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Meet Elia Nikolaev of Therapeutic Vinyasa Yoga in Encinitas

Today we’d like to introduce you to Elia Nikolaev.

Elia, before we jump into specific questions about your work, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
My first induction into a more reflective relationship to my life was through the required intro philosophy and psychology classes that I took concurrently at a junior college when I was about 20 years old. I didn’t know this at the time but, both of those subjects put a spotlight on the fact that there were forces in my life that influenced the way that my mind worked.

It was the first time that I found out that I could have a more hands-on approach to the person I was becoming. Philosophy gave me the impression that there is a way to adjust the dials of my mental life that would render a more satisfying experience. Studying psychology at the same time, gave me even more confidence about what I was learning in philosophy, because it was an empirical and scientific confirmation, that what philosophy taught could actually be manifested.

It was around the same time that my mother suggested I read the iconic “Autobiography of a Yogi” (AY). It took me a while to open the book and stick with it, but it wasn’t until I was about 22 that I became more intrigued about its story. It is essentially a story of what the path of Yoga entails, and the potential it carries to take control of and enhance one’s life. This intrigue was no doubt fueled by the uncertainty and anxiety that was becoming more prevalent in my life. The message in the AY included the relevance of how optimizing one’s health through the practice of yoga and diet, are necessary ingredients in the attainment of the true and sustainable joy that accompanies an expansion of awareness, the classical term for which is “Enlightenment”.

This prompted my preliminary and unguided attempts at meditation, and eventually ushered me into my first official yoga class when I was 24, having attempted some poses occasionally for six months prior to that. Even though I was stiff, sweaty, and miserable during that first class, the emotional elation that I was overcome by after getting up from Savasana sealed my fate. I did not skip a single day of practice for the next 365days.

A year to the day after starting yoga, I was awakened by a police raid in my home, due to one of my family member’s involvement in some illegal matters. The imprisonment that ensued after this event, and the removal of financial support I was receiving at home, left me with the obligation to look for work and abandon the college courses I was taking. Fortunately for me, the studio that I spent every day of the preceding year, The Yoga Room, offered me employment upon the discovery of my circumstance. This was a no-brainer for me because it would allow me to continue the yoga practice that had done so much for me personally, as well as earn an income.

I began the course of my first teacher training only a couple of weeks after starting my job there. I started teaching only about six months into my teacher apprenticeship. My love for Yoga was easy to translate to the presentation that I was being taught to hone in as an aspiring teacher. I was fortunate to have passionate teachers and mentors in the beginning, and ever since. It wasn’t long into being given the responsibility to teach that I was made aware of how important subjects like anatomy and physiology are in the safeguarding of students’ health. This realization sparked a thirst for the relevant information. Naturally, the subject of Yoga Therapy appeared on my radar, and I hit the books and began to seek out teachers and training that unveiled this daunting topic.

This led to my first sojourn to India in 2010, to take a course on the principles of yoga therapy in the tradition of Bishnu Ghosh. It was a complete live-in study program at the Bhishnu Ghosh Yoga College in Calcutta. This was a cultural and educational immersion all in one. It was a very instrumental experience that not only enveloped my mind into the technical details of the subject but into the very heart of its origin. To be able to see the land and society, taste the authenticity of the food, feel the spiritual devotion that has permeated the very sidewalks, and even smell that scent that anyone who’s been to India knows too well, gave me an insight into the historical and cultural context of India, that would prove to be so invaluable in the coming years. I understood the value and became all the more thirsty, for a more scientific understanding of the science of movement.

Even prior to this trip I became fascinated with the work and research of the world-renown Roger Cole, PhD, that just happened to be based here in San Diego. I studied with him after my return and was introduced by him to another Senior Iyengar teacher in Encinitas, Carolyn Belko. During this time I also met a physical therapist in one of Aadil Phalkhivala’s workshops, who graciously allowed me to apprentice with her, in shadowing her treatment of live patients and attend her training. It was a full opportunity to see the approach to Yoga from the standpoint of Western science.

My tutelage under Carolyn Belko culminated in my second expedition to India in 2013. This time it was my absolutely overwhelming intrigue with the late BKS Iyengar and the body of work his 70+ years of teaching and practice had distilled, that propelled me to commit the next eight months of my life. I lived in Pune, right next to the institute he established in the1970’s and made it my mission to inhale, every bit of information he, teachers at his institute, and the mountain of literature his library contained. It was once again an experience of enrichment that I could have never expected. The Iyengar method is by far the most anatomically and mechanically nuanced approach to Yoga practice of all the main styles in existence. It has a well-established Yoga Therapy component that still informs a big part of the integrative methodology that I use in my work.

When I returned home, my thirst for more information presented me with yet another opportunity to learn from Richard Freeman, whose work I was introduced to about a year prior to my second India trip. He was a student of the father of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Pattabhi Jois for most of his life. He possessed a profound grasp of Yoga that has been influenced by his study, of not only the Indian traditions, but his immersion in Buddhism, and a degree in philosophy. His ability to cross-reference the principles expounded in Yogic texts, with those of Buddhism, Western/Occidental philosophy, and overlay its symbolism to the physical and physiological network of the human body, was so clear it was intoxicating.

The depth and relevance of the way Richard presented Yoga was more influential to my own relationship to both the practice, and teaching than any teacher I have had the priveledge to sit with to this day. I believe he is one of the very few teachers that virtually hypnotises students with incisive descriptions of the embodied experience that we all undergo in the course of a Yoga practice, not to mention the ability to tie in the way those details of his descriptions represent aspects of ourselves in our own lives, as if a microcosm of our own personality and psychology.

So from there, in 2014 I went onto a two-year Yoga Therapy training headed by Larry Payne, Ph.D. at Loyola Marymount University. This included a clinical internship that was supervised by the great Lori Rubenstein Fazio, DPT. The program’s curriculum was mainly influenced by the Yoga Therapy methodology conceived by the late T.K.V Desikachar. One of the most poignant aspects of this method is the inclusion of a person’s entire lifestyle, into the treatment protocol of an individual.

In the course of working with my first physical therapy mentor around 2012, I became captivated by the application of a Yoga Wall approach, which was founded by BKS Iyengar. I have since used it with clients, in public classes, and even conducted trainings with my teaching partner Alison Mclean, DPT to educate teachers on how to use and teach with it.

I currently teach and help treat clients that either has a health concern or require a deeper understanding of their own personal yoga practice. I have recently had my website redesigned and launched with online video, audio, and literary content.

Dr. Alison Mclean and I have also designed a training for Yoga teachers who are seeking more education in how Yoga is used as a therapy for various musculoskeletal and physiological pathologies. We have been fortunate to be invited abroad to teach internationally this past year, and are planning to introduce this to many more studios and schools throughout the world.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
As one of my earliest teachers would always remark to students during class, “smooth seas don’t make good sailors”.

It definitely hasn’t been a smooth road to trek, nor do I regret this, in hindsight!

One of these struggles that were instrumental in forming the person I am today, was the personal insecurity I had to deal with in the discovery that what I learned in my Yoga training was insufficient to keep certain students safe. The students who had an injury or some physical dysfunction required way more specialized and trained attention than I had the ability to provide. This was all the more unsettling because I was technically certified to have the very skills that I was now discovering I didn’t have. It was as if I had no idea what was at stake until the students themselves showed me my inadequacies with their own physical challenges and questions.

The weight of the realisation that someone could, at minimum not be benefited, or even hurt, because I did not have the knowledge to provide them with the safety that they entrusted me with, was too much to bear. But, the pungency of this insecurity was what I actually needed to be interested in learning more. That is what influenced the trajectory of my life from there onward. Without it, I doubt I would’ve gone in the direction that has enriched my own relationship to my body, and help others with the same.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I teach Yoga and Yoga Therapy. Yoga therapy is basically a more specialized application of yoga to the specific needs of any individual. It is essentially more specialization of Anatomy, Movement, Breathing, and cognitive refining practices like Meditation.

As far as what I hear students say to me or about me, it seems that I am known for my detail orientation when it comes to communicating how to relate to the complexity of the body better, and derive the most benefit from Yoga.

As an individual that takes pleasure in watching people improve their health and start to feel better, I am so lucky to make a living from providing value to them, in one of the most important domains of their life. I cannot agree more with the philosophy that health is true wealth.

As for being proud goes, I can’t really even say that pride is a feeling that emerges in reflecting on what I’ve been able to actualize in life, because the feeling of sheer luck to have found myself at the right time and place, as well as to have had the people around me that I did, is too strong to ignore. I don’t mean to say that pride is bad, or that I don’t take pleasure in its ambiance when it does take the reigns. I know that it is definitely a feeling that has its place, even if just developmentally as children, we suffer if our parents don’t express that they’re proud of us when we’ve genuinely earned it. But as far as accounting for the incalculable small and big events that all had a role to play in carving out the place I currently occupy professionally, and personally, I see that I had very little to do with it. For me, it’s not dissimilar from how organisms generally evolve.

Most of the evolutionary change that organisms undergo is driven by the pressures that their environment placed on them. So in the same way that our bodies have adapted to the climate that has been surrounding us for so long, I feel that I was simply adapting and adjusting to the physical, social, psychological, political, etc… changes in the environment around me. I can take no more credit for the existential exasperation of my early twenties, than for my mother decided to give me the Autobiography that was the launchpad for my interest in Yoga. To take pride in that would imply that I played a role in those environmental factors.

I can’t really speak for others but, I can say is that everything I teach and preach as far as Health and Wellness that the practice of Yoga packages together, I’ve adhered to daily for most of my career. I was fortunate to have learned from some of the most talented teachers of Yoga, as well as of Western medicine. I have invested years and tears into studying what makes human bodies move better, feel better, and how the dynamics of our cognitive life intersect with our physical life. The application of Yoga I adhere to is not only an integration of different Yoga methodologies but of the entirety of how every day is spent.

The proportion of our regular daily activities, from our sleep, diet, the thoughts we indulge in, to the way we spend our free time, all have a huge role to play in the improvement, or impoverishment, of our quality of life. I utilize all of these aspects of someone’s life in the effort to help them overcome their struggles. This is one of the most powerful ways to effect change. It revivify’s the notion that Yoga is so much more than what we do while on the yoga mat.

What were you like growing up?
Well, I was always enthusiastic about being outside. Having the good fortune to have had emotionally supportive parents & grandparents, I was a jovial kid that never really experienced shyness or self-consciousness, until we moved to the US from Russia. I was eight years old at the time, and my vocabulary didn’t extend beyond the words “yes” and “no”. Kids being what they are at that age, did not pass on the opportunity to tease me about my recently immigrated characteristics. As the years went on, well after I became fluent in English, the teasing lessened but didn’t go away completely. This was the genesis of my self-consciousness. The feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and self-doubt took root over these years. I also grew up in a household where we didn’t have much money, and the negative feelings about myself were all the more strengthened by the fact that I didn’t have the nicer trendy clothes that would’ve helped me fit in.

My appreciation for being outside was undeterred though. From roller blades, bikes, and skateboards, to snowboarding. Surfing was my first passion true passion though. It was preceded by a youth spent on bodyboards at the beach, as frequently as my friends and I could beg out rides to the beach from one of our parents. From the first time I discovered the feeling of riding a wave on anything, it captivated me completely. Even when I was in Russia, being in the water, swimming, and diving was not rare. I started surfing when I was 13 and it was the first time I really got to meet myself. It’s weird to say it, but it was as if my personality crystallized and came into focus. Surfing gave me an identity, and not a bad one, at least socially.

As any surfer would agree, the lifestyle comes with the fun trappings of a laid back and lively culture. Parties, girls, cool friends, trips, and good music just seemed to be part and parcel of being a surfer in high school. So my identity became shaped by this atmosphere. Surfing in itself, I feel is so unlike any other sport or activity. I really believe that the inherent psychedelic nature of being in the ocean, essentially immersed in a giant organism, and catching these transitory liquid manifestations of energy, never have existed before, nor after, and the inherently intimidating and eminent immensity of something that is not to be taken lightly in its natural danger. I really feel that this was a critical reason for my appreciation for Yoga.

There is definitely an undertone of spirituality or mysticism in surfing. Every surfer that I’ve ever known or met personally, and heard of, is a deep lover of the ocean and its infinite beauty and environmental value. I’ve seen that it is definitely the case that a giant portion of pro surfers do Yoga. So there is definitely some priming that surfing helped me that allowed Yoga to flood in as well. The pure physicality of the sport has imprinted an appreciation for being active in me. It is still my love and passion and is one of the main reasons that I want to work hard and be able to provide myself with a home in a semi-remote surf haven.

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Image Credit:
Teresa Conahan Decking (Soul of Photography)

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