In a skype interview last month, I sat down with yoga teacher and retreat leader, Akasha Ellis. We chatted about the roots of his own yoga practice and teachings, as well as the story of how he initially came to Villa Sumaya on Lake Atitlan.
Akasha met the kundalini master Yogi Bhajan as a young boy in the seventies. After a group workshop in New Mexico, the guru invited Akasha and his father to speak with him privately. He bestowed the boy (whose birth name is Shane) with his spiritual name, Akasha, because of the bright light that shines from within him and also gave him a personal meditation and mantra, which he began to practice daily. Eventually, Akasha was proclaimed ready to begin teaching kundalini yoga, and he did.
Later, after dropping out of college in his early twenties, Akasha traveled around India, where he discovered Ashtanga yoga, without knowing what it was called. When a friend visited and saw his practice, she prompted him to make his way to study with the founder of the lineage, Pattabhi Jois. After some years of dedicated practice, Akasha was encouraged by his main teacher Vishwanath (Pattabhi’s nephew) to start teaching Ashtanga.
A man of many talents, Akasha has worked in the business world and has simultaneously resonated with the path of yoga. A natural and radiant teacher, he has thrived on instructing and assisting students for over three decades. He is the co-owner of Birmingham Yoga, a flourishing studio that offers classes and teacher training courses in Alabama. Akasha now spends part of the year teaching internationally, offering his unique brand of southern hospitality along with decades of dedication as a yogi and teacher to all who cross his path.
When he first arrived at Lake Atitlan on a sunny spring day about ten years ago, Akasha stepped onto the grounds of Villa Sumaya, and like most visitors, looked around in blissful awe at the lush gardens full of exotic plants with vivid blooms and the beautifully-designed structures with their impressive thatched palm roofs nestled into the hillside. He knew at once that he had landed at a special site. He’d been referred here through word of mouth, by a fellow teacher in the yoga community who’d led a group retreat here, and Akasha had not looked at any photos or read anything about Villa Sumaya, Lake Atitlan or Guatemala in general prior to his arrival.
The first person he met on the path happened to be Wendy, the owner and founder of Villa Sumaya. “You must be Akasha,” she said. Their energetic connection was immediate and deep, and the two spent hours in rapt conversation into the wee hours of Akasha’s first night at the center. Wendy then told Akasha that she would be leaving the property for several days, having received a message that he and his father (who’d come along to attend and lead some guided visualization sessions at the retreat that year) were to hold court at Sumaya in her absence.
Akasha’s first few nights at the center were challenging. While sleeping in the yoga space, Tara Temple, a magnificent 650 square foot studio located on the 4th floor of the Lotus House, he was plagued with intense nightmares that kept waking him up. He sat with these experiences, and after two nights in a row of sleeplessness, he prayed for rest so that he could meet the demands of leading not only a lengthy Kundalini Sadhana beginning at five o’clock each morning but also a physically-intense Ashtanga/vinyasa practice, plus private sessions with each of his students. Yet again on the third night, Akasha was awoken and feeling emotionally and spiritually tormented. At that moment, in the still and quiet night, a gentle German Shephard made his way up to the Tara Temple and sat with Akasha for hours, even staying for the morning yoga session as the students filed in.
Later, Akasha found out that the dog was named Balto and belonged to the Iguana Perdida, a hostel in the neighboring pueblo of Santa Cruz La Laguna. On the night that Balto visited him in the Tara Temple, a canine friend of Balto’s had passed away. The man and dog had been drawn together by an invisible, magnetic energy. They comforted each other, and Akasha’s nighttime struggles dissolved. He slept peacefully for the remainder of the nights that first week.
Wendy persuaded him to start coming with a group over New Year’s, which he has done annually since 2008. Akasha teaches to all levels and welcomes people of all generations, shapes and sizes to the practice. Some of the attendees have come for several years, others just once. Some bring their parents and adult children, others come on their own.
I am absolutely thrilled to be participating in the New Year’s retreat with Akasha this year, in less than two months. We will come together to connect with ourselves, each other, and Mother Earth. We will laugh, cry, share, practice yoga and meditation, and set our highest intentions for the year ahead. There are still some spaces available ~ join us!