A Teacher of Serenity
By: Mayar El-Shamy
On witnessing a still snapshot of one of Yogi Ali’s beach classes, you feel the placidity and utmost composure luring you into the realm of Hatha Yoga through pixels. One can only imagine the true experience of meditating atop the beach sand with nothing on your mind except the sound of the waves and Ali’s instructions in steady, soothing intonations. We were lucky enough to speak with the yoga guru, who opened up to us about his experience with the practice and how it changed his life.
Tell us about yourself and how your interest in yoga was first sparked.
My name’s Ali El Alfy. I’m 32 years old, I was born in Egypt and I grew up in Bahrain. I studied management at McGill University and before teaching yoga, I worked a number of different jobs including sales, marketing and communications. I even pretended to be a banker for a little while and was so turned off by my desk job that I quit and bused tables at a bar.
I have a younger sister I adore, and it was around the time I graduated when she took me to my first yoga class at the YMCA in downtown Montreal. I was over-weight, a mouth-breather and very impatient; needless to say, the experience was very uncomfortable. But I recognized, right away, that there was something special about yoga. It was a few years before I re-visited the mat, but when I finally did, I was hooked!
Are there different types of yoga? What type do you teach?
Yoga’s an ancient practice so yes, there are many different types. As far as traditional schools go, there’s Raja Yoga, the ‘exalted way’ of meditation; Jnana Yoga, which is the intellectual path paved with knowledge; Bhakti is the yogic equivalent of Sufism concerned with love and devotion; and Karma Yoga entails selfless action (think Gandhi or Mother Theresa). Now, the practice done on the mat is called Hatha Yoga, and that’s what I teach. All these different names you see on a yoga studio’s schedule, be it Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar or whatever else, denote different styles or approaches, but they’re all derivatives of Hatha Yoga. With the exception of Kundalini, which is a Tantric approach, there is only Hatha Yoga!
How has yoga transformed your life?
Yoga helped bring me home. I used to live outside of myself, you see, always seeking an external source of satisfaction; something that was going to make my day worthwhile or a person who was going to save me from the unbearable void I felt inside. I was always looking ahead and rarely satisfied with what I had, rarely present. Yoga taught me to appreciate my own company, to get to know myself, to understand and embrace my darkness. To put it simply, yoga’s taught me to love myself.
Do you consider yoga more mental or physical?
Yoga is neither mental nor physical, but a holistic practice that encompasses both body and mind; it’s about presence. In that state of all-pervading awareness, the body and mind become aligned and one begins to connect with what’s beyond –the heart, soul or spirit.
As a teacher, you seem to prefer the beach as your usual spot. Why is that?
I absolutely love the sea and I look forward to summertime so I can come back to the coast. Yoga is meant to help us peel back the layers of conditioning so we can be our natural selves. For most people, that happens as soon as they step into the sea. We become childish, carefree and even our smiles radiate differently. I like to teach on the beach because the sea inspires me. Not only that, but the sound of water is calming; the iodine in the air is cleansing, and all those shades of blue go a long way towards washing our soul of our worldly troubles. Also, teaching on the beach means I sport nothing but a swimsuit and that in itself is a joy!
What made you choose this career path?
I like to think that yoga saved me from a career. There are so many negative connotations associated with the term, at least in my mind. Yoga’s not a job for me, but something I practice and share – it’s a lifestyle and a way of being. I teach because I believe in its capacity to change lives and bring out the very best of people. I feel blessed to have come across this incredible tool and my mission is to share it with anyone open to receive.
How does yoga benefit the mind and the body?
Hatha Yoga involves practicing postures to develop strength, flexibility, balance, coordination and a growing appreciation of the body. But before all that, it’s about the awareness we bring to what we do. The postures and breathing exercises keep the mind engaged, and this helps slow down its incessant wandering. As the mind quiets down, we begin to grow in consciousness – which is just a fancy way of saying awareness – and start to gain an understanding of how thoughts, emotions and desires control our behaviour and shape our perception of reality. The more conscious or present we become, the more untangled we get from these devices of the mind. And this is the beginning of freedom.
Some of us are intimidated by yoga; how do you help students overcome that feeling?
I can understand that, given the trend of sensationalism on social media. Yoga, however, is not what you see on Instagram. It’s a practice of learning to nurture and love yourself. It starts with observing the breath and it unfolds gradually. It doesn’t matter if you’re inflexible, injured or unable to balance on one foot, let alone your head. My teacher always says, “if you can breathe, you can do yoga.” I believe one of my strengths is my ability to make yoga approachable. I try to keep my classes fun, and constantly remind my students that yoga’s anything but a competition. I often remind people to be kind to themselves and appreciate their own efforts. When all else fails, I share with them how it took me years before I could reach my toes in a forward bend!
Walk us through your diet!
If I walked you through the winding alleys that are my diet, we’d probably get separated and lost. Let’s just say I love food and I allow myself to eat what I like, so long as it feels right. I really believe in paying attention to how your body reacts to different foods and giving it what’s good for it. For me, that means a lot of greens, just a little bit of red meat and as much chocolate as I can get my hands on. I’m definitely big on dessert!
Any compelling advice for those who want to start yoga but are hesitant?
My advice is this: if the practice calls to you, go to it! Stop overthinking and just begin. Yoga has no prerequisites and if I managed to get into it, anybody can do it. The first teaching of the yoga sutras says “Here-now is the time for yoga,” so enough pansying around and get to it. You’re going to do just fine!
A word for our readers…
Yoga is a practice, and practice involves discipline and consistency. Now, I appreciate how hard it is to work something new into our routine or get anything done, for that matter, in Cairo but this is your wellbeing we’re talking about! If the practice calls to you, get up and go to it. It’s time to start investing in yourself!
It all starts with an intention, so take a moment to consider what yours is. As far as Hatha Yoga is concerned, there are three types of intentions: fitness, healing and spirituality. It’s important to be clear on why you’re practicing and what direction you’re moving towards. Once you’ve figured that bit out, the next step is to go out and try to find a class and teacher that suit your needs and feel right for you!
Be patient, keep resilient and know that the universe supports you.
Be sure to follow Yogi Ali on his social media accounts for more inspiration!