Tag Archives: manduka you series

Chelsea Roff: Love Your Body — Yoga, Motherhood, & Healing

 

Next up in our YOU interview series, meet Melanie Klein.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me about your yoga journey, Melanie. I wanted to start by learning a bit more about how you came to it to begin with? What was your first yoga experience like?

I took my first class in 1996, back when yoga had not become the cultural phenomenon it is now. Studios were very few and far between and you didn’t see copies of Yoga Journal or the equivalent in your local stores. My younger sister, Natascha, asked me if I wanted to sign up for a yoga class with her through the local community college’s extension program.

As it turned out, our weekly yoga class was a Kundalini class and we did a lot of, what seemed to me, odd physical movements accompanied by chants. I was intrigued. My sister and I giggled through much of the class and surely exacerbated our teacher, but we didn’t stop and we signed up time and time again. 

But Kundalini isn’t your regular practice now… what made you branch out?

I wanted to practice more consistently. I asked my good friend, Marla if she knew of any studios. She told me about a guy in Santa Monica teaching classes on donation basis and said I’d probably really like him and his style of teaching. That’s when I was led to Bryan Kest’s class above Radio Shack. The old brick building with the weathered wooden floors appealed to me immediately and I connected to Bryan’s honest and raw sensibility from the moment he opened his mouth.

His class rocked my world. It was no Kundalini class. I left wrung out and completely “high,” “stoned on oxygen,” as Bryan would say (and continues to say). And I loved it. I felt open, connected, and completely alive. The physicality of his class was appealing given that I was coming from a major gym obsession. Eventually, I cancelled my gym membership and that was the start of liberating myself from some incredibly toxic behaviors associated with an abusive and disrespectful attitude toward my body and replacing it with a nourishing and loving yoga practice.

What about yoga was nourishing for you?

It’s all nourishing to me — breath, movement, state of mind and heart. I feel completely emotionally, spiritually and physically fed by my practice. It has taught me how to practice forgiveness, compassion, gratitude and mindfulness. Yoga has allowed me to get to know myself in new and mysterious ways and it’s helped me create a strong community. All those things have remained consistent over the years.

You’ve been practicing for over fifteen years now, during which time I know you’ve endured some huge life changes… becoming a mom, for example! Did yoga help you through any particularly difficult times — grief, loss, adversity?

Yes. My practice became a place of solace, healing and consistency. Four years into my practice, an ex-boyfriend that I had just rekindled a relationship with died of a drug overdose. I was devastated and inconsolable. Within two weeks of our reunion and our discussions of a shared future, I got a call from a friend of his letting me know he had been found dead in his bedroom and that my number was next to him on the night stand. It was surreal.

There were days I could barely peel myself out of bed, but I’d drag myself out of the confines of my covers and practice daily.

I needed to. I had to. And I did. The space of the studio and the safety that the teacher – Caleb Asch, one of Bryan’s protégés – provided in his classes, along with the practice itself, was a saving grace. Yoga provided a level of consistency during a time of major emotional turbulence. One thing I could count on everyday was Caleb’s class and time on my mat.

Losing your boyfriend sounds an incredibly difficult experience, and I can only imagine how raw/vulnerable you felt in your practice at that time. What do you think it was about Caleb’s class at that time that provided that safety, solace, and comfort? Was it the yoga? Was it something that teacher specifically was saying/doing in his class?

The practice itself was comforting and healing. While everything around me felt chaotic and uncertain, I felt that I could count on the sound of my breath and the mat under my body. The practice allowed me to connect to my grief in a way that I wasn’t able or allowed to in other areas of my life. I could feel it in my body, I could let it be and after waves of pain rolled through my being, I could let it go because I had been completely connected to it.

The physical space itself was also beautiful – the studio was nestled in the foothills and after an evening practice I’d walk out to the sound of frogs in the creek nearby. It wasn’t as jarring as walking out onto a crowded boulevard. And then there was Caleb. He’s a warm and inviting person with depth and heart. Plus he is a skilled yoga teacher that doesn’t just teach asana. I got to dive deep into my practice with his guidance.

What about when you became a mother? Did your yoga practice change during and after your pregnancy?

Oh, yes! It changed drastically. I gained 60 pounds during my pregnancy and had an emergency c-section. After my son was born, I could barely recognize myself and my old body image issues resurfaced with mad intensity.


I was in a state of deep despair, depression and body hatred.

 

I couldn’t accept that this was me and I had just created and given birth to a new human being! It was a terrible place for me mentally, emotionally and physically. I should have been basking in the joy of my new son, but I was primarily affected by my expectations of what I used to look like, what I should look like, what my birth should have been like.

Pregnant and new moms are under intense scrutiny for their weight these days and where I live, in Santa Monica, many new moms look like they didn’t have a baby 5 minutes ago. I didn’t even practice for a year after he was born, aside from a few minutes here and there at home.

What made you stay away from the mat when those body image issues were coming up? I mean, many people would argue that yoga helps with body image issues. Do you think that’s true, or did yoga in some ways seem like it might exacerbate them?

I agree. Yoga absolutely has the ability to assist with distorted body image issues. Yoga did that for me the first ten or so years (I’ve written about that process quite a few times and have an extensive chapter about the relationship between my body image journey and evolving yoga practice in the forthcoming anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice). But after my son was born, I was so completely jarred by the pregnancy and the intensity of the birth (in other words, nothing that I had expected or planned for) that I spiraled into a bit of depression and I was in a type of denial.

I wasn’t ready to go on the mat and face myself physically or emotionally. I knew that my practice had the ability to ease my negative feelings about my body because I had experienced that previously. But to emerge on the other end, well, it requires a tremendous amount of dedication and work…part of that work is the courage to meet yourself and deal with what you find. I was exhausted, depleted and felt defeated at that point and unable to bring myself to the first leg of the journey, the willingness to begin. So I avoided it.

Melanie on the “Love Your Body Day: Body Image in the Media” panel in October 2011

It wasn’t until I was complaining about the disconnect with my body when my friend, Vytas, asked if I had been practicing. I sheepishly admitted I hadn’t practiced in over a year. I’m so grateful for that gentle nudge from him. As a result,I returned to class and started practicing at home on a regular basis.

It was like starting all over again. I had to truly tap into the forgiveness and acceptance. Physically, I could barely do anything. I lovingly allowed myself to return to child’s pose over and over again. I returned to class time and time again, replacing my must-do-it-attitude and you-must-be-this-way expectation with “this is what is.” Slowly I was able to connect the fragmented pieces of mind, body and heart. I also really understood Bryan’s rhetoric.. .you know, hey, not everyone is going through the same thing emotionally, mentally or physically.

Why would we expect our bodies and our practices to look the same?

It was the first time in my life I felt this way physically and it was sobering and awakening.

I also came to terms with my age. I wasn’t and I’m not 26 anymore. What I needed from my practice then is not what I need from my practice now. I also can’t go to a 90 minute (to 2-hour class if Bryan is teaching :) all the time. I have a son and a career and tons of laundry to fold. So I go to a led class when I can and practice at home. Whether it is 5, 20 or 60 minutes, I practice. Sometimes I practice asana for 10 minutes and then sit in meditation for 50 minutes and I feel amazing. At 30, I would practice asana for 90 and maybe meditate for 5 minutes. I love the evolution. It’s a beautiful thing and my practice is just as nourishing, if not more so, than it was 16 or 10 years ago.

 

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How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.

The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. To read inspiring stories from yogis we met at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, check out these blogs:

Transformation Begins with Connection

I Don’t Have a Disability, I Have Different Abilities

Can Yogis Save the World? Interview with Waylon Lewis

How Yoga Taught Me to Survive… and Thrive: Interview with Ashley Turner

Last photo courtesy Sarit Photography

Chelsea Roff: How Yoga Taught Me to Survive… and Thrive: Interview with Ashley Turner

Hi Ashley. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to start out just by asking you about what you might call your “yoga origin story.” What initially brought you to the mat? What was your first experience like practicing yoga? 

In 1996, I had just graduated from USC and was training for the LA Marathon with my dear friend Govindas (founder of Bhakti Yoga Shala in Santa Monica, CA). He kept telling me about yoga and his teacher, Bryan Kest — so finally he took me to a class at Santa Monica Power Yoga. That was it!

I had never walked out the door after class and felt that orgasmic.

Haha! You know, that’s not the first time I’ve heard Bryan’s class described that way…

I started going to Bryan Kest and then Govindas’ class regularly. I listened to all the Ram Dass tapes I could find and began a deep self-study practice. Four years later, I completed my first yoga teacher training with Baba Hari Das (Ram Dass’ Hatha Yoga teacher) at Mt. Madonna in central California and began teaching.

Wow, it sounds like the practice really grabbed you…. I’m curious, do you consider yoga a transformational practice? Has it changed the way you relate to the people in your life at all?

The first tangible transformation in my practice was that I learned to cultivate SELF-LOVE. Before I came to yoga, I was so hard on myself and critical of my body. Bryan emphasized radical self-acceptance, and slowly over the months and years, I learned to love my body, accept it’s imperfections and be grateful. This compassion gradually extended outwards, and now I am a lot more understanding of others, less critical (hopefully), take things less personally and see the larger perspective that we’re all here to learn different lessons.

Has yoga ever brought you into a place of feeling particularly raw or vulnerable? If so, what was that like and what kept you coming back to mat anyway?

To me, yoga is about having the courage to “look the tiger in the eye”. In other words, to clearly see “what is” and face the TRUTH head-on. I believe that when we’re feeling raw and vulnerable, we’re closest to the soul – unencumbered, humble and awake. A few years ago, I went through a very intense, gut-wrenching break-up and the only thing that kept me going was getting on the mat, praying to Spirit, breathing and knowing that deep down inside, I had the resources to survive and thrive. At this time, over a decade ago, Seane Corn became one of my best friends and literally coached me through this break-up and rebirth.

 

 

Yoga provides a built-in healthy community of people seeking to be there best selves. Most of my best friends now are colleagues or people I met on yoga retreats. You naturally develop a strong network and support system to keep you on track, hold you accountable and celebrate life. My community keeps me inspired and coming back to my mat.

That’s been a recurring theme I’ve heard throughout these series… the importance of community. How do you share the benefits you’ve gained from your practice with your community? 

My teaching comes directly from what I’m learning on a daily basis. That’s why all teachers have something slightly different to offer. I find that whatever I’m going through shows up in my class themes. So if I have a breakthrough in meditation or my practice, I bring it into the class the next day. We all teach what we’re most passionate about. As a psychotherapist, I’m really passionate about rescuing the roots of yoga psychology and helping people apply the deeper mental-emotional teachings in a practical way.

I’m also passionate about giving people specific tools to integrate their shadow (repressed, cut-off) material and transmute difficult emotions (rage, anger, betrayal, greed, jealousy, self-criticism and grief) into positive action. I probably self-disclose more than most teachers, but I find people can relate more to you when you aren’t afraid to show your vulnerability and laugh at your own weaknesses and foibles. I’m always bringing in stories from my personal life and clinical practice as a mind-body psychotherapist.

So what is your intent in sharing the practice yoga?

My intent in practicing yoga is to help people LIVE THEIR TRUTH so they can LOVE THEIR LIVES — whatever phase they are in. My intent is to reclaim the power of the feminine (for men and women): embracing the body, emotions, community, intuition and the unseen.

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How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.

The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. To read inspiring stories from yogis we met at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, check out these blogs:

Transformation Begins with Connection

I Don’t Have a Disability, I Have Different Abilities

Can Yogis Save the World?

Chelsea Roff: Can Yogis Save the World? Interview with Waylon Lewis

Chelsea Roff: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me Waylon. Many people know you as the founder of Elephant Journal, one of the most well-known publications out there covering yoga, mindfulness, eco-living, and conscious consumerism. I wanted to start by asking you a little bit about your personal journey… how did you come to yoga and meditation to begin with?

Waylon Lewis: Well, Elephant just turned 10. So my direct relationship with yoga dates back exactly 10 years, I guess. I was dragged into it, rather unwillingly, by the strange fact that (due to my writerly and business and Buddhist background) I wound up partnering in a little regional yoga publication called Yoga in the Rockies.

I think my first ever yoga class was at Corepower — hot yoga. I literally, literally crawled outta there. Then I did Bikram, then Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop, where I stayed and continued to practice forever.

As part of my work I was travelling around the Rockies, doing yoga at various studios… it was an amazingly diverse, both-feet-in introduction to yoga. Something I’d always viewed at arm’s distance as a sort of weird, love n’ lightey, airy-fairy kinda spiritual-lite community.  But in Richard I found someone who cared about breath, meditation, lineage—he was humble, literally bored by any sort of special attention, and funny as fuck.

CR: Haha. I can totally see a very hot, sweaty, and shirtless Waylon Lewis crawling hands and knees out of Corepower.

WL: Yah. I sweat buckets. Being reborn as my yoga mat would be pretty much the worst punishment known to humankind.

CR: (laughs) Do you remember what thoughts were going through your mind during that first hot yoga class?

WL: “This is so hard.”

It felt like staying in a sauna too long—way too long. It wasn’t fun, particularly. I’ve always been somewhat athletic—basketball, baseball, swimming, now cycling, climbing—those are all fun. Yoga was hard. Humbling.

I still rarely enjoy it. One of the things I love about doing yoga with real pros like Richard or Billy or Seane Corn… with the best teachers…is that yoga is tolerable. And, of course, post-yoga is heaven.

CR: Can you put your finger on what felt different about those yoga experiences? Do you think it’s a different strokes for different folks kind of thing? And if not, what is it that makes them “real pros” as teachers?

WL: I absolutely do not think it’s different strokes for different folks.

Part of the problem with the (amazing) yoga generation is that we feel like we can take the salad bar approach to everything.

You know, “the customer is always right.”

There are two kinds of yoga: The first kind is “real yoga”—which, whatever the tradition, must involve one-on-one teaching, attention to the breath, and an emphasis on proper alignment. A sense of humor might be another tell-tale sign of whether we’re doing “real yoga”, as well.

The second kind is “whatever yoga.” It’s all good yoga. Yoga as aerobics, yoga as exercise, yoga butt yoga. This kind is equally important—yoga is for everybody. But this second kind of yoga, while important and accessible and fun and healthy—does need to be balanced with the first kind of yoga. As things are going, now, in a few generations commercial yoga may overtake and dominate lineage yoga.

CR: Why do you think it’s important for yoga to be grounded in lineage?

WL: Yoga, like gardening, can be be learned from books and videos. But as with anything, the devil (and the magic) is in the details. We need to be able to ask dumb questions, and having someone there to notice mistakes and breakthroughs that we can’t see ourselves.

Like, in my first class with Richard, we were doing a backbend. I have a tight lower back, especially back then. And I was trying super hard—huffing and puffing and focusing. And Richard came over, standing right over me, leaned down smiling, and lifted me up by my shoulderblades… and air rushed into my lungs, my heart opened up in a way it hadn’t, like, ever. I thought I was trying hard, diligently, when really I just needed a little help getting into the actual posture, and then I could relax and breathe.

CR: Okay, so that example speaks to the importance of having a knowledgable teacher. But do you think it’s also important for that teacher to uphold a tradition, a lineage-based practice that’s been passed down over centuries?

WL: Lineage, in Buddhism, is symbolized by a thread. That thread, uncut, winds down through the generations, straight back to the Buddha. Without lineage, there’s a danger that the teacher might confuse their charisma or the magic and power of the teachings and the adulation of the crowds with the Dharma or what they’re teaching. Teaching should be humbling, and frightening in terms of responsibility. And fucking fun.

CR: I’m sensing a theme emerging here. :)

WL: Of course, lineage on its own is no guarantor of quality. In the Buddhist tradition, there are plenty of half-baked “Rinpoches” who party and troll the sangha, or community, for gifts and financial support. But they never bothered to study, stew, bake, beat, open up…to cook themselves in the Dharma. It’s tough work. And fucking fun.

Being genuine and enjoying the moment, no matter how tough, is so much more fun than the opposite—being fake and self-centered and confused and neurotic and taking ourselves too seriously!

And the yoga community does this constantly. My current pet peeve with the yoga community is our infatuation with “positivity.” It’s soooo rigid, uptight, superficial, and turns something wonderful (optimism, can-doness) into a sort of dogma or theology.

CR: Yes. And through the work that you do, you’ve really had a unique opportunity to witness these trends, as well as how the yoga and mindfulness communities have shifted and evolved over the past decade. Can you speak to the evolution you’ve seen — both what’s inspired you and caused you concern?

WL: I just did a Speakeasy at Wanderlust on this subject… “Club Yoga: Are we here to be cool, or to serve?”

Yoga as club defeats the purpose. We as a community have a choice: we can fight over where to sit on the Titanic (climate change, inequity) or Save the World (and have a good time doing so). We have the choice to “pop” external clubbiness, just as our practice helps us to learn to make friends with our internal egos & insecurity. How can our yoga community stop our occasional silliness, and—perhaps more than any other community—be of (joyful) benefit to a world full of real suffering?

I think the yoga community—as is manifesting in movements like Yogavotes—but also in much more grounded, basic, everyday, personal ways with each of us—is perhaps the largest generation in history that’s focused around compassion, care for our environment, activism, as well as some spiritual discipline of trying to be a good, kind, soft yet strong human being.

It’s exciting. It’s timely.

With the world (only in some ways) going to hell in a handbasket—so partisan, politically—so blind, environmentally—we have the chance to really be of service and show that the way to happiness isn’t through selfishness, but through kindness.

CR: Can you say more about the opportunity you see for both the yoga and mindfulness communities to come together and for a real movement?

WL: The Buddhist community isn’t doing much, yet. It’s small and quiet and inward-focused. The yoga community is far more inspiring, from an environmental or political pov. That said, Buddhism was huge and happening in the 90s. It’s just that meditation is much less sexy. It’s harder to sell products around it, so companies like lululemon don’t form around it. There’s a whole yoga industry. That presents plenty of problems, but it also is a sign of the energy that comes together around yoga.

Way back in 2002, I was looking for a slogan for our little yoga magazine. I didn’t want it to be about yoga, but rather about everything that yoga people cared about. I wanted our community to face outwards, instead of being self-involved. So I settled on the word “mindful,” which at the time was only used in the Buddhist tradition to refer to a specific type of meditation practice.

“Mindful” isn’t the perfect word—it’s a bit boring—but it does bring together activism, care for our environment (say, remembering to turn off the light switch) with inward spiritual development, kindness, meditation. We have to do both.

So “the mindful life” became our slogan—and we said we were about “yoga, organics, sustainability, conscious consumerism, the arts, ecofashion, enlightened education, active citizenship—anything that helps us to live a good life that’s also good for others, and our planet.”

Now folks like Jeff and Sean here at Wanderlust are working on galvanizing this “mindful generation” to help gather and shape our compassionate energy. So, overall, I’m excited that we might start actually doing something for the world, on a grounded, practical level.

CR: I’m not sure if you think of yourself this way, but I think many consider you a leader in this movement you’re talking about. What is your intent in leading this community… what do you hope will come out of all the hard work you put into Elephant Journal and in supporting others doing this work?

WL: My intent is to make elephant huge, a real force a la Reddit or Facebook or Huffington Post… But in our case, for independent, grassroots media and community. And then, with my millions of dollars, to run for Congress or Governor and spend the last years of my tired, lonely, broken, senseless life in public service.

CR: Woot!

WL: I once interviewed an idol of mine, Lester Brown, and he leaned in with his light sky blue eyes and said: and I paraphrase… “the world is fucked. The only hope is media.” Media could mean communication, generally. Journalism. Education. You know, enlightenment!

CR: I think that’s a good note to end on. Thanks, Waylon.

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How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.

The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. Read inspiring stories from yogis we meet at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, and see the bottom of this post for how you can share your story as well!

Image 1, 3, 4: Lindsey Block

Chelsea Roff: “I Don’t Have a Disability, I Have Different Abilities”

 

Next up in our YOU interview series (in partnership with Manduka), meet Ela Wojtowicz.

CR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Ela. Why don’t you begin by sharing about what initially brought you to the mat?

EW: I know that as the saying goes, “Never say never…” but I really never thought that I would be practicing Yoga.

(laughing) Yes, I know that feeling.

But really, I don’t think I so much came to yoga. Yoga kind of came to me. I was a hard working, dedicated student, and I shared with my mom that I felt like I needed to do something for myself, to relax and not to have my head in the books all the time. I walked into my first Yoga studio almost five years ago, and I haven’t looked back.

What was that first experience like?

My first experience practicing yoga was really rewarding. I felt at ease and calm – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I imagine, because you have cerebral palsy, that your first experience in a yoga studio might have been especially challenging. Did you find the class intimidating? What was it like?

Well, I started off with private classes – mostly restorative yoga. Because I got into it that way, it didn’t feel intimidating at all. But when I started going into group classes… Yeah, a lot of insecurities came up! My first thought was “Wow… can I really do this? Will people look at me funny?”

What insecurities showed up? How did they shift through the practice?

Well, when I first started going to these group classes, yoga appeared to be such a physical practice. I wondered if I could really do it, whether people were staring at me during the practice…. But the more I got into my practice, the more I realized that really, yoga isn’t about what you’re doing with your body. It’s really what’s in your heart.

Over the years, my experience in yoga has become a much more internal, spiritual practice. It may look physical, but really, it doesn’t matter if you can get your leg over your head. What matters is what you’re cultivating in your heart… how you show up for yourself. No matter what’s going on, you come back to your breath and bring yourself into the present moment. Yoga is an expression of your inner-self.

Do you think your experience in a yoga class is different from others’?

Physically, I do what I can. I do most of my practice on the ground, and I do each pose in the best way I’m able to. For the most part, I notice the teachers walk around and adjust students are doing the poses “normally” if you will. But it’s not that they don’t notice me or treat me differently; I feel like they give me the space to do my expression of the poses.

But once again, I don’t think yoga is about the physical practice or what the poses look like on the outside. Yoga isn’t about flexibility – it’s about breath, and how we express ourselves in the pose. Even if my yoga looks different from your yoga, we’re doing the same practice. Yoga is about creating union between body and breath, and as long as you’re doing that, we’re all practicing the same yoga.

Absolutely. I totally agree.

I strongly believe that things happen for a reason. Our challenges and “disabilities” make us stronger, and I truly believe that’s been the case for me too. You know, a little while back, I saw this Extreme Home Makeover episode where they built a house for a woman who cares for children with physical disabilities. They were interviewing her, and one of the things she said is, “My kids don’t have disabilities. They have different abilities.”

That really resonated with me. I don’t think of myself as having a disability, I just have different abilities than most people. It makes me appreciate things differently, and there’s a reason I have it.

Would you say you’re grateful for it?

You know, I would. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have my moments. I don’t like to get in that place of “why me?” but I have to say, right before Wanderlust this year… I was having a hard time.

But anytime I come back and get to be a part of this yoga community – whether it be a festival or event or workshop or whatever – I really come back to this place of gratitude. My “disability” is a gift in many ways… it inspires others, it’s taught me resilience and courage in the face of challenge. Disabilities give us strengths and help us appreciate and see things in a different light.

Would you say yoga has brought you into a sense of community?

Yoga has definitely brought me into a sense of community.

Since I started practicing yoga, I’ve become more confident and open to meeting people. I used to be the shyest girl in school. Really,I had to be bribed with a Snickers bar by my aide just to get me to say hi to my guidance counselor! But now, I love to meet new people on the mat. I get so excited to make connections with beautiful souls, because we each have something to offer to one another. Being in this beautiful community of like-minded people has benefitted me tremendously. Coming to festivals like Wanderlust reminds me that we are all in this together.

It’s true. We never would have met otherwise! Okay, last question. What would you say is your intent  in practicing yoga?

My intent in practicing Yoga is to help people with physical challenges realize that anyone can do Yoga. It doesn’t matter how we do the practice… what matters is that we show up and are willing to be seen for who we are, challenges and all.

Don’t let your disability or challenges define who you are meant to be in this world. When you look deep into what Yoga is, it’s a very powerful gift that unifies us and connects us all. Spiritually, yoga is about opening our hearts to receive the beautiful gifts that God/Spirit intended us to experience.

How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.

The YOU Series features in-depth conversations with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. Read inspiring stories from yogis we meet at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, and see the bottom of this post for how you can share your story as well!

Chelsea Roff: Transformation Begins with Connection

We’re very excited to announce the start of a new interview series here at Intent in partnership with our friends at Manduka. The YOU Series will feature in-depth interviews with yoga practitioners and teachers from around the country. The goal of the series to chronicle stories of how people came to yoga and how the practice is transforming lives and communities. Read inspiring stories from yogis we meet at this year’s Wanderlust Festivals, and see the bottom of this post for how you can share your story as well!

First up, meet Kristin Adair.

Hi Kristin. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to start out just by asking you about what you might call your “yoga origin story.” What brought you to the mat? Why did you start practicing yoga? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know why I took my first yoga class. It was early on during college, I was on a competitive dance team and had some injuries, and I just found my way into a class at the campus gym (where I sometimes also took aerobics and other types of fitness classes). I think I went to yoga sporadically during that time, mostly for the benefits of stretching my body. But several years later during graduate school, I had a yoga teacher in a different gym who helped me begin to understand that yoga was something much deeper than just stretching and strengthening. She ended every class with a short message, something like this:

“Walk gently and sweetly with yourself, and remember to love who you are.”

Those simple words burrowed deep inside of me at a time when I was going through some challenges in my life, and I believe they set me onto the path of yoga where I find myself now.

Can you tell me about one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had on the mat in the time since?

One of the most memorable experiences in yoga was for me the point when I think I truly understood the power of this practice. I had been practicing for many years, at least a decade since the college gym days, and had become a yoga teacher not long before. I was in the Off the Mat, Into the World intensive, practicing for the first time with my now teacher Seane Corn. She talked about the connection between body, mind and spirit and how we can integrate both the light and the shadow in our practice. I think this is the first time I really felt this connection in my body and understood it on a cellular level. It was also the first time I cried on my yoga mat.

What keeps you coming back to your yoga practice, even when getting on the mat feels like trudging through mud?

The feeling of strength and peace and wholeness that I experience when I step off of the mat.

What about yoga scares you? What about it gives you hope?

It scares me to think that there might be a time in my life when I can no longer practice asana the way I do now. I understand that there is much more to yoga, but I also love the physical practice and how it feels in my body.

What gives me hope is seeing groups of people, small and large, in so many different settings — from homeless shelters and juvenile detention facilities, schools, gyms, yoga studios, city streets and parks, at Occupy Wall Street, in an orphanage in Haiti — moving and breathing and adapting this practice to their lives and unique circumstances. I believe that we are truly on the precipice of global transformation as more and more people connect with their bodies and their breath and thereby become more conscious of how their actions impact others.

Do you consider yoga a transformational practice? 

Yes.

In what way?

For me, yoga was a strictly physical practice for many years. And on a physical level, it transformed my body — not just allowing me to become stronger and more flexible, but also teaching me how to calm my nervous system using movement and breath. I have suffered from anxiety and depression, and yoga has given me tools to ground myself and work through emotions, both good and bad, rather than just stuffing them back inside.

Yoga has also been transformational in my life more broadly. Taking this practice off the mat has helped me to connect more deeply with other people, to really begin to understand what it means to serve from a place of love and compassion and deep connection. I truly see the world around me a different way.

How do you share the benefits you’ve gained from your practice with others?

After more than a decade of practicing yoga on and off, I felt compelled to enroll in a yoga teacher training. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to teach, but it just seemed to be calling me and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Teaching asana came relatively easily to me — I had been practicing these poses for so long, I just felt them in my body. But the introvert in me was seriously challenged by standing up in front of a room full of people, with eyes on me and bodies following my every word, and weaving together a yoga class.

So I started as a volunteer, teaching classes in a psychiatric hospital women’s ward and at a program for he homeless in Washington, DC, thinking that somehow this would be easier because the students didn’t know anything about yoga so they wouldn’t know the difference. What I realized was that if I could help students in these settings breathe and move their bodies into yoga poses (or some approximation of the classic poses), I could teach anyone.

Is there a cause or movement you stand for? Does yoga support you in activating around that cause at all, and if so how?

I stand for freedom and compassion for all beings. This translates into so many different causes and movements that I support, from human rights in many contexts to animal rights and environmental protection. I have a difficult time picking one cause over another because in my mind, they all connect back to the same root. I have always been an advocate and an activist, but yoga — and in particular my involvement with Off the Mat, Into the World — has given me tools to connect more deeply with those I am serving while also keeping myself more grounded and resourced.

What is your intent in practicing yoga?

My intent is connection, within and without.

How did you come to yoga? How is yoga transforming your life? How are you sharing the benefits of your practice with your community? Whether you’re on your mat, living your life, or loving those around you, Manduka wants to hear from you! Fill out this short questionnaire about how you’re living YOUR yoga to receive 10% off Manduka gear and a chance to be featured on their website, blog, or next Yoga Journal Ad.

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