Philly's first Wanderlust Festival highlights city's yoga boom

Meet three local yogis whose unique practices will be showcased this weekend.

By Jazmyn D. Burton
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 7 | Posted Sep. 4, 2013

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Strike a pose: Philly-based yoga teachers Mariel Freeman (left) and Alexandra Holmes will be conducting the first session at the Wanderlust yoga block party on Saturday.

Photo by Kyle Cassidy

When she’s not in class, Freeman works to sustain Shot Tower coffee on Fifth and Christian streets in Queen Village.  As co-owner of the coffee shop, she hopes to create a place where people can experience a sense of belonging, a comfort she believes is vital for the overall health and growth of Philadelphia.

“Coffee-shop culture connects neighbors and builds community; it builds connection. Yoga is also all about creating meaningful, sustainable connections,” she says.  “I’ve met a lot of people working in coffee shops that would probably not consider stepping one foot inside a yoga studio.  But yoga, the true yoga, is happening in the coffee shop all the time.  Yoga is not just asana.  Yoga is cultivating meaningful relationships and lasting connections. And that can happen on a mat or in front of a cup of coffee.”

The studio is already hot
with humidity left behind by the previous class as new students enter Dhyana Yoga’s Rittenhouse space, each rolling out their mats in preparation for an evening of flow with Alexandra Holmes. Holmes greets everyone with a smile, sweeping away stray strands of her asymmetrical pixie from her face. Philippine-born with Philly-girl swag, on the surface, she looks like a poster girl for American hipster chic. But underneath the trendy exterior is a woman who takes her yoga very seriously.

As class starts, the petite, powerful Holmes leads students through a rhythmic, dance-like yoga sequence, stopping frequently to realign and adjust students who need assistance achieving the posture, while never missing a beat.

For Holmes, yoga began as a way to cross-train while working toward her bachelor’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, but the practice soon became her passion.

“I was in college for dance and choreography, but my body always hurt. I came to yoga a little bit broken looking for a way to come out of pain,” she says.  “It was so refreshing to do something that didn’t require looking in the mirror trying to be perfect and instead turn inside as a way to heal.”

She approaches her classes with a down-to-earth, friendly style that can put even the most nervous student at ease. Influenced by her dance background, she likes to keep her yoga sessions flowing and has been known to soundtrack her classes with an eclectic mix of the  Beatles, Miguel, Angelique Kidjo and Led Zeppelin.

Her main concern is meeting her students where they are and giving them something to come back for. “I may occasionally throw in a little Jay Z,” she says, “just so there’s something for everyone.”

After a brief encounter with ovarian cancer in 2005, Holmes found a deeper meaning in her yoga that she continues to share with her students.  Although her illness prevented her from taking on some of yoga’s more challenging postures, she found comfort in the spiritual tenets of the philosophy. The ability to still her mind, become more aware of her body and work her way toward wellness became her focus.

“The practice is always evolving; there’s always something to learn or refine,” she says. “It helps me gain confidence yet stay humble, and it’s such a good way to manage stress. The practice takes time, but it’s worth it. Because you really do get what you give. ”

The humble Holmes says she’s not alone in her attempt to keep yoga an open and accessible practice in Philadelphia. She’s proud of our city’s yoga-friendliness and plans to continue working to keep it that way. “As a yoga community at large, I think we’re pretty down to earth,” she says. “There aren’t really any divas, and we try to keep it real instead of pretending to be something we think people who are into yoga should be.”

“You won’t find Simon,” says yoga teacher Malik Wilson, “unless Simon wants you to find him.”

For the last six years, Simon Park has been a bit of a mystery man, floating around the world, never staying in one place long enough for anyone to get used to seeing him. His mentor, Shiva Rea, calls him “The Flying Nomad.” In an online interview, she jokes with a bashful Park, who avoids looking directly into the camera, about how he seems to only be reachable telepathically. “The only way I can get Simon is by T-mail,” Rea teases.

Park definitely lives up to his nickname. He doesn’t care for social media. He uses e-mail only to stay connected with loved ones, and there’s no secretary in charge of his calendar. He’s a drifter, a memory, a wisp of fluidity and grace that only a few privileged souls have an opportunity to connect with.

One month he’s in D.C., and the next month he’s in Tulum, Mexico, followed by week-long stays all over Europe and Asia working to share his unique yoga style, which combines elements of Vinyasa, Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga methods with Thai massage and martial arts.

“I feel like I’ve been looping around the earth in a slick space suit like my man (Keith Richards) ... Catch me if you can as I drop into Atha Yoga, Zurich this weekend,” Park posted on his Facebook page back in late June. Since then, he’s been difficult to keep up with.

“I’ve always been naturally curious,” Park says. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ve been traveling since I was a kid.”

Born in the rural mountains of Kwangju, Korea, Park was raised surrounded by nature. Mountains and rivers were his playground until he moved to Philadelphia with his parents in 1978, where he learned to assimilate to American culture quickly. He even wanted a career in cultural anthropology.

Park reconnected with his Asian roots while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles. It was there where he met Rea, known in the yoga circles for her ethereal, soul stirring, dance-like technique. Something about Rea’s style struck a chord with him.  Meeting her “changed his life forever,” Park says, and propelled him into a deep study of both Iyengar and Ashtanga.

In 2011, Simon completed his first extensive European tour and returned to his native Korea to teach at the first Korea Yoga Conference. For Park, the experience was the “completion of a very long cycle.”   

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Comments 1 - 7 of 7
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1. Charlene said... on Sep 4, 2013 at 12:25PM

“Wonderful article, beautifully written. Makes me want to take a class for the first time.”

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2. Adrianne said... on Sep 4, 2013 at 08:49PM

“Great article! I didn't know much about yogo, but your article makes me want to look into available classes in my area. It sounds like a great way to release tension and frustration.”

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3. Alakee said... on Sep 5, 2013 at 07:07AM

“Great article so informative about Philly yoga and yoga as an art... I wanna go to the block party!”

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4. Jenny said... on Sep 6, 2013 at 07:28AM

“Alex Holmes is my favorite teacher in Philly. I can't say enough about her.. She incorporates joy and laughter into the toughest poses and just when u think u can't take anymore she somehow makes you laugh and she shows that yoga can and should be fun and playful. She pushes you appropriately and safely where a lot of other teachers might be scared to. Love her”

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5. Ann said... on Sep 7, 2013 at 12:54AM

“Brilliantly written. Had a light bulb moment while reading. Yoga is a way for me to purify my soul while strengthening my body. Thanks for the personal walks through lives positively guided by Yoga. Article reads like a good novel.”

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6. aleerose said... on Sep 11, 2013 at 08:59AM

“After reading about Wanderlust, and being a practicing yoga student, I decided to head over to the Piazza and check out this yoga block party. I walked in amidst a Down Dog and have never seen so many yoga-pantsed bodies in formation harmony. I joined right in. The sun beat down as we transitioned into Tree pose, and with our extended branches, reached and held on to our neighbors. The voice on the stage then instructed us to keep our support and lean forward for Warrior III. During those moments, there was a sense of community, of sweating palms meeting each other, all struggling to sustain poise in the heat. As I felt the body next to me tremble, I steadied my arm for her support; and when I began to shake, she did the same for me, as did my other neighbor. Slowly, we came out of the pose; a balanced city.”

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7. renclemente said... on Dec 9, 2013 at 06:26AM

“thanks for this very informative article. I got more information about yoga. love it!!
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