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The Village Shala.

Want to know a little more about me? Here’s a throwback to my first ever magazine feature! The amazing Keri Cole wrote a beautiful article about YogaMari Vermont for Woodstock Magazine that was published last Spring. Enjoy!

Nikki VanVoorhis believes in the healing power of ashtanga yoga. At YogaMari Vermont, it is her mission to make that power accessible to everyone. 

A traditional ashtanga yoga shala seems an unlikely discovery amid a row of tidy antique capes on the main thoroughfare of Woodstock Village, but that’s one of the lovely things about Shire life – the unexpected. A minimalist haven with white oak floors, a sleek Jøtel stove, and expansive views of a private garden, the YogaMari Vermont studio certainly belies its humbler origins as two-stall horse barn from 1826. But perhaps the most surprising and delightful discovery at 77 Central Street is Nikki VanVoorhis, the charming founder who presides over the studio. Her approach to yoga is diligent but mirthful, and she welcomes all students with an irreverent sense of humor, a quick and contagious laugh, and a passion for making yoga accessible to students of every age, physical condition, and level of ability.

 

A Journey to Ashtanga

Meeting Nikki now, you might be tempted to think her one of the fortunate few for whom headstands, backbends, and feats of human flexibility have always been second nature. While she admits to having some natural aptitude for the practice, she brushes off that assumption with a laugh, “You would be amazed if you had seen me before I began my ashtanga practice.”

In her twenties, Nikki was diagnosed with a heart condition, Supraventricular Tachycardia, and a degenerative disease that causes her spinal discs to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Nikki’s first foray into the world of yoga came after her second heart surgery. “I was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks – a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was living in California, and it seemed natural to seek a more holistic healing approach – so I found a yoga class a block from my house.” Nikki dabbled in many varieties of yoga over the next several years, and she loved the deep relaxation she found in the practice. 

After moving back to Vermont in 2008, Nikki’s spinal problems worsened. Often unable to work, Nikki had to hide a key under her doormat so that friends could help her get out of bed in the mornings. Herniated discs in her cervical spine rendered her neck nearly immobile, and twice-weekly physical therapy had done little to improve her condition. “I was in horrible shape,” she recalls.

At the peak of Nikki’s physical challenges, Ashtanga yoga, as Nikki puts it, “fell into my lap.” She met Matt Tashjian, a longtime ashtanga practitioner and co-owner of the Miami Life Center, one of the nation’s premier ashtanga training facilities. Matt and Nikki began dating, and Nikki fell in love not only with the man, but also with the yoga. “I had been practicing different styles of vinyasa for years, but nothing ever resonated the way that ashtanga did for me – it was almost magical.” 

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Moved to Teach

In the beginning of her new ashtanga practice, many postures were impossible, and her progress was slow. The more she practiced, the stronger she became, and the health of her spine began to improve. She was eventually able to stop physical therapy and, through her practice, she regained full neck and back mobility. 

Once Nikki realized how drastically ashtanga had changed her body, she felt compelled to teach and share with others the amazing benefits she was experiencing in her own skin. “I never, ever thought that a headstand or a shoulder stand would be possible for me,” she says, “but now they are daily parts of my practice.” 

In 2015, Nikki traveled to Miami for a five-week ashtanga intensive at the Miami Life Center. She then completed the Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) 200 certification, a 200-hour training credential earned by qualified teachers through the Yoga Alliance, a certification that Nikki feels is important to teaching students safely. She opened YogaMari Vermont in 2016, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

What Makes Ashtanga Different? 

So what, exactly, is ashtanga yoga? Most simply, the practice of ashtanga consists of performing an unchanging series of postures, or asanas, that are linked by flowing movement (vinyasa) and deep breathing. The postures are arranged into sequences that increase in difficulty and benefit. Traditionally, students work closely with a teacher, and the teacher decides when each student is prepared to advance to the next posture or sequence. 

Ashtanga classes can be “led,” with a teacher verbally cueing each posture and breath. In more traditional settings, however, students learn the practice in a “Mysore-style” class, wherein each student is responsible for moving through the sequence of postures at her own pace, and the teacher is free to focus on students individually and ensure that each posture is mastered correctly and safely.

The YogaMari Philosophy 

YogaMari Vermont offers four weekly Mysore-style classes and one led class. Though some students initially find the self-direction of Mysore-style classes intimidating, Nikki is a firm believer in their efficacy, “The postures continue to unfold, and by paying attention to the details and nuances of each, you find that there is always more to learn and more progress to make. You never really master a posture; Mysore-style classes keep you on your toes and force you to take a deeper look at what you’re doing – not simply a cursory glance. No other yoga is like that.” Nikki pauses and laughs, “Sign me up for a good challenge!” 

The unchanging nature of the practice gives students the opportunity to thoroughly explore each posture and sequence. One might wonder whether repeating the same series of postures grows tiresome, but Nikki loves ashtanga precisely for its predictability. “The practice never changes, and I love things that are reliable,” says Nikki. “Students don’t have wonder what posture comes next, so they can relax and focus on their practice.” 

Through ashtanga, Nikki has been able to reclaim her physical health and embark on a new vocation. A true believer in the restorative healing power of ashtanga, Nikki is determined to bring that power to every body she can. Yoga can be intimidating, so she wants to ensure that YogaMari Vermont is just the opposite. “People need to know that no matter their body type, physical condition, or experience, yoga is accessible to them. It’s a misconception that yoga practitioners are all fit, flexible, and born to touch their toes – it’s just not true. You don’t need to be able to do any of that.”

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 Author Bio

A Woodstock aficionado, Keri Cole believes the Upper Valley is an ideal place to live, work, and thrive. With a Master’s degree in Theological Studies and doctoral work in South East Asian Buddhism, Keri currently works as a real estate agent with the Williamson Group Sotheby’s, and serves on Woodstock’s Village Development Review Board and the Town Planning Commission. Keri, her husband Ben, their daughter Vivian, and son Cyrus have lived in the village of Woodstock with their Norwegian Forest Cat Snorri since 2010.

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