Alka Kaminer is a certified yoga teacher specializing in Chair Yoga as developed by Lakshmi Voelker. Alka is also a certified meditation and Reiki energy instructor. She co-founded Present Wisdom Yoga in Armonk, New York, with her husband, Brian. They live in Westchester County, New York, with their three sons.
Q. How were you introduced to meditation?
A. My family emigrated to the United States from India, when I was a young girl. The change—in culture, religion, language—was a huge shock. By the time I was 10 years old, I was regularly having nightmares, panic attacks, and anxiety. My parents took me to see their guru, who was based in Queens, New York. He was a wise, gentle soul who told me, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” It made me feel important that he would confide in me. He said, “It’s the name of God.” He whispered in my ear the words “So hum,” which in Sanskrit means the ultimate, true reality. He told me, “Every time you inhale, say ‘So.’ Every time you exhale, say ‘hum.’ Anytime you feel scared or nervous, this is what I want you to do.” And it worked! It helped me through those anxious moments; little did I know he was setting the foundation of pranayama breath practice, and mantra-based meditation.
Q. How did that evolve into an interest in yoga?
A. By the time I was 30, I was married with children. I realized that I wasn’t able to keep my anxiety and stress at bay anymore, just using mantra meditation. I had done yoga as a teen, and my father did yoga every morning. I found a local studio that taught Anusara yoga. It really resonated with me. I grew up with the traditional Hindu Vedanta philosophy. It was a huge, powerful foundation, but didn’t make as much sense in the Western world. As an American homemaker, a wife, and a mother, Anusara provided better balance for me.
Q. What led to that early practice translating into becoming a teacher?
A. I practiced at a wonderful studio in my town. I did more and more classes, in what we called an immersion program. Come to find out, it was the beginning of teacher training, so I committed to it fully. During the second half of the 200-hour training, the instructor asked, “What is your intention for this training?” I said, “For personal development.” The teacher told me, “You know Alka, you’re gifted. Keep yourself open to the signs of the universe, because you’d be an amazing teacher.” I looked at her like she had ten heads and thought, “Me? A teacher? No way.” That night I went to dinner with a friend, and I told her what I was doing. She said, “Teacher training? Will you teach me?” I said, “Uh, absolutely.” The next day, another friend had the same reaction on the phone. And then a third friend, the day after. I quickly had a readymade group of students. Over time, my teaching practice grew to the point where my husband and I founded our own studio, Present Wisdom Yoga. Now I not only teach my own classes, I empower a community of other teachers and dedicated students!
Q. How do you get from teacher training in Anusara to the adaptive yoga that you often teach now?
A. One of the basic goals that led me to do the 200-hour teacher training, was to teach my parents, who were 74 at the time. I knew they had slowed down and I thought I could help them stay fit. The weekend after I got my certification, I went over to their house with all my props. I laid out mats and said, “Alright, let’s go! Get down on the floor. We’re going to do some breathing and gentle workouts.” They looked at me like I was nuts. “No, no, no. Pacemaker. Bad knees. Are you kidding? If we get on the floor we can’t get up. That’s not going to work for us.” It really threw me. I thought, “I did all this training to help you stay healthy.” It should have been so obvious. People, 75, 85 … they often can’t get on the floor. It just so happened that my husband and I had scheduled a yoga retreat to the Kripalu center in the Berkshires. All weekend, I kept thinking, “What do I do? I need to find an answer so that I can help my parents.” At one point, I went for a walk through the large central building, just to think. I came to a window that overlooked a beautiful lake. After staring out the window for awhile, I turned to go back and saw a huge poster on the wall of a woman sitting in a chair. She was glowing and joyful. I thought, “Wow, she’s so happy. I wonder who she is?” The caption on the poster read, “Lakshmi Voelker, Founder of Chair Yoga.” I thought, “Oh my god, that’s my answer. If you can’t get on the floor, you can do yoga in a chair.” I Googled her right then. She had a training session scheduled for three months later in New York, and I signed up for it. That training changed my life. I realized that yoga really is for everyone. You can do it basically anywhere. That’s been my focus and philosophy ever since. My chair yoga classes are attended mainly by people 65 and older. My oldest client to date is 98. I’ve had students with arthritis, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, lupus, fibromyalgia. It doesn’t stop us. I teach all of them how to enjoy the benefits of yoga.
Q. Where did Reiki come into your career?
A. When my kids were little and would get sick, I always wanted an alternative method of healing. Western medicine so often seemed drastic and overmedicated. So my husband and I both trained in Reiki healing, and I went on to become fully certified. It’s an extension of my own natural awareness. Ever since I was young, I’ve been able to walk into a room and know if there’s anger, frustration, angst. So it’s really served me in that way. Reiki is a Japanese healing technique where you connect with a universal healing energy. You bring it into the body and channel it out through your hands, sensing where the blockages are and inviting the energy to release and the body to heal. I usually use it for group healing and distance healing. I have people come to me and say, “I’m going in for surgery. Can you send me healing energy?” So I’ll do that. But it also helps me in my yoga classes. I can read a room, even on screen. I can see what’s happening with individual students, through their body language and energy. Especially if they are regulars.
Q. Do you have an overarching philosophy that bridges your meditation, yoga, and energy practices?
A. If I can serve just one person, I’ve served the world. I truly believe that. To me, it’s the pebble effect. Drop a pebble in a pond and the ripples go out and out until they touch the far shore. You don’t necessarily see all the ripples you create, but they are there. I’ve taught in gyms with fifty students, and one person will come up to me afterwards and say, “Wow, you’ve changed my life!” That means the world to me, and it reminds me to individualize the teaching even in a large class.
Q. How difficult has it been to adapt to Covid, and remote teaching?
A. What many of my students have missed is that lack of community and connection. I try to establish those onscreen, with everyone seeing familiar faces. I give students a few minutes at the start of each class to give a shout out to friends. That’s been important. It makes people happy. From an instruction standpoint, the biggest challenge has been not being able to see students’ full bodies. Sometimes, it’s just their heads. Sometimes it’s the ceiling. Sometimes it’s nothing because they’ve left the video off. I have learned to get a sense of what movement is appropriate and to ask how people are feeling with different poses. I communicate a lot more than I did even in person, just to make sure my older students are safe and not doing poses incorrectly. With smaller classes, I ask students to align the camera so that I can see as much of them as possible. That’s the benefit of my regular Hatha classes; they are small and intimate.
Q. What does “heal” mean to you?
A. Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to unite.” To heal, you have to unite the body, mind, and spirit in concert with one another. Health cannot be sustained by focusing on just one of those aspects. I strive to provide an experience of union and healing through physical movement, meditation, and connection to our deeper selves. It’s not just about what you do on the chair or on the mat. It what you take with you, what you do beyond the yoga or the meditation. Many of my students share that throughout the day they hear my voice in their head saying, “Take a breath, lower the shoulders, and honor where you are right now.” To me, that’s gold, because they are taking the teaching off the mat, holding it in body, mind, and spirit—living in union.
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