requires a lot I am still honing and understanding for myself.  Where I am now - in a way, dilating from my mentor, Abbie, to become one myself - has made me appreciate and admire her more than ever.  I feel such a sense of gratitude for all she’s taught and continues to teach me; it’s kind of like how they say we gain a deeper appreciation for our mothers when we become one ourselves.  Abbie and my relationship is so dynamic and layered and there’s been no field-guide for it, we just invest in each other, talk, collaborate, compromise, duke it out, connect, disconnect, and connect again.  I see now how much she shared herself with me because that level of sharing with others has proven to be a big personal challenge in this new chapter.  I think that’s because it’s demanding I see and use and rely on others in a way that puts me in the role of a leader and that really intimidates me...it’s so much safer in the shadow of my teacher.  But I know it’s my time (whether I like it or not), that I’ve been taught well, and that this is a new doorway that will lead to the next, and the next, and the next.

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At the same time, how do you balance being taught and being a teacher? Individual yoga students seem to look to their instructors for assurance and expertise, while yoga as a holistic experience seems to encourage constant questions and even the occasional discomfort that makes insight possible. How do you negotiate the spaces of authority and vulnerability?  

Every time I teach, I am teaching something I'm exploring.  So, every class is really vulnerable to me. Not vulnerable in the sense of I'm sitting there letting my heart bleed out on the floor, but vulnerable in that you're getting me, the whole me, when I teach.  The importance of having good theory is having a framework for which to navigate the personal. Within the words are personal insights and information I am constantly exposing and sharing with the room, however the boundary of the theory allows what my personal 'Alex Sharry experience' is to remain universal.  It's important to steep yourself in some good theory. Find it in novels, archetypes, the things that are bigger than you...bigger than being kind, bigger than being compassionate, bigger than being an empath. Using the epics makes your life epic and thus ignites the environment you're in. I don't feel like an authority when I'm teaching.  Personally, I love when the practice is a big communal conversation because that's the way I learned best when I was in school; through workshopping, discussing, chewing on a topic, debating, using it all. To say it like one of the bests, it's all copy.

It sounds like your deepest reverence is for teachers who don’t just “talk the talk” but “walk the walk” — who fully embody their practice. Do you feel like yoga has touched every aspect of your life? Are there certain areas that are still distant from your work on the mat?

Yes, but that’s because I don’t separate yoga-Alex and not-yoga-Alex.  I teach what I know and that’s how I know what I teach. It’s hardly the practice of poses and if I’m being honest, I only know a handful of poses and a few variations of sequences -- what I have is some really hearty theory.  When you sink your teeth into juicy theory its nectar spills on everything, whether you’re practicing, teaching, or creating it becomes about who you are as a person rather than who you are as a practitioner, educator, or artist.  It’s so much about the teaching, but it’s so much more about who they are and the most powerful ones (in my opinion), have a lot of different material they’re working with that’s filtered through their lives not just the way they instruct poses.

When I found Katonah Yoga, which has such an awesome theoretical foundation, my life changed because my references changed; I no longer only had myself, but a wider, broader, more universal lens to peek through.  Theory helps evolve you as a human being, and that’s when you become a more powerful teacher.

You’ve mentioned, I think in a past week or month of crazy busy-ness, that too much of a good thing can be bad. I inferred that you meant an overdose of yoga. Does the attentiveness to oneself become too much? Do you look elsewhere for answers that your practice may not give, or that you need addressed in another way?

Yeah, def.  I am always so nervous before classes, workshops, etc.  I care so much about what I do and I always want to give people the best of me.  It's why I used to get burnt out and exhausted so easily because it was before I had access to theory that gives so many personal insights to teach from.  Having good theory will always give you a landmark in class, no matter your mood, the day, the students in the room, the feeling or emotion, theory is a neutral source from which to pull a universal narrative, and it hasn't failed me yet. But some of my best hours spent away from yoga have been in yoga class as a student in the back or the corner of the room minding my own business. I get body work at Lanshin in Williamsburg (best body work with Ruth, acupuncture with Sandra), and I have private sessions with Ally Bogard who is a north star in my life.  

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How do you deal with skepticism? I’m thinking of the critical attitude we all contain — for you, what does that voice sound like re: yoga, spirituality, your practice? How do you respond to it?

The more I talk about skepticism with friends, the more I realize the voices don’t vary much…….I’m sure if I named a few of mine, you’d be able to relate and vice versa.  My inner critics can be so clandestine, so what I do is try my best to get ahead of them by understanding their patterns - when they show up, where and why. For example, I know when I’m overwhelmed and over-doing it in too many areas of my life, skepticism gets louder and starts to run the show.  In these moments, despite all my resistance I must be kind and generous to myself. This year has taught me a lot about my nervous system in that way. When I’m teaching I can feel when I’m working from a place that’s thin and scattered all around the room, totally invested in everyone’s reaction, understanding, and approval of my work, verses when I am teaching from my education, how I’ve proofed the material I work with in my life, when my words are a reflection of something at the core of my being, my bedrock.  I haven’t conquered my skepticism and in a way, I hope those voices always stick around in some capacity because I do find they lead me to a new place that aids in developing a deeper understanding of who I am, where I come from, and how I got here. Behind the snarkiness of skepticism there’s a real sweetness, because as much as we can doubt a thing reveals how much we long for it. I think our loudest critics ultimately want the best for us, we just have to watch that they don’t get the best of us.

Some days I feel uneasy walking into a yoga studio where everyone practicing (and teaching) looks pretty much like me (white, thin, able-bodied, kitted out in nice gear). I get anxious about the homogeneity I often find in the yoga world. Have you dealt with questions of diversity and access in your work? The tools yoga offers to individuals for problem-solving and care-taking are so powerful, I worry that these resources are not reaching as many people in need as possible. Do conversations about inclusivity and barriers to entry (social, financial, psychological) happen with your fellow teachers?

The privilege of our work is definitely discussed in my circle.  This practice we do is not only a financial luxury, but it’s a luxury to have the time to come and take class for 60/75/90 minutes.  I think in response to this there are several things happening, but we still have a long way to go. There are a ton of at-home practice websites with world-renowned teachers leading classes at varying lengths of time (15-90 minute sequences and meditations).  More-and-more you see donation-based classes throughout the city that accommodate different financial restrictions. But for sure...everything from the time, the cost of class, the clothing, is a luxury. What I tell all my students is ultimately we want to maintain the personal ritual of home practice, one that doesn’t require anything but a commitment to oneself.  This can survive a hectic week and thrive at 10 minutes, but ultimately grow to 60-90 minutes when time allows. My goal as a teacher is not to collect students or to keep my private students forever (in fact, I feel if that’s the case, I have somehow failed them). I ultimately want to teach people to become their own instructor, to feel comfortable, safe and informed enough in their poses to do them at home where they can wander their own interiors, alone, free of charge.  

Besides the obvious aha! moment of figuring out that yoga doesn’t have to be “weird and slow and boring” (which I believed for a long, long time too), what has changed in your approach to yoga over the years you’ve been committed to it? Did you start in one mode of thinking and change to another?  

When I first found yoga, I saw it as a great way to stay in shape, steady my anxieties, and cultivate a better understanding of my past. When I really found yoga I learned how to use my physiology to inform my psychology, to cultivate my stability, competency, and vision, and to open up my potential.  

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To what degree do you find yoga to be a force shaping your life? Is it a space you can step in and out of easily?

This is all for life, it's not for yoga.  Yoga is a great doorway in and it's a therapeutic practice in its nature, however we use the poses to give us greater insights about our life.  The classroom is a microcosm of your life out there. It's all part of the whole.

Are you surprised at the space you’ve carved out for yourself in the yoga world, given your origins in other fields? Or does this place and profession seem fitting, in retrospect? What keeps you excited about your practice, day to day and long-term?

I have no real explanation of how I got here.  It was tons of work, but also, these opportunities unfolded for me as though they were meant to be, as though in some way I was being guided toward them by a force.  I always just knew I'd know it when I found it, and trusted that enough that it overpowered fear and anxiety. I love what I do so much. I'm excited about the future.  I think things will only grow, but I really am here to play the long game. I'm still learning a lot about myself and doing a lot of work to connect to myself as a teacher.  As mentioned earlier, I still feel so scared and intimidated by what I do at times and I still seek so much encouragement from those around me that I'm doing good work. My next chapter is going to be a big one because it's going to be about uncovering, recovering, discovering the deepest and purest belief in myself.  I've got my work cut out for me.