Yoga Instructor Bends Over Backwards to Make the World a Better Place
In the fitness mecca of Santa Monica, yoga studios abound. Some are members-only expensive and some are yoga-for-all donation based. Some are Lululemon-clad trendy and some are more sweat pants-based casual. While certain types of yoga practitioners can be militant and focused on toning the body, others meditate on the mind-body connection. In Ally Hamilton's pocket of the Santa Monica yoga universe, her new studio has a shtick-less philosophy; to her, it's all about family.
Ally Hamilton and her husband, Dorian Cheah, founded Yogis Anonymous in September 2009. YA is a donation-based power yoga sanctuary on Second Street between Arizona Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. Hamilton previously taught at Bryan Kest's Power Yoga, located two blocks away. She opened her own studio when her classes at Kest's began topping 100 people per class and she knew she had gained a following. With her husband by her side, she brought a new vision to life.
September was a busy month for Hamilton. Not only was she giving birth to her own yoga studio, but she also welcomed a baby girl just weeks before the grand opening. "I was having contractions while telling contractors to tear down walls. I had to have it done before going to the hospital!" says Hamilton.
Hamilton continued practicing yoga while pregnant with her daughter, Devyn Hamilton Cheah and in fact used to teach a "Mommy and Me" course at Kest's Second Street studio. Hamilton recalls a time when she was pregnant with her first-born son Dylan. "When I was first pregnant," says Hamilton, "I had this moment on my mat when I thought, ‘I need to be careful; there's someone in here counting on me.' And about a second later I thought, ‘Um...there's always been a person in here counting on me…me.' It was really a light bulb moment."
Hamilton grew up dancing near New York City and was always looking for something that would challenge her physically and mentally. After she quit dancing she tried several different exercise regimens offered at her gym. Yoga was the last thing on her mind. Months went by and she was not satisfied with the gym, so after several suggestions from her friends she finally went to her first yoga class. Hamilton immediately took to it and soon began practicing six days a week.
"It's challenging for the mind to really know and feel every part of your body, which makes you work harder," Hamilton says of her deep passion for yoga. She taught her first class after one of her instructors didn't show up, and the rest is history.
When asked what her favorite pose is, Hamilton pauses. "I don't think I have a ‘favorite' pose, but one I have an interesting relationship with is kapotasana ("king pigeon," where the belly reaches toward the sky, the gluteus maximus is lifted from the ground and the head and hands meet on the floor). Hamilton says that she loves the pose because it is "heart-opening" and encourages "total surrender," which Hamilton agrees sounds "kind of like marriage and motherhood."
The YA studio has helped Hamilton continue to recreate her ideas about the meaning of family. "It's been incredibly gratifying and exciting to open this studio with Dorian. We've never worked this way together, and it's teaching us a lot about each other and definitely deepening and expanding our relationship." In a way, the studio is like another child for Hamilton and Cheah. "It's a labor of love, and something we are both tending to, every moment of every day, just like our family," says Hamilton.
With over 20 permanent and visiting teachers at YA, yoga is practiced at all levels. Playful names accompany the classes, such as "Hurts So Good," "Good Cop/Bad Cop," and "Yoga for Ninjas." Although YA is a one-room studio, the space fits about 65 people at once. Each instructor pays rent for the space they use every month.
At the end of each class, yoga students make their way to a wooden box that has a sign suggesting a $14 donation. Hamilton encourages people to "give what you can" and in true yogi nature, Hamilton bases her income on an honor system and the idea that no one should be denied the chance to practice yoga.
"I believe anyone and everyone can benefit from the practice of yoga," says Hamilton. She has been working with a client for six years who initially seemed to be a lost cause. He had been a smoker for 20 years, had emphysema, asthma, a titanium femur and went through open heart surgery only to be given a valve replacement from a pig. "I have to admit," says Hamilton, "I thought ‘what can I possibly do for this guy?'" Six years later, however, her answer came in the form of the 76-year-old student who experiences respiratory relief and spends time gardening in his backyard when he's not practicing yoga.
Hamilton believes that yoga practitioners must be dedicated to a community-wide lifestyle. She plans benefit events at YA as a way of giving back to global and local organizations. She is presently hosting an ongoing series with Yoga Gives Back, an organization that provides loans to poor families in India. "Doing something to help affect change is a matter of honesty and integrity," says Hamilton.
YA thrives from its devoted practitioners. Most are locals, but some drive all the way from Orange County, Glendale and beyond to take classes at Hamilton's studio. Anthony Harmon, a student at UC Irvine just discovered Yogis Anonymous a little over two months ago and is hooked. He makes the drive to Santa Monica at least twice a week and says it is well worth it. "I've taken three different types of classes and want to try them all," says Harmon. "I usually pay more than the suggested amount, depending on how much gas I have left in my tank."
Hamilton stresses that yoga is more than a workout routine; it is a way of life. "However," she says, "I am not worried if someone comes to class simply because they want a strong, beautiful body and radiant health. I am confident that the other benefits will seep in over time."