Rogue Yogi Real-Talk: Kolya Udalov, The Yoga Engineer

If you were a yoga teacher with a rare opportunity to travel the world, what would you do?

What cuisines would you try? What landmarks would you make a beeline for?

For me, it’s been nearly a year of doing just that. Gotta get as much done in as little time as possible. Must snap a pic and share. Not to mention all the yoga posed photographs I made my husband take for my Instagram.

The driven nature of “winning”, “achieving” — I didn’t know if that was a Western societal norm. All I knew was that the act of capturing my life as a yoga teacher and sharing it all over social media for the sake of growing my business “one day”…was beginning to feel very empty. And shallow. (More on that in a separate article.)

Here I am in this kick-ass opportunity to see the world as it is. To see people as they are. To hit the “reset” button, defrost out of Teacher mode and marinate in the juiciness of being a Student.

What’s so wonderful about Yoga is that there are a few systems that replicated themselves so well that you’d be hard-pressed to see a teacher doing anything different from the next one. You know you’ll start with a seated or lying meditation. You know that Sun Salutations come after that. Then, there’s the build-up to the peak poses. Then, the cool down.

If you’ve been a teacher for a few years, you can even predict what asanas (or “asans” for our OG yogis) are going to follow.

This is almost being on auto-pilot. And, as meditative as that can be, it’s also borderline dangerous.

Where does the mindfulness come into play when the “I already know that” mindset kicks in? If Yoga is about shaping the self, the consciousness, and becoming a more peaceful version of ourselves, what am I missing when I’m taking the same class format in multiple countries?

That question got answered the moment I entered Material Yoga in Moscow, Russia.

Because of the snowy weather, there were minimal patios and no overt signage for you to know what’s peeking behind that entrance door.

So, how do I find what yoga classes exist? Moscow is a huge city.

Thanks to Anastasia (you know, one of the bad-ass boss-lady founders of Shut Up & Yoga!) and the power of Facebook (because you know…many of us share our by-the-hour life updates in there), I was soon checking my email box for delightful gifts of suggestions.

After trying a few studios, I had 4 days left in Moscow. I still hadn’t tried out Material Yoga, and it was merely blocks away from my hostel.

With limited time and scheduling… and no real knowledge of what teacher was who, I randomly picked a class led by Kolya.

Like the other Moscow studios I checked out, Material was sleek, posh, gray and welcoming at the same time.

Racks and racks of coat hangers were filled with layers of coats, scarves, beanies, all towered over the snow boots.  You can imagine how it feels to unearth all those layers to decompress in the nice and toasty studio. There’s just something about the snowy weather outside that makes it so magical to take the first few steps onto the mat.

And, like all the other yoga studios I’ve visited outside of the US, I was ready to embrace the fact that I was not going to understand a damn word of instruction.

With 4 other students, I liked that this was going to be an intimate session. More attention from the teacher, more space to splay the props about, more cowbell.

As the group of us settled into our yoga space, a dude with a slicked back and short ponytail, thick earrings, and gray military-style relaxed yoga pants came walking in.

Man, Moscow locals have kick-ass style EVERYWHERE,” I thought to myself.

Kolya was about to start the class. But, instead of having us go right into Sun Salutations, he did something that I had never seen any yoga teacher do before:

He had us do dynamic movements. We didn’t stand in a fixed position. We warmed up our joints. Similar to the movements we would do in a high school PE class, but this concept was advanced at the same damn time.

Next came some of my favorite yoga asans, like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (the “stand on one leg but grab a yoga strap or your big toe or the other leg and lift it in front of you” pose), but we were moving our lifted leg into different axes. 

This was so f*cking wild to me. I could imagine a student devoted to the OG vinyasa flow questioning the practice, but if you were open-minded about how the body moves in all sorts of planes, you’d have your mind blown, too.

We worked with yoga blocks, yoga straps but also weighted balls for progressions towards handstands. It was like something BKS Iyengar would do if he lived in modern-day Moscow.

After class was over, all I could think about was, “How do I share this experience with other yoga teachers?”

Do you know what it’s like when an inspiring thought starts to rise up like clouds in the sky? There’s no linear direction or string of verbiage in moments like these.

So, I did what my spirit/intuition/naivety said to do. I said “Спасибо! (“Thank you!”) I want to film you for a yoga mini-documentary!”

With the Google Translate app, YouTube to show my previous interviews for Rogue Yogi Real-Talk, lots of hand gestures and gracious assistance from Material Yoga’s receptionist/translator extraordinaire, Kolya accepted my invitation to film him.

This is not a 4K video with any professional equipment, people. This is a lo-fi “what would MacGyver do” operation using my iPhone, yoga blocks, an old DSLR, and a lavalier. Many thanks to Varya M. and Nick V. for translating so Kolya and I could connect on Yoga.

Read below for the dialogue and see Kolya’s practice in the video at the end (with out-takes of course):

How did you get started with Yoga? What was your first experience like as a student?

When I started doing yoga, I began visiting yoga centers. I was amazed by yoga teachers’ kindness and willingness to share good and positive.

The teachers whom I met genuinely selflessly wanted to do something kind and good for everybody.

I liked that a lot and I decided that I wanted to be this way.

Where did you study yoga teaching? Who are your major yoga mentors?

I accomplished full course for yoga instructors of Prana yoga center. There I learned from Mikhail Galaev and Dmitry Demin.

In this center anatomy, philosophy, asanas building up are taught on an excellent level. It is a very complicated and solid course.

I consider Olga Lubomirskaya and Sergey Kuligin my major yoga mentors.

Along with this, I practiceв ashtanga vinyasa yoga with Sasha Smirkin, Iyengar yoga with Tanya Rozhkova, shiva-nata yoga and universal yoga.

What does the phrase yoga engineering mean to you? What started inspiring you to take an engineering approach to yoga?

There are two answers to this question. First is that yoga engineering is a joint project of me and my wife. In our first life, before we started doing yoga, we were engineers.

Fusion of these two passions, working as an engineer and as a yoga teacher, is the origin of yoga engineering project.

The second answer is associated with anatomy and injury prevention. I believe that asanas must be built up depending on the principles of biomechanics and physiologic anatomy.

Only after work on diarthroses (the joints) is done, we can move on to asanas.

Only with this approach asana becomes a safe activity that is done right, helps a person and does not cause harm.

Asana is my framework.

This is not only my approach. Paul Grilley talks about it as well and Sergey Kuligin holds similar views.

So, engineering approach to yoga helps build ourselves up to those we want to be, leaving injuries out. I believe these are the answers to your question.

Where do you see the direction of yoga going over the next 5-10 years?

I see that a lot of new yoga styles are being formed at present. Some of them will develop and grow and those styles might be the ones that deal with functional anatomy and biomechanics.

When we first came across and started doing classical Indian asanas 30-60 years ago, there were a lot of injuries.

The evolution of teaching methods goes on from the time when teachers first noticed that their students cannot keep up and injure their knees, backs and necks.

I think we need to develop yoga styles that prevent injuries, get rid of downsides and foster opportunities and advantages that yoga can give.

Apart from that, I believe that presently yoga is going through a fusion process of some sort.

Those who practiced yoga 10-15 years ago were always linked to Hinduism or involved in some other part of the eastern culture.

Now yoga can be used as a multipurpose framework for developing awareness and using it wherever you prefer, be it spiritual growth, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and so on or meditation practice without any religious affiliation.

I believe the future belongs to yoga as a multipurpose framework, however, there will always be developing yoga styles like beer yoga, surf yoga, slackline yoga and so on. I view them as very short-term projects.

For the rest of the interview, watch the documentary below!

Material Yoga (Yoga Studiya Material) is located at:
Ulitsa Bol’shaya Dmitrovka, 23, Moskva, Russia, 125009


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