Teacher: Anna Sitzmann

Anna trained in Hatha and Vinyasa yoga at Yoga East+West in Ubud, Bali. She aims to help students connect more deeply with their spiritual nature by experiencing the full depth of bodily awareness. She treats each asana as a meditation on sensation, and each practice as a dedicated time to explore the whole person, including the parts of us that we habitually avoid. Anna draws on movements from ballet, contemporary dance, and Somatic Experiencing to create playful, mindful sequences guided by music. She builds heat with longer holds, and she emphasizes proper alignment to balance physical safety and challenge. Her personal practice is rooted in Buddhist and tantric meditation techniques, human anatomy, and the fundamentals of nervous system regulation. She has a PhD in philosophy and taught at the undergraduate level for ten years before transitioning to work in the mental health field.

Question & Answers with Anna

When and why did you start practicing yoga?

After a serious car accident in 2013. I was in my first year of graduate school, 23 years old and I found out a few months later that I had cervical spine injuries – herniated disks. My preferred form of exercises – running and crossfit – were no longer available for me. I had several months where I could hardly walk. Eventually, I wanted to get back into moving my body so I started going to yoga classes. I went to this tiny studio with the same 8 women in every class. And I just loved it. Yoga gave me a much deeper connection with my body that I had ever had. It was a lot more than exercise.

Tell me about how your yoga journey evolved after that.

I moved from New York to Pittsburg so finding a new studio and being exposed to different teachers was eye-opening. I tried finding a studio where yoga wasn’t treated as a fitness class and found this great place with some really incredible teachers. I think that my relationship to yoga was pretty stable for about six years. Then it shifted. After the death of one of my siblings, I was diagnosed with a trauma disorder. I was having severe autoimmune dysfunction and Western medical intervention wasn’t working. I was on steroids, I was on all these things you shouldn’t be on when you’re 29, so I started trauma treatment. Yoga is an evidence-based therapy for PTSD. So it is a somatic experience rooted in meditating on physical sensation and feeling safe receiving messages from your body and allowing things to move in your body. So that process was about reconnecting with my body and developing anew relationship with it. Yoga was a really crucial part of that, a moment by moment way of relating to your body. The other component is I did my doctoral work in ancient philosophy and over time I’ve become more and more interested in Eastern philosophy. In Western philosophy, it’s an intellectual tradition. The philosophical tradition behind yoga is truly different from any kind of paradigm of Western philosophical thinking – [in Yoga philosophy,] there are certain, specific techniques that give relief to that and there are concrete practices that you can commit yourself to attain some kind of spiritual depth in your life. It’s not something you have to just strive for intellectually, with your mind.

What brought you to your Yoga Teacher Training and what was it like?

I was interested in the intersection of philosophy and everything I had been learning about the body. I was specifically interested in teaching yoga for people that were suffering from the concrete, physical fall-out of trauma disorders. I know what it takes to move out of it and through it, how much of a grind that can be but also how deep it is. I was interested in yoga in the mental health, trauma-recovery setting. I trained at Yoga East West in Ubud, Bali this Spring. The thing that stuck out to me most about my training were the teachers. I had an opportunity to learn yoga from people who had grownup in Southeast Asia. Seeing it fully integrated in the minds of people who were raised with and know the Vedas from memory, or can recite the Bhagavad Gita was really powerful to me. Yoga is part of their life and culture and this brought a lot of nuance to my understanding of how body and spirit were related in yoga. I got to hear profound insights from people that weren’t selling a lifestyle, but were trying to protect a tradition. And begging the students to protect it too. It felt very high-stakes. Coming back home, I have been in the process of noticing what things about yoga are additions to that (that’s not with judgment, it’s just seeing what yoga is in the United States). I have been able to work in a few different environments. One, teaching college students because my background is as a college professor. Two, doing pop-up classes at local businesses. Three, working with teaching mindfulness and meditation skills in a clinical, mental health setting. Very different responses from people depending on what kind of relationship they have to their body.

What does your personal practice look like?

It’s deeply ingrained at this point. I try to follow the ‘always be meditating’ way of life – to been gaging in meditative practices when you’re walking and sitting and talking to somebody. And what I call wordless watching which is where you try to observe things without the interference of any language. So if words come into your head, you tell them that you’re doing something different. I have a sadhana, a daily practice that I do by myself. It’s different everyday. One thing that came about through my yoga teacher training was that there’s a lot of talk about the concept oftapas and the relationship between physical heat and spiritual heat. Trying to bring myself to a place that’s uncomfortable – not unhealthy – and sitting in that. Seeing what happens and knowing that my body is a big enough container for anything difficult that might arise.

Do you have a favorite teacher?

Yeah! Somebody I still work with from my teacher training is Alyona Skvortsova. She’s Ukrainian and trained in India and is still constantly returning there. She studied in monasteries in Tibet, is a former dancer and a doctor as well. The combination of life experience she has makes her, to me, the most perfect teacher. Her knowledge of human anatomy is incredible. Her spiritual depth is incredible. I love working with her.

Favorite pose?

Warrior Two. Open. Powerful. Either that or Goddess. Both of those standing postures where you get to be low in your hips and it makes me feel grounded and powerful.

What does community mean to you?

I feel like every human being would say this but community is very important to me. To me, it’s a sense of being known and cared for by people you might not really know. There is emotional pain and physical challenge that surfaces in the course of a yoga practice. You suffer together. That connects people. Ideally, it’s the opportunity to connect with people on a deep level without a bunch of words.

Do you have one moment where it all clicked and turned you on to the yoga you do now?

There was a clear moment in my training where we did a whole week of focusing on the chakras. Anything close to the root – the hips to the pelvis – brought up an immense amount of physical pain for me. Not in the sense of overstretching or injuring myself; it was released. It was an extreme challenge. Under other circumstances, I might have reached out to somebody like “What do I do! It’s hurting so badly! This is so hard! Should I take a Tylenol?” But I heard the voices of all my teachers in my head saying you can hold this and talking about their own experience in training. To me that was a beautiful integration. You’re doing practice and things are coming up that people have warned you “this could come up when you’re working on your first or second chakra” and it is actually happening to you. It’s hard. And you’re able to not runaway from it. I felt steeled.

Any goals/dreams/desires/intentions with connecting with the Sol Center?

I would love to be able to do in-depth classes or workshops to share what I’ve learned about the integration of sensation and spirit. To help people develop the patience to track sensation. I’m interested in yoga as a treatment for trauma disorders so I would be excited to be able to share some of my experience and knowledge about the intersection of those two things.[Trauma is] one of the biggest challenges that a human being could face and there’s a lot of depth in healing from it. A lot of the way forward is surprisingly concrete. You don’t think that your deepest healing is going to be in your muscles and bones, but it is. That stuff, and dance! I’ve been doing dance for a couple years now and anything with the connection of yoga and dance would be awesome.

Anna Stizmann